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Guest post: Current Indigenous Debates, CDEP and the culture of Cultura Nullius

3 September, 2008

I am happy to present this guest post by ANU PhD Student Bree Blakeman and environmental economist, Dr Nanni Concu.  This article deals with a number of themes that we have focused on at CM: the concept of culture and how it is applied in real life contexts, engaged anthropological commentary on current events, and the specific issue of the government Intervention into Aboriginal communities in the Northern Territory.  The article provides some considered observations grounded in ethnographic research which, I think, serve to challenge the usual terms of the debate about the Intervention.  Hopefully this will provoke new discussion on what remains an important, and unresolved, issue.


There is a sense of the uncanny following contemporary Indigenous policy debates while living in a remote Indigenous Homeland. For the last twelve months we’ve done just this, discussing the varying issues with our adoptive family. At first instance we thought this feeling of discomfort arose from the glaring power differential: listening to people thousands of kilometres away make decisions about the lives of our family in a language largely unintelligible to them, in a forum out of their reach. However, in the course of our life on the Homeland, it struck us that it is something more pervasive and, arguably, a lot more sinister. It is as if the life of our family – their everyday lives, responsibilities, values and goals – are being effaced. Through a pervasive rhetorical device – an implied cultura nullius – these debates effectively negate the life of those they then claim they must act to save.

Debates about remote Indigenous communities, with very few exceptions, are crafted with a discourse of negation: people on the ‘margins’ of society, on the ‘margins’ of the economy with ‘little or no education’ who are nothing more than exiled economic citizens. The implication is clear as Helen Hughes said recently – Indigenous people can’t read, they can’t write, they don’t have skills, [and seasonal fruit picking] is about the only thing they can do! Their communities are rendered as socio-economic vacuums in our thriving settler State. When the debate is cast in these terms, one can understand the sense of urgency to educate Indigenous people, ‘skill’ them up and make them ‘job ready’ so we can break down, in Marcia Langton’s words, ‘the apartheid system of employment’. They are waiting for us to fill them out and colour them in with education and skills, to bring them into the real world and the real economy.

However, one feels entirely unconvinced living in a vibrant remote Yolngu* community – one of around a thousand on the 1.5 million sq km of Indigenous owned land – listening to these debates and the assumed negation, or cultura nullius. Considered time in these communities will reveal very little ‘missing’ or ‘lacking’ in the social fabric. If anything, it is the visiting Balanda, or white person, who feels on the margins, lacking in language, education and practical skills. There are often more than five languages spoken in any one Homeland, a great source of amusement as kin show off their skilled and often uproarious word play. Days are spent in the breast of kin and country, hunting and gathering food to compliment shop bought products, collecting bark and pandanus for painting and weaving (which later adorn the walls and shelves in local and international art centres), and plugging in a few hours of CDEP work – mowing lawns, fencing, gardening etc. – to ensure their fortnightly pay. The evenings are spent catching up with the latest gossip and sharing in music, dance and food.

Longer yearly cycles show a rhythm of movement between one’s primary Homeland, trips to town for reinforcements, and movement between other communities and centres ‘following ceremonies’, and maintaining socio-ceremonial networks that hold the wider Yolngu community together. Underlying these everyday activities is the ever present satisfaction in the knowledge they are fulfilling their most fundamental and rewarding responsibilities: looking after kin and country, and in doing so ‘following in the footsteps of the ancestors’ and ‘holding’ Yolngu law, two sayings that one hears all the time in the Homelands.

These communities are not socio-cultural vacuums and are not on the margins of anything. They are the centre of Yolngu lives and are filled with knowledge, skill and value that, though very different, are not exclusive to those of the encompassing settler State. From a Yolngu point of view these communities are ‘promised lands’ of unquestionable value as part of wider socio-ceremonial networks that make up the Yolngu cosmological and social world. Traditional owners or custodians of each community proudly refer to themselves as ‘lukumankamirri Yolngu’, which roughly translates as the people who have their feet ‘stamped’ in the white clay of the land.

It is true that many people on the Homelands speak little English and do not meet National education benchmarks, but these are not primary indicators of social skill, status or value in Yolngu communities. Yolngu, by in large, have a very different education and a very different skill set that is much more diversified than ours in many cases. These knowledge or skill sets are perfectly suited to the tasks most Yolngu dedicate their time and lives to, which make them successful, happy and valued members in their wide social networks.

The argument that is often used to dismiss the portrait above, as Langton recently countered, is that Yolngu are an ‘exception’ and a geographically confined exception at that, and should therefore be subordinated to the national debate about CDEP (where most Indigenous people are exiled economic citizens waiting for us to bring them in?). Well, it is true that Yolngu are somewhat unique. They had a very late contact history, and many were never moved off their land. They still speak their languages, hold and practice their ceremony and live on land they own. But should this alleged ‘exception’ be dismissed and these communities be mainstreamed? Should the knowledge, skill and value in these communities be subordinated and effaced by a singular market value? What does it mean to talk and act as if this culture and life doesn’t exist?

As the legal escamotage of terra nullius denied the existence of Indigenous land tenure, opening up land and resources to European settlers, so cultura nullius is being used to justify government and market policy efforts to overlay our own, often foreign values and visions, on those that are rhetorically effaced and trade-off one cultural body of knowledge, skills, practices and values for another. We are not filling up or colouring in exiled citizens with no education or skills who are waiting on the margins of society for us to ‘bring them in.’ The pretence of a socio-cultural vacuum is functional to avoid the moral nuisances that arise when we address cultural diversity with mainstreaming and resocialisation. Policy pundits can no longer act in bad faith upon a false premise of ‘cultura nullius’. We have to ask ourselves how morally sound such policies are.

The merit of CDEP in the full colour version of life on the Homelands in North East Arnhem Land is that it accommodates and even compliments Yolngu cultural responsibilities, priorities and values while delivering basic services to remote communities at low cost to the Government. CDEP gives Yolngu the opportunity to balance often conflicting systems of value and allows them to choose how far they wish to move between the two. It offers a flexible system that allows communities to fulfil basic responsibilities to both kin and government on their own country, and largely on their own terms. A more coercive policy will inevitably bring the two systems of value into direct competition.

Yolngu are acutely aware of this pressure, as my adoptive sister (who is an enthusiastic CDEP worker) stated when discussing the recent CDEP debate and the pressure for Yolngu to move into labour market centres “if they stop CDEP we will not leave. We will still stay here on our country. We were not born with money, we were born with culture. It is indeed this way. The money is not sacred for us. That is Balanda madayin [white people’s sacred endowment]. This is how I feel. Money is not our madayin. We will stay here.” As history has proven, Yolngu are more than resilient. They will not disregard values at the heart of their culture and identity and it will be a sad day when Government policy measures suggest they do, without even acknowledging the trade off they are asking these people to make.

Acknowledging the richness and diversity in Indigenous Australia will make policy debates a lot more complex, but to act otherwise is both morally and politically dishonest.

Bree Blakeman is a PhD student of anthropology at the Australian National University, and long term resident of Yolngu Homelands.

Dr. Nanni Concu is an environmental economist at Charles Darwin University and Dhimurru Aboriginal Corporation.

*The above discussion is confined to Yolngu country (stretching from Maningrida in the West to Blue Mud Bay in the South East) because this is the area with which the authors are most familiar.

5 Comments leave one →
  1. 4 September, 2008 10:46 pm

    I would say that the cultural nullius towards indigenous peoples has been going ever since colonization really began in earnest. This was the standard method used in Australia, and to some extent the US when the colonizers claimed that the land was “undeveloped” and thus free for the taking. It is sad to see that it still continues today. We need to empower not only the indigenous peoples more, but also make clear to those in power thousands of miles away that indigenous people’s have a culture, and it is a sophisticated, complex, just, and beautiful one that needs to be respected and listened to.

  2. Angela Dyer permalink
    5 September, 2008 6:34 am

    I had very wise teacher once say to a group of her students that American’s tended to be very arrogant in seeming to “know” what other so called “lacking” cultures need. She said that the best way to know what a peoples needs is to go in and ask the people what they need. They may neither want nor need what you are giving and may be perfectly content to go on as they have.

  3. 21 September, 2009 8:27 pm

    Thanks Bree and Nanni. My partner and I lived with a Yolngu homeland for some time recently. Once you take seriously kinship not just to people, but to place and everything in it also, it is truly bewildering to witness complete and often willing ignorance of this. This was our experience when the Intervention came in. In their minds there was nothing in remote Yolngu communities worth keeping. Everything could be swept aside and begun again.


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