Comment

A Question of Respect

13 September 2017

Upon entry to the Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park, staff hand each visitor a small, double sided piece of paper. It contains a very simple map and directions, the sort of information necessary to the safe operation of one of Australia’s busiest national parks. On the back of this instructional leaflet are the words “Please don’t climb Uluru”.

It’s late in the day, and even though it’s July, it is seriously hot in the afternoon sun. A man, grey-haired, elderly, has just descended from the face of Uluru. A woman – his wife? –  runs up to meet him, kisses him. She forces him back up the rock several metres, makes him pose, takes photos. She puts her hand on her chest as if she had been holding her breath. But now they’re standing together and, almost nervously, they begin to laugh.

He tells me they’re from NSW and doing “the big trip”. I take this to involve some sort of caravan. He must be seventy, or around that, and friendly, speaking with a broad Australian accent.

I ask him what made him want to climb the rock and he explains that he had already done it 40 years ago, nodding sincerely as if that was a coherent justification. “Much harder this time around!” He chuckles, still breathing heavily, and I don’t doubt him for a second. His wife shrugs, smiling. Was she was waiting here for him this whole time, fretting, in the afternoon sun?

Has he seen the sign? He nods. “I just think it’s great it’s there, that’s all.” It’s deliberately vague what he is referring to. He motions towards his wife –  time to leave – and heads towards the carpark. His replies are characterised by a certain feigned friendliness, very happy to chat but very unwilling to engage. Perhaps it’s simply too difficult, too annoying, to let my questioning interfere with his holiday.

His friendliness is also, I suspect, conditional. I’m white. This privilege means it’s very easy for me to approach strangers with a small smile and my Australian accent. It also means we are equals in our complicity. I too am a settler/invader, occupying Aboriginal land when I know sovereignty was never ceded.

***

I retreat into the shade, straining my eyes for any other silhouettes crawling down the face of the rock. Nearby two lanky teenagers from Switzerland are, like me, scuffling around in the sand somewhat awkwardly. They seem to be watching the climbers intently, and I wonder if they were preparing for the ascent. “We are just waiting for our parents,” they explain in perfect English. “The Aboriginal people don’t like people to climb. So we won’t.”

The teenagers are right. Uluru and its sister formation Kata Tjuta are the lands of the Anangu people. The ‘climb’ is the traditional route taken by the ancestral Mala (hare-wallaby men) on their arrival at Uluru, and as such is a site of great spiritual and cultural significance. Under Anangu traditional law (Tjukurpa), climbing is not permitted.

While the land was formally recognised and handed back to its Anangu owners through native title in October of 1985, it was immediately leased back to the Australian Parks and Wildlife service for 99 years. The fact that climbing continues in a direct violation of Anangu wishes speaks to the severe limitations of native title rights and the grossly unequal circumstances upon which the 99 year lease was negotiated (access to the climb was one of the conditions before the title was returned).

But what is perhaps even more complicated and more important to understand is, why do people still want to climb? The message is absolutely clear. The sign at the base of Uluru reads: ‘Please don’t climb’ printed four times in English, then repeated in twelve different languages. So why climb?

***

A woman from Perth in her mid-30s looks up, admiring the rock. She’s with a group of friends, and they’re all on bikes, stopped at the base of the climb. I start chatting to all of them but she’s the only one that responds to my questions. Her friends just watch. It’s a little odd.

I asked if she was going to attempt the climb, or perhaps she already had.

“Two years ago actually. But I didn’t do the whole thing”. She went on to explain that she climbed to the first marker and felt it would be wrong to continue any further.

“It depends on your beliefs. Because some people really do feel its disrespectful.” She had read the sign.

This time she was traveling with a different couple who were yet to scale the rock. Would she would do it again? “Maybe,” she said, pausing, thoughtfully. “But not past that first marker. That’s enough for me”.

It seems a strange thing to do, to invent a false benchmark to create an illusion of meaningful behaviour. But these sorts of fantasies are actually very common. They are self-serving to non-Indigenous interests, especially in their capacity to alleviate invader/settler guilt, a way that white and non-Indigenous Australians like me, trick ourselves into believing that we are thoughtful, or respectful or, most of all, that we are ‘not racist’.

For instance, for me, as a white Australian, visiting and occupying Aboriginal land: what gives me the right to write about issues of the Anangu people? Isn’t it a perpetuation of my colonial privileges? Am I writing this to alleviate my own sense of white guilt? These people at the bottom of Uluru, waiting to climb, are not strangers. It’s easy to pretend I am not like them, but that’s not the point. Non-Indigenous Australians need to ask difficult questions of ourselves, especially when that makes us uncomfortable. We always need to try – and we will sometimes fail – to acknowledge that we are complicit, that we are always part of the problem. And it is important that this role of self-critical labour doesn’t fall upon Aboriginal people as it has for so long.

The last people I approach are a family, a husband and wife and three small children. They are just finishing the climb. The Dad has a broad brimmed hat, ropes, water: the type of person who has reapplied sunscreen per packet instructions. He looks totally goofy, but well-prepared. He came here to climb.

So, why climb? “Well we are Christian. Captain Cook – was it Captain Cook? – proclaimed this is the Great Southern land of the Holy Spirit. Jesus Christ is our rock. To us, we couldn’t think of anything greater, than to come here, and to climb this rock.”

Had he read the sign?

“To them, it might be disrespectful. But to us, it’s not our belief.”

It is remarkable the confidence he had in his own faith, so much to literally trample upon the ‘church’ of another. Not knowing what to say, I turn to one of his daughters, an adoring blonde no older than seven, and ask her if she is having a fun time away.

“We are going on a four-to-six week holiday! And we have now climbed the rock!”. “Ooooh” I mused. “Lucky! Long holiday. Bet you get to miss school!” She smiled, then spoke proudly “We are home-schooled!”

The most recent Park Management plan noted that a high percentage of those who chose to climb are children. Not only is this problematic in terms of risk management, it is so sad. These are children who have had the privilege and the opportunity to come to such a wonderful place, but whose parents or carers haven’t been able to teach them about the importance of respecting Anangu culture.

***

It’s worth questioning the value publishing opinions that are harmful, especially in current times, where Parliament is already doing such a fine job of providing a platform for hatred and bigotry. So I write this with caution.

However, for those of us like me, insulated safely in our middle class, left-leaning communities, this is yet another reminder: there is a whole country out there which has not progressed how we like to imagine it has. This is an issue that was already contentious in the ’80s. How dare white Australia claim to have made progress?

More importantly, the strategies those at the base of Uluru used to justify their behaviour are equally prevalent in ‘liberal’ communities. It is important to acknowledge and understand these practices so when we see them in ourselves and around us, we can stop them.

For instance, framing engagement with Aboriginal issues as a ‘choice’ from which individuals can ‘opt-out’, like the Christian family from Mount Gambier, happens all around us, even in white progressive circles. Many ‘opt-out’ from complex issues concerning Aboriginal rights because they “don’t know enough about it”. When this is happening in communities with the resources and privileges to self-educate (though of course not all have such resources), it is just as unacceptable as those that disengage at the base of the rock.

The issue of climbing Uluru extends far beyond the boundaries of the National Park – it’s a mentality. It creeps in all corners of Australia, present in the broader social and political attitudes that constrain, frame and control the lives of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. The first step is not teaching people and children not to climb Uluru. The first step is understanding how harmful attitudes persist in ourselves and in our communities, and acknowledging that they perpetuate and exacerbate the violence of the colonial state. Only then can white Australians begin the very basic process of enacting respect, whether in our everyday lives, or at the base of one of Australia’s many sacred sites.