While a graduate student, I met Eve Darian-Smith, an Australian anthropologist who had, in her previous career, been an attorney in Australia. In a conversation with her, she told me about Ayer's Rock, known amongst the Pitjantjatjara people of Central Australia as Uluru. The landmark, and impressive stone monolith rising above a plain*, has been a draw for tourism for decades. It is also a sacred site to the Pitjantjatjara people, and this led to a confrontation between Aborigine groups, Aboriginal rights activists, and the Australian government, which was settled in 1985 when the title of the land on which the sandstone formation stands was deeded back to the local aborgine group, and the national park that had formed around it was leased to the Australian government for 99 years to be joint-managed by the national government and the aboriginal people.
Image from Wayfaring.info
Now, this seems like a good outcome, on the whole. One thing, though, that Dr. Darian-Smith told me left me thinking about potential problems. At some point during the legal negotiations, it was argued that the Pitjantjatjara should only have control of Uluru if they were going to use it only for activities "practiced in the traditional manner." I don't know if this became part of the final legal settlement - my web-fu is weak and I have been unable to find any confirming or disconfirming information, and I don't know enough about the Australian legal system to make much of the information that I have found. But regardless of how Uluru ended up, the fact that such a thing even entered the discussion is both fascinating and disturbing.
The problem comes from people outside of a culture arguing for what is the "traditional" patterns of that culture. I wrote in the previous entry about how Dr. Darian-Smith found in her research that people living in California often object to Native Californian-owned businesses (she focused on casinos, but it is likely that this applies to other businesses) on the grounds that running a business is not in keeping with the traditional values and practices of Native Californians. Of course, prior to the arrival Europeans, the archaeological and ethnographic evidence indicates that many Native Californian groups engaged in the production and trading of goods in a manner that showed all of the intelligence and calculation that one would expect from any European businessman of the same period. Moreover, the Native Peoples of California (and the rest of the Americas, and Australia, and Africa, and Asia, and Europe, and everywhere else that humans have wandered to) were very adaptable, and both developed new ways of coping using a mix of existing practices and technologies as well as developing new ones, and adopted new ideas, tools, and practices when they became available. While I suspect that there is a good deal of argument within Native American communities regarding casinos specifically, I doubt that there is much argument regarding the ability of people to make good in the modern world, or even that to become knowledgeable about business, law, science, etc. is somehow anathema to being a Native American, nor is the use of new tools necessarily frowned upon. While I am less knowledgeable about the anthropology of Australia, I suspect that the same is true there.
Historically, I know that the Native Californians (and the Natives Floridans) were happy to accept glass beads from the Spanish and integrate them into the bead economies that already existed. Likewise, I have spoken with members of different Native Californians who tell me about collecting acorns for the preparation of traditional foods, but smashing the acorns using a blender rather than a bedrock mortar. And I have now met several Native Californians who are getting involved in archaeology and ethnography in order to build up a history and understanding of their heritage based on these disciplines, in addition to that which they receive from oral traditions. Reading journal articles published on the anthropology of Asia, Australia, Africa, and south America, I see the same things occurring in these regions. Culture changes, but that doesn't make it somehow non-traditional: it is the nature of culture to change.
Really, this is the way that it has always been. In the archaeological record, the use of tools, residence patterns, and pretty much everything that makes up material culture are constantly in flux, changing due to the environment, the needs of the people who formed a society, and the introduction of new tools and ideas from outside. Humans have always adopted new concepts and items and incorporated them into the existing culture, changing the culture - sometimes slowly and sometimes quickly - but never losing it. The culture of London today is no less "traditional" than it was in AD 1710 or AD 1410 or AD 1110, but we assume it is because we think of the "modern" as being opposed to the "traditional". But they are not opposed, the modern is merely a continuation of the old, and even the movement of cultural traits across the world - sometimes referred to as an aspect of globalization - is nothing but a continuation of the ways that humans have always behaved. That doesn't mean it's necessarily either good or bad (I have a hard time seeing the proliferation of coal-fired power plants as good...but the use of new technology to provide clean drinking water in Africa is definitely a positive thing), but it does mean that the knee-jerk rejection of it as an attack on tradition needs to be more carefully considered. It is an attack on traditional culture when someone is currently being forced to give something up by force or threat of force (it was - past tense - an attack when it occurred in the past, what happens after the attack stops is the aftermath - which may or may not be bad - but it is not the attack itself), but when people adopt things because they want them...well, trying to stop that in the name of preservation is an unnatural act.
Which comes back to the possibility of laws or regulations being put into place which require the use of lands only in keeping with traditional use. The story of human culture is a story of change. To hold that something is only legally allowable if it conforms with traditional culture is to create an artificial (and, it should be noted, essentially modern) definition of traditional culture. And in these cases, traditional culture almost invariably is either defined by an outsider or by those within the culture group who have a particular agenda, and can not ever really reflect the truth of a culture. culture is living and dynamic, and to enshrine some version of it in regulation turns it into a stagnant parody of itself**. Regulations and laws can be, and have been, written that take the inevitability of change into account, and those are the models that need to be followed.
*Interesting bit of information - this formation is what is called a inselberg, or "island mountain", the sole remnant of a larger mountain range that has long since eroded away. So, it is the last mountain of a once standing range of them...if that example of the deep time and monumental scale of geology doesn't send a shiver down your spine, get your pulse checked.
**This also applies to non-native/aboriginal cultures. When you hear someone talk about the importance of enshrining some practice in law because it matches "traditional values", you can be certain that the person is less concerned with tradition than with pushing their own, often absurd, agenda.