Change and Succession in Australian Aboriginal Claims to Land

Read David Trigger’s chapter in Strings of Connectedness: Essays in Honour of Ian Keen (2015), edited by Peter Toner. The following is a selection from the chapter’s introduction:

Since the advent of land rights legislation, and then native title laws, Aboriginal people in Australia have grappled with presenting tradition-based claims in light of cultural change to their lifestyles and customary relations with land and waters. While arguments are reasonably made that the legislative requirement to prove continuing customary law places unwarranted burdens on claimants (Strelein 2006; Pearson 2009: 100–32), it is also important to note that commitment to the idea of continuing cultural traditions retains its significance across Indigenous Australia. If Aboriginal associations with land have been ‘pushed in a culturalist direction’ by essentialist assertions about Indigenous ‘consubstantiality’ with place (Merlan 2007: 129–36), this has surely arisen from core beliefs among Aboriginal people themselves at least as much as from romanticism across the wider Australian public. The emergence of ‘the economic Aborigine’ is rightfully recognised as key to contemporary Indigenous life (Langton 2013: 59–80), but a major challenge for the courts and those sectors of Australian society embroiled in the language of land and native title claims is to understand how Indigenous cultural traditions underpinning assertions of rights both continue and change over time.