Deborah Bird Rose, Reports from A Wild Country: Ethics for Decolonisation. 

Sydney, Australia: University of New South Wales Press, 2004. 235 pages.

It is the late 19th century, and Mounted Constable Willshire is busy “protecting” settler property around Alice Springs in central Australia. Willshire, who may have wiped out about 500 Arrernte people before an unsuccessful attempt was made to bring him to justice, described the scene in the following terms:

They scattered in all directions, setting fire to the grass on each side of us, throwing occasional spears, and yelling at us. It’s no use mincing matters – the Martini-Henry carbines at this critical moment were talking English in the silent majesty of these great eternal rocks.

He never mentioned killing, and while his guns “were talking English,” he sublimated the horror, literally, with figures of the sublime landscape creating the context, in his memoirs, for his unutterable actions. “The mountain was swathed in a regal robe of fiery grandeur,” he continued, “and its ominous roar was close upon us.”

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There is a thread that connects Willshire’s actions with those of the current conservative government of Australian Prime Minister John Howard. One old man Deborah Bird Rose used to talk to in northern Australia, Hobbles Danaiyarri, would have called it “wild” behaviour, the perpetuation of a history of colonial violence. He had a habit of referring to “Captain Cook” as an emblem of white supremacy: “Because Captain Cook order: You got to clean that people up, right up. And put all my whitefellows on top. This my country … he’s the wild one.” There is a clarity in this thought that snaps back to and fixes on the figure of Cook as the originator of the violence, the one who started the “cleaning up” of people and country.

And for Rose, thinking with Walter Benjamin against an accumulative or progressive history, the past must be retained in memory for its positive moral impacts in the present. “Wild” thought is that which perpetuates violence by creating a distance from present crises, seeking resolution in a redemptive future, “a vision of the future which will transcend the past, a future in which current contradictions and current suffering will be left behind.” This vision enables an understanding of ourselves “in an imaginary state of future achievement.”

Having established the historical model, Rose surveys the crises whose impact is felt in the here and now. Her mode of thought thus wriggles out of the temporal straitjacket and into what she calls an “ecological humanism,” inflected by feminism, mythological analysis and the personal experience of 25 years in Australian anthropology and the bush “schools” of her Indigenous colleagues.

The Indigenous Australians I talk to are in despair about what the current government is doing, and avoiding doing. Recently, the Howard government abolished the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission (ATSIC), a representative body of Indigenous Australians set up to advise the government. Commissioners were elected by their own people on a regional basis. Now this minimal participation in democratic processes is not available to Indigenous Australians. They are told they can vote with the mainstream, but they find very few candidates from their own communities with their interests at heart, and even fewer who are likely to be elected.

This government effort to “mainstream” services to Aboriginal communities reminds many commentators of the era of assimilation in the mid-20th century, a policy designed to make the “Aboriginal problem” – a problem that has reappeared in many guises since colonization – go away. In the beginning the problem took the form of the ambiguous status of Aboriginal sovereignty, for the British were under royal instructions not to lay claim to lands held by Native peoples. The result was “dispersal” of the type carried out by Willshire, decimation by disease, and the later invention of a legal fiction, terra nullius.

The latest manifestation of the “Aboriginal problem” is massive discrimination and disadvantage according to any social indicator one might choose: rates of incarceration, mortality, levels of education, employment, drug abuse. Suffering at the bottom of the social heap, Indigenous people hear the government telling them to pull themselves up by their bootstraps via the “mainstream.” Forget the past, says Howard, and especially avoid apologies of the kind offered in South Africa, New Zealand and Canada, because that might lead to legal liability. Instead, offer “practical reconciliation” – derided by the previous Prime Minister, Paul Keating, turfed out of office just as he offered an apology: “You’ve always got to be worried when you hear the world ‘practical’ from this government. It’s like an anti-matter particle which obliterates the noun it’s meant to describe.”

Not only has “reconciliation” gone up in a puff of smoke, and with it any hope for a treaty, but Australia’s human rights record as a whole has gone to the dogs. This was confirmed by two assessments of the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of all Forms of Racial Discrimination. In 2000, the verdict placed Australia in the company of Bosnia, Uganda and Ecuador, and had the government spluttering about how dare they tell us what to do in our own country. This verdict was issued with an “urgent action” notice because it was in breach of the Geneva Convention on questions of Native title rights, the first such notice issued to a Western nation. The past that Howard does not want to revisit, the haunting question of sovereignty, had risen like a wraith.

Five years later, the Geneva committee met again, and delivered its findings in March 2005. The Howard government has made progress, but not in the direction Geneva would have liked to see. To its Indigenous policy record it has added the abolition of ATSIC, mandatory sentencing of indigenous offenders in some parts of Australia, and the slashing of funding to the Human Rights and Equal Opportunities Commission. Nothing has been done about the stolen generation, incarceration rates and racial discrimination generally. And there are fresh concerns in Geneva on other fronts: long-term incarceration of refugees and asylum-seekers and counterterrorism legislation.

The events of war and battle in colonial conquest can provide an effect of closure, the way deaths in battle, once counted, can add up to “victory” and provide a kind of historical satisfaction. In her reports from the lawless frontier of the past, Rose deflects that effect. She interrogates the largely silent historical record about the fate of the women as Willshire “cleaned up” the men. Willshire wrote of these women “huddling together in a cave, the rude interior of which fairly glowed with girlish beauty,” emerging after the smoke cleared to be made use of by his black trackers (not by him, of course). Rose takes the risk of reviving a crude metaphor: the gun-penis, rape as war continued by other means.

“The cock shot its bullets into future generations of people who would be taken and never returned,” she says, and this is the logic of rape in war, as it is a way of giving women children they would presumably not want. And sure enough, in Australia this logic found itself elevated to the status of policy. “Full blood” Aborigines were expected to become extinct because they would never cope with civilization shock, while the “half-castes” found themselves subject to laws to remove them from their communities.

They were supposed to assimilate, but of course the whites didn’t really want them living next door. What do you say to someone in power telling you you must assimilate? If you say, “I’m already assimilated, Boss,” he will say, “Not yet, Jackie, I just told you, you will have to assimilate!” Racial discrimination will then develop a finer, subtler vintage; next season it will be social discrimination. These in-between people became known as the stolen generation as their stories emerged only with a 1997 Royal Commission. The bullets thus fired through time attempted to annihilate the future. They delivered concubinage, venereal disease and infertility, inspiring the white nation to ever greater efforts at destruction dressed up as benevolent “protection.” Despite all this, the mothers continued to love their children – those who remained or returned – and instructed them about the past. But knowing about the past, maintaining that continuity through time which viable cultures need, means that every generation still, even now, has to dodge the bullets.

There is great romantic potential in reports from another kind of wild, out there in the frontier badlands where humanity pits itself against its hoary old adversary, Nature. If we view this wild as “wilderness,” the degree zero of nature, then there are two kinds of modernity crashing toward it through the undergrowth. There is the familiar bulldozer of Progress, and then there is the culture machine, operating according to what Elizabeth A. Povinelli calls the “cunning of recognition.”1 Running in a liberal multicultural framework, this machine, improving on the erstwhile assimilationist one, pretends to recognize difference and assigns a cultural value to it (useful for tourism purposes), while at the same time demanding that people assume uncomfortable double identities – the “authentic traditional,” for instance, which never was and cannot be.

Nature is where the wild ones are, and Rose’s “ethics for decolonisation” brings in some of those shocking stories of frontier violence for the edification of the liberal multicultural cosmopolitans. Instead of the regularly denounced Human-vs.-Nature dualism, the world of her ecological humanities framework is inhabited by things and beings in complex sustaining arrangements. Cattle, for instance. What Mounted Constable Willshire was protecting on the frontier, much more often than white lives, was the ability for whites to run their cattle in peace. And it was the presence of cattle that caused most interracial disputes. The blacks saw them as fair game on their land, a good source of protein wrecking their waterholes. But from the point of view of the invaders, cattle couldn’t coexist with Indigenous people, at least not the ones known as “wild blackfellas.” The “station blacks,” on the other hand, were the slave labour needed for the pastoral operations to survive.

The novelist James Michener arrived at the famous Victoria River Downs in the Northern Territory in the 1950s, a huge spread of some 14,229 square kilometres. He claimed the place was run by 20 white men and a dozen windmills, ignoring the Aboriginal workers, perhaps a couple of hundred, who were the remnants of a population of about 3,000 in that area 70 years earlier. And how many cattle were there on VRD then? No one knew; anywhere between 100,000 and 200,000: the bovines certainly had the numbers. So the conquest of such territories was not through the agency of white men alone, but through the biotechnological combination of white men with horses, cattle and bullock drays. This combination sends Rose back to quasi-mythological sources, for this particular biotechnology has its roots in another wild time and place, the steppes of northern Europe and central Asia. Here, about 6,000 years ago, the domestication of the horse increased the marauding riders’ range by a factor of five. The hunter-gatherers were swept aside, and the cattle installed. By the time Australia’s turn came, claims Rose, not much had really changed.

Of serious concern to ecologists in Australia is the damage done to the topsoil crust, in only a few generations, by hard-hoofed beasts. For millennia the country was used only to soft marsupial feet. When Rose visited country denuded by massive erosion, and now lifeless, she asked her Indigenous companion to give it a name. After a long pause he said, “Wild country, just the wild.”

We learn from one of Rose’s previous books, Dingo Makes Us Human (1992), perhaps the most vivid and enlightening of recent Australian ethnographies, that Australian Aborigines do not necessarily have a human-centred cosmology in the same way that the inheritors of the European Enlightenment developed a secular humanism. The Aboriginal worldview tends to be one of networked connections of animate beings and inanimate things, and an elaborate kinship system drives this philosophy. This, coincidentally, also works remarkably well for a political ecology, and Rose’s deep knowledge of Aboriginal cultures has thus enabled her to develop her “ecological humanities” in a local context.

In her political ecology, one would have to stop thinking about the subject as centred and the world as encircling. This is a vision we might have to thank Copernican humanism for, a mode of physical conceptualization of abstract space which, while centring the human, also tends to take one “out of one’s place” to marvel at the science of planetary movements. That’s fine – thanks, Copernicus – but down here the topsoil is blowing away and the salt is rising, things you didn’t have to worry about in your time and place.

Thinking and acting with immediacy and contingency (as opposed to distance, objectivity, dispassionate and ironic contemplation of the object), is a core problem for activist academics like Rose who want to engage in the here and now. She has written a book, among her other activities. Books may enclose our silent thoughts between the pages, but perhaps writing is also a way of ordering our passions and thoughts so that they can be turned into an effective rhetoric for conversations, lecture halls and radio appearances. This, I feel, is what Rose has shown us how to do. Posing the ecological question urgently does not mean either centring the human being as the prime agent (because the world puts its stories and arguments to us all the time, showing us its beauty, or groaning and protesting at our actions) or getting rid of people in some wilderness fantasy. The question is not “people or no people,” she says; it is “what kind of action.”

Rose’s decolonizing challenge for Australia emerges out of a local context. The encounter here between the architecture of modernist European thought (what Bruno Latour would call the “modernist settlement”) and the quite different architecture of Indigenous Australian thought has produced a remarkable conjunction: not an enclosed inward-looking cottage, but a house open to nature, where we can see the terrible havoc of “the wild.” n

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