Aboriginal Peoples in the Pilbara and Kimberley regions of Western Australia (WA) often speak of the importance of recognising and respecting the “Cultural Authority”. So, what is the “Cultural Authority”?
First, it should not be confused with the term “Elders” because a person can be an Elder but not hold Cultural Authority. It specifically relates to Aboriginal lore/law and the hierarchy that is created by this lore/law. Where I am from, we call our lore/law, “Gahlarra”, pronounced Gar-lar-dar. One important part of this lore is the practice of men’s ceremony. It is within this ancient practice that Aboriginal Peoples recognise and respect the “Cultural Authority”, which hold the highest position among the Aboriginal People from a specific region (not all Aboriginal People, collectively).
Our “Cultural Authority” in the Pilbara consists of Senior Men and Women that have been active participants of practising Aboriginal lore. Within this Cultural Authority, there is a recognition of “Men’s Lore” and “Women’s Lore” of which only those specific genders may make decisions relevant to them and their lore. To compare to the Mainstream Western Hierarchies, the Cultural Authority are those Men and Women who are recognised as “experts” in their fields for a lifetime of learning and commitment such as Professors and Doctors of Philosophy that have at least 30 years of experience. They have also been legally compliant and carried out all obligations and responsibilities of them within their chosen field of expertise.
Our Cultural Authority are not “voted” in by way of a democratic process and those that hold such positions have not “bought” their way in. Money has no relevance to the Cultural Authority. To be part of the Cultural Authority, a person must practice and respect their Aboriginal lore and it is the followers (Aboriginal People from a specific region) of such lore that recognise and respect the Cultural Authority as the ones who can make decisions on behalf of them without questioning such decisions.
Unlike the Mainstream Western hierarchy, not every person has the opportunity to become part of the Cultural Authority. The impact of the Mainstream Western system on Aboriginal Peoples knowledge and way of life has reduced the number of persons who may be part of the Cultural Authority. Laws and policies of past WA and Federal Governments of Australia are responsible for this loss of equality in relation to the Cultural Authority. As an Aboriginal woman (with European descent) that has successfully participated in and continues to participate in the Mainstream Western system as opposed to the pre-Settlement Aboriginal traditional system (for us this system was strong up until the 1960s), I will never be part of the Cultural Authority. I was born in 1983, 16 years after alcohol was introduced to my Aboriginal Community and family, legally, as one of the rights associated with 1967 Citizenship Rights. However, as an Aboriginal woman that is connected to my land and culture, I will always respect the Cultural Authority.
Our Cultural Authority are the holders of our ancient Cultural knowledge and are our closest connection to our ancestors who lived on and cared for our lands prior to European settlement (which did not reach the ancient Pilbara until the 1860s). Our Cultural Authority always make decisions in the best interests of and in accordance with the Gahlarra (Aboriginal lore). They do not make decisions to benefit themselves or only specific families. If any Aboriginal person is involved in breaching the Gahlarra, they become disqualified from being part of the Cultural Authority.
I recognise and respect my Abuji (Grandfather), Tim Douglas, who is part of the Cultural Authority for the Pilbara region of WA.
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This article was first published as ‘What is the “cultural authority”?’ on LinkedIn.