Why I Chose To Commemorate Australia Day This Year

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As the date marking the arrival of the First Fleet at Sydney Cove passes us by, we have all paid heed to the now-annual calls for Australia Day to be struck down in our national calendar. Yes, this year, like every year, we have heard how the date treasured by lovers of barbecues, beer and Triple J is not “Australia Day” but “Invasion Day” – a date which, rather than commemorating some abiding sense of Australianness instead grotesquely celebrates the beginning of White Man’s colonization of the Great Southern Land. January 26, 1788 marked the beginning of a cultural genocide which systematically dispossessed the indigenous peoples of Terra Australis of their land, history and future, follows this line of reasoning. Therefore, it is a national disgrace to be celebrating Australia Day on this day.

This year among the “Down With Australia Day” pronouncements, a popular video produced by Buzzfeed has been doing the rounds on social media. Labelled “an aboriginal response to ‘Australia Day’”, the video documents the responses of several indigenous speakers who discuss what Australia day means to them. Celebrating Australia Day, according to several of these indigenous speakers, is “insensitive”; a commemoration of an “invasion”; a day which is “really really sad” for the suffering sewed by British colonists after their arrival, it is argued.

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“Australia Day…. urggghh”

 

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“Don’t you mean ‘Invasion Day’?”

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“Invasion Day… It’s insensitive to say the least”

While in principle, I think there’s merit to some of the arguments advanced in this video (e.g.: that January 1 as the day of Federation would be a more appropriate date to celebrate Australia Day), for the most part this video represents the reproduction of vile, viral memes which add little to serious discussions about “real” issues in aboriginal Australia (like continuing disadvantage in remote-living communities) in favour of regurgitating spoon-fed fallacies about the history and culture of aboriginal Australia which hold no weight anthropologically or historically.

In today’s blog rant I will try and outline some of the main fallacies in today’s discourse about Aboriginal and White Australia, all of which are present for re-production and re-transmission in silly videos like the above Buzzfeed video. So below, a dissection of some random piece of click-bait I watched on Facebook – for better or for worse.

  1. Sweeping Generalisations about Indigenous Australia

What is perhaps most remarkable about this video is the sweeping generalisations and falsehoods many of its speakers make about Aboriginal Australia. This is even more remarkable because the speakers self-describe as indigenous Australians.

“Oldest Surviving Culture”

The first and most obvious fallacy is one speaker’s assertion that Invasion Day marks the survival of the oldest culture on earth. Anyone who has browsed through a tourist brochure selling bite-sized aboriginal cultural experiences is probably accustomed to the “oldest surviving culture” claim. While aboriginal peoples have inhabited Australia for a long long time, even the most cursory examination of what a “culture” actually is would show us how utterly ridiculous it is to use superlatives like “oldest” or “most survival-ey”.

Basic anthropology tells us that “culture”, a term which describes the prevailing set of discourses and practices within a given human society, is not static. Rather than being static, “culture” is actually a continuously evolving set of norms in a state of constant flux. Therefore, since culture is ever-changing, ever-transforming, resembling something one day and something else the next, to talk about “aboriginal culture” as possessing attributes like “age” or “hardiness” is utterly meaningless. Indeed, it is no more valuable to talk about Aboriginal culture as being “the world’s oldest surviving culture” then it is to talk about the mace carried by the Serjeant-at-Arms of the Australian Parliament as being “a cultural relic of the bludgeoning instruments used by early hominids in the East African Cradle of Humankind”.

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Behold! The ancestral descendant of a spear-wielding !Xoo subsistence-hunter from the Kalahari Plain… in traditional dress.

The point is that Aboriginal culture today is so utterly different to what it was in 1788 (the destruction of aboriginal culture by colonialism is the reason why Invasion Day is so controversial in the first place). And for sure, perhaps the greatest irony in this video is the fact that the speakers talking about “oldest surviving cultures” are wearing European-style business attire and German Adidas T-Shirts, speaking English and talking into Japanese-made video cameras.

Beyond the anthropological falsehoods which the claims of “oldest culture” represent, there is an obvious cognitive dissonance when people speak about “cultural genocide” and “oldest surviving cultures” in the same sentence. Which is it? Was your culture wiped out or did it survive? Personally, I think that the dispossession of aboriginal people in Australia constituted a cultural genocide (just look at Tasmania), a historical truth which simply adds to why I so thoroughly dislike the idea that “aboriginal culture” (whatever is meant by this rather general term since there are hundreds of different language groups) has some kind of ageless survivability.

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“[Australia Day] pisses me off”

“They were a peaceful people”/”We are an inclusive people”

According to the young boy interviewed in the video (who, it should be noted, is clearly below the age of informed consent as an interviewee – a black mark on Buzzfeed’s journalistic standards), the arrival of the First Fleet was a day when Europeans came and “slaughtered… a peaceful people”. Apart from the historical fallacy that the First Fleeters simply rocked up and started slaughtering people on the same day they arrived (more on this later), there is a more pernicious untruth to the claim that the indigenous inhabitants of Australia were any more “peaceful” than anybody else who has ever lived.

“Inclusiveness” is also advanced by one of the speakers as a cultural component (which is apparently exclusive) to aboriginal Australia. While most of the aboriginal informants I have come across during ethnographic research in Cape York could be described as both “inclusive” and “peaceful”  to claim that either of these adjectives are abiding and overwhelming cultural traits is to make a sweeping generalisation without the backing of the empirical record.

Certainly, in pre-colonial Kuuk Thaayorre society, clan rivalries saw the Thaayorre come into almost constant violent contact with members of the Kuuk Yaak language group (“snake speakers”), a historical enmity which manifested in the eradication of the Kuuk Yaak as a cultural unit. No one in the modern Cape York community of Pormpuraaw self-identifies as “Kuuk Yaak” anymore – one is either “Wik-Mungkan” (a language group with strong ties to the township of Aurukun to the north) or Thaayorre. The dimunition of a neighbouring enemy tribe seems neither “inclusive” nor “peaceful” to me.

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My good friend Peret Arkwookerum (nicknamed “Wookie” meaning “flying fox”… which is also one of his totems), half Wik-Mungkan, half Kuuk Thaayorre, catching a black bream on his first cast at a sacred site near Pormpuraaw

We know of course, that the video’s speakers are trying to argue that the pre-colonial Eora of Sydney were comparatively peaceful and inclusive (at least in comparison to the British). But even in the case of the Eora of Sydney, there is little evidence to suggest that they were any less war-like than the Kuuk Thaayorre of Northern Queensland. Incidents of spearing were common occurrences among the natives of pre-colonial Sydney. Disputes were often settled by violence. Under Pemulwuy, a group of aboriginal insurgents gathered to resist (rightfully) the settlers occupying their lands. Pemulwuy himself was rumoured to have been blinded in one eye in a violent incident with an enemy from another tribe.

Indeed, with all the violence and exclusiveness observed throughout the history of Aboriginal Australia it is fair to say that perhaps one of the most remarkable features about Aboriginal people, historically and into the present, is how remarkably like the rest of us they are. Aboriginal people are people – and like all societies, pre-colonial Aboriginal society had its racism and its bloodshed, its exclusivity and its conflict. Peace and not conflict is the exception to the rule throughout most of human history and it was no different in the Australia that existed before the arrival of Europeans. To imagine pre-colonial Aboriginal society as having been the embodiment of some kind of Utopian dream-state is to deny almost everything we know about the evolution of human history. We may as well start waxing lyrical about “noble savages”.

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Bennelong, an Eora collaborator described by Watkin Tench as “a second Omai”, the textbook “noble savage”.

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Pemulwuy. Aboriginal Australia’s most successful guerrilla leader.

 

2. Excessive Use of the First Person Plural (“We”, “Our”)

One of the common traps we often fall into when talking about the historical lives of our ancestors is what I would like to call “the excessive use of the first person plural”. This is because when one identifies with people who lived hundreds of years ago, seeing these people as part of the extended genealogical network which we call “our family”, it is easy to start using terms like “we” and “our” when we discuss what happened to these historical family members during their lifetimes… even though we ourselves weren’t there to witness or feel what happened to them.

Now, I’m not going to sit here and claim that there is no validity to the idea of “inherited grievances” nor am I going to deny that oppression and structural violence experienced by members of the same social group can be felt, in real terms, for generations (and still continues to be felt by aboriginal peoples today). Indeed, ancestry and inherited grievances are complex issues which are heavily tied to peoples’ conceptions of their own identity.

But my main problem with somebody claiming that January 26, 1788 was “that day that we lost all that we had” stems from the fact that although one might have had relatives who were there and suffered at the hands of the Sydney Cove colonials, you yourself weren’t actually there.

In a similar vein, some years ago, while munching on a shawarma in a Jerusalem hole-in-the-wall eatery, I listened to an Israeli man prattle on about “how we [the Israelites] suffered at the hands of the Philistines (the pre-modern Palestinians)” – how they took our land, et cetera, et cetera (until David came along). Naturally, being in Israel and surrounded by heavily armed IDF soldiers doing the rounds through the Old City, my reaction was to smile and nod. Inwardly however, I couldn’t help but think: “really good sir. This suffering at the hands of the Philistines happened to you did it? You personally?”

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In the presence of overwhelming firepower one is inclined to agree with whatever one is told. In the Old City of Jerusalem, some years ago.

You see, one of the major problems associated with constantly reaching back to form connections with events in the past which happened to past peoples is 1.) it can perpetuate cycles of violence (as we see in the “who stole whose land” debates in the former Yugoslavia and the Holy Land which date back to the Middle Ages) and 2.) it becomes easy to fall into an ontological phantasm whereby you confuse something that happened to a historical person (who you never actually met) with something that happened to you yourself.

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Can someone please explain to me who stole the Temple Mount from who again?

Of course, I’m not simply suggesting that the subjugation of the Eora peoples in New South Wales in 1788 is something which didn’t happen to a Guugu Yimidhirr person in Far North Queensland in the present. Events like the arrival of the First Fleet are butterfly effect events – events which generated and continue to generate sociological hurricanes across the continent.  Equally, I’m not suggesting that today’s aboriginal Australians should collectively “get over” the dispossession of their ancestors from their native lands nor am I suggesting that it is wrong to draw parallels between the historical suffering of Australia’s first inhabitants and the ongoing structural violence directed against aboriginal peoples in this country. It would be insensitive to tell people to “get over” a cultural genocide and it would be factually incorrect to claim that the use of the first person plural in the context of one’s ancestors never holds any weight.

What I am really ranting against here is the excessive use of terms like “we” and “our” when talking about past persons and historical events. I have genetic links to the starving Irish who were loaded onto ships and sent to a penal colony in the Southern Hemisphere but I am not those Irish. I have an ancestral link to Lt Jack Walsh (my great-grand uncle), the first Queensland officer to take a bullet to the head at the landing of ANZAC, but I wouldn’t have the slightest idea what taking a bullet to the head actually feels like.

Similarly, it is perfectly valid for me to claim that my ancestor the Scottish outlaw Rob Roy McGregor was “one of us” (“us” being “Clan Cattanach”… represent; “touch not the cat, bot the glove”) but it would be excessive to claim that everything he lost and experienced at the hands of the English was physically lost and experienced by me as well. In many ways, to claim Rob Roy McGregor’s suffering as my own would not be dissimilar to claiming his achievements as my own, in a way which conjures up today’s patriotic Americans claiming “the liberation of France from the Nazi” as one of their own personal achievements (see comedian Doug Stanhope tear these kinds of claims apart).

3. The Date Itself

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Perhaps the most eloquent and sensible speaker in the video is the dude in the red and blue shirt. His understanding of Australia Day, as he describes it, is like “if a guy comes into your house, does horrible things to your family, and says ‘we’re gonna have a party and have a barbie and listen to Triple J on the date we turned up’.”

Read as a celebration of “the day White Man turned up” (a date which symbolically represents the beginning of a cultural genocide), Australia Day does seem a bit “sadistic”. Again, I agree that there is some merit to the idea of picking a different date to celebrate Australia Day – a more neutral date like January 1 (the date of Federation in 1901) – which doesn’t carry the same historical and emotional baggage as the arrival of the First Fleet.

But to play devil’s advocate, if we as Australians have a responsibility to “never forget” what happened to Aboriginal Australians under colonialism then doesn’t it make sense to commemorate the arrival of the First Fleet in much the same way that “never again” commemorations have memorialised the tragedy of genocide in Rwanda or South Africa?Indeed, the counter-cultural “Invasion Day” is dredged up every year simply by virtue of the date Australia Day already falls on so wouldn’t all these awareness-raising efforts about the atrocities in Australian history fade into obscurity if they just went and changed the date?

Similarly, if one is being faithful to the historical record, one should note that January 26, 1788 most certainly was not the bloodiest chapter in the history of European colonialism in Australia. There were no slaughters or massacres carried out on the day of the Sydney Cove landing (which according to my readings was actually a few days before January 26 anyway). Indeed, compared to some of the other dates in the colonial history of Australia, January 26 was a comparatively tame one. Australia Day does not commemorate, for example, the date of the first landfall made by Europeans on Australian shores – June 1605 – when the Dutch navigator Willem Janszoon, made the first contact with aboriginal Australians at Cape Keerweer – a contact which was characterised by the massacre of “savage, cruel, black barbarians” who had slain some of Janszoon’s sailors.

Neither does Australia Day celebrate travesties like the Black War in Tasmania, part of which involved the formation of an extended line by the 63rd Regiment to corral Tasmanian aborigines into a penal colony on the Tasman Peninsula (and/or shoot them on sight). Indeed, while the landing at Sydney Cove marked the beginning of an awful period of colonization and oppression, the date of the landing itself – January 26, 1788 – was a pretty low-key, native-friendly event. The amicable relations between aboriginals and settlers continued peacefully for at least the first year… until the Governor’s game-keeper, John McKintyre, started slaughtering Eora for fun on his hunting parties, resulting in his own death at the hands of Pemulwuy.

That said, saying that it is acceptable to celebrate Aussie Day on January 26th because January 26th is not as bad a date as other dates isn’t necessarily a way to make a good moral argument, so I’m not seeking to revise the history of the First Fleet’s arrival by painting it as a harmless event in our nation’s history.

More than that, what I’m not calling for is an Andrew Bolt version of Australia where Aboriginal people just “get over” the wrongs done to them and “pick themselves up by their own bootstraps”. Nor am I advocating for any particular position in the discussion over who gets what out of Whites and Aboriginals in modern Australia – the ins-and-outs of Native Title still need work.

What I am calling for is a little bit more intellectual honesty in the way we discuss aboriginal Australia and the history of European colonialism in Australia. Yes, the colonisation of Australia and the dispossession of its native peoples was a travesty of genocidal proportions. But no, the First Fleet did not land at Sydney Cove and immediately begin slaughtering people in droves.  Yes, aboriginal Australians have inhabited Australia for a period dating back at least 50,000 years. But no, Aboriginal culture is “not the world’s oldest surviving culture” because the very idea of an oldest surviving culture is a load of anthropological horse-shit. (And anyway, what about the uncontacted Yąnomamö peoples of the Orinoco basin or the grumpy resistant-to-contact North Sentinelese of tsunami-survival fame? They’re pretty old-skool as well). And finally, yes, there are many nice aboriginal people around the traps today but to imply that every one of the hundreds of language-groups which constituted pre-colonial aboriginal Australia were “peaceful” or “inclusive” is utterly misleading. 

Ultimately, it’s worth mentioning that the above video was produced by Buzzfeed (under the rather stomach-churning watermark “Buzzfeed Aboriginal”), the internet’s chief purveyor of clickbait-for-profit. So the video is perhaps not really worthy of serious intellectual consideration. Certainly, we know from the outset that the video is designed to emotionally-manipulate us into sharing and spreading (not unlike videos produced by ISIS or the Lions of Rojava in Syria). And yes, sharing and spreading is something that White Guilters all over my Facebook newsfeed have certainly done… by my last count this video has 2,082,458 views.

Indeed, the white demographic of the Facebook video-sharers is worthy of note. Conspicuously absent from the re-share meme-train are any of my aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander friends on Facebook – probably because they are too busy catching barramundi or counting crocodile eggs with the Indigenous Land and Sea Rangers program or doing other things… like protecting the country.

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Wookie examines one of his totemic ancestors (“minh pinch” is the Kuuk Thaayorre word for “crocodile”)

As for me, while my aboriginal friends are out fishing and drinking beer on Australia Day lapping up some beautiful Cape York sunset, I’m writing this from the cold depths of wintry Canada and I’ll be spending the rest of the day dreaming of barbecues, thongs, beaches and Triple J. After that, I’ll be waiting out for ANZAC Day – sharpening my pencils for the annual debate over whether the remembrance of the landing at ANZAC constitutes a day for the mourning of dead sons or a day when Australians unite to glorify bloodshed and violence. Probably, ANZAC Day (like Australia/Invasion Day) is really a little bit of both – a celebration for what we have and a remembrance of what we lost.

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Sunset over the Gulf of Carpentaria in the Western Cape York community of Pormpuraaw. Reminds me very much of the Aboriginal flag.

happy aus day

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