January 20, 2005 10:07 am

Irene Cunningham: Historian Journalist Perth Western Australian

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 speak 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 their 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 explaining 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 history 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.

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