Some things can’t change

My previous blog refreshed a memory of an experience from my PhD fieldwork, an experience that elicited a reflexive spiral (probably well known to social scientists), centering on how my research was representing Aboriginal culture and Aboriginal ‘perspectives’.

During my time in Fitzroy Crossing I trained with the Bungardi Crocs Australian Rules football team. The Crocs play in the Central Kimberley Football League against teams from Fitzroy Crossing and nearby communities. Each team, like Bungardi, is almost entirely made up of young Aboriginal men – the athleticism on display in the league is stunning and makes for extremely fast and entertaining games. Through my involvement I became mates with a few of the Crocs. Over beers one night at the Crossing Inn (a lively, must visit venue if one is ever in Fitzroy Crossing, particularly on a Friday or Saturday night) we spoke about my research. I told them I was investigating important places for Bunuba people and how these places had been affected by weeds, I explained that I would then work with the local Aboriginal Rangers so that they could manage these places properly. I gave the example of a prickle (Gallon’s Curse, Cenchrus biflorus) that was abundant at a cultural site and told how elders were upset because it stopped them taking kids there. One of the young footballers commented that he didn’t know what the Rangers did, or where they worked, but that the council is already doing weed removal at important community places. I hadn’t heard much about the shire council’s role in weed management so I asked where the council had been working. He replied “The footy ground mate, not a prickle there, boys are running around there every day with no boots on, no worries.”

Perhaps a long preamble to a short quote, but I found it profound. This footy ground, like most of the others in the Kimberley were constantly being used by young Aboriginal people – yet I’d never considered them as important community or cultural places. This highlighted that my research was looking for a particular ‘brand’ of Aboriginal perspective about weeds and their management – one that was locked in place and time. This ‘brand’ of perspective was highly particular in terms of who was qualified to give it (elders not youth) and the places they were allowed to speak about (out bush, not in town). This is partly attributable to the fact that my research focus was the Rangers who practice ‘environmental’ weed management, but still, these places of ‘contemporary’ culture were completely written out of my research worldview.

This unintentional branding of ‘Aboriginal perspectives’ links to Cameron’s (2012) article, and an article that I’ve read more recently by Veland et al. (2013). Both point out that the vulnerability narrative that underpins Indigenous people and environmental change discourse is grounded in a typecasting of indigeneity based on static, precolonial and traditional behaviours and knowledge. Although my research did not find Kimberley Aboriginal culture to be static, or vulnerable to environmental change caused by weeds (in fact it found quite the opposite), it did subscribe to a particular type of indigeneity, one which broadcast more ‘traditional’ voices as representative of the whole.

This representation of indigeneity (unintentionally or otherwise) ignores or disallows cultural change and valorises the traditional and unchanging – something that is utterly ridiculous considering that the focus of the research is change itself.

References:

Veland, S., R. Howitt, D. Dominey-Howes, F. Thomalla, and D. Houston (2013). Procedural vulnerability: Understanding environmental change in a remote indigenous community. Global Environmental Change 23(1): 314–326

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