The iconography of Indigenous land rights in Australia is fundamentally deceptive. Take, for example, the famous photograph of Prime Minister Gough Whitlam pouring red sand from his hand into that of Gurindji leader Vincent Lingiari on 16 August 1975. In the image, the white emissary from Canberra – pink-fleshed in a wool suit and Windsor knot – appears to bestow something substantial. Lingiari’s left hand holds papers which, moments before, Whitlam described as ‘proof, in Australian law, that these lands belong to the Gurindji people’, while the earth that fills Lingiari’s right hand, Whitlam avowed, is ‘a sign that we restore them to you and your children forever’. The whole scene, for good reasons, resembles the ancient European ritual of ‘livery in deed’ in which the transfer of soil or a branch stands in as material testimony to the transfer of more ethereal legal rights.
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