Too little justice

I have undertaken the review of this book by Joan Kimm with some hesitation. It is not that its content—the violence experienced by Indigenous women—is not important. Having lived in a number of Indigenous communities over many years, I have witnessed and heard enough to know something of this sad and distressing side of Australian life. The violence currently experienced within some communities is serious and needs urgent attention. Nor do I hesitate because I believe it is solely ‘Indigenous business’. We all have the right to live without violence.

My hesitation arises from my own history and the perspectives I necessarily bring to this issue. I am not an Indigenous person nor am I a woman. There are aspects of Indigenous and gendered life that lie beyond my own experience, however much I have heard and seen. My response to this book is from a non-Indigenous male perspective. It is necessarily a response that is limited but accompanied by some self-criticism. When I observe violence against women, especially against Indigenous women, I am aware that too easily has their suffering been ignored, trivialised or even rationalised by men and much of Australian society. This book offers the possibility that serious issues around violence within Indigenous communities will be discussed and addressed. Unfortunately, it also runs the risk of upsetting and alienating some Indigenous men and women. They might not understand or interpret the violence currently being experienced in Indigenous communities in as straightforward a way as Kimm suggests. Indigenous researchers such as Judy Atkinson, Boni Robertson, Marcia Langton, Kyllie Cripps and Sue Gordon have argued that the sources of violence are multiple, complex and cumulative. There would seem to be no logic or reason to dissociate this present violence from the historical experiences of dislocations and dispossession, the decades of children being separated from their families and the immediate consequences of unemployment, welfare dependency and alcohol addiction.

Kimm’s book A Fatal Conjunction, appears to be based on the author’s thesis for a Master of Laws at Monash University in 1999 (although this background is not mentioned). In a relatively short and easy to read book, she (a non-Indigenous woman) has opened a particular and public window on the violence that has been, and continues to be, experienced by Indigenous women. Evidently, she has come to her perspective of this violence from her legal background, the reading of case studies and some historical and anthropological research. It is not apparent that she has lived in Indigenous communities or collaborated with Indigenous women in the forming of her arguments. She firmly locates this violence within two key domains: a cultural domination of Indigenous men over Indigenous women, and a Western and patriarchal legal system that has perpetuated that domination.

My own experience of these two domains is that they cannot be as simply reduced as Kimm proposes. Indigenous women have cautioned me against assuming too readily that men dominate their lives and I have male Indigenous friends who openly acknowledge the relationship, spiritual and cosmic powers that women exercise over them. At the same time I have seen the results of male violence upon women (and other men) as I have also witnessed great sensitivity and gentleness in men. I have seen the blindness of the legal system in addressing Indigenous women and their rights. I have also seen it similarly and tragically deficient in responding to Indigenous men and youth.

What I found helpful (but also quite dispiriting) in this book is its litany of legal tragedy. Kimm moves across the decades of recent history and different state and territory boundaries to demonstrate a consistent, even systemic, pattern of legal ignorance, insensitivity and incompetence in relation to Indigenous women. When she quoted Justice Kriewaldt (Justice of the Northern Territory Supreme Court from 1952–1960) as saying, ‘the older I get the less I know’, she was more than repeating his comment about cases involving Indigenous defendants. Her book exposes, as it indicts, the Western legal system, especially as (largely) non-Indigenous men have administered it. It also discloses our inability, as non-Indigenous people, to seriously engage with, understand and respect the values that lie deeply within Indigenous society. 

The dichotomy that Kimm proposes between ‘traditional’ and ‘non-traditional’ communities and her understanding of ‘elders’, ‘promised marriages’ and ‘payback’ tend to locate Indigenous people within fixed social (pre-colonial) spaces. These social spaces have, in fact, been fluid, changing and adapting as conditions, environments and social structures faced an often brutal frontier and the enforcement of government policies. Since first contact, Indigenous people have coped with a myriad of pressures due to colonisation and the demands of assimilation. Some are presently coping better than others. Some are trying desperately to hold onto values that connect their identity and social regeneration, and some are abusing themselves and their families. The violence that is currently being expressed—directed mostly inside rather than outside the Indigenous community—cannot easily be  separated from the multi-faceted violence of colonial history.

There exist today many oral and written examples of the violence that Indigenous people have suffered. Take that of imprisonment. Unlike the army of North America that in the 19th century was used to control its native peoples, here in Australia  police were used to settle and pacify the land. A long history of Indigenous imprisonment (with the use of chains) began where Indigenous men were regularly arrested for cattle and sheep killing. In recent decades the number of Indigenous people in prison has continued to rise to the extent that in 1998, 95 per cent of all Indigenous prisoners in Australia were male and 90 per cent of those who passed through the prison system in the Kimberley were Indigenous. At the same time there has been a steady increase in suicide amongst young Indigenous men in many communities. Clearly, especially through the use of alcohol, expressions of self-harm and violence have escalated within many Indigenous communities. For some men, old and young, violence towards themselves, or those closest to them, has become normalised behaviour.

The challenge to Indigenous communities is how this behaviour might change. How do pride, self-esteem and self-respect become experienced and sustained by a group of men as it was in earlier generations? Do we, as Kimm proposes, continue to blame, accuse and abuse them? As the justice system so regularly and efficiently performs, do we lock them away in another world separated from their culture, families and responsibilities? Do we believe that this conjunction of two laws and two cultures is, and can only be, fatal? Alternatively, we can support those initiatives and solutions that Indigenous men and women have been proposing and which promote their right to live without violence. We can form partnerships with Indigenous men that seek a more just and non-violent world for them and their families. I would argue that the latter approaches are critical if we want to create a safer world for Indigenous women and children but also a more dignified world for Indigenous men. It is also our only hope if we, as non-Indigenous men, wish to honestly deal with the legacies of our colonial history and the violence that has shaped us and those legacies.

The title of this book is powerfully suggestive. It points to the dire consequences that have resulted from the meeting of two laws and two cultures. However, by the end of the book we cannot more clearly identify the pathology of this violence than to conclude that its virulence comes from men; Indigenous and non-Indigenous. As a non-Indigenous male reader I found the book disquieting and limiting but also challenging. Part of me would like to think that there is less violence than Kimm suggests and I?would like to hope that men have less responsibility for this violence than she argues. However, I am sure that for too long we non-Indigenous men have denied our part in the violence that has deeply shaped ourselves and our relationship with Indigenous people. I suspect that Indigenous men have denied their part in violence as well. If you decide to buy this book I recommend you check it out with Indigenous women. I found the experience informative and salutary.  

A fatal conjunction: Two laws two cultures, Joan Kimm. Federation Press, 2004.
isbn 1 862 87509 x, rrp $29.95

Brian McCoy is a Jesuit who has recently submitted a Doctoral thesis at the University of Melbourne on Indigenous men’s health.



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