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The Q

Looking from the inside out: A keynote retrospective with Dr. Suzi Hutchings

By Dr Alex Pavlotski, La Trobe University


Suzi Hutchings at her Keynote, photo courtesy of Alex Pavlotski

Dr. Suzi Hutchings’ keynote at the 2017 AAS Shifting States conference spoke directly to ideas addressed during our conference last year – Anthropocene Transitions, hosted by The University of Sydney. The 2016 theme highlighted how humans impact our environment, cultural diversity, law, economies and the biosphere. There was almost universal agreement that our current trajectory was problematic. When it came to solutions, there was one point that kept coming up across panels, papers and discussions: our present direction was not our only option. Anthropological papers, films and discussions have repeatedly demonstrated a treasure trove of cultural alternatives to existing globally hegemonic (and destructive) understandings and practices. When it came to gems of wisdom about how we might co-exist within our physical and cultural biosphere many pointed to case studies of indigenous wisdom. 

In this respect, Hutchings’ keynote Inside out: Indigeneity in the era of native title in Australia continued the discussion we started 2016. The central idea of her paper was a call for the application of indigenous knowledge to the Australian native title sector. When it comes to political and legal implementation around the world, indigenous wisdom has often been forced to adhere to the global structures of legal and political process and administration. Hutchings suggests that this doesn’t have to be the case. In her keynote and our subsequent conversations, Hutchings offers an optimistic argument for an indigenous framework for heritage and title work. During our conversation the day after her keynote Hutchings explained: 

This is the moment for action!…There are so many examples from around the world for progressive indigenous methods and theoretical perspectives for dealing with these issues. It feels like Australia is lagging behind.  

Not very many conversations about native title are filled with this kind of optimism and enthusiasm. Most who are forced to deal with the legal process around land issues ultimately develop a sceptical outlook. The debates are often intense, generally complex and overwhelmingly adversarial. The realities on both sides are filled with doubt and moral ambiguity. Viewed through the prism of experience, scepticism seems like a natural and healthy response, and optimism can be viewed as a symptom of naivety.

A lack of experience is certainly not the case with Hutchings, who has over two decades of experience in the field of native title. Her presentation critiqued a foundational assumption at the heart of the native title process: 

Claimants are not adept at working within the confines of its adversarial nature, when in fact many package their lived experience as Indigenous knowledge(es) to address what they understand as the requirements of the title process. Unfortunately, in many cases, this kind of living knowledge is not accepted within the frameworks of ‘traditional knowledge’ as defined and required by the legal system.

This invites an interesting line of thinking: Australia's history of colonial interaction with indigenous populations is filled with antagonism and conflict. How well does it serve us to carry those adversarial presumptions into the legal processes around indigenous identity, rights and reconciliation?

The legal system in place today assumes antagonism on the way to justice. The proof is offered and disputed, and those who seek to speak through the mechanisms of justice are required to be versed in the etiquette and convention of legal process. Despite best efforts, this legal process is not equal and impartial. It is the product of a particular cultural worldview and set of expectations. It demands that all those who come before it follow its rules. For many of the indigenous people before Australian courts, the mechanics of the process speak: we want to hear your story, as long as you tell it in OUR language. 

The impacts of this adversarial, and distinctly Anglo-western, process are far-reaching. For example, let’s consider the double standard this creates for indigenous identity. Indigenous identity is connected to criteria of authenticity – these criteria are loaded with adversarial scepticism. Hutchings explains:  

In addressing this scepticism many claimants in this position will seek out authentication of kinship and relations to land through archives. This is understood to be a legitimate process because these are the very same records the legal system, as presented by experts such as anthropologists, rely on as one means to authenticate a claim. In many cases, however, this very act of relying on, and providing interpretations of archival evidence from within Indigenous knowledge frameworks, rather than justifying their authenticity to native title professionals can increase the scepticism as to these people’s authenticity as legitimate claimants.

The demonstration of this authenticity within the context of native title, ultimately demands a prolonged and complex engagement with the western legal and cultural understandings on behalf of the claimant and an intervention by others more versed in the nuances of the process. This engagement can and has been thrown around as evidence of inauthenticity and malevolent intent by politicians who frame indigenous culture and outlook as a petulant lifestyle choice. Indigenous people are given the responsibility of speaking a particular language of justice to be recognised, and the consequence of doing so successfully carries a suspicion of the inauthentic. 

It is in the face of these kinds of legal binds that Hutchings offers an idea for a different approach: 

To go back to the original intent of the native title act and reposition the burden of proof of native title to the State rather than claimants. In so doing, it would be incumbent on the agents of the State to accept Indigenous Australians on equal footing as sovereign people who come to the table to negotiate over issues of land and social rights in a modern Australia. 

In the context of conversations the anthropological community has been having over the last several years, this feels like a genuine effort to apply an indigenous perspective to a long-running problem. Hutchings argues that there is already evidence that we can learn from, “We see it all the time in the courts. Judges learn from cases and make efforts to accommodate… they change expectations on the basis of experience. This is our chance to do something more.”

Trust and a mutuality of participation is the take home message from Hutchings keynote. Currently, we see sharing of wisdom happening within the confines of our adversarial framework. If we remove these adversarial assumptions we open up greater opportunities for communication, innovative ideas and effective solutions to the problems of our Anthropocene.