The British Empire and the case of aboriginal identity: Internalized racism 101

In a time when Aboriginal population in Australia seeks to have its voice heard more than ever, the place of representation and voice, notably in the film industry, seems to be of paramount importance. In this context, Ten Canoes, directed by Rolf de Reer in 2006 contributes in the way Aborigines are perceived. Here, De Reer puts Aboriginal voices in the very forefront and let Aborigines tell their own story. Diving into a world where the frontier between legends and reality is at its thinnest, we get to explore the richness of Aboriginal ancestral rites and culture.

A more accurate representation of Aborigines

Aboriginal representation in movies like Ten Canoes contributes in the authenticity and accurateness of Aboriginal identity depiction. It brings forward the importance of natives telling their own stories and taking back ownership of their own voices. First movie made entirely in Aboriginal language, Ten Canoes was inspired by a photograph of ten canoeists, taken by anthropologist Dr. Donald Thomson in the 1930’s. From the collaboration of director Rolf de Heer and Peter Djigirr resulted a beautiful movie telling the story of first nations people without alienating them or portraying them in a overly hostile environment. In Ten Canoes, the humanity of the characters is what really shines through. Thanks to the use of humour (sometimes dark, sometimes bawdy), or the anecdotes about the members of the tribe, the people represented appear as endearing and even relatable at times. 

What makes this movie so special is the genuine desire to depict an accurate representation of Aboriginal culture thus, emphasising the involvement of the Aboriginal community in the making of the film. In fact, the role played by the Yolngu community was considerable (literally and figuratively!). The entire cast were members of the Yolngu people who took a huge part in the decision making throughout the production of the film. In this regard, Ten Canoes allows the indigenous people to tell their own story the way they want to tell it, and avoiding the stereotype of the victim/savage people developed by the British Empire. This portrayal of the first nations people contrasts with the racists views of the Empire and encourages us to reflect on who the real savages were. 

The settlers and their racist biases against Aborigines

The  British settlers were the thieves who stole a land that was not theirs and who murdered those who would not submit to their expansion. Many were quite literally criminals sent to an already occupied land. They were dishonest and greedy colonizers, who lied and spread a wrong and crassly modified image of the natives in order to make themselves more at ease with their killing and feel less guilty for going against the word of their God, who told them to love and respect all human beings as if they were brothers and sisters. In that sense, natives as portrayed in Ten Canoes, can be seen as much more human, valuing family, security and peace, as opposed to the British and their constant quest for wealth and power. 

The British tried to use science to prove black inferiority. They studied brains, measured skulls and studied the behaviour and lifestyle of the aboriginal people, but ignored data that did not confirm their prejudices. For example, art work on polished stones that were very complex or even the studied brains that were larger than whites’ were ignored. In fact, in most cases, data was manipulated to fit the racist ideas about the first nations people. 

This illustration by J Redaway entitled ‘Aborigines of Australia: heads and implements’ (Mitchell Library, State Library of NSW – PXE 864) shows that for the anthropologists of the time, Aborigines were more like animals to be studied rather than actual human beings. 

British anthropologists at the time strongly wanted to believe that natives were simply doomed to stay closer to a primitive neanderthal, and not capable of becoming civilized human beings. This biological determinism was in fact a concept often used by the Empire in order to get rid of their guilt regarding the massacre and cruel treatment of Aborigines. There was this rampant belief that these people were meant to all die because they were not strong enough, that their species could not survive natural selection  and that their extinction was their own fault. This made it easier for the British to keep going with their australian conquest. Yet, their interbreeding and rape of Aboriginal women would generate a host of new challenges for their racist worldview. Those horrors of colonization are, however, not represented in Ten Canoes. As a matter a fact, the movie very much strays from it, focusing instead on Aboriginal lifestyle and culture before the British set foot on the country. For this reason, de Heer’s movie manages to not only teach a lesson of patiance and wisdom thanks to the characters’ experiences, but also educate the viewers about Aboriginals’ traditions and History.

Aborigines and their relationship to the land

Colonizers showed absolutely no respect for Aboriginal people whatsoever and did not even bother asking for their permission to occupy the land when they first arrived in Australia. They deemed natives not worthy enough to be asked permission for the sole reason that agriculture was not part of their ways. However, we can see in “Ten Canoes” that the land has a huge place in Aboriginals’ culture. It is what provides them with shelter, food and all the necessities they might require. Men were usually the ones to hunt when women and children gathered fruits and vegetables. Aborigines made sure to never overuse resources. They had a tremendous respect for the land. They felt spiritually connected to it and considered it to be a link to their ancestors. Ultimately, the land was a creation of the spirits just like they were and this fact established a relationship of equality between land and men. By stealing their land from them, the British ensured that Aboriginal extinction would happen. They cut off resources, and waged war on the frontiers and committed massacres across the country. 

This capture of a scene from Ten Canoes by Rolf de Heer and Peter Djigirr shows us how in sync Aborigines were with nature and how well they knew how to use the resources given to them in order to hunt. Here we can see the canoes they built from scratch to go and hunt geese.

Aborigines’ rich and complex culture 

Australian first nations peoples were not savages obsessed with war who were only living to fight and to mate. They valued peace and were eager to keep it between the different tribes as best as they could. Respect, notably regarding boundaries, was extremely important to them, which made the British invasion even worse. Aboriginals had a social hierarchy with a leader, and men and women had established social roles based upon mutual respect. Family, and the notion of kinship was also essential to their social structure. Families were usually big and aborigines liked to live with all their family members, within their camp. They had a justice system, and even if punishment was corporal, it managed to satisfy everyone and to avoid big wars between clans that would only bring unnecessary death and pain. In Ten Canoes, Minygululu (leader of his tribe) and his little brother are submitted to a spearing after Minygululu murdered a man he thought had kidnapped one of his wives. This ceremony perfectly illustrates the principle of “a life for a life” and brings back the balance that allowed to keep the peace between the two tribes. 

In this scene, Minygululu and his brother are speared by the tribe of the man Minygululu killed until one of the two dies. This ceremony reflects an actual Aboriginal tradition and aims at settling conflicts without having to wage war between tribes.

In the movie, the importance of magic and spirituality is very well highlighted. We can see that the tribe’s sorcerer is considered an essential member of the community and is involved in every major decision taken by the tribe. First nations peoples’ religious system was very spiritual, complex and based on the Dreamtime: the beginning of time and moment when the world was created by the Ancestor spirits. Aborigines believed in spirits and reincarnation. They had a strong link to their ancestors, trusting them to guide them throughout their lives but also in the afterlife after they died. In Aboriginal culture, spirituality shaped first nations people religious’ beliefs but also structured their lifestyle. They were attached to their traditions, and their ancestors’ way. They refused to conform and submit to the whites because it was not their way that had always worked just fine for them. Aborigines knew that they would never be accepted anyway and would always be considered a lesser people than the whites and always be discriminated against no matter how hard they would work and try to assimilate. Many children were taken away from their families to be assimilated and turned into a sort of “white like aborigines”. However, even noble savages remained savages after all.

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