Wednesday, September 14, 2016

What's your opinion on cultural appropriation of Australian indigenous culture?

This is an editorial opinion piece written without malice, inviting responses to broaden the view of the writer.

There has been talk in Australia in recent years about the cultural appropriation of indigenous spirituality and stories by white folks. This is seen by some as an unacceptable practice. In the book publishing industry, of which I am involved as a self-publishing service provider and an author, it is well-known that schools and libraries are more likely to utilise Aboriginal-themed fiction if it is written by an Aborigine.

After all, there's plenty of other cultural themes for white folks to draw upon, and there's multitudes more white writers than those of Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander descent. The thinking is that the voices of the white writers are so loud and so plentiful they dilute and distract from the voices that may be more true to the culture they're writing about. So non-indigenous people should keep their noses out of indigenous people's culture, not try to make money out of it and not sully the precious and perhaps dying art of dreamtime storytelling with their often-misconceived ideas.

I've read the indigenous side of the debate (here for example: http://www.sbs.com.au/nitv/nitv-news/article/2016/01/07/they-love-our-culture-they-dont-love-us-blogger-who-forced-walkabout-dance-party) but I also have authors at Australian eBook Publisher whose books are affected by this issue. For example, Angie Caterson is a white Australian who grew up in outback Queensland and her culture is what you might describe as a hybrid of white/black and outback-indigenous and so she has written a series of books reflecting that.

You can have a look at Angie Caterson's "Spirits of Australia" series at http://www.australianebookpublisher.com.au/publishing/spirits-of-australia-series/ and decide for yourself if what she has done is cultural appropriation.

Caterson knows indigenous Australians, but she did not specifically co-create her books with one of them. Is Caterson's right to express the culture SHE grew up in less important just because she is white?

She is not out to gain from aboriginal culture—actually she has outlayed more money than most to self-publish her books in full colour, so that they are fun and easy-to-read for kids aged 6-9. She does not have the endorsement of an Aboriginal person to have permitted and verified the use of certain aspects of Aboriginal culture that appear in her chapter books.


Caterson simply had some stories inside her that she was keen to share with children. There are some references to the dreamtime and the Aboriginal creation stories etc. but it appears this is frowned upon by many as cultural appropriation.

Can only trans-gender people write about trans culture?
Can only Christians write about Christian culture?
Can only Muslims write about Muslim culture?
Can only Americans write about American culture?
Can only victims of domestic violence write about DV?
Can only Australian Defence Force personnel write about the culture in the ADF?

Sure, Caterson may be white, but why should there be prejudice or gag order against whites, or people of any other group, just because of the colour of their skin, their racial heritage, sexuality, life experience, religion or any other cultural phenomenon? Perhaps because whites are part of the majority, and are stereotypically and statistically more privileged? But I would argue that each individual person is not a stereotype or a statistic, so we need to have freedom in this country—all of us—for creative expression.

That is part of the reason why the racial vilification laws in Australia do not apply to artistic works.

I support measures to help narrow the gap between elites and any non-elite group, including indigenous Australians, but that is not the issue here in my opinion. That is not a matter relevant to cultural appropriation.


Even a white-skinned person cannot help in what racial group they are born. I have heard the opinion that because whites are not part of the minority of Australian Aborigines, they should not reference or use Aboriginal culture in their own creative work, including written fiction. This seems unfair to me. All Australian children are taught about Aboriginal culture. So are we going to put a stop on all creativity relating to it except for indigenous Australians? How does that help anybody or help to narrow the gap?

Just because a white person writes about Aboriginal culture doesn't mean an indigenous person can't. To any aspiring Aboriginal writers out there, please do write about your fascinating and important culture. There are many beautiful indigenous Australian picture books already published, such as:
  • Warnayarra: The Rainbow Snake by Lajamanu School and Pamela Lofts
  • My Home Broome by Tamzyne and Bronwyn Houston
  • Two Mates by Melanie Prewett 
  • Dingo’s Tree  by Gladys Milroy and Jill Milroy
  • Shake a Leg Boori Monty Pryor and Jan Ormerod 
  • Bilby and the Bushfire by Joanne Crawford
  • Sam’s Bush Journey by Sally Morgan and Ezekiel Kwaymullina
  • Marngrook by Titta Secombe
  • Stolen Girl by Trina Saffioti
  • Fair Skin Black Fella by Renee Fogorty


It's great to see indigenous Australians writing indigenous themed books, but is the resentment and hatred that seems focused towards "invading whites" also writing indigenous themed books OK? Should Australians in general, whatever their culture or creed, really be OK with this, just because most whites are considered "more elite" or at least not an underprivileged minority?

What did a white person born 30 years ago have to do with the colonisation of Australia hundreds of years ago? It is not my intention to belittle the near-extinction of a people, or the fact that Australian Aborigines were overcome and abused by the invading whites, but that's history. That's what humans did all over the world throughout human history. That's what colonisation, war, expansion of the empire and claiming a (mostly uninhabited) country meant. It may not be right, but that's where we are today.

I grew up in a suburb with many people of mixed nations, including first nation people. I was a youth leader and saw kids from all different backgrounds, including whites, come from underprivileged circumstances. To me, the colour of one's skin should not dictate what creative or cultural themes one should be allowed to use in art. Art should be free from all that.

I guess what I'm wondering is why should today's descendants of the aggressive European nations be punished for acts of people from hundreds of years ago?

Why can't everyone just live and let live?

Let storytellers tell stories that inspire them and others.

 I admit my own ignorance of Aboriginal culture and their point of view. I haven't made my mind up about this, but I am not convinced by the cultural appropriation accusations I have read so far.

There's very little in "white culture", whatever that is, that hasn't been misrepresented, skewed, poked fun at or that does not evolve over time. So why protect any other people group from the modern frivolity of art? Isn't it part of multicultural Australia to let stories be told in the way any particular creative person wants to tell them?

So, in other words, I'm happy to have the conversation and the debate about cultural appropriation, but I would prefer if creators are not hindered—because of this debate—from including aspects of Aboriginal culture in their works.

The involvement of a professional editor is highly recommended, and if you can find one of indigenous descent to edit, or even to endorse, your Aboriginal-themed book, even better!

The writer of this blog post and the author of Spirits of Australia do not support racial vilification of any kind, and invite any concerned with the law to read the information on humanrights.gov.au.

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