Just west of Alice Springs is a turn-off marked ‘Flynn’s Grave’. It leads to a blunt stone plinth with a round boulder on top and a plaque commemorating John Flynn (1880-1951), a Presbyterian minister who was sent by his church to the Northern Territory in 1912 to investigate conditions in the bush. His report was grim, describing poor communications and scant healthcare. In 1928, with the pedal-powered radio receiver recently perfected by Alfred Traeger, Flynn set up a telegraph station and founded the Royal Flying Doctor Service. After his death, his ashes were buried here; a year later it was decided to mark the grave with a large boulder taken from a place known to European Australians as the Devil’s Marbles. To the local Warumungu people this is Karlu Karlu, a sacred women’s site, and the removal of the boulder, without permission, caused considerable offence. It took forty years and the mediation of the Arrernte people between the Warumungu and the local authorities to agree a solution, and on 4 September 1999 the stone was returned in exchange for another from a different sacred site, which was installed in a ceremony that combined a Christian service with dancing by Warumungu and Kaytete women celebrating the return of their boulder.
I was in Australia to lecture on the ownership and cultural significance of rocks in the context of Britain, and specifically the myth and history of Stonehenge, where disputes have gone on longer than they did at Flynn’s Grave and have often been conducted with less dignity. The stones were transferred into public ownership in October 1918 at a ceremony in which Cecil Chubb, who had bought Stonehenge at a local auction three years earlier, handed the title deeds to Sir Alfred Mond, the commissioner of works. It concluded with the singing of ‘God Save the King’ and the pious hope on Mond’s part that as ‘Our ancestors hero worshipped the sun when it rose … We today can turn our eyes towards the sun of victory won so gallantly by the men who have gone out and fought and died for us.’ Progress towards state ownership had been delayed by furious debates in Parliament about private property rights, supported by campaigns involving Dickens and Ruskin among others, and interspersed with violent scenes at Stonehenge itself, with druids attempting to storm the site.
Once achieved, however, public ownership made things generally worse. There were further clashes with the druids and in 1985 the suppression of the Stonehenge Free Festival led to the Battle of the Beanfield, in which a travellers’ convoy was brutally dispersed by the police. There followed years of annual stand-offs at the solstice between would-be celebrants and English Heritage, whose tactics involved helicopter patrols, floodlights and the requirement that local residents be able to prove their identity. The dispute eventually reached the House of Lords where, in October 1999, a month after Flynn’s Grave received its new stone, a ruling compelled English Heritage to allow public access to Stonehenge for the solstice. Having done so initially with gritted teeth and a long list of dos and don’ts, it has become perceptibly warmer towards the event, at which there has never been any trouble. The website now includes an acknowledgment that for many people the stones have a sacred significance.
In Australia, the most significant stone is Uluru, also known as Ayers Rock, in the Northern Territory, where the question of ownership and access has also arrived at a compromise, but one that is a mirror-image of the situation at Stonehenge. After a long campaign, Uluru was returned to the Pitjantjatjara people by Governor General Sir Ninian Stephen at a ceremony in October 1985. Immediately afterwards the Aboriginal owners signed an agreement leasing the rock and the national park that surrounds it back to the Australian Parks and Wildlife Service for 99 years. The government of the Northern Territory, furious about the handover, withdrew from management arrangements. The Uluru-Kata-Tjuta National Park is now managed jointly by the Anangu people and Parks Australia. Under this dispensation, the rock is no longer climbed. The paraphernalia of handrails and fencing has been dismantled and visitors who go round it on foot, by bicycle or on the popular Segways, are requested not to photograph certain parts. There is only one postcard view because other angles are not permitted, and flights and helicopter tours avoid routes from which the sacred sites are visible. It was at Uluru in 2017 that a petition was published on behalf of Indigenous Australians asking Parliament ‘to recognise and protect the rights of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples as the First Peoples of these lands and waters’ by allowing the creation of a federal advisory body made up of Aborigine and Torres Strait Islander representatives. This body – known as The Voice – would be ‘a constitutionally enshrined representative mechanism to provide expert advice … about laws and policies that affect Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples’. If agreed, it would be followed by a treaty, similar to those in place in Canada and New Zealand, and a process of ‘truth-telling … to enable shared understanding of Australia’s colonial history and its contemporary impacts’.
On 14 October, Australia held a referendum on The Voice. After an ill-tempered campaign in which the opposition had the better slogan – ‘If you don’t know, vote no’ – The Voice was defeated in every state and territory except the Australian Capital Territory around Canberra. The extent of the rejection surprised politicians on both sides. The No campaign immediately doubled down, accusing the prime minister, Anthony Albanese, of having ‘misread the nation’. Simon Birmingham, leader of the opposition in the Senate, interpreted the result as a sign that ‘Australians put a premium on practical action’; the Liberal Party has called for a Royal Commission on child abuse in Indigenous communities. The defeated Yes campaign announced a week of silence to contemplate the results, after which they said they would pursue the project of an ‘Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander voice’ independently. ‘Australia is our country … It is the legitimacy of the non-Indigenous occupation … that requires recognition not the other way round.’ I was at Yulara, the resort attached to the national park, on the day of the vote and for some time afterwards. There was the odd T-shirt with a slogan. I saw one piece of graffiti but no other visible sign of reaction or even interest. Yulara is a complex of hotels, campsite, cafés, shops and art galleries which offers tourists a range of authenticated Aboriginal works of art and craft and a selection of expensive ‘experiences’, including walks with Indigenous guides, tours of Bruce Munro’s Field of Light installation, didgeridoo workshops and opportunities for ‘dining under the stars’.
The defeat of The Voice leaves Aboriginal culture stuck in the same queasy relationship to the white nation and its essentially European notion of history that it has been in since the early 20th century, when serious efforts to acknowledge Indigenous culture began. The result is a mixture of conservation, invented tradition and misunderstanding. In Adelaide, the South Australian Museum displays groups of string knottings done by children at the Hermannsburg Mission in 1929 as Indigenous ‘dreamings’, ‘Emu Hunt’ and ‘Four Little Girls Walking’; they are in fact traditional European cat’s cradle patterns the girls would have been taught by the German nuns who ran the mission. The Aboriginal flag, a horizontal black and red with a yellow disc, was first flown in 1971, and two or three years later – the exact date and occasion are disputed – the ‘welcome to country’ ritual began. A revived version of an Indigenous ceremony, whereby the owners of a land welcome new arrivals, it was augmented in the 1990s with the formal ‘acknowledgment of country’ spoken at public occasions. Before my lecture, my hosts in Melbourne used the Victoria government’s suggested format, acknowledging that our meeting took place on Indigenous lands and offering respect to the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders ‘elders, past, present and emerging’. A version of the same speech is incorporated in the Qantas flight announcements, and the airline marked its 75th anniversary in 1995 with a celebration of Indigenous art: two Boeing 747-300s were painted with the ‘Nalanji Dreaming’ and the spectacular ‘Wunula Dreaming’ designs, which were digitised from original paintings, magnified and then traced onto the body of the plane. Both are examples of the ‘dot painting’ that is the ubiquitous manifestation of Indigenous culture in modern Australia. Products with these patterns are available through fair-trade schemes such as Better World Arts and range from large paintings to the fridge magnets, key rings and water bottles that are the currency of the international tourist trade. In October there were also Christmas tree decorations. The labels often have a picture of the designer and an explanation of the symbols: concentric circles of dots mean a campsite, a single line a man and so forth. At Yulara, as in many places, the artists can be seen at work, usually sitting on the floor painting canvas laid out flat in front of them. There is something discomforting about the fact that all the gallery staff are white and the artists do not engage with visitors, generally averting their eyes. If you didn’t know otherwise you might think this was an occupational therapy group.
Aboriginal Australians have been making rock paintings for at least thirty thousand years, but the dot paintings are a creation of the 1970s, when the (white) artist and teacher Geoffrey Bardon asked a group of displaced Aboriginal children at Papunya, west of Alice Springs, to paint a mural. He encouraged them to portray their legends, which prompted some of the adults to join in: their depiction of the travels of Honey Ant Ancestor led to painting in acrylic on canvas and the development of modern Aboriginal art. Australians are generally proud of this ‘cultural survival’, as Margo Birnberg calls it in What is Aboriginal Art? (2011). Coming from Britain, where ‘the invention of tradition’ is regarded by historians with suspicion, I was somewhat taken aback by the enthusiasm with which Australians celebrate the short history of the Papunya School and its influence. At Stonehenge, archaeologists are exasperated by the druids and pagans because they represent no continuous culture. The robed and bearded ‘King Arthur’, who has been prominent in the campaign of passive resistance at Stonehenge and led some of the negotiations with English Heritage, began life as a biker called John Rothwell and changed his name by deed poll. In Australia, invented tradition is similarly suspect when it appears in a European context. Cooks’ Cottage in Melbourne, described by the city authority as ‘an iconic tourist attraction’, is a house once occupied by the parents of Captain James Cook. It was transported to Australia in 1934; accessorised with warming pans, chipped china and chamberpots, it is shown to the public by guides in period costume. But it is widely considered bogus and, as the Rough Guide puts it, as ‘only for kitsch nostalgists’. Yet the Papunya painting school of the 1970s, grafted if not seamlessly then to some effect onto the traditions of millennia, offers an acceptable Indigenous art for the present, while Aboriginal leaders absorb what they call the ‘bitter lesson’ of 14 October.
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