A Short Coda on an Aboriginal Tragedy

In a comment on my previous post on the root of the current Aboriginal tragedy, the one that I believe the Intervention is failing to address, David Spence had the following incisive remarks to offer:

We seem consumed by endless discussion about the ‘means’ but just what is the ‘end’ that we seek with, for, or by indigenous communities?

Maybe it is simplistic, but I think we will not achieve (with, for, or by indigenous Australians) anything of lasting benefit until someone can define a state of affairs which could be considered ‘a successful outcome’.

I have yet to read anywhere, anyone’s idea or definition of what would be considered ‘a successful outcome’. Why is that? Antigone had a simple choice. I wish it were so easy.

I don’t know that I have answers to David’s questions; I’m not sure I’d feel comfortable promulgating them if I did, for I don’t believe it’s my place to say what Aboriginal people want, or even what most Australians want. But I think I can point to a couple of problems that are impeding progress towards a successful outcome, whatever that may be.

There seems to be a fair amount of evidence that even when Aboriginal people express what they consider to be a successful outcome, there are often reasons why their desires cannot be met. There has been much talk about the failure of “self-determination” and more that a few critics have blamed the Indigenous communities for that failure. The rest have blamed the government: usually Liberals are heard blaming Labor (or small-l liberals) for promoting such a bone-headed idea in the first place.

In this matter, it is useful to revisit Pam Nathan and Dick Leichleitner Japanangka’s study Settle Down Country (Pmere Arlaltyewele) (Kibble Books/Central Australian Aboriginal Congress, 1983). Written during the height of the early days of the Outstation Movement in the Central Desert, it usefully documents both things that people who were attempting to take up the challenge of self-determination wanted, and the government’s response to their requests for help in establishing these remote communities.

In the book’s fourth chapter, “Country Camps: Struggle for Survival,” Nathan and Japanangka survey eighteen settlements in the areas surrounding Yuendumu, Papunya, and Docker River. Although there is some variation from area to area and settlement to settlement, some common themes emerge: housing and ablution facilities, trucks, radios, bores and windmills for water, stores, schools, and health care.

The authors document the status of the fulfillment of these requests, and the record is dismal.

It is clear that there are enormous deficiencies in the provision of essential services to the country camps and these, we believe, could seriously threaten the viability of the movement. The relevant government departments have not provided substantial material support, and certainly no moral support, to the people living on the camps. There appears to be no coherent explanation of the inequities in funding and the provision of services across the three regions involved in this study. The camps in the Papunya region, although by no means well provided for, appear to have more of the services essential for country camp life than the camps in the Yuendumu and Docker River regions.

The primary needs expressed by the Aboriginal people included water, transport, communication facilities, and shelter. Secondary requirement included schooling, health services, employment, stores and ablution facilities. None of these services are adequately provided at any of the country camps, some of which have been established for six to seven years.

Finally, it is remarkable that records kept on the country camps by the relevant departments are not comprehensive. One wonders about the criteria used to determine financial allocations (p. 150).

In the book’s final chapter, “Two Sides of Accountability” the authors look at the differing responses of the Department of Aboriginal Affairs (DAA) and the Aboriginal Development Corporation (ADC). It is their belief that the ADC, which is composed of Aboriginal people, is better at listening, but they also know that it is the DAA that controls the money. They provide an extensive report on an inquiry into conditions in Kintore in 1981, “not to make it hard for the people who work for the government agencies but in the hope that they might start to listen to Aboriginal people and might give them the right to self-determination, including the control of a reasonable share of the public money” (p. 155).

All of this is well-trod territory, and I engage with it once more primarily to recommend Settle Down Country as an interesting and important document from the early days of self-determination that might usefully be consulted, not simply for its historical perspective, but because it is one of the few places outside of official government reports where the views of Aboriginal people about what they want have been recorded and then widely disseminated.

In my second response to David’s query, I would like to return to a theme that I passed over obliquely in my last post, which is that of choice. Antigone’s choice is necessarily tragic because of the way in which her options are structured. What if it is not a question of what the goals or the ends are but how the pathways to them are structured or defined that means the difference between success and failure, between hope and tragedy?

Again, I will resurrect a much-discussed dichotomy for the purposes of illustration. One high-positive value for Aboriginal people is education, or literacy, which entails attendance at school. Another high-positive value is participation in ceremony, such as sorry business, whereby children learn “proper culture,” Anangu way, or Yolngu way. 

Parents want both for their children, but it seems that in today’s world, choosing one implies the destruction of the other. The demands of sorry business can take a child out of school for weeks at a time; months possibly given the death rate in some remote communities today. Regular attendance at school presents a host of problems if parents and kin must leave the community to participate in extended ceremonies. Must children be sequestered in a dormitory environment in order to maintain their attendance at school? Who looks after them when kin are far away? Do they then grow up literate, but at the cost of cultural knowledge that can only be obtained through observation and participation?

I don’t know if there is an answer to those questions, but perhaps, if cultural immersion and literacy are both high-positive values that Indigenous parents want their children to achieve, can we give some thought to how both might be accomplished? Is there a way to avoid another tragedy?

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