What Is Reconciliation?
A story About culture and values

This article was kindly provided to us by the author Hannah Rachel Bell.


After attending a Sacred Sites Authority meeting in Perth the late David Mowaljarlai AO, visionary Ngarinyin lawman of the Kimberley asked me, "What reconciliation really mean?" His puzzlement derived from a question by the then Minister for Aboriginal Affairs Judith Watson who asked if a rock site of significance could be relocated from its abiding place to somewhere that did not obstruct the development of an ore body. To her his response was, "Can you put a toe on your ear and it still works as a toe?" His simple questions reflected his profound questioning of the nature of the reconciliation discourse in which one party to be 'reconciled' was so abysmally ignorant of the culture and beliefs of the other. He wondered how you can 'reconcile' this - "What's to reconcile?" he asked.

He followed this with another question. "What 'land use' really mean?" After referring to many maps which showed land classification systems according to various criteria of 'land use' he said, "Ah! I'm bauxite Man! Or maybe diamond Man! Or bullock Man. Hey, I'm rich man!"

Born in the Gardner Plateau in the stony country his 'wunggud' or totem was Brejerat, hibiscus, the brilliant red flower which grows between the hot rocks in his country. This plant and its context defined him in every way - his 'lian', or life force/spirit, his nature, family genealogy, elemental essence, relationship with all other kin and countrymen, responsibilities, accountability, beliefs and behaviours. 'Land use' as developed and defined by colonisers threatened to extinguished his native title, therefore his identity and meaning. What, therefore is there to reconcile - Identity with nominal and changeable land classification? Cultural heritage and integrity with economic potential? Ignorance with Meaning? Little wonder he asked what reconciliation really means.

Before he died in 1997 he was reconciled to the reality of colonisation, and the futility of his struggle. He said, "You mob will never recognise our Law; you will never acknowledge our rights. You can't give anything away because you Money mob ... you got paper law. Not us. We Art mob. Our Law is written in the land. We can't change that Law. We belong to it. That Law controls us." He was not in favour of the notion of reconciliation when it simply meant the cessation of hostilities and the intention to get along together, without any substantive change in the enduring fundamental ignorance of Whitefellas.

Sadly, almost a decade on not a lot has changed. The various 'reconciliation' committees and initiatives assume a homogenous indigenous Australia. Indigenous participation and leadership is often just as ignorant of tribal Law and culture because the individuals have been informed and shaped by Western lifestyle and values. Added to this is the politically correct reluctance to 'classify' Indigenous people's knowledge and values according to any system of degree or voracity of the exercise of cultural beliefs and/or lifestyle, geographic location or Western socialisation. This inevitably leads to the urban, articulate and vocal running the agenda, while the more traditional languish to their death in remote outstations and communities.

Cultural genocide continues to be effected by flawed processes and conditions. In particular this includes the sustained and stubborn ignorance of politicians, institutions, the broader community and the media; the persistence of understandable spoken English as the preferred language of communication; budgetary and time constraints which propel seekers, researchers, analysts, reporters and politicians to central people and places - almost always publicly funded Aboriginal organisations in serviced towns or cities - for their information gathering; and finally, the self-conscious embarrassment that paralyses Whitefellas when engulfed or confronted by their utter ignorance and ill-ease with the realities of meeting face to face, the subjects of their good will and/or enquiries.

Mowaljarlai's question about the real meaning of 'reconciliation' remains severely confronting because it really asks other very big questions.

Why has the Government failed to outline its apparent policy and process of gradual cultural annihilation? Because it can. The media and community have been overwhelmingly silent, and silenced by apathy, ignorance, and distraction. Yet the evidence is just as overwhelming. The redefinition of 'terra nullius'. Dismantling of ATSIC and replacement with a non-representative, politically articulate advisory group. Social bribery - the compulsion to adopt hygiene practices, and attend a culturally alien and irrelevant school system which renders their culture invisible in return for the basic survival need of mobility. The commoditisation of native title land which completely invalidates the cultural meaning of belonging and identity. The assimilationist determination to unilaterally change the traditional concept of 'community' to the Western political construct of municipality.

This process, being remorselessly adopted by stealth is savage in its implications to remote Indigenous peoples and their culture. By the culturally determined processes of redefinition, invalidation, reconstruction, and redeployment, it is not only is native title that is being extinguished. Australia's stubborn and persistent ignorance and ill-ease with our shameful, unreconciled historic relationship are driving this remnant Indigenous Law, culture and body of knowledge to the edge of extinction.

Don't we realise that Australian Aboriginal culture is the oldest, longest continuous culture on earth? Don't we have the courage to acknowledge our ignorance and do something about it? Are we more ready to protect and preserve the noisy scrub bird and the bilby than an entire culture? Surely it is time to demand of our political, educational and social institutions that with humility, we recognise our failings and immediately and urgently address them as a national priority.

"We have a Gift we bin trying to give you, but you blocked from hearing us," claimed Mowaljarlai to the Native Title Hearing conducted in his country. Is it possible that his words are prophetic, that our unwillingness to listen will result in our permanent failure to receive the Gift of knowledge, awareness, ecology, philosophy, and sustainable relationship with this continent? Rhetorical questions abound, but these are the questions that need to be discussed and reconciled with the ways in which we have thusfar inhabited this land and related to its Aboriginal peoples.


Thank you, Hannah Rachel Bell for your permission to print your insightful account here - Didjshop