Monday, July 20, 2009

Uluru: To Climb or Not To Climb

Sorry for the recent lack of posts. I've taken a bit of a sebbatical over the last few weeks. Ok, to be honest, I collapsed with exhaustion under an enormous workload, then buggered off to the desert for a while. Leaving aside the horrifying details of embarking upon a desert road trip in a Kia Rio, with my non-English speaking mother-in-law; being fleeced by every sole trader in the Northern Territory, and encountering "Dinky, the Singing Dingo", I'll merely mention that we visited Uluru, then came home to find it at the centre of a cultural stoush about land rights, and whether or not it is acceptable for non-indigenous Australians to climb the rock.

The Northern Territory is, in many ways, a confusing place. Laws exist that actively discriminate between indigenous and non-indigenous Australias. White people find that there are wide tracts of land which they cannot enter without a permit from local elders, whilst in other areas, Aboriginal people may find that they (and they alone) are not allowed to purchase alcohol due to tribal edicts. Tourists at Uluru are faced with a complicated and subtle consideration when they discover that, although a clearly marked climb exists, with requisite safety rails, an array of signs at the bottom of the rock ask that "you respect the wishes of the Anangu people, and do not climb Uluru".

The reason isn't (entirely) one of whether "white" people should be on "black" land - the Anangu people are clear in stating that they are concerned for the safety of climbers, and that deaths or injuries sustained at Uluru cause the local people to experience "great sadness", and a feeling of responsibility for the casualties. Yet, the locals are also angry that the track exists in what is considered to be a sacred place of great spiritual significance. Recent calls have been made that the track be closed, and that visitors be banned from climbing Uluru out of respect for local customs.

I didn't climb Uluru, but it wasn't out of cultural sensitivity (frankly, it looked like a death wish, and before I'd gone fifty metres up, my shoes were slipping against the sheer rock in an alarming fashion). However, it's something that tens of thousands of people, from around the world, do every year. The question of whether they should be allowed to continue to do so is often, falsely, posed as a clear-cut one, by boths sides of the debate. Anti-climbers shrilly insist that cultural sensitivity is paramount, and frequently throw in, for good measure, a reference to the Stolen Generations, Invasion Day, or any other of the numerous and grave injustices against Aborigines over the last two centuries, to back up the point that concessions must be made in the name of reconciliation and cultural respect.

Pro-climbers often fallaciously argue that land cannot be owned, (as it pre-exists its owners, and isn't man made),and claim that the rock is a "national treasure" which all Australians (and foreigners) should be able to access, and decide whether or not to climb. An Editorial in the Sydney Morning Herald described the move to ban climbers from Uluru as "insular", whilst Prime Minister Kevin Rudd opposed the move, claiming that it would be "very sad if... Australians and... our guests from abroad weren't able to enjoy that experience". And whilst nobody is saying it too loudly, closing the climb could have serious effects upon the local tourism industry.

A good part of the argument boils down to whether it is appropriate or fair for the government to make one law for one ethnic group, and another law for the rest. Some Australians have already argued that the permit system of "closed communities" reinforces ethnic and cultural segregation, as well as effectively disenfranchising non-indigenous Australians (about 97.5% of the population) from entering large areas of their home country*. The permit system is often justified on the basis that "we took their land to start with", and therefore non-indigenous people have only a vicarious and fragile right to live in Australia, whilst indigenous groups have an inviolate historical right. For many non-indigenous Australians, this begs the question of where we should be living, as this is the only home we have known. If this country is somebody's sacred, ancestral land, then where on Earth is my sacred, ancestral land? Those of mixed heritage (like myself) don't seem to have much recourse to claim the right to live anywhere, if the right to do so is determined by belonging to a distinct ethnic, cultural and linguistic group.

Considering the extremely long odds on the fact that non-indigenous groups are going to abandon living in Australia**, it doesn't seem useful to perpetuate the idea that some of us have more rights to the land, or are more Australian than others. Being a citizen should be a consideration which trumps all others, including race and culture. True reconciliation can only be achieved when indigenous and non-indigenous people stand together as friends, instead of self-segregating in distrust and misunderstanding. True cultural respect can never be forced by means of a ban.

*Of course, claims to white victimhood in the debate over access to land are generally dismissed as being ridiculous, naive, and ignorant of historical facts - but on the other hand, it's easy to see the way that the policy may be depicted if it were reversed, in that it was white people telling Aboriginal people where they could and could not visit.

** I'd rate this as just slightly more likely than Paris Hilton ever winning an Oscar.