Hosts and Guests: Interpreting Rockhole Recovery Trips

By Eve Vincent

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In 2006 a small group of Aboriginal people from Ceduna in Far West South Australia began organising biannual Four Wheel Drive (4WD) tours of their traditional country. These trips take six, sometimes seven days and involve visiting a series of ‘rockholes’, permanent water sources that occur in granite outcrops scattered amongst the mallee scrub. Members of a local, highly politicised Kokatha grouping, whom I call ‘Aunty Joan mob’,1 and interested non-Aboriginal visitors, jointly undertake these trips, which are now known as ‘Rockhole Recovery’.

Rockhole Recovery trips constitute expressive acts on the part of Aunty Joan mob. In this paper I will provide an overarching interpretation of the trips, arguing that Rockhole Recovery—in the vernacular ‘rockhole trips’—is used by Aunty Joan mob to establish themselves as hosts, at home in country that is subject to competing claims, both by a rival native title grouping and by mining companies. Of course being at home and then acting as a host is predicated on the host entering into a relationship with a guest or guests. In this case the guests are grassroots environmental activists mostly based in Adelaide, Melbourne and Sydney. Aunty Joan mob have affectionately termed their guests ‘greenies’.

Aunty Joan mob and greenies draw inspiration from other cases where Aboriginal people opposed to mining or development on their traditional country entered into alliances with environmentalists. Some greenies involved in Rockhole Recovery were involved in the Kupa Piti Kungka Tjuta’s successful campaign against a nuclear waste dump in the South Australian desert (see Brown) while others were involved in the Jabiluka blockade in Kakadu National Park in the late 1990s, where the Mirrar people were successful in halting work on a uranium mine. I was personally involved in both these campaigns, the first much more extensively than the latter.

Many greenies experience a variety of postcolonial anxiety about being the white inheritors of a legacy of dispossession of indigenous people. They consciously posit themselves as guests in order to underline an ideological conviction that Aboriginal people are the original and rightful owners of Australia, and to denaturalise the assumption that they belong to the nation state founded on the Australian continent. Unsurprisingly, they long to be welcomed on to Aboriginal land. While this describes a very general affective and ideological orientation shared by greenies, it represents a specific opportunity for Aunty Joan mob to enjoy recognition as the rightful owners of this particular patch of the country.

It may seem that I take a cynical view of the host/guest relationship, foregrounding what each party gets out of, or takes away from, this arrangement. This is not my intention: I am also vitally interested in what each party gives as part of this process. ‘By giving one is giving oneself’, wrote Mauss (46). ‘And if one gives oneself, it is because one ‘owes’ oneself … to others’ (46). In this case it is greenies that feel that they owe something of their very selves, but both greenies and Aunty Joan mob alike give generously of themselves, in order to establish and maintain a relationship of friendship. I draw from both Mauss and also Ghassan Hage to emphasise mutuality. This particular exchange relationship, however, is animated by a specific set of contradictions, complexities, investments and powerful desires, the examination of which is the object of this paper.

Hage reflected on the host/guest relationship in his analysis of Arab-Australians’ experience of citizenship and belonging. On a very general level Hage is useful for his outline of the ‘element of moral reciprocity’ (6) that exists between host and guest. The guest is someone the host desires to see, someone ‘whose very presence is valued’ (5). In turn, the guest values and recognises the host by the act of coming to stay. The host/guest relationship thus rests on the following formulation: ‘I recognise your worth, you recognise mine’ (6). Hage’s essay was concerned, specifically, with the Arab tradition of hospitality. But his comments about the role of the guest are of relevance to the position greenies seek to occupy. There are two elements of being a guest that I think especially resonate with the experience of greenies. The first is that to be a guest is to have ‘dependent status’ (8). In Hage’s essay this refers to the marginal social position of the migrant but in greenies this takes on quite a different significance. Greenies, generally speaking, are white Australians belonging to social groups legitimised by the hegemonic order. They seek in this moment to invert their status, in relation to Aboriginal people, so that Aboriginal people assume the role of hosts and are thus recognised as belonging more legitimately. The status of a guest, as Hage suggests, denotes ‘a very limited mode of belonging to a place’ (13). Greenies temporarily accept this dependent status, and its limitations, with enthusiasm: in doing so they seek to unsettle white Australians’ assumption of belonging, legitimacy and control. The second aspect of what it means to be regarded as a guest, which is of relevance to my interpretation, is the mutual recognition and moral reciprocity that exists between host and guest. Aunty Joan mob members have witnessed, and many greenies have experienced, that Aboriginal-white activist relationships can be difficult and extremely fraught. Aunty Joan mob have vowed, quite explicitly, to honour their guests and value their presence. This commitment has arisen partly because they perceive that some Aboriginal political leaders dishonour and devalue the white, often young environmental and social justice activists that seek an involvement in Aboriginal political issues. There is, sometimes, an expectation that white people who enter these kinds of political spaces and relationships sublimate their own perspectives and desires to a degree that is demeaning. And so Aunty Joan mob, wishing to avoid reproducing this dynamic, evince ‘a commitment to not reduce them to “nothings”’ (7). Again, I wish to point out that Hage is talking here about how the dependent and exploited maintain a semblance of honour. Greenies are often people who have chosen to forego their own socially privileged position for what they see as honourable ideological/political reasons.

I argue that Rockhole Recovery derives its meaning from processes of intersubjective exchange between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people. This understanding reveals, as numerous scholars have argued before, that Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal domains are either entangled (Merlan; Hinkson and Smith; Ottosson) or, more productively, mutually constituted and interdependent (Povinelli 1993; Lea; Collmann; Redmond).

This article provides an introduction to the phenomenon of Rockhole Recovery. I will present three ethnographic scenes where key conditions of the host/guest relationship are made apparent. The first example outlines the burden of responsibility that the host assumes for the safety and wellbeing of their guest. The second shows how the guest expresses both gratitude and feelings of indebtedness to their host. Finally, the third example shows that the host/guest relationship also entails obligations that cause the guest some discomfort. That is, while greenies are eager to extend their recognition to Aunty Joan mob, as traditional owners of their country, they are frequently disturbed to learn that this involves denying recognition to other Aboriginal people, who claim traditional ownership over the same country. It’s at this point I introduce Bobby, a greenie who clearly relished the interview space as it allowed him to express his doubts about having entered into a relationship with a particular group of Aboriginal people before realising this would circumscribe his relationships with other Aboriginal people in Ceduna.  Through all these examples the Aunty Joan mob-greenie relationship is analysed in terms of the particular possibilities, burdens and emotions that the host-guest relationship generates.

To these three ethnographic scenes, drawn from rockhole trips and interviews with greenies, I add one other: Marcia Langton’s visit to Ceduna. This vignette, which precedes the others, will insure the reader does not mistake the story I am telling for a now familiar one: ‘witness the Aboriginal community of Ceduna fighting the imposition of a mine’. I describe a far more complex battleground than what is allowed by a narrative of this kind, which casts state actors and mining companies as both separate to, and acting against, an Aboriginal grouping that is assumed to hold collective aspirations. But before I do that, some setting of the scene, in terms of the larger theme of mining industry operations in remote Australia, is needed. 

Reinscribing routes: Rockhole Recovery as a response to the threat of mining
Rockhole Recovery takes place in three contiguous conservation parks/regional reserves, which are overlaid with a patchwork of mineral exploration leases: the Yumbarra and Purebra Conservation Parks and the Yellabinna Regional Reserve. Yumbarra was controversially ‘reproclaimed’ in 1999, in order to allow exploration and mining to take place within the park (Ogle 5). Iluka Resources mines and processes the mineral sand zircon at the Jacinth-Ambrosia mine site (‘Eucla Basin, South Australia’) on the far western edge of the Yellabinna Regional Reserve,2 and is one of the largest tenement holders across the area traversed over the course of rockhole trips.3 Jacinth-Ambrosia became operational in early 2010, about a year after I concluded 12 months of fieldwork in Ceduna. I have visited on numerous occasions since returning to the east coast in March 2009, and have crossed paths with a number of friends, black and white, that now form part of Iluka’s ‘fly in, fly out’ workforce at Jacinth-Ambrosia. While I was living in Ceduna, however, the prospect of mining largely remained a vague, shadowy threat from the perspective of Aunty Joan mob. For the many Aboriginal and white residents of Ceduna who hope that mining will secure the region’s economic future, it remained an alluring promise. Many of Ceduna’s 3,500 inhabitants treat the prospect of becoming a mining town as exciting. Others welcome the opportunity for economic development but remain ambivalent about what becoming a mining town might mean for the social life of the town as a whole (see Carrington in this issue).

Rockhole Recovery takes place ‘out bush’ or ‘out the back’—a realm of meaning-generating action that lies to the north of this particular stretch of the electric, dingo-proof ‘dog fence’ that runs through outback South Australia, New South Wales and Queensland (see Holden). The dog fence marks a boundary between domesticated space, devoted largely to wheat cropping, and a vast stretch of semi-arid mallee woodland currently under intensive mineral exploration. Rockhole Recovery participants travel in a slow, snaking 4WD convoy along soft, sandy roads, the conditions of which have greatly improved because of the access exploration parties now enjoy to this remote area. ‘We used to call this killer track!’ Aunty Joan mob members might comment, before jokingly offering thanks to ‘the miners’ for widening roads and clearing overhanging trees for them. But Aunty Joan mob reinscribe these routes for their own purposes: in order to maintain a relationship with country that they wish to see protected from future development.

Rockhole Recovery involves visiting either three or four rockholes over the course of each trip, and the trip routes vary according to which rockholes are deemed a priority to visit. Rockholes are emptied of debris, rotting animals and dirty water and left for the next rain to restore their ecological health. Occasionally, Aunty Joan mob may encounter exploration parties out the back. But even if they do not directly encounter each other, Aunty Joan’s movements are intended to draw people’s attention to her presence, especially the attention of mining company employees. Aunty Joan wants people to know she is ‘sticking up for country’, and believes that as long as she maintains a presence out the back, the country has not been given over to the miners’ ‘open slather’.

Aunty Joan mob hold an absolute position as to the future of their country—they do not want to see any mining proceed out the back, under any conditions. Aunty Joan explains her absolute position in stating, ‘There are rockholes all over the place: special, sacred sites all over the place. You can’t negotiate. The land is the land, and I’ve been saying all along, “the land is not negotiable”’. They extend an invitation to urban-dwelling greenies to participate in Rockhole Recovery as guests in their country, in order to establish and maintain a political support base, which they anticipate drawing upon in the future.

This political support is needed not only to lend weight to the fight against mining interests but also in the context of a bitter conflict, arising out of native title-related processes, as to which local Aboriginal group can legitimately lay claim to this country. The fight against mineral interests represents a coming together of Indigenous and non-Indigenous persons, all of whom share in the belief that conservation of the bush should take precedence over industrial development. But the enjoining of greenies to support Aunty Joan mob’s position within the incredibly complex arena of incommensurate local native title claims is rather more fraught. And, in the case of Rockhole Recovery, they are inextricable. I will return to this point later. For now I want to spell out that it is because of the overtly political content of this relationship, and because greenies’ investments in the relationship are so passionately felt, that when I use the host/guest binary as a vehicle for analysis I mean something quite different than what is meant by the use of the host/guest constellation in the anthropological literature examining tourism.

A seminal collection of studies of the anthropology of tourism was itself called ‘Hosts and Guests’ (Smith 1978). The host/guest schema then may well seem emblematic of the touristic relationship, which involves mobile subjects exiting their daily lives and arriving at a new setting in order to experience and appreciate their culturally distinctive, rooted-in-place, hosts. Certainly all of the above describes the Aunty Joan mob-greenie relationship. I make two points about my decision to differentiate Aunty Joan mob’s efforts from those of a tourist venture. Firstly, Aunty Joan mob are alert to the fact that greenies may be constructing and enjoying them as exotic objects of the tourist gaze, and some members of this family group have distanced themselves from Rockhole Recovery on these grounds. To counter this disturbing possibility, Aunty Joan’s strategy has been to constantly reiterate that she is looking for friends and above all, allies, insisting that while being out on country may have vastly different meanings attached to it for the different parties involved, the undertaking of a trip together should be regarded as a shared experience. Secondly, Aunty Joan mob do sometimes toy with the idea of establishing a small-scale tourist venture, separate from Rockhole Recovery. One of the reasons this idea tends to be raised periodically before being dropped again is a vague awareness that something about the very character of the rockhole trips in their current incarnation would be lost in the process. That is, a tourist outfit would be subject to a number of regulatory measures on the part of the state. Aunty Joan mob are expressing their disillusionment with state processes as they undertake Rockhole Recovery. They have no wish to be accountable to another set of state processes and requirements, however benign seeming.

Getting ready to head ‘out the back’ for a rockhole trip invariably seems to involve an incredible amount of dithering and last minute errand running. Frequently one party or another ‘gets stuck’ doing things in town before being ready to head out bush. And I must admit I’m also going to keep the reader hanging around town a moment longer, before I head out the back. The occasion is Marcia Langton’s public engagement in Ceduna. 

Marcia Langton gets up ‘smart way’
In late February 2009 Marcia Langton visited Ceduna. Langton, a scholar and public figure, is one of Australia’s most high profile Aboriginal intellectuals.4 Alongside Noel Pearson she is associated with forcing a ‘paradigm shift’ at the level of public discourse and policy making (see Rothwell 2008). To summarise crudely, Langton has broken with the Left, and lent weight to the rise of discourses of individual responsibility, economic development and Aboriginal entrepreneurship.  In Ceduna, she was speaking alongside Warren Mundine at an event called ‘The Nungas Talking Forum’. Nungas is widely used as a term of self-identification by Aboriginal people across most of South Australia in the same way that Koori is used in southeastern states.

Walking down Ceduna’s dusty main street a little bit early for the event I found it buzzing with people. A Nunga woman, whom I vaguely recognised, walked in front of me, sucking on ciggies in her Port Lincoln Aboriginal Health Service T-shirt and calling out to people on the other side of the street. Aunty Joan called out ‘Oi’ in response and crossed the road to greet both of us. Someone else walked past, with a black T-shirt neatly tucked into black jeans, and closely cropped silver hair. Aunty Joan asked him if he was coming in to this talk, muttering, ‘They’re going to tell everyone to get jobs in the mines’. He replied, ‘Well that’s it Joany! I’ve been working out west: fly in, fly out. You should see the Nungas working out there in the mines, heaps of Nungas!’ He continued, ‘Then you come back here [to Ceduna], people are on CDEP, haven’t done anything for two weeks, it’s bullshit’. They seemed to me to be talking at cross-purposes but they gripped each other’s hands tight—they were cousins. We continued towards the event venue.

Aunty Joan was wearing a tee-shirt emblazoned with ‘No Uranium, No Weapons, No Waste’. White stickers were available upon entry: these designated space for a name and also bore a ‘from’ field. Aunty Joan wrote her sticker with a flourish and slapped it proudly to her chest. ‘Joan. From: Ceduna’. We headed in and piled our plates high with a ‘free feed’: cakes, sandwiches and fruit.

After giving a formulaic-sounding Welcome to Country (see Kowal), a local man relaxed into a long, rambling account of his ‘hard knock’ life, growing up on Koonibba Mission and working around the district as a shearer (see Brock; Eckermann). He told the ‘young kids’ present that they have ‘heaps of opportunities’ that he didn’t have. I found the historical detail fascinating, but behind him a young Nunga woman who worked at Centrelink and was a co-organiser of the event paced impatiently. Then, a Yalata fella, from the remote community 200 kilometres west of Ceduna, also gave a Welcome To Country. At least I assumed he did—he spoke briefly and quietly in Pitjanjatjara and didn’t preface his Welcome or translate it, and no one else did either.

Then Marcia Langton took the microphone. She told us she had spent years advising mining companies about how to employ Aboriginal staff and how to keep them. Aboriginal people, she argued, are a permanent part of remote, isolated populations and they become long term, permanent staff at mines providing they are appropriately trained and enjoy their work. Langton stated that things can change very quickly at the local community level—home ownership and car ownership rates go up, health outcomes and school attendance improves, domestic violence rates go down. Her central focus was on prejudicial attitudes within the mining workforce, stressing that these need to be shifted:

I run cross-cultural training. Not of the usual kind— ‘Aboriginal people are the original custodians, they’ve been here for 40,000 years …’ or whatever. I get down and dirty, I ask the difficult questions, get behind the fears, work through the problem.

There were no questions for Langton. The event organisers referred to Langton as ‘the professor’ throughout proceedings; even Aunty Joan, who is rarely over-awed, seemed subdued in her powerful presence.

It was while Warren Mundine spoke that an older man from Yalata fell fast asleep. He snored gently at first and then, sitting bolt upright in his chair with his bare feet planted on the floor, threw his head back, at a right angle to his neck, with his mouth wide open and his chin, slack, falling towards his chest. He snored so loudly that it became increasingly difficult to concentrate on anything else, and soon the whole audience was suppressing laughter and had turned the angle of their bodies and their attention to the snoring man and the organisers’ dilemma. Eventually, the organisers woke him up and escorted him out.

Mundine finished and again there were no questions. Marcia Langton stood up and said she would ask something that she ‘bet lots of people want to ask’. She paused before wondering, ‘If I get a job, will I lose my culture?’ The atmosphere shifted, perceptibly. The room fell quiet. People were listening, intently. Langton was commanding. She went further, suggesting that ‘these sorts of forums’ were generally geared towards avoiding questions of this kind. The organising group, particularly, seemed alert and energised. They stopped eating and left their pens idle, leant forward in their chairs, focussing on the speech. Langton said her answer to this question would be, ‘Maintaining your culture, maintaining who you are, that’s up to you to do. Having a job doesn’t take your culture away’.

Aunty Joan had had enough: she filled her bag with free Centrelink biros and Abstudy notepads, swiping them dramatically and deliberately. Soon after this, the afternoon wrapped up and I turned to Aunty Joan’s daughter and asked what she thought of Langton. She told me, ‘Oh, she was alright, but she was too easy-going. … I would be like, “You HAVE to get a job!”’ I burst out laughing, and told her this was the first time I’d heard Marcia Langton described as ‘easy-going’.

I left in a hurry. Aunty Joan had taken one of her sons, Freddy, with her. Her car needed a piece of wire manually connected between the starter motor and battery before she could get it going. Then she couldn’t turn the engine off after it was running. Freddy had cruised with her to the post office but they were coming back and I was to give him a lift home, as he lived just near me and had temporarily lost his licence because of unpaid fines. Freddy is probably Aunty Joan’s closest political ally, and fiercely anti-mining. But when he climbed out of her car and into my 4WD he seemed unaffected by the afternoon’s proceedings, casually checking with me to see if I had helped myself to the free notepads and pens.

On the phone the next day, though, Aunty Joan was agitated. ‘You know what I wish I’d said’, she told me, ‘when she [Langton] got up smart way and said that about culture? I should have said, “Working in a mine would mean the death of everything I believe in”’. 

Lived complexities
I’ve taken up quite a bit of space with this story, but I couldn’t bring myself to cut any of these characters out. To do so would involve employing a representational sleight of hand and make me complicit in ‘refus[ing] the complexity of the actual life-worlds in which indigenous people live’ (Povinelli, ‘Finding Bwudjut’157). The point I’m making is that Aboriginal scenes are complex and highly differentiated and that the conceptual categories available for me to use, categories that suggest ‘communities’ hold collective aspirations, are inadequate to the circumstances I describe. Frances Peters-Little has provided a critique of the concept of community, and how it was operationalised during the self-determination policy era. She describes that in conducting the research for her paper, her commitment was to ‘interview people as individuals with individual voices and not as community representatives’ (2). Peters-Little writes, ‘Aboriginal people are individuals and need to be respected as such and not [be] pressured into thinking that they speak on behalf of a race, community, organisation or doctrine, which I usually find is a relief for many (5, my emphasis). In a similar vein and of immediate relevance to the mining and tourism themes of this issue, Sarah Holcombe outlines a range of responses to mining in the Pilbara on the part of local Indigenous people:

the proactively political, the reactive in taking up work opportunities in the industry or engagement with the plethora of associated agreement committees, the disengaged/disenfranchised or simply disinterested and, of course, many who move between these responses and choices. (84)

The more significant point, though, is not just that Aboriginal people approach the question of mining in a range of ways but that Aboriginal people approach the question of what it means to be Aboriginal in a range of ways (see also Dombrowski). Aunty Joan and her cousin who had returned from the mines out west disagreed on the level of ideology, but gripped hands tight when they met in the street, stressing their abiding relatedness. A man from Yalata performed a ‘welcome to country’ in Pitjanjatjara, a language that most of the Nungas at the event do not speak (and, to clarify, their antecedents did not speak Pitjanjatjara either, these are ‘different mobs’). No process of translation took place after he spoke, his words were simply allowed to make more sense to some of us in the room than they did to others.

And where Marcia Langton sees the possibility for a better Aboriginal future, Aunty Joan sees only the portents of an end: of a way of being that ties being Aboriginal with a responsibility to take care of country. Mining itself, she has said on other occasions, would mean the death of everything she believes in.

Let us keep these ‘lived complexities’ in mind while I narrow my focus and turn to Aunty Joan and Rockhole Recovery, which is largely her initiative. Rockhole Recovery involves an expression and an elaboration of a particular interpretation of what it means to be Aboriginal, one which greenies are very receptive to.


Aunty Joan and a ‘total sense of danger’: the host protects their guest
Aunty Joan, we have seen, sometimes travels in a car started with the aid of a piece of wire. She collects discarded beer cans and soft-drink bottles in order to cash them in for 10 cents each, as part of the South Australian container deposit scheme, using the proceeds to buy a tank of fuel, and fund her trips out bush. She is resourceful, warm, and a self-styled charismatic rebel.

I interviewed one greenie, Clare, who went along on the very first rockhole trip in March 2006. Clare said, of her first meeting with Aunty Joan, ‘She was a crack up. Within five minutes of meeting her … she was like, “Do you want to see the wombats?”’ Aunty Joan opened the boot of her car to reveal two stiff, dead wombats. These were later cooked and eaten. Clare continued, ‘She’s very easy to like, incredibly open to engaging with people from different backgrounds’.

I well remember meeting Aunty Joan for the first time. In late 2006 I visited Ceduna because a good friend of mine, a white environmental and Aboriginal rights activist whom I knew from Melbourne and whose social-cultural-political milieu I shared, was living in a cute aqua caravan on the wheat farm Aunty Joan owns with her husband, a whitefella and retired farmer. Aunty Joan and my friend came into town to show me the way out to the farm; Aunty Joan jumped out of the car, slung an arm around my shoulder, and gave me a squeeze. ‘Welcome to our country’, she said. It felt wonderful to be welcome. I was seen in Ceduna as a greenie and, more or less, see myself as one. I lived in Ceduna from March 2008 to April 2009 and became involved in helping organise Rockhole Recovery over this time. I approached my research topic ‘not as an insider or outsider but from the outset as a hybrid’ (Lea, ‘Between the Pen and the Paperwork’ viii).

The first rockhole trip, according to Clare, was ‘pretty intense’. Clare told me: ‘Aunty [Joan] was really stressed-out. It was just her and ten greenies. … There was this total sense of danger the whole time—we were freaked out about scorpions and snakes and wild dogs’. On this particular trip, the group visited the most spiritually potent of the rockholes, which are all interlinked, mythical sites. This was a women’s site and it was also the furthest site from town. Clare continued:

It was all just really charged … ’cause we knew we were at this most sacred of all the sites and it was clearly a really significant place. … Aunty Joan found fresh camel tracks of what looked like a really big young male camel who was tracking a female with a baby. So she was like, ‘He’ll be totally aggressive. These camels can kill you, they’ll attack you’. So we had to park the cars in a circle all around the fire and all sleep within this circle of cars. She was like, ‘Everyone be on the lookout all the time’. … People stayed up, on watch, all night. It was full-on.

Aunty Joan’s vigilance illustrates a central dynamic of the host/guest relationship: Aunty Joan is burdened with the responsibility for looking after the greenies; they are her guests. Clare said this was evident at the time: ‘I think she was extra stressed-out ’cause it was just her having responsibility for all of us, who were clueless out there’.

While threats to greenies’ safety ostensibly take the form of aggressive camels, wild dogs, snakes and scorpions, greenies are particularly vulnerable figures because they are strangers in a country that is inhabited by powerful forces and beings. Greenies, thus, are doubly ‘clueless’, new to a tough, semi-arid physical environment that is certainly remote and extreme but also unaware of what it is they are dealing with. Greenies are receptive to, and affirm, Aunty Joan mob’s stated affinity with the bush, but are often unsettled to find this can involve holding the bush at a respectful and fearful distance. Aunty Joan is, in effect, the guardian of a group of innocents while travelling out the back.

The tenor of Rockhole Recovery has changed a lot since the chaotic scene described above took place. While I have seen Aunty Joan ‘stressed out’, she has relaxed into her role as host over the years. Rockhole Recovery has become a well-oiled machine: itineraries are decided well in advance; menu planning and bulk food buying takes considerable organisation; a roster of logistical tasks involved in running the camp kitchen is drawn up, printed out and circulated and greenies sign on for jobs each day; greenies enthusiastically throw themselves into other jobs such as driving around the scrub piling loads of firewood on to the bull-bars of 4WDs, as well as pitching tents and the like when setting up and breaking camp. Rockhole trips are now much better resourced, due to a series of volunteer grants, with which swags and tents and a trailer have been purchased, and, more recently, the highly circumscribed involvement of the region’s Natural Resource Management Board.

In 2006 rockholes were cleaned out using buckets and shovels. On one occasion this involved scraping out the remains of a partially decomposed camel carcass—greenies donning rubber gloves and tying ripped, cotton scarves around their faces to quell the stench. Nowadays a simple, petrol-fuelled pump is at least used to initially empty a rockhole of putrid green water, before bucketing out the remaining sludge. The use of simple, inexpensive and improvised means, and the relishing of dirty, earthy work speak to what we might call the ‘ethos’ of Rockhole Recovery. It’s this ethos, or this spirit, that Aunty Joan mob fear might be lost if the do-it-yourself (‘D.I.Y.’) style of Rockhole Recovery was converted, for the tourist market, into something more comfortable and cleaner.

My next example involves a different kind of task altogether, but one that conforms to the characterisation above and that I found immensely pleasurable and satisfying, as did many of the greenies I talked to. 

With brooms, shovels and a broken bucket: guests thank their host
Aunty Joan mob frequently express their disillusionment with native title, and say they have ‘turned the backs’ on the whole process. There is no right of veto, in terms of mining, within native title (Ritter 32). In Ceduna, Aboriginal people involved with native title state that rockholes are not threatened by exploration out the back because mining companies are required to give each rockhole a 200 metre buffer. Given my association with a group of Aboriginal people who seek to create something outside of, and beyond, processes prescribed by native title, I am not privy to any future act agreements, but this ‘200 metre buffer’ explanation circulates readily in town. Aunty Joan mob respond to this by pointing out that the outer edge of each rockhole is difficult to determine, as sand has blown across these sites over the years. Indeed, some rockholes that exist in older people’s memories can no longer be found at all, a detail that symbolises a far less specific condition: the country that sustained and was sustained by ‘the old ways’ is still there; it lies submerged rather than lost.

In September 2008 Aunty Joan decided to rehabilitate a partly submerged rockhole, partly for its own sake but also to illustrate the point, both empirical and symbolic, made above. She set our group the task of uncovering the edges of a small, partially submerged rockhole. This particular Rockhole Recovery was unusually large. The trip coincided with school holidays and was funded by a grant scheme dedicated to keeping Indigenous culture ‘strong’. While unease was expressed about accepting funding from ‘government’, it made it possible for poorer family members to participate in a rockhole trip. Aunty Joan mob outnumbered greenies and our 13-car convoy carried around 60 people in total, about 40 members of Aunty Joan mob, including kids, and 20 greenies. While the travelling was slow, and setting up and breaking camp was logistically difficult, all the greenies I spoke to expressed their enthusiasm for the fact that they could see a process of cultural transmission taking place: this trip, they perceived, seemed to be ‘about the kids’ and ‘not about us’.

There was no shortage of work to do. With brooms, trowels, shovels and even the jagged plastic remains of a broken bucket, people scraped away layers of fine, red-brown dirt. Heavy mounds accumulated on tarps, which were spread out at the rockhole’s edge. A team of four men repeatedly carried a side of the heavy tarp each, dumped the dirt into a ute before a load of dirt was driven a short distance from the site.

Two long afternoons and then a full day, from sun up to sun down, were spent digging out the rockhole, gradually seeing a shallow pool emerge and the rock-face spread and take form.

The interesting point for this article is the immense satisfaction greenies expressed at being involved in this process, which was considerably more labour-intensive than other experiences of rockhole cleaning. I’m alert to one possible interpretation of this scene: that white people, who feel bad about being white, quite like being put to work by Aboriginal people. However, for now, I turn again to Mauss, and attribute this satisfaction largely to greenies’ desires to express their gratitude to their hosts, and to exchange something—indeed, something of themselves—in return for Aunty Joan mob’s warm hospitality. Aunty Joan mob have given greenies an experience of being invited on to and welcomed on to Aboriginal land. The giving of this gift produces, as Mauss has outlined, an obligation to reciprocate. And they do so through their labour. In understanding more about the precise form the greenies’ gift takes, Allen Feldman’s insight that symbol and action are neither opposed to each other, nor complement each other, is crucial here. To symbolise is to act politically, states Feldman (165). And, it’s to assist in their efforts to act politically that Aunty Joan mob have forged relationships with greenies. From the perspective of the greenies/guests, digging out this rockhole was particularly gratifying because they were able to reciprocate by way of physical activity, which, as I’ve argued, was in this instance a form of symbolic activity. Greenies rightly sensed that this gift was far more meaningful in an economy based on the exchange of expressive actions and affects than anything they could put into words.

Othering other Aboriginal people
So far, Hage’s model of a host-guest relationship based on mutual regard and moral reciprocity seems to hold. However, I want to close by shifting my attention to the fact that the host is in a position to expect their guest to observe the practices of the host while the guest remains a visitor in their home. Certainly greenies expect to be asked to behave in ‘culturally appropriate’ and respectful ways; their over-determined understanding of what that involves is not something I have space to discuss here. More surprising to some greenies is their perception that an unspoken condition of the contact and certainly the closeness they enjoy with Aunty Joan mob is that it precludes contact/closeness with other Nungas in Ceduna. As guests and political allies, greenies expect to be enjoined to Aunty Joan mob’s struggle. As I have previously indicated, this struggle is as much between Aboriginal people as it is between an Aboriginal group and a mining company. The relationship between Aunty Joan mob and greenies is, then, itself more complex and unstable than might at first appear, however much both parties stress mutuality. It is to these instabilities I now turn.

Romanticising the authentic Aboriginal way of being has received considerable critical attention in Australian scholarship (see, for example, Grossman and Cuthbert). Its necessary corollary—objectifying the inauthentic Aboriginal way of being—has received minimal attention. In the first case, environmentalists and spiritualists are understood to assign certain qualities to Aboriginality, and have been criticised for projecting, appropriating and evading engagement with actual Aboriginal people and circumstances. In the case I describe below the object of such projections, from a distance, are Aboriginal people who eschew environmentalism: Aboriginal people described by Aunty Joan mob as ‘pro-mining’ or simply ‘native title people’.

I should qualify my comments about this predicament by saying firstly that this dilemma only affects a small group of greenies who have spent enough time with Aunty Joan mob and in Ceduna to get a sense of the broader picture and conflict surrounding Rockhole Recovery. This conflict centres around which ‘tribal’ group of people are the traditional owners of the region. Also, it might be that their perception that they are obliged to take Aunty Joan mob’s enemies as their own is exaggerated: I found that when I started to associate with a range of Nungas and also whitefellas while I was living in Ceduna it neither bothered nor interested Aunty Joan mob, as long as I steered clear of a handful of their most ardent enemies. Indeed the kids on either ‘side’ of the mining and native title conflicts that continue to reshape the local social body are still at school with each other, teenagers turn up at the same parties, and some level of contact between the adults, in various settings, is unavoidable.

Some greenies, however, experience this dilemma acutely. I interviewed Bobby, who spent six months in Ceduna after he left Melbourne ‘to get out of the city’ and before he decided where to go next. He was very unsettled by the perception that in order to achieve the desired level of closeness with Aunty Joan mob some greenies seemed willing, even eager, to keep at a distance and objectify, in discourse, other Aboriginal people in Ceduna.

Bobby expressed deep cynicism about greenies’ willingness to treat Aunty Joan mob’s enemies ‘like these mysterious other Aboriginal people’, about whom they showed little curiosity, despite their putative interest in all things Aboriginal. Bobby greatly valued his own connection with Aunty Joan mob, enthusing to me that he ‘really, really fucking liked them’ but became quickly immersed in Ceduna town life, and was vitally interested in the contradiction between what he had previously believed about these ‘other Aboriginal people’ and what he experienced when he got to know some of them. Bobby was affronted by greenies’ apparent disinterest in these other Aboriginal people. He told me:

[Greenies] didn’t know them, didn’t have anything to do with them. But there was all this stuff about ‘they were this’ and ‘they were that’. … They never meet any other Aboriginal people! It’s almost like it doesn’t matter to them. … Anyway, I was meeting these people as soon as I got here, and I was like, fuck! They were really interesting, inspired people who were just as charismatic [as Aunty Joan mob]. … They struck me all the same way as the mob we know struck me. You know: interesting and lively and charismatic and engaged and benevolent and radical. They struck me in all the same ways. The language they used was the fucking same, ‘We’re fighting for our people’. … [T]his one [Nunga] I became close to talked about how she was always ‘fighting for her people’ but she worked in child protection. She considered that to be fighting for her people. Being ‘big, strong community people’ … that was fighting for their people, which is effectively the same as Aunty [Joan] you know.

Furthermore, these ‘other’ Aboriginal people in town talked about their enthusiasm for mining in similar terms, perceiving that it involves them ‘fighting for’ an Aboriginal economic future.

What is interesting about Bobby’s dilemma is that his perception that the host-guest relationship entailed more discomforting obligations did little to alienate him from Aunty Joan mob. Rather, it alienated him from other greenies, and he criticised them harshly for their slavish adoption of Aunty Joan mob’s perspective. For Bobby, then, this move diminished the basis of the relationship in mutual regard. If the host-guest schema expresses ‘I recognise your worth, you recognise mine’, Bobby insisted that this must rest on a sense of self-worth. ‘Worth’ then could not be reduced to instrumental terms; recognition entailed an apprehension of the other’s integrity. ‘If you want to be honoured, honour yourself’, Hage reminds us (13).

Marcia Langton has famously argued that ‘Australians do not know and relate to Aboriginal people’ (33). Instead, Langton says, non-Aboriginal people know about Aboriginality through the symbols ‘created by their predecessors’ and the images that circulate in popular and media culture (33). The greenies at the centre of this story can be seen to share a dissatisfaction with knowing only of Aboriginal circumstances through the symbols, images, statistics and ‘modes of talking about Aborigines’ (Muecke 17) that circulate in popular and media culture, as well as in leftist political subcultures. Greenies, then, rightly perceive that what Aunty Joan mob are seeking to do is to establish a relationship, and in their enthusiasm readily agree to the terms of this relationship.

In this article I have provided an analysis of the underlying structure, terms and emotional content of this relationship. I do not offer here an exhaustive account of what Rockhole Recovery means, or what the Aunty Joan mob-greenie relationship means. The host/guest schema is used as a way to shed light on certain aspects of this relationship, and examine some of the meanings attached to, and drawn from, this relationship, both by Aunty Joan mob and by greenies.

Firstly, I showed that Aunty Joan’s vigilance when travelling out the back with greenies illustrates the fact that Aunty Joan is burdened with the responsibility for looking after the greenies: they are her guests. Greenies are strangers in a country that is inhabited by powerful forces and beings. Aunty Joan mob are at home in their country, but understanding its sentience makes them less, rather than more, at ease in their role as hosts. Secondly, I showed greenies reciprocating this gift of a welcome. This involved greenies working with their bodies and simple, even improvised tools: scruffy brooms, garden trowels, shovels and the jagged plastic remains of a broken bucket. This example speaks both to the fact of a gift-exchange taking place, and to the D.I.Y.-feel of Rockhole Recovery. Lastly, I introduced Bobby, a greenie whose expressed misgivings about the terms of the Aunty Joan mob-greenie relationship complicate the picture of mutual regard I had sketched up until this point.

All of this action—action, which, following Feldman, I see as simultaneously expressive, symbolic and political—takes place in an incredibly complex and fractured local setting. Long-lasting conflicts arising out of native title claims and mining interest in this country have produced difficult-to-grasp schisms and shifting alliances. Yet Aunty Joan, at least, remains fiercely loyal to ‘her greenies’.


1 Pseudonyms are used throughout this article.

2 Regional Reserves were a new category of reserve designated in 1987 for the specific purpose of pursuing conservation objectives while at the same time permitting the ‘utilisation of natural resources’ (Cohen).

3 Two geological provinces meet in this region: the Gawler Craton, which underlies the greater part of South Australia, and the Eucla Basin, which extends from the western Eyre Peninsula into Western Australia. The Gawler Craton is prospective for uranium, gold and copper deposits, among other minerals, and the Eucla Basin is prospective for heavy mineral sands, among other minerals. The enormous Olympic Dam uranium and copper mine, near Roxby Downs, is part of the Gawler Craton. The heavy mineral sands mine at Jacinth-Ambrosia is in the Eucla Basin. See the South Australian government’s PACE (Plan for Accelerating Exploration) website for further details.

4 Langton’s oeuvre is not easy to categorise. Within this article I am most interested in her recent argument that the mining boom offers unprecedented economic opportunities for Aboriginal people. This is the subject of her 2012 Boyer lectures, which were underway at the time of writing. Langton was also an early and very influential critic of white environmentalism, arguing that the notion of wilderness imagines Aboriginal people ‘out of existence’ (20).

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