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Politics Foreign Affairs Culture Fellows Program

Aboriginal Vengeance

One indigenous artist is seeking revenge in a particularly backward way.

Australians Observe Australia Day Holiday
(Photo by Tamati Smith/Getty Images)

The year was 1815. Anthropologist Ted Strehlow records that Kalejika, a middle-aged aborigine from a South Arandan band, had just trekked north to send word of scandal to the Upper Southern Arandans. In the riverside community of Irbmangkara, Kalejika claimed a respected elder named Ltjabakuka had given blood, drawn from the arms of venerable elders, to a group of uninitiated boys for drink.

The blood was reserved for initiates. To distribute it to the boys was, in Strehlow's imperfect analogy, akin to "a priest who had poured consecrated communion wine from a chalice into the drinking mugs of children attending a carefree birthday party."

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Sacrilege in Aranda was punishable by death. And if Ltjabakuka had been a child, Strehlow notes, executing him would have been easy enough. But Ltjabakuka was a chief, and according to custom, chiefs could only be slain by men whose area totems had mythical connections to the region of the offender.

Groups along the Aranda were reluctant to execute the attack, as many of their kinsfolk lived in Irbmangkara. A band of marauders nearly one hundred miles away in the region of Matuntara, however, were all too eager to mete out justice against the waterfront's sacrilegious chief.

The Matuntaran chief Tjinawariti joined forces with a handful of men from Upper Southern Aranda willing to break rank and attack Irbmangkara. The group of fifty or sixty split into teams, with some hiding in bushes, others beneath riverbeds, and a few away on nearby hillsides. By the time the men and women of Irbmangkara had returned from their daily labors, they were surreptitiously surrounded by the Matuntaran band and Arandan interlopers.

As the sun set behind the trees, the ad hoc army crept toward the encamped Irbmangkarans with what Strehlow called "the relentless and uncanny skill of hunters used to stalking suspicious game animals." On signal, the men dashed at the Irbmangkarans, hurling spears and boomerangs. Ltjabakuka, the supposed desecrator, had been killed. So were his men. The band of invaders turned to the women and older children "and either clubbed or speared them to death." They took the infants one by one and broke their limbs, leaving the whimpering babes to die of exposure. The band concluded by shoving spears through the women and children they had clubbed to assure their demise.

Strehlow estimates the death toll may have reached 100 men, women, and children. The only survivors were a mother and her child, whom the mother hid under her blood-soaked and mangled body.

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Nathan Maynard is looking for a corpse. Specifically, the artist wants the corpse of a Brit-descended Aussie, to stage in his latest display in the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery. The posed corpse, he said, will be a "sacrifice for past sins perpetrated against the palawa" people.

Sins, no doubt, have been committed against Tasmanian aborigines. In the early nineteenth century, British voyagers traded seal carcasses and dogs for the region's indigenous women. Upwards of nine hundred Tasmanians were killed in a bloody, decade-long war with British colonists. Indigenous peoples' remains have been put on display in museums around the Australian continent without the consent of the deceased or their descendants.

Reports from ABC Australia indicate the exhibit, about which Maynard has provided little detail, will "draw comparisons between the historic theft of Aboriginal remains...and the voluntary donation of white Australian remains." Donating their corpses is a way, Maynard said, for white Australians to "literally, physically put [something] on the line for First Nations people."

It is not clear what entitles Maynard to ask. As a matter of justice, the descendants of British colonists should not put their earthly remains "on the line" for the descendants of those with grievances, real or imagined, against British settlers who lived hundreds of years ago. If, as ABC reports, Australian museums have not returned indigenous remains, the correct thing to do is to return those remains, not take a fresh set to level the score.

But, of course, revenge is the point. The purpose of Maynard's project is to totally humiliate the deceased, who will be paraded around as totems of their ancestor's sins and used to avenge the fates of other corpses so desecrated. The body he asks them to put "on the line" will not be revered, but demeaned in a vulgar attempt to settle scores of contests long ago decided.

Maynard defined his project as a challenge to the Australian liberals, who, he said, start meetings "with 'always was, always will be Aboriginal land, sovereignty never ceded,'" but never put their proverbial money where their mouths are. Here, he has a point: If the liberals of Australia really think they are living on "Aboriginal land," it's not too much to insist that they act like it. Maybe they should sell their homes and give the proceeds to a tribe. Maybe they could withdraw their children from private schools so indigenous children can take their places. Maybe they could even give up their earthly remains to an artist to atone for their ancestors' depravity.

Or, they can give up the charade. Peoples invade and are invaded. They perpetrate and are victims of atrocities. The violence committed by white Australians' ancestors was committed in miniature among the tribes and peoples of the continent long before the British arrived. The Matuntarans killed and maimed the Irbmangkarans, the Udebatarans by Plenty River were slaughtered by their rivals, and a general sense of terror in precolonial Australia was "instilled," said Strehlow's wife, "from earliest childhood and continued unabated through life until the extremity of old age."

If the descendants of those two lonely survivors of Irbmangkara don't have a claim on the descendants of the Matuntaran invaders, Nathan Maynard certainly has no right to desecrate your earthly remains.