"Can we be equal in your eyes?"
: a perspective on reconciliation from north-east Arnhem Land

  • Ian Stuart Mcintosh

    Student thesis: Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) - CDU


    In this thesis, I examine the ways in which the 'memory' of contacts between Yolngu (Aborigines from north-east Arnhem Land) and Indonesian fishermen in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries is relevant today in the way certain Elcho Islanders are negotiating for the recognition of Aboriginal rights within the broader Australian community. In particular I look at one proposal for Aboriginal reconciliation from one group of Yolngu (Aborigines from north-east Arnhem Land). Called the Warramiri Flag Treaty proposal, its aim was to encourage dialogue on the subject of a treaty between Aborigines and non-Aborigines. Inspired and initiated by the late David Burrumarra M.B.E. of Elcho Island, the proposal called for Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders Australia-wide to construct their own reconciliation flags, each containing sacred symbols relevant to the lands in which they were living, combined with symbols representing the non-Aboriginal world.

    This study contends that for the Warramiri, the flag proposal is a necessary outcome of a particular way of looking at themselves and at their past. For a very long time, the Yolngu have attempted to negotiate their place in relation to outsiders. Diverse narratives referring to the non-Aboriginal 'Other' ( eg. Sama-Bajau, Macassans and Europeans) have traditionally been viewed as secret/sacred, but now, the Australian Government is speaking of reconciliation and a merging of histories. Consequently in recent times there has been a re-focussing of attention by the Warramiri on previously unrecorded bodies of Rom (Aboriginal law), and what I present for analysis has been framed in the light of changing historical and social realities.

    This thesis deals with the ways in which such knowledge is re-oriented, re-emphasised and revealed both within Aboriginal society and in the wider Australian community. I explore how and why the Warramiri leaders have come to understand the way they see their relationship with the 'Other'; why they see themselves as having a mandate for mediation between outsiders and Aborigines; and why the flag, which means different things to different peoples, has been chosen as an appropriate symbolic device for facilitating the reconciliation process.

    Three main areas are covered in the study. Firstly, it is concerned with Burrumarra's perception of his and Yolngu people's place in the contemporary world, (and my understanding and presentation of it). Secondly, it is about the nature of the experience of change in a broad sense, ie. how cosmology is matched with experience, and experience with cosmology. Lastly, in dealing with the former, it is about the representation of Aboriginal culture and cosmology in contemporary circumstances. It is concerned with the problems of representing an Aboriginal 'Other' when that 'Other' has represented non-Aborigines as such in complex and often ambiguous and now anachronistic forms.
    Date of AwardAug 1996
    Original languageEnglish
    SupervisorDavid Mearns (Supervisor)

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