Aboriginal performance as war by other means in the nineteenth century
Commercial performances for entertainment are usually assumed to be lightweight, cultural activities that serve little or no serious purpose. Perhaps because of this typical perspective, prior to the mid-twentieth century, Indigenous Australian performances drawing on their cultural practices for entertainment are often styled as either the result of oppressive exploitation by colonisers or cultural tourism. However, an examination of Indigenous Australian initiated and controlled performances, for entertainment in the nineteenth century, reveals a more complicated picture. In Australia, across the nineteenth century and well into the twentieth, Aboriginal people and the colonisers actively fought for physical, psychological and emotional sovereignty of the land through thousands of performances for entertainment purposes. This might be expected given that Australian Aboriginal cultures are probably the most performance-based in the world—in the sense that explicit, choreographed performances were used for a vast range of social and cultural purposes from education, through to spiritual practices, arranging marriage alliances, to judicial and diplomatic functions. What might be less expected, considering the dominant power position, are the multiple ways in which the white audiences attempted to intrude, interrupt and inhabit these performances. The Aboriginal performers displayed their strength, vitality, high status and continued survival literally in the face of the colonisers and charged them a fee to observe. In response, white audiences both desired these performances and acted in ways to prevent them, often taking over the performance space and bringing events to a quick finish, while complaining that the show did not go on. The battle continued in white performances of Aboriginal practices and the ways in which Aboriginal performance was documented. In the twenty-first century, Aboriginal sportsmen who display their pride in their Aboriginality and opposition to racism continue to negotiate the same fight for space.