Australia’s Cultural Soil

Indigenous people did not think of themselves as ‘Australians’ but as members of groups bound by a common language and shared cultural norms and values that prescribed their worldview and knowledges about their known ‘world’, including neighbouring language groups with whom they traded. Today they are recognised as members of the oldest living culture in the world, dating back at least 65,000 years, well into the last Ice Age. For this reason, the subterranean mycelium network of cultural roots was dense and strong, shaped across millennium.

Despite the physical and epistemic brutality of ‘white’ colonial settlement that ensued after 1788, and the scientific and technological might of its transplanted cultural knowledge, this ancient cultural soil was not so easily vanquished as it holds the deepest truths of the nature of the actual ecological-systems structure by which the Earth functions as an interconnected bio-geological system. Under certain benign conditions during the Holocene geological era, humans and other lifeforms with which they co-evolved, have flourished.

However, since the 19th century Industrial revolution, the impact of human activity on the Earth’s geo-biological system has progressively altered some of its fundamental settings: radiation of the sun’s rays, ocean and land temperatures and currents, wind systems, ice retention at the polar axes, rain and fresh water river and lake systems. Initially confined to local areas through intensive agriculture and mining, under the expanding forces of industrial globalisation in the 20th and 21st centuries, these impacts are now global, threatening the viability of human habitation in large parts of the Earth, the collapse of many local ecosystems and the extinction of many lifeforms.

Competing Worldviews

As I discuss in my book, The Regenesis Journey (2023), today the ‘clash of civilisations’ is not between the Christian and the Islamic world. Nor is it between the so-called liberal democracies of the West, with their post WWII ‘International Rules-Based Order’ and the autocracies of China, Russia and other nuclear-armed states such as India, Pakistan, and Israel following the collapse of the old contest between Capitalism and Communism. Instead the new ‘clash of civilisations’ is between globalised techno-capitalism in all its forms and the eco-spiritual knowledge systems of pockets of First Nations peoples: Australia’s Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, the Maori of New Zealand, the island Pacifika people, the Sami of Scandinavia, the Inuit and Amero-Indian people of North, Central and South America, and the San, the Bushman of the Kalahari in Africa. These are all people whose literacy was not based on human language texts, but on reading the ecology of the world around them across the interdependencies of different lifeforms, landscapes, waterways and oceans, across seasons and deep time.

In Australia, Indigenous knowledge about local ecologies and creative forces are encoded in Songlines and transmitted as Ancestral Law across generations through complex kinship structures and a process of ceremonies using dance, song, painting and storytelling under the guidance and ‘control’ of Elders, the cultural custodians of knowledge who have themselves graduated through the ceremonial system. Such ceremonial knowledge transmission includes both men’s ‘business’ and women’s ‘business’ as separate but related systems of knowledge and cultural rights and obligations.

It forms part of Ancestral Law/Lore, which is outlined in Marcia Langton and Aaron Corn’s book, The Way of the Ancestors (2023), which is part of the First Knowledges series edited by Margo Neale, National Museum of Australia. The Custodians of this knowledge system are not politicians, academics or journalists.  Instead, they are the Elders, those who have spent their life understanding cultural knowledge and providing love and support to their communities to uphold Ancestral Laws.  Their demeanour is marked by the combination of courage and perseverance in the face of adversity and humility in the face fame.

As Australian Senior of Year 2022, the Aboriginal educator from Daly River, Dr Miriam Rose Ungumerr-Bauman explained to ABC reporter Dan Bourchier, that while in Western culture as people get older they contemplate retirement, in her culture this is when the real work of the Elder begins as knowledge holders and transmitters.  It is why in Indigenous Australian culture, Elders are revered and celebrated, as was the theme of the 2023 national NAIDOC celebrations. They acquire their wisdom through the practice of dadirri, inner deep listening and quiet still awareness—tapping into the deep spring within us in communion with the wider natural world.

Core to this knowledge system is the idea that human beings live in a world of pervasive animate intelligence which they share with all living forms and the earth itself, an intelligence they can communicate with through ceremony and related sacred geography, and through which the wellbeing of life can be sustained. Literacy in these knowledge systems is the ability to read specific local ecological systems and their life forms across the seasons and across time, supported by an eco-spiritual system expressed in mytho-poetic stories, glossed in the English language as The Dreaming. That this knowledge system is still alive, and now experiencing a cultural renaissance, is a miracle we should all treasure.

Out of the land, our sounds become our words, our words become our stories, our stories become our songs, our songs become our ceremonies and ceremonies become our teachings, our teachings become our beliefs, our beliefs become our law, and through that we are strong and know who we are wherever and whatever we are doing—Wanta Pawu, the Walpiri artist who created the ceremonial mosaic in the Australian Parliament Forecourt.

First Transplants

The First Transplants, the British, arrived as 19th century colonial-settlers at a time when British culture had been radically transformed by the impact of the 17th century Scientific Revolution, the First Industrial Revolution, and the French Revolution which overthrew the French King and established a Republic based on three principles of Liberty, Fraternity and Independence. The demonstrated potential for populist rebellion became fundamental to the future development of the political idea of liberal democracy and rights of the individual. To avoid such an outcome the British Crown hastened its transition to parliamentary democracy based on constitutional monarchy and in 1832 extending voting rights to the ‘common man’ albeit only those who met property ownership qualifications.

British people were convinced that ‘white’ British culture represented the apex of human civilisation,  through the political and cultural evolution from primitive stone-age hunter gatherer societies to literate, techno-scientific, market economy societies of growing wealth and affluence.  The British had established themselves as the world’s greatest power, controlling vast areas of the world under the British Crown as the British Empire. Whether government Official, convict or free colonial settler, these British transplants were all influenced by the ‘scientific ideas’ of Social Darwinism and the exclusively redemptive power of the ‘one true God’ of Christianity, despite continuing contestation between various sects: Catholics, Anglicans and various Protestant denominations who claimed direct contact with God via his teachings in the bible, now available as a written text in the English language.

In this way the British colonial settlement of ‘terra Australis’ first mapped by Captain James Cook in 1770, progressed from a series of penal settlements of British and Irish criminals to a free settler society organised as a number of States (NSW, Queensland, Tasmania, Victoria, South Australia and Western Australia) under the direct authority of the British Crown, to in 1901 a national federation with its own Constitution as the Commonwealth of Australia. Not only was this Australian settler society based on the human transplanting of British and Irish people. It was also based on transplanting their animals, food crops and farming methods—the hard hoofed sheep and cattle, wheat, rice and other grains, and vegetables along with their ultimately ruinous industrialised farming methods.

The Indigenous knowledge system, which had successfully fire-farmed the landscape for millennia to create extensive grasslands to nurture kangaroos, creating the ‘Biggest Estate on Earth’ (Bill Gammage, 2012), was invisible to the transplants.  Under a worldview shaped by Social Darwinism, the Indigenous people were dismissed as primitive people of low intelligence who had not progressed beyond the Stone Age. Through its commitment to ‘rule of law’, to enable the Crown to allocate land, which was traditionally occupied by these primitive ‘natives’, in 1835 Governor Richard Bourke of NSW declared the whole of Australia ‘terra nullius’—land over which no previous sovereignty had been exercised prior to British occupation.

Henceforth the transplanting of more and more British settlers was speeded up by the granting of free land to such settlers, together with the promise of free convict labour. This could also include free native labour whence it was organised under various State based legal systems of Native Protection, whereby following their forced removal from their traditional lands to missions and reserves, their lives were directly controlled: movement, marriage, employment and money.

Bouyed up by their membership of demonstrably the world’s most powerful culture, and nurtured in a land that was densely populated, with a long history of intensive agriculture and progressive enclosure of shared commons to create more private property ownership, Australia appeared to their eyes as sparsely populated by an Indigenous people who showed none of the skills of intensive agriculture, animal husbandry or technology that marked a ‘civilisation’.

One of the first pieces of legislation passed by the new Federal Government was the Immigration Restriction Act of 1901 (the White Australia Policy) which sought to ensure that all future transplants (immigration) to Australia would be of Anglo-Celtic ancestry, guaranteeing that Australia would be a ‘white nation of British culture’. This was strongly endorsed by the trade unions,  keen to protect white Australians from cheap non-white labour, establishing Australia as a ‘working man’s paradise’, free of the entrenched British class system.  Wages for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island labour were controlled by various State Aboriginal Protection Acts which frequently allocated such wages for the cost of their ‘protection’: hence they were not a threat to unionised labour conditions.

The White Australia Policy was relaxed to allow non-British immigration from Europe after WWII and was repealed by the Hawke-Keating Labor Government in 1993 to allow a further wave of transplanting from the rest of the Non-European world as skilled migrants, business migrants and refugees. To accommodate the slow demographic transformation of Australia from being a ‘white’ outpost of British civilisation with a ‘native’ underbelly, Australian Governments began to embrace the new idea of Australia as a multicultural nation, underpinned by legislation to overcome racial and ethnic discrimination against non-Anglo-European citizen settlers. Today Australia proudly proclaims itself as the world’s most successful multicultural nation in the world. But our legal system and institutions are still anchored in the British heritage of the First Transplants.

Clear Felling for Transplant Cultivation

The process of establishing a colonial-settler society is captured by the feature image above – a clear felled native forest, ready for industrialised agriculture with introduced plants and animal husbandry. This process of clear felling proceeded apace like this:

  • They cleared the land of its Indigenous peoples and allocated the cleared land under the colonial legal private property system to colonial settlers
  • They sought to extinguish the Indigenous culture by criminalising the use of their own languages, cultural, spiritual and Ancestral Law protocols and obligation, particularly their connection to their Country, and actively replaced these with the use of the English language, Christian spiritual beliefs and practices, and English legal and political structures – either by force, or through various legal instruments
  • They replaced Indigenous systems of fire farming and husbandry with imported industrialised agriculture, such as clear felling for land of trees for mechanical planting and harvesting, and imported hoofed animals such as sheep and cattle, rather than relying on the soft-pawed kangaroos as the source of animal protein
  • They introduced foreign plants and crops to the cleared land, and sought to increase the harvestable yield of such plants through the application of chemical fertilisers
  • They progressively dammed the waterways for purposes of supplying water to the growing town settlements, and to irrigate new introduced crops – a process that eventually would almost destroy the waters of Australia’s great inland Murray-Darling River system
  • They used the legal of system of allowing the Crown to determine access to land to explore and mine for mineral resources that removed the rights of other landowners to prevent such developments, and privileged the extraction of mining wealth over other considerations such as cultural sites and nature conservation.
  • The Anglo-Celtic colonial settler society sought to protect is cultural transplant as a ‘white’ British society by enacting as one of its first Acts of Parliament in the new established Commonwealth of Australia in 1901, the Immigration Restriction Act, otherwise known as the White Australia Policy.
  • The strategy to deal with the troublesome fact of prior Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander population has included:
    • Frontier colonial violence – massacres, reprisals, poisoning and disease aimed at elimination
    • Displacement to missions and government enclaves under control through various State Aboriginal Protection regimes (by 1911 the Northern Territory and every state except Tasmania had a Protection Act, giving the Chief Protector or Protection Board extensive power to control Indigenous people, including where they lived, whom they married, wages for labour and ownership of property. In some states and in the Northern Territory, the Chief Protector was made the legal guardian of all Aboriginal children, displacing the rights of parents.) The last Protection Act was reprieved in 1969.
    • Assimilation Stage 1 – removal of children with obvious signs of European heritage as determined by skin colour from native parents, to be trained in European ways as domestic servants and agriculture labourers, with all information about their parents and language group to which they belonged expunged from government records
    • Assimilation Stage 2 – recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in the national census as citizens in 1967
    • Assimilation – Integration State 3 – Closing the Gap strategy, established in 2007, to help Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people achieve the same standards of education, health and employment opportunities as non-Indigenous Australians, through various development projects vested in non-Indigenous cultural values and knowledge systems.

The Indigenous Dilemma

Australia’s Aboriginal and Torres Strait people have fought a continuous battle against their displacement by settler-colonial society intent on a clear-fell strategy against their place in Australian society. Core to this battle was land, culture and the settler legal system, the ‘rule of law’ as determined by the political system of Federal and State parliaments, based on British cultural institutions, values and knowledge systems that sat at odds with Indigenous Ancestral Law.

Challenging the Settler Culture

A series of events reveals and marks the continuing struggle against the Transplants legal system, which by the 21st century saw Australia’s First Nations peoples are proportionally the most incarcerated people on Earth—especially their young people. Significant moments are marked by the 1963 Yolngu people’s Yirrkala Bark Petition to the Federal Government, the  Gurindji Walk-off from Wave Hill Station for equal wages, the 1965 Freedom Rides led by Charles Perkins in NSW, the campaign for citizenship that led to the Referendum of 1967 that finally counted Aboriginal and Torres Strait people as citizens. It also saw a regime of State and Territory Land Rights Acts in response to a growing campaign to address the political, social and income inequality experienced by Indigenous people across Australia, which were highlighted by the Black Moratorium campaign of 1972 that drew a crowd of 6000 students, unionists and civil society protestors in Sydney,  and thousands in other cities. For many Indigenous people, the Gurindji Walk-Off from Wave Hill Station marks the beginning of the long struggle for land rights when Prime Minister Whitlam poured sand into Vincent Lingiari’s hand.

It is memorialised in the song by Kev Carmody and Paul Kelly, ‘From Little Things Big Things Grow’, which has been reworked numerous times by Aboriginal musicians, which includes the 2019 one by Electric Fields, including the use of Yankuntjatjara language and the recorded voice of Vincent Lingiari, with permission from his family. Kev Carmody has said it has become Australia’s cultural love song.

In 1987 under sustained political pressure, the Hawke Government finally established a Royal Commission to investigate the causes of the high number of deaths of Aboriginal people who were held in state and territory prisons.

Finally, in 1992 the legal fiction of terra nullius was overturned by the High Court in the Mabo decision, followed by the enactment of the 1993 Native Title Act, which established a legal regime by which Aboriginal and Torres Strait people could claim rights over their traditional lands. But only provided they could prove a continuous cultural connection to the land from which so many had been forcibly removed. A legal regime of Aboriginal Land Corporations as administrative agents for the continuing management of such native title was also established and in 1995 the Indigenous Land Corporation was established, followed by the Indigenous Sea and Land Corporation in 2019.

In 1997 Australia finally faced up to the ongoing tragic impact of the forced removal of Indigenous children from their natural parents, publishing the Coming Home Report of the National Inquiry into the Separation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Children from Their Families. Despite these findings, under various Stare child protection regimes that address neglect, alcohol and drug addiction and related family violence, a significant number of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children continue to be removed from their natural parents and placed under State care or Foster services.  Furthermore these issues are significantly connected to ongoing issues of youth criminalisation and incarceration, and youth suicide and high rates of mental health problems.

Prime Minister Keating’s Redfern Speech of National Apology in 1992 acknowledged this history:

. . . the starting point might be to recognise that the problem starts with us non-Aboriginal Australians.

It begins, I think, with that act of recognition.  Recognition that it was we who did the dispossessing. We took the traditional lands and smashed the traditional way of life. We brought the diseases. The alcohol. We committed the murders. We took the children from their mothers. We practised discrimination and exclusion. It was our ignorance and our prejudice.  And our failure to imagine these things being done to us.

With some noble exceptions, we failed to make the most basic human responses and enter into their hearts and minds.  We failed to ask—how would I feel if this were done to me>

Closing the Gap and Questions of Empowerment

In 2007, following the Social Justice Report by Professor Tom Calma, the Council of Australian Governments (COAG) initiated the Closing the Gap Strategy to monitor and overcome inequality on a range of measures: health, education, and housing through a range of services in early childhood, schooling, health, economic participation, healthy homes, safe communities and governance and leadership. The first of the annual Closing the Gap Reports was tabled in Federal Parliament in 2009.  By 2019, in acknowledgement that despite considerable expenditure little progress had been made on key chosen indicators, the Government made an historic Partnership Agreement on Closing the Gap 2019-2029  between all Australian Governments, the Coalition of Peaks, and the Australian Local Government Association (ALGA), and established a Joint Council on Closing the Gap. This new partnership model is based on a fundamental recognition that unless Closing the Gap strategies and services are shaped by local communities themselves, rather than whitefella Canberra bureaucrats and politicians, there is little chance of improved success.

This recognition also informed the historic 2017 Uluru statement from the Heart by representatives of the 250 recognised language groups, calling for non-Indigenous Australians to walk together with Indigenous Australians for a better future, based on three requests: Voice, Treaty and Truth, calling for the recognition of Indigenous people as Australia’s First Peoples, and the enshrinement of their right for a Voice to Parliament and Government, in the Australian Constitution.

In 2023, under the leadership the Prime Minister Albanese and Minister for Indigenous Australians, Linda Burney, the people of Australia are being asked to vote in a National Referendum to approve an alteration to the Australian Constitution, creating the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice to represent the views of Indigenous Australians to the parliament and federal government on matters of Indigenous affairs. If successful, the operation of such an advisory Voice in terms of representation and function will be determined by the Australian Parliament and Government of the day.

For Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander proponents, enshrinement of the Voice in the Constitution is necessary to prevent any future government merely abolishing the functions of such a Voice through legislation, as was achieved by the 2005 abolition of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait islander Commission (ATSIC), which was established under the Hawke Government in 1990. ATSIC was established to provide a representative voice for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in both the administration of programs and the representation of interests, in the name of ‘self-determination’ and ’empowerment’. This dual responsibility led to conflicts between the powers of ATSIC Commissioners to reflect Indigenous interests and viewpoints and the power of permanent public servants, many from the previous Department of Aboriginal Affairs, to acknowledge and respect Indigenous autonomy and local knowledge over ‘white’ professional expertise.

The Transplants’ Dilemma

For we transplants, the 58 percent of the population of Anglo-Celtic cultural background, the further 17 percent of those of European cultural background, and the final 21 per cent of migrants and refugees from a melange of non-European cultural backgrounds, as we contemplate the Referendum to recognise Australia’s First Peoples and enshrine their right for a Voice to Parliament and Government institutions about policies that affect their lives, in the Australian Constitution, we face the dilemma of discovering in what way we are truly Australian with roots into the subterranean mycelium of this place? In what way have our transplants and their lineage taken root?

If we no longer look to our cultures of origin for our identity, for our values and beliefs and ways of understanding the world (our worldview), what is our relationship with the Indigenous knowledge systems that shaped this land for millennia?

Despite Australia being a highly urbanised society, our settler culture has drawn its particular Australian identity from an almost mythical relationship to the ‘bush’, with our wealth drawn from agriculture and mining. Taming the land and making it productive to create a new home away from the ‘home’ country, Britain, was the great quest of our forbears. The land itself was hostile and resistant to this taming, visiting upon us the extremes of floods, drought and fires, which threatened our livelihoods. The cultural marker of true Australian identity is the Akubra hat, while that of the home country, Britain, is the bowler hat of the City’s financiers.

And yet it is these transplanted people of the Bush and their political voice, expressed through the National Party, which are the most resistant to what it actually takes to put down our roots into Australia’s ancient cultural soil—to recognise the power and truth of its knowledge system, and to support greater Indigenous empowerment and self determination through voting YES to the very small request that Indigenous people should have their Voice to advise government enshrined in our Constitution.

These are are same people who panicked over Native Title, arguing ‘white’ people would lose their farms and homes.  The same people who waged the history culture wars that followed the efforts of historian Henry Reynolds to research the colonisation of Australia from an Indigenous perspective. They hysterically claimed that this was a ‘black armband’ view of Australia’s origins, a line of argument featured in a campaign by the Murdoch Press until 2015, and embraced by political leaders such as John Howard and Tony Abbot, who set themselves up as defenders of Western Civilisation.  These same cultural warriors are now determined to defeat the Referendum, full of moral panic that the High Court might make determinations that will impact their settler privilege, seemingly oblivious to the fact explored in Stan Grant’s memorable book, The  Queen is dead: the time has come for a reckoning’ (2023). The colonised and dispossessed, having become masters of Western Civilisation themselves, are finally talking back in the language of our own culture’s expertise. Grant goes on to talk about the death of the ‘White’ Queen—not the person of Queen Elizabeth herself, but the knowledge colonisation system she represents. What the Nigerian poet and philosopher, Bayo Akomolafe, calls ‘White Capture’, which holds his very black country, Nigeria, in its thrall.

For those of us of Anglo-European cultural background whose knowledge systems have ‘run the joint’ since 1788, we are facing the horrible truth that despite our strong belief in the superiority of the ‘West’—culturally, economically and scientifically, we’ve somehow screwed up.  Our own Dreaming, the story of a linear continual Progress and Growth in standards of living and knowledge has begun to splutter and stutter in the face of global warming, climate change, environmental degradation, loss of water resources, species extinctions and the rise and rise of political and ethnic conflict in those nation states that have occupied the top of the global pecking order.  We, like the rest of the world, are being forced to face the bio-regional limitations of the extractive capitalism that has built our wealth and cultural confidence, along with the viability of the political structures of the international rules-based order.

While Africa beckons as a continuing source of resource wealth extraction, it is full of violence armed with Western weapons, surplus to our continuing technological innovations for military competition. Financed by our clever internationalised financial institutions built on regimes of debt and profit maximisation, we have found a market for our surplus weapons in Africa. But the West is no longer the only ‘kid on the block’. Not only is there the old Cold War ‘enemy’ in a resurgent ethno-nationalist Russia, which is not quite European although seemingly ‘white’.  Now, there are the rising techno-powers of China and India, with populations of well over two billion, and who remember the slurs and humiliations of the European Imperial Era.

The only ‘unclaimed’ physical frontier that is left for conquest and exploitation, other than technology through generative AI integrated with bio-engineering, is Space – the possibility of mining and settlements on other planets—a dream long explored by our writers and filmmakers alert to the logic of our cultural ethos of conquest. And already a gleam in the eye of our innovative entrepreneurs with Space Tourism @ US$450,000 a seat to travel to the edge of space for a ‘thrill’.  The global Super Rich are reaching the limits of what to spend all their money on, as it keeps accumulating.

Meanwhile there is as new intellectual frontier, being explored by a  growing counter-culture of re-wilding across the world—a search for a new relationship between humans and the natural world, a yearning for finding a pathway to experience the possibility of living in a thoroughly animated world full of spiritual agency. A world that thrums to the logic of relationism that has survived precariously in First Nations knowledge systems in different parts of the world, and with a new generation of First Nations intellectual warriors and Elders who are able to ‘speak back’ to the very cultures that sought to eliminate them.

In her interview with ABC journalist, Dan Bourchier, Dr Miriam Rose Ungamerr-Bauman explains how her Aboriginal people have done all the work of learning the ‘whitefella’ system, to survive in a country run by its laws and institutions, while seeking to keep their own cultural knowledge systems alive—living in a two-way world.  Now non-Indigenous Australians must do their own work of learning about ‘blackfella’ ways and knowledge and also learn how to live in a two-way world. It has begun in our primary schools, but for those of us who have long left school and who carry all the assumptions and prejudices of ‘white’ cultural and economic triumphalism, this is a challenging and difficult journey. It involves facing the truth of our history, and discarding many of the certainties of our assumptions about success, wealth and productivity, and the very nature of reality. But it is also a challenging journey of excitement, of expanding our intellectual and spiritual horizons, of healing our broken spirits and wounds of the past, of learning how to Listen and Care for Country in all its multiple meanings.

As Julianne Schultz warns in her book, ‘The Idea of Australia’ (2022), by rarely going back to first principles and examining the past, for settler transplants a ‘terra nullius’ of the mind has prevailed. Unchallenged tendrils of memory are easily twisted to gird myths that reinforce the idea that Australia was/is a ‘blank slate’ on which the transplants can etch their dreams.

Yet today we know and are haunted by the incontrovertible knowledge that trauma, like privilege, passes across the generations, forcing a profound recalibration to all our assumptions about Progress. Perhaps it is now the Transplants of the colonial settler culture that will increasingly face their own cultural displacement and trauma as we negotiate these troubled waters.