Rosemary van den Berg
The Aboriginal people were, and still are, a gullible race in many ways. They are too trusting of others' motives regarding their cultural property. They are naive when it comes to protecting their rights to their cultural material. Although they are learning fast, for years Aboriginal people did not know that they needed to protect their cultural heritage from those who would take advantage of their knowledge and artistic merits, but gave nothing in return. Aboriginal culture is a unique culture and the uniqueness comes out, or can be seen in, their art and cultural expression. It can also be seen in their expertise and knowledge of their country.
Since British colonisation, one area where Aboriginal knowledge was used in the past was in research. Anthropologists and other learned people lived among Aboriginal people and collected all the information about Aboriginal culture that they possibly could. They would pick the people's brains to learn how Aborigines lived. Their social, religious and kinship ties and other aspects of their lives were given to these academics without thought. Aborigines were happy to oblige and to indulge the white people's every question about their lifestyles and environment. They had no thought that maybe they were giving away their cultural heritage, not for their own gain but for others' gains. Aborigines never did receive payment for their efforts, but those who compiled the information did, as well as the fame of becoming a notable authority on Aboriginal people and their culture. They, the white people, became the experts on Aboriginal issues, not the Aborigines themselves. White students would get their degrees on Aboriginal knowledge, the government would do deals with multinational companies after learning that a plant had medicinal properties and the Aborigines received nothing. In fact, Aboriginal input was totally ignored. It is only in the past 20 years, maybe even less than that, that Aboriginal people are learning not to give away their knowledge so freely. In 1989, at Curtin University, academics wanted Aboriginal students to take part in a research and give information about their culture, but the majority of those asked, refused. They knew they wouldn't benefit from this exercise and that the white academics would get all the accolades.
Many cases tell of Aboriginal people having been cheated of their Intellectual Property Rights. One of the greatest painters Australia has ever produced was the Aboriginal artist, the late Albert Namatjira, whose paintings spoke of his love for his country. His landscapes, painted in watercolour, depicted his country in Central Australia. He showed an expertise most white people found hard to believe because he had never had an art lesson in his life. During his lifetime, his works of art sold for thousands of dollars, yet he died in penury. Why? I would hazard a guess and say he died penniless because he was cheated in his dealings by those who had access to his work and who bought his paintings for a pittance and sold them for a fortune. This is going on all the time. Aborigines selling for a pittance to white people who sell the works for big money. People would say this is how capitalism works, but the Aboriginal people are always the losers.
History shows that Aboriginal people have been cheated out of their intellectual and cultural rights in the past and this practice still goes on. Aborigines have been swindled out of their right to own copyright to their works because they did not know that such copyright laws existed. It is only in the last decades of this century that they are learning the intricacies of Intellectual Property Right laws which are in place to protect every writer and artist, and poet, musician and craftsperson, from those who would take advantage of their ignorance in this area. But things are changing now as more Aboriginal people are becoming aware that they hold sole copyright to their works. They sign their names to their creations with the dates and the copyright insignia. Some go so far as to hire lawyers to safeguard their property from unscrupulous people. Others place copies in banks to ensure their work is safe and they can always refer back to the originals with dates in evidence. It has been known that sections of Aboriginal designs are stolen and made into lino or carpet and sold. Again, Aboriginal people are the losers.
Yet while Aboriginal people are becoming aware of the pitfalls of not stating loudly and clearly their rights to their intellectual property, there has become, in recent years, the practice of non-Aboriginals claiming, or assuming, an Aboriginal identity in order to gain money, awards and fame as indigenous writers and artists. These cheats are stealing Aboriginal identities from the indigenous people. Some think they have this right by association, but if this were the case, my husband can claim Aboriginality by his association with me and other Nyoongar people. Jack won't do this, but the same principles apply if claims of association are the criteria by which these unscrupulous people manufacture their indigenous identities.
The question now is, how can we, the indigenous people of Australia, stop non-Aboriginals from deliberately stealing an Aboriginal identity? There is this latest trend for imposters to assume an Aboriginal alias and write or paint under the pseudonyms of an Aboriginal identity. Why are these people assuming Aboriginal identities unless it is for self-indulgence and greed, and to make fools of both white and black Australians, to make fools of everyone, especially those who buy this art while under the impression that it is authentic Aboriginal art or literature. There are big bucks involved with Aboriginal art and literature. What makes these imposters believe that they can assume Aboriginal identities? They have no shame and should be brought to book over their double dealings. Are there laws to safeguard indigenous people from identity thieves? What can be done to stop these people from making a mockery of Aboriginal art and literature? I mean, in the past we've had everything stolen from us, our land, our culture and our children - now Aboriginal people are having their very identities stolen. Where is the justice? There was an interesting paper at the Klagenfurt conference which mentioned that white Australians had to capture the very souls of the indigenous people in order to feel as one with the land and as a means of identity. This is frightening.
However, in Australia in recent years, there have been several thefts of Aboriginal cultural identity which mocks Aborigines in their struggles for acceptance and equality, not only in the art world, but in every sphere dealing with Aboriginal issues.
The first by one, Colin Johnson, now known as Mudrooroo. Colin Johnson has changed his name so many times it is hard to keep track of who he really is. One thing is for certain though, he is not an Aboriginal person. His non-Aboriginal identity has been proven by his own family and the Nyoongar people whom Mr. Johnson claims knew him as a child in a small country town in Western Australia. Mr. Johnson, alias Mudrooroo Narogin, alias Mudrooroo Nyoongah, alias Mudrooroo, has been exposed as an imposter of the worst kind because he knew he was not an Aboriginal person, yet he used an Aboriginal identity for his own ends - aka an "Aboriginal" writer. He is now famous as an "Aboriginal writer" and his exposure as being non-Aboriginal does not seem to deter him in the least from accepting money and accolades from the white Australian public and other ignorant Aborigines. The literati, academia and the publishers, besides those ignorant Aborigines, seem to uphold his right to maintain his false identity. I ask you, where does that leave the indigenous people, the Nyoongar people, whose cultural identity he has stolen and made use of for his own ends? Are we to accept this state of affairs? Are we to let students from all over the country believe that he is a Nyoongar, an Aboriginal man. Are we to let this imposter make fools of us? What can we, as Nyoongars and as Aborigines do, especially when this man's white wife is legitimately called Mrs Nyoongah. It is a farce and an insult to my people, the Nyoongars of the south-west of Western Australia.
The next notorious person to assume an Aboriginal identity is Elizabeth Durack, an elderly white woman who paints under the pseudonym of Eddie Burrup. At first glance, "Eddie Burrup" is construed as being Aboriginal. this is a deliberate ploy to delude people into thinking that her artistic work is done by an Aboriginal person. Ms Durack is a noted Australian artist, a well-known and respected person by both white and Aboriginal Australians, so why has she wilfully assumed an Aboriginal identity and is passing her work off as being Aboriginal art? Keeping in mind that there is big money in Aboriginal art throughout the world, did Ms Durack pass her paintings off as Aboriginal art for the sake of reaping huge monetary rewards? Personally, I cannot see any other reason for her betrayal of Aboriginal people unless it is to reap rewards as an Aboriginal artist. Perhaps her days as a white Australian artist are over and she is taking the persona of an Aboriginal artist to boost her flagging image. For whatever the reason, Ms Durack is doing untold damage to Authentic Aboriginal Art and she is undermining our cultural identity. She is stealing our culture and our intellectual property rights. It doesn't matter that she has lived among Aboriginal people in her early years. This doesn't make her an Aboriginal person and she has no right to take an Aboriginal identity to promote her work.
The next on the list of imposters who use and abuse Aboriginal identities is one Leon Carmen, a white writer who assumed the name Wanda Koolmatrie and had his work published as being that of an Aboriginal woman. This man's ploy was deliberate and again, assumed to make fools out of the Aboriginal people, Magabala Books - the Aboriginal publishing house in Broome - and to reap the rewards for his endeavours. Like Colin Johnson, Leon Carmen has won awards for his efforts in deliberately stealing an Aboriginal identity. It is sad and it is sickening that these non-Aboriginal people are receiving and accepting, as their right, merits which should belong to Aboriginal people.
Aboriginal Intellectual Property Rights belong to Aboriginal people. Aboriginal culture belongs to the Aboriginal people. The Australian government stands in error by not taking more care to protect Aboriginal art and artefacts which are taken overseas for exhibition in different countries.
One case in point is - In 1992, when my husband and I came to Holland, we happened to visit the University of Nijmegen. While there, we were shown a collection of Aboriginal art and artefacts which came from Arnhem Land or northern Australia, judging by the tall totem poles and other pieces of art. There were some pieces which I couldn't look at because I am a woman and these pieces were for men's eyes only. In other words, they were secret/sacred men's business. This collection had been travelling around Europe - to Germany and other countries - before it finally came to Holland. The curator at Nijmegen University told my husband and me that this collection had been in Europe since the early 1970s and it had been stored at Nijmegen University for a number of years before we saw it there. In other words, the people at Nijmegen University did not know what to do with this northern Australian art and artefacts collection. They had been in touch with the Australian government and that worthy body did not have any idea of its existence. In 1996, after a symposium on Intellectual Property in Perth, my husband and I tried to find out whether this collection was still at Nijmegen University and were told via a reporter from The West Australian newspaper that it was finally sent back to Australia. The point I am making here is that the collection should have been sent back to Australia as soon as the exhibition in Europe had finished, instead of lying wasted for over 20 years. The Australian government of the time should have known where that collection was and should have made sure it was returned to Australia. This is just another instance where Aboriginal culture and the people have been forgotten by the Australian government. The Nijmegen University should be thanked wholeheartedly for taking care of this valuable art and artefacts collection, which is a part of the Aboriginal heritage from the northern parts of Australia.
Aboriginal people have always recognised and practised protocol in their dealings with each other, which means there are certain ethical standards to be observed. You may have read about the Aboriginal Elders who have responsibility for passing on cultural, social and religious practices to the younger generations. These old people are responsible for ensuring their knowledge is understood and adhered to when they are no longer present. Aboriginal protocol also ensures that younger people cannot claim to be Elders when in fact they are not. Age is always recognised as having the experiences of life and the wisdom to know the difference between right and wrong. In Aboriginal culture, youth gives way to age which must be respected at all times. Sadly, some Aboriginal youth, like many young people throughout the world, disregard their Elders as being past their "use-by" date. They ignore the wisdom associated with age and it is their loss, their cultural loss.
I have some relevant points about Intellectual Property Rights here which Aboriginal people want the Australian government to recognise and address. They would like:
1. Ownership over their Cultural and Intellectual Property
2. To control the commercial use of indigenous Cultural and Intellectual Property in accordance with traditional customary laws
3. Full and proper attribution for their work
4. The right to protect sacred and significant sites
5. The right to own and control management of lands of indigenous cultural values
6. The right to prevent the derogatory, offensive and fallacious uses of Indigenous Cultural and Intellectual Property
7. The right to have a say in the preservation and care, protection, management and control of cultural artefacts, human remains, archaeological and significant traditional sites, traditional food sources and traditional and contemporary cultural expressions such as rituals, legends and designs used in, for instance, art weaving, dance songs and stories
8. The right to control use of traditional knowledge of medicinal plants, agricultural biodiversity and environmental management, the recordings of cultural customs and expressions, and particular language intrinsic to cultural identity
All these points are very important to Aboriginal people. As I said earlier, Aboriginal Intellectual Property Rights have been ignored to the point where the people have been ripped off and made fools of. This has to stop! Aboriginal people must have a voice to protect their cultural heritage.
Indigenous Intellectual Copyright differs from the Western Intellectual Property Rights laws because indigenous cultural heritage protects, not only the individual, but the whole group. Copyright laws, as Western society know them, are to protect cultural creation and investment and centre on individual works and outcomes, meaning that the sole purpose of copyright, patent or any other form of protection for the creator is individually based and financially motivated, while Indigenous intellectual property is concerned with value and belief systems, land, community identifications, social functioning and the preservation, the integrity and authority of a culture.
Finally, you can see that Aboriginal people look on copyright and intellectual property rights in a different light than non-Aboriginals. We have a lot to learn about these matters and we have the right to protect our cultural matters, especially our cultural identities. We cannot afford to let people make a mockery of our culture, our people and our intellectual property rights. We Aborigines of Australia deserve better treatment than this.
|A version of this paper was presented to the Conference "Mobility in Asia and the Pacific" in Utrecht, The Netherlands, on October, 4 1997.|
| Review of Rosemay van den Berg's book
No Options No Choice!
by Brian Willis
Rosemary van den Berg is an Elder of the Nyoongar people of the south-west of Western Australia, where she has lived for most of her life. Her book No Options No Choice! telling of the life of her father was published in 1994 and she has two other manuscripts awaiting publication at the Broome publisher "Magabala Books". She is currently completing her PhD. at Curtin University. She has published several articles and academic papers in journals, nationally and internationally and has co-edited an Anthology of Western Australian Aboriginal writers and poets (1998) and hopes to establish an Aboriginal publishing house in Perth sometime in the near future . Rosemary van den Berg is married with five children and twentyone grandchildren.