Smoke and mirrors

THANK Aboriginal "elder" Robbie Thorpe for one thing, as his "sacred fire" burns in our Botanic Gardens.

By its mystic light, reverentially guarded by up to 10 police, we finally see how easily we fall for New Tribal humbuggery.

Show our elites a black pagan and -- holy smoke! -- there's no telling what they'll not just believe, but worship.

Think not? Then tear your eyes from the salvation seekers being "smoked" by Thorpe's fire, and check, for a start, the 2001 Census -- the one that revealed an explosion of witches and warlocks.

While it found only 238 of Queensland's 113,000 Aborigines followed indigenous religions, fully 23.5 per cent of believers in Aboriginal faiths turned out not to be Aboriginal themselves. Black gods now have white disciples.

Those gods also have many white officials kowtowing at sacred sites, real or invented, even though the vast majority of Aborigines are in fact suburban Christians.

But don't tell the activists -- many white -- now reinventing today's Aborigines as pagans with supernatural connections to the land.

Still, would it stop them? See what luck they've had so far in making official Australia worship reimagined black myths and traditions, however unlikely -- and however it hurt the true black cause.

First there was Bula.

In 1991, then prime minister Bob Hawke, nearly crying in spiritual ecstasy, banned a new mine at Kakadu's Coronation Hill, out of respect for the Aboriginal spirit Bula.

Aboriginal activists, backed by green groups, had convinced him that if the hill were disturbed, an angry Bula would visit a great sickness on the land -- one that might make even Hawke's green vote lie down and die.

Never mind that no one had ever associated Bula with the site until the 1970s, or that uranium had been mined there for nearly 20 years without the local Jawoyn people complaining, or Bula making anyone vomit.

Never mind that the Jawoyn leader, Andy Andrews, said to hell with Bula -- most locals wanted the cash and jobs this $500 million mine would bring. Even his petition with 92 Jawoyn signatures begging the mine go ahead failed. Green pagans beat black rationalists.

Then, of course, came "secret women's business".

In 1989, the South Australian Government approved a new bridge between Goolwa and Hindmarsh Island, near the Murray's mouth.

Green groups and local Aborigines fought the plan without luck until 1994, when -- as a royal commission later said -- an anthropologist suggested "it would be nice if there was some women's business".

BINGO! Soon Aboriginal women were indeed claiming the bridge would disturb "secret women's business". The island was sacred because, said one, from the air it looked like a woman's womb.

It didn't matter that no tribal Aborigines could have known what the island looked like from 10,000 feet, or that few if any would have known the shape of a womb.

As for those other local Aborigines who insisted all this was nonsense, well, they were Christian, weren't they? We pet only pagans now.

So the Keating government banned the bridge -- until a royal commission ruled "the whole claim of the 'women's business' from its inception was a fabrication".

What next? How about Somerville College, on Mornington Peninsula?

The opening of this new school was delayed by more than a year because two land councils -- both claiming to represent the local tribe -- couldn't agree if there were significant Aboriginal relics on the site, and who should mind them at $550 a day.

But the better question was: Which represented real local Aborigines anyway?

One, the Boonerwrung Elders Land Council, was essentially led by a white restaurateur whose wife, Caroline Briggs, claimed to be descended from an Aboriginal woman taken from Victoria to Tasmania 180 years ago. (The woman's birth certificate inconveniently says she was born in Tasmania.)

The other, the Bunorong Land Council, was led by an Aborigine from Western Australia, who claimed his part-Scottish wife was descended from a local woman likewise stolen five generations ago and taken to Tasmania.

More sorry examples. A Portland developer is broke after local part-Aborigines decided an 1834 massacre of Aborigines (that might not have happened) took place on his land (or maybe somewhere else). It was enough for the Bracks Government to ban all work there.

Another black myth worshipped by whites: The Government now has a new $2.1 million Stolen Generations Organisation, despite its earlier Stolen Generations Task Force being unable to find a single truly "stolen" Aborigine in the entire state.

Indeed, it concluded: "In Victoria . . . there was no formal policy for removing children." Yet it said 36 outfits were caring for the "stolen" children it couldn't find.

Another farce. Echuca and Moama badly need a second bridge over the Murray to join them. Both councils -- plus the Howard Government, the Moama Local Aboriginal Land Council and local Bangarang elders -- want it built to the town's west.

But the project has been stymied for years because Yorta Yorta Aborigines say it will come too close to a scarred tree and two shell middens, and have refused offers to move the pylons.

But who are the Yorta Yorta? One of its "senior members" told the Federal Court in a failed land rights action that "a number of persons now regarded as elders of the Yorta Yorta community had only six months earlier not regarded themselves as members of the Yorta Yorta community, but rather as members of the Bangerang community".

When Aboriginal identity and spirituality is so easily redefined, how sacred or meaningful is it really?

Or put it this way. The two most famous Yorta Yorta activists are Wayne and Graham Atkinson, brothers who trace their tribal status through their great grandmother Ada, daughter of a white laborer and a Yorta Yorta woman.

BUT their great-grandfather, Ada's husband, was an Indian doctor from Mauritius, and other ethnicities have since plunged into their gene pools.

The brothers could, in my opinion, identify themselves as Indian, English, European, Aboriginal, Australian or simply individuals.

Yet both choose to be -- to put it crudely -- professional Aborigines, with different rights to those they'd have as mere Australians.

Graham is now co-chair of the Victorian Traditional Owners Land Justice Group, and Wayne, a Melbourne University academic who teaches Aboriginal issues, has served on the Yorta Yorta Elders Council and writes mistily of the Eden that was tribal Australia.

Sample: "One can reconstruct a rather idyllic picture of Yorta Yorta lifestyle. It is clear that the people did not want for anything in terms of food and security and their lifestyles fit nicely into the picture of affluence . . ."

But this is romance, not reason. And see where such Dreaming sweeps us -- to a New Tribalism, where we are judged on genes, not deeds. Where myths muffle minds.

So, I hope Robbie Thorpe's fire burns hot -- so hot that it destroys such madness. How sacred it would be then.