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Why change Aborigines into images of ourselves?


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?

The response from Sarah Ferguson to this article can be found here.



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Existing comments

I used to agree with viewpoints like yours. Then I actually visited an aboriginal settlement and saw the disease (including leprosy), the domestic violence, the ill health...and all those cultural considerations just kind of faded away. And that was a dry camp with a reasonable system of self-government. Don't even get me started on the horrors of the camp I visited where alcohol was available and much abused and where petrol-sniffing was rife amongst the youth.

And there is a question I would like to know the answer to. Why does respect of traditional culture have to mean not questioning it? In spite of its strengths, Aboriginal culture (and yes I am generalizing, I know it's not homogenous) also has weaknesses and flaws. I also question why it is okay to shun all the responsibilities of modern Australia (like honestly looking for work in order to receive unemployment benefits) while still accepting (even demanding) all possible benefits? Why complain about the shocking level of health care in remote communities, and then drag your belongings out of the dry, secure house provided to live out in the yard of that house on the dirt? Why whine about people climbing Uluru when you the guardians of the rock have decided not to ban such climbers because of the revenue you would lose as a result of doing so? Aboriginal people are special cases in many ways, and certainly our history still impacts on them in negative ways that need to be addressed, but often people act like logical thought and reasonable expectations are somehow not PC when you're dealing with matters that concern Aboriginal Australians?

Debbie | 24 May 2007  

There is an excluded (here) middle between "carbon copies of us whitefellas" and "no longer so ravaged by alcoholism, petrol-sniffing and rampant sexual abuse that many serious commentators liken it to genocide."

Rod Blaine | 09 October 2008  

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