Historian Heather Goodall on indigenous people, water in Australia

Heather Goodall, a historian at the University of Technology, Sydney, has a special interest in Australia's indigenous people--especially their relationship with their environment and how colonisation changed it. She speaks to Karan Manveer Singh

Published: Tuesday 15 May 2007

Down to EarthOn the differences in the way indigenous people in Australia view water vis--vis their white counterparts:
Indigenous people organised their accounts of the countryside around water and still do. People who were pastoral workers, for example in western New South Wales, will still describe the country in terms of watering holes and water courses--they talk about rivers you cross. But when I go there, I talk about the roadways and the railway line.

Water is a critical part of much of their big narratives. People stop at water courses, water is part of what people absorb or struggle over, so it carries many cultural meanings.

Aboriginal people knew a lot about the complexity of land and water. Under colonialism, they were increasingly pushed off land. For a long time the big properties still had large aboriginal populations working on them. But as they got cut up into little properties, people got forced off. Riverbanks remained public property, so aboriginal people could still camp on them. Riverbanks offered safety. They also offered interesting opportunities for interaction between black and white Australians in country towns. Here, aboriginal people's traditional knowledge intensifies and they also learn about the way the water is changing as the grazing economy and then the cotton economy begins to have their impact.

You've got this indigenous knowledge because of its links to tradition. But because the river represents the disempowerment of the aboriginal people, it has given them a very close reason to observe it. They depend on it for mussels and fish in a way white people don't.

Have they moved on from that--taking refuge at riverbanks?
Riverbanks continue to be strongly associated with aboriginal residents close to towns. So, where areas are coming under native title claim or land rights claim or where aboriginal housing is being built on continuously occupied sites, it is very often on the riverbank or close to a river.

Did aboriginal people live off the forest before European colonisation?
There was actually very little forest in Australia prior to the British invasion. There are areas on the coast which have heavy forest, but in the western forest you've got the result of centuries of aboriginal burning which has resulted in open grassland with occasional gum trees. Aboriginal people have a lot of land management practices. For instance, they made fish traps in the river. These were made of stone in the form of a fence in the water. The fish would swim into it and get trapped. It conserves live fish and aboriginal people come and get them. There is eel farming in south-eastern Victoria. They had channels which linked the coastal rivers with inland rivers across the low mountain ranges which allowed the breeding ground of eels to be extended.

The management of the environment by aboriginal people involved a lot of knowledge about replanting and growing. Once Europeans began to intensify, they pushed aboriginal people off those large pastoral properties and began to create agricultural properties. Aboriginal people began squatting on the land and began farming.

They didn't have any history of farming before that?
They don't have a history which looks like European farming, but the knowledge of harvesting the land necessarily involves the sort of knowledge used to grow crops like maize--low-capital, high-intensity--on alluvial flats they could secure. So you have an extensive history of aboriginal farming from the 1860s to the 1920s not recognised by the Europeans and not caused by government agencies. Then the white population builds up, they begin to eye this land and take it away. So you have a second dispossession in the 1920s.

Whites control all of cotton cultivation. Do aborigines have any role?
Interestingly enough, yes. Many who work on cotton farms are mechanically trained and more recently computer trained. The old time graziers were not well educated. They were very affluent so their sons didn't find the need to get high degrees. A lot, or at least some, of them are semi-skilled.

Earlier, a lot of unskilled aboriginal people did weeding. They don't do that anymore because there are herbicides. So there are no jobs on the fields , but there are in fact some jobs in the cotton gins.Some cotton farmers have built alliances with aboriginal people as well about local community development and local employment development--partly public relations since cotton farmers are getting such a bad press.

Australia is facing racial tensions on many fronts--including immigrants. Is the aboriginal cause getting lost?
Some people like to think there are separate problems--the indigenous people's problem which is spoken in terms of native culture, noble environmentalists, original owners and so on. Then there are the immigrants--Chinese, Indian, Vietnamese and Arabic--who are marginalised by the continuing Anglo control of power and economy. But this is actually a class issue. There are in fact very strong alliances between aboriginal workers and workers from immigrant communities, like the Greeks. A lot of aboriginal people have been very outspoken in defending the right of Arabic-speaking people to come to Australia.

The government uses "divide-and-rule" tactics, talking of religion as a dividing factor. But Arabic-speakers are diverse--Christians, Muslims, Mandeans. Many Muslims do build relationships with aboriginal people.

Did aboriginal people have an innocent relation with land because they couldn't make money out of it? Now that they can, is the relationship changing?
Aboriginal communities continue to be in poverty. The question, whether land is going to be managed in the most conservation appropriate manner or to offer economic return, is a real challenge. How to offer people a livelihood without disempowering them in terms of control of the land is also an issue. There is the issue of developing knowledge about land management which recognises aboriginal people's social, political and economic conditions--you can't expect people to be doing conservation management if their kids are starving. So there's got to be a way of thinking about that which is in addition to the resources that are required for everybody to do the research and learning about how you regenerate the land. It's not a cheap exercise. It's about recognising economic needs, livelihood needs, at the same time ensuring that indigenous managers have the capacity to do the restoration work they want.

Moreover, relationship to land isn't just about making money. Traditional aboriginal relations to land were "productivist", so this wasn't an observational scenic society, one expected to use things from the land. But the philosophy was about mutual responsibility. So, aboriginal people regard themselves as custodians as well as the beneficiaries. It's a deeply reciprocal relationship. And that's the sort of thing that is actually conserved even if aboriginal people are driving Toyotas, wearing shoes and using guns. Often what needs to be done is to ensure that they have access to the sort of expertise they need to develop a way of working with the land which fulfils their sense of custodianship as well looking at the alternatives for livelihood. For example, in New South Wales, they have been training young Aboriginal men as marine national park rangers. They've been getting intensive scientific training that links community knowledge and scientific training.

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