I first arrived at Belyuen in 1984 having just completed my undergraduate degree in continental philosophy. Belyuen is a small indigenous community at the center of what is called on most maps the Cox Peninsula, located just across the Darwin Harbor in the Northern Territory of Australia. The name Belyuen comes from an ancestral totemic waterhole located at the back of the community. By the time I arrived, the indigenous men and women living there had been engaged in a land claim since 1976, when community elders had lodged a land-rights claim over the surrounding lands through a new piece of federal legislation, the Land Rights (Northern Territory) Act. The act was widely heralded as a watershed in settler recognition of indigenous rights, even though, at its core, the overall set-up was atrociously absurd. The act “allowed” indigenous groups to sue for the return of their land—if the land had not already been appropriated by nonindigenous people and if the indigenous petitioners could prove they conformed to an anthropological model traditional ownership.
With each split delicate local discourses of belonging were reduced to a rigid settler logic of form of biological reproduction and clan borders facing backwards to the time before colonialism, a time untouched by history, a time dominated by social order.
Throughout the years that followed, court hearing after court hearing, the claim became more complex, as the community was fraught with pressure to divide itself into bits and pieces—this clan against that clan, this basis of belonging against that basis. With each split delicate local discourses of belonging were reduced to a rigid settler logic of form of biological reproduction and clan borders facing backwards to the time before colonialism, a time untouched by history, a time dominated by social order. The only questions that legally mattered were whether a claimant was biologically related to at least one certifiable indigenous ancestor and the imagined fence lines that could be drawn separating one country from another. The anthropologist Peter Sutton dismissed the creative energies indigenous people deployed to analyze and transform colonial savagery, dislocation, and dispossession into proper belonging and repossession as “historical” rather than “traditional.” The manner in which ancestral inheritance to country was entwined with the mutuality of ceremonial practice, friendship, and the constituent dynamics of human bodily substance (sweat, blood, language.) was crucial; the more-than-human world was ruled out as determinative. In this way, the settler-state was able to accomplish an astounding paradoxical feat—they could place indigenous land claims in historical time (no land that had been appropriated after the European invasion could be claimed) and they could insist that indigenous land claims could not be based on the human and more-than-human response to the historical viciousness of European invasion (claims must be based on preinvasion traditions). Some twenty years later, some of the land was given back, but by then the community had been torn apart, its principles and practices of belonging strained to breaking.
Over the years, two ways of understanding the stakes of how ancestral belonging to a place may or may not be coordinated to capitalism and fascism have emerged.
The question of land and birthright and, more broadly, questions of who belongs where and how to keep certain people from coming in has grown as a backlash against global capitalism, and something akin to a Kantian cosmopolitical imaginary has merged with xenophobic nationalism. Virulent racist sentiments rhetorically hinged to muscular nationalism raise the specter of the birth of new forms of fascism. In such a discursive cauldron love of place entwined with inheritance to place is hard to hear as anything but dangerous. And yet, from my first meeting with the older, now passed men and women living at Belyuen to my ongoing relationship with their Karrabing descendants, an identification was forged across modes of belonging to country—theirs in relationship to the lands that stretched across the Cox Peninsula and further down the coast and mine in relationship to my paternal village in what is now the Italian Alps. Over the years, two ways of understanding the stakes of how ancestral belonging to a place may or may not be coordinated to capitalism and fascism have emerged. Let me start with my paternal lands.
I was born in Buffalo, New York, but my family moved to Shreveport, Louisiana, in 1964 when I was two and a half, around the time the US Congress passed the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts. Shreveport lay in the heart of the Bible Belt, was the largest city in Caddo Parish, and was awash in confederate flags. The parish was still well-known at the time as the lynching capital of Louisiana, rabidly anti-Catholic, and vehemently anti-union. My father felt his alienation from the city based on his ethnicity and religion intensely. He’d often say, “All our kind are far away, Beth. People don’t like our sort here.” By “kind” he meant Catholics and Povinellis, Ambrosis and Nellas, because the mode of belonging that characterized land attachment in my family was not national. It was village-based. It consisted of traditions of kinship, marriage, and rights through descent. My father’s side all came from a small village in Trentino-Alto Aldige called Karezol, when it was a small village at the edge of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and then Carisolo, when it was absorbed into the newly expanded Italian nation after World War I. We were taught—and taught is too dry a term for what seemed more like an indoctrination—that all Povinellis, Ambrosis (like my father’s mother), and Nellas (like my grandmother’s sister’s husband) were three of the six original families from Karezol-Carisolo.
Many Americans go in search of their roots. They hire genealogists. They send off DNA samples. They discover they are biologically part this and part that. They find they are from this general region rather than that. These people might think my family blessed to be able to push a thumb pin into a map and say, quite definitely, “I am from here.” And yet whenever one approached our ancestral belonging its integrity shattered—because Karezol-Carisolo is not a place but a frontier. Its frontier status has a deep history as a zone between warring parties traveling over the alps or up the ravines that characterized the region. Within my grandparents’ lifetime, its frontier status had a different modality. Until the end of the first World War, it was a frontier both with the actual borders of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and the imaginary borders of greater Italy. These frontiers were iterated within the village and thus within my family. These arguments played out in local languages brewed in the deep, often isolated valleys that mark the region—like Ladin spoken in my village but also Lombard. Mòcheno, Cimbrian, and others. Many Ambrosis sided with the Risorgimento while many Povinellis sided with Austria-Hungary until they came to take the young men to the trenches. In the end both sides suffered terrible losses as villages in the region were crushed between two larger forces. Perhaps this frontier imaginary helped brew an attitude evident in my grandparents that belonging to a subnational, family-based polity, village-based communalism, though rife with bitter feuds, was still safer than identifying with what Benedict Anderson called the imaged community of abstract nationalism and its racist and fascist potentials.
Many comparisons can be drawn between the intensity of my paternal sense of ancestral belonging and of my Karrabing colleagues’ sense of the same—Povinellis from Karezol-Carisolo even have substructuring clans. And yet, differences emerge that are key to how belonging to a place may or may not be coordinated to capitalism and fascism. For the sake of brevity, one example will have to suffice—the “puzzle” of indigenous ownership. I began this piece with a description of the basic features of Australian land-claim legislation. In order to have their land returned, an indigenous group must prove that they are the “traditional Aboriginal owners” based on evidence that they are a “local descent group” and have “common” and “primary spiritual affiliation” to the country under claim. The status of ownership—the relevance of the concept of owning to indigenous worlds—was, however, what an Australian court refused and what then prompted the legislation to recognize. In order to understand how the refusal was an act of recognition and the recognition was an act of refusal one needs to look a little closer at the history.
In 1968, the Yolngu launched a legal challenge against the plans of the mining giant Nabalco, who had secured a twelve-year bauxite extraction lease. The case went before the Northern Territory Supreme Court. On April 27, 1971, Justice Blackburn found that whatever rights and relations indigenous people had over their lands were not propriety rights and relations; and even if they were, these rights and relations had long been invalidated by the Crown’s declaration of Australia as terra nullius at the moment of colonization. Blackburn did not dismiss the Yolgnu’s deep affinity with their lands. But he argued that they were a community of law not men. They were ruled by spiritual beliefs and customs that did not include the concept of property. Property, in Blackburn’s opinion, depended on some person having primary power of a thing and the powers to exclude others from use of it. They did not have what the Goenpul theorist Aileen Moreton-Robertson has called, white possessive logics.
It was to dispel this odor that the federal government under the Labor Whitlam government commissioned Justice Woodward to lead an inquiry into the “appropriate means to recognize and establish the traditional rights and interests of the Aborigines in and in relation to land, and to satisfy in other ways the reasonable aspirations of the Aborigines to rights in or in relation to land, and, in particular.” But Woodward also confronted the incommensurate concepts of ownership and property to indigenous modes of belonging to their countries. One can say that “religious rites [are] owned by a clan,” Woodward observes, but the rites “could not be held without the assistance of the managers whose essential task it was to prepare the ritual paraphernalia, decorate the celebrants and conduct the rite.” And lest readers reduce the importance of these managers as analogous to hired labor, Woodward notes that the “agreement of managers had to be secured for the exploitation of specialised local resources such as ochre and flint deposits and for visits by the clan owners to their own sacred sites.” What relevance did Western notions of ownership or sovereignty have in such a system?
Why the Aboriginal Land Rights Act ignored this caution, demanding (“recognizing”) instead Aboriginal ownership has everything to do with how multiple modes of human and more-than-human belonging is made to articulate with capitalism and potential fascisms. What Woodward described locks spiritual, ecological, and economic uses of human and more-than-human existence into mutually coordinated and determined theoretically infinite inter-connectivities. These are analogous to what indigenous elders describe as the vast interconnected and socially territorial formations of ancestral totemic action. To move moves and this foundational logic informs how one’s own movements are obligated to others.
We may have clans, be communally subnational, and intensely connected through interlocking families, but the possibilities of our own mobility were not determined by or tied to these ancestral orders when it came to our movement from the village.
At this point we can return to my paternal ancestral history, but with a twist. We may have clans, be communally subnational, and intensely connected through interlocking families, but the possibilities of our own mobility were not determined by or tied to these ancestral orders when it came to our movement from the village. Afterall, I was born in Buffalo, New York. And although I was long led to believe my paternal grandfather was born in Karezol-Carisolo, he was in fact born in Buffalo as well. He was what people now disparage as an anchor baby. His parents took advantage of a national logic to secure a social bridge from the foot of the Dolomites to the edge of the American Great Lakes. And while my grandparents suffered from the virulent xenophobic fires that burned against southern Italians, by the time I was a kid in the American south, my family had been absorbed into a general American whiteness. All the social infrastructures—education, real state, mobility, employment, addressivity—transformed my ancestral belonging into white ethnic sentimentalism. As James Baldwin noted long ago, this reformation of modes of belonging and the fascist denials it brews, was built on the dispossession and dislocation of others. My ancestral history was rewritten as bildungromans, an initial embarrassment to settler nationalism, but then absorbed into it as part of its denial.