Friday, December 15, 2006

Indigenous Aborigines

This article by Janet Albrechtsen, pretty much sums up my opinion of the problem with Aborigines of Australia. (The fact that Janet Albrechtsen leans to the far right on political opinions shouldn't detract from what she has to say about Aborigines)
The persistence in clinging to a culture that is at odds with a western lifestyle is the core of the problem. Idealists are blinded by the notion that all cultures are equal, and all cultures are good. Therefore, the Aboriginal culture must be preserved. Fine, but it is a nomadic lifestyle, it is a stone age culture, and it is totally, absolutely incompatible with western values. There is tribal law for example. Do Aborigines live and let themselves be governed by tribal law or civil law. In tribal law, murder is punished by spearing. In tribal law, the community elders assign punishment to offenders. In traditional tribal culture, there is no notion of "here and now" as separate from the notion of "yesterday". To the traditionalist, 2ooo years ago is today, and 200 years ago is today. The tribal values have no concept of ownership either for material goods or for land. The people "belong" to the land.
Aborigines may cling to their traditional values but they are just kidding themselves. Nobody lives by hunting game anymore. Nobody lives the life of the nomad anymore. Which aspects of the culture do they preserve and which aspects do they discard? Whatever suits them it appears. That's what they have against integration. Let's not forget, those who are spokesman for their fellow Aborigines, those who condemn integration are the very same people who have benefitted from a western education, who have in fact integrated into western society. Who are they speaking for?


Kirsten N. Namskau said...

It's never easy...whatever way you try to walk, it's obstacles.

Hammer said...

Native Americans are similar in many ways. We have terrible problems with sickness, alcoholism and dependency due the issue of culture never being fully solved.

Luckily for them Casinos are starting to improve living standards for many of the tribes.

Jim Belshaw said...

Lexcen, just catching up on my reading after the holiday. Dear me, you have a bad influence! I feel another set of posts coming on.

I have hesitated to move into the aboriginal domain in part because I do not know enough. However, I am going to need to say something on the New England Australia blog simply because the issue is an important one.

The aboriginal population in New England is a lower proportion of the total population than, say, the NT. Even so, it is not insignificant.

In the Macleay Valley,for example, it is around 14 per cent of the total population with an unemployment rate among the young of the order of 39 per cent. In 1788 there were in fact more aborigines in the Valley than today with a higher real standard of living.

The causes of Aboriginal deprivation in New England are complex. Did you know that for many years aborigines did not have access to education, nor could they own freehold land?

Like you, but for different reasons I think, I get very annoyed at some of the bleeding heart approaches on this issue. I have two main grounds of complaint.

First, the approaches ignore, discount, just how well the aboriginal community has done over the last fifty years.

As a simple, example, to my knowledge there were no - not a single one - aborginal graduates before the sixties. Now there are thousands.

Secondly, the approaches tend to lump all aborigines and aboriginal groups together as though they are a single integrated whole. They are not. There is as much variation in the aboriginal community, perhaps more, than there is in the broader community.

I won't start on Janet beyond saying that (as you might expect given my political views) I believe that all country Australians are entitled to receive certain levels of service.

I will say that we need information and analysis to clear out the scrub created by the bleeding hear liberals on one side and the neocons on the other on this issue. Both erect and then debate artificial constructs as though they were some variant of the real world.

Dear me, I do seem to have a head of steam up. But I will do some writing.

Lexcen said...

Jim, thanks for your comment. I do realize there are complex issues but I prefer to simplify complexity rather than revel in it. The aboriginal issue does seem clear cut to me. I have met and worked with aboriginal people. They are so well integrated that they don't have a chip on their shoulders. What I find distasteful, is the obsession with culture, which is more of a millstone around the neck that prevents integration than it is a benefit. I think too much concern with culture is unhealthy, although I understand the need of individuals for a sense of identity and belonging.

Jim Belshaw said...

Fair points, Lexcen. At a personal level, one of the things that I have been trying to understand are the swings in my own views towards the Aboriginal issue.

I started very sympathetic, after all I did my honours thesis on the economic structure of traditional aboriginal life and at that point was thinking of becoming a prehistorian. By the eighties I felt that there had been a remarkable transformation, a major success story.

Then I became resentful at the way certain views were being pushed down my throat. As an historian I like to understand things. I am happy to look at the facts on particular questions. But I do not like being told what I am meant to think. At the same time, all the reporting on aboriginal issues swung from positive to negative. I struggled to understand why a group that I thought had been undergoing a very successful transformation was now presented as a complete basket case.

In this last period I became more conscious of variations on the ground, of the complexity of some of the issues, of the need to identify issues, to think local.

In 99 as CEO of the Ophthalmologists I was involved in a study of Aboriginal eye care. When I looked at the on-ground position in NSW a key conclusion was that in key problem areas we were in fact dealing with general problems associated with the provision of eye care to the whole community in certain geographic areas with some aboriginal special features. So we needed to focus on solving the general problem first.

At local level, there was a riot in Armidale, one that was forunately not picked up the metor media. At the subsequent public meeting it became clear that there were two aboriginal communities in Armidale.

The first was the traditional community, people who had been there for a long while and who were well integrated and had been building a significant position. Then there were new comers, aboriginal people attracted to Armidale from other areas. This had doubled Armidale's aboriginal population.This group had limited local linkages and very high unemployment.

The public meeting was mainly attended by the first group. They complained that the second group had no respect, would not listen to their elders, were destroying the things that the first group had worked for. There was a tone of despair in some of the comments.

Something similar appears to have happened in Dubbo, leading to outbreaks of trouble there. In both cases we are dealing with migration of people from more remote areas, a subset of the broader depopulation that has been affecting some of our country areas.

This concentration in particular areas of Aboriginal communities suffering sever deprivation has a number of adverse affects. Among other things, we had our car stolen at South West Rocks a few years ago by two aborginal youths from Macksville who then used it in a minor crime spree.

We have to deal with these issues in general, especially in communities where the aborigines constitute a significant proportion of the local population.

One problem in all this is that aboriginal perceptions of themselves are influenced by attitudes in the broader community including media reporting.

Back in the sixties I was struck by an article in Oceania that showed that attitudes among aborigines about aborigines were in many ways the mirror image of the stereotypes held in the European community.

Track forward. If you look at reporting today you will see that we lump all aborigines together, that we are telling them that they have a special place in Australian history, that they have been dispossesed and badly treated (both true) and that the aboriginal community is failing. This last via a whole stream of negative reporting.

One of the famous studies of the creation of racial prejudice showed how a subdivision based simply on eye colour could be used to create oppression and prejudice. Now it seems to me that we are doing much the same thing to the aborigines, saying that they are oppressed and dispossesed on one side (this accentuates group creation), they have failed as a community on the other.

Your concerns about obsession with culture is a fair response to one element of the reporting as well as responses to that reporting among aboriginals and other Australians.

This has become a very long comment.

To finish, I think that we have to stop treating aborigines as though they are all a single group unless we are dealing with a feature that is in fact common to the group as a whole.

Jim Belshaw said...

Lexcen, under your goad I have now put up an initial story on the aborigines. I hope that you won't mind, but I did not cross-reference it to this conversation. My feeling here was that if I did so that people my misinterpet what I said just as a response to you, whereas I am trying to make some broader points.

Lexcen said...

Thanks Jim, I'm sure you have a far better insight and understanding of the problems than I do. Nevertheless, discussion of ideas shouldn't be restricted to experts. I can only base my opinions on what information is available in the media, but I don't swallow everything I read as gospel truth. My concerns are with finding a solution to a problem rather than disparaging a community of aboriginals.