Academic journal article Arena Journal

The Janus Faces of Indigenous Politics

Academic journal article Arena Journal

The Janus Faces of Indigenous Politics

Article excerpt

At the 2013 conference of the Australian Historical Association, Tim Rowse brandished a recent copy of Arena Journal in its book form as Stolen Lands, Broken Cultures: The Settler-colonial Present,1 and railed against what he characterized as a 'festschrift' to Patrick Wolfe's self-fulfilling project of the homogenization of Indigenous histories and experiences. He accused Arena of projecting the overarching singular narrative provided by Wolfe's 'elimination paradigm'. The session was tense. Rowse was himself subsequently excoriated by Marcia Langton, a member of the same panel, for using the terms 'half-caste' and 'quadroon' without raising his bunny ears each time these terms were used. Rowse later elaborated his critique of settler colonial studies by quoting Wolfe directly:

to narrate the history of a settler colony is to chart '[t]he continuities, discontinuities, adjustments, and departures whereby a logic that initially informed frontier killing transmutes into different modalities, discourses and institutional formations as it undergirds the historical development and complexification of settler society'.2

According to Rowse, this 'eliminationist paradigm' is 'homogenising, psychologising and dehistoricising'.3 Its search for the 'teleological sameness of all narratives of colonisation' has the effect of not only dampening 'historical curiosity about distinctions of period, place and agent, [but] also renders uninteresting an arresting feature of the recent empowerment of Indigenous Australians: the diversity of their remembered pasts and projected futures'.4

Interestingly, each of the scholars just mentioned have at various times contributed to Arena publications.5 It seems somewhat incongruous, then, to accuse a volume of Arena Journal of perpetuating a homogenizing paradigm when evident in that volume, and the Arena archive in general, are diverse analyses of settler-colonial histories and experiences. The Arena archive reflects precisely the opposite of Rowse's assertion, but it also suggests a paradoxical tension. As Patrick Wolfe has it, 'invasion is a structure not an event', and it is therefore both continuing and continually resisted.6 Ironically, the historiography of the Arena archive relating to Australian settler colonialism demonstrates resoundingly an emphasis on continuing Indigenous agency and heterogeneity - the very emphasis Rowse was, and remains, concerned to maintain.

The present essay explores the uneasy reconciliation evident in the Arena archive of Rowse's emphasis on Indigenous agency, heterogeneity and futurity with Wolfe's call to trace the 'continuities, discontinuities, adjustments, and departures' of the settler-colonial project.7 Here reconciliation does not mean the dissolving of difference, but rather dialogue across the boundaries of continuing lines of difference. The dialectics between continuity and discontinuity, and between structural dominance and Indigenous agency, are apparent in the history of Arena's engagement with Indigenous issues. The purpose of this essay, then, is not only to reconcile the work of a set of scholars whose work I hold in high esteem, but more so to show that attentiveness to the structures of settler colonialism and their governing 'logic of elimination'8 is in fact crucial to an appreciation of Indigenous diversity, agency and continuity.

An 'Arena Position' on Indigenous Affairs?

The diversity and significance of the contributors to Arena's periodicals on matters relating to Indigenous affairs over the past five decades is striking. The index of Arena articles reads as a roll call of significant scholars on matters relating to Indigenous Australia: Ann Curthoys on revisionist Aboriginal historiography; Nonie Sharp on the social implications of colonialism and neocolonialism in Australia and elsewhere; Michael Mansell on the politics of Aboriginal Tasmanian identity and land rights; Kevin Gilbert, Judith Wright, Gary Foley and Marcia Langton on Aboriginal sovereignty and campaigns for a treaty; Melinda Hinkson on Australian anthropology and Aboriginal art; Larissa Behrendt, Patrick Dodson and Tim Rowse on reconciliation, social justice and self-determination; Peter Read on the Stolen Generations; Patrick Wolfe on settler colonialism and genocide; and Jon Altman, Muriel Bamblett, Des Manderson, and many others on the Northern Territory Intervention and 'coercive reconciliation'. …

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