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Stateless Nations (part 3)

With debates on the Constitution, Recognition and a possible Treaty ramping up in the mainstream media it’s time to expose the lies that have conveniently masked Australia’s history. Indigenous people farmed, managed and governed the continent for millennia. In this three-part series JD Anthony reflects on Bruce Pascoe’s Dark Emu, Bill Gammage’s The Biggest Estate on Earth, Melissa Lucashenko’s The First Australian Democracy and Abdullah Ocalan’s The Roots of Civilisation to ask “Is it possible for us to see that the past was not more primitive and savage than the present, and that the future need not be barbaric?”

Democracy, Women and Patriarchy

If Indigenous society was ordered and governed in a general sort of way how did their governance match the wider social structure? Melissa Lucashenko suggests, declares more than suggests, this was the first Australian democracy and we should be learning from their history. Pascoe says much the same thing. Democracy?

Every schoolboy knows that democracy began in ancient Athens, even a poorly schooled catholic boy from the 1950s. Democracy, the rule of the demos, the people, assemblies of citizens making decisions in the agora, and all that. Except that the facts are highly specific to their historical context – Greek city states were variously autocratic, aristocratic or democratic at different times. Athens employed democracy at a particular historical stage. Women and slaves were not included in the “demos.” In Athens at its height of glory maybe 10% of the population were citizens eligible to participate in political and economic decisions, and of them only a few thousand actually attended the assemblies.

The system privileged the older males, and frequently the richest of those. The validity of Greek democracy is apparent only when contrasted with the kings or autocrats ruling other cities. Athens and all the Greek city-states, in fact all such ancient systems, were hierarchical with emphatic patriarchal religious beliefs. The Greek democracy was actually a political expression of those values.

Lucashenko in Meanjin cites “overwhelming evidence” that “Aboriginal adults traditionally saw the world in highly egalitarian terms compared to their European contemporaries. One Victorian clergyman lamented in 1888 that ‘in fact, it is difficult to get into a blackfellow’s head that one man is higher than another’.” She quotes Bill Stanner: “Their creative drive to make sense and order out of things has for some reason concentrated on the social … Consequently there has been an unusually rich development of what the anthropologist calls ‘social structure’, the network of enduring relations recognised between people. This very intricate system is an intellectual and social achievement of a very high order … it has to be compared, I think, with such a secular achievement as say, parliamentary government in a European country.”

The focus on relationships was the primary goal of the Aboriginal world, enabling the continent-wide trade in goods and ideas as well as their total land management and stable social order. The world was ordered in every detail by the Dreaming – religious Law. Adult individuals had and still largely have explicit rights and obligations and particular roles. Before colonisation, men and women invariably knew where they stood, and knew what was expected of them as responsible members of society. Nothing was arbitrary. And importantly, nothing was ordered hierarchically in the sense we understand it.

But were these Aboriginal democracies actually gerontocracies, managed to benefit older men at the expense of women and children? Perhaps young women were destined for miserable lives as chattels or child-brides? Lukashenko thinks not, that although it’s probable that older, initiated men held, and exercised, more power than women – “the picture is more complex than simple patriarchy or gerontocracy. Early white observers of Aboriginal life saw the power of elder men that derived from the Bora, or law ground. Very often, though, being men themselves, these outside observers misunderstood the complementary roles senior women played, and still play today. Failing to gain access to or much understand the structural power of women in religious and political life, they thought of Aboriginal society as purely patriarchal. But Aboriginal governance never operates without the involvement and consent of senior women.”

Before 1788 senior Aboriginal women could, and often can today, refuse to sanction secular and ceremonial activities. Without women’s sanction, the central power of men to initiate youths into adulthood, for example, ceases. There are still communities in which women hold enormous traditional political status; places where a Law Woman can challenge male authority and every man in the vicinity will immediately drop to the ground, lying face down with eyes closed, in fear of her sanctions. (Paraphrased from Lukashenko)

As Diane Bell writes: “Underlying male and female practice is a common purpose and a shared belief in the Dreamtime experience; both have sacred boards, both know songs and paint designs which encode the knowledge of the Dreamtime . . . Under the Law, men and women have distinctive roles to play but each has access to certain checks and balances which ensure that neither sex can enjoy unrivalled supremacy over the other” (quoted in Lukashenko).

Barangaroo fishing in Sydney Harbour, from The Hoopla

Barangaroo fishing in Sydney Harbour, from The Hoopla

There’s a fascinating article by Sandra Bloodworth, a socialist feminist, on the ANU website where she points out that so many early white accounts of Aboriginal society were written from an 18th or 19th Century patriarchal viewpoint and prejudice. So they need to be deconstructed. But she does quote Watkin Tench who arrived in 1788 with the First Fleet. He painted a different picture from that recorded in later years, commenting “I never could observe any degree of subordination among them” (the Aborigines). Tench’s account of a public flogging of a convict in 1791 indicates women were not all as subservient as later colonists portrayed them. Tench writes of the Aborigines’ “strong abhorrence of the punishment (flogging)“ and the fact that “the women were particularly affected; Daringa shed tears; and Barangaroo, kindling into anger, snatched a stick, and menaced the executioner. The conduct of these women, on this occasion, was exactly descriptive of their characters. The former was ever meek and feminine; the latter, fierce and unsubmissive.

So at the very start of white occupation, Aboriginal women were in fact active agents in society. Not chattels or playthings no matter what the colonial patriarchy thought. Writers such as Bell and Lukashenko demonstrate this in many other works, not directly quoted here. Pascoe, in an interview in the Guardian (18 Feb, 2016), pointed out how culture is embedded in language and the “woman-centric”-ness of Yuin culture, “where everything arises from Mother Earth” is evident in its words. In contrast to the biblical genesis story of Adam and Eve, in Yuin culture the first person in the world was a woman (nyaadi) and the second was a man (tunku). He cites a particularly beautiful phrase: “We come from our mother’s breath” (bingyadyan ngallu nudjarn jungarung).

Aboriginal society was clearly not “patriarchal.” We might think, in common discussion, that if social values are not patriarchal they must be “matriarchal” but these are not actually the choices. Ocalan discusses early Neolithic society in the Middle East as “matrilineal” or “matrifocal” and records how the myths and religious stories changed over time. The earliest stories and art objects celebrated woman and mother, fertility. Ocalan describes the prominent part women played in the productive processes of Neolithic cultures that preceded the rise of Sumer, the first truly urban civilisation in southern Mesopotamia. Women’s role – childbirth of course, but also pottery, weaving and the grinding of cereal – found ideological expression in religious symbolism, referred to in later male-dominated times as “goddesses.”

Gendered hierarchies developed in Sumerian society in conjunction with class, with the emergence of a group of men more powerful than the others who appropriated the agricultural surplus and stored it in the temples. This was reflected in the myths and religious legends by the eventual slaughter of the Babylonian mother goddess Tiamat by Marduk, who became the city god of Babylon. Marduk did not appear in the earlier stories but by the second millennium BCE he’d become the predominant god. The male gods not only killed the important females, but usurped their major functions, except fertility which they tried to control. Marduk was the prototype of monotheism. He embodied patriarchy.

A linear pattern of cause and effect emerges – agricultural surplus, appropriation, sedentary urbanisation, hierarchy and female submission, leading to forms of state control – temples, military forces, bureaucracy, priesthoods and social classes. Hierarchy, patriarchy and economic exploitation developed hand in hand. Ocalan’s writings suggest this process was not a journey from savagery to civilisation, but rather the opposite – from social cohesion to barbarism. His book traces briefly the transition from a kinship based society to institutionalised hierarchy. Key to this was the development of a servile labour force, ruled by a decision-making elite who controlled the economic surplus.

He also outlines the struggle by women to resist or at least modify the intrusions of patriarchal religion into the mythological realm – the much older female gods Inanna (fertility, love and war) and Nin-Hursag (the lady of the stony foothills who brings summer – the earliest female creator of the earth) confronted the male Enki and forced him to return the “” or basic concept of law “cherished by the Sumerians themselves” but stolen and perverted by Enki to legitimise his dominance. Traces of the continued throughout Mesopotamian societies and can be seen today, Ocalan says, in Islam’s ninety-nine names or attributes of god. That is, many of the ninety-nine attributes can be understood as “feminine” – peaceful compassionate, sustaining, listening, forgiving, nourishing etc – despite the intrinsic patriarchal character of the religion.

But when we contrast this Mesopotamian history with that of Australia we face many serious questions. Sumer and the intensification of agriculture and technology occurred maybe 7,000 years ago. Aborigines have been in Australia at least four times longer than that. Their society domesticated plants and animals and farmed the land – but no hierarchy or patriarchy arose. They achieved an agricultural surplus but avoided the problems of appropriation, classes and organised religion.

The books I’m discussing here don’t address these conundra. Was Aboriginal society just at the beginning of a sedentary – intensification – exploitation – class driven treadmill? Or did their strong ideological foundation in the Dreaming enabled them to avoid the path taken in the Middle East?

Do women play a key role in counterbalancing the excesses of testosterone? In holding the men to account?

Have other indigenous peoples in the Americas, Papua, Laos travelled a similar trajectory as the Australians?

It’s easy to say that we don’t know and never will, but history, anthropology and archeology keep pushing the boundaries of knowledge – we now know how the Indigenous first peoples farmed the biggest estate on earth, we now know that Aboriginal people baked bread thousands of years before it was “invented” in ancient Egypt.

By reading and debating texts such as these and keeping ourselves open to challenging ideas, it’s possible we can start to see that the past was not more primitive and savage than the present, and that the future doesn’t have to be barbaric.

There’s hope yet for what Ocalan calls the Democratic Civilisation Project, and although his focus is justice for the Kurds, another stateless nation, his writing really addresses the same questions of dispossession, authority and governance that concern us all.

Print References: Blainey, Geoffrey “Triumph of the Nomads” Pan Australia, 1983, originally published 1975 Education Department Victoria “The Victorian Readers Eighth Book” Government Printers, Melbourne 1940 Gammage, Bill “The Biggest Estate on Earth: How Aborigines Made Australia” Allen and Unwin, Sydney 2011 Graeber, David “Debt: the first 5000 years” Melville House, NY 2012 Ocalan, Abdullah “Prison Writings – The Roots of Civilisation” Pluto Press, London 2007 Pascoe, Bruce “Dark Emu Black Seeds: agriculture or accident” Magabala Books, Broome 2014 Reynolds, Henry “Forgotten War” New South Books, Sydney 2013 Rolls, Eric “A Million Wild Acres” Nelson, Melbourne 1981

Web references: ABC news report on Tony Abbott – 14 November 2014

Australian Law Reform Commission on the Settled Colony Debate

Bloodworth, Sandra “Gender Relations in Aboriginal Society”

Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation on Mabo

Lukashenko, Melissa “The First Australian Democracy” in Meanjin online

MCGennisken, Jane “Growing up Australian: The National Imaginary in School Readers” St Mary’s College, Hobart 2012, accessed via Papers

Nicholls, Christine, “Dreamtime and The Dreaming, who dreamed up those terms?” in The Conversation, Jan 29, 2014

Bruce Pascoe is an Indigenous man from the Bunurong clan, with family ties to the Yuin of NSW and with Tasmania. Bill Gammage is an Australian historian, probably best known for his book The Broken Years: Australian Soldiers in the Great War (1974). He was historical adviser on the Peter Weir film Gallipoli (1981). The Biggest Estate on Earth: How Aborigines made Australia was published after 13 years of research.

Abdullah Ocalan is the Kurdish leader of the PKK, formerly a Marxist-Leninist who now advocates democratic self-management. He’s been in a Turkish prison since 1999.

Melissa Lukashenco is a Bundjalung woman, fiction writer and winner of the 2013 Walkley for Long Feature Writing for her Griffith Review piece “Sinking below sight: Down and out in Brisbane and Logan”.

This article was originally published on


1 comment

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  1. Jennifer Meyer-Smith

    Thanks JD,

    your overview of the texts and viewpoints of Aboriginal history has helped fill in some gaps for me. I’m impressed with their socialist approach to community building and equitable resource management. Such terms have been badly missing in the discussions relating to Aboriginal Recognition and Respect.

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