In document 'Owning' a marginal identity : shame and resistance in an Aboriginal community (Page 144-182)



We've gotta live the blackfella way, we're Koories, can't change it. ’

In opposition to an outside world perceived as hostile and alienating, Jerrinja is home, the space where Jerrinja people live their own world-taken-for-granted, a place of profound familiarity, a zone of relative comfort and security. It is a disjunctive arena, not because it is free from external definitions, hegemonic influences, engagements and dependencies, but because it has internal substance, because it emerges from and sustains a distinctly different indigenous socio-cultural order and historical experience and because it continually demands loyalty to its own logic. It is not a utopia of homogenous and harmonious communality, far from it, however, individuals and families do pursue their own interests and define their own lifestyles and ambitions, with or against a common moral grain. The purpose of this chapter to bring that moral grain to light.

The cat’s cradle of kinship

As an Aboriginal community, it hardly needs saying that kinship provides the prime organising principle for social, economic and political orientation at Jerrinja. The community may be conceived as an intricate network of kin relations, in which individuals are bound, often through multiple affiliations, and in which the ties between serve as guy lines for interaction. The field is not an even one. While it is, in theory, possible to link any one person on the mission to any other by tracing a path through consanguinal and/or affinal ties, in the daily construction of social life and polity some measures of relatedness are considered supreme, others without productive significance, some remain unknown, some unactivated and some vigorously renounced.

In 'Outline of a Theory of Practice', Bourdieu draws an analogy comparing the opposition between theoretical and 'practical' kin relationships with the maps and tracks worn with use.

The logical relationships constructed by the anthropologist are opposed to 'practical' relationships - practical because continuously practised, kept up, and cultivated - in the same way as the geometrical space of a map, an imaginary representation of all theoretically possible roads and routes, is opposed to the network of beaten tracks, of paths made ever more practicable by constant use.’ (1977:37)

At Jerrinja, one might literally read the series of well worn trails between households as some sort of map of practical kin relations. Like a cat's cradle, these paths criss­ cross the mission, channeling the traffic of people, goods, money, information and political influence. These flows both mark and maintain serviceable kin relationships across households

The best worn paths are traversed frequently, with confidence and ease. The

boundaries between such connected households are relatively permeable and fluid. A row between intimately connected households may halt the traffic between them for a certain time, but generally the track is easily reestablished. As Bourdieu suggests, the less a path is trodden the more difficult it becomes to negotiate. Considerable

reluctance, apprehension and formality surrounds the approach between households where communication is infrequent, even where close genealogical links pertain.

The short-cut between Sylvia and Valerie's house takes its path through Graham and Frank's yards. To say it is a well worn track is to understate the case. As a resident of Graham's house, I was a constant witness to the ongoing procession flowing back and forth along the track between these four related households. Women pushing prams, tagging toddlers at their heels, young men sauntering, hands in pockets, possies of children, hopeful card players jingling purses of change... It began early, and continued through out the day until late at night, when raucous voices might sometimes disturb your sleep.

At seventy three, Sylvia was still active head of her large and extended family, and for this reason her house remained a focus of activity. Six of her adult children shared her home, five of them having remained single without

children, one son had passed away some years ago, while Valerie, Graham and Frank had established households of their own on the mission. Children,

grandchildren and great grandchildren made regular pilgrimages to Nan1

Sylvia's home demonstrating their respect and affection. Sylvia's kin, particularly the younger members, could also expect to benefit from her largesse, or that of the several single aunts and uncles who lived there. Extra guests would often share the evening meal. Sylvia's household constituted another type of resource for the younger women, who could leave their children in the care of their grandmother and great aunts. One great niece had been permanently adopted by Sylvia's daughter, and another would

permanently join the household later in the care of a second aunt.

Like her mother, Sylvia's daughter Valerie had a large family and is herself grandmother to a growing number of grandchildren. With a reputation of opening her arms to people, Valerie's is the largest household on the mission. At the time of my fieldwork there were nineteen permanent residents - Valerie and her husband John, four of their seven children, and two spouses, six grandchildren, two of Valerie's nephews and their father (the white ex of Valerie's sister), the de-facto spouse of one nephew, Valerie's MBSD, a teenage girl who had moved away from family problems at home, and in addition, for considerable periods at a time, a distant cousin-in-law as well. Filling the house beyond capacity, household members spilled out into caravans, shacks and, on some nights, old car bodies in the adjoining yard. During the day the place attracted umpteen visitors, who came to sit and talk and watch comings and goings from the verandah, to join a card game or to borrow bread, sugar or sometimes cash.

To understand the particular configuration of trails, the well worn, the newly

1 Nan is a reference to grandmother here.

emergent or those receding under the threat o f overgrowth, one needs to consider the local structural principles o f kinship and relatedness, the particular set o f people and the matter-of-fact relations which pertain between them, the individual histories o f particular relationships - the efforts, strategies, fortunes and vagaries that have nourished and beset them - and the different contexts in which kin relationships are activated. In the latter respect, the analogy drawn is not sufficient for one must be able to account for contingency, to see how particular relationships, however, tenuous or fractious in daily life, endure and may be foregrounded depending on contexts and goals.

Most Jerrinja households do not function as bounded units o f residence, consumption or domestic production. Boundaries are considerably more fluid and are better placed around broader cognatic descent groups distributed over a number o f households. Immediate notions o f family, relatedness and interdependence are structured about the senior women (grandmothers) and men (grandfathers) who serve as monarchs2 o f extended families, usually distributed over a number o f households on or o ff the mission, and composed o f their children, natural and adopted, grandchildren and great grandchildren. The relationships cemented by these apical figures continue to be maintained, at least in the medium term, even when the focal person has passed away. At a broader level these family groups identify and operate as sub-groups o f larger family units; reckoned by removing the focal point a further generation. Hence at Jerrinja, during the time o f my fieldwork, the dominant family was represented on the mission by four elderly siblings and their families, descendants o f two o f their three other siblings, who had passed away, who together occupied eighteen o f the twenty seven homes. Taking the frame broader more families became incorporated within this single grouping.

As previously noted there are alternative ways, theoretically speaking, in which kinship relationships could be reckoned. Graham, for example, is a member o f the Connolly family, which derives its name from his deceased father, Sam, and o f which his mother Sylvia (nee Wellington) was then head. Arguably when his father was alive, Sam would have been a major authority figure within the household, but it was

2 At Jerrinja there were no surviving elderly couples.

Sylvia who held standing in the broader politic of the community. Through Sylvia, Graham traces his membership to a broader cognatic descent, which links him closely to the families of his mother's siblings and provides his underlying identity as a Wellington (and beyond that as a Bundle). Graham might have reckoned his relationships to others on the mission in different ways. Graham's father Sam has a sister at Jerrinja, with a large family of her own (mostly absent), however, there appears to be no sense of affiliation between Graham and his father's sister and her family and certainly I saw no practical communication between the two families during the year 1 was at Jerrinja, despite the close proximity of their homes.

The kin reckoning principles here might be explained by the operation of a principle of matrifiliation. At Jerrinja, this is sometimes expressed as the primary organising principle of descent - it was, to give one instance, argued vigorously to me that houses

on the mission should only be transmitted from woman to daughter3 4 - however, there

are certainly cases on the mission where people have derived their principle family affiliations from the father. Women do in fact constitute household heads in a substantial majority of cases at Jerrinja and are highly influential in the organising of family affairs. In explaining this fact the desertion of men does not appear a

significant factor, a higher mortality rate amongst them goes part of the way to explain the situation, but as the following case illustrates this is not the only or primary reason. Norman shares a house with three of his grown-up children, and commands the respect of these and his other children on the mission, however, the house that he and his family occupy is always referred to as his daughter Mary's house - it is most likely officially held in her name - and she assumes the major

responsibility for household leadership. In the local political situation, the family's right to occupy the house has been extended to the family through Mary's mother, not her father.

The critical principle, at least in the eyes of its members, is the primacy accorded membership of a family with local traditional interests. Norman had married into the community and although Sam was bom on the mission, his father had come to

3 Three of whom have now passed away.

4 Sutton concludes that there were no matrilineal land-holding groups in classical Aboriginal society, and that there are none today as far as he is aware (Sutton 1998)

Roseby Park from Victoria. Neither of these men's own affinities to country seemed to play a significant part in the formulation of their descendant's identity. The formations of descent at Jerrinja, then, stand in close accord with the model of post- classical social organisation developed by Sutton (1998).

Post-classical social organisation

From a fine-toothed review of the literature, and drawing on his own understandings, Sutton distils an inventory of forms and principles to which post-classical social organisation generally conforms. He finds the system primarily structured on

principles of cognatic descent and identifies the 'sumamed family' as the fundamental unity of polity. Although the word 'family' may be used within Aboriginal English in a variety of senses, its referent here is an exclusive group, membership of which (generally) is derived from mother or father by birth or adoption; must be actively maintained; may involve a degree of choice (since rights are potentially inherited bilaterally); entails ties to particular place/s; and involves certain rights and

obligations. Surnames serve as the primary reference to the group, and members may prefer to identify with them, but such names are not indicative of, or requisite to,

group membership.

As Sutton has argued this type of family corporation retains continuities with classical clan organisation and is critical in the maintenance and transmission of traditional interests in country. At Jerrinja, the major family, the Wellingtons, trace traditional affiliation to country primarily in their descent from the Bundles and assert their privileged position as the legitimate spokespeople for country5. These principles are reflected in the political dynamics of the community, in a situation where local political institutions are dominated, alternately, between different branches of that family. It is a source of ongoing complaint amongst those families that are not affiliated with this group that they are not afforded any say at meetings, rarely hold office-bearing positions and are almost never the beneficiaries of any resources or special programs directed at the community by government or other outside sources which are inevitably channelled through the community's representative bodies -

5 The self-definitions o f the politically dominant group as a local descent group with exclusive rights o f

'they're all the one family, they roll it round amongst themselves.' Such inequities may be acknowledged by leaders of the dominant group but, behind closed doors, they justify it on the grounds that 'their people weren't from here.'

The same principle probably impacts upon the white spouses of Koori residents, who always find themselves roundly abused if they attempt to assert themselves in

community forums. Both whites and Koories see it solely as a question of race, but Aboriginal spouses find themselves similarly subject to animosity if they presume to impose themselves on political processes. Although distinctions between 'original people' and 'Johnny come latelies' seem to have been the basis of ongoing tensions and power differentials between the broader descent groups on the mission since its inception, it would appear that the changing political context has heightened the couching of difference in terms of traditional rights of ownership to country.

While membership of the broad cognatic descent group, or of any family, is ascribed by birth, one's acceptance and recognition within the group, one's affective inclusion and one's rights to speak and be heard, are subject to condition that the person has actively maintained their position within the group, has fulfilled obligations and kept oneself in and abreast of the state of things.

A person who has absented themselves from the community and not maintained relationship with family and has failed to concern themselves with group issues will not be freely welcomed back to take part in the determinations and political

representation of group interests at a later date. He or she will find themselves coldly treated as an outsider.

One man who has recently tried to reinvolve himself in community politics says that he is considered a foreigner because he left the mission and did his own thing. His relatives accuse him of being a coconut, black on the outside, white within. On one level it is because he has lived a life over many years away from the mission, adopting a substantially mainstream way of life and set of values, but it is, moreover, because he has not maintained his social

traditional affiliation are not without local contention.

connections with the family; as they see it, his rights have been negated by his failure to remain involved and supportive of group interests.

The rights of another man, actually resident on Jerrinja, were questioned in similar vein. 'He was away from the mission for a long time. How can he come back and think he knows things? Say things?' All relationships on the mission are subject to the same test; relatedness can not be assumed, it must be produced and maintained through social action (Myers 1986:17)6.

Without making any attempt to give one domain ontological priority over any other - after all it is surely only an analytic exercise which separates them in the first place - it is clear that relatedness is a product of, productive of and integral to the material, social and ideological formations and practices of Aboriginal life, both classical and post-classical. Since I have already briefly sketched features of the social formation, I will turn now to the moral precepts which sustain relatedness at Jerrinja, before highlighting the social practices and aspects of the economic system which simultaneously afford means and motive for the maintenance of kin relations.

'Owning your people': the moral economy of Jerrinja

The moral precept which seems to have most force at Jerrinja and which gives direct expression to the imperative to recognise and protect relatedness, is that one ought to

'own one's people'. In respect of relationships between human beings, standard

English useage confines the word 'own' to the special case of master and slave. Here the connotation is that the slave is reduced to an object, owned by the master, as any other thing. The word 'disown', though it may reflect equivalent notions of ownership underlying other relationships, is generally employed with a different sense and broader applicability. The Macquarie Dictionary definition reads: 'to refuse to acknowledge as belonging or pertaining to oneself; deny the ownership of or

responsibility for; repudiate; renounce'. 'Disown', as far as I am aware is not used in Aboriginal English - rather the formulation is 'don't own' or 'doesn't own' - but a

6 Myers goes so far as to argue that the production of structures which endure beyond the immediacies of current relations presents a cultural problem for Aboriginal peoples (1986:17).

reversal of the above definition effectively captures the sense of the word 'own' as it is applied in relations with others by Jerrinja.

To ‘own’ your people and to be 1 owned' by others implies an acknowledgement and

affirmation of relationship. It entails a sense of belonging, of acceptance, solidarity

and of mutual sympathy, care and respect. To say that someone 'owns you' may refer

to your acceptance and recognition in a particular relationship or as a member of a group or community. The phrase is used in reciprocal fashion in the evaluation of the allegiances of group members, especially those who do not live at Jerrinja.

Two small children, Eliza and Daniel, who live off the mission with their non- Aboriginal mother, were staying with their grandmother for a few days. They

In document 'Owning' a marginal identity : shame and resistance in an Aboriginal community (Page 144-182)