A Response to Henry Reynolds from Marilyn Lake

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In Henry Reynolds’ discussion of the issue of sovereignty in relationship to the ‘governance’ rights of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, he suggests that we think anew about the status of Australian indigenous communities as ‘political communities’ who, before and after the British invasion and occupation, ‘ruled themselves according to their own laws’. The intellectual dimension of his challenge is, in part, that we re-conceptualise the history of Aboriginal people so that they figure not only as resistance fighters and resource managers or as people possessed of culture and religion, but as political subjects. The logic of his argument is that we rewrite the political history of this country.

The work of a number of historians over the past twenty years or so has been important in persuading Australians to think of Aboriginal people as not the objects and passive victims of the historical process, but as historical agents who acted effectively to ensure their survival as a people. Various historical accounts by Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal Australians have effectively established Aboriginal people as warriors, as patriots, as resistance fighters and as indispensable guides to the European explorers and settlers. We have also been challenged to think of Aboriginal Australians as efficient resource managers in an inhospitable continent and as proponents of religious beliefs which also worked to maintain the country.

Feminist writers have found these frameworks of interpretation useful for making a case about the high status of Aboriginal women in their society; that they were the chief breadwinners and significant custodians of their country. Reynolds’ suggestion that we re-conceptualise Aboriginal communities as political communities administering a distinctive system of law opens up a range of new questions about the communities’ political structures, relationships, organisations and decision-making processes and it thus also suggests a new perspective on Aboriginal women’s insistence that traditional Aboriginal society was non-patriarchal, that women were their own bosses themselves. For though women, like men, were subject to the ‘Law’, they were not oppressed by a body of man-made ‘laws’ that issued forth from legislatures embodied — as in British and Australian parliaments — in male form. If Aboriginal societies comprised ‘sovereign states governed by laws of their own’ those laws were not framed by men presiding in a separate political public space. The Law had no sexed embodiment.

In other words the re-conceptualisation of Aboriginal communities as ‘politically organised societies’ raises questions, not asked by Reynolds himself, about the relationship between different systems of ‘law’ and the political relationships, and standing, of women and men. It illuminates Aboriginal women’s strong subjective sense of equality. How, one wonders, has Aboriginal accomodation with the dominant Western systems of law-making and the process of state formation – including the forging of a public sphere – altered, if at all, the relations of rule between men and women in indigenous communities?

Marilyn Lake is Professor of History at La Trobe University and the author of several books on women’s history.

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