In early December 2005, I attended an international racism conference at the opulent Coolum Hyatt Regency on Queensland’s Sunshine Coast. After passing through the wide, alluring entrance to the resort I felt momentarily awestruck by the beauty of the ultimate fairway off to my left and the stately clubhouse directly ahead. Workers dismantling the scaffolding of the temporary seating adjacent to the 18th hole also reminded me of the Australian PGA Championship I had watched on television the previous weekend.
Despite being a non-golfer, I appreciate the esteem with which the golfing public hold this breathtaking piece of real estate, with its wide expanse of well-manicured lawns, deep sand bunkers and numerous water features that punctuate the path of visiting golfing fanatics: professionals, affluent tourists and occasional weekend high-20s handicap players.
After sitting through countless sessions of non-black (as opposed to non-Indigenous) speakers reading impressively from their academic papers on the scourge of racism, I reminisced over morning tea with fellow Indigenous social justice advocates Jackie Huggins, Lillian Holt and Terry Kapeen, about how rewarding this tranquil land would have been hundreds of years ago for its traditional owners. We unanimously agreed that this beautiful country, wonderfully positioned within short walking distance of the ocean and a lush mountain range, would have provided abundant food and enclosed shelter for even the most discerning warrior.
Land ownership, although spasmodically challenged and repelled, was acknowledged by all neighbouring traditional custodians to be the spiritual and physical country of the Gubbi Gubbi. Before colonisation, ownership of land was never in dispute and the 300 tribes that comprised the million plus inhabitants that populated this continent, speaking a similar number of distinct languages, sought no piece of paper or advice from someone in higher office to confirm their territorial boundaries.
Reputable history books now confirm that there is no clear or accepted racial origin of the Indigenous people of Australia. Although they say we migrated to Australia through South-East Asia (a theory I do not espouse) they acknowledge we are not related to any known Asian population. There is some speculation, however, that we are related to some racial groups in India, based on mitochondrial DNA evidence. In view of the very long time that we have been in Australia, almost entirely isolated from other human populations, it is unlikely that we will be found to be closely related to any identifiable racial group.
For instance Mungo Man, whose remains were discovered in 1974 near Lake Mungo in New South Wales, is believed to be the oldest human found in Australia yet. Although the exact age of Mungo Man is in dispute, the consensus is that he is at least 40,000 years old. Stone tools also found at Lake Mungo have been estimated to be about 50,000-years-old based on stratigraphic association. Since Lake Mungo is in southeastern Australia, many archaelogists have concluded that humans must have arrived in northwest Australia at least several thousand years earlier.
For 46 years I have exuded great pride in my father’s tribe: the majestic countryside, the sacred sites and their related stories. I have been proud to pass these stories on to my children, the next generation of Hagans, so adding them to the approximately 1,250 generations in the timeline placing our people here between 40,000-50,000 years before the present.
So it came as a total shock recently when I was informed that my family’s genealogical links to the country needed further authentication before an anthropologist would give his tick of approval on a native title claim. To hear this feedback from members of the tribe, who were in attendance at a shared country mediation session hosted by the local representative body, was an insult to my father, his father and his grandmother.
The anthropologist once met with my father and showed him a photo, on his laptop computer, of a group of Aborigines including a very young girl about eight-years of age whom he believed could be his grandmother. He said he suspected she was taken 1,200kms north from a community in southern NSW because her name sounded like a name of the town from that area. He simply informed Dad of his views and never sought input or clarification from him. It reeked of paternalism and I do not blame Dad for not validating his views with a response. However, Dad never thought the anthropologist would pass this information on to the claimant group that he chairs, while he was absent on other cultural business.
Dad wrote to the chief executive officer of the representative body (a land council), which employed the anthropologist, asking her to provide him with a copy of the documentation that identifies our matriarch to land other than our country. That is, he sought the exact location of her birth, tribal affiliation, the name of her mother, the name of her father, their skin group and totem.
My father provided copies of letters to the CEO from the Chief Protector of Aborigines, exemption papers and the like, identifying his grandmother’s links to the country. Dad concluded his letter saying the anthropologist would need to come up with something a bit more credible than a photograph to convince him that his grandmother came from southern New South Wales in a horse-drawn buggy when she was eight-years-old around the mid-1870s. He said he would believe existing government documentation and the word of his father and grandmother over an anthropologist with a vivid imagination.
Dad received an apology from the CEO saying she hoped no distress was experienced by the incident.