A few weeks ago I wrote a Monday Musings about the Walkley Awards, noting some of the winners that particularly interested me. They included two awards for essays in the Griffith Review, one by Melissa Lucashenko, whose essay “Sinking below sight” I subsequently reviewed, and the other by Kathy Marks whose essay, “Channelling Mannalargenna” is the subject of this post. Both essays deal with indigenous topics but while Lucashenko, who won the award for Long Feature, has Aboriginal heritage, Marks, whose award was for Indigenous Affairs, is English. This adds an intriguing layer to her piece which is about the troubled issue of identity in indigenous Tasmania. Marks has, however, been writing about the Asia-Pacific region since 1999.
Like most Australians of my generation, I grew up believing that genocide had resulted in the elimination of indigenous people from Tasmania. Truganini, we were told, was the last “full-blood” Tasmanian Aboriginal person. She died in 1876. In 1978, the documentary, The last Tasmanian, made by filmmaker Tom Haydon and archaeologist Rhys Jones, popularised this idea. It is, however, not quite as simple as we’d been led to believe – and Marks’ essay chronicles the identification legacy left by a history of being discounted. The Walkley judges described the essay as follows:
An elegantly written essay about a community still wrestling daily with the act of colonisation. Adding poignancy is the hovering myth of extinction, Kathy Marks deftly draws the reader into the everyday of establishing Tasmanian Aboriginal identity, teasing out the tensions, but without seeking catharsis.
It’s a brave essay, I think, something that Marks herself recognises when she said on her win that “I was thrilled to receive the award, not least because of the challenging and sensitive nature of the subject matter.” Being brave, though, is surely the hallmark of a good journalist. And so, Marks tackles the thorny issue regarding the definition of indigeneity in Tasmania.
As I read the essay, I was reminded of remarks made by Anita Heiss in Am I black enough for you? on conflict within the indigenous community regarding Aboriginality. Heiss discusses the different ways people come by their Aboriginality and says:
What age and experience moving around the country has given me is a better understanding of the complexities around individual and collective Aboriginal identity. One shouldn’t be too quick to judge others, especially when some of us have been fortunate to know who we are all our lives, and others haven’t.
And herein lies the rub in Tasmania. Because of the particular history of indigenous Tasmanians, family lines and connections have been broken, and so the way Tasmanians discover their Aboriginal background is highly varied. In her essay, Marks talks to many of the groups and factions existing in contemporary Tasmania, and describes the bitter lines that have been drawn between some of them. Some of these lines are so strongly defended that one group, the Tasmanian Aboriginal Centre (TAC) in particular, has taken legal action against people who have claimed indigenous heritage. Officially, the definition of Aboriginality in Tasmania is the same as that established by the Federal government – the three-pronged factors of ancestry, self-identification and being accepted by the indigenous community. The TAC, however, demands a family tree as part of this. Marks quotes Michael Mansell who argues that to be accepted as indigenous Tasmanian, people need to:
show that…their families, from every generation back to tribal, have always maintained their connection with being Aboriginal. So that excludes people who undoubtedly have Aboriginal descent but who have been brought up as white people… If there’s been a break in the generations, where someone lost contact, the Aboriginal community’s view is…you can’t revive it.
Not all can provide this unbroken connection. For example, indigenous Tasmanian academic, Greg Lehman, told Marks that people were not keen to admit to indigenous forbears in the 194os and 1950s. And then there’s the devastation – dislocation – that occurred one hundred years earlier through George Arthur’s infamous Black Line and then George Augustus Robinson’s corralling of indigenous people at the so-called “friendly mission” Wybalenna on Flinders Island in the 1830s.
Looking from the outside, I find this conflict all very sad. It’s hard enough when indigenous people suffer rejection and discrimination from the white majority culture, but when it also comes from inside the community it must be devastating. Patsy Cameron, an indigenous Tasmanian whose bona-fide is accepted, would like to see a more inclusive approach. Marks quotes Cameron:
‘Even someone who hasn’t been active in their culture or in the politics of the day,’ she says, ‘it doesn’t make them any less Aboriginal. Anyone who can show their lineage, and their extended family acknowledges them as part of that family, we should be embracing them. We should be embracing people who have been lost, rather than chasing them away and doing to them the exact thing that non-Aboriginal people have done to us in the past: denying us our rights, our identity.’
I’ve only touched the surface of Marks’ essay. It’s an excellent read that starts with a brief history of indigenous relations in Tasmania, including some distressing anecdotes regarding discrimination, before exploring in some depth the essay’s central issue regarding Aboriginal identity. Fortunately, the essay is freely available online via the link below. If you have any specific or general interest in the topic I commend it to you.
“Channelling Mannalargenna: Surviving, belonging, challenging, enduring”
Published in the Griffith Review, Edition 39, 2013
Available: Online at the Griffith Review