It is clear that Tony Abbott has no idea why Aboriginal people make the ‘lifestyle choice’ to live in remote communities, or God forbid, their traditional lands. (Many though, are one and the same).
He has been slammed from Indigenous and non-Indigenous community leaders for the tactless, insensitive and ignorant comment.
But why was it so wrong? Nobody has been able to tell us.
I’m not the Minister for Aborigines – Tony Abbott has that distinction – but I am qualified* to tell him where he was wrong.
It comes down to the attitudes towards the land (which I have written about previously in Land ownership: it’s not all black and white). Though written a number of years ago it is brought into relevance following the Prime Minister’s comment.
Let’s have a look at land.
In most western societies land ownership is considered a form of security or an expression of status. Most non- Aboriginal Australians aspire to own a piece of real estate, and to meet that dream they work, save, borrow and mortgage their lives away. Land ownership is confirmed with a Title Deed which is identified with a Volume, and Folio and sub-section number on which the land dimensions and boundaries are clearly marked. On this land the owner may build a dwelling, grow or raise produce for income, or rent out the land for profit.
In rural Australia most land is used for growling cereal crops or raising live-stock. This is done within the boundaries of the owner’s land. These ventures are filled with risk: Dramatic seasonal changes; fluctuating market prices for the produce; diseases; cash flow problems; farming on unsuitable land (poor land management) and a host of other variables could force ownership to be relinquished.
Traditionally, Aboriginal people do not own land. Instead they are a part of the land and this link was formed during the Dreaming. In the Dreaming, people were created from the land and this is the land they still inhabit. It is on this basis that Aboriginal people are claiming legal title to land, supported by the belief that the spiritual ancestors who shaped the land still inhabit it; the land still embodies the sacredness of the Dreaming events. Traditional ownership was validated if your Dreaming Ancestors inhabited a particular area of land. Traditional ownership certainly does not shield Aborigines from some of the dangers that face western land owners. However their land management techniques and their attitudes to the environment make the land more sustainable.
As Aborigines are not land owners they feel that they have a responsibility to the environment. The environment, the land, and even the sky were created in one – as were the people – and all are related. With this attitude (belief) is it any surprise that the Aboriginal people never took anything from nature? Aborigines are the original conservationists and their use of land management promoted ecological health.
An example of this is fire stick farming: The burning of undergrowth in wooded areas that would promote the germination of new plants, and thus attract the animals that were an important part of an Aborigine’s diet. This burning was carried out before the dry season and was done carefully and systematically. No more was burned than necessary. Burning was also more than just sound land management; it was evidence that the land was healthy and being fully utilised. There was also a religious significance to burning: As the Ancestral spirits of the Dreaming still inhabit the land, the burnings provided these spiritual inhabitants with lands on which they could hunt.
Conservation was also extended to all practices of hunting and gathering. No more food was taken than required and no food source was over exploited. In some societies prohibitions were placed on the taking of immature plants or animals. In times of crisis, such as drought or flood, land ownership need never be relinquished. The resources have been preserved.
The western attitude to the land did not encourage sound management or preservation techniques. Whereas the Aborigines were careful in their exploitation of resources, the westerners unwittingly created vast tracts of land devastation. For instance, the over grazing of stock has rendered many areas infertile. The senseless chopping down of forests has destroyed delicate eco-systems. The salinity of the waterways is largely due to pollution. It is evident that no consideration had been given to the protection of natural resources. How little are the changes of attitudes since 1788? Land exploitation was used to advance British colonisation and became the rationale for European land ownership. It is ironic that most European-Australians view Aboriginal lands as inhospitable, barren or unforsaken, when it could be argued that the reverse could apply.
But the crux of the issue is this: Living on traditional land is not a lifestyle choice – it is an obligation. Not only to the ancestors, but the land itself.
* The author holds a BA in Aboriginal Affairs Administration; a BA (Honours) in Aboriginal Studies; worked for three years in Aboriginal communities in the Flinders Ranges and the Anangu Pitjantjatjara Lands; formulated law and justice policy in Indigenous Affairs for two years; and has written extensively on Aboriginal culture.
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