The word ‘community’ means different things to different people. The basis for understanding what a community is can be dependent on a variety of different factors: personal beliefs, societal constraints, geography, and historical and contemporary contexts, just to name a few.
To many Aboriginal peoples in Australia – perhaps, to many Indigenous peoples the world over – community is usually associated with land, either the land on which someone resides, or the land from which a person has traditional (family) connection to. In some instances these will be one and the same place, however for many Aboriginal peoples – for many different reasons – the land they currently live on is not the land their ancestors were traditional owners of.
An interesting, and sometimes unfortunate, side-effect of this ‘dispersion’ of Aboriginal peoples across Australia is the way in which communities are now integrated and internally interact. Once we would have seen communities where the descendents of the traditional custodians made up the overwhelming majority, if not the full population, and no doubt there are still areas where this is the case. However today, many communities are made up of peoples from all over, and as these – maybe ‘multi-cultural’ is the correct word here? – communities mix and grow, issues relating to rights, responsibilities, and recognition are becoming more prevalent. This in turn is leading to dissonance, division, and lateral violence within these communities.
On the surface it seems it should be quite simple: the traditional custodians (or their descendents) of an area should be the ones who have the ‘authority’ within the community. After all, it is their land, and all others are effectively ‘visitors’ to that area. In reality it isn’t that clear cut. For example, some communities give peoples who have come from other areas the right to have ‘authority’ within the community, based on a respectful acknowledgement of their knowledge, experience, wisdom, and/or contribution to the community. Some members of the community embrace this, whereas others do not. Some communities become ‘factionalized': they create divisions within the community based on kinship and associations with others. Some communities remain locked in debate about who the traditional custodians of an area actually are. This is particularly contentious where it is apparent that custodianship of an area was in fact shared between a number of language-groups.
The unfortunate, and often regrettable, result of this are communities who expend their energies in in-fighting and lateral violence, whilst real issues that affect all members of the community fall by the wayside.
And all of this before we even start considering how non-Indigenous Australians could be ‘integrated’ into an Aboriginal community, as part of a reconciled, unified, Australia.
Having lived and attempted to be involved in several communities, as well as seeking out, understanding, and developing my own identity as an Aboriginal man, I’ve come to believe that the answer is anything but simple. But when I reflect on how this issue could possibly be resolved, I find myself coming back to the same concern…
What if we’re asking the wrong question?
I keep thinking about something my cousin, a Bundjalung Elder and Kurradji (traditional healer) said to me in the short time I got to spend with him before his passing.
“Everyone is Bundjalung.They just don’t know it yet.”
There is a sense of inclusiveness in Uncle’s statement that is profound, and also the suggestion that we – as a community, as a population – haven’t realised it yet.
Perhaps the answer lies not in trying to impose our view of what a ‘community’ is or should be, or who ‘owns’ it or belongs to it or has a say in it, but in redefining what ‘community’ actually means?
What if our ‘community’ became something that all of us could engage in, contribute to, and be proud of?
What would that look like?
What does ‘community’ mean to you? What would you like your ‘community’ to be? Please feel free to share your thoughts in the comments below.