Alternative Law Journal
Editors: Kathryn Trees; Alexander Reilly; Helena Grehan; Vol 1, No 1, January 2000; Published, Murdoch University (for subscription information see 'Mentions', p.206).
Colonialism is unfinished business, and not more so than in the discourse(s) of the Academy. This is one of the premises generating the work of 'Balayi: Culture, Law and Colonialism', a new journal of reflection, expression and resistance that specifically sets out to interrogate the terrain of colonial issues, practice and ideology through the voices of Indigenous and non-Indigenous writers.
Balayi (a Nyungar word meaning Lookout or Beware!) aims to provide a forum currently absent in academic literature, in which works and writings in different genres can coalesce, to create new perspectives on issues of fundamental importance. The editors of Balayi have wisely decided, however, that this terrain be limited to a topos that links colonialism with its manifestations in culture and in law. These are, of course, worlds within worlds, providing a vast store of material and subject matter: but the linkage is a fundamental one, and the 13 works presented in this volume of over 230 pages illuminate the subject in startling ways.
In Balayi, the threads of the colonial milieu and experience(s) from past to present are revealed in a series of diverse, illuminating and thoughtful 'provocations'. To begin at the end: Aden Ridgeway's contribution to the
volume, 'Millenium Dreaming: Indigenous Peoples in Australia in the Era of Reconciliation. How are far have we come? How far have we to go?', approaches the subject of reconciliation from the perspective of Indigenous human rights, and the preparedness of governments to respond. Ridgeway clearly enunciates where we are, viz:
...there has been no Commonwealth legislative response which has satisfied Indigenous demands for the recognition and protection of our fundamental human rights.
Ridgeway argues for an incrementalist approach to reconciliation, based on recognition, culturally and legally, of Indigenous rights and connections to land.
The centrality of land to the colonialist enterprise, and to those who resist, is a recurring theme in Balayi. Peter Fitzpatrick's piece '"Enacted in the destiny of sedentary peoples": Racism, Discovery and the Grounds of Law', links the doctrine of occidental 'discovery' of the so-called New World to legal doctrines that continue to efface Indigenous interests and entitlements today. Fitzpatrick's essay focuses on Indian peoples and the United States, and he discovers, pace Levinas, that the universalism of settler culture posits no truth other than itself-subordinating those outside the instantiation of that truth - an observation of no less relevance to Australian history. Doctrines are one thing, philosophies are another. In 'Colonisation and the Moral Philosophers', John Ladd reveals, via a reading of Kant's critique, the moral emptiness and self-serving double standards of empiricists such as Locke, Hobbes and Hume. Ladd finds English moral philosophy working systematically in support of colonial violence and dispossession, particularly in the development of theories of property, which conveniently exclude Indigenous peoples from a possibility of ownership.
Balayi s real distinction is the way it crosses boundaries, mixing more academic-'standard' contributions, such as those of Fitzpatrick and Ladd, with works of poetry and a more polemical character. Thus we have Eleanor Gilbert's 'Fire Creator for Justice is Awoken', an insider account of the Aboriginal Tent Embassy in Canberra, in 1999. Gilbert's account is both a narrative of resistance, and a report of stories, poems, and statements that flowed out of the Embassy's encounter with white officialdom; and of Fire, the Fire for Peace, burning for over a year and unceremoniously stamped out - an ironic performance by authorities given the closeness of the Olympics, with its fire torch for peace. The main poetic contribution to the volume comes from Tony Birch. In three works, 'Away', 'Assimilation Prayer' and 'Relaxed and Comfortable', Birch produces a brilliant, evocative, disturbing account of the effects of colonialism on the body, the lives and the souls of Indigenous people and this country: In 'Relaxed and Comfortable' Birch reveals how 'dumb', literally and metaphorically, an ongoing colonialist denial of history actually is. Birch's writing is complex, many-layered, beautifully and powerfully composed.
Birch's poetry is also a form of testimony, or witnessing, and in Debbie Rodan's contribution 'Testimony, Narrative and a Lived Life', the testimonies and insights of Indigenous women are the central concern. Here testimonies are viewed as texts to both oppression and resistance; life stories that provide new ways of seeing, from those who have been treated as invisible. Rodan is also careful to articulate the limits of her own knowledge, as a writer operating in a cross-cultural milieu.
Balayi is also concerned with cultural appropriation. Henrietta Fourmile Marne's contribution 'Developing a Regime to Protect Indigenous Traditional Biodiversity' tracks the potential for an ongoing colonial piracy of Indigenous traditional knowledges. She argues the need for an effective intellectual property right regime to protect the variety of rights held by Indigenous groups. A similar concern is expressed in Mitchell Roll's expose, 'Black Spice for White Lives: A Review Essay', in relation to the appropriation, and mis-representation of culture, ideas and myths by white so called adventure writers, such as US author Harvey Arden. The failure of intellectual property law to protect Indigenous artists and their works is central to Paul Loftus' essay 'Colonisation through Art: How Western Intellectual Property Law is Failing Indigenous Art'.
There are other valuable contributions here: David Paul illuminates the role of western medicine as colonial practice; Hannah McGlade situates native title in the context, and discourse, of international human rights law; Brett Nicholls reads, and deconstructs Kant's sublime via the art of Gordon Bennett; Denise Cuthbert tells the story of a non-Aboriginal mother of an Aboriginal child, member of the stolen generations.
The diversity of Balayi’s readings on colonialism paradoxically reveal the breadth and depth of its cultural forms and manifestations; Balayi is not comfortable reading - it is clearly not designed to be, but it does attempt to tread territory that is only being mapped now; these new spaces which may be created by Indigenous and non-Indigenous writers, who seek a discourse that reveals who we are and where we've been.
Greg Gardiner is Research Fellow, Centre for Australian Indigenous Studies, Monash University.