I was born in Perth, Western Australia, just over 500 kilometres, by whitefella roads, from the town where my grandfather was born, a town in the middle of his ancestral Country where our people have lived forever, or so close to forever that it might as well be. He never went far from Noongar Country, he lived there, he worked there, he was buried there. The only time he left Country was to fight in a war that whitefellas were fighting in the name of our colonisers.
In the 2016 dry season I was visiting the place whitefellas call the Top End, the northern half of the Northern Territory. The Territory is huge but mostly empty, having in its vast area far less than one-tenth of the population of Melbourne. That population is a bit less than one-third Aboriginal Australian (depending on who you ask), by a great margin the highest proportion on the continent. The national average is a tenth of that.
I wanted to see the spectacular wildlife of the tropics, particularly big crocodiles, the only species in Australia that eat humans on purpose, so I booked a place on a sunset cruise on a billabong. The crocodiles were beautiful and the cruise was educational, not just regarding the wildlife.
Our whitefella guide was not a bad guide, informative, as free with words as you would like a guide to be. He had studied the wildlife, knew a lot about the area, or had at least memorised some scripts. I had only one issue with the man and it cut right to the heart of the culture of prejudice, colonialism and racism in Australia. With just a few words, probably poorly chosen, he proved to me that in my home country colonial thinking still dwells deep in the national psyche. Every time he mentioned the traditional owners of the Country the tour visited, he would begin with the words ‘Back when the Aboriginals were nomadic …’
The notion that the first people to live on this continent were nomadic before the British invasion is a common Australian belief. It is so strong, so overwhelmingly dominant, it feels that to question it would be madness. This continues despite the fact that the evidence for ‘nomadic Aboriginals’ is virtually non-existent. Evidence to the contrary is abundant. Asserting that the first Australians were nomadic is a fundamental component of the doctrine of terra nullius, an idea pivotal to the British assertion of the right to colonise—to invade—this continent. It is also, for the most part, a fantasy.
This pervasive myth can be traced back to Cook. He sailed up the east coast of an enormous land in 1770, having no time, equipment, guides or inclination to visit the unimaginably vast inland, then stopped on Possession Island and declared that there were no settled people on the continent and it was thus terra nullius, nobody’s land.
Then in 1788, in a place that would be called Sydney, a settled people encountered their first nomads. Hundreds of them, nearly all men. They staggered off boats and settled down to occupy somebody else’s home, the first of many thousands who would occupy and eventually overwhelm the continent.
It was not only the largest overseas migration in the history of the world, which is what we often hear, it also triggered the largest single land grab in history. One man, standing on a small island, claimed ownership, for the Crown, of an entire, occupied continent. This would be roughly equivalent to standing on one of the Channel Islands and claiming the entirety of Europe. This is simple high-school-level history, or would be if we were taught decent amounts of true Australian history in school, and I have no intention to argue about those facts. Instead I will state one obvious fact that Australians almost completely ignore: Cook lied through his teeth.
There were settled people here when Cook claimed the continent. We are still here, have always been here and are going nowhere. We were a settled people, a people with the longest continuing culture on Earth, a mythology, religion and archaeology far older than history and a connection to Country the British invaders would never be able to understand or appreciate. There is evidence, plenty of it, that our culture, our archaeology, contains the oldest record of human culture on the planet.
Let’s take the time to understand the true meaning of the word ‘nomad’. Nomads, according to most dictionaries, wander, looking for grazing for their herd animals. By that definition Aboriginal Australian people could not have been nomads: we had no herd animals, no domesticated animals other than the dingo. Jared Diamond, in his book Guns, Germs and Steel, tells us that at the time of the development of agriculture throughout most of the world, the continent of Australia did not have any animals suitable for domestication.
Admittedly, there were almost certainly people travelling through the Australian deserts, an environment that is home to nomads all over the world. When food and water are limited there is little choice but to travel when they run out. Australia’s deserts are certainly harsh enough to preclude any sort of settled life that does not involve importing food.
The First Australians who belonged to what whitefellas call the ‘desert’ travelled through their Country, yet were by no means nomads in the true sense. The peoples of the Australian desert travelled a strict rotation of waterholes following an ancestral map encoded in stories, songlines and sometimes rock art—and always in memory. Water is so scarce out there that wandering aimlessly, rather than methodically from waterhole to waterhole, will get you killed. Experienced explorers with horses and pack animals died without Aboriginal help. You already knew that.
The traditional owners of an area knew their borders, knew where they were allowed to travel, knew not to cross the invisible lines. I wonder if you knew that. They would never cross the line into someone else’s Country without permission—it was, as a general rule, unthinkable.
When the British arrived they brought crops and animals, wheat, sheep and cattle, they were looking for pasture, for land, for farms. They were unquestionably nomadic, by the true definition of the word, travelling to find pasture for their herds.
Cattle stations, most of them located in the parts of Australia whitefellas call the ‘outback’, are no more than a modern version of traditional, nomadic cattle grazing, where fast cars and helicopters help the station staff avoid the indignity of travelling and camping with their animals. Instead the animals are nomadic and modern vehicles help the herders find, muster and harvest them.
Before helicopters, four-wheel-drive utes and quad-bikes, the station hands travelled on horseback, with their cattle within the station. Many of those hands were Indigenous people, working on their Country without pay. They used their knowledge of their land, where they had lived since before Britain became habitable after the last ice age, to help their white masters. Aboriginal Australians had always travelled within their estates or stations, their Country, they just didn’t need fences to know where their borders were, they had stories, they had lore from time immemorial for that. After the whitefellas came, sometimes the only way to stay on Country was to work on the stations that were superimposed over their ancient homelands.
Only weeks after the wetland cruise I travelled to the Aboriginal community of Kalkarindji for a big party, three days of camping and celebration, music, talks, art. There was once a cattle station in that place, the whitefellas called it Wave Hill Station, although there are no waves (no ocean) and none of the hills are noticeably wave-like—or particularly large. Fifty years ago the Aboriginal stockmen and their families walked away from their underpaid and unpaid jobs, from slavery. They settled in for a strike many call the longest strike in Australian history.
It is no longer a secret that it was not truly a strike for equal wages. The intention of the strikers, from the very beginning, was to get back their land. Two hundred people, stockmen and their families, walked away from the station, set up camp by a creek and sat there for eight long years. They refused to move, they refused to work, they risked starvation and violence from the settlers and the police. They didn’t do this for money, for wages, for anything most Australians would understand, they did it to get back their land. This rebellion was not the act of a nomadic people, this was the act of a people who had a connection with their land more powerful than the invaders, the settlers, the station owners could ever hope to understand.
They got their land back, as a pastoral lease, and, almost by accident, brought equal wages for Indigenous workers. There was an unintended side effect, I don’t know if it would have given them pause: other First Australians who had been working for low wages or rations to stay on Country were thrown off those stations. Nothing was going to make the whitefella station owners pay them the same as they paid the white staff, or pay them at all. Many of the ex-slaves were dumped on the banks of the Fitzroy River, which became the nucleus of what is now Fitzroy Crossing.
Fitzroy Crossing in the Kimberley, Western Australia, is a beautiful town, or at least I thought so when I visited. It is now home to around five language groups of Indigenous Australians, who make up the majority of the town’s population and have been drawn together from a vast area. The Indigenous people there, who had been living in what some call desert for countless years, had been displaced from their land by nomadic cattle herders, who stole their land and their waterholes. What else, if not nomads, can you call the drovers, who herded cattle up the Canning Stock Route?
The Canning Stock Route only exists because the local people were enslaved, chained up and fed salt beef and not given water. When their captors thought they were thirsty enough, when they were dying of thirst, they were followed, for the white man knew the blackfella could find water. How else would whitefellas find the water? Those are the stories you hear, and there is no reason for anyone to lie about it.
The waterholes were also enslaved, concreted up as wells, imprisoned in steel, concrete and stone. The drovers needed the water for cattle and the Aboriginal desert people who also needed it had no power to stop the theft. Many walked off their traditional land, driven out not by drought, which is what I was taught in school, but by the theft of their water. They were driven to the cattle stations, where they worked for rations. When the stations were forced by a change in the law to pay them they were forced off the stations to fringe camps outside the towns.
In many parts of Australia, First Australian oral history associates the local traditional custodians with relatively small areas, much smaller than a cattle station, sometimes far smaller than a modern city. The notion that a mob of Aboriginal Australians wandered aimlessly over unimaginably vast areas is a myth. Rather, people would travel through a very limited homeland, sometimes having a summer camp and a winter camp, or a camp for each season. How is that more nomadic than the tradition among the aristocratic English of having a summer home and a winter home, or the tradition in some countries of having a little farm outside the city to grow food?
Evidence collected and collated by Bruce Pascoe, largely from explorers’ journals and published in his book Dark Emu, suggests that most, if not all, Australian ‘nomadism’ was of exactly that type. In fact despite Cook’s statements, there is evidence of settled life, in buildings, in houses. Cook’s assertions were not, still are not, scrutinised because the declaration of terra nullius was exactly what the empire needed, and what Australia still needs to maintain the status quo.
I grew up in urban white Australia. Despite my Aboriginality I had an upbringing that was recognisably white and almost embarrassingly average. Identification with a place was not part of the culture. When I reached adulthood almost everyone I knew would have found identification with a place unimaginable. Most of those people moved house every year as leases on their rentals ran out, if they were lucky enough to avoid a six-month lease. Many of those people regularly, incessantly, unthinkingly moved cities, moved towns, moved states. Even I moved from Western Australia, the state that contains my ancestral Country, to Melbourne. I did not yet know my Country.
Many of the average Anglo-Australians I knew would not hesitate to move countries, mostly for economic reasons but sometimes just for the hell of it. People I knew sometimes just felt like moving to England and did. Others moved to South-East Asia because, frankly, there was money to be made ripping off those then Third World countries.
Travelling for work is a fundamental part of the national identity for Anglo Australians, they almost worship the swagman at times. Those who know history would remember that ‘Waltzing Matilda’, a song about a swaggie, almost became our national anthem, maybe it should have—everybody hates ‘Advance Australia Fair’. Years of travel have taught me that many Australians identify strongly with swagmen, their images are everywhere, on caravans, on petrol stations, on restaurants and cafés. I have known very few Aboriginal people who would travel for work, many would find it unthinkable. Indigenous Australians are living in Third World conditions, despite the fact that they might find work if they moved. They do it so they can stay on Country.
Even Centrelink, the government agency that’s supposed to help the unemployed, the disabled, the old and vulnerable survive, has travelling to work embedded in its system. Years ago, decades ago, when I was travelling across the country I was on unemployment benefits, and got them, despite handing in my forms in a different town each fortnight, because I said I was ‘travelling to look for work’.
As I travel I meet many nomads, people with no home, with no fixed address, they live for the most part on Highway One, the road that goes from Darwin to Cairns the long way round and takes in every capital but Hobart and Canberra. They are retirees travelling on their pensions, on their superannuation, on their savings. Most people call them ‘grey nomads’; they are also almost entirely white. For many Anglo-Australians that is their dream, to travel Australia once they retire. Almost every Aboriginal Australian I meet shares a dream too, if they are not in their home Country they dream of one day returning there. If they were born in the bush, on Country, they want to die where they were born.
Even I, who have travelled most the last five years, want to return home. I intend to settle down only when I can afford a home in my Country. And that is the ultimate travesty: my family have been here forever yet I must save money I don’t have, maybe save forever, to buy back some of my own Country, my grandfather’s Country.
The question I ask myself is: why would people fight for their land, why would people die from homesickness if they were nomadic? Why would the people of Kalkarindji and Daguragu, the Gurinji mob’s preferred town site, work as slaves to stay in Country, then risk their lives to get that land back?
Why would other people, Europeans, travel tens of thousands of kilometres to get to this continent when such travel was incredibly hazardous? They were the first economic migrants to Australia, the first queue-jumpers; with the exception of the convicts whom the British inexplicably dumped here, they were all looking for a ‘better life’. They were not refugees, fleeing persecution in their own countries. When they arrived they created refugees—the traditional owners who, unless they are in a community on Country, match the UN’s definition of internally displaced people. I would ask, who were the nomads when the British landed in Australia. the people who were already there and had been there for tens of thousands of years, if not forever, or the people who had travelled tens of thousands of kilometres to get here?
To many Aboriginal people the Country of their ancestors, the place where they were born, the places where their parents were born, are beloved members of the family who are missed when they are not present. In Putuparri and the Rainmakers, a documentary film by Nicole Ma, Aboriginal artist Spider Snell from Fitzroy Crossing, when approaching his homeland, his birth site Kurtal, yelled and sang words roughly translated as ‘we are family, come to visit you’. That is what Country is to Aboriginal people, a member of the family. Because of the Canning Stock Route, the theft of waterholes, the trapping, the imprisoning of the living water, he was forced off Country. Spider had not been to Kurtal for 40 years, he found it from memory. That Country of his was long-lost family.
A couple of years back I met historian Bill Gammage at a lecture and book signing for The Biggest Estate on Earth. The premise of his book is simple yet revolutionary: Aboriginal Australians were not simple hunter-gatherers before white people came, rather we were farmers using methods and technologies unrecognisable to the British invaders. I learned about it in school, they called it ‘fire-stick farming’ although this term, in its implied simplicity, does an injustice to the complexities of Indigenous land management that kept this dry continent productive for tens of thousands of years.
As Bruce Pascoe asserted in Dark Emu, the evidence from explorers’ journals does not suggest that the majority of Indigenous Australians were hunter-gatherers, but rather that a massive proportion were sedentary or seasonally sedentary farmers. Many of those who were not farmers were sedentary or seasonally sedentary near their abundant fish resources—in what would be called in Europe ‘fishing towns’. When Europeans became agriculturists some traditional owners of this continent became aquaculturists on a vast scale, building civilisations around their fish traps and eel farms. They might have even done it earlier than the rise of agriculture in the rest of the world. These sedentary people built stone and wood houses in villages in the vicinity of their farms.
When the Aboriginal people I have met leave their home, wherever their home may be, they keep a connection with it, it identifies them. They always return there or intend to return there. When you ask an Aboriginal person who they are, who are their ‘mob’, they tell you where they are from. Their identity and their Country, the home of their ancestors, are inseparable. Anglo-Australians’ identity is never tied to where they are from except in the most nebulous manner of calling themselves ‘Strayan’.
I want to ask something revolutionary. What if the movement of Aboriginal people that was observed early in the British occupation of the continent was not a pre-contact habit? What if that population movement that looks like nomadism was a direct result of contact with a well-armed, aggressive invader? Someone came from over the sea and relentlessly took over the land, killed everyone who tried to stop them. How would you react?
When people are displaced from their homes by invaders they become refugees. Is it not possible that the hungry, ragged travellers whom white people so often encountered were fleeing from the invaders, were hungry and ragged because they were displaced and on the run? Is it not possible that people were driven to apparent nomadism by the constantly changing frontier, the fast-moving, invading force?
That frontier contained massive, terrify-ing animals that ate our food, destroyed our crops and polluted, defecated in and muddied our sacred waterholes. Their hard hooves, like nothing on this continent, compacted the soil that had been improved by our ancestors for thousands of years. The white people had brought those herds of alien animals, terribly unsuited to the environment the traditional owners had developed. Once those animals had arrived there was nothing to eat, no water to drink.
It’s time to rid our nation of the myth of the ‘nomadic Aborigines’ and the tangle of falsities this core belief creates. It’s time to understand that in 1788 a nomadic people arrived in Australia and took land from a settled people and used it to continue their nomadic ways. When the notion that my people were nomadic is corrected it will make the belief in terra nullius, a doctrine that was overturned but is still entrenched in the minds of many, untenable. Once Australia as a nation corrects its thinking on this issue, one of many myths that drive the nation, it might finally learn to respect the people who belong to this land.
Terra nullius was overturned as a legal doctrine by the Mabo decision in June 1992 yet many white Australians act as though that never happened, they act as though they were here first and consider Australia is British Country. Maybe it is time, twenty-five years later, we ended this cultural construct. Terra nullius was, after all, a lie. There should have been no need to overturn it.