The Chanel Boomerang Is Just The Latest Example Of Indigenous Exploitation

"Appropriation tries to shake the foundation of our very peoplehood, and our capacity to self-sustain economically and spiritually."

This week, aspirational luxe brand Chanel launched a $1930 wood and resin boomerang, confirming what Indigenous people have suspected for hundreds of years: rich white people are jealous of our culture and do a shit job of imitating it. But the Chanel boomerang has much more to tell us Australia’s history and injustices still faced by Indigenous people.

From a niche interest arising from the United State’s temporary obsession with Australiana, to its re-emergence as a ‘sports item’, putting boomerangs in non-Indigenous hands has a vexed history. Even just describing something as a ‘boomerang’ says very little. There’s plenty that look nothing like Chanel’s model. Like this knock-off of Chanel’s knock-off:

Most are weapons for hunting but can have related purposes, cultural and logistical. Few are constructed purely to return. This includes the Chanel boomerang. Its embossed logo could probably throw off the attuned and ancient aerodynamic craft of the boomerang, and possibly neck the B-grade socialite using it.

This Has Been Going On For Centuries

To understand why Chanel’s boomerang isn’t, as The New York Times columnist Vanessa Friedman wrote, a ‘minifuror’, we gotta look at who threw it to Europe first.

Boomerangs weren’t benignly put in the hands of settlers. Rather, they were aggressively hunted alongside their traditional users in a frontier war, taken for trophies and shipped off to major museums in Europe and North America — commonly alongside the skulls of our ancestors.

These boomerangs and ancestral remains, alongside numerous other cultural objects taken from Indigenous nations around the continent, are still held by museums. They were used in racist phrenological and social Darwinist studies, or archived by curious anthropologists who mourned what they thought was the inevitable loss of an exotic study group.

For our mobs, this creates an un-healable wound. Our most sacred and significant objects commonly sit in shelves, dusty and sometimes unlabelled, while we mourn for them and their irreplaceable role in our cultures. The schism of missing ancestral remains haunts us especially — severing us from those to whom we owe a duty of continuity, respect and place.

Truggernanner, a diplomat of great fortitude in the 1800s Tasmanian frontier, was so terrified of her body being dissected that she begged colonial authorities to cremate her. Her skeleton was appropriated from her resting place ‘for scientific purposes’. It was then appropriated through public display. Truggernanner was not cremated until the 1970s.

Indigenous peoples have virtually no legal recourse to reclaim cultural objects or remains. Australian political avenues are slow. International political efforts are slow.

White People Keep Stealing Indigenous Art

While much of the furore around the Chanel boomerang comes from its inaccessibility — $1,930 is a princely sum, especially when the average Aboriginal household earns just $51,670 a year – we have greater chance of accessing a Chanel-branded boomerang than the objects it appropriates.

That’s only one harsh irony in this saga. There’s plenty more where that came from.

Last year, Wurundjeri Elders crowdfunded $45,337 to reclaim an artwork that recorded their cultural practices, including painting for ceremony. It is Wurundjeri heritage – of unquantifiable importance. The painting was taken to a private auction in Sydney, where it sold for over half a million dollars to a private buyer. That appropriation has a long history, and a devastatingly long horizon ahead.

Boomerang appropriation isn’t new. Primary school students have been painting plywood ones with q-tips and acrylic paint during NAIDOC week for years. Any Australian souvenir shop will have a rotating shelf of boomerangs painted in Taiwan with kangaroos and awkward guesses at Central Aboriginal art.

The industry built on appropriating and selling Indigenous cultures is well established here – and it undermines the capacity for Indigenous artists to sell their work without it being copied, without being exploited for low or no pay, and without themselves appropriating Central Aboriginal art if they are not of that mob. Not only that, it cheapens how our cultures are valued by outsiders, and their perception of our collective creative practices and talent.

When Indigenous artists do establish themselves in creative industries, the appropriation doesn’t end. It transforms. The family of late iconic artist Albert Namatjira, whose lush watercolours wove light, life and land, earn nothing from his work. Years after his death, the copyright to his works is held by a family in Sydney’s northern suburbs. The Northern Territory public trustee sold it for $8,500. That’s just about five Chanel boomerangs, dramatically under its value. Since then, total sales have reached well in excess of $10 million.

Namatjira’s descendants are fighting to have the copyright returned to their communities, and for other Indigenous artists exploited of their proceeds. Because copyright only protects works 70 years after an artist dies there’s only 12 years to make it right before his works are free to use.

Chanel’s Exploitation Is Hypocritical

Unlike Chanel, notorious for its litany of threats for trademark infringement, Indigenous cultures in Australia enjoy virtually no legal protection. Copyright can only protect individual works, not the roots they stem from. In a culture connected to land and precedent, what does that protect? Trademarks, which might otherwise cover particular styles upon registration (like Chanel’s double-c logo), are also inadequate because of their restrictive connection to goods and services and their emphasis on ‘distinctiveness’.

Chanel can sue me for putting two Cs back to back on a boomerang of my own (dare ya), but we can barely protect our cultural knowledges and dignity through any legal remedy.

There is hope. Recent legislation in Victoria criminalises the business use of registered Indigenous cultural property. Victoria also regulates the sale of Indigenous cultural artefacts like those of the Wurundjeri people, but the laws are easy to evade by going to states that don’t have them. Bob Katter (of all people) proposed a law prohibiting fake Indigenous artworks. An Indigenous Art Code has been developed, but it is voluntary. None of these could have stopped Chanel. None address the root of appropriation.

Indigenous cultural creativity and practices make us. Appropriation tries to shake the foundation of our very peoplehood, and our capacity to self-sustain economically and spiritually.

Chanel’s boomerang will fly around the internet for a bit. Thinkpieces like this will emerge. I’ll get followers and a quick buck. International press and thirsty Snapchat-ers will appropriate their own cache from it. Even after it all dies down, Namatjira’s family, the Wurundjeri people and every Indigenous person will continue to weather appropriation.

We’ve been defending our cultures for hundreds of years, from the people who want to consume us and our land but don’t want us in their neighbourhoods. Taking is at colonisation’s core. Chanel is no millennial distraction. This is no new sensitivity, although Chanel is not the whole horrific story. Appropriation went on a brief Paris junket, but it’s coming back quick to the neck of colonial Australia.

If you’re a black creative who wants to know your legal rights over your work, visit Artists in the Black.

If you’re looking for information on or help with repatriation of remains or objects, start by checking out the Indigenous Repatriation Program.

Alison Whittaker is a Gomeroi multitasker living on Gadigal and Wangal lands. She is a Fulbright scholar, and a poet and essayist. Her award-winning debut book is Lemons in the Chicken Wire (Magabala 2016).