Sunday, September 25, 2016

An open letter to Andrew Bolt

You are not Indigenous!

Dear Andrew,

In the ABC TV show featuring yourself and Linda Burney, you claimed to be an indigenous Australian by virtue of your having been born in Australia.

Like you, I am a white Australian born here, as were my ancestors on both the matrilineal and patrilineal sides of my family. My great-great grandfather arrived in South Australia in 1839, three years after the founding of the colony.  He was a direct participant in the unsettlement of the Kaurna people of the Adelaide Plains and Fleurieu Peninsula.

However, I can see no justification for calling myself indigenous to Australia.

Most dictionary definitions of “indigenous” agree on two things: firstly, that indigenous means to have originated in a particular place; secondly, that indigenous means to have certain characteristics that have developed over time in that place.

My language and its associated cultural reference points are largely English in origin. I can certainly slip some Australian slang or neologisms into my English, but its cultural origins are in England. I love my country’s landscape, its diverse flora and fauna, but that simply means I am a proud citizen of Australia, not an Indigenous Australian.

Can you please do something for me?  Find a warehouse wall or any type of building with a long brick wall.  Find a suitable starting point and count out at least 40 and probably 60 bricks in a straight line.  Each brick represents a thousand years. Now divide the last brick into ten equal portions.  If you mark somewhat less than the final two tenths of that brick, you will have approximately the length of time that my direct ancestors have been in Australia.  My grandchildren might eventually push that timeline into the last three tenths of that brick, but surely any reasonable person will deduce that any claim I might make to have developed a language, culture and economy originating in Australia in the short space of time that my family has been here is simply fallacious.

For your part, having been born here, you will need to mark out somewhat less than the final tenth of that final brick to represent the time you have been here.  Now look from that final tenth of the final brick back over that line of 40-60 bricks.  They represent the time that Aboriginal occupation of Australia has occurred.  They represent the time in which the skyscapes, landscapes, languages, laws and cultures characteristic of Australian First Nations people have developed.

The entire continent of Australia, together with Tasmania and the Torres Strait islands, had Indigenous people here prior to European unsettlement. You cannot look at that line of 40-60 bricks and say to an Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander, with smug equanimity, that your position at the end of the last brick in the line entitles you to call yourself an Indigenous Australian.

There are of course some qualifications that need to be made,  An Anangu from the Pitjantjatjara and Yankunytjatjara language groups in Central Australia is certainly an Indigenous Australian, but he or she is not indigenous to the Yorke Peninsula of South Australia any more than a Narungga person from that region is indigenous to the APY Lands. Both groups are Indigenous to our continent, and on an equal footing as Indigenous Australians, but their languages, cultures and economies are characteristic of different parts of the continent.

Another example: there is a hardy little daisy that comes to life every now and then after soaking rains near Oodnadatta.  It is called Senecio gypsicola, and as its name suggests, has developed its defining characteristics at its place of origin, the gypseous plains around the Painted Desert.  It is an Australian indigenous plant, but it is not indigenous to the Adelaide Hills or Cape York Peninsula.

Neither you nor I have developed our defining characteristics with Australia as their place of origin.  We are Aussies, but we are not Indigenous.  It is sheer sophistry to argue that having been born in one place negates the historical roots of our languages, economies and cultures in another and entitles us to equal footing with Indigenous Australians in terms of a supposed indigeneity.