Unfinished business: What is being recognised?

Lisa Slater

Lisa Slater

Post by Lisa Slater

Paul Keating recently weighed into the push for constitutional recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, stating the recognition project has lost direction. His invocation of ‘unfinished business’ was a salient reminder that the primary object of repair is the foundation of settler colonialism, and there is a need to transform the political and social relationship between Indigenous and settler Australia. What are settlers failing to see?

A few years back, I was attending Garma festival in northeast Arnhem Land, as part of a research project examining the significance of cultural festivals for improving Indigenous socio-cultural wellbeing.[1] Garma is cultural diplomacy at work: Yolhu (Traditional Owners of north-east Arnhem Land) invite government and non-government agencies, academics and political leaders onto Country to discuss and negotiate issues determined by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander agendas. Alongside the main event, there were a series of other initiatives, one of which was a women’s cultural tourism program. I sat in on a workshop where Yolhu women were teaching Napaki (non-Indigenous) women about Yolhu kinship systems and responsibilities.

There is a particular moment that stays with me. Napaki kept interrupting the lesson, asking questions with a too familiar compulsive curiosity. Then as if to ask and answer her own question, the senior artist, Gulumbu Yunupingu, took the floor. Yolhu have been talking about Garma for a long time, she said. She referred to the Napaki ignorance of Yolhu culture as ‘blindness’. Napaki eyes look, she said, but can’t see all that is going on.

Gulumbu’s rebuke seems particular salient in the political era of recognition. When settler Australians look and look what do we see? And what are we blind to?

Alongside the recognition project, Australia is in the throes of a determined public campaign for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people to achieve health and socio-economic equality: Closing the Gap. As Elizabeth Strakosch writes, ‘closing the gap in statistical disadvantage is now the dominant way of framing the relationship between Indigenous and settler Australia, and of directing our efforts to change this relationship.’[2] For all of its importance, the focus on Indigenous disadvantage risks further blindness to the inequalities in the political and social relationship between Indigenous and settler Australia.

The relentless ‘bad statistics’ should trouble all Australians. But what do statistics bring to the fore and what do they hide? As much as statistics are helpful for highlighting inequality, they also tell a story of what, and how, life is valued. Health statistics allow complex worlds to be rendered intelligible.

Mainstream indicators reflect dominant societies’ norms. Resulting in a narrative of deficiency, if not dysfunction, which is further nuanced in relation to remote Indigenous subjects. In turn statistics can render invisible non-western knowledge, sociality and alternative understandings of ‘health’ or life.

As others have argued, policy and programs are naturalised and depoliticised as practical, technical measures, which ensure basic living conditions.  ‘Bad statistics’ make for a compelling argument. But they can also negate Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander visions for their futures.

But I think there is something else – it reproduces and recirculates a particular style of relationship between settler and Indigenous peoples. It is an old story – Indigenous people are at high risk to themselves and others, and the government needs to intervene. This draws upon a readily available settler colonial imaginary: Indigenous vulnerability versus settler authority.

There are several things that get lost in this old story. For one, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people’s agency, efficacy, capacity, and creativity. Another is that Indigenous people are treated as if somehow they exist in a separate social realm. The focus then becomes ‘fixing’ Indigenous people rather than understanding complex structural issues, and how the interactions and coexistence of Indigenous and non-Indigenous people impact on everyday lives. My concern is, to borrow from Glen Coultard, that we risk ‘situating the harms of settler-colonialism in the past, and seeking to repair its injurious legacy by making Indigenous subjects the primary object of repair, not the colonial relationship’.[3]

There was a time, not that long ago, when settler Australia had the privilege of forgetting about Indigenous people, colonial violence and ongoing justice. As we know, from the 1980s mainstream Australia was called to account: Indigenous activism and testimony, the arts, revisionist history, law reform and the reconciliation movement, just to name a few, intervened in, what W.H. Stanner called, the great Australian silence. There is no doubt that a lot has changed. Now many non-Indigenous Australians remember Indigenous suffering. But has worrying about Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people become a new form of settler authority?

[1] Phipps, P & Slater, L 2010, Indigenous Cultural Festivals: Evaluating the impact on community health and wellbeing, Globalism Research Centre, RMIT, Melbourne.

[2] http://theconversation.com/indigenous-affairs-close-the-gap-but-open-the-conversation-23115


[3] Coulthard, Glen Sean. Indigenous Americas: Red Skin, White Masks : Rejecting the Colonial Politics of Recognition. Minneapolis, MN, USA: University of Minnesota Press, 2014, p.127.

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