Secular models of sacred lives – a note on native title

The native title phase of modern anthropology in Australia (post 1992) has seen an expansion of conceptual craftspeople who have been busy fashioning representations which continue to comply with the specifications of the modern Anglo-Australian state.

Native title itself, as an invention of Anglo-Australian minds, is a weak form of recognition of the relationships between First Peoples and their living countries.

These craftspeople continue to fashion models of the lives of First Peoples which remain silent on the issue of the ongoing and coexisting sovereignty of First Peoples.

The only sovereignty they acknowledge is that of Anglo-Australian Crown.

For some, perhaps many, of these craftspeople who work closely with First Peoples the inability to properly depict the people they aspire to represent (since they fashion their representations in terms acceptable to the dominating state) is a source of deep frustration and deep stress.

They need to learn to listen to that part of their own Being which suffers from its own negation and to pay far closer attention to the voices of First Peoples who reject the terms on offer from the Anglo-Australian state – and to refashion their representations accordingly.

They have to learn to listen to the ‘doctor’ in their gut which is directing them to move away from being under remote control from their ‘professional’ culture (embedded with the state) and to discover the joys of giving voice to the messages of life itself.

Modern Australian culture, so-called, contains a whole host of control mechanisms which are less to do with enabling (despite the rhetoric to the contrary) and far more to do with manipulation and control.

Those with some idea of the workings of an unconscious-in-culture will appreciate how these things work – and the need to ensure that great care is taken to avoid the illusions suffered by others, such as ‘scientists’, that it is possible to practice as though in a social and political vacuum. It is not possible – social forces are as universal as gravity itself – these forces penetrate all aspects of life and there is no kind of ‘lead shielding’ which can stop them reaching into every choice and decision we make.

Anyone fashioning forms of representations is subject to these forces, and to amend our practices accordingly. Giving voice to what internalised ‘censors’ try to silence takes us into a higher level of our healing craft.

The control trips align with the paymasters. Anyone seeking to earn a living by fashioning representations of First Peoples in Australia will soon find that the state’s paymasters call the tune conceptual craftspeople are expected to replicate if they are to plan for a ‘normal’ life – income, home, family, mortgage, career etc.

As has been shown by the recent Commonwealth treatment of “Aboriginal” organisations, the Anglo-Australian paymasters continue to call the tune in part of life as well.

Until First Peoples themselves begin receiving direct and proper payment for the use of the resources of their living countries, especially in regard to such things as minerals and water (and the past use of their country for towns, houses, real estate) and until First Peoples have enough funds to stabilise their own lives, this situation does not look like changing. They remain unable to engage our services.

Yet all conceptual craftspeople who fashion representations of First Peoples should realise that we are in the process of a major transformation of life. It may be more important to invest in our Other (and next?) lives, rather than in a ‘comfortable’ retirement in this. Those who operate with a secular model of life will find such a statement meaningless, of course. We need more conceptual craftspeople who can bring a greater awareness of the ongoing miracle of life to what we do.

Ironically, as global warming increases the temperature of the planet and (rightly or wrongly) as a growing awareness of the role played in this warming by the industrial ‘revolution’ when combined with materialistic consumerism, we are increasing turning away from what Levi-Strauss called ‘hot’ societies (which seek to align with change and ‘progress’) to ‘cold’ societies (or ways of Being) which seek to maintain a favourable position relative to the sum total of the rest of life.

There is a future for conceptual craftspeople in fashioning models which seek to reintroduce back into life the things which were systematically factored out in the heyday of a headlong charge in the name of ‘progress’. Walter Benjamins ‘angel of history’ sees this ‘progress’ as an unfolding disaster.


The growing mountain of chaos can be seen in the inability of the Anglo-Australian courts to recognise First Peoples relations with country in cases like Yorta Yorta and now, appropriately enough, in that country renamed as “Darwin”.

At the time of writing, the High Court of Australia has just rejected an appeal of the Larrakia people for recognition of their native title rights on the grounds that they have failed to maintain the necessary connections with country.

It is a curious thing that their land could have been regarded as the property of a British monarch who had not only never set foot in this country but had never carried out any similar role or had any rights on this side of the planet under the tenure fictions of the feudal system.

If the same degree of sensitivity which the Anglo-Australia courts bring to detecting the presence of connections between First Peoples and their countries was applied to non-indigenous claims to land the next wave of boat people would be those leaving the country to whence they originated (from the First Fleet onwards).

As that scenario is completely out of the question, the real and serious issue is one of finding a better balance point in the relationships between First Peoples and the modern Anglo-Australian social formation.

It is a question of drawing level on all levels. This is the major challenge – since it requires a reworking of the complete modern Australian social formation. In addition to the obvious (e.g. political forms of representation) it will also require, for example, a rethinking of such things as the Darwinism to factor back in some of what was factored out by the failure to recognise the role played by First Peoples practices is shaping ecosystems.

This will require some very high level thinking to produce the equivalent, in western understanding of life, as that which took classic physics into relativity. Just as relativity may have been ‘unthinkable’ during the 1800s, so too is a future understanding of life which is only now beginning to emerge in modern western thinking – due, in part, to the delay and resulting lack of genuine dialogue with the peoples of the world which European’s encountered as a consequence of imperialism and colonialism. The dialogue may have been postponed, but cancelling it permanently is beyond the ability of any present power. It is part of life’s realisation of life itself.

Old and familiar skins, which once served to protect introduced forms of life in Australia from contact with their true surroundings, will increasingly be found to be overly constricting. They will be shed and new forms of life will emerge, able to make better contact with our surroundings by virtue of new metaphors for our interpretation of experience.

In place of forcefully imposed pretensions of domination (complete with all the official rituals which represent it) we will shift into modes of Being premised on skills and talents for relating.

The so-called acquisition of sovereignty by the British, as transferred to the Anglo-Australian Crown, is part of a fantasy structure premised on the non-existence of First Peoples as First Peoples.

“You will fashion representations of First Peoples this way if your resulting form of representation is to be deemed well-formed – not by the First Peoples themselves – but by those who occupy key positions in the Anglo-Australian social formation.”

The possibility that the senior men of First Peoples must be represented, in the first instance, by themselves (What they say is how it is.) or, when represented by others, done so in terms which display them in the highest forms possible (as life-priests of high standing) is not accepted.

It may be accepted in a tokenistic way, as a form of play, but not at the core of Being – which is where it counts.

The low-level and secular depictions of the lives of First Peoples – those which serve as a kind of ‘legal tender’ within the discipline of modern Anthropology – are far more readily embraced by the Anglo-Australian authorities.

These are not only ‘blessed’ by the tinge of pseudo-science they carry with them, but they pose no real threat to the obsolete stereotypes Anglo-Australian authorities operate with as part of their imperial culture and which buffer them from the blind obvious – that is, that they are not born to rule in Australian life.

By keeping proceedings on a low secular level, more transcendental forms of awareness are kept at bay – at least, for the time being – and that is the only time which matters to an Anglo-Australian formation busily exploiting the resources of First Peoples.

Maintaining the fantasy structure of Anglo-Australia is satisfied (for the moment) by keeping current a cluster of illusions regarding the relative positions of First Peoples vis-a-vis Anglo-Australians.

When we look into the heart of Darwinism, we see that part of the process by which it formed required it to reject the claims to divinity of the former ruling class.

Darwin’s path was one which rejected notions of divinity on one side just as it denied the revolutionary consequences of his world view for the ‘masses’ on the other. In embracing the divine right of private property (as won in the earlier revolution in the 1600s) he not only distanced himself and his craft from the claims of divine rights of kings but also of the life rights of proletarian ‘masses’. The co-founder of natural selection, Wallace, a socialist, is merely a phantom figure for those who invoke the success of Darwin’s theory.

So it should not be a surprise to find that the work of modern anthropologists – work which was made possible by the success of Darwinism – is also crucially lacking when it comes to crafting representations of lives which can only be described as ‘sacred’.

The full cluster of existential factors which run through life take us well beyond the reach of secularisation. While not requiring a belief in a single creator, whatever divinity is to be found anywhere, it runs through our lives and must be included in any crafted representation if that representation is to be considered ‘adequate’ and balanced.

To invoke a materialist metaphor, it is like a vein of gold running through an ore body or a work of fine art. A better metaphor, however, is a living one – to compare it with the neural system itself, without which a physical body is useless regardless of the power of its muscles and strength of its bones,

The question arises then, if the secularising models of modern anthropology make a mockery of First Peoples lives, is there some other means by which better crafted representations can be made?

First Peoples representing themselves is the most important solution to this question.