Friday, November 5, 2010

Ten Canoes: Indigenous Media in Australia

Noriko Tamura


This essay examines the roles of Indigenous media in contemporary Australia. In Australia, the media had exploited Indigenous people by describing them as a primitive, savage, inferior, problematic, and helpless people. The mainstream media’s misleading descriptions of Indigenous people had legitimized a negative view of Indigenous people. Having suffered under colonial representation, Indigenous people started to demand control of their own representation. Indigenous media is the use of the media by Indigenous people to represent themselves. The importance of Indigenous media as self representation is increasing, and thus Indigenous media is the fastest growing sector in Australian media today.

This essay examines the history and the significance of Indigenous media, and the problems concerning Indigenous media. One such example of Indigenous media in contemporary Australia is Ten Canoes. It is the first film made entirely in the Aboriginal language. Ten Canoes was directed by Rolf de Heer, a non-Indigenous Australian director, but it was a close collaboration film with Indigenous people. The analysis of Ten Canoes can suggest a model for successful Indigenous media, so the characteristics and roles of Ten Canoes are examined in this essay.

History of Indigenous people in the media

The history of Indigenous people in Australia is mostly a history of exploitation, dispossession and discrimination by white settlers. Since the Western invasion started in 1788, the cultures of Aboriginal people were seen by Western settlers as primitive, inferior, and valueless (Ginsberg & Mayer, 2006). Their rights to land were not admitted. Despite cultural diversity among Aboriginal people, such as seen in the large number of different languages, all Aboriginal people were seen an being homogenous.

This discriminative view toward Aboriginal people was emphasized by the way the media represented Indigenous people and their culture. Indigenous representation in the media was hardly under the control of Indigenous people (Hartley, 2004). The early colonial press in the nineteenth century supported the policies of dispersal of Aborigines, which promoted the segregation of Indigenous people. The colonial press in this time popularized a scientific racist theory of Aboriginal people, saying that the inferior was doomed to die (Meadow, 2001: 42). In the 1930s, the assimilation policy began in Australia. Under the assimilation policy, “white supremacy” was emphasized in the press and Aboriginal people were discriminated against. They were forced to assimilate to white Australians.

Aboriginal people came to be well represented visually, post-1940s. Aboriginal people were not ignored by the Australian media. In proportional terms, they were actually over-represented (Hartley & McKee, 2000: 8). However, photographs or documentaries about them emphasized the romantic, ethnographic and mythological representation of Aboriginal people, thus facilitating the view of Indigenous people as “uncivilized” (Meadows, 2001: 43). Such representation was performed from a Western perspective, and Indigenous people had little or no control over such representation.

As land rights protests and civil rights movement began in the 1970s, the demand for self-representation by Indigenous people increased. During the 1970s and 1980s, the Aboriginal response to a racist media representation was to demand control of their representation (Langton, 1993: 9). The number of publications by Aboriginal organizations, such as local newsletters, increased around this time (Meadows & Molnar, 2002). These publications were mostly small-community based, thus some of them used local Aboriginal languages.

As well as publications, Indigenous communities had begun to gain access to the Australian airwaves, largely through public radio, by the late 1970s (Meadows & Molnar, 2002: 11). The first Aboriginal public radio programme was broadcast out of Adelaide in 1972. More community radio stations have been developed since then. As a result, there are more than 100 permanently licensed Indigenous community radio stations, one permanently licensed community television station, and more than 50 Indigenous film, video and multimedia producers in Australia today (Meadows, 2002: 256).

Importance of Indigenous media

The colonial representation of Indigenous people played a major role in legitimizing dominant ideas about Indigenous people. The representations of Indigenous people by non-Indigenous people have the power to transform reality for Indigenous people (Langton, 1993: 40). It is the white gaze at Indigenous people as a “subject” that has allowed discriminative and biased representations. Indigenous media has become important to contest such representation.

Indigenous media has significant impacts both on Indigenous people and non-Indigenous people. For Indigenous people, self-representation allows them to tell their stories in their own ways, avoiding typical misinterpretations made by non-Indigenous media. In other words, it ensures more accurate portrayals of Indigenous people (Graydon, 2008). Indigenous media contributes to create an Indigenous presence in society and enhance the self-pride of Indigenous people. At the same time, Indigenous people can acquire a collective memory through self-representation, since it produces opportunities for them to revaluate their histories, traditions, and cultures. For non-Indigenous people, Indigenous media helps them recognize and value the cultural differences as it provides proper representation of Indigenous people. To sum up, Indigenous media can act as a bridge between Indigenous and non-Indigenous cultures (Meadow & Molnar, 2002).

Problems concerning Indigenous media

Although Indigenous media is growing fast in contemporary Australia, some problems remain since its emergence. The biggest problem concerning Indigenous media lies in its marketing and funds. Indigenous media heavily relies on funds and support from government (Meadow & Molnar, 2002: 17).

Media is a business based on consumerism. The publications, radio and television programmes, and films need to attract audiences and advertisements in order to make a profit as commercial products. Advertisers are a major source of revenue for most forms of media (Kim & Wildman, 2006). However, for Indigenous community radio and television, the target is mainly local, Indigenous people. Aboriginal people compose approximately only 2.5% of the total Australian population (Australian Bureau of Statistics, 2008). Therefore, in terms of the size of target audiences, Indigenous media which only serves the Indigenous community cannot attract commercial advertisements and sponsors, so they often lack funds and are dependent on government support. Indigenous media products need to attract not only Indigenous people but also non-Indigenous people in order to get more funds and have Indigenous products be more widely consumed.

Ten Canoes

Ten Canoes is one of the most successful Indigenous representations in Australia, which attracted many people worldwide. It is a film directed by Rolf de Heer, a white Australian, in 2006. It is the first film made entirely in an Aboriginal language. The film was made with the people of Ramingining from North Eastern Arnhem Land. The story of Ten Canoes is set in two different time periods: the distant past (1000 years ago) and the mythical past (much longer ago). The fictional story in the distant past is about Dayindi, who covets one of the wives of his older brother. During goose-egg hunting, to teach him the proper way, the crafty older brother tells an instructive ancestral story from the mythical past: a cautionary dreamtime tale of doomed love, kidnapping, sorcery, bungling misadventure and ill-directed revenge (Stars, 2007). The idea of this film originated from a picture of ten canoeists during a goose-egg hunt, taken by Donald Thompson, an anthropologist who visited Arnhem Land in the 1930s.

First of all, as Ten Canoes was directed by a non-Indigenous director, some people may not categorize this film as Indigenous media. However, this project started from a request made by an Indigenous man in Ramingining, David Gulpilil, who asked Rolf de Heer to make a film about “his” people. In making the film, de Heer respected and followed Indigenous cultures and closely collaborated with Indigenous people. As de Heer describes himself as a “mechanism” to allow the Yolngu people to tell their stories (Walsh, 2006), this film is not the portrayal of Indigenous people from the Western point of view, but it is the story from the Indigenous point of view with the support of Western people. Therefore, in this essay, I argue that Ten Canoes is Indigenous media which incorporates Western perspectives.

As an Indigenous representation film, Ten Canoes contests the traditional Western view toward Indigenous people. As discussed above, colonial representation had described Indigenous people as primitive and inferior, or emphasized only mythological narrative and ethnographic aspects. On the contrary, Ten Canoes cherishes Indigenous perspectives and culture, and tells a story in the Indigenous way.

Firstly, before making the film, the producers of Ten Canoes made the Ten Canoes Agreement through discussions with the Yolngu people of Ramingining. Making a protocol is an important process to work with Indigenous people and the community (Australian Film Commission, 2003). The producers of Ten Canoes were aware of the need to respect the people’s moral rights. Therefore, the Agreement admitted Aboriginal cultural paradigms of authorship and ownership by giving Ramingining community the property rights for all artefacts made for and used in the film (Davis, 2006: 6). It is different from most Western films in which the producers have all the ownership.

Secondly, de Heer respects Indigenous culture and follows Indigenous story-telling traditions in making this film. For instance, de Heer made the film using a combination of “color” and “black and white” following Yolngu cultural requirement. Their history as it now exists in and through the Thompson photograph needed to be depicted accurately, which means in “black and white” (Davis, 2006: 9). As de Heer had been contracted to make a color film, he combined “color” and “black and white” to follow the cultural requirement. He shot the story of the ancestors in the distant past in black and white, and the story of the mythical past in color.

Casting in the film also followed the Indigenous cultural requirement. According to Yolngu culture, characters that are meant to be in relationship in the film should be played by people who have a proper kinship relationship in real life. It made casting difficult, but de Heer respected the culture and let the people decide the casts (Davis, 2006: 10).

While de Heer contended colonial Western representation and followed Indigenous culture, he was also aware of the importance to employ Western culture in order to attract non-Indigenous spectators. It was important for Ten Canoes to be seen worldwide, as Indigenous people wanted it (Walsh, 2006). Therefore, he employed Western culture and targeted at not only Indigenous people but non-Indigenous people. It contributed to solve the problem of funding in Indigenous media. The budget for Ten Canoes was approximately AU$2.4 million, and was financed by Film Finance Corporation Australia Limited, south Australian Film Corporation, Adelaide Film Festival etc (Davis, 2006: 5). The aim of de Heer to make the film entertaining not only for Indigenous people but also for Western people contributed to their ability to raise funds.

The idea of fictionalizing the story is the important Western perspective employed in this film. Yolngu people wanted de Heer to use ten canoes and goose-egg hunting in the film. He agreed, but he did not make a documentary about the Yolngu people of the time when the Thompson’s photograph was taken in the 1930s. Instead, he made a fictional story by setting the time in 1000 years ago and the mythical past. It made the uneventful story of goose-egg hunting more dramatic. Because of this fictionalization, some Yolngu people were not happy with the film and said that de Heer made the wrong story (Hamby, 2007). However, it is this fictionalization that makes Ten Canoes dramatic and attractive to Western spectators while also adhering to Indigenous story-telling practices.

Through this collaboration of Indigenous perspectives and Western perspectives, Ten Canoes serves two different cultural requirements. By doing so, this film attracted both Indigenous people and non-Indigenous people. Ten Canoes had a significant impact on both Indigenous and non-Indigenous people. For Indigenous people, Ten Canoes provided an opportunity for cultural renewal, and helped them bring back an Indigenous cultural memory and integrate it into the present. For non-Indigenous people, it helped them recognize the cultural difference and value it.


The media plays an important role in legitimizing an ideology. In Australia, the mainstream media had helped legitimize the discriminative and misleading view toward Indigenous people. Self-representation by Indigenous people emerged as the best way to contend such colonial representation. The importance of Indigenous media has become greater in contemporary Australia. However, Indigenous media tends to rely heavily on financial support from government as they are not able to be commercially independent. This is because their target audience is often limited to local Indigenous people. Ten Canoes is a successful Indigenous representation film that overcomes the aforementioned problem of funding by incorporating Western perspectives. While the film respects Indigenous culture and tells a story from the Indigenous point of view, de Heer made the film dramatic in order to attract Western spectators. As a result, Ten Canoes satisfied both Indigenous and non-Indigenous spectators and played important roles for both of them. As an Indigenous film which has a Western perspective, Ten Canoes facilitated the cross-cultural recognition between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people. Ten Canoes provides a successful model for how collaboration between Indigenous and non-Indigenous cultures can promote not only Indigenous media, but also cross-cultural communication in society as a whole.

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1 comment:

film finance said...

Nice work Ten Canoes. I agree that media plays an important role in spreading an ideology the same way it has a role of spreading the "truth." It's a great time to capitalize on the internet as an ideology-spreading medium as well. It's cheaper and it spreads faster.

- Dexter DeLima