Symposium: Indigenous Futures

Who's dysfunctional?

Danielle Spruyt, University of Sydney

Rosemary Neill White Out: How Politics is Killing Black Australia, NSW Australia, Allen and Unwin, 2002 (311 pp). ISBN 1-86508-855-2 (paperback) RRP $24.95.

David McKnight From Hunting to Drinking: The Devastating Effects of Alcohol on an Australian Aboriginal Community, London and New York, Routledge, 2002 (239 pp). ISBN 0-41527-151-7 (paperback) RRP $56.00.

Peter McConchie (ed) Elders: Wisdom from Australia’s Indigenous Leaders, United Kingdom, Cambridge University Press, 2003 (117 pp). ISBN 0-52153-924-2 (paperback) RRP $32.95.

Self-determination for Indigenous Australians requires economic autonomy. Continuing dependence on government for income and the subjection to policy moods that dependence brings, prevents Indigenous Australians from achieving autonomy. We can’t evaluate the success or potential of self-determination policies if we don’t acknowledge how Indigenous economic dependence negates self-determination. Equally, we need to acknowledge how Indigenous peoples do exercise self-determination, within the constraints of the dominant political economy.

In White Out: How Politics is Killing Black Australia, Rosemary Neill argues that policies to extend land rights and enable self-determination have failed to solve the complex array of problems confronting Indigenous Australians. Instead, she claims, Indigenous Australia is in a state of emergency; suffering high rates of family and community dysfunction (including domestic violence), homicide, suicide, and substance abuse, and low life expectancy, educational achievement, workforce participation, and health. She links failure to improve the condition of Indigenous peoples to the limited public (academic and political) discussion of Indigenous affairs. This discussion, she writes, is polarised and politicised: an extreme right purveys assimilation and an idealistic left romantically embraces traditional lifestyles and a belief that self-determination is the solution to the Indigenous situation. For Neill, sweeping generalisations on both sides ‘white out’ the real problems and do little to tackle the trauma caused by Indigenous Australians’ historical experience of dispossession and discrimination. She calls for a national debate to address the failure of policies and institutions to improve Indigenous living standards.

Neill condemns what she sees as unquestioning ‘white middle-class’ support for ‘self-determination’, and the celebration of the ‘noble savage’ ideal. Because lands and children have been taken, food sources and traditional lifestyles destroyed, and traditional structures broken down, communities are now deeply impoverished and largely unskilled. Thus, the

notion that there can be a return to a pristine hunter-gatherer existence, free of western vice and materialism, says more about Westerner’s disillusionment with their own extravagantly accessorised lives than it does about the needs of Aboriginal people straddling post-modern and pre-modern cultures (p. 69).

Neill believes both the (white) left and Indigenous spokespeople have maintained a code of silence about community dysfunction (or argue that such behaviour is the Koori way). This silence prevents public exposure that may reflect badly on Indigenous peoples but it also hinders redress of real problems. She sees assimilationists as exploiting negatives to push their own political agenda and as advocating policies that have failed dismally in the past. Her critique of the failures of self-determination include both a critique of the ideology (as impractical in the face of fragmented communities and a baggage of inherited problems) and of governments’ failure to define and implement self-determination policies in any meaningful way. She focuses on the ‘unquestionability’ of self-determination, rather than drawing conclusions about the potential of self-determination as a more sincerely developed and modern policy.

White Out does not satisfactorily demonstrate that Neill’s interpretation is more than caricature.

Neill’s intended audience is primarily those white middle class urban dwellers who she sees as celebrating self-determination as a return to a romanticised traditional lifestyle without seeking to understand the contemporary Indigenous situation, and who support land-rights without their own landholding ever being threatened. However, White Out does not satisfactorily demonstrate that Neill’s interpretation is more than caricature, that discussion is effectively constrained to these polarised perspectives or that constraints to discourse are responsible for the poor socio-economic outcomes she reiterates. Neill argues that debate is deeply polarised, yet refers to a range of voices—Noel Pearson, Bob Collins, Boni Robertson, Peter Sutton, Hal Wooten, Lowitja O’Donohue—to argue the need for a more complex and critical understanding of the Indigenous situation.

In addition, links between academic and political discussion and service delivery and outcomes on the ground need to be demonstrated: just how is debate at urban dinner parties and cultural events such as the Adelaide Writers' Festival important? Indigenous community members and ground level service providers know about the situations White Out exposes. Service delivery agencies and communities fail to develop meaningful relationships with Indigenous peoples and to develop effective responses to their problems partly because of political ideologies. However, economic and social structures (both Indigenous and non-Indigenous) also determine how services are delivered and whether they work. For example, Neill signals the role of ideology (consideration of established democratic rights) in preventing governments from curtailing the availability of alcohol. Yet other factors also hinder this policy, including vested economic interests (both Indigenous and non-Indigenous), the desire of many Indigenous peoples to maintain their rights to alcohol, wariness of paternalism, and the way the establishment of dry communities leads to the transfer of drinkers and drinking problems to other communities and towns.

By focusing on policy as determining Indigenous outcomes, Neill risks rendering the actions and reactions of Indigenous peoples invisible, and fails to recognise how Indigenous social structure and values define how Indigenous peoples respond to mainstream political activity and service delivery. Neill can legitimately argue that traditional social controls have been fractured. She can legitimately argue against the non-Indigenous ‘romanticisation’ of culture. But the argument that tradition has been destroyed fails to acknowledge that culture (distinct social organisation and values) continues to define Indigenous Australians and shapes how they variously accept, distort, or reflect the intents of mainstream society.

Indigenous Australians may not behave as mainstream society expects or desires when they are presented with policies and services. They may not achieve the socioeconomic indicators by which mainstream Australia measures its success in responding to Indigenous needs. Neill criticises a statement in an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission submission that a proportion of welfare recipients believe the injustices done to their society and the imposition of a new society with new rules more than justify the payments they receive, which are compensation (p. 53). However, such opinions cannot be censored—or censured—if mainstream Australia is to understand how Indigenous peoples respond to both their experience and mainstream attempts to ‘help’ them. Neill also criticises as a racist construction of cultural difference the idea that Indigenous peoples have a different learning style to non-Indigenous peoples. She dismisses the argument for cultural appropriateness, yet does not explore why Indigenous students have not flourished in either mainstream or bi-lingual education systems.

Indigenous Australians may not behave as mainstream society expects or desires.

Neill, focused on how national debate shapes Indigenous outcomes, sees emerging recognition of an Indigenous emergency as the first step in resolving this emergency. The statement of Indigenous trauma is also the dominant theme of anthropologist David McKnight’s From Hunting to Drinking: The Devastating Effects of Alcohol on an Australian Aboriginal Community. McKnight, however, explains why, under the policy of ‘self-determination’, Indigenous socio-economic conditions have worsened rather than improved because of the dynamics within communities and the interaction between subjugated and dominant cultures.

McKnight seeks to describe and understand why Mornington Islanders pathologically abuse alcohol. This volume (one of four McKnight intends to write on the Mornington Islanders) traces the impacts of alcohol use, and the processes that both encourage and protect its consumption. McKnight acknowledges the work of some anthropologists who stress the positive integrative aspects of drinking. Nevertheless, he argues that alcohol consumption is a problem for Mornington Islanders because they consume too much, because it is too central to their thoughts and activities, and because it is behind increasing rates of homicide, suicide, domestic violence, and neglect of children. He links drinking with powerlessness, a lack of worthwhile activity, the availability of the funds to buy alcohol, a culture of immediate consumption, and the development of social culture around alcohol consumption. He understands the Mornington Islanders as consciously exercising their right to drink.

McKnight explores how government policies and agencies interact with Indigenous cultures to produce unintended consequences. He emphasises how the Islanders lost control over their own affairs when the Shire system of local government was established. He argues that the inappropriate elective structure of the Mornington Island Shire council undermines traditional collective involvement in consensus decision making. In turn, the social norms of the Mornington Islanders inevitably distort the intended democracy of the local shire. The imposed democracy of elected community governance is undermined completely by a belief in looking after kin, lack of willingness to make decisions for the group, and lack of interest in taking on what Islanders see as white interests and responsibilities. The Islanders have been happy to abrogate responsibility to the increasing numbers of white people moving to the community to take up positions with the Shire because of the complexity and irrelevance of the Shire’s responsibilities (town planning, garbage collection). This leaves white managers to manage the system of Indigenous self-management.

In the same way, McKnight analyses how the schooling system fails to integrate the two cultures. He recognises that Indigenous children learn through experience and watching, although the loss of many traditional activities limits their opportunities to do so. Islander culture does not value literacy highly, preferring the spoken word. Overall, the community does not give ‘a high value to … the type of formal education offered by non-Aboriginal Australians’ (p. 140). School children ‘are well aware that it is mostly White people who are teaching them. They know that they are politically dominated. They realise that Australia once belonged solely to Aboriginal people and that their culture and language has been lost’ (p. 140).

McKnight analyses how the schooling system fails to integrate the two cultures.

McKnight presents the abolition of the Shire structure as an important step to Indigenous empowerment and responsibility. He also recommends restrictions to access to alcohol (although his presentation of the 1838 banning of alcohol to Indigenous peoples is both perfunctory and critical). He proposes that funds available for alcohol, specifically unemployment benefits and CDEP payments (or ‘sit down’ and ‘stand up’ money), be curtailed, noting the historical correlation between the introduction of such payments and access to alcohol. (He calculates that the population of 900 on Mornington Island spend approximately $4 million each year on beer and only the barest minimum on food.)

McKnight recognises the external and internal hindrances to implementing these policies and expresses frustration with the perceived inability or unwillingness of the Mornington Islanders to recognise and address alcohol abuse and with their inability to conclude that they must rid themselves of the Shire and regain control of their lives. His recommendations, however, are site specific responses to a global pattern (he identifies social problem drinking among North and South American Indigenous peoples, Melanesians, Torres Strait Islanders, the Maoris of New Zealand and many other societies (p. 10)). The Shire government is an example of the general failure of governments to acknowledge and accommodate Indigenous culture. McKnight believes removal of the Shire will encourage self-reliance among the Mornington Islanders, but he does not address how this change would challenge the relationship between non-Indigenous and Indigenous peoples or empower Indigenous peoples within this relationship.

Peter McConchie’s Elders: Wisdom from Australia’s Indigenous Leaders focuses on the strengths of Indigenous individuals and culture rather than on Indigenous socio-economic poverty. Photographed and recorded by 2003, Elders presents the wisdom of nine Indigenous elders. This book promotes Indigenous culture and knowledge as a valuable contribution to the understanding of natural environment and mainstream culture. Topics covered include relationship with the earth, healing, childbirth, men’s and women’s responsibilities, protection of culture, stolen children, and massacres. These elders criticise mainstream Australian culture and practice. The book is a brief and accessible volume that demonstrates an alternative system of values and an extensively developed physical and spiritual relationship with the natural world. It asks that non-Indigenous peoples learn from Indigenous peoples as ‘we have had to learn from you’ (p. vi).

In the context of Neill’s argument against a romanticised and selective view of Indigenous culture, I note that Elders makes no reference to the fractures within communities or to the declining number of Indigenous elders (Indigenous peoples experience a life expectancy twenty years less than the Australian average). Yet those who argue against idealising culture need to acknowledge the importance of recognising culture. Recognising different cultural values requires neither idealisation nor critique. Cultural awareness is a practical process by which a dominant culture can comprehend that its policy prescriptions will be received in a different framework of understanding. The statement ‘We don’t worry about money. We born with no money, we going back with no money, that’s it. We’re only here for a little while. For tea, tucker, clothing, that’s good enough – not to keep money in the bank’ (p. 19) is as necessary a contribution to understanding Indigenous employment and education outcomes (or failure/refusal to otherwise behave in a recognisable fashion towards money) as is analysis of government ideologies.

Elders makes no reference to the fractures within communities.

Elders also offers Indigenous perspectives on mainstream Australia. Massacres and stolen children are well remembered, occupying a significant role in oral histories and memories. (Any discussion of numbers is therefore purely academic.) These events greatly influence how Indigenous peoples regard mainstream Australia:

The raping and the murdering was going on then and it accelerated when white settlement began. This treatment is still going on now but in a different form. The government still got to play games, just with a new set of rules (p. 74).

The elders question contemporary Western concerns. Different voices stress the perceived materialism of white Australians and their violent and ignorant treatment of the land. ‘Whitefella come and dig up the land. Whitefella doesn’t understand, they got nothing, no culture … they worry about money’ (pp. 17–19).

Indigenous resentment and anger towards mainstream Australia, and lived experience of cultural domination shapes Indigenous responses to government policy. As long as Indigenous peoples distrust the motives of white Australians, it will be impossible for governments to develop policies that are either ideologically acceptable or practically effective. Indigenous responses to education programs demonstrate this. McKnight perceives that schooling

is a no win situation. If the children are given a European education then the Aborigines complain that their culture is being neglected and they accuse the White Australians of cultural genocide. If, however, the children are not given a European education then the Aborigines complain that they are being given a second-rate education and are prevented from competing with the Whites on their own terms (pp. 142–3).

McKnight interprets resistance to education (as with employment) as an Indigenous rejection of white control and as an expression of self-determination.

Mainstream Australia—despite the contribution of Indigenous Australians to economic development, individual successes, and examples of positive relationships and events—has failed to establish a functional relationship with its Indigenous cohabitants. Neill blames talk and policy for not engaging with real Indigenous concerns. McKnight presents the distinct separation of White and Indigenous interests within one community, and the Mornington Islanders’ rejection of white ambitions for their employment, education, and sobriety. Elders demonstrates that many Indigenous peoples reject mainstream Australian values and actions and strongly mistrust and resent white intentions. From this perspective, reconciliation is a meaningless concept because white and black Australia have never been united. Thus, the Howard government's intention of ‘practical reconciliation’ (in terms of housing, health, and education outcomes) is meaningless. The desire to see Indigenous peoples achieve the same results on socio-economic indicators as mainstream Australians will remain unfulfilled if mainstream Australia does recognise what Indigenous peoples value for themselves and how contemporary Indigenous cultures shape responses to imposed policies.

Mainstream Australia needs to recognise what Indigenous people value for themselves.

Indigenous economic dependence on the government maintains white-black power relations and leaves opposition to the dominant culture as one of the few ways Indigenous peoples can express self-determination. Finding ways to enable Indigenous peoples to become economically independent is a big and complex problem requiring further research. Claims that Indigenous involvement in economic activity will destroy Indigenous culture fail to recognise the destructive impacts of poverty, while arguing that Indigenous culture excludes economic activity ignores past Indigenous trading links and productive activity as well as Indigenous (voluntary) participation in Australia’s economic development (pastoral industry, tourism, performance, cultural products, etcetera). However, the remnants of land that Indigenous peoples have been allowed, the destruction of traditional economic and trade activity (as well as of family and community links), and structural exclusion from the mainstream economy continue to undermine the potential for economic independence. Research on Indigenous trauma may assist governments to understand which policies are destructive and why. However, much needs to be learned from the successes and strengths of Indigenous peoples, including both the benefits and vigour of their culture (as demonstrated by Elders) and examples of their successful economic activity. Let’s start with the story of an Indigenous grandmother I know of who works full-time in education while raising her children and grandchildren …

Danielle Spruyt is an Associate Lecturer in Political Economy in the School of Economics and Political Science and in the School of Geosiences at the University of Sydney. Her research experience includes five years’ employment in the Northern Territory, predominantly as a Research/Project Officer with the NT Office of Aboriginal Development.

View other articles in this symposium: