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Why change Aborigines into images of ourselves?

Brian McCoy |  21 August 2006

Chris Johnston - Time WarpThere are times when we draw a line in the sand and say, ‘enough is enough’. I was reminded of this recently at a public meeting held in Perth on the 17th of July. Enough is Enough! In Defence of Aboriginal Culture, it was called. A large and spirited group gathered at Curtin University to address media portrayals of, and political responses to, Aboriginal people. And, if that wasn’t enough, I then saw the Channel 9 Sunday program on the 30th of July, ‘Inside the Gangs of Wadeye’, a community they described as ‘one of the country’s largest and most dysfunctional Aboriginal communities’.

It has been one thing for some of our politicians to reveal they clearly misunderstand and respect so little about Aboriginal people and their culture. It is quite another thing when a reporter goes to live in a community for ten days and thinks she got the measure of ‘the cultural and social issues at play’. Both events have caused me to reflect on our non-Aboriginal attitudes towards Aboriginal people.

In the Perth meeting, some people suggested that recent government and media portrayals reflected a conspiracy. It seemed far too coincidental that a growing line of government ministers, including the Prime Minister, were following a similar track of negative opinion about Aboriginal culture, well supported by particular media and their often superficial and negative representations.

Personally, I am not sure there is a conspiracy. However, I do believe these recent statements reflect something about us ‘white’ people. I believe they disclose very persistent and dangerous values that have been part of our Australian psyche since the beginning of colonisation. On my good days I like to think we addressed them and put them to bed a long time ago. I like to hope we have moved on and are now more mature about ‘difference’ and ‘culture’. On bad days, however, I fear we are in the process of repeating an old conversation, allowing past attitudes and a violent contact history to repeat itself. As we dredge up ancient stereotypes and justify our latest response to Aboriginal expressions of culture, we find that we are repeating and reliving our fear of difference. Our desire to exert dominance and take control of Aboriginal people’s lives reasserts itself once again. As such, it brings shame upon our leaders and our nation.

Last year, a senior government minister referred to small, remote communities as ‘cultural museums’. Her agenda was clear: it was time to stop treating Aboriginal people as being different from other Australians, and it was time to stop funding those communities. In her opinion there was no future for people who wanted to live in small, remote communities. They needed, ‘for their own good’, to be assimilated into the larger values of Australian culture.

This old, self-justifying approach to the assimilation of Aboriginal people has reappeared in different guises in the past few months. This approach has sought to vindicate the demonising of Aboriginal culture because of the behaviour of some of the men. The media appeared happy to promote stereotypes, depicting men as violent, abusive and even members of paedophile gangs. Town camps in Alice Springs were labelled as dysfunctional. One government minister criticised Aboriginal people for spending more time grieving than working. Another minister asked: ‘Why do we make special efforts for Aboriginal Australians?’

Top EndThe negative view of Aboriginal culture continued. Voices rose to propose that culture should not form part of Aboriginal education, nor that customary law be taken into account when sentencing. Here was a culture that was deficient and lacking. The evidence was so obvious that there wasn’t even a need for dialogue or discussion with Aboriginal people. Once again, the dominant culture knew what was best. ‘We have to nourish a greater sense of self-reliance and self-empowerment in indigenous communities,’ said the Prime Minister. Obviously, cultural values around kinship, communal living and public expressions of grief were outdated for a society that valued individualism and competition, and now enjoyed the privileges that came from being ‘white’ in this country. Not surprisingly, the government has now moved to dismantle native title legislation in the Northern Territory in favour of individual property rights.

I remember growing up in a Catholic culture and education system that was often described as marginal and deficient. That it supported a whole range of Catholic social and religious values was considered by some to be divisive and even dangerous. However, many of the privileges that we as Catholic people now experience in this country today came from that education system and those values. And it was not just education. Catholics utilised a whole range of social relationships and structures that reinforced culture: from Irish social clubs to the Brothers sporting teams, from the Hibernian society to the Knights of the Southern Cross, from the Medical Guild of St Luke to the Catholic Lawyers Association. Catholic schools and University Colleges gathered, strengthened and guided the passage of young people into mainstream culture. These institutions were believed to support particular Catholic values against a dominant culture, often perceived to be different and sometimes experienced to be hostile.

Wentworth LectureHence, I found it refreshing to recently hear the words of someone who has lived at that interface of Aboriginal culture and difference over many years. In June, Professor Robert Tonkinson gave the 2006 Wentworth lecture: '"Difference" and "Autonomy" Then and Now: Four Decades of Change in a Western Desert Society'. He provided careful and insightful comments on a relationship he has shared with the Western Desert people of the East Pilbara region of Western Australia over more than four decades. His lecture expanded on this relationship, and how he understood the Martu response to colonisation. While the desert people could see and accept white people as being different, this attitude had not been reciprocated. ‘Difference,’ he noted, ‘is a two-edged concept, which has been employed by whites both to exclude Aboriginal people and to justify their assimilation’.

Not surprisingly, our health minister has felt no anxiety in calling for the introduction of ‘a new paternalism’. Whatever the rationalisation, his was to be a paternalism ‘based on competence, not on race’. Clearly, he could not see that he was resuming a colonial approach where paternalistic behaviour was race-based and justified by perceived lack and deficiency in the ‘other’. Nor did the Minister for Indigenous Affairs realise his own regression into the past when he recently suggested that young Aboriginal people could be ‘taken’ to the cities to work at our five-star hotels, because that is what tourists wanted to see. The scandal of this idea, that Aboriginal people existed as a spectacle for non-Aboriginal people, never seemed to dawn upon him.

Inside the gangs of wadeyeThis minister, as revealed by the Channel 9 program on Wadeye, has his own fixed views about what constitutes Aboriginal culture. That young men presently take an interest in heavy metal music did not fit this understanding, nor those underlying reasons that reveal why some young men might take an interest in the dress or mannerisms associated with this particular form of music, as they have for some decades. For the minister, the Wadeye community has become a test, not just about his ability to effect social change and improve life for the people there, but also it has become a test of his narrow and outmoded views of culture. As his flying visit frustrated the local people, it became obvious that his intention was to lecture and bully, as if the solutions were as obvious to him as the people were obtuse. I would be surprised if anything much improves under these conditions.

Forced assimilation has not worked here nor elsewhere in the past. Partly, this is because those of us in power generally don’t appreciate how resilient and resistant Aboriginal people can be. Nor do we seem to understand that some values are prized and considered by Aboriginal people to hold more life and vitality than many of our own. Culture, whether it be Aboriginal or Catholic, has this ability to change but also hold on to what is important and treasured. Without respecting another’s culture, and without engaging the positive forces of change within that culture, we risk repeating older and failed forms of colonisation. If we do not engage people and form trusting relationships around the key elements of their life, we will simply miss those critically important opportunities to build on the joy, life and hope that is there.

Aboriginal FlagOne final thing. In recent weeks, as the war between Israel and Lebanon has engaged our nation, we have become aware of Australians holding dual passports. In ways that vary across and within families, and even from the same country of origin, people have been seen to belong to another country, apart from Australia. I can understand that, and I can sympathise with our country reaching out to help them when in need. But I am struck by the irony. We want to be helpful and understanding towards those people who live part, sometimes a significant part, of their lives in another country. We even want to rescue them when their lives are at risk. We are supportive of those who wish to recognise and maintain links with their culture of origin, while also claiming Australian citizenship. At the same time, we seem to be quite unhelpful and less understanding of those whose ancestral roots and culture go back much further than our own.

I wonder if, deep down, Aboriginal people remind us that we have not yet come to fully settle within this land. Part of us wants to live elsewhere. Why else our irritation with the original inhabitants who show no desire to live anywhere but here? Why our desire to change them into images of ourselves? When will we learn that it was by protecting and supporting our own cultural and religious values that we have become so powerful and privileged? When are we going to get over our colonial hangover and allow Aboriginal people to live and express their own values? When are we going to allow difference to be the source of our Australian richness and diversity, not the excuse for fear, control and domination?

To read the response of channel 9 reporter Sarah Ferguson to this article, click here.

To read Brian McCoy's follow up to this article, click here.

To read the letters regarding this article, click here.



Comments should be short, respectful and on topic. Email is requested for identification purposes only.

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Submitted comments

I was the reporter of the recent Sunday programme on Wadeye. How about a right of reply since I am being accused of displaying ignornace of and disrespect for Aborginal people and culture?

sarah ferguson 22 August 2006

I fear that the "Catholic" background we had as children and which may well have given us our present prosperity is no longer there because we, as Catholics, came to be just like the dominant Anglo group with whom we were once at such odds. Why we even accept the term "Anglo-Celtic" today! But our "culture", however defective it may be is not an unchanging thing. We are very different today to what our own ancestors were 100 years ago and if we tried to go back to that way of life how would we fare? The problem, as I see it is that we are all on a kind of treadmill, so to speak, in which the increasingly interconnected world is sweeping us all along into something, the end of which we don't have the foggiest idea about. It is indeed difficult for Aboriginal people to preserve their culture and values, howver good they may be in a world that carries us all along at breakneck speed.Maybe we should all sit down with Aboriginal people and sing that famous song "Stop the world I want to get off"!

Joe Goerke 22 August 2006

I have emailed Sarah and invited her to reply. We are happy to provide her with a right of reply on these pages.

James Massola 22 August 2006

More than 10 years ago a group of Indigenous media representatives including myself organised a conference where the heads of non-indigenous media organisations were invited to consult with us regarding the appropriate protocols to consider when working with the different communities throughout the country. What has changed, virtually nothing and please don't think Im attacking Sarah Ferguson but I personally find most journo's head to somewhere like Wadeye, Palm Island or Arakun communities that have a multitude of social dilema's and paint the entire Aboriginal community with the same brush, it's no wonder we continue to face racism in it's present form. Recently I visited more than 10 communities throughout the country in the search for organisations that provided a positive and productive service to help both Aboriginal and non Aboriginal people. As a professional Aboriginal photographer I conducted photographic classes to allow Aboriginal children the opportunity to portray Reconciliation in their enviroment. We will launch the exhibition at the Opera House at the 'Deadlys' a night that will showcase Aboriginal talent. Why isn't this shown on mainstream television?.
Wayne Quilliam

Wayne Quilliam 23 August 2006

Do you really want the rhetorical question posed by the headline answered? At least one valid answer is, to coin a phrase, 'it's the economy, stupid'. I find it amazing how an article on these issues can manage not to even mention the word. Such privileges as we enjoy in this country don't come from being 'white' - they come from participating fully in its economy. To the extent that aspects of Aboriginal culture are inimical to this, that is a problem (for all of us, I should add, not just for Aboriginal people).

That is what the Minister for Indigenous Affairs is getting at in suggesting Aboriginal people work in 5-star hotels - he's simply suggesting 'here's a market need/opportunity - why not meet it?'. Much closer to scandalous is that there have never been more than one or two Aboriginal people working at the Yulara resort - never mind the big cities.

Mark Duffett 23 August 2006

Current attitudes by government and bureaucrats to indigenous people at bestfaithfully reflect the attitudes of white do-gooders of a century ago, such as missionaries and their supporters. They really felt that to "permit"tribal people to enter white society and allow indigenous people to acquire property, buy and sell their land, and marry in church would represent advances for the benighted natives. They don't understand customs like group marriage to this day, nor the fact that there are individual "nations". They think that there must be some mechanism by which indigenous culture can be equitably bought with money. Unfortunately, a lot of this has now become a self-fulfilling prophecy. In many cases the old customs and culture can now only be understood by anthropologists and by tribal elders, some of whom are still trying desperately to re-establish the old ways. Good luck to them, but don't let us whites brought up in a capitalist set of"values" kid ourselves we will ever reach more than a surface understanding of a culture based on co-operation and non-material values.

Gerry Harant 24 August 2006

Most Australians would be most happy if Aboriginals stayed as their ancestors, in the bush and self sufficient.

They now have vast areas of land where they can do just that.

They, however, want others to support them. Endless complaints from critics will not allow the government to leave them living in their natural state, which is in our minds squalor. Nor will imported disease allow it.Nor will Christians leave them alone as they see sexual arrangements that are not acceptable.

Foreigners who come to Australia are gradually assimilated. I see no alternative to the same happening to the aborigines for all sorts of reasons, especially as they, when educated and intermarried assimilate quite well. Most of us were amazed to find large numbers of blue eyed blond 'aborigines' appearing from the population when there advantages to be had for being 'black'.

'Blacks' were never the 'servants' of white people in the general sense. The Wavell Station events came from white urging by 'do gooders'. I think it was inevitable but was it a good move, ending in large numbers of 'sit down money' recipients.

I think your article represents what you condemn in the five minute reporting.

Rather than criticise others, please give a detailed plan for the future so that aborigines can live in peace in the bush or next door to you without me paying for it.

f.Pownall 24 August 2006

Kudos Brian McCoy.

Soon after I migrated to this country I was working for a large Tourism company and was conducting hotel inspections and product familiarisation in the Northern Territory. It was on this trip that I first saw an aboriginal person, I was fascinated, but I also saw first hand some of the most blatant unrestrained racism I have ever seen. Since this trip (several years ago) I have been perplexed at the contradiction of on the one hand using the Aboriginal culture as a selling point for Australia, yet on the other constantly labelling the Aboriginal people as alcoholics, drug addicts, dole bludgers, criminals, etc, the very negative stereotypes Sarah Ferguson’s piece reinforced. Most Aboriginals I have met have been kind, gentle and bright. But Aboriginal community leaders are not given the same access to the media as the powerful or the rich, the political or economic leaders. You have to search pretty hard for the Aboriginal voice, and you’ll find it in the alternative or foreign press. When, earlier this year, the hon. Mal Brough used parliamentary question time to accuse Aborigines of using customary law for excusing rape. He referred to a case of late last year where a 40 y/o man only received 3 years. What he forgot to mention, was that the defence of customary law was used UNSUCCESSFULLY, that it had never been used successfully to excuse rape, that this man was never charged with rape, rather with carnal knowledge and assault for which the judge gave the maximum possible sentence of 3 years. But a stupid and lazy prosecutor is not as good a story as those savage natives tearing at the fabric of our society. And an MP using this story to distract from his incompetence in constructively dealing with the real issues that aboriginal communities face, I guess that’s not a story either.

Daniel J. Wilson 29 August 2006

Brian McCoy seems to assume that all critics of problem aboriginal communities necessarily deplore and fail to respect aboriginal culture. He does not address the question of how remote communities can become self-sufficient. Should the taxpayer continue subsidising remote communities forever? How long do white Australians have to pay for having settled in Australia and brought a different culture in conflict with aboriginal ways? Is Brian suggesting that it is not possible for aboriginal communities to become self-sufficient and retain their culture?

Robyn Coghlan 29 August 2006

Is it possible to invite Noel Pearson into this debate? I would be very interested to hear his views.

Betsy Conti 29 August 2006

I appreciate being alerted to major issues - saddened by the dreadful
circumstances of our aboriginal brothers and sisters (especially the young).

John 01 September 2006

Bloody good story. Sums us "whites" up perfectly. Well done, bravo

Laurie J Burgess 18 September 2008

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