There’s a common misconception non-Indigenous Australians entertain regarding the closure of the Uluru summit climb: that somehow their opinion on the question matters.
There are several arguments for stopping the climbing of Uluru. First there is the spiritual. According to the Anangu people there is a songline that is crossed and violated by the climb. We don’t need to understand these reasons, but we do need to respect them.
Second, there is safety. People die climbing and there appears to be no way to prevent those deaths while keeping the climb open. Whenever someone dies climbing the rock the traditional owners feel a strong feeling of grief; culturally they feel responsible for every death or injury caused by climbing the rock.
Third, people are disgusting. Urine and faeces are often left on the rock to cascade into sacred waterholes when it rains. To most Indigenous Australians the health of waterholes is more important than any person’s feelings.
There are many reasons given by non-Indigenous Australians why the climb should have stayed open, why they should be able to run roughshod over Indigenous belief, culture and rights to land. However, most come down to variations of ‘because I want to climb it’ or statements of disbelief regarding the reasons Traditional Owners want the climb closed.
This disrespect for Indigenous culture reminds me of the Hindmarsh Island bridge saga where ‘Secret women’s business’ was presented, by traditional owners, as a reason to not build the bridge but disregarded—even declared to be false—by a royal commission. Many years later it was acknowledged by the courts and later by the SA government that this was a bad decision. Secret women’s business that declared a bridge to the island taboo did indeed exist. It was and is deserving of respect.
You would think that by now Australians would have learned that Indigenous Australians take our culture seriously and do not falsify that culture to get our way.
In the end the least compelling argument for allowing people to climb Uluru is ‘the rock belongs to everybody’. It doesn’t. The rock and the national park around it, Uluru Kata Tjuta National Park, are in fact private land; they are owned by the Anangu people. On October 26, 1985 the title of the park was returned to the rightful owners who were then forced to lease the land to the federal government as national park.
Part of the agreement that led to that hand back was a promise that the climb would be closed. This part of the agreement was ignored, the government of the day turning its back on the pledge it made to the traditional owners. The climb from then, until closure, had been in limbo, the traditional owners being clear on their preference that the rock no longer be climbed and the government and non-Indigenous members of the management committee promising it would be closed eventually.
What bothers me is that non-Indigenous people argue with the opinions of the Traditional Owners regarding their desire to close the climb. These opinions don’t matter. The rock does not belong to everybody. It is private land and belongs only to the Traditional owners. Visitors are simply permitted to visit. I imagine if Uluru Kata Tjuta National Park belonged to a non-Indigenous organisation or to non-Indigenous people as freehold there will be no claims the rock belongs to the nation.
This problem is visible often when permits to access Indigenous land are discussed. There are constant complaints from non-Indigenous travellers and fishers that they should not be required to obtain permits to access Aboriginal land, for example Arnhem Land. The argument is that nobody should be required to ask permission to enter land that ‘belongs to everybody’, which it does not, being owned by Aboriginal people. I can only conclude that some Australians have difficulty believing or understanding that Aboriginal land actually belongs to Aboriginal people.
This can only be considered as racist. Land owned by Non-Indigenous Australians is considered to be property, a right that is sacrosanct, while land owned by Indigenous communities is treated as if it is owned by everybody. The same people who readily accept that a cattle station is private, and permission is needed to enter, believe that you can do whatever you want at Uluru.
This racism has to end.
Claire G. Coleman is a Wirlomin-Noongar writer and poet, whose 2017 debut novel, ‘Terra Nullius’ won the Norma K Hemming Award. Her current novel is ‘The Old Lie’.