Thursday, 26 July 2012

Conflict of interest? Only for the whites...

Meet Mick. 

Two participants at the Summit

If you've read any of my previous posts, you'll know he's the pale fellow on the left.

A man of many talents, Mick is an Aboriginal Elder, Traditional Owner, Business Owner and also holds several important positions the Indigenous Industry.  He is on the Board at Mt Buller, the Board of Native Title Services Victoria (NTSV), and a Council Member of the Victorian Aboriginal Heritage Council (VAHC).

Not bad for a man who didn't find out he had Aboriginal heritage until he was 25.
Since 2006, groups all over the state of Victoria have been scrambling to achieve what is known as 'RAP' status  (which stands for Registered Aboriginal Party).  Having RAP status is a pretty big deal.  It allows the group granted RAP status the right to be involved in Cultural Heritage Management of a particular area.

So what is this Cultural Heritage Management?

Well, let's pretend for a moment that we're a Property Developer.  We purchase a large parcel of land on which to build a housing estate, and begin the necessary steps to get approval.  Part of this approvals process involves getting a CHMP (Cultural Heritage Management Plan), and for this, we need to approach the local group who have RAP status.  They will in turn, send out someone to come and assess the land, and prepare a report.  If any Aboriginal 'artefacts' are found on the land, a CHMP sets out how these 'artefacts' are to be managed.  This can involve anything from having to pay site supervisors (from the RAP) to come and oversee the work while it takes place, to moving them to a local museum, to just ignoring them - and everything in between.  It can be a long, often expensive process or alternatively, it can be a joke.  Sometimes, it's both.

The original promise of the Aboriginal Heritage Act of 2006 was to allow Aboriginal people to be involved in preserving their heritage and culture, to provide protection to our most sacred sites.  The reality is, in most cases, it has done completely the opposite. 

To apply for RAP status, you will need to engage the assistance of two specific groups.  Native Title Services (for help getting the claim off the ground) and second, the Victorian Aboriginal Heritage Council (who make the decision on who does, and does not, get RAP status).   You may be surprised to know that many of the successful RAP applications that have gone through to date have come from 'Traditional Owners' who serve on the boards of one or both of these organisations.  Conflict of interest?  Ah, thems just whitefella words.

Is it any wonder so many of our pale-skinned, so called 'Elders' or 'Traditional Owners' also classify themselves as experts in Cultural Heritage, and often have side businesses that are dedicated to managing it for a hefty fee?

Mick, as we discovered earlier, is part of the NTSV and VAHC cheer squad.  His 'Taungurung' people received RAP status for a large area, originally applying for land from just outside Healesville, all the way across to Euroa and taking in places like Mansfield, Broadford, Lancefield, Kilmore and Heathcote. Mick has claimed often and with great passion about his strong connection to country and has spoken emotionally about the dispossession of his ancestors from their 'cultural home'.  Surprisingly, it is a place he today, chooses not to live.  Instead, you will find him living in Gippsland,  far away from his 'stolen land'. 

If you have a spare few minutes, I highly recommend this video interview by Mick:-

Don't be fooled by the Message Stick in his hand.  Like most Fauxborigines, he's using it wrong and paying it no respect.  It is in his hand not for some deeper spiritual or cultural reason, but, as a prop to fool unwitting watchers into believing this guy knows his stuff.  Cultural credibility that he manufactured in his own workshop, no doubt.

Note also the Possum Skin Cloak draped across his knee.  While happy to crap on about the patterns on the cloak, Mick is not so forthcoming in this particular interview about the ancient techniques used to create such a piece of art. Luckily for us, his clan were more than happy to oblige:-

(I can't be sure, the picture is just a little unclear to make out, but, I believe what we are seeing here is the use of the electrical burning device, made famous by I believe Ngyumbanirr Pyrographic  back in the 1400's.  Again, to ensure cultural authenticity, just like we used to do in the old days, the skins are from NZ possums)

I remember an Elder once sitting down with me, many years ago, and talking about a possum expedition they made in her youth.  In their bark canoe, they travelled for 40 days and 40 nights until they finally reached Auckland, surviving on what little rainwater they caught along the way and the meagre rations of berries and nuts they took with them.

Once in Auckland, they spent a full week hunting and gathering skins into the night and early hours of the following day - each of them sleeping only four hours before resuming the difficult and laborious job as soon as first light would hit.

When they had 40 skins, they rested.  The following day, they loaded up their canoe and attempted to set off with their haul into the wide blue expanse.  They got no more than a few feet out when their canoe began to take in alarming amounts of water.  Again and again they tried, always with the same result.  Furrowed brows ensued and debate raged about how best to get the precious bounty back home.  That is, until one of the Elders stepped forward and proclaimed 'Let's just take a fucking plane back!'.

See how easy it is to spin a little cultural bullshit?  All you have to do is waffle. 

I like how Mick waffles.  Most Fauxborigines, when talking about their heritage or culture, will often resort to this very same trick.   They talk in circles, often spending an inordinate amount of time describing small, inconsequential things.  Like a shield they once saw, or an Elder they spoke to.  Often, they'll use a small smattering of an Aboriginal language they've revived in a windowless room in a University to punctuate their speech with more credibility.  It is quite an art form, but ultimately, they do horrendous damage to a culture they have no right to speak of. 

How much are you truly honouring a culture when you step on tradition to make a buck?

For all those Elders out there, who stay on their country, devote their lives to making their communities a better place, who worry endlessly about their people who are suffering, I take my hat off to you and offer nothing but my respect and support.  For too long you have sat unnoticed, uncared for, and unrecognised while self-appointed opportunists claim you don't exist and step in to take your place.  It is time to say, no more.