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Indigenous Law Bulletin

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Kwaymullina, Ambelin --- "Seeing the Light: Aboriginal Law, Learning and Sustainable Living in Country" [2005] IndigLawB 27; (2005) 6(11) Indigenous Law Bulletin 12

Seeing the Light: Aboriginal Law, Learning and Sustainable Living in Country

by Ambelin Kwaymullina

We carry the light in us and shed it onto others by teaching.[1]

This world was not always as we know it now. Once, all was featureless, shapeless, potential; and into this potential, the Ancestors came. Land, water, sky, life was given shape; and life in all its shapes was given the way of living, the Law, that the world might go on as the Ancestors had made it. These are the beings, events, ‘everywhen’, that the invader calls the Dreaming.[2] In the language of my grandfather, it is Manguny.[3] The stories of Manguny are told as truth by Aboriginal storytellers, but are understood as myth, legend, folklore by invader audiences. But, as Aboriginal peoples have always known, these stories are true; and it is only when this Indigenous way of knowing is accepted as being as valid – and as real – as the ‘ways of the west’ that the nature of this continent, and the place of Aboriginal law in sustaining it, can begin to be understood.

Country and Learning

For Aboriginal peoples, country is much more than a place. Rock, tree, river, hill, animal, human – all were formed of the same substance by the Ancestors who continue to live in land, water, sky. Country is filled with relations speaking language and following Law, no matter whether the shape of that relation is human, rock, crow, wattle. Country is loved, needed, and cared for, and country loves, needs, and cares for her peoples in turn. Country is family, culture, identity. Country is self.

But this was not the country the invaders saw. They had left their Mother country far behind, and sought no new Mother here. They came to tame, conquer, subdue; not to be nurtured, taught, cared for. To them the continent was harsh, strange; empty of meaning except what they themselves brought to it; a place of which they were often afraid. These invaders – these strangers to country – could no longer feel their Mother’s heart as it beat beneath the green lands of their home. They tried to understand the world by breaking it apart. Without their Mother to guide them, they could not see how the parts fit together to make the whole, or that the whole was more than the parts. Their science told them that human reason could make small and known a vast and mysterious universe; their religion said that of all the life there was, only they had been made in their Creator’s image.

Having called the long years of turning away from their Mother ‘progress’, the strangers named ‘primitive’ all peoples closer to the earth than they were. Those who are not as we are, they said, are less than we are. Those who do not learn as we learn, learn in ways inferior to ours; those who do not use land as we do make a less meaningful use than our own. The strangers spoke this so often that eventually they did not need to speak it at all. It became an assumption, a claim to territory. This denigration is upon which nations were built; not only the right to dispossess but the justification of it. This nation was founded on a claim of right born of the notion that Aboriginal peoples were ‘too low in the scale of social organization to be acknowledged as possessing rights and interests in land’.[4] So when the strangers sought information, they came to learn not from the peoples, but of the peoples. To know of culture, they took story, song, knowledge. To know of body, they measured skulls and stole bones, leaving spirits shrieking from collectors’ shelves and behind museum glass.[5] To know of sacred places, they trespassed and violated. Their learning dispossessed – of song, story, dignity, humanity, voice – and the findings of those learnings were used to justify those dispossessions. Even now, and even in those who see value in Indigenous knowledge and Indigenous ways, the belief in a superiority that authorises and justifies dispossession continues.[6] It is heard in the voices that would lock sacred objects away for the benefit of the knowledge of the stranger instead of returning them to be part of a living culture, and those that would rather study stolen bones than give them back to the embrace of country, earth, Mother.[7] It is in the conviction that those among the strangers who study the peoples are more expert in Indigenous culture than the peoples themselves, and in the belief that the strangers can define what it is to be Indigenous. It is in the continued appropriation of Indigenous knowledge, Indigenous culture, and even Indigenous genes.[8] It is in all those who would urge the peoples to give up the intellectual and biological resources the colonial states have not yet managed to strip from them ‘for the good of humankind’. If Indigenous ways were valued as the ways of the stranger were, the stranger could have no right to take, nor justification for taking, that which belonged to the peoples. This taking would then be known for what it was – a theft; an assault; a violation of mind, heart, spirit; a breaking of the laws that nourish country. It would be understood that even if the cause of humanity could be advanced through learning gained by an act of inhumanity, no good comes to human life by breaking the laws that sustain all life.

With every action the strangers took to dispossess the peoples of country and mark this territory as their own, they broke the Law that the Ancestors gave − the Law of the land itself − and alienated themselves ever more completely from what they sought to acquire. Their ways of learning were, and are, shaped by this alienation. Unable to feel the pain of the shapes of life in country as pain to the self, the strangers must now experiment to know what their Mother would have taught:

In a magazine too expensive to buy I read about
How, with scientific devices of great complexity,
US scientists have discovered that if a rat
Is placed in a cage in which it has previously
Been given an electric shock, it starts crying.
I told my grandmother about that and she said,
“We probably knew that would be true.”[9]

There is little value to spirit, creation, life in a science that proves that all life feels by debasing life; in a philosophy that concludes nature has value but sets humanity apart from it; or in technology that could revive an extinct species but fails to motivate humanity to prevent the extinction. This country, this earth, will not be sustained by ways that have nothing of earth in them.

Country, Creation and Law

The Story of the Girl, the Rock Pool and the Stars

There was once a girl who wanted to travel among the stars, but she did not know how to reach them. She asked her uncle and he told her of the high hills – ‘Surely from there you can reach the stars.’ But though the girl climbed to the very top of the highest hill she could find, the stars were higher still, and she could not reach them. Next she asked her brother and he spoke to her of the place where the great river met the sky – ‘Surely from there you could reach the stars.’ But though the girl followed the river for many days and nights, the place where the water met the sky was always just a little way ahead, and still the stars were beyond her grasp. Finally she asked her grandmother, and her grandmother took the girl by the hand and walked with her to a great pool of water. Together they swam out to the rock that rose upwards from the centre of the pool, and together they waited until the sun set. But then, though the girl stood on the tips of her toes and stretched out her fingers, the stars were still too high. Thinking she had waited all day for nothing, the girl was angry – until her grandmother pointed to the water. For when she looked down, the girl saw the stars twinkling all around her. And when she knelt on the rock to lean over the pool, she saw her own face smiling back, and the stars shining in her eyes.

As the girl grew, she became renowned for her wisdom – and when she was herself grey-haired and a grandmother, people came from miles around to ask her advice. And whenever she met anybody who wanted to travel the stars, she would tell them the story of the rock pool, and say to them, ‘The universe isn’t out there. It is here. Whatever is above our heads, is beneath our feet. Whatever is in the sky, is in earth. And whatever is in earth, is in us.’

Imagine a pattern. This pattern is stable, but not fixed. Think of it in as many dimensions as you like – but it has more than three. This pattern has many threads of many colours, and every thread is connected to, and has a relationship with, all of the others. The individual threads are every shape of life. Some – like human, kangaroo, paperbark – are known to western science as ‘alive’; others, like rock, would be called ‘non-living’. But rock is there, just the same. Human is there, too, though it is neither the most nor the least important thread – it is one among many; equal with the others. The pattern made by the whole is in each thread, and all the threads together make the whole. Stand close to the pattern and you can focus on a single thread; stand a little further back and you can see how that thread connects to others; stand further back still and you can see it all – and it is only once you see it all that you can recognise the pattern of the whole in every individual thread. The whole is more than its parts, and the whole is in all its parts. This is the pattern that the Ancestors made. It is life, creation, spirit, and it exists in country.

For Aboriginal peoples, learning began when the world did. The Ancestors taught the peoples the ways of living in country, and these ways were called Law. It was Law that sustained the web of relationships established by the Ancestors, and the web of relationships established by the Ancestors formed the pattern that was life itself. This pattern − being life – is everywhere; it exists in a single grain of sand, and is formed again by millions of grains coming together to make desert; it is in spinifex and crow and rock and human and every other shape of life; and is created anew when these shapes come together to form country; and when all country comes together to form a continent. Life, and the knowledge of how to care for it, was created at the same time. This land never endured a Dark Age; when the light of learning grew dim, and existence was threatened. Until now.

The strangers saw country in the shapes made by spirit, and infused with spirit, and thought only shape existed. Believing that language, culture, knowledge lived only in human forms, they named Mother’s cries just the wind; her tears only the rain; and her stories myths, legends, superstitions. But the narratives of Manguny are the stories without which there could be no others; the ongoing creation of the world. They do not exist in people, we exist in them: ‘[t]hese stories are not written down, but they are written on the land, into nature’.[10] The consequences of the stranger’s failure to recognise this continues to frustrate Aboriginal peoples as their cries for country are seen as purely Aboriginal concerns:

Everybody refers it back to ‘Aboriginal’ all the time and say: ‘Oh, it’s important for the Aboriginal.’ You know, we’re sick to death of that business. This is important for all of us as a people in this area and people in Australia. Our sites are meaningful. There’s a lot of information around them and that come out of them, but people are too hell-bent on destroying them because they believe there’s not worth, there’s nothing in them, and they always put the issue back on Aboriginal people... These places affect all of us and we can learn from them and learn how to live together properly in this country.[11]

For generations, Aboriginal peoples followed the ways of caring for country; the Law. They sustained spirit, creation, life; and spirit, creation, life sustained the peoples. But now country – and so learning, and so all life – is under threat. Aboriginal peoples know it:

[I]t’s just like a big book to us. This whole land. Now, over the years, people been taking – like tearing pages out of our book so there’s bits and pieces getting lost... You know, if we take out the centre part of our country, you know we’ve taken out a whole guts of our book, we’re tearing it right out... [I]t would be hard for teaching to carry on after that point.[12]

Creation is neither finished, nor static. The Law must be followed and the pattern recreated if life is to go on. It is not just life in human shapes that has Law; all life has Law – and if all life is to survive, all life must be free to follow its Law. The destruction of a species creates not just an absence in the ecosystem, but a hole in the spirit where once another shape of life breathed, flew, danced, lived. When one shape changes their relationship to the others, the world is changed both without and within. Destroy enough of life outside ourselves, and life is destroyed inside us all.

Country is the beginning, the middle, and the end. It is from country that life is born; to country that life goes when it dies; and from country that it is born anew. That is why there is a view that nothing, not even a species, is ever really gone. Everything, even that which is called extinct, goes back to country; and since the pattern as a whole is what all life is formed of, every shape of life contains every other shape. But there will come a point when the pattern cannot be made anew. Only the Ancestors could make a world from nothing, and they are in country. Damage enough of country, unbalance the relationship of life to all other life enough, and the pattern that is creation will twist, warp, fall apart. Life began when country began; but if life continues when country ends, it will not be in any form that we would call living now.

Country, Family, Home

The Story of the Lost Girl

The girl had lost her way. She had wandered far from the Mothers, the Aunties and the Grandmothers, from the Fathers and the Uncles and the Grandfathers. She had hidden in the shadow of a rock, and fallen asleep while she waited for her brothers and sisters to find her. Now it was night, and no one answered when she called, and she could not find her way back to camp.

The girl wandered, alone. She grew thirsty, so she stopped by a waterhole to drink, and then hungry, so she picked some berries from a bush. Then the night grew colder, so she huddled beneath an overhanging rock, pressing herself into a hollow that had trapped the warm air of the day. Finally she saw a crow flying in the moonlight, flapping from tree to tree and calling ‘Kaw! Kaw! Kaw!’. The girl followed the crow. She followed him through the trees and over the rocks and up the hills, until at last she saw the glow of her people’s campfires in the distance.

The people laughed and cried at once to see that the girl was safe. They growled at her for her foolishness, and cuddled her, and gave her a place by the fire. Her little brother asked her if she had been afraid; but the girl said – ‘How could I be frightened? I was with my Mother. When I was thirsty, she gave me water; when I was hungry, she fed me; when I was cold, she warmed me. And when I was lost, she showed me the way home.’

This country is a living story. Whether Aboriginal or stranger, we all breathe, sleep, move, live in the world of Manguny; and in this country of differences, perhaps the greatest of all is between those who know it, and those who don’t. For in the end, all that seeks to uphold the pattern that is creation is the same good; just as all that seeks to destroy it is the same evil. In the learning borne of country is the light that nourishes the world; and if country, and the world, is to be helped now, it is this light that must show the way home.

Ambelin Kwaymullina is an Indigenous lawyer. She comes from the Bailgu and Njamal people of the Pilbara region of Western Australia.

[1] David Mowaljarlai and Jutta Malnic, Yorro Yorro: Everything Standing Up Alive, (2001) 5.

[2] A term coined by anthropologist William Stanner – see William Stanner, White Man Got No Dreaming (1979).

[3] The period known to the invaders as the Dreaming is called by different names in the multitude of Aboriginal languages spoken across Australia. The term Manguny comes from the Nyamal language.

[4] Mabo v Queensland (No 2) (1992) 1 CLR 175, [41] (Brennan J citing the International Court of Justice in its Advisory Opinion on Western Sahara (1975) ICJR 62, 65).

[5] See Tom Griffiths, Hunters and Collectors (1996).

[6] For an examination of research practices, past and present, and Indigenous peoples from an Indigenous perspective see Linda Tuhiwai Smith, Decolonizing Methodologies: Research and Indigenous Peoples (1999).

[7] For a discussion of reactions to the repatriation of Aboriginal remains in the late 1980s and early 1990s see Tom Griffiths, above n 5.

[8] Advances in science and technology have resulted in whole new forms of colonialism. For a discussion of genetic patenting and other invasions, see Linda Tuhiwai Smith, above n 6, and Vandana Shiva, Biopiracy: The Plunder of Nature and Knowledge (1997).

[9] Jimmie Durham, ‘Teachings of My Grandmother’, in Columbus Day: Poems, Drawings and Stories about American Life and Death in the Nineteen-Seventies (1983) 39.

[10] Mowaljarlai and Malnic, above n 1, 82.

[11] George Trevorrow in Diane Bell, Ngarrindjeri Wurruwarrin: A World that is, Was, and Will Be (1998) 294.

[12] Ibid 397.

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