Thursday, October 23, 2008

tindale's map of australian aboriginal tribal boundaries

Tindale's map of the boundaries of the tribal lands of Australia's aboriginal inhabitants is currently appearing on television sets across Australia as part of an advertisement for SBS's documentary, First Australians. The narrator for the advertisement announces that the early settlers arrived here to inhabit a land declared terra nullius... an empty land, belonging to nobody. Tindale's detailed map is convincing evidence of the arrogance and ignorance of the claim. The map lends weight, at least to my Western eyes, to the existence of a people and culture that occupied the space we are now claiming as ours. I knew and acknowledged this previously. But the map brings it home with alarming force. How could it be possible to go through an entire Australian school education "knowing" this fact without really understanding it? What I have seen of SBS's documentary so far is stunning. This would be great to show Australian school kids! I wish I could have seen it years ago.

It is more than a little discomforting to consider that "my" city and the house on the tiny suburban block of land where I live, have all been taken forcibly from people who belong here. What's worse is that in many cases these people weren't simply displaced, they were killed.

Just down the road from me is, by Melbourne's settler standards, an old cemetery. The oldest graves there are from the 1850s. Settlers living 10 or 15 kilometres from the central city set up orchards and market gardens in the hills now called Burwood. Their families are buried, looking away from the city towards the Dandenong Ranges. Some of the old weatherboard houses still remain. The oldest I've found has sat above the cemetery since 1905. The spaces between it and the graves have been subdivided and filled with rows of brick and timber houses and units. All of this suburban development is on land that was in the range of the Wurundjeri. I wonder, when was the last time an aboriginal family stood on the hill, looking towards the ranges? When was the last time an aboriginal family left their own dead in the region?

Thankfully the First Australians is not all glum. It includes fantastic archival film footage, spectacular photographs, fascinating readings from journals and field notes, interviews with historians and, thankfully, interviews with people who know a good deal more about native culture than the recent visitors. Terrific!

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