Bennelong Papers

Aboriginal Achievement: Positions Available

Peter O’Brien

For a demographic that claims to be marginalised and victimised, our ‘First Nations’ people are certainly front and centre. 

Obnoxious demagogues like ‘Senator’ Lidia Thorpe and Tarneen ‘Burn down Australia’ Onus-Williams, have carte blanche to excoriate the very society in which they flourish.  And well-heeled organisations, like Their ABC, give them free rein to do just that, suggesting, for example, that we should ‘burn stuff’.  Most rational people dismiss this rhetoric as fringe element ratbaggery.  

But more subtly, we are being constantly bombarded with less offensive memes, such as ABC announcers telling us they are broadcasting from, for example, Gadigal country.  Well, it’s offensive to me but unfortunately not to most.

I would like to offer two examples of this trend.

Associate Professor Duane Hamacher has released a book titled The First Astronomers – how indigenous elders read the stars.  Predictably, it has been endorsed by Professor Marcia Langton, who is always the first to leap to the support of any spurious proposition that patronizes Aborigines by claiming for them knowledge and accomplishments that they did not possess:

This book marks a profound paradigm shift in our understanding of Indigenous scientific traditions, how they are transmitted, and their relevance to life today.

The very title of the book is oxymoronic.  ‘Reading the stars’ is not astronomy. It is mythology.  Astronomy is defined as

a natural science that studies celestial objects and phenomena. It uses mathematics, physics, and chemistry in order to explain their origin and evolution.

I imagine not even Langton would claim that Aborigines were masters of mathematics, physics and chemistry, certainly not to the extent that they could apply those disciplines to a study of the stars (although I wouldn’t bet my house on it).  So how does Leftist academia overcome this apparently insuperable disconnect?  Simple.  By doing what they always do. Moving the goal posts to redefine astronomy.  Or at least establish a new branch of it, as Melbourne University did with agriculture when it created its chair of Indigenous Agriculture and gracing it with the august person of Uncle Professor Bruce Pascoe.

In this case we have a new field of study called ‘cultural astronomy’.

Duane Hamacher is associate professor of cultural astronomy in the School of Physics at the University of Melbourne. Where else?  Is it just me or is there a pattern emerging here? How do anthropologists feel about having their discipline co-opted into the School of Physics, I wonder?

Surely, we can acknowledge the genuine accomplishments of Aboriginal societies without resorting to that most heinous of woke offences – cultural appropriation?  Or are those genuine accomplishments (essentially surviving in a harsh continent with the expenditure of as little effort as possible) so underwhelming that they are not particularly noteworthy to people whose own ancestors left that lifestyle behind thousands of years ago?  That is what Hamacher and Langton seem to be suggesting.

This trend doesn’t confine itself to the sciences.  It also extends into the social sphere. We are constantly being bombarded, particularly courtesy of the ABC, of Aboriginal memes.  As just one example, I was recently approached by a non-indigenous organisation wishing to be involved in our local ANZAC Day commemoration – and good on them for that.  Part of their contribution involved handing out to the local kids a short precis of ANZAC.  Here it is:

The Story of our ANZACs

Anzac Day, on 25th April every year, is the day Australia and New Zealand remember the bravery of our soldiers who served in the First World War, and the service of all the men and women who have served for their country since then.

At dawn on 25th April 1915, during the First World War, the Australia and New Zealand Army

Corps, known as the ANZACs, landed on the Gallipoli peninsula in Turkey. This was the first time they had seen battle. Our ANZACs fought bravely for eight months and suffered thousands of casualties before withdrawing in December 1915.

Over 1000 Aboriginal and Torres Straight Islander soldiers were among those who fought at

Gallipoli. Aunty Marion Leane Smith was a proud Dharug woman who is the only indigenous

woman known to serve in WW1 as a nurse.

We also remember our brave ANZACs, who, in WW1 helped to liberate the French town of Villers-Bretonneux on the Western Front. To this day, French children sing the Australian National Anthem at school and a large banner that reads “Do Not Forget Australia” hangs at the entrance to the school.

Good on them for this initiative but I couldn’t help but be taken aback by the fact that Aboriginal soldiers had been singled out for mention in this very short precis.  In fact, the number of Aboriginal soldiers that fought at Gallipoli is estimated to be about 70.  The figure of 1,000 refers to the whole of the war. Their contribution was welcome but insignificant on any but an individual level.  In other words, they did what thousands of other Australians did. They should be honoured in the same measure, but no more, than all other Australians who served.

However, the reference to Nurse Smith is even more inappropriate.  I doubt very much that Marion Leane Smith was a ‘proud Dharug woman’ – the formulaic prenominal now applied to any and every woman who identifies as Indigenous. 

How do we know she was a ‘proud Dharug woman’?  Good question.

You see, she was the granddaughter of an indigenous woman married to an Englishman successfully farming on the Liverpool area.  As such she was no more than one quarter, probably only one eighth, indigenous.  That certainly makes her indigenous, but she was only two years old when her parents migrated to Canada, where Marion grew up and then studied nursing in the US.  She returned to Canada at the start of the war and served with the Canadian forces in France.  She returned to Canada after the war, married a Canadian and eventually moved with her parson husband, who was a school principal, to Trinidad.  They returned to Canada in 1953 and Smith died in 1957.  So, it is also unlikely she was ever known by the honorific of ‘Aunty’, which is applied to elders of an Aboriginal community.  If she ever thought about her ethnicity, I am sure she would not have been ashamed of it.  But I rather think it would have been only incidental to her psyche.

These sorts of gestures are well-intentioned and I have no problem with Aboriginal people being proud of their culture and accomplishments, but I am becoming ever more fed up with having them thrust down my throat at every conceivable opportunity, particularly those that are questionable.

You can read more of my take on this issue here.

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Published by Nelle

I am interested in writing short stories for my pleasure and my family's but although I have published four family books I will not go down that path again but still want what I write out there so I will see how this goes

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