Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Belshaw's World - winds of change blurred lines in the sand

At present, I am trying to revise and finalise the paper I delivered in Armidale in July on New England’s Aboriginal languages.

One of my problems in so doing is that modern Australians have been trained to think in discrete units. We see boundaries, for example, as firm lines on a map, languages as single entities – English, French and so on. We recognise the presence of dialects, but we see these as part of a bigger whole.

Aboriginal New England was not like that. Languages shaded into each other, while boundaries could shift and overlap depending on the nature of relationships.

I hadn’t realised how much my own thinking had been affected by current approaches until I came to try to understand the distribution of Aboriginal languages across New England. I had to consciously challenge my own thinking, to try to think of land and relationships to land from an Aboriginal perspective.

The interesting thing about our tendency to think of things in discrete sharply defined units is that it’s actually quite new.

In medieval Europe, for example, power was personal, cascading down from the pope through church lords, kings and princes to a variety of lower level feudal relationships.

In this world, political, administrative and territorial boundaries shifted all the time like an ever changing patchwork quilt. Boundaries were often shaded, shared and could overlap.

While boundaries have always existed in one form or another, the emergence of the idea of boundaries as fixed lines on maps was progressive and directly associated with the rise of what we now think of as the nation state. Boundaries were there to delineate national territory, to help enforce central control.

One side effect of this was the way in which language came to be associated with political boundaries. Germany equals Germans who speak German. During the age of Empire, fixed boundary lines spread across the global map.

By the time I went to school, all this was well entrenched in thinking. It seemed the natural order. This meant that I struggled a little in trying to understand European history at school.

How did I make sense of a world in which the Holy Roman Empire, for example, was made up of some 300 territorial entities linked in a whole series of relationships?

One of the things that’s interesting at the present time in looking at Europe is that many of the older relationships from that past, less defined world, have been coming back.

Languages that had been in decline are being rediscovered. The very nature of the nation state is under challenge, squeezed to some degree between a rising sense of localism whether based on ethnicity, language or geography and the larger sense of European identity expressed through the European Union.

I hadn’t realised how complicated all this had become until I had cause to look at modern Spain. There you have a variety of types of territorial units where the desire for local autonomy or even independence jostles uncomfortably with the sense of Spanish identity.

You can map Spain in various ways – territorial units, ethnic groups, language. The result is a mosaic of overlapping entities on which the fixed if changing lines of administrative and political entities sit quite uncomfortably.

Aboriginal Australia is no different.

The desire of modern Australia including law and politics that things be measurable, that ownership be proved, sits quite uncomfortably with the actual realities of traditional Aboriginal life.

As happened in Europe with the growing dominance of hard line, fixed boundaries, those affected try to adjust to fit the new reality. New entities sometimes described as Tindale tribes emerge.

Tindale tribes are named after the anthropologist Norman Tindale who attempted to map Aboriginal tribes on the assumptions that such entities existed based on common language and occupying defined and mutually exclusive territories.

The problem is that there really were no such entities in the rigid and mutually exclusive way defined by Tindale. However, legislative and administrative requirements have in fact forced Aboriginal people to behave as though there were.

I do not have an answer to this type of problem.

It is extremely hard to define more flexible, boundary free approaches in areas such as Native Title when the administering system depends upon the existence of defined boundaries that can, in some way, be proved in a court of law.

Still, I would like to think that more flexible approaches could be developed.

Note to readers: This post appeared as a column in the Armidale Express on Wednesday 8 September 2010. I am repeating the columns here with a lag because the Express columns are not on line. You can see all the columns by clicking here for 2009, here for 2010

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