A Rightful Place

In reply to Noel Pearson's Quarterly Essay, A Rightful Place: Race, recognition and a more complete commonwealth.



Rachel Perkins

Noel Pearson’s hope, which I have come to share, is that “we stand on the cusp of bringing these three parts of our national story together – our ancient heritage, our British heritage and our multicultural triumph – with constitutional recognition of indigenous Australians.”

I clearly remember when I came to terms with what that “ancient heritage” actually means. It was a winter day in Canberra. I was on my way to meet John Mulvaney, known as the father of Australian archology. He has deciphered the human life of our country. He has charted the great movements of change through two ice ages, as well as the small details of life, by sifting the evidence people left behind: the remains of kitchens and camp-sites, the use of fire and ochre, all layered in the earth over thousands of years. We were grappling with our documentary series First Australians and how to tell this epic story in just eight hours of television. If we were going to do the story justice, we needed his guidance. 

No one in the scientific world now contests how very ancient is the occupation of Australia. It spans at least sixty thousand years – that’s the conservative estimate. I asked Mulvaney how we might communicate this profound depth of time to our audience. An explanation of archeological methodology wasn’t going to cut it on TV. His gentle words that day have stayed with me. He explained that the arrival of the First Fleet occurred five generations ago. He then explained that human occupation, before the First Fleet, traces back 2500 generations. Translating the concept into the lives of generations enabled me to begin to grasp the immeasurable human experience: the dreams, the love, the birth and death of these people, felt across the continent. About a billion lives, he estimated. That’s a lot of life. I remember his eyes twinkling as they observed me grappling with the project to which he had given his life: understanding the depth of Australia’s humanity. 

First Australians ultimately began with his words and ended with the High Court’s Mabo judgment acknowledging native title. The overwhelming response to the series, after it was broadcast on SBS, was, “Why weren’t we told?” People felt denied. They were resentful about their lack of knowledge of the history of the country. From this experience I understood how fundamentally the institutions and the structures of our society have failed to provide our citizens with any understanding and ownership of their deep Australian heritage. 

Mulvaney’s great friend of equal brilliance was Dr Norman Tindale. Confounded by the ignorance of most Australians and their view that “Aborigines wandered around the land,” he set out on an epic personal project to map the territories of the first Australians. I asked Mulvaney how Tindale could conceive of taking on a personal project of that scale off his own bat. He said, “You’d have to know the sort of man Tinny was to understand that.” I wish I had. It took fifty years to complete.

I have a copy of the map, found by friends at a garage sale. It comes in four large scrolls, each showing a quarter of the continent. Together they take up an entire wall in my office. This was his statement to the world. People who visit our office are stopped in their tracks by the map. They are rendered speechless at the detail it reveals. It shows around 250 groups, each with its own language and land holdings. Visitors immediately respond by either finding their own ancestral tribe, or the tribe’s territory in which they live. In that moment they step into Australia’s deep past. They also see the present, the underbelly of our nation, with the very recent straight lines of our federated states drawn across its surface. This map is a revelation for people, which emphasises Noel’s point that “there is no official recognition of the many tribal nations associated with particular territories.”

It is often stated that we have longest continuing culture in the world, but what does that actually mean? It means this: we had an ocean surrounding us, and our distant position on the other side of the earth meant we were invaded later than everyone else. Our civilisation was not disrupted, so our culture was and is continuous. This means that in many parts of the country the very ancient rock art is still understood. Consider that for a moment. People here are still connected to a civilisation far more ancient than that of the Romans, Greeks and Egyptians, than that which produced a site such as Stonehenge in its antiquity. We still understand the rich stories and meaning behind these epic ancient masterpieces. The stories are still with us – mostly. The question is: do we care?

High on the cliffs at Bondi Beach there is a whale carved into the sandstone. There are about 2000 carvings like this, inscribed into the soft Sydney sandstone – which makes the city one of the largest galleries in the world. I sometimes walk up there and pause beside the carving. It is positioned to give a magnificent view of the ocean from the south-east edge of Australia. This is the point from which the Gadigal people witnessed the twelve ships making their way northward to Warrang, now known as Sydney Harbour. I imagine them standing there looking out to sea. But turn your head, and you are visually assaulted by fluoro joggers hammering past. For me, this site sums up Australia’s relationship to its national heritage. We have never paused in sufficient numbers for long enough to truly consider it. To wonder about the hands that created the whale, what it might have meant to those people – to begin to understand it and ultimately to make it our own. We are in the process of running past our Australian heritage in the pursuit of a fluoro future.

Recently the prime minister nominated the arrival of the First Fleet as the defining moment in Australian history. Not unexpectedly, he was widely criticised for ignoring the depth of prior human experience. But I agree with him. I think it is the most significant event, but not for the same reason. The arrival of the First Fleet meant the building of a new society much like that found in most Western capitalist states, one which now boasts twenty-three million people. But it has destroyed, in part, an incredibly distinct society created across the deep time that Mulvaney has revealed. 

The tsunami of colonisation that followed the First Fleet crashed across the south of our continent and swept north for another hundred years. One measure of its impact is the decimation of Australian languages. Noel quotes Johann Gottfried Herder on the importance of language:

Has a people … anything more dear than the language of their fathers? In it lives its entire wealth of thoughts about tradition, history, religion and principles of life, all its heart and soul. To take from such a people their language or debase it amounts to taking from them their only immortal property, which passes from parents to children.

We have lost more than half of our original Australian languages. People are working hard to revive them, but the situation is grim and accelerating. By 2050, only fifty of the 250 are expected to survive. Language is the net that catches the intangible cultural knowledge: the place names, spiritual beliefs, environmental knowledge and, of course, the songs which carry the dreamings – the stories of how the world was created. 

In considering a place for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people within the nation, Noel explores what colonisation meant for the Tasmanian Aboriginal people. They felt the full force of the tsunami. He eloquently pays respect to the old people of that community, who saw the cold reality of their fate squarely before them: to be removed from their lands and have their way of life denied them. In researching First Australians, I also traversed this history and that of many other communities in the south, where colonisation occurred earliest and in earnest. I searched for traces of their classical culture: songs, paintings, photographs, letters, anything we could find to fill out the story of their time. But as with the whale on the cliffs at Bondi, the detailed meaning has largely been lost. 

Communities are rebuilding, and their hard work is testament to how they cherish their culture. Their land and waterways provide a foundation for the reclaiming of knowledge, and the tribal boundaries and identity remain strong. This is our great resilience, to hold our identity dear, despite all the forces of colonisation and society conspiring against us.

In Noel’s 2009 Quarterly Essay, Radical Hope: Education and Equality in Australia, he asked another very direct and more personal question of us. I shuddered when I read it, wanting to avoid what was being asked of me.

It is time to ask: are we Aborigines a serious people? Do we have serious leaders? Do we have the seriousness necessary to maintain the hard places we call home? Do we have the seriousness necessary to maintain our languages, tradition and knowledge? 

I strive to avoid wishful thinking but one can never be immune from it. The truth is I am prone to bouts of doubt and sadness around these questions. But I have hope.

After avoiding Noel’s question for years, I decided to get serious. I and senior Arrernte ladies, along with the ethnomusicologist Myfany Turpin, are attempting to record our women’s songs and the dreaming stories they carry. 

Noel writes, “Australia does not have a comprehensive agenda for the recording, preservation, presentation and utilisation of the country’s heritage … Much of this knowledge will be lost if we do not grasp the importance and the urgency of this work.” He describes the recording work we are doing in Arrernte country as “one example of the urgent work that needs to be done Before It’s Too Late (BITL).” He goes on to lay out his aspirations for BITL Mark 3: a national project to record classical culture and revitalise existing cultural collections, with concerted public support. 

Noel’s notion of tethering cultural survival to constitutional reform is intriguing. When I grasped the potential of his idea, I realised it may be our best hope –
in the short term – of attracting national interest on this issue. It lit a spark for me and gave me hope, for we have only to look back on our history to understand the trajectory we are on. The question is: will our people be able to put their differences aside and unite, as they did in 1967, towards this possibility? 

Noel spoke bluntly but truthfully in his 2009 article “A People’s Survival”:

Aboriginal Australians need to be brutally honest about the threatening demise of Aboriginal culture. We need to face the evidence and be less rhetorical. The cultural survival of Aboriginal Australian peoples does not hinge on declaratory assertions that “We have always been …”, that “We will always be …”

Certainly, Noel has the seriousness required to push the case for recognition and a national indigenous cultural agenda. I intend to stand by him in that cause. I encourage others to do so, with us, BITL.

Rachel Perkins


This is a reply to Noel Pearson’s Quarterly Essay, A Rightful Place: Race, recognition and a more complete commonwealth. To read the full essay, login, subscribe, or buy the book.


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