HOW TO “READ” AN INDIGENOUS FILM
THE EXAMPLE OF KARLU KARLU: THE DEVIL’S MARBLES
Indigenous Peoples Day
October 11, 2021
West Virginia University
Native American Studies
Mervyn L. Tano
International Institute for Indigenous Resource Management
Denver, Colorado 80209
I’ve watched KARLU KARLU: The Devil’s Marbles several times. The first time was in 2006 with Jeanne Rubin, the director of the Institute’s indigenous film and arts program. This was a cursory review to determine if the film was “good enough” to screen at the Institute’s Sixth Annual Indigenous Film & Arts Festival. It was. The third time I viewed it was a few months ago—again with Jeanne, but this time to see if it was a good fit with the Denver Museum of Nature & Science’s Stonehenge exhibit. The Institute partners with the Museum and the Denver American Indian Commission (of which I’m a member) on a monthly indigenous film program. We try to connect the films we screen at the museum with their special exhibits for a couple of reasons. First, it’s good marketing for the Museum and for us, and second, we’re on a mission to demonstrate that indigenizing museums is not just about hiring Indigenous curators or organizing indigenous exhibits. Indigenous Peoples are into everything, and thus, everything in a nature and science museum can be indigenized. We even indigenized the Museum’s Da Vinci exhibit.
Jeanne and I thought Karlu Karlu fit well so, we screened it as part of a regular second Wednesday of the month indigenous film program. It was during this screening (my fourth viewing) and the Question and Answer session that followed that I realized that this short film was pregnant with all manner of unstated cultural, legal, and historical statements the reading of which would enhance the viewing audience’s experience, make a great short course, a two-hour film, or the chat we had after screening the film this evening. What follows are answers to unasked, but helpful questions.
QUESTIONS AND ANSWERS.
1. Why do documentaries featuring Aboriginal Australians begin with a warning that the film contains images and voices of deceased persons?
Aboriginals and Torres Strait Islanders should exercise caution when watching this film as it may contain images and voices of deceased persons.
Answer: The Aboriginal people of Australia and the indigenous peoples of the Torres Straits have a series of bereavement and mourning rituals that include certain avoidance practices. When a member of the community passes away, they cease to use the name of the deceased for a prolonged period and avoid or destroy all photographs or recording in which the deceased appears.
It can be quite distressing for them to inadvertently encounter an image or recording of the departed during this period of mourning, known as “sorry business.” I’ll speak a bit more on avoidance practices as they relate to the film toward the end of this presentation.
This concern for avoidance is obviously broader than film. About 20 years ago UNESCO convened a meeting to address indigenous concerns related to the digitalization of songs, stories, ceremonies, and other cultural manifestations. Digitalization was seen as a technological response to diaspora, the loss of elders, and the pervasive presence and influence of modernity, especially mass media. But as was demonstrated by the stories told by the workshop participants, the technological fix was not without its own set of problems. For example, how do indigenous peoples reconcile 24-7 unrestricted access to stories, songs, ceremonies, and the like with cultural norms? Some stories should be told at a specific place. It’s the same with songs, dances, and ceremonies. Some stories should be told at specific times by specific persons. And should be told only to boys of a certain age. Or only to girls of a certain age. Suffice it to say that modern computer and information technology heighten the possibility of violating cultural norms. Thus, as in the case of the Coeur d’Alene Tribe, we learned from tribal elder Felix Aripa and Frank Roberts, head of the Tribe’s information technology department, that the Tribe’s websites include layered password protected security measures that seek to limit access to appropriate audiences. And in many instances websites in Australia will include warnings similar to those that opened the film.
A number of traditional Dreaming stories have Karlu Karlu as their setting, hence its great importance as a sacred site. These stories are alive and well and are passed on from generation to generation. The story of Aranjii and the creation of Karlu Karlu related by Blackhat is one of only a handful of such stories that are considered suitable to tell to uninitiated visitors.
So when you see such a warning, realize what you’re also seeing is the digital manifestation of often spirited discussions of the community that weighed benefits against dangers, assessed measures to mitigate those dangers before making the decision that you and I could see their stories or hear their songs.
2. Even before the opening title, Lesley Blackhat Foster says, “My skin name is Pitjara and I belong to this Karlu Karlu. What is a “Skin Name?”
Answer: A complex kinship system is a feature of Aboriginal social organization across Central Australia. It determines how people relate to each other and their social, ceremonial and land-related roles, rights, responsibilities and obligations. For example, the kinship system determines suitable marriage partners, roles at funerals, everyday behavior patterns and traditional land ownership groupings.
Skin names work in a roughly similar way to a surname. They inform how people are linked to one another and their obligations to one another. Unlike the system of using surnames, an individual won’t have the same skin name as their parent’s, nor would a husband and wife share the same skin name. It is a sequential system based off the mother’s name (in a matrilineal system), or the father’s name (in a patrilineal system), and has a naming cycle. I will admit I have not negotiated the complexities of the kinship system in Australia. However, I did find this video from the University of Sydney helpful: https://youtu.be/ynQEtTfQjQc. Non-cultural anthropologists out there might find it helpful as well.
3. What is the significance of Blackhat saying, “I belong to this Karlu Karlu?
Answer: Everywhere in Aboriginal Australia, land is god-given; it is sacred land highlighted by especially significant sites of spiritual importance. This land is inalienable and its charter is that of the Dreaming. Aboriginal man has an incontrovertible right of possession. A spiritual linkage exists between a person and a specific site or part of the country by virtue of their birth. This is more than an association with a piece of land—any land, specific land. It is rather that the land is them, in spiritual terms.
4. What is Dreaming?
Answer: Dreamtime or Dreaming for Australian Aboriginal people represents the time when the Ancestral Spirits progressed over the land and created life and important physical geographic formations and sites. Aboriginal philosophy is known as the Dreaming and is based on the inter-relation of all people and all things. The past of the Spirit Ancestors which live on in the legends are handed down through stories, art, ceremony and songs.
The Dreaming explains the origin of the universe and workings of nature and humanity. It shapes and structures life through the regulation and understanding of family life, the relations between the sexes and obligations to people, land and spirits.
The Dreaming is foundational, but a fuller appreciation of the complexities of Australian Aboriginal cosmologies requires an understanding of its connection to the Law.
The words of Mussolini Harvey, reported by John Bradley in Yanyuwa Country explain the connection:
White people ask us all the time, what is Dreaming? This is a hard question because Dreaming is a really big thing for Aboriginal people. In our language, Yanyuwa, we call the Dreaming Yijan. The Dreamings made our Law or narnu-Yuwa. This Law is the way we live, our rules. This Law is our ceremonies, our songs, our stories; all of these things came from the Dreaming. One thing that I can tell you though is that our Law is not like European Law which is always changing—new government, new laws, but our Law cannot change, we did not make it. The Law was made by the Dreamings many, many years ago and given to our ancestors and they gave it to us.
5. Why does Blackhat open the film by talking of old people who have left, his grandfather, his grandfather’s father and the Warlpiri, Kaytetye, Alyawara, and Warrumungu? Answer: Karlu Karlu is not just significant to Blackhat’s Warumungu people. It’s the meeting place of four different language groups: Alyawarre, Kayteye, Warumunga and Warlpiri people. All these Aboriginal groups have important spiritual connections and responsibilities for the area. It is important for him to acknowledge that fact as a matter of respect.
But when he speaks of the old people who have passed, his grandfather, and his grandfather’s father he is reciting what in Māori would be his Whakapapa or roughly, his genealogy or lineage. Whakapapa in Māori society is central to establishing leadership, land and fishing rights, kinship and status. Whakapapa as establishing connection to the land is a concept shared by many indigenous societies. By invoking his lineage, Blackhat is establishing his claim to Karlu Karlu.
E.T. Durie, formerly of the Maori Land Court in New Zealand provides an excellent example of Whakapapa and how its import is misunderstood. “Some decades ago, a Maori elder appeared before the court on a claim of ownership to the Whanganui riverbed, did no more than sing a song of the river. The court noted that he sang a song but had nothing to say. It was, of course, usual for a people without a Land Transfer Office to assert their ownership in their own ways and the old man was simply singing his title in customary style. His song was a declaration of ownership.”
6. Why did it take 28 years before Karlu Karlu was returned to its Traditional Owners?
Answer: To understand the struggle for land rights in Australia starts with an understanding of Terra nullius.
Colonial takeover was premised on the assumption that European culture was superior to all others and that its bearers could define the world in their terms. According to European conventions, a colony could be established:• By persuading the indigenous inhabitants to submit themselves to its overlordship;• By purchasing from those inhabitants the right to settle part or parts of it;• By unilateral possession, on the basis of first discovery and effective occupation.
British possession of Australia was declared according to the third option and the land was thus defined as terra nullius.
Terra nullius is a Latin term meaning “land belonging to no one.” British colonization and subsequent Australian land laws were established on the claim that Australia was terra nullius, justifying acquisition by British occupation without treaty or payment. This effectively denied Indigenous people’s prior occupation of and connection to the land.
In the 1971 Gove land rights case , Justice Blackburn ruled that Australia was terra nullius prior to European settlement. This judgement was unsuccessfully challenged by subsequent cases in 1977, 1979 and 1982. Recently I had a Facebook conversation with a Greenlander colleague after I watched a documentary on Nordic natural wonders. I realized after watching just a few minutes of the film that terra nullius lives on. The documentary opens with aerial views of Greenland’s glaciers and snowcapped peaks. But the voice-over starts Greenland’s history with the landing of the Vikings, which confirmed to me that terra nullius is still with us.
Although an outdated, racist, illegitimate concept that justified the appropriation of the lands of native peoples of Australia. Terra nullius is also a modern, racist, illegitimate concept that frames narratives in books and film that justify erasure of the histories of native peoples, their memories, and their historic claims to lands and resources.
Terra nullius is embedded in Smithsonian anthropologist Betty Megger’s insistence that the Amazon’s environment placed a ceiling on pre-Columbian population density and social complexity. It also undergirds terms like “pristine wilderness,” “vast empty reaches,” and “trackless prairies” in descriptions of the pre-Columbian Americas.
The Aboriginal Land Rights (Northern Territory) Act is another piece in Blackhat’s quest to reclaim Karlu Karlu. What follows is a much compressed and admittedly incomplete chronology of activities leading to the enactment of the Aboriginal Land Rights (Northern Territory) Act.
In 1963 the federal government announced, with no consultation with Yolngu people, that it would excise a portion of their homeland in north-east Arnhem Land for the construction of a bauxite mine. This action catalyzed the Yolngu people and precipitated years of strikes and protest which started as demands for increases in wages, work place improvements, and the return of a portion of their homelands.
In 1966 the Gurindji moved 20 kilometers from the cattle station settlement back to their traditional country at Daguragu. The move highlighted a symbolic shift away from demands around wages and working conditions to a focus on the Gurindji’s need to control their homelands again. Their struggle went on for nine years during which time the Gurindji and their supporters campaigned tirelessly around the country, bringing the issue of Aboriginal land rights to the fore of the public agenda.
In 1973 after the Labor Party took power Prime Minister Whitlam appointed Justice Woodward to investigate suitable ways to recognize Aboriginal land rights in the Northern Territory.
In April 1974 the final report of the Woodward Commission recommended ‘the provision of some basic compensation in the form of land for those Aborigines who have been irrevocably deprived of the rights and interests which would otherwise have been inherited from their ancestors’. The commission further recommended procedures for Aboriginal Australians to claim land and that such property should be held under inalienable freehold title whereby it could not be acquired, sold, mortgaged or disposed of in any way – and insisted that mining and other development should only take place on Aboriginal land with the consent of Aboriginal landowners.
In December 1976 the federal parliament passed the Aboriginal Land Rights (Northern Territory) Act. It was the first legislation in Australia that enabled First Nations peoples to claim land rights for Country where traditional ownership could be proven. Under the act, more than 50% of the Northern Territory was returned to traditional Aboriginal owners in the following 30 years
However, the Act carved out huge exceptions. While many Aboriginal people were able to reclaim their traditional lands, those whose country was on pastoral leases, were left out with disastrous consequences. As Michael Dodson, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner wrote:
The Australian legal system’s belated recognition of native title [has not] offered any real advances to those people faced with intransigent pastoralists who continue to literally lock the gates and obstruct any dialogue towards peaceful and mutually beneficial co-existence. . . .
The push for extinguishment of native title on pastoral leases forebodes absolute disaster for Aboriginal culture and spirituality because it will sever the connection with land, or it will make connection more difficult.
The continuing inability of people to access their country—and there is no more effective symbol of denied access than padlocked gates—denies people their right to culture and denies their children the right to learn that culture.
Furthermore, the Act has been reviewed and amended many times. Amendments to the Act always serve to increase access to Aboriginal land, change tenure, remove permits, weaken the veto power, reduce the roles of Aboriginal Land Councils and increase the power of the bureaucracy and the minister. In 2006 the Act was amended significantly to the detriment of Aboriginal people. It allows an unspecified government entity to control townships for 99 years and sublease blocks to whomever it wants. Aboriginal people are no longer in control, and they lost their right to negotiate benefits from those who seek to use their land (usually the mining industry).
7. The film includes several shots of people wearing tee shirts emblazoned with “Central Land Council.” What is the Central Land Council?
Answer: To assist traditional owners exercise their rights to claim and manage Aboriginal land, and to broadly advance the interests of Aboriginal people, Aboriginal land councils such as the Central Land Council were established under the Aboriginal Land Rights (Northern Territory) Act which was enacted in 1976.
The primary responsibilities of land councils include:• Ascertaining and expressing the wishes of Aboriginal people living in the area of the land council as to the management of Aboriginal land in that area; • Protecting the interests of traditional owners of, and other Aboriginal people interested in, Aboriginal land in the area; • Consulting with the traditional owners of, and other Aboriginal people interested in, Aboriginal land in the area regarding any proposed use of that land; • Assisting Aboriginal people within the area of the land council to carry out commercial activities (including developing resources, providing tourist facilities and engaging in agricultural activities); • Assisting in protecting sacred sites; and • Assisting Aboriginal people to make traditional land claims.
The land councils are technical assistance providers. I think that Chris Chaney will see the resemblance between the Land councils and the Council of Energy Resource Tribes where we both toiled. Like CERT, they do not make primary decisions about the use of Aboriginal land; they provide information and professional advice to the traditional landowners during negotiations. But there’s no gainsaying the land councils are influential—some will argue powerful. They are thus the object of legislative and industry efforts to gut them.
8. What was the Mabo case?
Answer: Although the Mabo case did not bear directly on Blackhat’s efforts to regain his country, it was and remains a key development in the Aboriginal Australian fight to reclaim their lands.
As I mentioned earlier, in the 1971 Gove land rights case, Justice Blackburn ruled that Australia was terra nullius prior European settlement. This judgement was unsuccessfully challenged by subsequent cases in 1977, 1979 and 1982. However, in May 1982, Eddie Mabo and four other Meriam people of the Murray Islands in the Torres Strait began action in the High Court of Australia seeking confirmation of their traditional land rights.
They claimed that Murray Island (Mer) and surrounding islands and reefs had been continuously inhabited and exclusively possessed by the Meriam people who lived in permanent communities with their own social and political organization. They conceded that the British Crown in the form of the colony of Queensland became sovereign of the islands when they were annexed in 1879. Nevertheless they claimed continued enjoyment of their land rights and that these had not been validly extinguished by the sovereign. They sought recognition of these continuing rights from the Australian legal system. The case was heard over ten years through both the High Court and the Queensland Supreme Court. During this time, three of the plaintiffs including Eddie Mabo died.
On 3 June 1992, the High Court by a majority of six to one upheld the claim and ruled that the lands of this continent were not terra nullius or land belonging to no-one when European settlement occurred, and that the Meriam people were “entitled as against the whole world to possession, occupation, use and enjoyment of (most of) the lands of the Murray Islands.”
The decision struck down the doctrine that Australia was terra nullius—a land belonging to no-one. The High Court judgment found that native title rights survived settlement, though subject to the sovereignty of the Crown. The judgment contained statements to the effect that it could not perpetuate a view of the common law which is unjust, does not respect all Australians as equal before the law, is out of step with international human rights norms, and is inconsistent with historical reality. The High Court recognized the fact that Aboriginal people had lived in Australia for thousands of years and enjoyed rights to their land according to their own laws and customs. They had been dispossessed of their lands piece by piece as the colony grew and that very dispossession underwrote the development of Australia into a nation.
9. Why was the removal of a Karlu Karlu boulder for the Flynn memorial so troubling to the people of Karlu Karlu?
Answer: Following the death of Reverend John Flynn, founder of the Royal Flying Doctor Service, his wife was on a mission to adorn her late husband's memorial with a distinctive boulder.
No suitable rock could be found nearby. Eventually a boulder was found at Karlu Karlu 400 kilometers from Flynn’s gravesite in Alice Springs. In November 1952 the boulder was transported to Flynn's memorial. The Kaytetye and Warumungu people—custodians of Karlu Karlu since time immemorial—were never consulted.
The boulder was taken from a sacred site of the Aboriginal women of the area. To the people the stolen “marble” is elemental to the fabric of Karlu Karlu, of its spirituality. It is imbued with a life force, a vital essence akin to that the Māori call mauri. It not only represents the vitality and spirituality of the place and the people of the place, it is the vitality and spiritual essence of the place and of the people of that place. Its loss then diminishes the vitality and the spiritual essence of both the place and the people.
The loss of the Kaytetye and Warumungu people, however, did not profit the Arrente people of Alice Springs. Much to the contrary, to the Arrente people, the boulder came from another country. It was alien in their land and they wanted it removed. The people would talk about it around the campfires and they felt a little shame because the rock didn’t belong here.
In 1996, the boulder was returned to its rightful place at Karlu Karlu and in a generous gesture of respect for John Flynn, the Arrernte people of Alice Springs offered a sacred stone from Arrernte land to replace the Karlu Karlu marble atop Flynn's memorial.
10. Why does Mark Japaljarri Graham seem so disinterested in what Blackhat is saying?
Answer: The answer here is once more about avoidance practices. In general, eye contact is averted as a mark of respect; a young person should not look an older person in the eye. For example, at initiation, the boy will keep his eyes downcast. I spoke with my sister who has much experience as a multi-cultural education expert about this. She recounted her experience observing and gently educating a beginning teacher in Southern California who chastised a young Samoan student for disrespect because he was not looking directly at her.
11. Who is Warwick Thornton? (Or why we always read the credits.)
Answer: Warwick Thornton is an Australian film director, screenwriter and cinematographer. Thornton is a Kaytetye man born and raised in Alice Springs. He was the cinematographer for KARLU KARLU: The Devil’s Marbles. He is also the director of the short film Green Bush and the feature film Sweet Country. We screened both these films. They are outstanding and are highly recommended. Sweet Country graphically portrays the miserable existence of Aboriginal Australians who were held in near-bondage as workers for White pastoralists.
A scan of indigenous film credits reveals the existence of an international indigenous filmmaker community. A director for one film may be the writer or cinematographer for another. A great example of this is the Reservation Dogs series. Taika Waititi (Māori) and Sterlin Harjo (Seminole/Muskogee Creek) are co-creators. Filmmaker Blackhorse Lowe (Diné), who has worked with Sterlin on several productions, directs two of the episodes. Diné filmmaker Sydney Freeland, best known for her feature film Drunktown’s Finest, likewise directed an episode of Reservation Dogs; she will be directing ‘Rez Ball, a feature film for Netflix, where Sterlin will share the screenwriter credit with her.