Rethinking Emplacement, Displacement and Indigeneity: Radiance, Auntie Rita and Don't Take Your Love to Town.(aborigine Land Claims in Australian Aborigine Literature )

By Spark, Ceridwen | Journal of Australian Studies, September 2002 | Go to article overview

Rethinking Emplacement, Displacement and Indigeneity: Radiance, Auntie Rita and Don't Take Your Love to Town.(aborigine Land Claims in Australian Aborigine Literature )


Spark, Ceridwen, Journal of Australian Studies


In 1982 Edward Koiki Mabo and four other Islanders from Mer (Murray) Island in the Torres Strait filed a writ in the High Court of Australia. Claiming customary ownership of their lands, the small group of Islanders challenged a fundamental tenet of Australian law: the legal fiction of terra nullius. (1) Ten years later, six of the seven High Court judges in the decision considered it unnecessary to determine the validity of Eddie Mabo's particular claims to land. Deeming that Mer Island had a system that pre-dated white settlement and that this system was still applicable, the majority (6:1 with Justice Dawson dissenting) ruled that the principles applied in the Mer Island case could lead to native title being established under similar circumstances on the mainland.

Whether one interprets the Mabo decision as providing the possibility of a new national narrative, (2) as `puny reward ... for those who are grateful for small blessings' (3) or as something else entirely, it is difficult to ignore its significance as a legal, cultural and social moment. The case shows that the imported legal system was capable of delivering a form of justice to Indigenous Australians. Unfortunately, while the decision `implied that all lands, including urban lands, were once legitimately native lands and potentially open to claim', (4) the aspect of the case that enabled this recognition became, even as it challenged the power of British-Australian law, the very means by which the threat to European systems of land ownership and control could be limited.

Because Mabo established the centrality of traditional laws and customs, subsequent attempts to clarify the definition of native title and the means by which it exists are bound to emphasise tradition. Consequently, despite outcry about Mabo's alleged `potential to destroy our society', (5) the possibilities for Aboriginal land reclamation are highly constrained. Paradoxically both enabling and disabling, Mabo recognises native title even as it limits the usefulness of this concept for Aboriginal people who now find themselves doubly displaced: first, by more than 200 years of dispossession; and second, by the requirements embedded in native title law. While it symbolises a departure from the past of terra nullius, Mabo--and the native title law that derives from it--also represents a denial of the significance of `non or posttraditional' forms of Aboriginal emplacement. (6)

Aboriginal people's awareness of the significance of place tends to be at odds with the tenets of native title law and the dominant culture's conceptualisations of Aboriginal emplacement. In everyday life, as well as in novels, poems, visual art and life-writing, Aboriginal people evoke accounts of belonging and emplacement that differ from those which can be articulated in a court of law. (7) For example, in Auntie Rita, Jackie Huggins writes:

  Returning to my mother's born country as she refers to it complemented 
  my own sense of identity and belonging and my pride in this. It was 
  important that together we make this trip as she had been insisting 
  for quite some time, pining for her homelands ... I began to gain an 
  insight into and understanding of her obvious attachment and 
  relationship to her country and how our people had cared for this 
  place ... The land of my mother and my maternal grandmother is my 
  land. It will be passed down to my children and successive 
  generations, spiritually, in the manner that has been carried on for 
  thousands of years. (8) 

The passage makes clear that the strength of Rita and Jackie's connections to Kooramindanjie (Carnarvon Gorge in Queensland) are not reliant upon continuous inhabitation, contrary to the frequently disabling requirements embedded in native title law. Moreover, Huggins' text provides evidence that Aboriginal people are negotiating the effects of colonialism and the fluidity of `the past' and `the present' to construct Indigenous meanings of place which differ markedly from those which can be articulated in the legal context. …

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Rethinking Emplacement, Displacement and Indigeneity: Radiance, Auntie Rita and Don't Take Your Love to Town.(aborigine Land Claims in Australian Aborigine Literature )
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