Feoffment? – Gough pours soil into Lingiari’s hand

'Handing back' country

In August, 1975, the Commonwealth of Australia ‘handed back’ land to the Gurindji, who had fought a long battle for their country and helped usher in the era of land rights.
The Prime Minister, Gough Whitlam, symbolically poured a handful of Gurindji soil into Lingiari’s hand and said:

“Vincent Lingiari, I solemnly hand to you these deeds as proof in Australian law that these lands belong to the Gurindji people, and I put into your hands part of the earth as a sign that this land will be the possession of you and your children forever.”

I had always assumed this was a gesture towards Aboriginal attitudes to land, an earthy complement to the European title deeds on paper.

However, reading Bain Attwood‘s Possession, I’m sure that the lawyer Whitlam must have been harking back to the feudal English practice of feoffment.  As Attwood says (p.44):

“Feoffment entailed a set of acts that amounted to a ritual of possession.  First, the actual delivery of the land took place by a means known as livery of seisin (which was a term for having both possession and title of real property).  This was customarily done by handing over a lump of soil, a twig of a tree, of some other small part of the property that was regarded as symbolic of its whole … feoffment was a form of conveyance that had to be carried out on the particular land in question”

Given his sense of history, as well as early legal work that concentrated on tenant/landlord matters, Whitlam must have been well aware of this practice.

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Secrecy, violence and freedom

It’s put about frequently these days that Australian Indigenous societies hide behind secrecy, are inherently violent and constrain their members’ freedoms. That may be true. But it’s usually contrasted with an assumption that Anglo-Australian society offers a better model, a way out of these self-destructive cultural imperatives: that the ‘mainstream’ offers a way out of the problems confronting Indigenous people.
I find this perplexing.
My society, like all societies I imagine, has its own self-image, its own self-critiques and its own myths. Like all societies, I assume, it believes it is self-critical and open; and it believes its way of doing things is better. Fair enough.
My society believes it is free and open and points to what it calls democracy and a supposed openness of government; to laws against violence and a transparent justice system and to a deep-seated belief in freedom of choice.
Try this: walk into the office of the CEO of an organisation you work for and access their computer and take the last two years of minutes of the Board. Put them online publicly. Discuss them openly.
Do you feel free? Is this an open society?
Or: you don’t feel like working, so you stay at home and your boss upbraids you. You respond angrily, saying they have no right to talk to you like that. Maybe they dock your pay. Maybe repeated instances lead to you getting the sack.
Do you feel free? Is your behaviour controlled and regulated by outside forces?
Or: you have no money, no job, you are hungry and cold. Walk into a department store and take some blankets, get some food from a supermarket and some cooking equipment from a camping shop. Maybe you need some money. Ask the bank for it; demand it with a weapon when they won’t give it to you. All of these things will result in strict sanctions, some of them with imprisonment.
Do you feel free? Are there harsh punishments for transgressing social norms, even those transgressions which seem normal or justified?
A country resists our friends’ will to inspect its internal affairs. It is first starved and bombed for a decade then a full-scale war is launched which results in hundreds of thousands of deaths, occupation, control and continues brutally for well over a decade.
Do we live in a peaceful society that abhors violence?

Would Bradley Manning think we respect openness? Would Julian Assange? Would Iraqis or Afghans think we believe in non-violence? Would impoverished workers and members of our urban underclass agree that we allow freedom of action and individual human rights? Would the teeming prisoners, filling our overflowing gaols?

Societies, like all systems, are compromises between good and bad elements.
Whether I would prefer twenty years in a cell or taking a spear in the thigh is irrelevant.

Defending the right of a society to set its own course is not to agree with it, it is to say those people have the right to make their own decisions. And in a country like ours which has such a history of making decisions on behalf of the original people, it’s time we spent our time on thinking and understanding and not on judging and deciding.
That’s not to say the Pearsons and Bess Prices shouldn’t be heard, but it is to say, let’s hear all voices, not just the tiny minority who happen to say the things we like to hear, and let’s listen, understand and support.

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Rainbow Pie

Hobo dreamings……

Big Rock Candy Mountain

One evening as the sun went down
And the jungle fires were burning,
Down the track came a hobo hiking,
And he said, “Boys, I’m not turning
I’m headed for a land that’s far away
Besides the crystal fountains
So come with me, we’ll go and see
The Big Rock Candy Mountains

In the Big Rock Candy Mountains,
There’s a land that’s fair and bright,
Where the handouts grow on bushes
And you sleep out every night.
Where the boxcars all are empty
And the sun shines every day
And the birds and the bees
And the cigarette trees
The lemonade springs
Where the bluebird sings
In the Big Rock Candy Mountains.

In the Big Rock Candy Mountains
All the cops have wooden legs
And the bulldogs all have rubber teeth
And the hens lay soft-boiled eggs
The farmers’ trees are full of fruit
And the barns are full of hay
Oh I’m bound to go
Where there ain’t no snow
Where the rain don’t fall
The winds don’t blow
In the Big Rock Candy Mountains.

In the Big Rock Candy Mountains
You never change your socks
And the little streams of alcohol
Come trickling down the rocks
The brakemen have to tip their hats
And the railway bulls are blind
There’s a lake of stew
And of whiskey too
You can paddle all around it
In a big canoe
In the Big Rock Candy Mountains

In the Big Rock Candy Mountains,
The jails are made of tin.
And you can walk right out again,
As soon as you are in.
There ain’t no short-handled shovels,
No axes, saws nor picks,
I’m bound to stay
Where you sleep all day,
Where they hung the jerk
That invented work
In the Big Rock Candy Mountains.
I’ll see you all this coming fall
In the Big Rock Candy Mountains


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