This is an NFSA Digital Learning resource. See all Digital Learning websites.
Mabo home
...hospitality and open-handedness...
Since the late nineteenth century, anthropologists have tried to study the traditions of Indigenous Australians. One who worked in Silas Roberts' region of western Arnhem Land is Les Hiatt. In 1982 he summed up his understanding of Aborigines' land-based morality of ownership and sharing:
'Probably everywhere in Aboriginal Australia the highest secular value is generosity. Readiness to share with others is the main measure of a man's goodness, and hospitality an essential source of his self-esteem. As Aboriginal children seem as demanding and self-centred as children anywhere, the altruism of adults is most plausibly explained, not as natural propensity, but as the outcome of a program of moral education in which greed is condemned and magnanimity extolled. It is likely that this pervasive and highly developed ethic of generosity emerged as a cultural adaptation to the exigencies of hunting and gathering, and conceivably conferred improved fitness on those who adopted it. The ethic of generosity applies primarily to resources, and only indirectly or (at a certain level) not at all to land. Ideally, estates are inalienable, indivisible, and non-transferable. Rights in relation to land (e.g. those governing the performance of a particular ritual celebrating the mystical association of a particular creator with a particular sacred site) are strictly defined on the basis of descent or filiation, and tend to be circumscribed and jealously guarded. Such possessiveness is not normally extended to the resources of an estate. Here, on the contrary, magnanimity is the operative principle, to the extent that access and benefit are normally accorded as a matter of course to a wide network of tribesmen over and above the actual owners...[N]otions of trespass are in my estimation poorly-developed or non-existent, being submerged or nullified by an over-riding ethic of hospitality and open-handedness.'
Keywords: anthropology, Arnhem Land, coexistence, Hiatt, Les, land ownership, Northern Territory, Roberts, Silas

'Traditional attitudes to land resources', in Berndt RM (ed) 1982, 'Aboriginal Sites, Rights and Resource Development', Academy of the Social Sciences in Australia/University of Western Australia Press, 1982, pp 14-15.
Author: Rowse, Tim and Graham, Trevor
Source: Hiatt, Les