Constructing Law, Space, and their Subjects:
Landscape, Topography and Culture

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Aboriginal Australians and their relationship with land

In Deborah Bird Rose's, Nourishing Terrains: Australian Aboriginal Views of Landscape and Wilderness (Canberra: Australian Heritage Commission, 1996) several Aboriginal voices explain the meaning and significance of land to them. She quotes from a poem from the people of Groote Eylande and then adds her own commentary (pp. 12-13):

I've trodden
On the path,
The narrow path,
Ant path.
Red ants,
Meat ants,
Tiny ants.
Parrots screeched,
Flying low over their ant friends.
Ant paths,
Ant tracks.
Wind striking grass,
Parting grass,
My grandfather's wind,
Tiny ants' wind,
Thin ants' wind,
The west wind has veered away.

Each country is understood by its people to be a unique and inviolable whole. People assert that other species also understand the country this way, and indeed that the country understands itself this way. Each whole country is surrounded by other unique and inviolable whole countries, and the relationships between the countries ensure that no country is isolated, that together they make up some larger wholes -- clusters of alliance networks, Dreaming tracts and ceremonies, trade networks, tracks of winds and movements of animals. In this way a working system can be known to exist way beyond one's own countries, but no one ever knows the full extent of it all because knowledge is of necessity local. The fact of localised knowledge is itself Law. This system does not invite people to assume that that they can or should know everything. Nor does it commend itself to people who believe that they can and should (or already do) know everything.

. . . . . . . . .

Knowledge -- local, detailed, tested through time -- is the basis for being in country. Aboriginal people take notice of their country, and through the attention they give to country, their communication becomes two-way. Communication is based on the ability to understand what is happening and where it is happening. ...

Deborah Bird Rose then turns her attention to a story from Arnhem Land (pp. 14-15):

Paddy Fordham Wainburranga, a Rembarrnga man of Arnhem Land, spoke of these matters in a story he told about his country:

I'm here telling you this story in this place called Bulara -- that's the big country name for this area. ...

We used to make our camp sometimes without water. Then early in the morning we'd get up and sing out and look at the country carefully, so we could find water and go hunting.

That's what this part of Arnhem Land is like. Other places are all right but here in the middle you've got to talk to the country. You can't just travel quiet, no! Otherwise you might get lost, or have to travel much further. That's law for the centre of Arnhem Land. For Rembarrnga people.

My father used to do it. We used to get up early in the morning and he'd sing out and talk. Sometimes he didn't talk early in the morning, only when travelling and we used to stop and he'd talk then in language.

It would make you look carefully at the country, so you could see the signs, so you could see which way to go. ... The law about singing out was made like that to make you notice that all the trees here are your countrymen, your relations. all the trees and the birds are your relations.

There are different kinds of birds here. They can't talk to you straight up. You've got to sing out to them so they can know you.

That's why I talked to the birds this morning, and all the birds were happy. All the birds were really happy and sang out: 'Oh! That's a relation of ours. That's a relation we didn't know about'. That's the way they spoke, and they were happy then to sing out.

In light of Carter and Bird Rose's texts consider the following Aboriginal representation of a person's homeland.
Aboriginal Dreaming design

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Old Tutuma

Compare the previous example of Aboriginal visioning of land and its use with an example of the construction of space by European Australians.
Melbourne City map
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That culture, the art which it inspires, and mapping can come together in the context of land claims is evident in a recent project in the Kimberley area of Western Australia. As the photographs below show, men and women from the Walmatjarri, Wangkajungka, Mangala and Juwaliny language groups have produced a gigantic canvas of their claims to the Great Sandy Desert seen through the medium of maps embodying their visions of their territories. As one Aboriginal leader, Tommy May, explained it,

If [non-Aboriginal] people can't understand our word they can see our painting. They say the same thing.
The canvas was to be used in evidence before Fred Chaney of the Native Title Tribunal by the artists and their families in support of a claim for exclusive possession of 75,000 square kilometers of vacant Crown land.

Artists' collective

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Pimini canvas

READING Chapter Four from Deborah Bird Rose's Nourishing Terrains (pp. 35-47)
Read about the role of ancestors in leaving their imprint in land, of the spiritual significance of that land, of gendered places and boundaries between between countries.


These ideas, and the complexity of Aboriginal laws governing land use are further illustrated in this passage from Palmer "Aboriginal Land Ownership Among the Southern Pitjantjatjara of the Great Victoria Desert," in L. Hiatt, Aboriginal Landowners: Contemporary Issues in the Determination of Traditional Aboriginal Land Ownership. Oceania Monograph No. 27 (University of Sydney), excerpted from Heather McRae, Garth Nettheim and Laura Beacroft Indigenous Legal Issues: Commentary and Materials, 2nd Ed. (Sydney: L.B.C.,1997) pp. 90-96.


QUESTIONS Is there a problem of the dominant, sedentary society in which we live in the 1990s having difficulty with accepting and accommodating "travelling folk."

Think of examples. Who are today's travelling people?

In the Palmer reading, the author suggests asking three questions about the Pitjantjatjara system of land tenure:

"First, what are the principles of inheritance? Secondly, what is owned (that is, what constitutes ngwa [or country], and how is one country differentiated from another)? Thirdly what is the nature of ownership?"

What are your reponses to these questions?

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