Santayana’s Curse

After seeing the Colliding Worlds exhibition at the Australian Museum earlier this year I’ve been doing some occasional reading on early contact in the Western Desert. I recently picked up Robert Tonkinson’s Aboriginal Victors of the Desert Crusade (Cummings Publishing, 1974), which recounts observations the author recorded during fieldwork in Jigalong in the 1960s.

This slim monograph provides an ethnographic introduction to the Mandjildjara-speaking peoples who gathered at the Jigalong settlement operated by missionaries of the fundamentalist Apostolic Church of Australia. The latter half of the study focuses specifically on relations between the Aboriginal people and the missionaries. 

One of the more amusing observations Tonkinson relates is that the missionaries’ highly moral behavior–they indulged not in smoking, cursing, drinking, gambling, or any vice common to other Australians–set them off in a category of their own. The Mandjildjara recognized two distinct categories of people who occupied their country: “whitefellas” and “Christians.”

Not amusing, however, is Tonkinson’s description of the missionaries’ assessment of the Mandjildjara and of the utter failure of communication between two groups of people who in many ways depended upon one another for the continuation of their respective ways of life in the Great Sandy Desert of the 1960s. Moralistic, zealous, given to a belief in imminent miracles, the missionaries sadly sound all too much like Mal Brough.

The adult Aborigines’ limited command of English and the refusal of the missionaries to learn the Aboriginal language are only part of the problem of poor intercultural communication at Jigalong. Both parties seem to engage in the deliberate perpetuation of faulty communication because it has positive survival value for both and is thus a major strategy for coping with the present situation. Both sides lack the desire to learn or understand more about each other’s values, behaviors, and culture in general, and are content to retain their mutually negative stereotypes. The combination of antithetical value systems and the absence of informal channels of communication ensures a continuing lack of rapport between them. At present neither side is willing to attempt an end to the standoff.

The missionaries share a consistently negative stereotype of the adult aborigines. Newly arrived missionaries quickly adopt the attitudes of their colleagues already at Jigalong and within a short time talk with conviction about the faults of the Aborigines: low intelligence, male cruelty, laziness, blatant lying, depraved sexual behavior, lack of hygiene, and complete lack of gratitude for goods and services rendered them. This attitude enables the missionaries to regard the adults as virtually beyond help or salvation (unless an outpouring of the Holy Sprit occurs) and justifies their continuing failure to either evangelize or “civilize” the adults.

Because the missionaries can remain at Jigalong only if they rationalize their failure and rid themselves of nagging self-doubt, their adaptive strategy is to blame the Aborigines for almost everything. For this reason they do not want to know more about the achievements of traditional desert culture, nor are they interested in stories of alleged missionary successes in other parts of Australia, because their negative stereotypes of the Aborigines must not be shattered (pp 126-127).

The irony is that the missionaries, having caused great numbers of people to gather together at Jigalong, found themselves unable to speak to them. In so doing they unwittingly strengthened the Law, by building the density of population needed to support the conduct of ceremony. But although at the time of Tonkinson’s fieldwork the “crusade” of the missionaries was being defeated by Aboriginal Law, he foresaw that economics would soon deal the Mandjildjara a severe setback.

For the attainment of long term and relatively successful integration, however, Aborigines would need the opportunity to increase their current socioeconomic status to a level commensurate with that of the bulk of the society. At present, the Aborigines are in all respects held at the bottom of the ladder. Unfortunately, employment opportunities in the drier interior of the continent are very limited and will probably remain so. In spite of their technological superiority, the whites have not been able to exploit the desert to their permanent advantage. Unlike the Aborigines in pre-contact days, they cannot sustain themselves there without considerable outside support. The aborigines in settlements have lost many of their old skills and have become increasingly dependent on whites, to the extent that welfare payments are now a major source of sustenance. It is hardly necessary to point out the long term negative consequences, yet it appears to be an inevitable result of the current lack of employment opportunities.

… If the history of culture contact in Australia is taken into account, it appears that the likelihood of any Aboriginal group integrating into the wider society, in such a way that it has economic viability yet retains much of its traditional values and behaviors, is remote (pp.152-153, emphasis added).

Although it feels as though the endgame of that economic struggle is being played out today, reading history tells us that it has all happened before with equal futility. I’ve recently finished Jeff Collmann’s Fringe Dwellers and Welfare: the Aboriginal response to bureaucracy (University of Queensland Press, 1988). The book’s very title should assert its relevance twenty years after publication, despite it being based on research done in the 1970s for the author’s doctorate in Anthropology from the University of Adelaide.

Collmann brings a sociological bent to his study of the fringe camps of Alice Springs. His thesis is interesting and important: that these camps do not represent a pathology. Here are the opening sentences of his introduction, which ought to be carefully considered by anyone who wishes to pronounce on the current state of Aboriginal affairs in Australia.

There is a tendency to analyse the social situation of contemporary Australian Aborigines as if they had fallen from a state of grace, the state of traditional Aboriginal society. The very terms of analysis (detribalization, dehumanization) conjure images of people lost and disoriented in a secular purgatory. A derivative tendency is to assess living Aborigines according to the extent of their damnation. According to this analysis there are a few, increasingly insignificant, “traditionally oriented” people who have not yet succumbed to the temptations of culture contact (p. 1).

Collmann was writing about the residents of the town camps on the outskirts of Alice Springs thirty years ago. The chief difference I can see today is that these same terms are now being used to characterize the remnants of the supposedly “traditionally oriented” people in remote communities across the Northern Territory. He argues that the fringe camps are not the result of a breakdown in Aboriginal culture and values. Instead they are a positive adaptation, a response to the destruction of their economy that resulted from the white man’s arrival.

Given that white men control the resources that Aboriginal people need to survive, the town camps represent a compromise: they are an attempt to build an environment that maximizes proximity to essential resources while minimizing social control by whites. Far from representing the “breakdown” or “collapse” of something, the town camps represent the construction of a new, utilitarian social order.

The critical point here is that Collmann insists on recognizing Aboriginal agency. Denied access to land, fringe-dwellers built an environment that gave them access to the resources they needed to survive in the cash economy, be that through work on cattle stations or through pensions provided for the support of children and the elderly. While not denying the havoc that alcohol wrought in the camps, Collmann demonstrates how access to liquor and the drinking sprees paid for by station wages allowed people to reproduce the mechanisms for managing interpersonal status that held society together in an alien and disruptive new social environment.

In his final chapters, Collmann documents the tragedy of the intrusions and capriciousness of a bureaucracy that attempted to impose a new order on Aboriginal society while paying no attention to the human needs of the people living in the Alice Springs outskirts. The superior technology and the blatant lack of consideration of the Euro-Australian incomers may combine to doom the attempts of the fringe-dwellers to succeed in mastering these changes, but Collmann paints an affecting portrait of people who never stop making choices and who persist in acting on their own behalf. As pitiful as the camps may appear to journalists and bureaucrats who enter them uninvited and who look at them without comprehension, they are still the work of men and women determined to survive in an increasingly indifferent and even hostile world.

Today’s unfolding tragedy is made of the same indifference and incomprehension. The government has unilaterally decided that Aboriginal people are incapable, pathological, and incompetent. Just as broken promises and red tape prevented the citizens of the camp Collmann calls Mt Kelly (located near the old Telegraph Station) from effecting material improvements in housing and sanitation, Brough and his cohorts are stripping communities of the resources they need to provide for themselves, to operate safe homes for battered women or patrols to take drunks off the street at night. Having destroyed a land-based economy in the twentieth century and forced Aboriginal people into a cash economy, the government is now disrupting the cash economy by garnishing welfare payments and dismantling CDEP. It is the tragedy of black Australia that it must pay the price for the Liberal Party’s failure to learn the lessons of history.

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One Response to Santayana’s Curse

  1. Pingback: I Am Large, I Contain Multitudes | Aboriginal Art & Culture: an American eye

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