Race, Culture and the State

The process of Reconciliation requires a deeper understanding of the cultural differences between indigenous and non-indigenous Australians on the part of government policy makers and the general public. This essay takes the stance that the attempts of the state to assimilate indigenous cultures into a European society and lifestyle have been fundamentally flawed by the unwillingness to acknowledge the divergent value systems of each culture. It will refer more to the 'last contact' people of remote areas as the clearest example of the contrast in cultures. Successive governments have created inappropriate policies that impose the same message of the need to adapt to the European socio-economic model. It reinforces the power of the dominant culture on the recipients to the exclusion of the social linkages and alternate value system of indigenous people. The lack of success of certain government programs has underlined the misapplication of resources and lack of understanding of the complex loyalties and obligations (walytja) that continue to be the binding force within Aboriginal society. The attitude of recurrent Australian governments and their initiatives is still embedded in the Euro-centric scientific paradigm of nineteenth century racial and evolutionary theory. It is the imposition of these foreign cultural values that continues to be the cause of misunderstanding between the aims of the state and the needs of a spectrum of indigenous groups.

The diverse groups range from the first contact people, the east coast Murries, Kooris and Tasmanian Aboriginals, to the last contact Pintupi people who emerged from the Western desert in the nineteen sixties. Each group has unique needs depending on their historical relationships with the non-indigenous Australians. The Pintupi, as do most indigenous families particularly in remote areas, still practice and depend on the traditional obligations and the cultural values of the kinship (walytja) social structure to survive.

Some traditional practices are no longer utilised and have been discarded as the connections within their world view have changed, whereas new ideas and language have been incorporated. Purists see this as a loss of tradition but it is an example of the flexibility of the Pintupi to incorporate something new or discard some cultural practices that are seen as no longer useful. This highlights one of the contradictions of policy in the active encouragement of traditional ceremonies that the people themselves have discarded in the light of the revelation that some rituals are not necessarily the means of providing for the needs of the community. The form may have changed but the intent and way of thinking has not. Their approach is pragmatic and evolving rather than an attachment to outmoded cultural forms.

'... prior to contact, Pintupi maintained their universe through increase ceremonies, part of the spiritual basis for the creation of life. ... Cameron Tjukurrpa goes on to explain that government has now taken over from such ceremonies, in exchange for Pintupi agreeing to live in one place, and it is believed to have a responsibility to provide for them in place of the ceremonies that are no longer performed.' (Folds, 2001, p.117)

The government policies aimed at acculturation have failed to recognise the fact that indigenous groups have been exercising their right of free choice in accepting or rejecting what is being offered. As a part of Reconciliation their needs to be an acknowledgement that each society is competent and coherent however different the choices made by each. If a house or the use of a vehicle has too many restrictions placed on its use by government bureaucrats then it tends to be abandoned. If something is no longer useful it is discarded. A house will be abandoned because a relative has died there and under kinship laws no one from that extended family can live there, because of the deceased's ghost, or they will suffer a beating from the other family members. If an item causes conflict as to who has rightful usage of it, sometimes the item's destruction may be a way of restoring harmony in the community.

These misunderstood practices are seen by many as wanton destruction and arbitrary violence within a chaotic and decaying society and therefore a justification for more state intervention. What appears to be anarchic and violent may in fact be part of a highly structured social system that ensures that everyone fulfil their social obligations and abide by traditional practices such as sharing. Another factor in whether a community maintains the use of facilities or infrastructure is whether they have been constructed by outsiders or by themselves. If outsiders have built it, then it is 'whitefella business' that may have little personal significance and is abandoned if it becomes a burden on the community or when the government program ends. Many programs are successfully maintained because of the personal relationship built up between the white administrator and the locals. If this changes and a new person is brought in, the process of gaining respect and acceptance has to begin all over again.

Aboriginal communities foster a different relationship with their children giving them a lot of freedom until assuming adult responsibilities after initiation. As long as no one gets hurt property damage is of little consequence and the family will uphold the child's rights to do as they please, even if it is petrol-sniffing. This contrasts strongly with the state view of virtual ownership of a child during school age and school hours or penalties will ensue. These cultural conflicts have contributed to the high incidents of youth detention as the '1991 Report of the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody pointed out ... Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander(s) were 28 times more likely than other males to be taken into custody.' (Reconciliation Report, 2000, p.4.)

The kinship of family is the most basic cohesive unit where members' social obligations are defined and must be adhered to or suffer public approbation. Many of the older people have extensive genealogical memories that ensure the people do not enter into unlawful marriages and observe the rules of engagement within their complex social relationships. The social disruption of the 'stolen generation' in this context had major social consequences undermining traditional family connections.

The debate on Reconciliation in the media has been reduced to the banality of whether or not to say 'sorry' for the past. Although this does have symbolic meaning for indigenous people it avoids the continuing need for more than just a cross-cultural dialogue but a cross value dialogue. The essential divergence in values is in the attachment to property and consumer goods. The white Australian dream of property ownership and accumulation of wealth and material goods is in many ways against the traditional utilitarian attitude to community property. The common feature of all Aboriginal groups has been the placing of people before property. As Lois O'Donahue says '... two points of view: The Aboriginal and the white. I am strongly of the opinion that 1788 involved the meeting of two almost mutually incomprehensible cultures, and that the consequences of this meeting are still far from being worked out.' (O'Donahue, 1991, p. 20.)

The Pintupi have the view that the government ought to maintain the financial obligation that goes back to the first contact that brought them out of the desert to receive food. Their view of welfare is based on how the first missionaries began the tradition of 'looking after the people' and that to exercise their desire for autonomy the government ought to continue in its social obligation. As the Pintupi say, 'Once is a precedent, twice is a tradition'.

Reconciliation needs to be linked to the recognition that many communities, although dependent on welfare, regard it as a means of autonomy to continue to fulfil their traditional daily life, particularly in 'their country'. 'The payment of welfare allows indigenous people to pursue their own prerogatives ... and this autonomy is often more highly valued than high cash income levels.' (Altman, 1987, p.28) The need to have to adapt to the economic pressures of mainstream Australia can be the cause of enormous stress and friction within communities. Some families become wealthier and diverge from others in the community who may reject the imposition of the Protestant work ethic in favour of a more traditional life. As long as the administrators continue to enforce mutual obligation practices, such as work for the dole that conflict with social obligations, these programs will have limited success and may create greater hardship through inappropriate penalties. 'Mutual obligation agreements must therefore recognise that the individual is already embedded in a network of social obligation.' (Butler, B. 2001,p.26)

The general ambivalence toward the state is based on the historical imposition of assimilative practices and is seen as the ongoing motivation behind the new terminology of self-determination, lifestyle changes, equality, Multi-culturalism and even Reconciliation. The ' ... tendency towards inclusion of the indigenous within the multi-cultural' (Curthoys, 2000, p.34.) landscape is based on a failure by academics and mainstream Australia to recognise the essential cultural uniqueness and relationship with their homelands and the contrasting spiritual relationship with the material world. If there is to be equality it needs to include an understanding of each other's belief system and how it dictates the different approaches to life in a consumer society. There is some justification in saying that the battle between the colonisers and the colonised was and is a struggle between alternate realities. It is the difference between the non-materialistic and the materialistic relationships to the world, with the concept of ownership at its core. This manifests in the contrasting value systems of a person either belonging to the land or the land belonging to a person.

For Reconciliation to produce a stable and long term result the issues of a treaty and reparations needs to be addressed and seen as an investment in the future of Aboriginal and Australian culture. A treaty could create a legal basis to ensure the human rights and freedoms of indigenous people. In spite of the history of conflict and misunderstanding the continuing dialogue is a process of discovery on each side and requires the presence of indigenous issues to remain in the social consciousness of the rest of Australia through the Reconciliation movement, re-education and government reform.

The enforced participation of indigenous people into Western culture has denied the right of free choice when dealing with the government policy's that are drafted by bureaucrats in Canberra, who continue to graft the values of the colonial culture onto traditional values when they are often mutually exclusive or contradictory. These practices and attitudes towards any minority group are no longer morally justifiable. There needs to be more recognition in government policy of the social complexities of indigenous relationships in the distribution of resources and program structures. The creation of partnerships with the government and regional bodies to develop their communities, while preserving their right to choose the level of participation in Western culture, and that their choices are respected. An acknowledgement that there are different ways of perceiving and interacting with 'reality'.

-Rik Danenberg, 9/11/01


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