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The Ethnic Conflict Research Digest

1999, Vol. 2 No. 2 .

Citizenship and Indigenous Australians
Edited by Nicholas Peterson and Will Sanders

(Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998)

Beginning with a discussion of citizenship as defining membership of a common society, together with the rights and duties of that society's members, the underlying theme of this excellent collection of essays is that, for most of Australia's colonial and post-colonial history, the majority of Aboriginal people have been denied full membership of Australian society. Although indigenous Australians achieved formal equal rights in the 1960s, and thus access to the same citizenship rights, as non-indigenous Australians, the contributors to this volume set out to consider just how far the question of the recognition of Aboriginal people's membership in their own indigenous social orders has been addressed. For the most part, the situation is one where the non-indigenous society, with its associated societal attitudes, cultural values, visions of nation-building and so on, continues to ignore the social and cultural contexts which provide the basis for Aboriginal identity and for the continuity and cultural viability of Aboriginal society.

The various contributors all provide excellent case studies which enhance the literature on the relationship of Aboriginal people to wider Australian society in historical and contemporary contexts. Marilyn Wood, for example, discusses the settler construction of indigenous identities in nineteenth century New South Wales, where indigenous rights to land were conceptually invalidated by settlers through the doctrine of terra nullius. In this way, indigenous social systems were undermined and Aboriginal people became marginalised vis a vis the settler society. Geoff Gray examines the policy in the mid-twentieth century that granting citizenship to Aboriginal peoples was only considered possible through a process of moral uplift, or a movement from nomadism to civilisation. Nicholas Peterson argues that dependency arose from the provision of social rights of citizenship in remote Aboriginal communities, but that this can only be analysed adequately with reference to the cultural and economic, as well as political aspects, of dependency, while David Trigger shows how dominant ideas of being a good citizen in Australia, which necessarily entail subscribing to the nation-building ideal of resource development, conflict with indigenous responses to mining. As Trigger points out, there is no clear sense among Aboriginal residents of communities close to mining projects, that they are obligated to support resource development because it is good for the nation. Rather, Aboriginal concern is expressed over damage to 'country' (the landscape and its material and spiritual properties) and over environmental pollution.

All the authors of this volume address issues beyond Australia by showing that the concept of citizenship in a multicultural society - and how it can be achieved or granted to minority groups - is highly contested. As the example of Australia shows, citizenship can also subordinate a sense of indigenous identity to national identity. As Trigger suggests, in a multicultural society, the concept of citizenship should be broadened to include recognition of cultural citizenship. In this way, cultural citizenship would imply that worldviews and practices (which are often inconsistent with those of the dominant cultural or ethnic group in a society) should be recognised and given moral weight. The danger, however, is that, as has happened in Australia, the politics of Aboriginal identity has disrupted the established ideologies of civic society and moral solidarity. As movements for self-determination continue to grow in many other parts of the world, this collection raises the question of how possible it is to reconcile the equal rights accorded to all citizens with the special cultural and ethnic group rights increasingly demanded by indigenous peoples.

Mark Nuttall,
University of Aberdeen

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