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Format: Kindle Edition
It is rare for a two word title to so accurately encapsulate what a book is all about. Having sat in on Gary Foley's five day Winter School course on Aboriginal History & Political Movements, when the assessment task he set his regular students was to read and respond to Clare Land's book, it was easy to set that task for myself, especially free from time constraints which enabled it to fit into my chapter rotation train reading program beside Lynne Kelly's The Memory Code and Johann Hari's Chasing the Scream in particular. Early in the several weeks that took I also found opportunities to hear other voices from the book on their driving concerns and to join a couple of walks. Having previously read Henry Reynolds's Forgotten War and Richard Trudgen Why Warriors Lie Down and Die and listened to Foley, I wasn't freshly confronted by the tragic and unfinished history and was looking for perspective on the broad issue of how to be supportive without pretending to have any role to advocate for a particular course. Save for thankfully rare demands closer to home, I've also never felt a calling to helping those most in need, seeing my efforts as more valuable provoking those with clear potential. This book is squarely about how those of us with residual white privilege might still be useful allies to a struggle which is so clearly not our own to define.
This book is very useful and raises really important issues, especially for non indigenous people trying to act sympathetically. However I soon enough came to realise it wasn’t written for me, an old white guy who sees alliances as a two way street, not looking to “help” materially in whatever time I have left but rather looking for common cause, having long advocated “we have more to learn from them than they from us”. Part of that common cause is rebuilding a sane relationship with the natural world. What I found instead was Land writing for herself via other voices, some throughout and others just visiting, and for others like her in their initially naive youthful enthusiasm to help. The few times her voice sneaks through are a great relief from the otherwise fragmented tone, though that does not diminish the value of the content if you are prepared to work with it. Through much of the reading, while well aware of the unique nature of the Australian Aboriginal struggle, I'd been concerned at a seeming downplaying of other causes, that is until I reached her "Conclusion" which was anything but in relation to the earlier chapters, being squarely about relating to other struggles. That may have sat better as yet another appendix referenced in anticipation in the primary text.
The book, and Foley, demand a personal response which is not something that might otherwise serve a book review, but which seems reasonable here. This needs to start with how today's awareness emerged from a childhood during the great silence, informed as much by Davy Crockett as Enid Blyton's Faraway Tree and now wanting to reframe Henry Reynolds's argument away from analogy to symmetric wars to asking how Australia managed to escape without its own pervasive, celebratory cowboys and injuns mythology? It is also compounded for me needing to ask how my mother, who I was only with for part of my younger years, managed to be so far ahead on aboriginal injustice without me absorbing enough to feel personally connected, at least not before our work together to publish Too Many Tears in 2008 and her dying suddenly the day before the rush copies landed, leaving questions unasked let alone unanswered. There is also a question of relationship to place. While much of my life has had me sleeping in northwestern suburbs of Melbourne, Wurundjeri country with regard to which I try to be well informed, my equal concern is with the Otway coast beyond Lorne where I can only mourn the loss of continuity of Gadubanud knowledge and the paucity of effort to rediscover anything meaningful to some of the world's most admired scenery. My life is also defined by white male white collar privilege which, even while renouncing far too late the worst of what my kind have forced on others, it has also given me the flexibility to advocate and chase rainbows while paying ever less respect to this tired anti-culture's demands for apparent compliance. The greatest freedom of all is to choose which responsibilities to take on, but advancing years will put an horizon to even that if misadventure doesn't beat it. That privilege also enables me to develop my own understanding of the world free from doctrine and ideology and staying open to evidence, important parts of that worldview being far from popular.
Land is strongly and explicitly focussed on the historic situation in south-east Australia, colonisation having expanded rapidly from cities around the coast from Brisbane to Hobart and Adelaide, leaving these areas most disrupted and somewhat assimilated as well as the great cities of Sydney and Melbourne serving as magnets for displaced people from all over the country. This has led to sensitivities in relationships between local traditional owners and more recent arrivals. Many today claim multiple heritages to often widely separated aboriginal nations. While this history ensures that aboriginal resistance in the south-east has the longest history, it also loses touch with the very different challenges experienced by those in remote and northern communities where children are today born into their own language and Law and thus subject to a different order of assimilationist pressure. This matters to the class of "supporters" with which Land identifies and is trying to address because many of them are drawn to trying to be involved "over there" rather than close to home where it is harder to maintain pretences of legitimacy of one's own white heritage and privilege. While Decolonizing Solidarity seems reasonably authoritative and comprehensive with respect to the south-east, it does little to steer well intentioned supporters away from the kind of traps in remote language communities identified by Trudgen. Ultimately the very existence of hundreds of distinct aboriginal nations is beyond the mentality of white governance, ensnared as it is in the gross oversimplifications exposed in James C. Scott's Seeing Like a State. At both ends, Land is right that non-indigenous sympathisers should not see this as their problem to fix but rather accept that it is for the indigenous communities to determine objectives and for others to try to serve in solidarity as useful allies.
She does not dwell on the genocidal history but jumps straight into the history of Aboriginal political resistance in the south-east, drawing heavily on Foley's history which had been a big part of her introduction. That perspective is enriched by Robbie Thorpe's powerful attack on the issue of sovereignty in the light of the white establishment's ongoing attempt to substitute constitutional Recognition for long anticipated Reconciliation. Land complements her account of indigenous activist history with a "genealogy" of non-indigenous supporters of that struggle before dissecting the kinds of roles supporters can play, much of which becomes implicitly linked to their ability to stay the distance. White activists always have a door back to the world of white privilege and whatever little they may have done in trying to help may well enhance their status within that world. She exposes the fraught notion of making aboriginal friends as an objective while acknowledging that valuable friendships can emerge between indigenous and non-indigenous activists. "(G)overnments have refused to see Aboriginally governed organizations as 'legally accountable' and insisted they become incorporated" under a bureaucratic regime that struggles to serve the needs of even white green groups. Concepts like collaboration and dialogue attempt to mask an asymmetry that needs to be reversed rather than disguised. The very notion that people operating under the white regime know better is at the heart of the problem, sending naive beginners to try to impose the authority of their fresh qualifications that ignore the value of indigenous knowledge, let alone aspirations. It is here that my recent involvement with Lynne Kelly's work adds a dimension with its clearly correct emphasis on the importance of maintenance of an oral knowledge base through induction, ceremony, songlines and more. White bureaucracy has a history of trying to engage even to the point of requiring workers to learn indigenous languages, then rushing to retreat and impose white views, never more disingenuously than with the ongoing Intervention which remains a blatant denial of indigenous agency.
Land's remaining numbered chapters go deeper into the struggle to find personal reconciliation when the very nature of one's own whiteness is not something that can be cast off and is always there as a safety net to retreat to. No matter how revolutionary our thinking, can we ever truly decolonise? Within that dynamic, how can we still act in solidarity? For me it is easy enough to applaud Robbie Thorpe's brave synthesis and use my privileged voice to strongly endorse restoration of effective sovereignty, hopefully without accelerating my own sidelining as old and increasingly irrelevant. But in practice I will remain more active on my own idiosyncratic take on deep ecological issues where I rely on increasing recovery of aboriginal landcare knowledge to counterbalance my Green friends' preoccupations with childhood visions of wilderness that was a direct product of unconstrained regrowth following depopulation, producing aesthetically captivating landscapes, the kind of which had never existed, neither naturally nor following tens of thousands of years of evolution of aboriginal land management practices. There is no simple answer to her primary challenge as to whether continued active participation in white/big city issues is tantamount to complicity with the illegal occupation, let alone whether failure to re-emigrate back to an ancestral home displaced several generations does likewise?
For some time the challenge has been framed as "closing the gap". But even as far back as then Prime Minister Paul Keating's Redfern speech it was clear to anybody who listened that the problem wasn't aboriginals, it was what white invaders have done and we white occupiers continue to do. Ultimately it was about taking away their opportunity to live their own lives and condemning them to survive on the margins where it is unsurprising that many displaced from traditional support were reduced to lifestyles that converged with the poorest fraction of white society, albeit compounded by the prejudices that run rampant beneath a regime of divide and conquer. It is here that Johann Hari's account of the drug wars and the disenfranchised basis of addiction is useful. This converges with Land's strangely placed acknowledgement that there are parallel causes to which her analysis might usefully be extended, even if there is still something particularly troubling about the great Australian silence. While there are doubtless other inequities that have been even more effectively silenced, there is no doubt that recent mainstreaming of white LGBTIQ issues, physical disabilities, family violence and mental health provide instructive comparisons. Given the degree to which late stage capitalism is scrambling all humanity's eggs into one basket, my great hope is that the magical technologies that allow this to become a worldwide conversation will also speed recovery of vital local knowledge from indigenous cultures and even from other species of mobile animals with whom we are doing an even worse job of sharing our common nest.
While I stayed in Melbourne for secondary school, between 1958 and 1963 my mother Joan and a friend went to Perth and set up an alternative school, engaging local aboriginals against the wishes of Western Australian authorities, well before the 1967 federal referendum. During their last year in Perth, one of those locals, Heather, had a boy, Ricci, and, having had her previous three taken away asked Joan to look after Ricci. At the end of the year a small group including Joan, Ricci and another infant headed for Europe with the expressed aim of allowing the boys to grow up away from the oppressive regime in the West. That plan collided with the Warsaw Pact termination of the Prague Spring of 1968, after which they retreated to Australia, Joan and Ricci to Melbourne but resuming contact with Heather at every opportunity. Having fathered one child with a second on the way and back in Perth, Ricci became a black death in custody, shot by a warder, at 19, a situation which finally got me to Perth and warmly embraced by Heather and her children who had come back and followed. After years of encouragement, Heather wrote her autobiography with research co-authorship from a white fellow grandmother of challenging young aboriginals which Joan and I had the resources and experience to independently publish, Too Many Tears. Joan's sudden death took some wind out of the sails of its marketing. But it was more a consequent connection to Borroloola and John Bradley's Singing Saltwater Country followed by local environment groups' interest in restoring volcanic plains grasslands that led me to Bill Gammage's The Biggest Estate on Earth and Bruce Pascoe's Dark Emu which strengthened my wish to be supportive of restoration of indigenous sovereignty as the basis for a post-capitalist regime. I don't pretend that is my battle, nor do I fail to exploit my residual white privilege (that will all too quickly be subsumed by old age) in my back room work on environmental, transport planning and the rest of my not obviously connected interests. I accept that I am defined by the life I have been fortunate to lead and often sign off: "Giving thanks to the space, time, energy, matter and other lives that have allowed me to tell my lies on this old and damp ball of rock."
Clare Land's struggle to find a comfort zone between awareness of what was done by the British invasion that made our lives possible and the heroic efforts of aboriginal survivors to regain the strengths of cultures torn apart in that process, rightly raises questions we all should ask ourselves and try to genuinely answer, however inadequately. The only thing we can change is the future, but that prospect will be greatly assisted by wider recognition of past brutalities and ongoing prejudice that have lain hidden behind whiteness and the great silence. Decolonizing Solidarity is a valuable entry point to or stepping stone on that journey. It might save you from hitting a few walls.