Constructing Law, Space, and their Subjects:
European Conceptions of Aboriginal People,
their Governance and Law

14 of 20

Constructing the Australian Aboriginal

The pattern suggested by Francis for Canada was also evident in Australia. Consider the following passages and photographs from Bain Attwood, The Making of the Aborigines (Sydney: Allen & Unwin, 1989).

It was not uncommon for Aboriginal converts to have their likenesses taken by studio photographers. The power of definition in such portraits lay mostly with the photographer, and the representations of Aborigines or any other subjects were constructed according to the aesthetic conventions of the day, particularly those concerning the ideals of femininity and masculinity.

Husband and wife
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In the course of wooing this support, Aborigines and Europeans continued to come into contact on both Ramahyuck and Lake Tyers missions, but they interacted in what was a rather impersonal context. ... These meetings were carefully managed by the missionaries and so brief that most visitors were unable to get any sense of the Aborigines as individuals; they were 'the blacks' or 'the natives', and were regarded much like exhibits in a museum, as one-dimensional and somehow unreal.

Furthermore, many visitors had quite inappropriate ideas of what they would see at the missions, as they had heard or read many frontier tales of 'wild savages'. Consequently they were usually 'surprised' and 'astonished' by what they considered to be the Aborigines' progress towards 'civilisation'. While their understanding of them was necessarily superficial, they invariably liked what they saw, comforted by the illusion that the Aborigines were going to become like themselves. They also, however, liked to detect hints of mere mimicry which could reveal and incongruity between how 'the blacks' were and what they were supposed to have become, for this reinforced their own sense of superiority. (pp.114 - 115)

Kitty Johnson
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Kitty Johnson, Lake Tyers

From the 1890s Aborigines like Kitty Johnson were represented in various stylised ways on postcards such as this one. Often they were made objects of fun; this was usually done by focusing on some obvious peculiarity, a deviation from European cultural norms. Johnson's eccentric features like her beard and habits such as smoking a pipe, amused white visitors to Lake Tyers. She and other Aborigines were quick to turn this situation to their advantage, begging money, selling weapons and performing with boomerangs. The missionaries preferred visitors to donate to the mission itself. (p.117)

Attwood refers to white commentary on Aboriginals mimicking their habits and practices. They were often made the butt of criticism and lampooning for "aping" the manners of Europeans. This despite the fact that it was colonial policies and attitudes which had broken Aboriginal culture and replaced it with the artificial cultural constructions of the immigrants, including the recognition of "kings" and "chief's, positions unknown in traditional Aboriginal government.

The following is an example of this practice of mocking Aborigines for mimicry.

Native Dignity
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'Native dignity' S.T. Gill, "Melbourne Scenes" c. 1855
(Nigel Parbury, SURVIVAL: A History of Aboriginal Life in New South Wales)

QUESTION What do these pictures suggest to you about the opinions of colonizers and settlers on aboriginal culture and modes of governance and law?
From these representations do you think that attitudes about the fate of the Aborigines or First Nations differed within the white community? If so, what were the points of difference?

None of this is to suggest that Aboriginal people in both countries accepted what was being done to them. They protested their treatment, their dispossession from their land, the destruction of their culture and their exclusion from full political and legal rights. They also struggled to preserve elements of their culture even in the face of attempts to suppress it.

Excerpts from Deborah Bird Rose, Hidden Histories
(Canberra: Aboriginal Studies Press, 1991)

For insights into the struggle of Aboriginal peoples on the Pacific coast of Canada against attempts at legal suppression of their culture, see Potlatch ~ The Nemesis of Assimilation created by Anthony Bettanin.

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