Caution: Objects in mirror are closer than they appear.
message printed on a car side-door mirror
Oh, Kitty! how nice it would be if we could only get through into Looking-glass House!
Through the Looking Glass and What Alice Found There.
Each time I go to the museum and look into the neatly arrayed glass cases, peering intently in my efforts to capture that extra detail or ethnographic minutiae the printed caption draws my attention to, I not only see the specimen, object or artefact entombed within but, strangely enough, I also see myself, caught in the reflection of the glass. As this experience suggests, museums can be considered as 'looking glasses'. What they primarily produce and reflect back to the viewing public (in a largely non-reflexive manner) are the colonial and post-colonial images the West constructs of itself and some imagined other(s). In this respect, museums act as 'mirrors of production' (Baudrillard 1975). True to their reflective characteristic, the images produced in this context also have the capacity to refract (and, thus, distort) the relations, mode and means of their own production. To see beyond this self-reflective gaze we have to, like Alice, go through the looking glass.
In recent times, a number of writers (many of them anthropologists) have cast light upon some of the often concealed and 'cooled' (Pannell 1994) processes involved in this production of the museological imaginary. In so doing, they not only illuminate, so to speak, the other side of the museum looking glass but they also challenge the comfortable and convenient artifices which have, for so long, masked the relationship between indigenes and Europeans. Nicholas Thomas (1991) is one of those who cracks the mirror when he argues that the act of appropriation is not the sole prerogative of Europeans and that, contrary to popular beliefs, Indigenous people were not the hapless victims of first contact, seduced by the fatal attraction of European goods. Rather, as Thomas states, 'the early phases of their [Pacific islanders] entanglement [with Europeans] were grounded in local cultural and political agendas, rather than naivete' (ibid.:88). Entanglement, thus, involves not only a consideration of the nature of the European appropriation of Indigenous things but also, as Thomas so eloquently argues, an awareness of the 'indigenous appropriation of European things'.
While Thomas' work is avowedly an attempt to break up, what he terms, 'us/them oppositions', by presenting alternative interpretations of first contact and other European/Indigenous encounters, in the end we are still left with a yin yang anthropological version of appropriation. In this paper I want to extend upon Thomas' binary categories of appropriation and include a third classification -- 'the Indigenous [re]appropriation of Indigenous things'. The things I have in mind here are the 'secret/sacred objects' (cf. Maddock 1991), housed in Australian and overseas museums, which Europeans generically refer to (using an Aranda term) as tjurunga but which are known to Indigenous peoples in Australia by a number of localised names.(1) The act of appropriation I have in mind is more commonly referred to as 'repatriation', 'restitution' or 'return' [of objects/cultural property]. Arguably, the use of these terms functions to present Europeans, such as anthropologists, curators and archaeologists, and European institutions, for example, museums, libraries and universities, as the active agents in this process; they are the ones who send the objects 'back to their country of origin' (as the Oxford English Dictionary defines 'repatriation'), while Indigenous people are semantically positioned as the fortunate recipients of this benevolence. Until recently, this semantic structuring of European/Indigenous relations was also legally authorised. There was no specific legislative recognition of Indigenous ownership rights in cultural property and thus no legal requirement for Australian museums to 'repatriate' material from their collections (Anderson 1990). A recent ATSIC publication on policy development and cultural property (ATSIC 1993:14) summarises the legal status of objects and Indigenous ownership when it states that 'cultural material held in collecting institutions is generally owned by the State'. It would seem Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are increasingly aware and resentful of this situation (Fourmile 1992). While the practices of a number of Australian museums and the recent launch of the policy 'Previous Possessions, New Obligations' point to a new-found epistemological reflexivity and a somewhat ironic recognition of Indigenous 'special or "primary" rights' (ATSIC 1993:13) in their own cultural heritage, it is fair to say that without common law or legislative protection Indigenous things can only ever be 'repatriated', 'returned' or 'restituted' (Paul 1994:12).
However, the High Court ruling on the Mabo case (Mabo v. Qld. 1992, 66 A.L.J.R. 408), issued on 3 June 1992, renders all of what I have said so far in respect of ownership, objects and repatriation as history. The proclamation by the High Court judges of the death of the legal fiction of terra nullius and the corresponding common law recognition of native title has implications which extend beyond so-called 'land-management' issues. For example, a number of writers, including the author, have pointed to the legal extension of native title to marine areas and the associated recognition of Indigenous sea rights (see NTU 1993). Others have linked the High Court decision to the process of reconciliation (Brennan 1993; Dodson 1993), the call for self-government (Pearson 1993), social justice (Keating 1993), the joint management of Wet Tropics World Heritage areas (Sutherland 1993), and the formulation of effective heritage legislation (Commonwealth of Australia 1993a). On this latter point, Stephen Gray suggests that the Mabo decision in itself provides the 'possibility of legal protection of [other forms of] traditional Aboriginal interests' (1993:10), including cultural property such as art.(2) In this connection, Gray argues that Aboriginal art constitutes a 'nature or incident' of native title and, as such, is subject to the 'same restrictions as [Aboriginal] land regarding inalienability' (1993:12), as determined by the High Court Mabo decision. In light of these comments, it is apparent that the Mabo decision, and the subsequent Native Title Act 1993 (C of A 1993b), potentially provides both a legal framework and an empowering social force for the Indigenous re-appropriation of Indigenous things. If this is the case, in the post-Mabo context the idea of repatriation becomes a thing of the past; re-appropriation, 'to make [something] one's own', again (O.E.D 1991: 73) is a more relevant term to signify the changing relationship between Indigenous people and museums. Unlike the word 'appropriation', the term 're-appropriation' carries with it the memories of previous transactions and prior relationships.
Following the logic of Gray's argument but also extending upon it, I will argue in this paper that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander 'rights and interests', as recognised and defined in the Native Title Act 1993, also constitute rights and interests in a number of other cultural forms and that these rights and interests cannot be alienated from those rights and interests recognised by the common law of Australia in relation to land or waters.(3) These other cultural forms, which include tjurunga, songs, and ceremonies, are not just merely symbols, signs or icons of land or social groups, as they are so often depicted in the anthropological literature. One of the problems with this view is that tjurunga and other so-called symbols are not considered in their own right but are viewed as simulacra, symbolic of some deeper, hidden and, consequently, more authentic meaning (see also Wagner 1986). Yet, the very same literature also provides ample support for an alternative view, one which argues that tjurunga, land, waters, songs, ceremonies, etc., are phenomenological manifestations and transformations (see Munn 1984) of what constitutes an empirically- grounded Indigenous logic or cosmology.
The evidence and arguments presented here, thus, not only serve to pave the way for a more considered discussion of the question what is native title but they also serve to reconsider the anthropological status of certain objects, namely tjurunga.(4)
THE SIGNIFICANCE OF TJURUNGA
As I have discussed elsewhere (see Pannell 1994), tjurunga hold a certain fascination for both anthropologists and the general public. Consequently, and notwithstanding the often cited 'secret/sacred' nature of tjurunga, there is a large and published body of literature on these objects. While this is by no means intended as an exhaustive treatment of the material on this subject, it is fair to say that anthropologists, and others, have been both inspired and eclectic in their writings. Among other things, they have commented upon the religious significance of tjurunga (Spencer & Gillen 1899, 1904, 1922, 1927; Elkin 1943; Berndt 1974); the ownership of these objects (Strehlow 1947); the nature and meanings of the designs incised on these objects (Durkheim 1915; Gould 1969; Mountford 1962; McCarthy 1966; Munn 1973; Strehlow 1964); the social and cultural symbolism of these objects (Levi-Strauss 1966; Munn 1984; Roheim 1974, 1988; Morton 1988); the use of these objects in marking gender relations and asymmetries (Kaberry 1939; Berndt, C. 1965; Morton 1987); the distribution of these objects (Tindale 1974); the function of these objects in establishing and maintaining relationships with other groups in other regions (Spencer & Gillen 1899; Strehlow 1947; Mountford 1949, 1976; Tonkinson 1991); the role of these objects in life-cycle rites of passage (Spencer & Gillen 1927; Strehlow 1947 & 1971; Meggitt 1962; Berndt 1982; Tonkinson 1991); the employment of these objects to resolve disputes and create rights and obligations between individuals and groups (Tonkinson 1991); the status of these objects as 'social currency' in inter-cultural, particularly Indigenous/European, situations (Anderson 1990a); the museumfication of these items (Anderson 1991; Pannell 1994); and the repatriation of these objects to Indigenous individuals and communities (Anderson 1990b.).
In light of the extensive literature on 'sacred objects' based upon, I should add, Australia-wide research, I shall confine the discussion largely to published material relating to the regions of Central Australia and to what anthropologists commonly define as the 'Western Desert Cultural Bloc'. For the purposes of the argument presented here, I shall also limit the discussion to a consideration of the significance of tjurunga in terms of; (1) the connections between tjurunga and Beings; (2) the connections between tjurunga, Beings and land, and (3) the connections between tjurunga, Beings, land and people.
CONNECTIONS BETWEEN TJURUNGA AND BEINGS
The Beings I refer to in this section are variously and, in the case of some authors, inconsistently described in the literature as 'mythical beings' (Berndt 1974), 'ancestral beings' (Morton 1988), 'heroes' (Elkin 1943), 'totemic ancestors' (Spencer & Gillen 1904; Elkin 1943; Strehlow 1971), 'totemic beings' (Meggitt 1987), 'world-creative powers' (Maddock 1984), 'ancestors' (Strehlow 1947; Munn 1973; Munn 1984; Roheim 1974), 'super-human heroes' (Meggitt 1987), 'supernatural personages' (Strehlow 1964), 'dreamings' (Meggitt 1962), 'Dreaming beings' (Tonkinson 1991), and 'great ancestral creative beings of the Dreamtime' (Tonkinson 1984), just to name a few of their many appellations. Other authors have chosen to use Indigenous terms to refer to the same entities and thus we encounter 'tjukurrpa' (Myers 1986), 'djugurba' (Munn 1984), 'alcheringa' (Spencer & Gillen 1899), 'alkngarintja' (Strehlow 1971), 'jilganggaja/nguranggaja' (Tonkinson 1991), 'ngarungani' (Kaberry 1939), and 'djugur' (Berndt 1974). Notwithstanding the variation in nomenclature,(5) there is a certain consensus as to the connection between these Beings and tjurunga-type objects.
Perhaps T.G.H. Strehlow most succinctly captures the relationship between Beings and tjurunga when he states that '[they] are claimed by tradition [Aranda tradition] to be the changed immortal bodies of ancestors and their sons' (1947:17). To illustrate this 'tradition', Strehlow presents the example of the Native …