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AT THE OLYMPICS IN Sydney in 2000, the world was shown images of old and new Australians working together. The opening and closing ceremonies featured Indigenous performers and art. The image of an older Indigenous Australian leading a Euro-Australian child by the hand conjured up ideas of the oldest civilization in the world (Aboriginal) teaching the new comers to this land, with both sharing a path into the future. It appeared to be a celebration of reconciliation and communication, yet the practice in the political arena appears to be moving backward in terms of representations of Indigenous cultures, rather than reflecting new ways of being. This has had a detrimental effect on the power of Indigenous Australians to negotiate for social justice and for land rights.
In the documentary After Mabo (John Hughes, 1997) the impact of these backward steps is demonstrated all too clearly. The documentary begins with a collection of images of non-indigenous Australians talking about the land and Indigenous people. We see the implicit power of a Prime Minister, the authority of a newsreader; these are images of political and every day power that are intercut with dialogue from the film Bitter Springs (Ralph Smart, 1949/50). These images voice external representations of Indigenous Australians. Peter Yu, speaking about why he and others as Indigenous Australians value and maintain their connection with the land, must compete with the power already invested in the other speaking positions. Throughout the documentary the Indigenous representatives are pushed into the position of supplicants. They must prove not only their cultural heritage and connection but also their position as community representatives. As supplicants they cannot effect the terms of negotiation. They go from their communities to the houses of parliament--buildings that are designed to maximize the sense of power and the authority of the government. The description of Parliament House in Canberra, as it seems designed to show the Indigenous heritage outside and European inside, underscores the power positions within the negotiations. These positions are further effected by the ways in which Indigenous Australians have been represented over the last two hundred years by Euro-Australians. Within the documentary we see a meeting with Senator Herron where he lectures the Indigenous representatives about past Indigenous culture and recounts his anecdote about changing knowledges. Implicit in this interview is a whole view of Indigenous people; they are the past, a lost past, a past that can be studied equally by anyone. They are not the present.
Over the last two hundred years, European representations of Aboriginal and Islander cultural identities have played a …