A New Identity – Moving Beyond a European Southern Cross

26 January 2016

Bruce (Japaljari) Reyburn

I acknowledge the traditional owners of this country a.k.a. Northern Suburbs of Wollongong, NSW.

There is much debate about the role of the Union Jack in a future Australian (and New Zealand) national flag. This short piece raises a question about the role of the Southern Cross.

I learnt about the Southern Cross and the Pointers as a Boy Scout in outback Longreach, outback Queensland, where the stars are part of an electric black night.  This was about 1960. We learnt how to find South and always know our orientation from the Southern Cross and the Pointers. I always feel somehow secure and know my orientation when I see them.

We were being formed into the true sons of the British Empire – Baden-Powell, God, The Queen and Country – and also running free in the Australian bush whenever we could get away from the adult world.

But boyhood securities – I was briefly a server in the local Church of England as well – give way to more mature doubts about figures of authority. Some things just don’t add up. A search for answers to some of life’s puzzles lead me, in my 20s, to study anthropology (and thus into the worlds of First Peoples).

I spent a good part of last year reading about the cosmology of Western Arrarnta people (aka Aranda) who live in Central Australia.

Jumping to Central Australia –

T. G. H. Strehlow, who was born and raised at the Hermannsburg Lutheran Mission/Ntaria in Western Arrarnta country in Central Australia – and who wrote about how First Peoples Dreaming ancestors are to be found here in sacred sites on Earth – provides the astute observation:

“… the aboriginal Central Australians had not been forced by recent migrations to transfer their earth-born supernatural beings into the sky, in order to continue to enjoy the protection of these sky dwellers after moving to new areas.” (Personal Monototemism in a Polytotemic Community, 1964? fn 29, page 748)

By way of total contrast, Mircea Eliade has written, in his “Cosmos and History. The Myth of the Eternal Return” (1954?):

“It was in the name of Jesus Christ that the Spanish and Portuguese conquistadores took possession of the islands and continents that they had discovered and conquered. The setting up of the Cross was equivalent to a justification and to the consecration of the new country, to a “new birth,” thus repeating baptism (act of Creation). In their turn the English navigators took possession of conquered countries in the name of the king of England, new Cosmocrator.” (Elaide – ebook ref on Kindle Loc 269)

The truly genocidal dimensions of this mistaken European ‘new birth’ are now well known and acknowledged.

A new healing approach is called for in order to restore full well-being to First Peoples – and to restore something important to us Neo-Europeans living in Southern Lands. There is a major debt to be paid if we are to become grounded and return to, at least, our better selves.

The image of European Conquistadors – holding on to their Crucifix – forcing their way into the lives of people in what we now call the Americas comes to mind. Crosses, saving souls … plundering, murdering. There is an aspect of deep bad-faith inherent in that Cross.

In this respect, the Southern Cross, which was interpreted by some northern Europeans as a divine cosmic sign affirming their version of an Indo-European God, can also be seen as a symbol of imperialism, colonisation and the imposition on existing indigenous peoples of the arrival of dominating and expropriating peoples who lack the fundamental respect for long established human law.

It is no coincidence that the Southern Cross features on the flags of four Southern Hemisphere ‘Neo-European’ nation-states – Australia; New Zealand; Brazil; Papua New Guinea and Samoa. The first three are countries where a northern life model has been forcibly imposed on indigenous peoples in ways which do not provide a spirit of cultural partnership in relation to matters of two systems of laws and two Ways of Being.

Papua New Guinea and Samoa may represent highly artificial post-colonial forms of representation which are grounded solely in top-down European notions of the modern nation-state rather than indigenous concerns regarding culture, cosmology and the place of balanced exchange relationships and respect for land.

Many of the suggested new flags for a presumably new maturity in both New Zealand/Aotearoa and Australia feature the Southern Cross as a symbol of pride in place.

See, for an Australian example, http://www.abc.net.au/news/2016-01-26/alternative-australian-flags-ranked-by-university-survey/7113992?WT.ac=statenews_nsw

That ABC story, by Kate Higgins, notes:

The design, dubbed the Southern Horizon, was voted most popular in a survey of 8,140 people conducted by Western Sydney University.

The survey offered respondents a choice of six alternative Australian flag designs. Of those who took part, 6,427 chose a favourite flag.

Dr Benjamin T Jones, who oversaw the survey, said the Southern Horizon garnered 31 per cent of the vote, followed closely by the Reconciliation Flag, with 28 per cent.

Other designs included in the survey were the well-known Eureka flag (15 per cent), the Golden Wattle (12 per cent), the Sporting flag (7 per cent) and the Southern Cross flag (6 per cent).

Dr Jones said the two most popular designs showed that respondents fell into two categories: those who wanted a neutral design with a link to the current flag, and those who wanted a flag that recognised Australia’s Indigenous heritage.

“In many of the comments [from supporters of the Reconciliation Flag], an Indigenous element was an absolute must,” he said.

“But there were many who said it must be a neutral flag, inclusive of all ethnicities.” (ends – emphasis added- BR)

We are clearly in search of a new identity, and unsure which way to go. Balancing the tug of the past, the dreadful legacy of how this country was colonised, and who and what we wish to become.

The Southern Cross features in many of the new flag designs. There is a view held that the Southern Cross is also of significance to First Peoples. In a recent (December 2015) Sydney Morning Herald opinion piece, Allan Pidgeon, president of the Australian Flag Association, expressed the view that

“It is important to remember a flag is not a logo, but heraldry. Thus, the history of our flag symbolises so many things about Australians – our egalitarian spirit, scepticism of authority, and willingness to “have a go”. Its three elements all play a part in speaking to our past, present and future.

The Southern Cross not only references our place in the world, but it is highly significant in Aboriginal mythology.

The Union Jack acknowledges European settlement came from Britain, reflected in our national language, system of parliamentary government and the rule of law.

The “Commonwealth Star” symbolises our shared democratic future, formed by the “ballot rather than the bullet” following a peaceful vote by residents of the former colonies.” (emphasis added – BR)

Read more: http://www.smh.com.au/comment/why-australia-shouldnt-rush-to-change-the-flag-20151212-glm5zv#ixzz3yJfghLh5


Well the indigenous significance of the stars which are grouped together as the Southern Cross is worthy of a comprehensive study in itself. First Peoples night sky knowledge has been a much neglected area in both Australian life in general and in modern anthropology.

One of the authoritative studies, carried out by B. G. Maegraith amongst Western Arrarnta people in Central Australia found that they did not group those stars together at all, but they formed two different ‘constellations’.

Working with senior Arrarnta and Luritja men under the clear night skies of Central Australia in 1929, Maegraith found, for “Stars in the Region of the Southern Cross”:

“The rather obvious grouping of the four principal stars in the constellation of the Cross has not been appreciated by either the Aranda or the Luritja.

The aborigine has selected the bright second- and third-magnitude stars Gamma and Delta Crucis and arranged them along with the less prominent stars Gamma and Delta Centauri … This irregular, quadrangular arrangement of stars is termed Iritjinga, the Eagle-Hawk.

No other organised grouping of stars in the region of the Southern Cross seems to have been made, but it is in this region that a complicated system of marriage classifications is most in evidence… The stars Alpha and Beta Crucis are believed to be the Luritja parents of another star, the upper Pointer, Alpha Centauri. Beta Crucis is a male belonging to the class corresponding to Knaria, and Alpha Crucis is his lubra, a woman belonging to the class Ngala. Their child, the upper Pointer, Alpha Centauri, is a Paltara boy.”

(From – B. G. Maegraith 1930;29 “The Astronomy of the Aranda and Luritja Tribes” Transactions of the Royal Society of South Australia v.56 accessed via the Biodiversity Heritage Library www.biodiversitylibrary.org )

Maegraith continues in his study to link the other Pointer as a cousin to Arrarnta parents:

“The other Pointer, Beta Centauri, is a cousin of the Paltara man Alpha Centauri, and belongs to the class Mbitjana. He is an Aranda man, and is the son of Aranda parents, Alpha and Beta Trianguli, who belong to the Ngalaand Knaria marriage classes respectively…) (ibid).

For a fuller study of the significance of this complicated system of marriage classifications see my piece – https://onedrive.live.com/redir?page=view&resid=7A4D9B74955D2F57!1755&authkey=!AFbERi0hehvp-Eo

There may well be many other groups of First Peoples in this country who see those stars in other arrangements, including as a cross of some sort (e.g. as a ceremonial headdress of a Dreaming ancestor – and not that of European master narratives).

However, the Western Arrarnta evidence provides an important case to disprove the position taken by president of the Australian Flag Association.

And while Luritja and Aranda people interpret stars in that region in terms of important exchange relations linking them together, this lack of Anglo-Australian understanding of the indigenous significance of stars points to the missing exchange relationships between two Peoples in this country.

That said, we live in hope, the recent addition of the name of Koiki to a star in Crux (in recognition of the role of Eddie Koiki Mabo in the collective struggle for First Peoples recognition in this country) may also come to signify new heart being added to the Southern Cross. (This naming is limited to the Sydney southern sky catalogue, not that of the official International Astronomical Union.)

The Southern Cross is a most striking feature to my eye – I was imprinted with it as a boy in outback Longreach, probably when I joined the Boy Scouts and we spent time under the inky dark night sky. Mateship, love of the outdoors … at home on this planet.

But i do not know the extent to which First Peoples on the mainland of this country group see Crux as a constellation, or otherwise.

The significance of the stars in the ‘Southern Cross’ part of the night sky in Torres Strait (and other First Peoples here) is clearly different to that of Western Arrarnta, who (according to Maegraith) do not cluster those stars into a cross.

As indigenous people within the modern Australian nation-state, Torres Strait Islander peoples, with gardening, are clearly different from First Peoples Ways on the mainland of this country, and (I feel) closer in their practices to those of New Guinea. Their inclusion in ‘Australia’ came about, I understand, via the actions of colonial Queensland. They provide an important ‘mediated’ position between European and continental indigenous practices.

It was the presence of those Torres Strait gardens (with boundaries of a kind more visible to European eyes) which allowed the High Court Justices, in the Mabo No 2 case, to ‘see’ what they found difficult to understand in relation to ‘Aboriginal’ title on the mainland.

Those selecting the Southern Cross as a place to honour the champion of the struggle for recognition have – perhaps unknowingly – also placed him with an existing (and probably long standing) family grouping of Luritja and Arrernte peoples in Central Australia.

They will share one thing in common. In my study of Western Arrarnta cosmology it appears that a kind of ‘original sin’ was to hunt without permission on the land of others. I found this to be a basic norm when I was mentored by Warumungu and Alyawarra people in the Northern Territory during the 1980s.

(That is the short story. For a longer version of the story see https://onedrive.live.com/redir?page=view&resid=7A4D9B74955D2F57!1694&authkey=!AL91lsRf06h3CIM )

British authorities committed exactly this original sin when they occupied this country without the permission of the original First Peoples. That ‘sin’ remains part of non-indigenous Australians legacy.

It is worth quoting from a recent Mabo Oration (2011) by Terri Janke – appropriately entitled “Follow the stars: Indigenous culture, knowledge and intellectual property rights.” (full text http://www.adcq.qld.gov.au/__data/assets/pdf_file/0003/2289/2011-Mabo-Oration-booklet-tagged.pdf )

“Bill Lowah, a Torres Strait Islander social commentator, said that there was one universal aspect of the law for all cultures that was understood, and for Torres Strait Islanders it was this basic principle that lead to the High Court’s decision in the Mabo case:

Tag Mauki Mauki

Teter Mauki Mauki

“Your hand can’t take something that does not belong to you unless you have permission.

Your feet cannot walk in, or through someone else’s land unless there is permission.”

She continues:

“He advised me that this law is about the land and all things connected with it. The tangible and the intangible, the spiritual and cultural. This principle is as strong as it is for land, story, and for culture.” (2.3 Tag Mauki Mauki, Teter Mauki Mauki – page 12)

“The long established cultural practice of seeking consent, and not taking what is not yours, and continuing to be cultural respectful” (page 13) can be read at the very core of Western Arrarnta cosmology. But those missionaries who came to the core of the continent in the name of the Cross were not seeking to learn from First Peoples.

Similarly for secular ‘naturalists’ in the form of early modern anthropologists – the First Peoples who taught them so much were not recognised as ‘mentors’ but, rather, as primitive savages; remnants of a doomed race; living fossils from a prior Stone Age and so on.

The non-recognition – by European colonists – of the core value in the Ways of First Peoples in the Southern Hemisphere has not only denied due acknowledgement of the place reversed in life for those First Peoples, it has also delayed the much needed transformation of modern Western Ways both in these southern ‘Neo-European’ countries and in the northern hemisphere.

The chronic turmoil in Greece, as the birthplace of European democracy, supports the view that the age of life in this part of the world being dominated by Northern Hemisphere world-views is over. The spirit of cultural partnership is the new game in town as we seek permission to be on country.

Terri Janke writes:

“For me the [Mabo] case had great repercussions. True, it set a legal precedent. True it took away a lie. But for me, it was a shining star. Like the stars have always navigated Torres Strait Islanders, a seafaring people, Eddie Koiki Mabo’s light illuminated the night sky. It was a new pathway for Indigenous people, and a personal inspiration for me. It gave me a belief that the Australian legal system could deliver Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander’s peoples’ justice.”

Eddie Koiki Mabo was a star within a larger collective cluster.

For full recognition of First Peoples Ways, we have to avoid making a fetish out of one person in the collective struggle and acknowledge that the 1992 High Court decision was only possible thanks to the long hard work – against the odds – of a great number of other people, crafting their work and lives according to values then denied by the modern nation-state formation. Perhaps the surrounding clusters of unnamed stars in a peoples’ movement which made Eddie Koiki Mabo possible will come into better focus.

A useful concept here is that of “conceptual craftspeople”.

Unlike the conceptual craftspeople who consistently fashion works which comply with the norms of the modern nation-states and their commercial masters – and who are ‘rewarded’ accordingly – alternative conceptual craftspeople accept that life is a cosmic challenge and our task is to fashion new ways of Being. Life itself is our only true master.

The High Court’s 1992 Mabo No 2 decision was made possible by the hard work of a great number of people. It demonstrates what we – collectively – can achieve. We need all the conceptual craftspeople we can get – to fashion new forms of representation which comply with notions of order from this country which long predate 1788.

How we see the stars on our flag is part of that. As someone who loves the Southern Cross as much as the Pleiades/Seven Sisters, by what means can we incorporate First Peoples values into such arrangements? How can we transform the very worst form of bad-faith into a genuine and enduring form of good-faith?

The Western Arrarnta configuration of balanced exchange relationships certainly speaks to me – good faith between two peoples written in the stars overhead.

And to achieve that outcome, there is a major backlog in terms of exchange of things of real value which needs to be cleared before we can find our new bi-culturally balanced identity in this country.

To recognise – and restore – a new life spirit in this living country we need new ‘ears’ to hear what First Peoples – as cultural partners – have to say on these vitally important issues.


If our elected representatives are unable to provide us with leadership on this fundamentally important issue, new 21st Century representatives must be found. Either way, we must have a new spirit in this countries affairs. What can we do?

There are Federal elections coming up this year. We need to insist that these crucial issues are part of the ‘discussional agenda’ for all those who seek to represent us. That is one positive and constructive thing we can each do.

For the good of our own souls – to walk on country with genuine and informed permission.