2017: Indigenous Recognition, Settler Colonials, Paris and the Law

The following are thoughts on my PhD research. Something of a process to collect where I am at for the end of the year.  

Most of these ideas are a development of issues I have been trying to think through following the blatant dismissal of the Uluru Statement and the Referendum Council's report by the Commonwealth Government. 

I have been trying to think through the disappointment and raw anger of what for many has felt like another kick in the guts. The seeming disdain and absolute disregard for an Indigenous voice - both actual and in the proposed constitutional body - has a long, violent and real presence and affect, despite many claims otherwise. This has only been further confirmed following PM Malcolm Turnbull's multiple enunciations of indifference toward the issue. Indifference really is too kind of a description. 

Speaking and being heard

My research has always been uncomfortably teased out from a sense of anxiety I had about the 'Recognise' program not providing for our voice and voices to be heard, and for me what I have seen as an important problematisation of the issue of speaking and being heard - the law of speaking and being heard and the constitution of this both in the literal sense of the written document but more broadly about the constitution of Australian society and the place of Indigenous peoples, cultures, laws, traditions and sovereignties. I often use this entry point of 'speaking and being heard' in my teaching and writing. The below image is of a protest banner by Bill Onus that dates somewhere between the 1930s and 1950s.


This is what it is about right? This is what the Governments and the Australian people have always failed to understand. The importance of speaking takes on many aspects but it also means a sovereignty - a voice - an ability to speak and, a responsibility to be heard, to hear. To speak as self - not as a parrot. For too long Indigenous people were characterised has being unable even to speak, and then later had corporeal restrictions on the ability to do so - but even now, after all of the change and development, after all of our 'rights', we seemingly still can't speak and be heard. The truth is of course we do speak, and we always have, its the hearing that's been the issue, and that comes with violent consequences. 

I was never fully supportive of the Referendum Council and the Uluru Statement - I have some reservations and still do with the broader program that in fairness are actually better described as issues with the former 'Recognise' campaign and proposed minimalist approaches to reform - but I wanted to support the outcome as I saw it for what it was: an affirmation of a sovereign Indigenous voice and a demand for more than just tokenism - a demand for structural reform in the actual power relationships that govern and are generative and reproductive of the many issues Indigenous peoples face. Critical scholars, public intellectuals, everyday people - across divergent opinions and thoughts - have all been calling for fundamental structural reform forever against the threat of the feckless and violent incorporations and assimilations of past and present. Aileen Moreton-Robinson's Talkin' Up to the White Woman: Indigenous Women and Feminism is an excellent telling of this history and the indifference toward the experience of our speaking and being.  

Recognition then? 

So - the Constitution, sovereignty, rights, speaking and being heard - recognising Indigenous peoples. I find it almost impossible - cognitively, practically, ethically - to address this issue through what are considered traditional legal paths. The law; the Constitution; our rights; the common law; native title - what does it all mean if when we speak we get kicked. It can be all so boring, but so violent in its institutional exclusions and constrictions - suffocations - of possibilities for different and better, for responsible relationships. It's cold, it's like concrete and steel bars, it's like a straight jacket or a prison cell - minimalist recognition and no change. Because it is true that while what we are saying is actually heard, the more important point is that we are ignored, we are treated with disdain and contempt; the fact that we are actually heard, but that the status quo continues as though 'they' know better, makes the failure all the more reprehensible. Ignorance and naivety perhaps could, but shouldn't be forgiven, what about blatant disregard? 

Just like the common narrative tale of 'Recognition', the hearing analogy runs along too where that once society was ignorant and racist they no longer are; they now hear; they now recognise. Redemptive liberalism and the promise of homogenous similitude - no thanks. It's a con because they always heard and always recognised just the same way they do now because nothing about the fundamental structural relations of power have changed, because the assumptions and values that inform the institutions - the 'constitution' of Australian society - remain the same. Terra nullius didn't disappear, neither was it overturned despite the common tale; the common law was simply corrected to what it should have been and was given the modern liberal gloss of a redeemed and inclusive society that enshrined in law the fundamental principles and practices of dispossession and extinguishment that were supposed to have been overturned by moving away from terra nullius. Sure there aren't anymore murderous bushwhacks, but do we really have to keep screaming about everything else? More Royal Commissions and reports to be commissioned and ignored; more people being paid and making a living out of Indigenous misery. 

So the myth? Recognition exists where it once didn't and the current practices of inclusion and incorporation aren't assimilationist or exclusionary where they once were. Something closer to the truth however is that these practices - these operations, ideas, values, assumptions - of the law, of sovereignty, of a sovereign authority, of the Australian 'constitution' have always been experienced by Indigenous peoples in this way. Yes context and tools have changed; affect and practice remains: the extension of control and sovereignty over Indigenous peoples with violent consequences. 

There is a lot in this that I am not explaining and needs to be unpacked, and has been in other work yet to be published, but this is my major issue. There has always been recognition; there has always been hearing; there has always been the law; to pretend otherwise as the liberal rights and recognition narrative does is to abrogate responsibility for this past and for our present, for the failure to actually hear; and perhaps most perniciously according this redemptive narrative, the benevolent recogniser can always blame the recognised, the provider of progress and the closer of gaps can always blame the Aborigine again for failing to take responsibility for billions spent and opportunities wasted while masking and erasing their own presence and responsibility, their own failure. 

Recognition then and now

Another entry point for me to make this point and critique is through the further representations - visual aids - of these recognitions of Indigenous peoples. The first, just below, is the tympanum of Brisbane City Hall completed by sculptor Daphne Mayo in 1930. The sculpture is called 'The Progress of Civilisation in the State of Queensland' - the title pretty much says it all. 


And here is a close up of what is left in civilisation's wake. 


Perhaps of its time; perhaps not relevant nor reflective of contemporary attitudes, perhaps, probably not. But the sculpture is so much more. It memorialises in stone the myth of terra tullius and the dispossession, dispersal and murder of Indigenous peoples. It's a permanent reminder of the pervasiveness settler colonial faith in progress, of a particular kind of progress. It's also an instrument of the law - of sovereignty. It's an extension of authority, productive of governing space, claiming that space, creating that space through inclusion and exclusion.  

The juxtaposition of this sculpture with Dibirdibi Country by Sally Gabori on the back wall of the Banco Court, Supreme Court of Queensland - just down the road from the town hall - is further illustrative of these points. 

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Separated by almost 100 years, the two artworks - not necessarily by the intention of the artists - represent two recognitions of Indigenous peoples. One is the settler colonial belief and production of the dying race - something like a bed time story told by settlers to comfort themselves in the mythical realisation that they had nothing to be responsible for in the demise of Indigenous peoples, this was rather a natural occurrence when a higher civilisation comes into contact with a lower. The second, in its placement, is supposed to represent the reconciled Aborigine and different ways of seeing. The curator statement reads: 

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It's also that 'knowledge and perspective' that is denied time again; that vision and knowledge, that sovereignty, which is ritually disavowed in every subsequent proceeding legal decision in this court room that intimates as the only sovereignty, that includes by excluding in its reproduction and affirmation of its sovereign self, the protection of that skeleton of principle Brennan J was so concerned to protect in Mabo via the denial of Indigenous sovereignty and the possibility to assert otherwise. 

No obscure legal document, instrument or instructions otherwise, no letters patent that state Indigenous rights exist or should, will change this or give standing in the High Court - this is the mythical power of law and sovereignty as it stands and is practiced in the Australian state. More broadly, it's that sovereignty that is denied, dismissed, ignored, demeaned and suffocated - never totally though - by the refusal of the Commonwealth Government to engage with the Uluru Statement and the Referendum Council's report. Anything short of fundamental structural reform in the power relationships between different peoples will result in another memorialisation of the dispossession of Indigenous people - just like the sculpture, just like the use of the artwork: the Constitution would be another stone carving, another court room appropriating Indigenous bodies and agency, another straight jacket, another mission, another training home, another island, another prison cell, another chain gang.

Paris and the Musee du quai Branly  

These recognitions of course don't just end there. They are everywhere. Another I wanted to include with these, which touches on Indigenous bodies and the corporeal nature of recognition, was one that I experienced in Paris at the Musee due Quai Branly.

I was in Paris in June/July 2017 for the University of Kent's Critical Theory Summer School. I participated in a two week seminar run by Professor Patrica Williams which was fantastic. But the many anxieties about my research project were intensified in Paris. The city, the country, maintains an ambivalent place in my own interests and research. Not just for the French settler colonial history, instances such as the history of Sydney's La Perouse, more global ideas such as Emmanuel Macron's blatant imperialism, self-styling himself as the new Sun King while telling Algerian youth to 'get over' colonialism and Africans' that their poverty problems are due to an inability to stop procreating, and then the broader issues of where does all of this fit - or how can I reconcile the at times seemingly disconnected world of academia with the lived realities of the trauma that often informs our/my work. The French presence is also strong in my research being heavily influenced by Jacques Derrida and Frantz Fanon and other debates about the usefulness or appropriateness of 'theory' and thinkers such as Derrida for Indigenous peoples. I expected most of these issues and feelings and dealt with them as I could. What I wasn't entirely sure about however was what I would encounter at the Musee du quai Branly. 

I am not sure, in retrospect, what I was expecting - perhaps it was more of a masochist's movement to expose myself - but the museum was another example of the recognition of Indigenous peoples and the currents of sovereign authority that inform and organise these relationships between different peoples in decidedly settler colonial terms. Much can be, and I am sure has been, written about the museum and its collection in conjunction with French settler colonial and imperial history. There was one exhibit in particular however that captured my attention. Below are sketches I made of this exhibition followed by photos that I took. 


The entrance to this exhibit was at the back of one of the main floors in a very dark area. The doorway was small and dark but illuminated from within. For me it was like walking into a cave, but through a narrow corridor into almost a coffin. Lighting became brighter as you entered and I couldn't help but think of the binaries of light and dark, the idea of the light of science, of collection and display illuminating knowledge made out on and out of the violence committed on and against Indigenous bodies. 


When you enter, the room tapers down the sides toward the end as the sketch shows above. I am tall, but it felt like a coffin to me, let alone being surrounded by skulls. Their were images of artefacts of peoples from all around the world but the skulls were all from Tasmania and dated mostly in the 1820s. Arranged, ordered, sterile - no explanation as to how the skulls were originally collected or any reference whatsoever to that fever pitch of grave robbery, murder and body dealing - nor of Indigenous perspectives. 


Walls covered in our people. 


Many of the photographs were of children. 


The side walls consisted of other peoples and artefacts, the back wall of skulls demands immediate attention however as you enter into an almost suffocating space. 


The only explanation of the exhibit: about the power and tools of photography. The explanation intimates toward the past but that is it, as though it remains as it is in reality the hidden known secret. How were the skulls collected? What of the violence involved? What of these peoples. My simplest description of this exhibit was that it was fucked. Yet it wasn't until I read 'Launceston Australie' on the photos of the skulls that the enormity of the violence toward and silencing of Indigenous peoples hit me again. It was probably too that visitors were laughing and taking selfies of one another in front of the photos - but there was something that I believe I felt as an Indigenous person in that confined, suffocating space that was the same raw emotion, pain and anger that I felt watching the response to Uluru unfold. 

The exhibit itself also repeated the supposed failed attempts of science to classify the different types of humans that the explanation made slight reference to. While proclaiming 'photographs of the past are a reminder of that every person alive today belongs to the same "body" of humanity' the exhibit simply represents and recommits without responsibility that same violence effaced in the proclamation to equality in humanity. Just because they say it is so, doesn't mean that it is so. The same patterns of imperial and settler colonial sovereign authority persist and reaffirm self as they do in the sculpture and the painting; while they, the current curators, didn't steal the bodies, they've reaffirmed the violence and imperial order of settler colonial terms by their representation and recognition where the skulls are now a useful lesson in the 'aesthetic of photography' just as Indigenous bodies, sovereignty 'knowledge and vision' are now useful tools for completing the reconciled nation and reconfirming settler sovereignty. 

So what next then? 

As I stated earlier, I find the law boring, but also exclusionary violent even when it tries to be inclusive. Mainly, this is because there is still a commitment fundamentally to one law, to one sovereignty, to a particular being projected as universal and the expense of others. And for all of our change we are very much the same, committing the same violences and sacrificing the bodies of others again for the reaffirmation of self. 

The law is not an innocent tool or institution, nor is it simply something affected by others; legal rationalities and practices have developed in their own right and institutions and in-turn also affect the different developments of a relationship between different peoples and the options available for reform.

The law, the Constitution, should also not be considered as something rigidly positivistic - a position of which has been directed toward proposals for reform where they are either characterised as being a step too far or outside of the law. The law should be and is more tactile, more relational, more flexible - but the foundations and structures upon which it - I guess what I mean here is the Australian state legal system/s but also the philosophy and jurisprudence of this - is built must change. The values and principles that inform, regulate and affect legal decision making must change. At the heart of this for me is a fundamental responsibility within a relational being between different peoples that must be respected and acted upon, not abrogated, ignored and erased - not be simply masked by proclamations of what the law is and isn't. 

For these reasons, and for a number of others I haven't really developed in this post, this is also why traditional political and legal approaches toward inclusion and recognition won't or don't work for me. They repeat the redemptive liberal promise without any substantive reform; they include by excluding, the price of which is paid inordinately by Indigenous peoples. This is also why I find it easier to enter into these debates from other places - places not normally considered part of the law, but places I understand as being central to the law, as being 'real' examples of the law, of where the law is felt and lived. 

I have been exploring this through Indigenous hip hop and rap of late: an Indigenous voice that is a sovereign affirmation of being, a refusal to be bound, suffocated and controlled, and a reminder always of the responsibility to others. This isn't a new process - literature, music, art and so on have been and are used as legal critique. But Indigenous hip hop and rap for me is about saying something ineffable, something I can't quite get onto paper or out through my research at the moment, but something that I live and experience everyday that the law can't capture, but should be and is in relation to and with the law - an expression of that emotion, pain, anger, but of pride and of sovereignty, of my indigeneity. 

The personal is political. Indigenous peoples, and others, have long been derided especially in the academic sphere for this approach. I am asked if sovereignty and similar themes or questions or terms aren't overdetermined and perhaps inappropriate - but that's the game which for Indigenous peoples just happens to be life. Sometimes you have to tow the line, be professional, be collegial, be respectful; but then other times you realise what you felt all along, that all of that is part of the problem, part of the masking of the continued violence and exclusion, part of erasure, and you realise that sometimes some people, some institutions just need to be told, so sometimes I think we just need to say: 'fuck the law!' 

I have a number of tracks on repeat as I research and write - but in going with the theme of affirmation and a refusal to be silenced; an affirmation of our sovereign being; I thought I would sign off with these few lines and the music video below: 

When the timing's right are you ready to take it? I been honing my components, waiting for my moment, And now I'm gonna own it, just feed me my opponents. 
Anything worth having ain't never coming easy, It's the hunt that we're on that bring another meal, Anything worth having ain't never coming easy, It's to the hunt we belong, man, that's just how I feel.