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The Australian Anthropological Society's 7th Distinguished Lecture in Anthropology

Native title: implications for Australian senses of place and belonging

David Trigger
Emeritus Professor, University of Queensland
Adjunct Professor, University of Western Australia

Presented at the Australian National University, 12 September 2019

The author notes that this text was prepared for a Public Lecture, presented as part of Social Sciences week 2019. It is a working draft and the author welcomes comment prior to further work on the issues raised. Readers may be interested in the responses from the two discussants, Mr Kevin Smith, CEO, Queensland South Native Title Services, and Professor Tim Rowse, Western Sydney University.

Thank you to the AAS and ANU for the invitation to present this Lecture in Social Science Week here in Canberra. My topic has clear political implications, while raising questions that in my view are of public intellectual interest. My approach is that native title is a matter for all Australians, firstly in terms of relationships between Indigenous people and others, but also because it raises some important issues for national identity and the broad population’s sense of belonging across this huge continent.

I note here my acknowledgement of the kind that has now become a commonplace, presented at a wide range of events, among politicians, industry leaders, sporting celebrities and academics, speakers who are typically given a particular wording recognising a general category of Indigenous people as cultural custodians of the land. Having worked so long as an anthropologist on academic and applied research among Aboriginal people, it is significant for me perhaps more than most, to acknowledge the Ngunnawal traditional owners of land here in Canberra. However, to avoid the risks of both tokenism and hypocrisy, my choice for some time has been to supplement this gesture with a further acknowledgement of the broad population’s forebears who have no Aboriginal ancestry. My reasoning being that without the lives, energies, achievements and mistakes of all of our forebears, we simply would not be here enjoying what by most measures is a rich and rewarding society. My version of symbolic acknowledgement thereby appreciates good things that have come from European and Asian settlement and subsequent migration in this continent while remaining fundamentally committed to supporting the moral claims of specifically Indigenous interests across the land.

Why would we ask about other Australians’ senses of place and belonging in light of native title claims? My answer is that not to do so would ignore realities of everyday life where the rights of native title holders and other parties coexist. Assuming a rigid boundary between what are commonly discussed as highly distinct, if not at times opposed, land and place interests simplifies and trivialises complex societal issues. My comments today are exploratory though based on many years of research where native title rights meet others’ social, cultural and economic interests in land, sea and the significance of place.


It may help to further explain my interest in this question to note that lengthy work with Aboriginal people to map Indigenous cultural landscapes has prompted me to consider parallels in my own life and personal history and reflect on my senses of connection to place and home. A good anthropologist examines how their own subjectivity has been influenced through learning about cultural difference, especially if, as in this case, the implications of that difference have significance for the researcher’s own life.

Suffice to say here that my youth in suburban Brisbane looms in my memory as full of locally experienced places - street names, sports parks, shops, bus/tram stops, as well as significant event locations, such as trees climbed, bikes ridden around known streetscapes, and places to store cigarettes for an occasional teenage smoke. My boyhood mates and I spent time traversing a small creek that flowed, behind the house of one friend, into a substantial watercourse – this being a back way to enter our local football oval for early evening training and weekend games.

The special bond that develops between children and the environments they grow up in and that become part of their identity (Measham 2006)


To rename Aboriginal places (or to rename Aboriginal people), to proceed without a care for their language and beliefs, … Felony murder [a crime regardless of intent] might cover it, or reckless indifference (Don Watson 2014)

With the perspective of an anthropologist, my sense of these personal, family and peer intimacies with locations that Canadian writer Don Gayton has termed part of a ‘primal landscape’ (Gayton 1996; Measham 2006), sits alongside a professional recognition of what Australian writer Don Watson (2014: 161-2) has aptly termed the ‘reckless indifference’ of a colonising mentality.

Our youthful engagement with these places was ignorant of the earlier Aboriginal cultural landscape that we traversed. To my great interest, my recent archival work has established that my primary school was the setting for a substantial Aboriginal camp close to our local creek. Ten years before I began schooling, three men present at the 1949 opening of the new school building had lived all their lives locally and recounted the displacement of the Aboriginal camp 63 years earlier in the late 1880s (McKenzie – Smith p.178) (Sunday Mail newspaper 23.1.1949).

To the south of the primary school, extending some 2 km, there had been, as reported in historical sources, open woodlands with an abundance of game taken by Aboriginal people, and there are records of Indigenous ceremonies as well as human burials in trees on the slopes of a hill located some 1 km from my school. No such historical information was extant among our families or in our school curricula.

Nevertheless, my awareness as a professional anthropologist of the reckless indifference to the Indigenous cultural landscape, does not propel me towards the view articulated by some academics and commentators that lacking Aboriginal ancestry means being somehow ‘cut off from where we belong’, persons who have necessarily lost ‘the sense of the sacred’, to reproduce two illustrative quotations canvassed in historian Peter Read’s (2000) research. Like Peter Read, familiarity with Indigenous cultural landscapes prompts me to reflect on the different kind of emplaced identity, enjoyed across the diverse locations of Australian life.


Australian anthropology, over many decades, has focused on Indigenous rights in land and place, paying much less attention to those who ‘are not the natives of choice’, as it was put by American colleague Richard Handler (1990:8) when commenting on anthropologist Michele Dominy’s (2000) study of NZ high country non-Maori farmers. Relatively recent works by Ase Ottosson (2014, 2016) in Alice Springs and Rosita Henry (2012) in the north Queensland town of Kuranda refreshingly pay just as much ethnographic attention to non-Indigenous senses of place, home and belonging as to the Aboriginal people who share these social fields.

In the romance of anthropology, colonial ‘settler societies’ are generally not the ‘natives of choice’ (Richard Handler 1990)

‘to pay as much detailed ethnographic attention to the diversity of non-indigenous people’s experiences, values and circumstances as scholars have long paid to indigenous life worlds’ (Ase Ottosson 2016)

‘I have shown how both Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people in Kuranda place themselves and one another via a politics of identity …’ (Rosita Henry 2012)

‘we are all natives now’ (Clifford Geertz 1983)

I have never been completely sure of what anthropologist Clifford Geertz (1983: 151) meant when famously stating back in 1983 that ‘we are all natives now’, but with others (e.g. Braman et al. 2001: 160) I understand Geertz’s key message to be that worldviews across the globe increasingly overlap, with few cultural identities remaining completely insular.

The import here, in the context of Indigenous native title, is that to understand the significance of place for social identity groups across the Australian post-settler nation, requires research empathy for both Aboriginal people and others. How does the diverse Australian population, or different segments of it, engage with place attachments? What, then, is done intellectually with the ideas of emplaced identities proclaimed in native title claims? Or, perhaps more accurately, what would, could, or will, Australians do with knowledge of Indigenous senses of place, should it develop for at least some people beyond superficially consumed tropes and stereotypes? A more manageable question for this Lecture is whether relations with land and place across the broad society potentially bear any resemblance to, or at least have any possible engagement with, key elements of Indigenous native title connections.


So firstly, what is native title in terms of its practical legal significance. Following the Mabo decision in the early 1990s the Native Title Act provides mechanisms for people with Indigenous ancestry to claim traditional rights in land and waters. While several prior regimes of land rights legislation in some jurisdictions enables land ownership, native title potentially facilitates legal determination of certain rights that commonly coexist with the rights of other land users. There is much written and debated about the achievements and failures of native title claims across diverse settings. While I cannot dwell here on those debates, before moving to address what native title connections may mean for the wider society, some basic factual information is apt.

We can see from the map below that native title has, since the early 1990s, produced significant results that, to note Marcia Langton’s (2013: 19) comment in the 2012 Boyer Lectures, would have been ‘unimaginable a quarter of a century ago’. The map shows (for March 2019):

  • areas of exclusive native title (dark green, mostly in WA but also parts of north Qld)
  • areas of non-exclusive native title rights that coexist with land use and occupation by others (light green)
  • areas where native title has been determined in the legal process to no longer exist (dark and light brown)
  • and claims that are currently being addressed (blue)
  • the map shows that 40% of the continent has been subject to a determination (most successful but with some substantial exceptions, and in some of those cases non-native title agreements have been negotiated), with another 25% of the continent currently under claim.

A second map shows the native title claim areas in light and dark grey but also for each State and Territory the further lands granted under forms of land rights legislation.

And a 3rd map shows where the registered claims are as at March 2019.

So what does this legal addressing of Indigenous claims mean for Australians who do not proclaim any Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander ancestry?

I set aside societal responses where claims are seen solely as a threat to the non-Indigenous majority. These include well-publicised anxieties about negative impacts on various parties’ economic interests. Though we may note that alongside some understandable concerns is the factual outcome of tenure certainty for non-Indigenous parties from resolution of claims, as well as newly recognised Indigenous rights which when non-exclusive co-exist with other tenure rights.

I also note, but set aside, the complex politics whereby some Australians pursue or at least acknowledge reconciliation with Indigenous interests, seeking to deal with uncomfortable aspects of the history of colonisation. A recent article by Tim Rowse and Anna Pertierra (2019) draws on 31 interviews with mostly city dwelling persons from diverse social class locations. The authors document positive views, albeit cautiously articulated, at times with some uncertainty and apprehension. Their study finds substantial talk about how Indigenous difference poses compelling and important questions for the wider society. The authors also note the conclusion from Reconciliation Australia, based on a 2016 survey of 2277 respondents from all States and territories, that many non-Indigenous people ‘wish to honour Indigenous Australians’.

Investigating factors influencing what is doubtless a broad and diverse range of such elicited views is complex. I agree with Rowse and Pertierra that addressing the emergence of an ‘anti-racist, pro-reconciliation subjectivity’ is a much-needed advance on Ghassan Hage’s (1998) proposed ‘national subject’ portrayed as a ‘paranoid nationalist’ (Rowse and Pertierra 2019). However, just how far beyond middle class urban Australia an articulated anti-racist subjectivity extends is in my view an open question for further research, with inquiries needing to be conducted well beyond the bounds of the major cities.

Here I am less focused on what Australians may think about Indigenous difference in general terms, or on what people think about the legitimacy, successes and failures of native title claims. Instead, my focus is on any potential overlaps between Indigenous senses of place and spatial constituents of other citizens’ identities. Are there aspects of tradition-based connections to ‘country’ that may be recognisable to sectors of the wider society, whether as a positive aspect of a sense of parallel non-Indigenous belonging, or in a way that sits awkwardly, if not perceived as a challenge, for emplaced settler-descendant and migrant-descendant identities?


What then might we consider as key aspects of native title connections to place, with an eye to a discussion of both cultural distance from and overlap with sectors of the wider society?

It must suffice here to summarise:

  • Ancestral connection: native title connections are commonly articulated ‘through’ one or more grandparent(s), whether or not the forebear is known as a named person.
  • A collectivity of culturally related persons: typically with an identity drawn from the name of a language believed connected to country, but also more broadly across cultural blocs of language territories.
  • Places associated with deceased forebears: whose spirits continue to occupy traditional country, who may or may not be known by name.
  • Personal connections: locations lived in, worked in, where physical and spiritual encounters with places are remembered and recounted, including accounts of witnessing spiritual presences.
  • Reading the country: for its spiritual signs, experiencing ‘consubstantiation’ with places and their essences (‘I’m really Emu’, as expressed by a senior man during my early fieldwork), ‘epistemic openness’ to the meanings of places (Merlan 1998: 72, 209-228), attribution of enduring spirituality to features of place whether in remote, town or urban city locations. Here we can note Stanner’s (1979: 135-6) characterisation of what he termed ‘the most familiar claim of all’ in relation to a location: ‘My spirit is there, I myself am there, I came from there’.
  • A sense of nativeness: firstness, distinct from what has come from elsewhere, sometimes described as ‘overseas’, this a strongly articulated identification with Indigenous forebears, apart from non-Indigenous ancestry that is commonly present in claimant family histories.
  • A conviction about closeness to non-human species: which in some cases is increasingly celebrated deliberatively as concern for preserving the native environment.
  • An aspiration for social justice: in light of colonialism’s legacies.

While the uniqueness of these elements of native title connections to country is often proclaimed, among claimants and their supporters, in my research experience each of the themes is complexly mixed with elements drawn from the wider society. This hardly detracts from the legitimacy of Indigenous relationships with place, but it does indicate that the discreteness of place connections is in the native title era qualified by many overlaps with the preoccupations, practices, beliefs and economic life of the wider society. A further qualification is that generalising about the great range of native title place connections and socio-historical settings across the continent requires considerable caution.


Nevertheless, with these aspects of Indigenous culture in mind, we can address Australian relations with places, as distant from and/or overlapping with, assertions of belonging in native title claims. Time constraints here disallow sequential attention to each element and my approach canvasses some of the key issues.



What is the significance of ancestral connections to significant places across the broader society? Many Australian families trace ancestry to locations over multiple generations. Others have relatively recent ties to place in other countries, the UK being particularly significant for many. At mid-2016, 28.5% of the population was born overseas, returning to the proportion that obtained in the 1890s.

Migrant backgrounds encompass a wide range of countries. At the 2016 Census, nearly half (49 per cent) the population had either been born overseas or had one or both parents born overseas.

These figures underline how many citizens may articulate senses of ancestral connection outside the continent. Genealogical tourism enables travellers to connect with the meaningful places of forebears’ lives (Nash 2003). Migration studies discuss the dynamics of attaching a sense of home to newly occupied spaces, as well as desires to transmit this to subsequent generations – such efforts commonly occurring together with expectations of return visits to the pre-migration homeland (Espiritu 2018). The literature addresses the fluidity of senses of home especially for those with relatively recent migration experiences.1

One element of connection to forebears and an inherited sense of emplaced identity might be the location of their bodily remains. This would certainly mirror how burial places can figure as important loci of connection in native title claims. Popular accounts indicate that cemeteries, particularly locations where relatives are buried, are regarded among the general population with reverence and a sense of history.2 Some enthusiasts work to identify persons buried in unmarked graves.3 Place of death is also a factor particularly in the case of sudden or unforeseen events. Studies have documented the importance to family members of the places where road accident deaths occurred, with roadside memorials constructed and at times maintained over long periods (Clark 2008). Paul Daly, journalist with the Guardian newspaper, wrote recently how he would be dismayed if unable to visit his parents’ graves. This in the context of his comparative musings about what it is like for Aboriginal people to hear of Indigenous remains having been stolen or removed in earlier times, with the journalist seemingly acknowledging the Indigenous feeling that the remains of ‘elders’ are of great significance regardless of their anonymity or ambiguity as personal biological forebears.4

Across Australia in recent decades we have seen the rising popularity of cremation, which may or may not result in ashes being located in a known resting place.5 Scattering of a deceased’s ashes might indicate a sense of sending loved ones to mingle in a placeless way with ‘nature’, a predisposition linked potentially to environmentalist sentiments. Though the choice of where to scatter ashes to mingle with a global natural environment presumably is made with reference to memories of what was a significant place for the deceased.



It is evident from countless strategically placed monuments that there is Australian reverence for places constructed to mark the memory of key historical figures. The monuments most in potential relationship (and commonly tension) with Indigenous connections to country are those representing the achievements of settler heritage – an example from my fieldwork being at the Qld coastal town named 1770, where there is an impressive cairn honouring Captain James Cook who landed there on 24 May 1770.


The monument stands on the site where one of Cook’s crew carved the date on a tree near where they came ashore. Every May since 1991, a re-enactment of Cook’s landing has been staged as part of the annual 1770 Festival.6 The area was added to the Queensland Heritage Register in 1996. My colleague and co-researcher Michael Williams, who was showing me part of his Goorang Goorang country, had at best mixed feelings about the monument, though we noted the apparent enthusiasm from local residents and the many tourists who visit.


Near the point looking out to sea was a location documented by archaeologists as part of a stone quarry, shell midden and artefact scatter site7, an area encompassing the vicinity of a memorial sign for a Whitefella drowned while fishing in 2012. The location would seem to encompass multiple and rich meanings in the legacies of settler colonialism including a significant but less publicly documented aspect of Aboriginal history.


From a more remote region is the case of a striking statue, produced with artistic license, of Frederick Walker, which was commissioned by a pastoralist family to be located near their homestead in the Gulf Country, a family with several generations of historical occupation and productive cattle work in that region. In an interview in 2014 the station owner pointed out that the purpose of the monument is to signify and honour a man who played a substantial part in establishing the new Australian society. Frederick Walker died at this station in 1866 after a career as a Native Police force commander in southeast Australia and subsequent varied jobs on the northern frontier. In our interviews, the station owner agreed that Frederick Walker had a mixed reputation in dealings with Aboriginal people but pointed out as well his documented capacity to communicate with Indigenous co-workers and others encountered, and at times to secure coexistence with settlers.8

Frederick Walker might be understood as a deceased cultural ‘ancestor’ of a sort for this station family who are certain in their own conviction about their strong connections to the location of their cattle station and the broader pastoral industry region. In a separate interview,9 the male owner’s mother who came to the Gulf Country as a young woman with her husband in the 1940s, described the region as her family’s home, noting that it is also the home of the Aboriginal families she had known for decades. As my coinvestigator Richard Martin documented just after his interview with her, a local Aboriginal man who had been present (with one of his children) described her as ‘a nice old lady’, despite her having expressed negative views about native title claims. This sense of cross-cultural familiarity, and overlapping senses of place in the cattle industry, is at times evident from a history of shared physical hard work (Martin 2019).




As in this case of a remote cattle station, probably the most common setting for depictions of Australian relations with place has been in rural regions. Farmers and others living in primary production areas can sustain long term connections with the places they live and work or where members of their extended families do so. A good example are the reported comments about the recently deceased celebrated poet Les Murray: his farm in NSW was, he said, still known as ‘Cecil’s place’ by locals, the name of his deceased father (Gemmel, N. The Australian May 4-5, p.21), and his living location had been through his life within sight of the place that was his grandfather’s farm.

However, the realities of contemporary Australian rural place connections are more complex. Interdisciplinary research (Cheshire, Meurk and Woods 2013) has reviewed an extensive international literature finding an agrarian rootedness in the land that can support a deep, embedded and autochthonous connection to place. However, tensions between what is characterised as embedded and elective forms of belonging are evident (Cheshire et al. 2013: 65). The former, embedded, based on long-term engagements (through genealogy, kinship, economic activity and local knowledge), and the latter, elective, which is unrelated to length of residence and at times achieved relatively quickly through such efforts as involvement in community activities and commitments to learning about local history.

‘There is probably more soil in my veins than blood’ (Cheshire et al 2013)

There are some studies (e.g. Gray 1998, set in Scotland) that develop the concept of consubstantiality to understand embedded belonging among those working in primary production. For farmers it is ‘the mutual constitution of everyday life, work and place’ that produces strong senses of identity connected to location (Cheshire et al 2013, p.66). Overlaps with Indigenous senses of consubstantiality are worth considering; however, the differences loom large.

Cheshire et al interviewed in Australia 19 farmers from across the continent who engaged in both locality-specific and mobile farm business activities. Themes related to connections to place included the physical space of the family farm, the natural and built landscape, and informal local social networks, with affective ties strengthened by length of residence, personal relationships, family history, routine memories and conceptions of ‘home’. ‘There is probably more soil in my veins than blood’ (p.72), to quote one of their interviewees. Whether ‘elective belonging’ produces as intense senses of autochthony remains less clear.

Further work of relevance is by Merlan & Raftery (2009: 3) who canvass the rapid changes in rural settings, including a continuing decline in resident populations, less acceptance of physical isolation, and in some cases usurpation of agency in regions by environmentalists who challenge the ethics of productivist land use (6). Retirees and hobby farmers also bring abstract sentiments of elective belonging that are not predicated on the necessity of making a living from the places that may be venerated as environmentally significant and in need of human nurturance (Hunt 2009: 123) -- regularly mowing and weeding fruit orchards, for example, demonstrating an operationalising of an ‘urge to garden’ and expressing ‘careful stewardship for one’s future and one’s investment’ that is not anchored in primary production.



But what of urban and regional town populations? Is a personal sense of connection to place relevant in such settings in a way that may lead citizens to recognise any overlap with or distance from the historically and ancestrally legitimated relationship to locations evident in native title discourses? Census data from 2016 tell us of considerable mobility. A third of people aged between 20 and 29 and almost a quarter of those aged between 30 and 39 lived at a different address in 2016 than in 2015. For all age groups, around 83% were living in the same location as a year ago.

If we go back 5 years prior to the census, 43% of the population did not live at the same address:

Place of Usual Residence five years ago (all persons, excluding persons aged under five years)

2016 2011
Same Address 11,503,553 (56.6%) 11,009,843 (58.3%)
Elsewhere in Australia 7,442,764 (36.6%) 6,670,261 (35.3%)
Overseas 1,379,053 (6.8%) 1,200,437 (6.4%)

So if sense of place over time is linked to staying put, and giving everyday expression to a habitus that facilitates ‘embedded’ belonging, many Australians are too mobile – though just how far people have moved in the course of their lives, whether essentially within the same landscape, city, part of the city, and so on, is unclear from the census data. Indicatively, however, a substantial proportion, 36%, answered that they had lived ‘elsewhere in Australia’ 5 years ago. Of course, the primal landscapes of youth may nevertheless remain imprinted on individuals’ sense of place, whether somewhere on the Australian continent or elsewhere.



A further theme of native title claims with potential overlap with broader societal dispositions is the articulated ethic of ‘caring for country’. In light of widely known environmental concerns, including about climate change, it seems reasonable that a perceived overlap of environmentalist moral standing with Indigenous land ethics will be envisaged by some Australians. The following is the kind of well publicised claimant proposition about environmental consciousness that is presented as part of traditional law and custom.

… Aboriginal people had a duty to care for native animals and make sure they were plentiful, a care which extended to the use of their images. I don't really want to go to court but every time I see the kangaroo and emu up there [on the Australian coat of arms] -- you don't know how painful that is for me, … The animals and birds and reptiles and marine life and everything are connected to us in a spiritual sense.10

Some Australians may well seek overlap with such sentiments to care for native species. However, difficult issues would seem to arise. One is that as we see there can be an Indigenous perspective opposing an embrace of nature in national symbols – though in my research this is unlikely to be a predominant view across Aboriginal Australia. The other is the attribution of spirituality to species. Certainly, the proposition that links even photographic or artistic images of species to spiritually owned property, seems unlikely to align with views among the broad populace.

We also know that hunting, fishing and gathering of bush resources involves killing species in ways that do not gel with significant elements in environmentalist thinking. An illustration is the public profile of Aboriginal Rangers who receive training in science-driven concerns about feral species and pollution, and work to mitigate these problems, but also continue to hunt and fish for food and celebrate the status that successful garnering of bush resources can bring in local communities. The slides show Gulf Country Ranger Donald Bob, who was in the company of other Rangers, spearing a goanna while on a bush trip in 2016 as part of looking after country.


I think we can assume only some Australians are able to acknowledge killing native species as consistent with their own environmental consciousness. It may well be those in the farming sector whose approach is more aligned with traditional use of bush species, in that they are ‘production oriented’ in relation to their own use of animals and plants, rather than what has been termed ‘abstraction-oriented’ in the way of environmentalists stressing aesthetic properties of landscapes and opposing consumption of native species (Skogen 2001: 223).


The Mabo decision ‘recognised Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders as being Australia’s first people and that their rights and interests in the land and waters continued to exist despite settlement.

final theme in native title of comparative relevance is the idea of nativeness, or firstness itself. The issue of ‘first’ occupation looms large in native title discourses. The theme is evident through the legal claims process. To quote the web page of the Kimberley Land Council in Western Australia, the Mabo decision ‘recognised Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders as being Australia’s first people and that their rights and interests in the land and waters continued to exist despite settlement’. Hence, what does it mean from the perspective of the broad society to be not ‘native’, to be not ‘first’, and thereby potentially less legitimately connected through history and culture to place, land and waters? Is this shrugged off as a symbolic issue, as with the formal acknowledgement of traditional owners at UWA in Perth where the wording states that it is those identifying as Indigenous who, impliedly different from the wider population, ‘remain the spiritual and cultural custodians of this land’.11

I would like to acknowledge that we are on Noongar and Wadjuk land and that they remain the spiritual and cultural custodians of this land. I pay my respects to the traditional owners of this land (UWA acknowledgement of country, my emphasis added)

Though I have not seen extensive empirical data, beyond anecdote and media commentary, we can acknowledge that there is ‘some dissatisfaction’ from at least parts of the Australian population with the implication of being labelled ‘non-Indigenous’, an issue noted for example by the ACT Council of Social Service in one of its ‘good practice guides’ explaining preferred terminology regarding Indigenous issues.12 As anthropologist Bruce Rigsby discussed, considering comments from poet Geoff Page that were prompted by Les Murray’s poem titled ‘Not indigenous, merely born here’, particularly Australians who are ‘native-born’, i.e. born somewhere on the continent, may well ‘think of themselves as indigenous’ (Trigger 2016: 285-6).

With others, I have written of people without Aboriginal or Torres Strait ancestry ‘trying on’ an identity that includes a sense of ‘indigeneity’ (Dominy 2001; Trigger 2008), on the basis of their birth in Australia and where earlier family generations may have also been born. We also have the complex attractions of embracing ‘native’ species of the continent as distinguished from any plant or animal introduced after British colonisation (Head & Muir 2004). This is to point to what we might understand as something of a ‘lure’ of the idea of ‘nativeness’, noting that in the social field of human identity politics, this is not always an attribute accepted as exclusive to Aboriginal claims over land.

Persons without Aboriginal ancestry may express a sense of a different, yet in their mind equivalent, sense of nativeness. In native title cases, it can be difficult to unravel such articulations of identity and connections to land, from a political aim to contest the Indigenous claimants’ exclusively nativist rights to places. In legal terms, when in the 1997 Yorta Yorta native title claim in southeast Australia, a number of settler-descendants (farmers, sawmillers, tourist operators, and other Euro-Australians) gave evidence that they were people who are third- and fourth-generation landholders, with considerable historical knowledge of and connection to the places at issue in the claim, it was unsurprising that the court found their evidence to be not relevant to the case put forward by the Aboriginal claimants. To quote one piece of such evidence:

I think forestry people are not made, they are born. I do not enjoy being away from the Mulwala area, and I just cannot imagine not going to the forests anymore. My family have lived here for generations, and we feel very strongly about the forests. I want to be buried in Mulwala.13

The court’s ruling was to acknowledge the strength of attachment expressed on the part of the non-Aboriginal witnesses, but to find that sense of place and belonging across the Yorta Yorta claim area to be irrelevant in legal terms to the trial concerning Indigenous assertions of traditional connections to country:

But it is irrelevant that non-Aboriginal people may observe the same or similar practices as are said to be a manifestation of the applicants' traditional laws and customs nor is it relevant that such people experience the same or similar affinity to the land and waters as that claimed by the applicants. Nothing in Mabo (No 2) or in the Native Title Act lends support to the proposition that the laws and customs of the Aboriginal peoples must be acknowledged and observed exclusively by those peoples and not by others.14

While it is possible to read this evidence as a cynical or deliberate mimicking of the Aboriginal claims, having perused the transcript of evidence, that is not my interpretation. Standing back from the politics of the Yorta Yorta claim, there is no reason why both relationships of an enduring and rooted autochthonous relation with the land do not co-exist. In my view, and consistent with submissions in the Yorta Yorta claim, we should not be surprised that persons without an Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander forebear may give expression to the idea that they feel a kind of nativeness to place and land, and relate it to what they see presented in native title claims.

Indeed, some Indigenous claimants themselves may acknowledge non-Aboriginal senses of closeness to place, and just how familiar or different this is considered to be, will likely depend on relationships of social closeness among the parties. When a person without Aboriginal/Torres Strait ancestry has been incorporated socially among claimants, it would seem their lengthy presence on traditional ‘country’ might strengthen any reasons to include them as a member of the claim group. In the late 1990s I was present in the Queensland Gulf Country when some claimants argued to include a Whitefella who they had known from birth, who had ‘grown up’ with Aboriginal kids, and who had married and had children with a local Aboriginal woman. ‘He’s one of us’, said one speaker at the discussion. In the end the decision was not to include him, due to concern about the optics of a non-Aboriginal man having native title rights, more so in my understanding than any view that he lacked ‘nativeness’ as such in his lengthy presence in the country.



Are there, then, some deeply held cultural predispositions that work against the wider society recognising elements of overlap, relevance and value in native title senses of place?

  • Spirituality

Is there too much Indigenous spirituality for the wider essentially agnostic, if not atheistic, society to embrace? A dominant theme running through Indigenous senses of place in native title claims are spiritual explanations for outcomes among humans, on the land and in the sea. Spiritual explanations are in my experience as pervasive in urban settings as anywhere else.

Anthropologist Ken Maddock (publishing in 1991) identified a return of the idea of ‘the sacred’, influenced greatly by Indigenous discourses about ‘sacred sites’, a term he argued was at the time new in Australian English. Anthropological writings, he said, were the source for this term. Maddock linked awareness of Aboriginal sacred sites to emergent discourses among Australians who were spiritualising places in the environment in a more specific way than such well documented long-established iconic ideas as ‘the bush’ or the ‘vast outback’. However, at least in the context of disputes over economic development projects, we would have to also note hostility to the notion of sacred site areas especially when there are no cartographically precise boundaries to contain the spaces proclaimed as too sacred for economic enterprise.

We have good research on New Age adherents seeking to find spirituality in the land. Anthropologist Jane Mulcock (2007) in her ethnography developed considerable empathy for the New Agers who were, in her words, ‘searching for their indigenous selves’. However, the selves that are found are influenced largely by global New Age beliefs and dispositions, with usually clumsy attempts at embracing Indigenous spirituality of the kind addressed in native title claims. Anthropologist Peter Sutton (2010) concludes that there is ‘a profound incompatibility between classical Aboriginal thought and New Age thought, with a few cross‐overs here and there’. Though Sutton (2010: 75) notes incorporation of such ideas as ‘Mother Earth’ into both Indigenous and non-Indigenous discourses, following importation from America, this idea fitting well with New Age romanticism and certain aspects of feminism.15

Aside from the case of New Age believers, what data do we have about Australians countenancing spiritual explanations for certain of their experiences? My assumption would be that the majority do not see evidence of spiritual forces in landscapes, topography, the behaviour of animals and plants or in regular dreams and visions of deceased relatives. Apart from views among a minority of environmentalists, Australians are not animists.

But what do we know about religiosity and spiritualism across the population?16 In the 2016 Census most Australians (61%) professed affiliation with a religion or spiritual belief. Nearly a third, however, indicated either ‘No Religion’ or a secular belief such as atheism, humanism or agnosticism. Apart from the Christian mainstream, there are adherents to Islam (600,000 people), Buddhism (560,000), Hinduism (440,000), Sikhism (130,000) and Judaism (90,000). What are termed ‘Nature religions (Paganism, Wiccan, Animism and Druidism)’ were also present in the Census information, but among a minority.17

A recent national church life survey18 interestingly found that among people professing ‘No religion’ some actively engage in spirituality.19 Also:

According to the NCLS, 28% of Australians claim to “have had (and another 25% believe it is possible to have) a mystical or supernatural experience about which they have no doubts about its reality”. Given that 11% claim to attend religious services once a week (and 7% once a month), supernatural experiences are not limited to religious organisations.

However, apart from the section of the general populace who report spiritual encounters and beliefs, or a preparedness to do so, we have to consider Indigenous convictions being regarded as at least potentially in contest with Western science perspectives on both relations among humans and relationships with the physical environment. At times this contestation receives media attention, e.g. with the recent story of the UNSW’s advice on terminology that should avoid quantifying the period of Aboriginal occupation of the Australian continent because it contradicts traditional beliefs that humans arose here.20 A second example is the recent publication of a book on rock art in the Kimberley region, where Indigenous beliefs explain that certain art was produced by Dreamings, not by humans, a conviction regarding spirituality of land and place that is commonly articulated in native title research reports and the evidence of claimants.21

Some Australians may acknowledge the legitimacy of such spiritual beliefs, yet many will be nonplussed and unable to integrate these into their own worldview. Christians who accept Creation stories as literally true may find it easier than others, though studies have made clear a broad continuum of denominations’ attitudes, from acceptance of intellectual equivalence to condemnation of Indigenous spiritual beliefs as work of the Devil.22 Emma Kowal’s (2015: 58, 80) study in the Northern Territory found anti-racist White health professionals were challenged ethically by Aboriginal sorcery beliefs, particularly when causes of illness and mortality thus were construed as beyond the help and influence from Western medicine.

  • Gender: separation, inequality

There is a large literature documenting gender separation in the cultural traditions of Indigenous Australia which applies to relationships with country as well as many other areas of life (Merlan 1988). While debates contest questions of inequality and/or complementarity between male and female (e.g. Burbank 1994; Jarrett 2013), few would disagree that gender separation is a substantial feature of Aboriginal culture.

Hence, just how expectations of the wider society may engage with discrete gender defined rights to particular locations and related cultural knowledge, may well be a significant issue. Is such gender separation recognisable in any aspects of the wider society? Is this a feature of Indigenous cultural connections to place that will not be embraced or favoured by many? At the least, diverse gender relations must in my view be considered a significant theme in issues affecting Australian potential engagements with Indigenous senses of place and belonging.23

  • Localism

A further theme in native title discourse about country that may prompt uncertainty, if not contestation, across the Australian populace is whether there is too much localism, potentially seen as parochialism, and in contrast to cosmopolitanism and its global attractions. Native title assertions rely on local level connections that have perdured despite globalisation.

Philosophers Malpas and Miller (2011) discuss belonging and place in Australia, and ask if the idea of it conflicts with features of modern life such as media, transnationalism and migration diasporas (p.124). However, although they reflect on how the postcolonial setting can conspire against ‘settled’ or collective links to community and home, senses of place and belonging are in their writing a factor of fundamental ontological significance (125).

With Malpas and Miller, I prefer the view that global engagement is not inconsistent with the significance of locally emplaced identity. Whether or not the form this takes engages with Indigenous belief across the wider populace is an open question. Certainly, the Indigenous view that customary connections to land, sea and place should remain without change, or at least that the traditional ‘law’ attaching to country ‘never changes’, may appear to many as in tension with the embrace of change as a supremely positive aspiration among certain influential sectors of Australian society.24



Risks of cultural appropriation? 

It’s time to address the ‘elephant in the room’ that may emerge in the minds of an audience like this one. What are the risks of addressing broad post-settler and postcolonial senses of place and connection to locations in comparison to Indigenous discourses arising in native title claims? If there are such risks, it will be evident that my approach rests on the view that there are also benefits for cultural co-existence into the future.

There is no shortage of criticism among academics of analytical recognition of non-Indigenous connections to land, sea and place. Ken Gelder (2000), a cultural studies scholar, dismissed Peter Read’s extensive writing on this topic as embodying ‘an often bleary-eyed, affective sentimentality’ that wants ‘settler Australians not only to become indigenous but to supplant Aboriginal people in the process’. Literary studies scholar Sheila Collingwood-Whittick (2013:161) goes as far as arguing that the human relationship with place tends to be pathologised in settler-descendant societies like Australia. Emily Potter (2019), through study of literature, finds Australians have ‘unsettled non-indigenous belonging’, this being a ‘failure on their part to adequately belong in the country’. Indigenous academic Aileen Moreton-Robinson (2003:24, 31) asserts that those without any Aboriginal ancestry remain “migrants and diasporic” — suggesting they can be understood only in relation to what they lack as ‘nonindigenous people’.

Our colleagues in the Humanities appear generally not to find much positive in the connections to place and land on the part of long established families and individuals, at least those of ‘Anglo’ background – indeed, according to historian Anne Curthoys (1997:36), ‘non-indigenous claims to belonging’ must remain limited with an incomplete sense of home.

an often bleary-eyed, affective sentimentality (Gelder 2000)

a ‘pathologized’ relationship with place 
(Collingwood-Whittick 2013)

‘unsettled non-indigenous belonging’, a ‘failure’ to adequately belong 
(Potter 2019)

Aboriginal people have belonging that ‘migrant-settlers’ cannot match or cancel 
(Moreton-Robinson 2003)

a limited and incomplete sense of home 
(Curthoys 1997)

While the writers I have in mind are curiously less openly sceptical (or at least more silent) regarding recently arrived migrants’ capacity to develop emplaced identities, there is a transparent political position implied if not voiced in this writing, which joins dismissal of the broader society’s connections to place, land and sea with expressed support for Indigenous rights, as if the two are mutually incompatible.

My own view, likely influenced in part by my personal convictions about positive senses of place and belonging developed with family and peers during my youth in an Australian city, is that non-Indigenous emplaced identities, and by extension research that investigates and documents them, cannot be reduced to an expression of what Gelder terms ‘settler triumph’, or merely a language of belonging ‘used to obfuscate the history of Aboriginal dispossession’ as another Cultural Studies scholar has put it (Garbutt 2011: 148). In this context, the issue I have sought to raise is whether native title connections to place may achieve any degree of overlap with, and hence be culturally recognised by, those without Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander ancestry. Native title claims are a window for Australia on to possible, albeit in some ways unfamiliar, cultural landscapes.

Australian belonging is not adequately understood as limited to ‘settler triumph’

Native title claims are a window for Australia on to possible, albeit partially unfamiliar, cultural landscapes

What the wider society does intellectually with uneven knowledge of Indigenous place connections is instructive for understanding the post-settler society

The somewhat basic data I have considered will require substantial qualitative research investigation through the lived everyday lives of citizens most of whom will likely have no opportunity for close social relationships with Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander people. The demography works against such opportunities for cross-cultural understanding and exchange of ideas becoming widespread. The abrasive cultural politics swirling around the issues I have broached, may also limit how closely the broad populace might come to know about the kinds of place connections that are replete throughout Indigenous Australia. And then as I have tried to discuss briefly, there are the factors of difference that may limit recognition of ontological overlaps between the respective worldviews.

However, it is my view that ethnographic research on Australian senses of place, in light of the significance of Indigenous connections to country evident across the continent through native title claims, should receive greater attention in social science. The relatively sparse literature where we would expect to find such studies leads me to conclude that this is a potentially rich arena for original contributions to scholarship as well as to public debate.


1 See for example Boccagni (2017). It is notable that the migration studies and Indigenous studies literatures are rarely engaged in Australian social science.




5 McCrindle p.7


7 Coastal Themes: An Archaeology of the Southern Curtis Coast, Queensland. S. Ulm (2006) P.284., [insert MOOC interview web address]

Interview conducted by Dr Richard Martin, University of Qld.

10 Wadjularbinna Nulyarimma (Marquet Whitehead, whose mother’s country is in the lower Gulf of Carpentaria region, and who gave evidence in the Wellesley Islands native title claim litigation), quoted in The Australian 30 January 2002. She was interviewed in Canberra at the Tent Embassy.

11 Available from University of Western Australia.

12 Preferences in terminology when referring to Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander peoples, Gulanga Program, ACTCOSS, December 2016, p.3.

13 Yorta Yorta Native Title claim, 1181 FCA, Reasons for ruling on admissibility of evidence, Olney J, 29 October 1997, ‘The question of relevance’.;query=Yorta%20Yorta%20reasons%20for%20ruling%20on%20admissibility%20of%20evidence;mask_path=

14 ibid

15 Sutton (2010:75): ‘It seems that it originated in the Old World in ancient times, was taken over by indigenous North Americans from European Americans in the nineteenth century, was re-appropriated by non-indigenous Americans in the 1970s as an Indian tradition (see also Gill 1987; Rothenberg 1996), was exported to indigenous Australia from America as an Indian tradition, particularly in the 1980s, and has been transmitted yet again from some Aboriginal people to others as tradition. Mother Earth has been pretty busy.’


17 And although it is not a recognised religion, close to 48,000 people reported themselves as Jedi.


19 Though this reportedly can mean anything from meditation to asking questions about the meaning of life, hence the data will require careful examination.



22 Swain, T and D Rose 1988. Aboriginal Australians and Christian Missions. Australian Association for the study of Religions: South Australia.

23 A recent account from a female anthropologist (Rubinich 2019) reflects on her work in native title. Some of the challenges recounted as a young woman negotiating fieldwork on Indigenous relations with country present a rare and refreshingly honest discussion of what can be considerable tensions between gender roles among Indigenous groups and across the broader society.

24 The marketing of higher education at The University of Qld became recently ‘Create change, not if, when’.


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