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Thursday, April 4, 2013

On Aboriginality

Yesterday I went for a drive with my extended family in northeast Tasmania along the coast road between Bridport and Musselroe Bay, where we were able to clearly see the islands of the Furneaux group to the immediate north.  This is a part of the state that I love very much, not least because it was my ancestral home. Like a great many of my contemporary brothers and sisters in the Palawa (Aboriginal Tasmanian) community, I am a direct descendent of the Pairrebeennen chieftan known as Mannalargenna.

As we sped past the sacred mountain, Mt. Cameron, where the clans traditionally gathered for trade and sacred ceremony, my father-in-law initiated a conversation about a live dispute between his church and the neighbouring Aboriginal Centre about the placement of a fence.  He observed that the Aboriginal community in question was probably made up of people who had come from other parts of the state, because 'there were no Aborigines in Burnie when the settlers arrived.'  I informed him that there were a number of Deverells involved in the Palawa community in Burnie, to which he responded (and I quote), 'Oh, the Deverells are as Aboriginal as I am'.  Since my father-in-law's ancestry is strictly Scots and German, I assume that what he meant by this is that the Deverells - myself included - are not really Indigenes of Tasmania at all, and that our claims to the contrary are therefore spurious at best.

I have to confess that I was rendered quite speechless. Which is not a condition I am used to. Not at all.

This incident raises, yet again, a question I have been dealing with all of my life.  In what sense can a white-skinned and red-headed lad from Sheffield, Tasmania - who, incidently, happens to have an Irish family name - claim to be Aboriginal?  If Aboriginality is not primarily about the colour of one's skin and the keeping-intact of traditional notions of blood, culture and habitation, then what could possibly remain?

I will not, here, rehearse the history of colonialism in Tasmania.  Others have done that very well - Lyndall Ryan and Henry Reynolds amongst them. I simply want to summarize what these scholars, amongst many others, have concluded: that Aboriginal identity in not primarily about the dominance of a particular biological inheritance over and against others; nor is it about the preservation of a particular, primitive and tribal, way of life.  Aboriginal identity is about the perseverance of a sense of indigeneity - both of place and of kin - over and against the will of a dominant culture and society that has demonstrably sought to erase these things. Given the devastating success of the colonizing will, especially in places like Tasmania and Victoria, this means that Aboriginality is most often preserved in the form of a memory and a deep-down sorrow pertaining to what has been lost or stolen - land, kin, spirituality - a sorrow that is manifested in various forms of grief and mourning, but also in the search for a justice in which these things might be returned, or at least acknowledged as having been stolen, along with appropriate gestures towards repentance and recompense.

My own Aboriginal identity is manifested, I believe, in the way I look at the Tasmanian landscape.  What I see and the way I see it is very, very different to the way in which my father-in-law sees it.

As we drove along the coast-road yesterday, my father-in-law very often spoke of the productivity of the farmland, the breed of the dairy-herds, the people he knew who were, or had been, engaged in the mining and farming of the land.  He spoke with the pride of a family that had come from the other side of the world and made itself prosperous by the sweat of its collective brow.  It was a discourse of celebration.

What I saw and felt could not be more different.  I saw a land that was filled with older memories.  At each creek I imagined a small group of kin searching for swan's eggs.  At each open plain I saw men chasing kangaroos and wallabies with spears. As we passed Mt Cameron I imagined the ecstasy of dancing, the shrewdness of trade, the skill of legal and theological storytelling and dispute.  When we stopped by the bay, I saw women diving for shellfish, and fires on the beach around which proud families gathered to consume stories and news along with their food.  I also felt the loss of these things: the drying-up of foodstocks as new 'settlers' pushed up the rivers; the hunting and stealing of people and of land; the agonizing deaths wrought by new diseases.  I looked across the straits at the Islands and saw the devastation on my ancestor's face as he realized he was been consigned, along with the peers he had sought to rescue, to the world of the dead.

This is a sensibility that I wish I could successfully share with my father-in-law and the wider community.  I have tried to do so in various ways across a number of years.  But I fear I have failed, for the look of incomprehension so often remains, even after telling my stories many times over.


  1. Yes - I can contrast this also with my identity as an American: I have US citizenship as well as Australian citizenship. I can rejoice in my Mennonite, Christian Brethren, Scottish, English, Tasmanian (subset NW!) or Victorian identities. All of them are legitimate as far as society goes and so I am "rewarded" in many different identities. To have an important part of your identity maligned or ignored is painful and hurtful and I understand how this continues to pain you. I would encourage you to keep plugging away, knowing that your heritage and identity is maintained for not only you, but your children and others who identify with the Tasmanian aboriginal community.

    1. Thanks David for your encouragement. I appreciate it.

  2. Garry. Thank you so much for sharing this deeply moving post; a real gift to me.

    1. You are very welcome Jason. Very.