Masaryk University Faculty of Arts Department of English and American Studies

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2. Contemporary Aboriginal Drama

2.1. Aboriginality and Indigenous Self-Representation

Aboriginal people and their culture have not been self-represented for a long time. However, we might argue that only by being in Australia, by living there, walking on the land, speaking their languages, producing their culture in the form of art, music, and dances, they have represented themselves. What this chapter wants to outline is that the Aboriginal people were not self-represented according to the European point of view. The term ‘European point of view’, refers to the prevailing cultural thinking of the white population of European descent, or generally the descent of the Western culture. As Attwood claims in the “Introduction” to Power, Knowledge and Aborigines, the whole concept of being Aboriginal was defined by opposition to being white, and as such, the whites were to determine who is and who is not Aboriginal, therefore defining the whole concept of Aboriginality too (Attwood i). He draws a comparison to Edward Said’s theory of Orientalism9, and discusses the term Aboriginalism as a discourse, i.e. a way of speaking and thinking about the Aboriginal people. He suggests three interdependent forms in which Aboriginalism exists. First the Aboriginal studies, i.e. the teaching by “European scholars who claim that the Indigenous people cannot represent themselves and must therefore be represented by experts who know more about the Aborigines than they know about themselves” (i). Second, Aboriginalism is “a style of thought which is based upon an epistemological and ontological distinction between ‘Them’ and ‘Us’ – [under which] Europeans imagine ‘the Aborigines’ as their ‘Other’, as being radically different from themselves” (i). And finally as a “corporate institution for exercising authority over Aborigines by making statements about them, authorizing views of them, and ruling over them” (i). As stated above, the discourse of Aboriginalism defines the Aboriginality itself, i.e. what it is to be Aboriginal. It is important to try to understand the whole concept of Aboriginality, because it is essential in defining the identity of those who call themselves–or are called by others–Aboriginal and as such has a crucial importance for understanding the need for Aboriginal self-representation.

2.1.1. Historical Context of Defining Aboriginality

If the legal point of view on Aboriginality is to be discussed, there have been many different ways of classifying people as Aboriginal. John Gardiner-Garden claims that “in the first decades of settlement Aboriginal people were grouped by reference to their place of habitation, [whereas] in subsequent years, as settlement resulted in more dispossession and intermixing, a raft of other definitions came into use” (3). John McCorquodale, a legal historian, analysed over 700 pieces of legislation, and found no less than 67 different definitions of Aboriginal people (9). One of the many definitions, which appeared to prevail

involved reference to ‘Blood-quotum’. ‘Blood-quotum’ classifications entered the legislation of New South Wales in 1839, South Australia in 1844, Victoria in 1864, Queensland in 1865, Western Australia in 1874 and Tasmania in 1912. Thereafter till the late 1950s States regularly legislated all forms of inclusion and exclusion (to and from benefits, rights, places etc.) by reference to degrees of Aboriginal blood. (Gardiner-Garden 3)

This legislation did not produce consistent results, because it was mainly based on the observation of the skin colour of the individual10. Federal Government used this “blood-quotum” criteria for example for deciding “if an individual was Aboriginal for the purposes of being counted under section 127” (Gardiner-Garden 3) of the Commonwealth Constitution11 .

After the 1967 referendum, the policies of the Government turned into a progressive era and the “blood-quotum” definition was soon abandoned. Besides, this definition was never fully accepted by the Aboriginal people themselves. Later throughout the 1970s, the definition suggesting that an Aboriginal is someone who belongs to the Aboriginal race of Australia was used in legislation (Gardiner-Garden 4). However, this definition could be challenged as well, as it refers to the Aboriginal race, which, according to anthropologists, does not exist. Referring to Gardiner-Garden, modern anthropologists use different criteria on division of mankind than races. These are region, culture, religion or kinship (4). The definition of Aboriginality that is used today emerged in the 1980s. This is the so called three-part definition which takes descent, self-identification and community recognition as the defining criteria. This definition was found, for example, in the NSW Aboriginal Land Rights Act 1983, where “‘Aboriginal person’ means a person who: (a) is a member of the Aboriginal race of Australia, and (b) identifies as an Aboriginal person, and (c) is accepted by the Aboriginal community as an Aboriginal person” (New South Wales Consolidated Acts). This three-part definition was also “accepted by the High Court as giving meaning to the expression ‘Aboriginal race’ within [section] 51 (xxvi) of the Constitution”12 (Gardiner-Garden 4). This three-part legislative definition of Aboriginality seems to be very complex, however, if it came to test, which of the three criteria was the most important? Gardiner-Garden suggests several cases where people who identified themselves as Aboriginal did not have any proof of their Aboriginal descent (6) and all the three criteria had to be fulfilled in order that one could be recognised as one. A notion on Aboriginality that is now commonly shared resulted from a court case that dealt with the validity of an election held under the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission Act 1989 (Gardiner-Garden 7). According to the judgement, Aboriginal descent did not need any proof under any strict legal standard (Australian Indigenous Law Reporter). The justice also formulated that “the development of identity as an Aboriginal person cannot be attributed to any one determinative factor. It is the interplay of social responses and interactions, on different levels and from different sources, both positive and negative, which create self-perception and identity” (Australian Indigenous Law Reporter). The words of Justice Merkel who gave the judgement are in concordance with what most Aboriginal people think, that it is not any legal document that determines what it is to be Aboriginal, however, being Aboriginal is mainly a social construct, it is the positive state of mind, the spirit, the soul, being proud of who you are and knowing where you are going and what you are doing (Shoemaker 231-2).

2.1.2. Aboriginality and Black Australian Drama

As mentioned above, there is no single definition of Aboriginality that could work in all areas of any possible need for this classification. As Adam Shoemaker suggests,

Aboriginality is the legacy of traditional Black Australian culture. It implies movement towards the future while safeguarding the pride and dignity of the past. But Aboriginality is also counter-cultural in European terms: a reaction against the dictates of White Australian society. (Shoemaker 232)

Shoemaker, as opposed to the legislative definitions of Aboriginality, views Aboriginality as the spiritual heritage that Aboriginal people possess, the pride of being the original inhabitants of the Australian continent and also the attempts of distinguishing themselves from the white Australians (Shoemaker 232). He also mentions the words of Charles Perkins13 who described the feeling of the Indigenous Australians for one another in the last decades when he claimed that the Aboriginal society “[began] to realise right throughout Australia that there’s a thing that’s binding them together: that’s the psychology of being an Aboriginal, that’s culture, that’s blood-line, everything” (qtd. in Shoemaker 232). Shoemaker also suggests that the oppression, still remaining in some parts of Australian society, helped promote the notion of Aboriginality and the emergence of spokespeople (politicians, artists, writers, etc.) for the “Black Australian movement” (Shoemaker 233). Of these, Aboriginal drama is one of the typical genres that speak for the Aboriginal public, because it is not only an expression of Aboriginality as defined by Shoemaker, but Aboriginal playwrights were (and are) effective political activists, expressing the reaction against the dictates of white Australian society.

The 1967 referendum marked the end of the era of the policies of assimilation and “protection”, as it “gave Aboriginals voting rights and “limited self-management”, and also marked the resurgence of Aboriginal culture” of which theatre became an important voice to express the Indigenous self-representation (Carroll 100). The assumed inability of the Aboriginal people to self-represent culturally has been mentioned in the beginning of Chapter 2. This was the prevailing attitude throughout the period when the white population dominated not only economically but culturally too. This dominance of the mainstream culture has not vanished and is present today as was before the referendum, however, there are many Indigenous artists and text producers whose creative contributions show the ability of Aboriginal people to represent themselves from their own point of view. Among them, the Aboriginal playwrights demonstrate the capability of re-telling their own histories and thus opposing the traditional myth of Aboriginalism.

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