Existential Justice in forms of Representation of First Peoples Ways

Existential Justice in forms of Representation.

When we craft forms of representation of First Peoples lives it is fundamentally important that those forms recognise the place of senior men’s higher practices – law and ceremony.

These matters must be included in order to do existential justice to First Peoples lived realities.

Forms of representation which systematically exclude these higher practices can only make a mockery of First Peoples Ways. To fail to recognise and acknowledge the importance of senior men’s law and ceremonies is to be involved in the established Westernising practices of fashioning false images of First Peoples lives.

Doing this  is akin to constructing an external image of the cell (in biology) while systematically excluding the role of the nucleus.

While including a necessary (must have) place for these higher practices in forms of representation may be able to be justified in terms of Western notions of human rights, the basis for recognising these higher practices comes from what is , ultimately, a more important authority – that of life itself.

To spell this out – First Peoples Ways, as encountered by Europeans from 1788 to the present, have been shaped as part of this country since long before the advent of European Neolithic societies. The failure of European authorities to properly recognise these Ways in no way negates them as legitimate. 

These First Peoples Ways carry an imprimatur which comes from life itself. They have an existential standing which exists outside of the workings of any European (or other non-indigenous place) authority. They exist as a product of the working of forces operating on a much higher level than those of Westminster Parliaments (for example).

People-without-country are in no position to construct authoritative models of the lives of peoples-with-countries. The Western working class, for example, was created when people were driven off the land upon which they formerly lived and worked. Landless working people may acquire a small block of land, and a sense of identity based on the modern nation-state (their ‘country’) but this does not convert them into peoples-with-countries.  There are two entirely different modes of Being.

Modern forms of production of representations include attempts by some to try to justify First Peoples Ways by relying on entirely Western categories and concepts. To seek to interpret – and seek recognition for – First Peoples practices as form of ‘agriculture’ is one example. Similarly the attempts to recognise First Peoples sky narratives as effort by early ‘scientists’ and ‘astronomers’.

Such well-intentioned attempts invariably result in reinforcing a privilege for the clusters of Western concepts which are themselves the product of European history.  This is done at the cost of making a mockery of the concepts which are the product of First Peoples lived interactions with their surroundings over a much longer period. Key aspects of First Peoples realities are rendered nonsense in the process.

One of the healing challenges for conceptual craftspeople is to move from a modern point of view and to work towards crafting forms of representation which are bi-culturally balanced. That is, the move has to go beyond ‘post-modern’ as well as going beyond ‘modern’.

While there are non-indigenous people who seek to insert their voices into the places life has reserved for senior lawmen, there is a requirement that they defer to the real authorities on such matters. From proclaiming how things must be, in the 21st C the healing move is to respectfully relating.

This attitudinal shift  removes the dominating privileges which Western Ways of life have proclaimed for themselves. In their place the shift has to be from a ‘top-down’ stance to a ‘side-by-side’ mode of cultural partnership. That is, from non-indigenous dominating and manipulating to learning how to relate and to do so be means which systematically recognise the significance of senior men’s higher practices.

The fact is that many Western intellectuals cannot grasp the significance of the higher practices in maintaining a well-tempered cosmos. Their thinking remains grounded in entirely Western unconscious-in-culture; worldview; metaphysic; cosmology (call it what you will).

Consequently they remain within the comfort zones of their own conceptual prison-houses, where (in return for some sort of living) they can fashion the fetishes required to please their modern masters. It is the age of mass production.

The challenge life presents us with in this country is not to render First Peoples lives significant in Western terms but to reform Western thinking in order to better able to recognise (and relate to) First Peoples Ways.

We have to stop looking so hard with entirely Western eyes. Such eyes have a professional deformation.

We have to begin to learn to see with eyes which are properly connected to our surroundings in this country.

This may be a major challenge – but it is not an impossible one.

To a great extent , we (who are not initiated men) can only mark out a space for the voices of First Peoples senior men. We non-initiated cannot complete the picture on our own. We cannot provide the full story. That said, some insights are possible. First Peoples senior men have acted as mentors for anthropologists and others. They continue to try to instill some understanding in our Westernised minds.

Bruce (Japaljari) Reyburn – August 2017


Mens songs – in the higher keys of life.


In his book “Dark Emu” Bruce Pascoe says words to the effect  – “we have a chance to catch a glimpse of Australia as Aboriginals saw it.”

I share the spirit of this very important challenge – catching a glimpse or two can serve to restructure entire fields of knowledge by methods which mere data collecting and modern social theorising never will.

Part of the glimpse process is to ‘see’ the western frameworks of interpretation which have to be transcended in order to let some life through. We have to learn to see life in this country on its own terms and not those which systematically privilege modern Western master narratives.

In other words, we have to stop looking at life so hard with our Westernised eyes. These eyes turn dancing forms of energy into inert things.

David Turner has written about his experiences in learning to see with dancing eyes.

Rather than trying to accommodate First Peoples Ways into Neolithic Western categories (farmers, agriculturalists) as Bruce Pascoe does in his book “Dark Emu” I regard First Peoples as being involved in the production of higher level messages of an entirely different type to those which emerged in a Neolithic transformation of part of life.

Life within orthodox First Peoples Ways stands in an entirely different relationship to that necessary for horticulture, agriculture, farming etc. I regard First Peoples as operating on a higher level than agriculture.

The songs and ceremonies of senior men are songs in the key of life – ensuring a finely-tuned cosmos. The songs are higher practices which ensure that the everyday practices which make up our lives are appropriately formed according to an age-old life design. One that has keep this planet of ours in extremely good shape over a vast period of time.

What is striking, in regard to the harvesting of tubers and grains, is that these activities may be predominantly women’s activities. Strehlow Senior noted that the gathering/harvesting of certain roots was the principal food of the women. I am uncertain about the harvesting of grains, but the grinding of grains is certainly something well within women’s domain.

Anthropologists such as Annette Hamilton have written on the existence of these two worlds.

The complementary opposition between men’s and women’s social universes is certainly a highly marked feature of First Peoples Ways in Central Australia. Of course, there is a fully functioning form of co-existence between these two social and cultural universes.

In modern Western Ways, especially at this time, the movement for accepting women into the core of men’s domains, is regarded as the right and proper path for life to take. It is not necessarily how things function in other viable socio-cultural life formations.

I have pondered before – in light of contemporary cross-cultural alliances – if the conceptual distance between the women’s world – a fully cultured world without a shadow of a doubt – is somehow closer to that of the modern secular worldview. And this closeness and system of alliances results in senior men being excluded from their rightful place in life.

As i travel in Central Australia i am struck by how much of what is on public display about traditional Dreaming narratives is from the women’s side of life. This is a very rich tradition and exists on a high existential level as a complement to the secret-sacred law of senior men. But much of the secret-sacred law of senior men remains restricted to initiated men and is not so readily visible.

This is no reason to treat it as non-existent.

Traditionally any male who had not been initiated was, irrespective of his age, still a ‘boy’ in the eyes of the senior men. Much of the present debates about First Peoples rights are conducted by people who are not initiated into the original system of laws carried by senior men.

I also fail detect any substantial respect for senior lawmen on the part of at least some non-indigenous feminists including those who presume to be able to talk about the rights of First Peoples, men included. Much of the modern human rights agenda is based on presumptions about rights which apply only to peoples-without-countries.

While posing as a cross-cultural dialogue, discussions about First Peoples rights far too often conducted in English by people who find no discomfort in the lack of the voices of senior indigenous lawmen in these discussion, but who also feel no compulsion to learn the languages spoken by surviving senior lawmen.

In other words, where we should be hearing the voices of senior indigenous lawmen speaking in their own languages, an entirely Western monologue by privileged people fills the entire space with talk of ‘the nation’ and similar bounded categories entirely alien to the world-views of First Peoples.

The voices of senior men need to be heard in their own right – not as interpreted by others (included me). The task for people like me is to create spaces for their voices to be heard by Western ears.

To hear the voices of senior lawmen we have to leave our modern comfort zones and go the extra mile. I believe the rewards will be well worth the effort for those of us who accept the major life challenge of regaining our singing cosmos.

Still not hearing voices of senior lawmen in Constitution recognition mix

Mainstream media SMH

‘Noble compromise’ will emerge on Indigenous recognition: Pearson

Noel Pearson predicts clear proposition to emerge from Indigenous constitutional convention

Mr Pearson said the Mundine proposal resonated with his long-held belief that self-determination, correctly understood, is about our peoples’ right to take responsibility. “That is what constitutional recognition should structurally encourage and enable,” he said.

He told Fairfax Media he had attended at least seven of 12 Indigenous dialogues leading up the the convention and is “staggering pleased” with what has emerged, and with the leadership shown at the dialogues by Pat Anderson and Megan Davis.

“We’ve had very significant Indigenous female leadership over the decades, but I think this is the one time where I think two women have really carried the leadership on this process,” he said. 

“I see next week as 12 pieces of the jigsaw from all parts of the country coming together into a united position, a single whole. The outcome I’m hoping for is a very clear statement of what Indigenous Australia wants in a reform agenda.

Full story


Yes but what do the Central Australia senior lawmen have to say?

Still waiting to hear from them.

Next – results of National Referendum Convention at Uluru May 24-26 #GetTheFullPicture

The extent to which the present Referendum Council’s Recognise process has engaged with Warumungu and Alyawarra senior lawmen in Tennant Creek remains unclear to me.

The generalised reply to my question to the Central Land Council about this specific issue (posted on this blog) has done nothing to reassure me that these crucially important men have been properly informed and enabled to participate on their own culturally fair terms. The CLC response is the sort of reply i get from evasive politicians.

However, as i am presently in Wollongong, NSW, i am a long way from events on the ground in places like Tennant Creek. I will be in the Central Australia in June and hope to travel to Tennant Creek then.

Delegates for the very important National Indigenous Referendum Convention gather at Uluru in just a few weeks (May 24-260. I see this is also deemed a First Nations Convention, but the role of First Nations and the selection of their delegates is also obscure.

I feel the delegates deserve a fair-go to show what they can come up in relation to this most difficult of vexing problems in this country – proper recognition of First Peoples (as cultural partners and on terms which are acceptable to them).

So, with some signs of movement on treaty issues at the State level, i look forward with deep interest in what comes out of that Convention. Ideally something we could all get behind and support. Wait and see.

This country is long overdue for some deep and effective healing after the massive damage done to life here by the soul-destroying methods of British colonisation.

Country is life’s eternal soul. First Peoples are country!







Cannot hear senior lawmen’s voices #GetTheFullPicture

I can hear many indigenous and non-indigenous voices in the present reports of the Ross River regional dialogue – but i cannot hear the singing voices of senior indigenous lawmen from the Tennant Creek and Barkly region of the Northern Territory.

In 1901, when the new Commonwealth of Australia came into existence with the new Australian Constitution, the renown anthropologists Spencer and Gillen spent some months at the Tennant Creek Telegraph Station being mentored – by senior Warumungu lawmen –  in the laws and cultures of First Peoples.

The senior Warumungu lawmen undoubtedly saw the anthropologists as some kind of representative of Anglo-Australia authorities.  Warumungu and related people were reeling from the savage invasion by cattle and cattle-men into their lives and living country.

The senior men clearly wanted to instill some degree of understanding about country into the minds of those authorities associated with the invasion of cattle and cattle-men. They reached out and made known much of esoteric knowledge which makes up their life capital. This is usually carefully guarded.

But the extensive knowledge they shared with Spencer and Gillen did not find its way back into the lawmaking processes of the new Federal Government.

The anthropologists were not in Warumungu country to serve as a conduit to the Anglo-Australian authorities. Rather, they were there to document – for future men of science – the lives of Stone Age people before they disappeared – swept away by ‘progress’.

The singing voices of senior lawmen were not heard in the remote places (Canberra) where Anglo-Australia’s lawmen make their laws. Their voices are completely missing from the 1901 Australian Constitution and the large body of Anglo-Australian law which followed.

There was simply no connect between the efforts of the senior lawmen and the decision-making processes of the Anglo-Australian political system.

First Peoples were never remnants of an imaginary Stone Age. They are contemporary peoples who follow a Way of life which is different to that of Europe. The high culture – the systems of law which inform the lives of senior lawmen – is central to this other Way of life. Senior women, of course, play a complementary role as high cultural carriers. It is a both-and situation not an either/or one. I cannot speak on women’s matters.

This high culture has existential rights – it does not require recognition by non-indigenous Australians (or anyone else) to exist. Constitutional recognition would, however, make life better adjusted for all concerned.


The present campaign to make good the enormous shortcomings of the 1901 Constitution and to gain some form of recognition of this country’s First Peoples may presently suffer from exactly this same flaw – a lack of connect and real engagement between the two systems of law.

In 1990 I was fortunate enough to gain a Lionel Murphy Scholarship to  spend a year considering how to improving dialogue between the two systems of law in this country. Those two systems are the original system of First Peoples law and the introduced system of law.

This came after I had had ten years of direct involvement in First Peoples Ways in the Northern Territory. Firstly, in the early 1980s, as Senior Anthropologist responsible for land claims with the Central Land Council based in Alice Springs. My main area of involvement was with Warumungu and Alyawarra people in the Tennant Creek/Barkly region to the north of Alice Springs.

Secondly, I spent the second half of the 1980s living in Tennant Creek and, for a while, working as a Community Development Officer with Julalikari Council. My role required me to meet weekly with the representatives of the numerous town camps and to assist with the meetings of the full Council.

I left the Northern Territory in 1989 and my family came to live in the Northern Suburbs of Wollongong, south of Sydney, in NSW. I spent a good part of the 1990s involved in local reconciliation groups, and supporting the Sandon Point Aboriginal Tent Embassy in their struggle for recognition.

Consequently, not only have I given a great deal of thought to how to consult indigenous people, I have also spent a good part of my life being directly involved with First Peoples at the grassroots level.

One of the key lessons I have learnt is that a successful consultation process – one that actually engages with First Peoples in the lives they actually lives – must be designed  (from the outset) with an emphasis on process.

If you can get the process right then you can avoid a host of other problems further down the track. A proper process is not one which merely informs them of something which is going on a coming-ready-or-not basis.

A proper process is one which provides senior lawmen – properly constituted in their own right – with as much information as they require to consider the issues from their perspective. Then, those presenting the information, need to retire for the requisite time (days, weeks) so that senior men can discuss matters between themselves and determine if they can arrive at a consensus. Then, when the senior men are agreed (they will avoid a meeting if they are not) to reconvene and allow them to make a public statement of their agreed position.

I very much doubt that any real effort will be made, between now and the National Indigenous Referendum Convention at Uluru in late May, to actually engage with the senior lawmen in the Tennant Creek and Barkly region. It takes a concerted effort to do this.

I hope i am completely mistaken and urge the delegates who have been selected at the Ross River regional dialogue meeting to make every effort to provide an opportunity for the senior lawmen to speak in their own voices at the Constitutional convention at Uluru in May.

In my experience, no one else can do this for the senior lawmen.

Their empowered involvement is a crucially important ingredient for healing life in this country.




















Join the Referendum Conversation – recognition of First Peoples #GetTheFullPicture

From the Referendum Council website:

“What do you think about a future referendum being held in Australia to recognise Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples in our Constitution?

Australians can also have their say by reading and responding to the Council’s Discussion Paper, sharing their thoughts using #GetTheFullPicture on Facebook or Twitter, and getting all the facts about constitutional recognition and joining the conversation on the website.


Australians have the chance to respond to a Discussion Paper by the Referendum Council outlining questions that may be addressed in a referendum. Submissions close 8 May 2017.”


See also


Reconciliation Council report on Ross River Regional Dialogue

You can read about the Ross River Regional Dialogue leading up to the National Indigenous Constitutional Convention at Uluru on 24-26 May 2017 on the Reconciliation Council’s website at:


Note the full report at the bottom of that page –