The Australian Anthropology Society has issued the following statement on recent events affecting indigenous people in Australia. My thanks to Margo Smith, curator of theKluge-Ruhe Aboriginal Art Collection in Charlottesville, Virginia (USA), for sharing it with me. Margo holds a Ph.D in Anthropology from the University of Virginia, and did the fieldwork for her dissertation with the women of Aputula (Finke), NT.
Statement on recent policy trends in Indigenous affairs
The Australian Anthropology Society registers deep concerns at the policy direction the Australian nation is taking towards its Indigenous citizens. As a group of scholars, many with long-standing and ongoing professional experience of remote as well as rural and urban Aboriginal communities, we offer the following comments:
- Australia has refused to sign the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, a document that was many years in the making. The Declaration does not provide an alternative set of laws to those of Australia or of any other nation. What it does do is oblige nation states to support the capacity of Indigenous populations to act. It aims to enhance the capacity of those populations, and individuals within them, to determine their modes of life within the laws and institutions of the states of which they are citizens. We and our Indigenous colleagues and friends cannot help but wonder at Australia’s ungenerous response to the non-binding but uplifting principles contained in the UN Declaration.
- Minority populations with different social and cultural histories are a feature of many modern nation-states, and the ability to treat such people honourably is a measure of the maturity and humanity of a nation. Despite the body of work produced by anthropologists, the varied Indigenous societies that have interacted with the radically different European settlers at various stages since 1788 are little understood in their own country. Even the simplest features of the classical Aboriginal traditions — the totemic and moiety divisions, the mutual dependence and reciprocity built into ceremonial and economic arrangements, the multilingualism evident among the wealth of languages — are less well known to educated Australians than is the Indian caste system or the Spanish bullfight. Without knowledge of the normal economic, political and family structures that comprised the everyday life of Indigenous people, there can be little appreciation of the radical destabilisation and restructuring that these societies have had to manage.
- Aboriginal people have been adjusting to their changing social conditions, in some cases for over 200 years but in others within living memory. While a long-term assimilative process may be inevitable and can be constructive and even liberating, a large body of research demonstrates that forcing established social processes into a foreign mould is destructive of individuals, families and cultures. There is no doubt that the insistent pressures and stresses resulting from radical social change, without a respectful and reciprocal relationship with the nation’s authorities, have been responsible for severely destabilising family authority and informal community standards of care and protection for the young and the vulnerable. This breakdown in turn has made it difficult to maintain social control. It is the loss of a coherent community structure that has seen the emergence of some extreme examples of social pathology, which, it must be stressed, are neither typical nor representative of the majority of Indigenous people.
- The despair, desperation and destructive violence that mars the social life of a substantial number of Indigenous communities does demand government action. Indeed action is long overdue, but dealing with social dysfunction in a clumsy and ill informed manner is likely to compound the level of disorder and add to estrangement. Anthropologists working in Australia are personally and painfully aware of real and urgent humanitarian needs. Only the most scandalous and shameful of these feature in the media; the chronic conditions that generate them are not so obvious. Effective policy responses require an intelligent understanding and respect for the conditions and the people involved. The language of aggressive assimilationism is not effective in dealing with culturally distinct and historically alienated people. Although initially time consuming, processes of negotiation with respected individuals and relevant organizations are far more effective and thus, in the longer term, more economical. Measures for which Aboriginal people have been pleading for years — more police and law enforcement, better housing, and effective implementation of alcohol prohibitions — should not appear as corrective measures imposed in a military-style operation.
- We believe strongly that the governing of vulnerable, marginal and excluded peoples carries an added responsibility as these are people whose voices are often muted in the public arena. Rather than welfare recipients being made the target of punitive measures, there needs to be long term commitment to a stable and holistic program of providing adequate resources for these communities to come to terms with their current conditions of integration with the state’s institutions and processes. A wealthy nation such as Australia surely has the knowledge, the expertise and the resources to provide excellence in education, housing and health for the relatively few residents of remote communities, as well as for other Indigenous Australians. It is crucial that these people are listened to, and thus enabled to take responsibility for the direction of their development into the future.