Academic journal article Oceania

The 'Society' at Bora Ceremonies: A Manifestation of a Body of Traditional Law and Custom in Aboriginal Australia Relevant to Native Title Case Law

Academic journal article Oceania

The 'Society' at Bora Ceremonies: A Manifestation of a Body of Traditional Law and Custom in Aboriginal Australia Relevant to Native Title Case Law

Article excerpt

It is the local organization which controls the initiation ceremonies. Howitt (1884:458)

It is widely reported that each group at a gathering camped on the side nearest the area they had come from so that the plan of the whole camp was a microcosm of the regional distribution of bands. Peterson and Long (1986:33)

INTRODUCTION

Although bora ceremonies are no longer performed in Queensland, the regional jural and socio-political activities of contemporary Aboriginal groups in southern Queensland and northern New South Wales have some affinities to bora gatherings, such as community meetings, funerals, regional sporting events or cultural festivals. Both traditional and contemporary activities were and are determined by the underlying structures of kinship and social networks that connect people over a wide region (see Macdonald 2011 a, 2011 b:309,324).

In the 19th century bora initiation ceremonies in southern Queensland and northern New South Wales drew together people of all ages from different localities and diverse linguistic and cultural backgrounds, and were essential to the renewing of Aboriginal polities. Roth (1910:81-82 cited in Sutton 1978:118) observed, for example, that certain groups, he called them 'messmates', maintained a regional social network and Elkin wrote:

We must remember, too, that though an initiation was occasionally held by members of only one tribe, Initiation as an institution was fundamentally intertribal. Normally, groups from neighboring tribes were present and took part in the social and ceremonial activities, which marked the occasion. The presence of the visitors as witnesses and participants validated the initiation. Indeed, novices usually spent some months before the momentous event with "relations" in distant groups of their tribe or else in other tribes. Initiation, therefore, was not just into full membership of a particular tribe, but also into an unlimited, intertribal institution which was concerned with the Aborigines 'most cherished and most guarded, spiritual possessions. (Elkin 1975:142)

Gatherings at initiation ceremonies generally reflected the wider reaches of people's social and political relationships and alliances in a regional system that was constituted of clusters of groups with linguistic, ritual and social differences. In the legal context of native title cases anthropologists are commonly asked to identify the Aboriginal 'society' that holds, and has held continually, the body of normative as well as traditional laws and customs that confer ownership rights on certain groups of people. (1) It is often not clear to legal representatives of states and the Court, as well as Native Title Representative Bodies, whether the people who claim ownership over a particular area are a 'society', or whether they are part of a 'society' that confers rights and interests in land and waters, i.e. the difference between a landholding group and the 'society' is unclear to them. This remains the case despite the decisions to accept the notion of a 'regional society' in the De Rose Hill case and the recent regional sea claim over Torres Strait. (2) These issues have arisen out of the Yorta Yorta case in which it was decided that a society is to be understood as a group of persons bound together by the acknowledgment and observance of a body of laws and customs, and that the latter 'arise out of and, in important respects, go to define a particular society' (3) (see Burke 2010; Palmer 2009). The Federal Court (4) has also stated:

   The relevant ordinary meaning of society is "a body of people
   forming a community or living under the same government"--Shorter
   Oxford English Dictionary. It does not require arcane construction.
   It is not a word, which appears in the NT Act. It is a conceptual
   tool for use in its application. It does not introduce, into the
   judgments required by the NT Act, technical, jurisprudential or
   social scientific criteria for the classification of groups or
   aggregations of people as "societies". … 
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