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FOCUS September 1997 Volume 9

In the Name of the Indigenous Peoples

A campaign was launched sometime ago to stop the circulation of a book entitled "Mutant Message Down Under". According to the campaign, it is a book that falsely presents a supposed experience with an aboriginal community in Australia. The publisher labels it fiction, but the author insists that it is based on real experience.
The book has reportedly gained commercial success as it came out as one of the top sellers in America and Europe for some time. The author has reportedly been doing a series of lectures in both continents.
The author, an American woman, wrote about the secret ceremonies of a supposed "Real People" tribe which anointed her as the mutant carrier of the message of the tribe to the rest of humankind. She narrated the experience of travelling with this group over a vast expanse of desert for 120 days and witnessing many sacred practices that are not meant to be known to a non-tribe member.
But groups of aboriginal people in Australia cried foul. They believe that they as indigenous people have been used as fodder for someone else's commercial interest. It reminds them of the way their culture has been appropriated for purposes of tourism and even arts by non-aboriginal people.
An Australian aboriginal group (Dumbartung Aboriginal Corporation) launched a consultation process among various aboriginal communities in many parts of Australia in 1995 to find out how they react to the publication. The consultation also aimed to find out if the author has indeed taken the journey in areas she mentions in the book. The reactions are almost uniform in condemning the author for misrepresenting the aboriginal cultural practices and values, and making so much profit out of it.
They point out that the book should be faulted on the following grounds:

  1. inconsistencies, and falsehoods regarding aboriginal culture and practices - there are also certain descriptions which fit more the American Indian culture than that of the aborigines;
  2. disregard for aboriginal protocol of clearance - the book conveys a violation of the traditional aboriginal law that no boundary shall be "... entered until the proper procedure of clearance had been granted. The recognition and respect of the boundaries were paramount in maintaining order within each respective tribal group." This law, according to the consultation report, was not violated by the aborigines in the past despite the authorized massacres, poisoning of waterholes and other atrocities committed by the British to force them out of the land;
  3. separation of activities for men and women - the book presents activities that actually do not take place because they violate the rule that women should not take part in the activities of men, and vice versa. The author mentions in the book her participation in sacred activities of men. At the same time, the descriptions of women's activities in the book are completely untrue;
  4. appropriation of the right to speak for the aboriginal people - the author represents herself in the book as an aboriginal voice without the consent of the aboriginal people themselves other than by the fictitious 'Real People' tribe. The author therefore took away the right of aboriginal people to tell their own story their own way; and
  5. denigration of aboriginal people - the author claims that aboriginal people (other than the 'Real People') have lost their traditional culture and have sold out to government policies. The author's claim of seeing rubbish in sacred sites is a denigration of the sites. No aboriginal areas used as sacred sites keep garbage.
    This book is another example to the aboriginal people of the on-going appropriation of their culture by people who do not have an understanding of it. "Aboriginal people have not only the right to ownership of our heritage but are also the custodians of the oldest living culture in the most ancient land mass on the face of the earth..." - this they assert.

Of primary concern to the aboriginal communities involved is the wrong projection of their culture before non-aboriginal people. This is feared for its long-term implications that will "... compound alienation through cynicism towards our children."
This brings out the crux of the matter. People who demonize others may gain benefit from it but the adverse impact is lodged with those who are so demonized. In the case of the aboriginal people, their children may suffer the consequences of some other person's actions, who is not one of their own and who ostensibly has no relations to them. Any misrepresentation of a people's identity is liable to bring them harm and affect their rights.

The case of "Mutant Message Down Under" is illustrating how indigenous peoples are so vulnerable to unauthorized and incorrect representation of their communities by non-indigenous people. Consequently the rights of these people are compromised through no fault of their own.

How many cases of this sort have happened, and will happen, all in the name of the indigenous peoples?


Bounuh Wongee (Message Stick), A Report on Mutant Message Down
Under, Dumbartung Aboriginal Corporation, Waterford, Western Australia.

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