Unlearned History: Reliving the Past and Reimagining the Future

In the first volume of The Life of Reason, the Spanish philosopher George Santayana famously wrote, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” Except, perhaps, in Australia, where the burden of condemnation falls unreasonably on the Aboriginal people.

About a month ago, in a post on new books, I mentioned two by Colin Macleod. I tried to read his novel of Pintupi life, A Strong Song, but was defeated after only a few chapters by the mawkish tone and the overly simplistic and sometimes frankly inaccurate explanations of desert culture. So I turned back to his memoir of his days as a Patrol Officer in the Northern Territory, Patrol in the Dreamtime, which I read shortly after its publication in 1997 and long before I had read extensively on Aboriginal affairs. I characterized my memory of it as “an entertaining if not terribly sophisticated account” of the 1950s outback. Reading it a second time was a revelation, and I recommend it to all, as it is surprisingly relevant to some of the debates occurring in the news (and in government) right now about life in remote communities and the measures that white Australia should take to remedy some of the suffering that is taking place in them.

Much of the book’s charm comes from the portrait that Macleod paints of himself. He tells the story of a young man from a working class family in Williamstown, Victoria in the mid-50s, not a particularly adept scholar, and early on, unsure what to do with his life, a candidate for the priesthood. He is interested mostly in finding a job that isn’t unremitting tedium, in drinking a few beers with his mates, and finding his way in a world that is far wider than his upbringing led him to suspect. His two or three years in the bush working for Native Affairs gave him a new sense of self-confidence coupled with a new understanding of Aboriginal culture, and ultimately led him to the study of law. Although the book ends with his admission Newman College in Melbourne, he went on to have a successful career in the legal profession. He held positions as a judge and a magistrate in Melbourne, and was still a magistrate when this book was published. In telling his story he is never shy of admitting his own incompetence, he is quick to laugh at his naivete, and he is often perplexed by the cultural collisions he is party to. 

It is hard to doubt that he acts with good-hearted intentions and without a trace of arrogance. I found his authorial voice to be utterly sincere, even when I wonder at the blinkered perspective from which he still seems to write. There were moments when I did wonder if the coincidence of dates in the publication of this memoir and that of Bringing Them Home were not masking an apologia for the Stolen Generations, designed to pre-empt controversy (especially given his position on the bench), but in the end I put my doubts aside. 

Macleod began his career as a Patrol Officer working out of Darwin. Over the next few years, he spent time in the Tiwi Islands hunting crocodiles with the indigenous people and playing cards over a few lagers with the priests at the Catholic mission there. He traveled the cattle stations west of Katherine, spent time with the well-known “identities” of Booroloola, and traveled round Haasts Bluff with Jeremy Long and Nosepeg Tjupurrula. He saw first hand the pernicious effects of the grog, and lamented the history of prostitution of Aboriginal women to white men. His concern for the welfare of the children he encountered was genuine and thoughtful. But his faith in the doctrine of assimilation remained unshaken, and he saw the removal of children–according to a strict set of guidelines that he clearly spent much time pondering–as a means of protecting them and perhaps even advancing their chances for a meaningful life. 

Perhaps what is most maddening about Macleod’s account is this easy acceptance of the white man’s interference with native life alongside his understanding that the intrusion of white men into Aboriginal society is inevitably destructive. Two paragraphs from the conclusion of his stories about life in the Tiwi Islands illustrate his youthful insouciance.

I had a great life with the Tiwi. They still had a living language and culture. They had their land to themselves with only a few whitemen to bother about. They caught fish, hunted, danced the sacred and muck around dances. They listened to the songs of the songmen and buried and mourned their dead in accordance with timeless Pukumani of the Dreamtime.

In the 1980s and mid-1990s, I returned to see the Tiwi paradise, as it is sometimes called in travel brochures. Bread was flown in from Darwin, along with grog, tinned food, and pension cheques. There was a white person to assist in the councils of the islands, some others to organize the Alcoholics Anonymous program, and white school teachers and medical staff with their supporting clerical personnel. There were no canoes in sight, no new grave poles, the gardens did not seem attended, and the sawmill was in ruins.

Somehow, Macleod seems quite unaware that canoes and grave poles are not quite of the same order as gardens and sawmills. His pastoral idyll has disappeared, but he finds no complicity in its degradation, notices no irony in the fact that these sawmills and gardens may be a cause as much as an outcome of the collapse of Tiwi culture.

Now, granted, the purpose of Macleod’s memoir is to attempt to explain how well-intentioned policies, humane policies of the 1950s, can seem to have been mistaken in the light of history. The larger context is the government policy of assimilation; the more particular is the removal of children from dysfunctional families or communities. This latter emphasis is borne out by the appendices in which Macleod details the series of decision points he used in making a recommendation for removal–carefully thought out, different for boys and girls, taking into account parentage and the likelihood of “mixed-blood” children finding acceptance in their communities.

But in the paragraphs quoted above, where he is looking back not just at the period of the 50s but at subsequent decades, and where he still fails to see Aboriginal society except through a whitefella’s eyes, are what give me pause. It makes for a very odd memoir: it is at once true to his youthful understanding of the world, shot through with a more mature understanding of the world, and yet still somehow falling short of real self-awareness. As much as the notion that Aboriginal affairs needed to be managed, this persistent failure of imagination and empathy in that endeavor is the curse of history.

I’ve lately been making by way through C. D. Rowley’s The Destruction of Aboriginal Society (Australian National University Press, 1970), the first volume of his trilogy Aboriginal Policy and Practice, which was published soon after the referendum that made the indigenous population citizens of the Australian state. (The other two volumes are Outcasts in White Australia (1971) and The Remote Aborigines (also 1971)). This first volume details the history of colonial and Commonwealth governments in their efforts to manage contacts between settlers and indigenes, and it can be depressing reading. It is discouraging not in the least because it shows over and over how good intentions have led to unhappy outcomes, or more often, how good intentions have been easily and repeatedly abandoned in the contest between humane law and economic development. Take, for a single example, these excerpts from Rowley’s discussion of the Welfare Ordinance and the Wards Employment Ordinance, which were attempts, in 1953, to revise and reform earlier restrictive and rigid legislation that had, in its own day, been promulgated for the “protection” of Aboriginal people.

No provision was made in the later legislation for areas of Aboriginal decision, for autonomy adequate for the development of effective leadership, for Aborigines to adapt to new circumstances. By basically the same methods as before [segregation and education], they were to be processed individually for assimilation, which indicates humane intention, but little attention to background and social context.

It is always difficult to change old habits and methods of administration which express class and caste relationships and status. The four decades of Commonwealth control had by 1953 seen the transition from rationing points to settlements on reserves, and to institutions which had their own authoritarian logic. The settlers’ and the officials’ attitudes had been confirmed in the old patterns, and by now a difficult barrier to change was the settled and institutionalised Aboriginal group, with the special resistances and suspicions which such a situation produces in the inmates.

… Yet the whole purpose of the later effort was to get to grips with a situation where Aborigines were already largely institutionalised and the objective was to train and educate the inmates for a full role in the general community. That this effort has met with so little success must raise serious doubts about the means used.

The key element in Rowley’s discussion, for me, is in the first sentence quoted: the importance of Aboriginal decision and autonomy. Rowley’s history is a catalog of the denial of autonomy–indeed the failure to attribute the capacity for autonomous, rational decision-making–to the Aboriginal people of the continent. This is a mistake that permeates Macleod’s narrative, and is unfortunately all too often expressed in the newspapers in 2006.

So much of what we experience as Aboriginal art is the ongoing attempt to communicate indigenous values to the occupiers of their land. The Elcho Island Memorial and the Yirrkala Bark Petition stand out as premier examples of this from half a century ago. The art of the Western Desert may have begun as an outpouring of emotion, of sadness at the loss of country, but its practitioners soon realized its political potential in asserting their claims to their country. But these messages go largely unreceived in the sphere of politics and the law.

Hence the appeal of Germaine Greer’s occasionally loopy essay Whitefella Jump Up: the shortest way to nationhood (Profile Books, 2004, originally published in Quarterly Essay, 2003) lies not in her analysis of Henry Lawson’s frontier tales or in her examination of the blight of grog upon all Australians, white and black, but in the fundamental, radical, deconstructionst notion that white Australia should come to define itself first as an Aboriginal nation. She wants us to ask what would happen if we took Aboriginal values as the given in race relations and in nation building rather than the European assumptions of material advantage, economic development (the production and amassing of wealth), and the inevitability of progress. Whatever you may think of Greer’s arguments, whether her notion of Aboriginality is brilliant or romantic to the point of stupidity, I think you have to admire the sheer imaginative leap she takes in writing this screed. And, as she says repeatedly, all she asks is that we sit and think about the proposition. (The book contains excellent responses to Greer’s arguments by, among others, Marcia Langton, Mary Ellen Jordan, Les Murray, Lillian Holt, and members of the Durack family, whose forbears receive rather harsh treatment from Greer.)

Each of these books makes for topical and thought-provoking reading in these months when talk of depopulating remote areas, closing down “unsustainable” settlements, and devaluing customary law fills the news media. To me they point out how blind much contemporary policy is to the lessons of the past, perhaps even how ignorant of the facts of the past today’s politicians and commentators are. The variety of approaches these authors employ–Macleod’s personal memoir, Rowley’s academic history, Greer’s imaginative polemic–makes each volume resonate differently. In combination, they make for highly recommended reading.

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