Dreaming no more

Australian - 7th June 2003
Author: Stuart Rintoul

Native title continues to divide indigenous leaders, reports Stuart Rintoul from Alice Springs

MAX Stuart waves his hand towards that part of the MacDonnell Ranges he calls Tyeweretye and talks about the dreaming journey of the caterpillars, Ayeperenye. He looks at the cuttings in the burnished mountainside that tell a story of unsuccessful attempts to climb to the top, and how other ways were found to climb what seemed insurmountable.

We are talking about native title, but much more than that because he regards the white law as a pale reflection of the images he sees in his land and the problems that have led to indigenous leaders describing native title as crippled or dead and as a matter that is not of ultimate importance.

``When I get lonely sometimes I go to Emily Gap and I sit down,'' he said.

``I don't have to talk. The cliffs, trees. That is my philosopher. The spirits are still dancing. Before the train line and the camel teams and the wagons and bicycles, they've been dancing here, my ancestors and ancestors before them.''

Stuart, who is of Arrernte, Luritja and Scottish descent, is almost 75.

He has seen great change in the rights of Aboriginal people and great wrongs and hardship, including the 14 years he spent in jail in one of the nation's most appalling miscarriages of justice when he was convicted of the supposed rape and murder of a little girl. But his story is heroic. Sentenced to death, he was reprieved after an intense campaign by a young Rupert Murdoch.

He returned to his country and was hired by Pat Dodson, later to become the father of reconciliation, to work as a field officer for the Central Land Council. He became chairman of the council and an inspiration to his people, described by indigenous leader David Ross as ``a very special man''.

This week, in Alice Springs, Stuart was a host of the largest native title conference since the historic Mabo decision 11 years ago and the introduction of native title laws that followed it.

Indigenous leaders gathered in a sombre mood, gutted by a succession of big courtroom defeats and uncertain where to go next.

It began with dancers wearing traditional head-dress rarely seen in public since the 1890s.

The keynote address was delivered by Cape York leader Noel Pearson and his analysis of why the dreams of a decade ago have been replaced by bitter confusion was devastating.

He attacked everything: the High Court, which he accused of ``blatant racial discrimination''; the Aboriginal leadership, which he accused of incompetence; and the native title specialists who have navigated indigenous people into this cruel maelstrom as ``second rate''.

``Many of the claims that are registered were prepared with about as much planning, strategy, forethought and consultation as went into the European dismembership of colonial Africa,'' he said. Indigenous academic Larissa Behrendt called it an ``insightful assassination''.

But as Pearson began to expound on the many problems of native title -- including what he called the unfair allocation of certainty in which the extinguishment of native title is made certain, but recognition of it is not -- Stuart rose in the front row and slowly and dramatically walked out of the room.

It was a traditional declaration of disapproval. Having declared that native title was to be found ``in our minds'', rather than in European law, he felt all the talk was ``going around in circles''.

Grave doubts were expressed about native title, just as they were a decade ago. Aden Ridgeway said it was ``obscene'' that the commonwealth had spent at least $600 million on native title in the past decade and Aboriginal people had virtually nothing to show for it.

Embattled ATSIC chairman Geoff Clark said it was an ``absolute disgrace'' that just 31 native title determinations have been made in 10 years.

Referring to the locked-in-time conception of native title, pinned to traditional practices and devoid of economic meaning, Clark said: ``We're boxed up again and put on the museum shelf ... somewhat like the postcards that we see occasionally depicting Aboriginal culture as something that is dead and not vibrant.''

But where Clark had declared native title dead, others were more positive. Anthropologist Marcia Langton warned of the dangers of doomsaying and the ``alpha male'' view that only big court wins mattered.

If there had been injustices over the past decade, such as those meted out to the Yorta Yorta people, who have described their native title defeat as genocide, then there were also many small wins, she said, that were priceless and inconceivable before native title.

Langton spoke of the Lhere Artepe, the group of Arrernte traditional owners who since their native title recognition in Alice Springs now sit down with the town council to negotiate the future together. If that had been the only outcome of native title, then it would still have been a great success, she said.

Members of the three Aboriginal estates who have come together as Lhere Artepe (literally the spine of the Todd River that joins them) say the biggest success of native title has been their recognition, what it said about their relationship with country, and that it has brought them together.

``We have got a really good feeling about coming back together,'' said traditional owner Betty Pearce. ``It's a really great feeling that we are going somewhere.''

Also refusing to be negative was Bull Yanner, brother of jailed radical Murrandoo Yanner, who said he had not driven 16 hours from the Gulf of Carpentaria to be told native title was hopeless. He knew the process was hopeless before he left. But he also knew that before Mabo ``we had nothing'' and that ``white people are willing to deal with us now in so many different ways''.

What has arisen out of the conference is a determination in the indigenous leadership to wrest back control over where native title goes next, to impose a strategy where there has been none, to keep inadequate cases out of court, and to look more closely at the alternatives to long, expensive and emotionally bruising court actions.

Pearson pointed specifically to the work being done in South Australia by Parry Agius and the Aboriginal Legal Rights Movement to forge benchmark agreements with government and industry that recognise Aboriginal rights across issues such as mining exploration, pastoralism and sea rights.

Asked for his assessment of the past decade, Agius said: ``I think we relied too much on the courts.''

Sitting through the three-day conference was indigenous historian Gordon Briscoe, born in Alice Springs in a ``native institution'' known as the Bungalow, one of the founders of the Redfern Aboriginal Medical Service, PhD and author of a new book which makes the seminal point that when a people have everything taken away from them they get sick.

He had sat and listened, he said, with an almost inexpressible pride in his people. The Pitjantjatjara call it kulini (listening), or kulin yuku (listening and wanting to listen).

``It's great to see our people responding to the challenge and working through complex native title issues, in a humane way,'' he said.

``It just brings tears to my eyes. From what I have seen here, I begin to be an optimist.''

But perhaps the most telling moment of all came when Central Desert woman Alison Anderson spoke to people in the Arrernte language, interrupting her flow only to insert the English words ``native title'' and ``social justice'' -- European concepts either too difficult to translate, or too unnecessary.