A Hijacked Past & The Importance of Maintaining Cultural Identity

Edward M. Curr by John T. Patten
Edward M. Curr by John T. Patten, with apologies to Isaac Newton and Pink Floyd.

“A nation that forgets its past has no future.”

– Winston Churchill

For all people, no matter where on Earth we call home, having a clear sense of cultural identity is important. Whether an American, an Australian, Kenyan, Koori, or Yorta Yorta, knowing who we are, where we come from, and what our culture looks like, enables us to shape a clear sense of our worth and belonging.

Our identities are forged in allegiances. We belong to nations and states, a shared humanity, to our favourite football teams and TV shows, to our languages, our families, friends, and to our social and work groups. Whilst some of these we care about more than others, it’s important that we can exercise our human rights to determine for ourselves which of our allegiances are of greatest value.

Not knowing our place in these varied dynamics can be highly traumatic, and on an inter-generational scale. Not knowing where you came from, who your family is, or the story of your kin is a wide-scale problem for First Peoples’ in Australia, just as it is for other people around the world who have been denied their lands, languages, families and cultural traditions. The Displacement of First Peoples’ from Country, the creation of orphans, and people being denied education opportunities, has led to the loss of identity, and has contributed to a creeping cultural genocide.

Having a strong cultural affiliation and a clear identity within a given culture is essential to the maintenance of a community’s health and cultural capacity. Communities and individuals across Australia are working to maintain our traditions, stories, and the knowledge that is still held by our Elders, and importantly also by our younger community members. Piecing together what was taken from us is a massive ongoing task. Such work is a battle against time and limited resourcing. Cultural practitioners also must work to dispel the misconceptions and bastardisation of our cultures by those who continue to place us under a microscope for professional and commercial gain.

Anthropologists, linguists and government have a great deal to answer for, in how they have ostensibly facilitated disunity among First Peoples’ throughout Australia and the world. They have achieved this by bringing First Peoples’ communities into conflict over how best to interpret our ancestors’ words. This can be readily demonstrated by examining Native Title legislation.

What is Native Title?

Native title is the recognition that First Peoples in Australia have ongoing rights and interests in land and waterways according to traditional law and custom as now recognised in Australian Law. What this means is that First Peoples can access the lands and waterways that their ancestors cared for and called home, for non-exclusive cultural usage, or exclusive usage if it is Crown Land or land managed by a government body. Crucially, despite considerable fearmongering by the Australian media in the 1990s when the legislation was introduced, Native Title does not allow for First Peoples’ to take a person’s home or farm from them.

Under Native Title, communities may hunt, fish, camp, sing and dance. Limited by agreement from government, a community might also create a commercial revenue stream via limited development or a land management plan, such as the creation of a ranger program, should the land be managed as a state or national park. Where this falls apart however is that Native Title is not the Land Rights that First Peoples’ had been fighting for since 1788. Even if that’s what many, both Indigenous and non-Indigenous, still believe.

If a mining company wants to dig up some land which is subject to a Native Title claim and turn it into a gaping hole in the ground, they are required to negotiate with the Native Title rights holders before doing so. However, if they are unable to come to any sort of positive outcome, it’s game over for the claimants. Their seat at the table is removed and the company are then able to do as they please. Thus, communities are placed in a precarious position, and are at the mercy of those who are often heralded in the media, for “working with” communities to their benefit. A few million dollars handed to a community will be celebrated, whilst hundreds of millions more are torn from the community without recompense. 

If you can make First Peoples’ believe that they already have Land Rights, or more succinctly any genuine opportunities for economic independence and land ownership, then why would they continue to fight for them? Native Title represents a disingenuous attempt to assuage First Peoples’ of their demands. It serves as the greatest sleight of hand perpetrated against Aboriginal people in Australia; a cruelty that is evidenced in how the very first test case played out between the Yorta Yorta people and the State of Victoria.

Yorta Yorta v Victoria

On 12 December 2002, the High Court of Australia delivered its decision on the Members of the Yorta Yorta Aboriginal Community v State of Victoria and Others native title claim. This was a case in which twice on appeal the Yorta Yorta people of Northern Victoria (and Riverine New South Wales) had unsuccessfully attempted to gain recognition by the Commonwealth of Australia as being the Traditional Owners of the land on which they live.

The case presented by the Yorta Yorta people was notable for having been an initial test of the legislation which had resulted from the earlier Mabo and others v Queensland (No. 2) (1992) high court case.

In the Mabo ruling it had been found that the lie of “terra nullius” – that the lands and waters of this continent had not been populated/was “land belonging to no-one” prior to invasion by Europeans – was not valid. As a result of the Mabo findings, legislation was enshrined in Australian law recognising that the continent’s First Peoples had prior land ownership and usage rights, based on their own established laws and ancient customs.

Despite the win for the State of Victoria against the Yorta Yorta, the case may be seen as a failure of the Commonwealth of Australia and its high court. The court failed to generate the vital mechanisms required for understanding that the Yorta Yorta had a legitimate claim to their sovereignty. The court also failed to recognise that the structures in which it operated, in reference to the land’s First Peoples, had been built on a series of misrepresentations and outright lies, prejudicing the case.

The Yorta Yorta people had been given an impossible task. They were required by the court to prove that their connection to Country had been established prior to the arrival of Europeans and other invaders. To achieve this the Yorta Yorta people were required to use only a western system of documentation, implemented with the arrival of Europeans, whilst being denied fair recognition of their own ancient oral histories. The only way in which the Yorta Yorta could have succeeded in such a system is through human error or a failure by the system to adhere to its own rules. Simply put – it is not possible to provide a written account supporting the Yorta Yorta people’s views, from a time in which the Yorta Yorta people did not have a culture documented in written English.

Significant evidence in the Native Title case was not afforded the necessary scrutiny for the production of an accurate ruling. The assessment of each of the 18 named apical ancestors, from whom each of the Yorta Yorta claimants are descended from, and to which only two were accepted by the court as having a legitimate connection to the area’s original inhabitants, could be considered rudimentary at best.

Where it had been established via a paper trail that a number of apical ancestors had lived within the bounds of the claim area in the decades immediately following invasion, their association with Yorta Yorta Country was not afforded any weight by the court, owing to the fact that it had been technically possible that they may have originated outside the claim area, despite the demonstrable connection to Yorta Yorta lands by their descendants.

With the dismissal of oral histories belonging to a culture which is proven to have reliably documented histories up to 18,000 years old, relating to astronomy, geology, climate, people and fauna, the court relied entirely on western sources, with particular interest and faith being placed in the writings of Edward M. Curr.

Curr was a squatter who had led an armed party into Yorta Yorta Country in 1841, taking up a tract of land he called Tongala, the word which most but not all Yorta Yorta speaking Clans used to refer to the Murray River.

Slowly but surely, Curr established friendly relations with the area’s Traditional Owners, despite having broken many of their laws in establishing his pastoral run. Curr was to learn that the Traditional Owners in his immediate vicinity sometimes referred to themselves as Bangerang. From this, Curr then leapt to the conclusion that neighbouring Clans, whom he knew spoke variants of the same language, must in turn refer to themselves in the same manner. This however was not correct.

Of the ten recognised Clans who speak the Yorta Yorta language, only two of them had traditionally referred to their language as Bangerang. These were the Dhowrooban and Wongatban Clans. Of the eight other related Clan groups, seven referred to their language as Yorta Yorta, whilst the Pikktolopan Clan referred to their language as Yullaba Yullaba.

Curr had fallen into the same series of mistakes numerous other researchers, anthropologists, historians and linguists have been making since the coming of the Europeans. Simplistic research in the field, without a consistent and tested effort to evaluate the information gathered led to numerous false assumptions, which laid the foundation for how First Peoples culture have been poorly interpreted ever since.

In Curr’s own writing, he provides multiple pieces of information that show the sloppiness of his work. He explains that of the ten Clans that he was able to identify, eight of them did not use the Bangerang term as a means for self-identification. Instead, he later clarified that his blanket approach to referring to the Yorta Yorta and Yullaba Yullaba speaking Clans was adopted from the Ngooraialum people (called Yalliba Yalliba by their neighbours) who lived to the south, and who collectively referred to the ten Clans as Bangerang. This however is the same sort of shorthand label applied by neighbouring groups throughout Australia, who cared little for what their neighbours called themselves. Instead, referring to them sometimes by geographic name – the people to the South, the people who live on the clay pans; and sometimes by a nickname raised in anger – the savage people, the wild blacks etc.

As a pioneer invader, Curr’s stature among Europeans in the district grew, as did his influence. Yorta Yorta words he had adopted for his cattle runs became formalised in European usage, as did his approach to naming conventions for the local First Peoples’.

Squatters and pastoralists passed along Curr’s sloppy understanding of traditional naming conventions, so that before long Bangerang was a term that was used as far away as Albury, far beyond Yorta Yorta Country, much to the delight of those who would willingly step into a vacuum created by a lack of knowledge, and fill it with nonsense, resulting in confusion that lingers through to today.

Today the Yorta Yorta/Bangerang community is somewhat divided, and there are fractures both large and small to be found among the Gunnai/Kurnai, Boonwurrung/Bunerong, and other Clans and Nations throughout the continent. Communities are plagued by how anthropologists labelled their ancestors and groupings in contrast to one another, just as they struggle with the myriad ways in which linguists attempted to record and spell what they heard of our languages. Kuri/Koori/Goori, was it a “t” or did they say “d”;” k” or “g”; “y” or “j”, or was it a softer sound, somewhere in the middle? Do we say “Gunnai”, or “Kurnai”, or do we sit on the fence for fear of upsetting anyone, by saying “Gunnai-Kurnai”?

We are at a difficult point in First Peoples history. Where clear cut knowledge of the old ways is sometimes fragmented or not easily obtained by more than a few, and in some instances we are seeing a mad and fruitless scramble for understanding. This is dangerous, as it’s where we will find uninformed individuals leading communities into jumping to conclusions without asking – is this right?

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