chapter  10
A sung heritage: An ecological approach to rights and authority in intangible cultural heritage in Northern Australia
Pages 18

The 2008 Garma Festival Key Forum1 held in north-east Arnhem Land, Australia, called for ‘a new understanding of Indigenous law and governance’ to prevent the loss of Indigenous knowledge and maximize the potential for cooperation over caring for country (see Figure 10.1). Two key themes focused on ‘Indigenous art and performance in maintaining social cohesion, cultural identity and community wellbeing’ and the ‘involvement of: Indigenous people and their traditional ecological knowledge in . . . sustainable economic development policies and actions’ (Yothu Yindi Foundation n.d.). As Indigenous communities in Australia have been progressively disenfranchised by Western practices and agendas that measure, authorize and legitimate knowledge in domains that are not their own (Lee et al. 2006: 16), this has impacted upon Aboriginal rights in all aspects of culture and lifestyle. Consequently, Indigenous leaders are seeking ways of addressing disempowerment through dialogue and collaboration with governments and local and regional communities to consider the effects of disadvantage. As the ‘most significant Indigenous cultural event in Australia for Indigenous Australians’, Garma is one arena in which Aboriginal rights and cultural recognition is debated, performed and negotiated. This chapter examines how ‘a new understanding of Indigenous law and governance’ over caring for country may be approached through two interrelated ways of viewing and experiencing the environment. First, I consider an ‘environmental habitus’ that emphasizes the political and economic effects of human actions in and on places, and second, an ecological habitus that is derived from the embodied presence and aesthetic awareness of places within

human relations.2 These habitus are different kinds of orientations towards the natural world and may be held simultaneously but drawn upon to varying degrees depending upon context. I am not simply making cultural distinctions here between Indigenous and non-Indigenous knowledges as has been the case, for example, in development studies; I am also teasing out different types of habitus to show how people can amass their experiences of the world to generate capital and, in turn, influence systems of law and governance. It may be the case that within some cultures a particular habitus is emphasized more than others, while in other contexts, boundaries between them may be blurred. The extent to which different kinds of habitus fuse within and across cultures depends upon how effectively they serve social (and ritual) agendas, behavioural expectations and patterns of law, including state welfare and political issues. Bourdieu’s theory of habitus explains how varieties of enacted bodily practice based upon a structural form together make up social interaction (Acciaioli 1981: 37) that can take different forms. Habitus refers to an

embodiment of the ‘practical mastery of fundamental schemes’ of ‘hexis’, or the body, that is shaped by individual dispositions and not simply a shared ideology about culture (Bourdieu 1977: 90). Intersubjective qualities of perception, practice and appreciation create ‘a meaningful world, a world endowed with sense and value, in which it is worth investing one’s energy’ (Bourdieu and Wacquant 1992: 127). The interests, tastes and values of individuals shape their expectations of life and the extent to which they share similar kinds of expectations with others and, equally, alternative tastes and interests can distinguish one habitus from another. Different fields such as the market, religion or politics shape the habitus and, in turn, different expressions of habitus influence the way capital is generated within any given field. Fields are, however, not discrete, isolated entities. They are intimately related to one another and therefore social, cultural and economic capital may be exchanged between them. Distinctions between different habitus occur through discontinuities of meaning and experience. These distinctions have implications for how legal fields are determined which become increasingly complex in terms of determining rights cross-culturally as can be evidenced in conflicts over ‘property’, ‘ownership’, ‘obligation’, ‘profit’ and ‘leadership’. While Yolngu have come to understand to some extent how Western concepts of individual land ownership entail the protection of bounded, commercial rights over time, where land is a potentially alienable commodity, this Westernized view of the spatial and temporal quality of land management is fundamentally at odds with Yolngu notions of the cyclical continuity of Aboriginal stewardship of Arnhem Land (see Rose 1999). Yolngu ecological systems are communally held and cared for as areas that extend out from sacred sites (rather than being areas that are bound in) where rights over country are affirmed by presencing memories in performance rather than staking one’s claim in a fence. The Yolngu concept of ‘country’ (wänga) therefore differs from non-Indigenous ideas of land or landscape. Country refers to sentient ecological zones of various kinds, including rivers, coastal regions, seas and eucalyptus forest which may contain one or more sacred sites. Ian Gumbula commented:

Our identity is in the soil, land, water, plants. In the large communities where we are on someone else’s land we do not feel right. We have strong feelings when on our own land . . . It is the land that gives us our songs, language and designs, it’s through these that we recognize and reveal our identity to each other.