Friday, July 30, 2010

Ron Smith: Cultural Relations: Australia and the Aborigine

The following thoughts were inspired by a recent visit to Australia. In fact, north-western Australia: The Kimberley, as it is called. This is a vast and extraordinary area, twice the size of New Zealand and containing the most remarkable ancient land forms. There is also an ancient people, whose art from tens of thousands of years ago, reflects a rich mythology and a confident culture but whose contemporary reality is very different. Some are still producing the wonderful painting but many are sitting around in parks and on the pavements of small towns, or queuing up at the bottle-store. What they are not doing, despite all the apologies and the institutional deference to Aboriginal culture, is participating in the life of a modern developed economy.

In terms of development, it may be that the Australian Aboriginal misfortune was that, for 40-50,000 years from the time (during the last ice-age) that their ancestors crossed to Australia, they were not visited/traded-with/ invaded/ colonised until the Chinese made a brief visit in the fifteenth century and the Europeans progressively occupied the country from the sixteenth century onwards. As a consequence, they had no opportunity to profit from the inevitable transfer of knowledge and technology that virtually every other racial/cultural group on the planet was regularly exposed to.

Their tragedy now is that their disadvantage is being protracted by misplaced liberal sentiment, which in the interest of preserving their indigenous way of life, is encouraging/acquiescing in a resistance to change that is leaving them in a social/cultural ‘no man’s land’. They are not living the traditional life and they are not living as modern Australians. This situation is exacerbated by the contemporary fashion for perpetual apology and mediating institutional support for Aboriginal society through the traditional tribal leadership. As in New Zealand, money directed in this way does not trickle down far. There are still Aboriginal persons living in shanty squatter tents, amongst a sea of rubbish. There are also the top-of-the-range four-wheel drive vehicles of the chiefly classes, who will have little incentive to change the system.

A notable feature of the Kimberley landscape is the boab tree, which is mainly memorable for its extraordinarily wide trunk in older specimens. It is so wide that it can be hollowed out and used to store things, whilst it continues to grow. One such tree is a tourist feature on the road east from Broome and the story is that, late in the nineteenth century, an Aboriginal resistant, Jandamarra, was briefly held there on his way to prison. He was subsequently killed by an Aboriginal tracker from another tribe, who was working for the colonial authorities. Not surprisingly, Jandamarra is a hero to Aboriginal people and has been the subject of much contemporary writing. This is reflected in the output of schools in the region. A display of prize-winning art from the local school at Fitzroy Crossing featured a picture of Jandamarra with the comment that his memory should encourage ‘pride in their race and culture … in spite of all that has happened.’

Of course, it is easy to understand this sentiment and the continuing resentment and regret in regard to the events of the colonisation period. It is certainly the case that Aboriginal people were dreadfully treated by some at least of the colonial incomers (in this region by the pearl-fishing industry, for example) as well as suffering the general effects of sovereignty loss. On the other hand, occupation did bring (albeit all in a rush and with a considerable downside) the potential benefits of a modern developed society. At present it does not seem that Australia’s Aboriginal people are benefitting much from this, beyond a system of benefit payments, which go largely to the brewers, and an institutional respect for Aboriginal cultural practices. It may be that these latter things could be ‘traded-in’ for an opportunity to fully participate in Australian society.

My model is the contemporary Scotsman in Australia, New Zealand, England.. For most of his life, he is a citizen of his community, like any other, but on occasion he puts on traditional clothing and he meets with other Scots to eat traditional food, and to listen to the old music and the old stories, and generally derive a great deal of satisfaction from the process. Cultural observance of this kind enriches the life of the individual concerned, without determining it. Unless there is an institutionally-supported comparable effort by Aboriginal persons to accommodate in this way, it is hard to see how their situation is going to be improved.

The problem was only underlined by what was to be seen on a gloriously sunny morning in Fitzroy Crossing. Amongst the people sitting around in the park that surrounds the public buildings, were many Aboriginal children of school age sitting with their parents, or playing nearby. ‘Why are they not at school?’, we ask of the people behind the counter in the Visitors’ Centre. ‘It is hard to make them go’, was the reply. I wondered how hard anybody was trying. I also wondered what the future of Australia’s Aboriginal people is on present policy and attitudinal settings, on both sides of the racial divide.


Anonymous said...

Change some wording here, ie, Australia to New Zealand, Aboriginal to Maori and it's us in a nutshell.
Travel some of our more remote places and one notices that money has not trickled down very far at all, if at all.

Anonymous said...

One only has to go around Australia and live there life there to see what becomes of the pensions that are spent directly on drink. homes given by the goverment that are destroyed so fast before they are finished yes the money has trickled down to them. what more can the goverment do or US to change the attitude they have today dispite the wrong doings from so far back in time everthing then was done with the beliefe it was for there best interest therefor It can not be todays generation to be blamed for the past actions

Ron Smith said...

Quite so!