Recognition and protection of Indigenous peoples knowledge and resources are profoundly ethical questions based on concepts of universal fairness and justice. It is the Indigenous people themselves who will redefine Intellectual Property Rights. (Netherlands Centre for Indigenous People,1994)
To get Aboriginal people, or any population inhabiting a continent, to speek with one voice would seem too improbable to think about. Although united by their spirituality, diversity of Aboriginal views and opinions is well known, and often sensationalised by the Media.
This situation had to be overcome by Robert Eggington, Director of Dumbartung (Perth centre for protecting the integrity of Aboriginal Culture), when he began the journey in 1994 to unite his people in the face of continuing appropriation of their Cultural property. Australian Aboriginal knowledge has been misinterpreted, reified, released illegally, misunderstood, and profited from for two centuries. Major theorists, including Durkheim (Elementary forms of religious Life was a bible for many), Freud, Levi-strauss, et al, made wide use of Aboriginal belief systems, and almost all have been accused by their fellows of getting it wrong. Today, the material that has been, and is, marketed so heedlessly and without permission has academic corridors of power somewhat worried as to who owns what.
To the Western mind and system of Law, ownership implies material worth valued in dollars and cents - although when it came to plundering Aboriginal lands and knowledge this western definition vanished - until the land and knowledge were safely in the hands of the colonisers. But Aboriginal people do not measure ownership in this way. Ownership of knowledge, implicit with land, is valued as a means of providing family strength and health, justice and environmental protection, and essential spiritual balance. There have been bookshelves of words written about Aboriginal belief systems but there is still a lack of understanding, although since the High Court Native Title decision most of us in Australia know that connection with the land is crucial to the survival of Aboriginal culture, and it has been fought for since colonisation.
At the same time another fight has been waged, and recently there was a major victory. But where the cost for legal recognition of Aboriginal rights to thier own land is in terms of billions of dollars, the cost of this battle - for ownership of intellectual property - has been almost nothing. It was fought from a base of honour, morality and ethics, for no monetary gain. That the fight to end the appropriation of Aboriginal intellectual and cultural property is being led by a Perth Nyoongar is of particular significance. If anyone knows landscape and its meaning it is the Indigenous inhabitants of earth's oldest land mass. Nyoongars say they did not come from a "cradle of mankind" in Africa or Asia: they have always lived here. Ask them. They'll tell you, along with much much more.
Their knowledge has always been generously given, and it has been free, but if you're going to repeat it, they ask you to get it right. And that means sitting with them for a wongee (a good talk) that might take years. Nyoongar leaders, like Yagan in the 1830s, spent months and years with white men explaning the land and its meaning with patient details and care to protect sacred places. Aboriginal men and women almost always directed the first white explorers around WA. Swan River Colony's Advocate General George Flectcher Moore wrote: "From (their) local knowledge we obtained much useful information as to the names of places, qualities and production of the soils, position of water and many other things, and from whose cheerful, obliging and communicative disposition we derived assistance and amusement"
Nyoongar guides explained how rivers ran, described plants and uses, showed what foods to eat and interpreted for neighbouring language groups. At the end of the day they told stories and performed dances: "Their words with the dances contain strong allusions to passing events; these ceremonies are to them as important eras and serve the purpose of historic records" wrote Moore. But the Nyoongar people were said by anthropologists and historians to have been wiped out following white contact, and most of the non-Indigenous population of Australia believe this to be true; some Indigenous people also believe it to be true and can be heard to say that Nyoongars are not real blackfellas. But there are thousands of people with Nyoongar ancestry living today. Their culture was kept alive, when it was illegal by reciting histroy and performing ceremonies away from white eyes and ears, around the fires that have never stopped burning. "May our campfires burn forever," is Eggington's maxim. His faith in his culture, pride in his heritage and knowledge that his people "grew out of the dust of the oldest land on earth - we did not migrate from anywhere" have long sustained him. His expertise and vision were behind the 1991 and 1993 Kyana Festivals. As a father he wants his children and their children to grow up proud of their heritage. As director of Dumbartung he knows that cultural knowledge plays a serious role in addressing his people's social problems.
When Mutant Message Down Under, by American Author Marlo Morgan who claims detailed knowledge of Aboriginal Culture, came his way he found he'd had enough. "This book is a fabricated fantasy, a deceit," he said from the time he read it. Morgan's book self-published in 1990, was sold by her as fact. When the rights were bought by Harper Collins in 1994 they issued it as fiction, for their protection. However, Morgan's preface still states that the book "was written after the fact", includes "important historical information", and has the "blessing and approval" of Aboriginal elders. The perception remains that it is to be read as truth. Like most Australians, Eggington believes in freedom of speech. Although as an Aboriginal person he has been denied this right it is basic to his own heritage. And he knows that fiction writers are free to say what they like. For instance, wheather the content of The Hand that Signed the Paper is palatable or not, it is fiction and does not claim to be otherwise; similary, Salman Rushdie's The Satanic Verses is fiction, and to equate the Aboriginal objection to Marlo Morgan with the fatwa on Rushdie is fallacious.
In addition, Morgan tours the US and Europe lecturing as an expert on Australian Indigenous culture, makes CD-Roms and videos of herself to support her act, has sold film rights, and has a sequel forthcoming. A San Francisco review described her book as "Cultural imperialism masquerading as harmless new age spiritualism". But while that may well be true it credits the author with an agenda and intellectual capacity not evident in her writing, the most trivial twaddle I've ever ploughed through. That it was shortlisted for the 1995 American Booksellers Book of the Year says more about American gullibility and cupidity than about the book's quality.
Written for the view that only she, Gods-own American do-gooder, can save the world through what she learnt from "actual experience" with the "Real People" (Indigenous Australians), Morgan says that white Australians care so little about Aboriginal people (all "half-breeds" except for a handful of "Real People" in the Desert) that she must take over and show these "Half-breeds" how to create a "very successful" money making company. Non-Indigenous Australians are presented as having no built-ins in houses, still learning to make basic imitations of American food, without US appliances, with only white clothes in stores because everyone plays bowls, and such a problem being eaten by sharks that special training is needed. She also suggest that there are few Australian books (implying backwardness) so she, one assumes, has had to write the definitive text.
As we in Australia know, there are thousands of books on Aborignal Culture, written by them from their own knowledge, appropriate for study, or even making Hollywood films, and thousands of qualified Aboriginal adivisers. Research fellow at Edith Cowan in, 1993, Dr Lucia Cappacchione from California, an authority on the use of art in Indigenous Communities to raise self-esteem, found "a rich selection" of books available. She interviewed Robert Eggington and reported Dumbartung and the other Nyoongar agencies at Waterford "a model for integrating healing of body and mind in the context of the revival of Aboriginal arts, Culture and Customs". You may well ask: why not drop Mutant Message in the bin? Because: it has been on the US best sellers list for 25 weeks, been translated and sold widely in Europe and Japan cashing in on worldwide interest in Indigenous spiritual values; it has sent Americans to Australia seeking the "Real People"; it is to become a film. Hollywood is about to reconstruct Australia's most precious asset (Aboriginal Culture) by basing a film on ludicrous "facts". Shirley McLean, offered the lead, was advised by Andrew Peacock not to touch it.
Noted Anthropologist Dr John Stanton of UWA critqued the book, finding the text permeated with new-age imagery, popular stereotypes of Aboriginality similar to those peddled by Ion Idriess in the 1930's, and alien Native American concepts and names. His critique is damming. All Australians should be up in arms. The potential to truly unite, or "reconcile", our country in this cause is obvious. The beginning of Eggington's journey to refute Morgan's claims was to travel through the outback regions where the author says she lived with the "Real People". He needed to know the truth: had Morgan really lived with a central Australian Aboriginal group? Had secret knowledge been passed on to her as she claims? He had to carry the book he found odious to handle. He had to introduce it to Traditional Aboriginal people, explain without bias what had happened, and wait for responses, or possible confirmation that she had been there. The investigations took a year and resulted in Bounuh Wongee: Message Stick, a comprehensive 90 page report printed with ATSIC'S assistance and including statements from across Australia. For example from the Central Australian Aboriginal Congress: "It's typical of American cults to fill the world with rubbish and pollute the minds of naive people. Something has to be done for our sake and for our children"; and the Kimberley Aboriginal Law Centre: "The book makes a mockery of Aboriginal Culture, and no law people would ever contribute to...such blant commercialisation of their culture". There was one dissenting voice, that of Burnum Burnum from NSW, whose "Official" full-page endorsement appears in Morgan's book, and who went on a lecturing jaunt with her through the USA.
Eggington went everywhere, and if you think he had limitless resources think again. Dumbartung is funded by ATSIC : $90,000 annually, covering salaries for a staff of three, office equipment and running costs. Not lavish. But there's always a welcome cup of tea and a supply of drawing pins to add another face or deed to their "Wall of Shame" where those who steal Aboriginal Culture are publicily denounced. From his base the single-minded Eggington planned. It took imagination, tact, patience, determination, and a few trips to the bush for spiritual renewal. Calmly, he took the hitches: a thousand and one daily petty distractions; Morgan accusing him of seeking monetary compensation (thereby exposing her ignorance of real Aboriginal values); unanswered phone calls to bureaucrats; glib bland empty responses from Ministers to letters asking for advice, monetary help, enthusiasm.
The State Government refused financial assistance. At the same time, $100,000 plus was being spent in London to advertise the Festival of Perth which, director David Blenkinsop told The Times, was to feature "many aspects of Aboriginal culture". (Londoners rushing to Perth in February to soak up Aboriginal culture may have been a tad disappointed - yes, the Festival poster was designed by an Aboriginal artist, but of 80 or more main events only one was wholly Aboriginal and it came from Sydney). Perhaps what hurt most was the failure of much of the local media to grasp the importance of the issue. Here was a confrontation of David and Goliath dimensions between a Nyoongar and a Harper Collins supported best-selling American author, a landmark event in global terms about the countinuing appropriation of Indigenous knowledge, that will impact hugely on WA and the rest of Australia. What has happened to the eye for a good story? Eventually, after months of knockbacks and negotiating, ATSIC provided some funding, with the World Council of Churches making up the difference, for a group of Elders to travel to the US to explain their reasons for objecting to Morgan's depiction of their culture.
Among the elders were Traditional Lawpeople whose powerful presence impressed America. Tornados swept through Morgan's home state. Morgan broke down and confessed her hoax. As a consequence Burnum Burnum withdrew his endorsement of her book. In Los Angeles alone, Eggington received 500 calls from the media in five days. Fantasyland turned on the glitz, stretch limos, dinner in Beverly Hills, a rare tour of the newage inner sanctum - perhaps an attempt to pervert the cause - after all, United Artist has the script written. In San Francisco the elders were feted by Mayor Willie Browne and AIM, The American Indian Movement. They gave countless radio interviews and made headlines in American, Asian and European papers. In Australian states there were a small coverage. The significance of Eggington's achievement cannot be over-emphasised. One of the most important events in our history, with wide implications, it is as pivotal as the Mabo case which took ten years through various courts and cost millions, and led to every major legal firm in Australia employing a native title expert, and The Native Title Tribunal (a growing white bureaucracy believed to have a budget this year of $20,000,000), which has not yet allowed an Aboriginal claim for land.
Eggington won his case without (Western) legal expertise but he did have the wisdom of Paul Sampi, a Senior Bardi Lawman who stood by throughout. Almost single-handely he brought his people together, and through firm moral conviction and dedicated responsibility for his Culture has earned respect from around the world. His achievement is a clear warning to those who misuse Aboriginal Intellectual and Cultural Property: they now have a force to reckon with.
The fight is not yet over, the film may go ahead, the book remains on the shelves, but optimism and hope are replacing despondency in the Aboriginal Community. As Eggington says, "The fight for Aboriginal Intellectual and Cultural Property Rights now has its own momentum: The Pendulum is swinging. Its up to Indigenous People themselves to keep it swinging". "May our Campfires burn forever", he repeats. They will, Robert, as long as people like you are around to fan the flames.