Bipolar Perspectives on Remote Aboriginal Communities

Without question, David Scrimgeour was the right person, in the right place, at the right time. His remarkable career, often guided serendipitously, stretched over more than forty years of involvement in the delivery, and also the development and administration, of health services to remote Aboriginal communities, mainly in the Western Desert region. He was instrumental, from the beginning, in the establishment of some remote community-controlled health organisations, which were developing simultaneously with the homelands (“outstations”) movement, the drift of people from large missions and settlements to re-occupy their traditional land.

My own exposure to the health problems of Aboriginal people has been far more peripheral, initially treating the occasional patients transported into city tertiary hospitals, then later carrying out research in a few larger remote communities, while teaching aspects of indigenous health to undergraduates and post-graduates. Interaction with friends and colleagues who had worked in remote areas, either on location or with the Royal Flying Doctor Service, further piqued my interest, so it was with great anticipation that I purchased my copy of Remote as Ever, an eclectic combination of historical document, biography, travelogue and polemic. To avoid confusion here, I’ll minimise mention of all the communities and groups with whom Scrimgeour worked, but any mindful reader will learn much from his detailed account—bearing in mind that this informative introduction to modern desert Aboriginal communities is definitely not bedtime reading!

The son of a Presbyterian minister, Scrimgeour graduated in Medicine at the University of Melbourne in 1974 and headed off for his first posting, at the Royal Darwin Hospital, only to be diverted to Alice Springs by the rude intrusion of Cyclone Tracy. His very brief stay there sparked a lifelong interest in working with Aboriginal patients, and a love of the desert landscape. He was forced to backtrack to Melbourne, where he spent the next three years developing his general practice skills, before returning to Alice Springs to work for the Central Australian Aboriginal Congress. His first job there was based at the Aboriginal-owned cattle station of Utopia, 200 kilometres north-east of Alice Springs, from which he provided healthcare to about 600 people living in small dispersed communities. After a short stint there, he went to work with the Pitjantjatjara and Ngaanyatjarra people (“Anangu” meaning “people” in their language, equivalent to “Yolngu” in Arnhem Land). This, and each of the subsequent chapters, provides a fairly comprehensive and interesting background history, and geography, of the regions, before chronicling his personal involvement. Each of the chapters, on the Pitjantjatjara Homelands Health Service, the Strelly Mob and the Martu, Pintupi country and its health service, and the Spinifex people, comes with a clear, full-page, accompanying map, which I found very useful, although a few more locations on each map would have helped better explain much of the text. Subsequent chapters, especially towards the end, venture deep into polemic territory.

He must have kept a detailed diary, for he reels off an endless list of the people he met, something I found distracting at times, although some of them did return in later pages in continuing roles (and a detailed index is also provided). Possibly, he felt the need to record them for posterity, seeing it’s most unlikely anyone else will document this remote but pivotal phase in recent Australian history. Scrimgeour often writes how much he liked or got on well with someone, or how hard someone worked, which made we wonder about the others who scored only a passing mention. The cast includes quite a few fascinating and odd characters, spread over all categories of “missionary, mercenary or misfit”.

Scrimgeour clearly loved the work, despite the obvious hardships. Travel involved driving huge distances along rough roads (I’d love to know his total mileage), and he even acquired a pilot’s licence; one community provided an aircraft (for a total population of 400 people!), while another chartered a long-term aircraft for his use (he at one point mentions taking elderly people for “joy flights” to see their old country, too far to reach easily by four-wheel-drive). On arriving in a new location, he’d at times sleep on the ground in his swag, treating patients out in the open, while awaiting more permanent arrangements (often in the form of a small caravan). Water was always an issue, pumped from bores by windmills, but the need for toilets seemed to be generally overlooked. To facilitate communication, he undertook a Pitjantjatjara language course, which expedited his work throughout the Western Desert region. Later, he took short breaks in large centres to improve his paediatric and obstetrical skills, and then undertook training in public health.

While Scrimgeour was predominantly concerned with the provision of health services, he detailed, particularly in his descriptions of setting up shop at Kintore, how bores, windmills, tanks, hand-pumps and taps were routinely installed by skilled mechanics (some employed full-time by the local health services) in these small communities, but the need for latrines was overlooked. Everyone, health staff included (until provided with their own shower and toilet facilities) simply “went bush”. This meant that, within a very short time, the environment around the settlement, for hundreds of metres, would have become heavily contaminated with human (and canine) faeces, “foul ground” saturated with various pathogens (one of the reasons for traditional hunter-gatherer groups to change locations periodically). Unsurprisingly, infantile diarrhoea was rampant, with many severely dehydrated kids being aerially evacuated for resuscitation in Alice Springs and other centres. Scrimgeour did attribute this to “poor hygiene”, but praised the efficiency of transport services, rather than emphasising the need for some basic, contained toilet facilities that could have been readily installed early. Low-tech, slit-trench latrines, as used so effectively on military exercises, could have been dug in a day, before the installation of more complicated (and problem-ridden) septic tank systems. This would have been the most economic and efficacious measure to promote community health. While he alludes to “parasites”, the ones most directly causing anaemia in children (and women) would have been hookworms, transmitted in fouled, damp, shady areas—such as around the water tanks and taps, no doubt a favourite habitat of kids. (Flies don’t rate a mention, but I’d guess they’d be ubiquitous, and important vectors of some infections.)

Over time, Scrimgeour familiarised himself, often in intimate detail, with the territory and people, extending from around Alice Springs in the Northern Territory to the Pilbara and southern Kimberley of Western Australia, and down almost to the Great Australian Bight in South Australia. He briefly describes the evolution of Aboriginal habitation, how it was affected by the mining and cattle industries, how the missions and hub towns formed, the intrusions of British weapons research in the 1950s, and the destabilising effects of constant policy changes in far-removed political centres. With growing pressures in the larger communities, made up of mixed clan groups (exacerbated by alcohol, drugs, petrol-sniffing and violence), the people longed to return to their previous lives on familiar territory, to live in far smaller, more mobile, compatible groups. While the older folk were understandably nostalgic for their old country, this held less meaning for the youngsters, habituated to town life. However, instead of their traditional walking, travel was all now done in four-wheel-drive vehicles (less often, aircraft: just about every outstation had its own airstrip), taking advantage of all the roads built, and maintained, by the invaders. And those small, homeland groups demanded to be provided with housing, food and fuel, and their own “community-controlled” health service, while at the same time requesting “autonomy” and “self-determination” (it’s never made clear whether it was the locals who articulated this, or just their political “representatives” in the larger centres, or maybe even only Scrimgeour himself, who uses the terms repeatedly).

All these needs were supposed to be satisfied by outsiders, while the locals, left with very little to do, would sit around idly, talking, playing cards, occasionally going out to hunt or collect “bushfoods”. It was no surprise that their health rapidly deteriorated, with obesity, hypertension, diabetes and renal disease making devastating and expensive inroads. Children were not unscathed. While still on breast milk for their first six months or so of life, they seemed fine, but once left to their own devices, especially with the growing dependence on imported, sugar-based, low-nutrient foods, their teeth rotted, while malnutrition stunted their development and immunity, predisposing them to a range of infectious diseases.

Scrimgeour relates his involvement with several small extended-family groups who emerged, in excellent health, after decades of living in the desert. Of course, they’d have had little choice but to be in excellent health—these were the survivors, who walked everywhere, lived entirely off the land and (not mentioned) did not avail themselves of the benefits of modern medicine. 

While the descriptions are graphic, there seems a lack of critical perspective, particularly of the receiving end: what kind of reciprocity from the Aboriginal people might help improve their lot? Everything the Aboriginal people demanded seemed acceptable to Scrimgeour, and he was there simply as their servant. He was more than happy to work alongside “traditional healers”, who relied on magic and sorcery, and they must have exploited his ready acceptance of their collaborative “skills”.

He advocates that outside workers in remote communities should learn the local languages to be more effective. That was fine for him, whose extensive, focused career offered ample time and covered an area where just one Aboriginal language (with many dialects) sufficed, but it’s hardly practical advice for a young doctor (or other service-provider) wishing to spend only a year or two out there. And, should that person then move to work with a completely different group, she would then need to start all over again. Sourcing tuition would be a challenge, especially for languages that have few speakers and no written literature. Why can’t English be the lingua franca, seeing it’s Australia’s official language? What’s wrong with expecting dwellers in remote places to learn English, especially if they’re serious about joining the mainstream economy and getting real jobs?

He mentions it was all about teamwork, but the doctor is the most highly regarded, authoritative and usually best-paid team member, allowing him (or her) exceptional flexibility. Scrimgeour was able to take prolonged breaks, at different times travelling to India and working with refugees in Sudan. His work and travels provided him with a good view of the “big picture”, and no doubt meshed comfortably with his ideology (which, in turn, influenced his worldview), as revealed strongly in the final few chapters.

Mingling mainly with other service providers would have distanced him from the mundane affairs of the common inhabitants, his patients. Employment on a generous salary (ultimately sourced from governments), with a high degree of freedom to determine one’s work arrangements, not surprisingly enhances one’s self-importance, and tendency to socialistic ideation (not unusual amongst public health workers). He expresses fondness for the “progressive”, anti-assimilationist policies of Whitlam and his Aboriginal-affairs adviser, H.C. Coombs, while denigrating the “neo-liberals” and anything done later by the Howard administration, blind to its motives, challenges and achievements. He recounts (with some pride, I’d guess) attending a National Aboriginal and Islander Health Organisation meeting in Perth in 1980, where he was invited outside by celebrity Gary Foley to share a smoked joint.

Right at the beginning, Scrimgeour relates overhearing one of his early mentors, a physician working in Alice Springs, declare that “dignity is more important than penicillin or toilets”, and repeats this vacuous quote (which might explain his reliance on flying sick kids off to large centres ahead of installing latrines in remote communities) at the head of his concluding chapter. A patient dying of severe cholera or typhoid, or a mangled accident victim lying in a hospital emergency department, might take issue with that mantra. My guess is that toilets have prevented more deaths, and penicillin has saved many more lives, than all the dignity in the world. Most doctors I know take the need for patient dignity and confidentiality in their stride. It’s why we have curtains and partitions in clinics and hospitals. In one place, he describes how “traditional healers” theatrically “extract” stones, splinters and even bullets from ailing bodies to impress audiences, while elsewhere he extols the virtues of remote clinics as protective of patient confidentiality, as if this were a unique need of Aborigines. Like the rest of us, some don’t mind being put on show, while others are desperately shy, or would just prefer to keep their ailments private.

In Scrimgeour’s view, the remote, homeland, community-controlled health centres allow for a “bi-cultural model”, retaining language and traditions while enabling “socio-economic enhancement” (the latter would be driven by art centres for the old, and environmental management for the young). His wish-list of requisite services is essentially identical with those available in mainstream, urban communities (in fact, he even recommends providing community-controlled health services for urban indigenous populations—while so many of our economically-viable rural communities cannot find a GP), with no consideration given to cost or logistical challenges. “Struggle for autonomy” and “self-determination” come up ad nauseam, but are nowhere explained. Meanwhile, all the material support and infrastructure, starting with food, water, housing, power, communications, schooling, medical services and transport, are provided, gratis, by outsiders.

Scrimgeour knows these remote homelands are unstable, acknowledging that hunter-gatherer societies tend to resolve conflict by fission—which explains why the homelands movement arose in the first place. People leaving these groups drift into others, which grow by fusion, creating dynamic flux in the populations and structures of these remote communities. They can appear unexpectedly, change in size and composition (ranging from forty to 400 people or so), then inexplicably dissolve. Their average size is about 150 people: Dunbar’s Number. It was gratifying to see Scrimgeour acknowledge the evolutionary anthropologist who first proposed this statistic, attributing it to the social capacity of the human brain (I think it more in keeping with the prevalence of alpha males, narcissistic psychopaths, some perhaps psychotic, who initiate breakaway movements from tribal groups). However, the very real problems of violence, vandalism, theft, humbugging and ennui in these groups are hardly touched upon. Providing healthcare, let alone permanent housing and other infrastructure, to such isolated, unstable entities can be like chasing a moving target. Highlighted repeatedly is the tangled mess that the funding and administration of remote health services was, and still is—and very likely will always remain, under our democratic political system. The on-ground community services, run by committees of individuals not always from the same clan and moving across state and territory borders, are funded and administered via regional bodies, state and federal government departments and, once upon a time, ATSIC. This is all reflected in the endlessly changing, often confusing, names and, of course, notorious acronyms.

While nearing the end of Remote as Ever, I came upon a review of Don Watson’s The Passion of Private White, of which the title alone would never have attracted me to this engaging, albeit heart-breaking book. It is also about remote indigenous communities, in this case focused on just one, in north-eastern Arnhem Land. For a group living in tropical savanna country, the landscapes, fauna and flora differ from those in the deserts, with ready access to surface water (and fish!), but the fundamental challenges are very similar: indigenous culture succumbing to extrinsic influences. Neither an autobiography nor political tract, it’s more a case study in socio-psychology, describing how a most unusual, hard-driven, energetic individual channelled struggles with his demons into altruism, in a region saturated with challenges.

In contrast to Scrimgeour’s broad landscape, Watson paints a detailed, microcosmic portrait of man and place. We are immersed in the daily intricacies of communal life, with its rapid changes over recent decades, and at the same time are provided with a lucid background to the history, geography and sociology of Arnhem Land. This nicely complements Scrimgeour’s descriptions of the desert country further south and west. Coincidentally, the time frames of both books overlap almost completely, with similar issues covered, although the medical aspects here are peripheral (but, as to be expected, still inextricable from lifestyles).

Author and protagonist first met in 1968, as students at Melbourne’s new La Trobe University, and stayed sporadically in touch ever since, Neville White eventually inviting Watson in 2004 to accompany him on his fieldwork. White (born in Geelong in 1945), son of a champion boxer and trainer, had recently returned from a traumatic stint as a conscript in Vietnam, and was studying science and philosophy, then genetics and anthropology. He first ventured into the Northern Territory in 1971, starting an extremely ambitious honours project on Elcho Island to “collect raw biological data from eighteen communities and thirty ‘tribes’ or language groups, stretching from the deserts of Central Australia to islands off the northern coast and in the Gulf of Carpentaria”. That included biographical details and genealogies of all the study subjects. Intriguingly, he learned that Yolngu languages did not have words for “nature” or “culture”—which they didn’t distinguish. Watson doesn’t hide the political tensions underlying this work, with accusations of “racism” and “eugenics” not far below the surface.

On Elcho, White was advised to base himself at the outstation of Donydji, a community of fifty or sixty people from several Yolngu clans, mainly Bidingal Ritharrngu, the most “traditional” people in Arnhem Land, about 250 kilometres south-west of Yirrkala. It was to become his focus of “the next half-century of ‘participant observation’”. His work extended into a PhD project, commenced in 1974, with the genetics focused on fingerprints (DNA technology hadn’t yet been invented). These people, unlike their coastal Yolngu counterparts, had essentially remained on their land, and persisted extensively in hunter-gathering activities. White was appointed lecturer at La Trobe University and, after completing his PhD thesis (title: Tribes, Genes and Habitats) in 1978, continued anthropological work at Donydji for more than four decades, spending about two months each year in the field, determined to observe passively and record without interfering in the people’s lives.

In the community, he set up his tent alongside the local dwellings at the end of the airstrip, and immersed himself in the local culture, mastering the languages and complex genealogies, sharing their bush tucker, participating in all their activities (some at great personal danger), and getting to know all the people as if members of his own family, seeing many born and watching them grow up (and some die). Inevitably, he was drawn into feuds and skirmishes, from which he endeavoured to remain detached. There was nothing of the “noble savage” in this “traditional” community, with sources of stress and anxiety constantly present among its members. Solidly entrenched superstitions, with persisting belief in sorcery and magic, contributed to much of the inter-personal and inter-group conflict. While Donydji’s administrative centre was at Elcho Island, its nearest hub town was Gapuwiyak, about 130 kilometres away, ninety minutes by road. It was visited not only for shopping trips, but also as an escape for the young men, providing access to alcohol, kava, marijuana (and other drugs), and perhaps easy women, and so was despised by the elders.

Watson meticulously fits White’s work into the bigger picture of anthropology in Australia, and highlights the importance to Aboriginal men of not only hunting, but also of:

the unrivalled thrill of combat, the enjoyment of warfare … whether in satisfaction of a grudge or to procure women, the abolition of warfare drained something essential from the lives of men. Warfare reinforced kinship structure and tribal laws. It was essential to the culture of the clans. War was the ultimate test of manhood, part of life’s pattern, a logical extension of customary belief.

Neville White documented all the plants and animals that were important to traditional survival, as well as the seriously damaging effects of invasive species, particularly buffaloes, cattle, pigs, cats and, later, cane toads. Of course, these changed the nature of hunting, so that “by the 1980s, the greater part [of meat, the food most craved] was not wallaby, kangaroo or even buffalo, but feral cats shot by the men or dragged out of trees and clubbed to death by the women”. This added to women’s work, who kept on foraging, fishing, catching birds and reptiles, gathering firewood and generally maintaining households. Sedentism brought about a change in land-burning regimens; instead of the old, systematic, mosaic burning with cool fires, the now erratic, uncontrolled hot-burns devastated the ecology, destroying much of the smaller wildlife and food plants. Increasing dependence on imported food only aggravated the people’s declining health. In the early 1980s, White estimated each Donydji person’s average sugar consumption was two kilograms a week! Rotting teeth, previously unheard of, were fast become a major problem.

To monitor these trends, he had a caravan fitted out as a health laboratory, then towed it the 4000 kilometres from Melbourne to Donydji. This was the beginning of the long-term La Trobe University Donydji Biological Research Project, in which several doctors participated, including White’s wife. Later, dealing with the suffering of a local almost incapacitated by a severe dental abscess, he set up a dental van in 1990 with a collaborating dentist, to which the Northern Territory government officer in Nhulunbuy responded with derision and resistance.

Watching the intrusions of mining companies, the thoughtless, stupid, extravagantly entitled and often obstructionist behaviour of bureaucrats (who engaged in a tangled mess of turf-protection and buck-passing), the rapacious mendacity of some advisers, consultants and tradesmen, deteriorating community health, and the compounding dysfunction as people spent more time away (with exposure to drugs and alcohol), eventually broke down his resistance to intervening. He was to become “project manager, facilitator, money raiser, go-between, advocate, patron, benefactor, urger—altruist”.

Suffering from his own PTSD (with the added worry of metastatic melanoma), and socialising with his similarly affected wartime mates back in Melbourne, White envisaged mutual benefits arising from their involvement in his project. He quickly recruited a small team of Vietnam vets to apply their skills to improving Donydji living conditions, and attracted sponsors, of which the Melbourne Rotary Club became the most substantial and reliable. It was heart-warming to read of the group’s annual visits to Donydji, starting in 2003, to build and fit out a well-equipped workshop, repair and paint old buildings, fix up plumbing and pumps, and much more, including adding new accommodation under the locals’ direction. (A consultant visited to ensure that no sacred sites had been violated, while a health and safety inspector flew in from Darwin to find there were no “Exit” signs above the workshop’s two large doors; a few weeks later, he returned to make sure they’d been installed correctly.) They bought a tractor, and taught some young men to use it.

Major improvements came with every annual visit by the vets, and they even set up a training scheme, teaching valuable technical skills to the young men, enthusiastic and capable students. The energetic and efficient work of the volunteers contrasted with the lazy and fraudulent efforts of some exorbitantly paid visiting tradesmen. The vets couldn’t help but wonder “how, if a Rotary club and a handful of late-middle-aged men could get so much done, and teach as they went, the nation could be so chronically ineffectual”. What comes through strongly is just what a huge improvement those generous volunteers made to the infrastructure of that community, to its living conditions, and to the mental state and prospects of its younger members.

Needless to say, there were setbacks, not entirely unpredictable, but often extremely trying. “Casual anarchy” prevailed, with theft and vandalism targeted at the team’s creations during its prolonged absences. At each such point, one can’t help wondering if this is where White and his team might finally break—but no, it didn’t happen. Watson presents an almost endless string of anecdotes, some amusing and others infuriating, that highlight the challenges faced, by both the locals and their outside helpers, in maintaining the viability of such outstations. The habitual bureaucratic stupidity, obstructionism and wastage are simply mind-boggling, although the behaviour of many locals, partly driven culturally, could also be exasperating and confronting. Watson’s account becomes a quixotic saga of supra-Shakespearean proportions (which, for some reason, brought to mind Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, not a valid comparison).

Early in his work, White became the uneasy protege of the community’s reluctant chief elder, Tom, who was instrumental in his pupil’s education about language, culture and country. After Tom’s climactic death, the funerary rituals are described in detail, illustrating the irresolvable tensions arising from the degradation of traditional culture by modern technology. It almost drove White to finally quit his project—but he relented, yet again. In his coda, Watson reveals how Donydji was still alive and functioning in 2022, albeit now “owned” by a different clan, while the men still domineered over the women, as always, and its future without White’s oversight in question.

Some reviewers have drawn a parallel between the war traumas of the Vietnam vets and the Aboriginal people, but that’s a far call. The locals viewed the outsiders, even after befriending them, not as soul brothers, but as those helpers described so vividly in Kim Mahood’s 2012 Griffith Review essay “Kartiya Are Like Toyotas”—thrash them for all they’re worth, drive them into the ground, then wait for the next replacement. A born leader, White certainly stood out from the crowd, given his prolonged immersion in the community (which exploited him fully as its “Mr Fix-it”), whereas his FIFO veteran mates were at a disadvantage, not speaking the language.

Both these books illustrate the dramatic changes in remote Aboriginal communities over the past fifty years: one from the broad perspective of a GP-public-health-physician/administrator who travelled and worked over a huge swathe of desert country, the other the detailed observations of a conscientious, hard-working anthropologist enmeshed with just one small community, of which he’d become almost a family member, even an “elder”. Both reflect the early optimism around encouraging Aboriginal people to move away from increasingly dysfunctional, “artificial” agglomerations back to their tribal lands, with the full expectation of great improvements in their health and general well-being.

The underlying assumptions about the benefits of “traditional” lifestyles and “culture” failed to consider the inevitable inroads of modern technology, and the tensions arising between older and younger generations. Walking the country had ceased long ago, with the arrival of motorised transport, while hunting (now using firearms) had become a diversion, given the ready access to processed foods. Furthermore, the people had also become addicted to living in modern housing, with all the mod-cons, now including air-conditioning, television, internet and telephone connectivity—all provided essentially gratis, and maintained by government agents. At Donydji, with accumulating personal property, people became increasingly reluctant to leave for any period of time, because of inevitable theft, and the likelihood of their houses being taken over by others (fully predictable, in the absence of title rights). This sedentism also increased the pressure on local wildlife and plants as a food source, already stressed by ecological disruption, meaning even greater reliance on imported foods. While the old folk, in their rapidly dwindling numbers, felt at home on their familiar lands, the young, bored and seeing little point in remote existence, were drawn to the hub towns and beyond, succumbing to all the vices on offer.

The early hopes for a renaissance in tribal living gradually evaporated, transforming into frustration and deepening disappointment. Scrimgeour still believes the remote settlements, with their community-controlled health services, should be fully supported, despite their total dependence on outside staff and other resources. White also carries a residue of optimism, despite having experienced first-hand the disintegration of clan and family relationships, the deterioration of health, and the growing frustration, with wanton vandalism and violence, amongst younger people. He must be well aware of how the Donydji community had grown so dependent on his sustained, superhuman efforts—but Australia simply can’t muster enough Neville Whites to support all its remote outstations, regardless of how much money is invested.

The attempt to “reconnect people to country” poses fundamental challenges and raises big questions. As for the importance of country in “Yolngu hearts and minds”, Watson observes:

But country was not everything. If it were everything, as Bill Stanner wrote, no one would leave it. Yet for tobacco, tea, flour and sugar, for marriage, medicine, convenience and safety the owners have been coming and going—and often just going—ever since Europeans arrived. There are many clan lands in Arnhem Land that are now empty.

“Connection to country” is not something we are born with, but derives from a lifetime of living and walking on the land, something that is now lost forever. The remote communities are not static or stable—they fluctuate in size and composition, as people come and go, seasonally, for ceremonial purposes (including protracted funerals), or from interpersonal and inter-tribal friction. New groups form, older ones can dwindle, or completely disband and disappear. As for their infrastructure, nobody owns the houses, so nobody cares for them, and new ones will always be built, regardless. While the nostalgia of the older people for country long-gone is understandable, it is not a world fit for their young generations, who no longer have meaningful links to that land, and resort to alcohol and drugs, petrol-sniffing, violence, crime and suicide out of boredom and despair. Looking at just health funding, support comes in from states, territories, the Commonwealth and various agencies (even ATSIC contributed, in its time, but that still was government money). Even if funding could be stabilised and locked in, issues will remain at the user end.

The need to safeguard “traditional culture” has become a mindless mantra, begging the question: What exactly is “traditional culture”, this almost sacred entity which seems to be nameless in indigenous languages? While most of us think of art—the fine arts (drawing, painting, sculpture) or performing arts (music, dance, drama and, in literate societies, poetry and literature)—perhaps the clearest definition, in the anthropological context, is that provided by Melvin Konner’s The Tangled Wing: Biological Constraints on the Human Spirit: culture is socially transmitted, adjustable behaviour that becomes a population characteristic (and so includes language—indeed, language is fundamental to all human cultures, and probably to the cultures of some other species, if modulated sonic communication is defined as language). Cultures direct and complement our hard-wired behaviour, based on instincts and physiological drives, and are essential to survival. Hence, they also evolve, constantly changing over time. For human societies, they consolidate co-operative (or conflictive) behaviour, add meaning, purpose and structure to our lives, and provide entertainment. Traditional Aboriginal existence was intimately and permanently linked to the earth—exquisite familiarity with large tracts of it, derived from walking everywhere and performing all mundane activities upon it: obtaining food, eating, resting, talking, sleeping, in fact all bodily functions, including giving birth and dying. Now, life is divorced from the ground, in houses, vehicles and health clinics: connection totally lost.

The old people’s cultures integrated all their myths, songs, rituals, ceremonies, proscriptions and laws into their basic survival behaviour, an “applied cosmology”. These mechanisms facilitated the transmission, accumulation and retention of essential knowledge across time and space, handed down between generations. This has now been totally transformed (a “cultural revolution”), effectively into an unstable, hybrid, technology-dependent, sedentary lifestyle. What purpose remains for all those residual cultural elements, shards now separated from their broader context, other than perhaps as nostalgia therapy, or tourist entertainment? People driving and flying over the country have lost all need, all opportunity, to become familiar with its intimate details. Life now on the homelands would be impossible, even unimaginable, without four-wheel-drive vehicles—despite Neville White’s belief that “No person or thing did more to bring about a decline in health and communality than the four-wheel drive”, which has made everyone lazy, shattering their links with the land. It has also introduced another source of friction, something else to covet, steal or fight over, as well as a major cause of death, especially by facilitating access to alcohol.

Is the loss of traditional cultures and languages to be mourned? Every person alive today derives from an uninterrupted (“longest, continuous”) line of culture (and genetic heritage) extending all the way back to the first Homo sapiens in Africa; does any of us long for the ways of our ancestors, or have any inkling of the myriads of languages they must have spoken, and are now extinct? Should the young indigenous people of Australia’s remote regions be locked into ancient practices and languages that will limit their future prospects, trapped in perpetual dysfunction and dependence, for the benefit of academic linguists, or purveyors of romantic noble-savage mythology? In fact, in many outback communities, the young have already developed their own “Kriol”, a pidgin hybrid of Aboriginal languages and English, certainly not traditional. They should be liberated into the wider world. 

What’s the point of being “on country”, only to sit in an air-conditioned house, eat, drink, watch videos, play cards, squabble with family and neighbours? That can be far more efficiently achieved in a town or city—where most indigenous Australians already live. Former Prime Minister Tony Abbott was pilloried for once calling this desire to live remotely “a lifestyle choice”, but it’s difficult to come up with a more appropriate description. And it’s not a lifestyle that can in any way be described as “traditional”, or “autonomous”; “self-determination” seems to mean little more than being able to tell others what you want, without reciprocity or accountability.

Scrimgeour gives us an idea of the broad extent of the challenge, while Watson illustrates the effort and perseverance required on the ground, where one exceptional, dedicated, passionate individual, not unlike some of his missionary predecessors, spent most of his adult life barely holding together one small community, despite all the internal and external forces ranged against it. Both of these original, illuminating books should be essential reading for our politicians, but would also be appreciated by anyone interested in Aboriginal life and current indigenous issues. The Passion of Private White is also scintillating literature, which should fast become an Australian classic.

Remote as Ever: The Aboriginal Struggle for Autonomy in Australia’s Western Desert
by David Scrimgeour

MUP, 2022, 336 pages, $31.75

The Passion of Private White
by Don Watson

Scribner, 2022, 326 pages, $49.99

Paul Prociv is a former Professor of Medical Parasitology at the University of Queensland. He contributed “Glimpses of Life in a Remote Aboriginal Community” to Quadrant’s special digital issue in August. Neville White’s chapter, “A History of Donydji Outstation, North-East Arnhem Land”, in Experiments in Self-Determination: Histories of the Outstation Movement in Australia (ANU Press, 2016) is available gratis on the internet.

2 thoughts on “Bipolar Perspectives on Remote Aboriginal Communities

  • pmprociv says:

    I’ve just discovered a documentary on SBS OnDemand, “Homeland Story”, that’s based on Neville White’s work on Donydji and made up of his video recordings. It nicely complements Watson’s book, showing a clear picture of the people, location and improvements made by Neville’s work team. While the challenges are touched upon, the negatives are largely downplayed or ignored.

  • Watchman Williams says:

    Aboriginal policy only ever worked towards the betterment of the lives of the aboriginal people when it was focussed on assimilation. It was abandoned in the Whitlam years, being succeeded by “traditional lifestyle” as the object of aboriginal policy. So, as usual with “progressive” politics, what worked was replaced by what sounded good.
    The policy of “traditional lifestyle” has had two significant effects. Firstly, it has condemned tribal aborigines to give up their traditional and relatively healthy lifestyle of nomadic hunter gatherers, and obliged them to live in government housing in established communities that have no purpose other than to satisfy the political mantra of “traditional lifestyle” which, of course, is, and always was, a lie. A traditional lifestyle has not been possible for a century at least and most of the people forced into this contrived substitute are living meaningless, degraded and hopeless lives. This has been the greatest disaster to ever befall the aboriginal peoples of Australia.
    Secondly, “traditional lifestyle” is the vehicle that has been used by city dwelling part aborigines – the aboriginal industry – to extort billions of dollars from taxpayers during the last fifty years. Very little of this money has found its way into traditional remote communities since it is in the interests of the aboriginal industry to keep these unfortunate people in their degraded state in order to keep the supply of guilt money flowing continuously.
    “Traditional lifestyle” is the policy of patronising whites, advised by part aboriginals, that was aptly described by Roger Sandall as “Designer Tribalism” in his excellent 2018 book, The Culture Cult.
    Shame and disgrace to all politicians and bureaucrats who keep this destructive and deceitful aboriginal industry going!

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