The Overlooked Willingness to Change

Most of us have been taught about the supposedly traumatic impact of British colonisation on Aborigines. But what if colonisation was not entirely traumatic? What if Aboriginal people wanted to leave their ancestral land and benefit from their European ‘oppressors’? To argue sch a case would not only go against the established opinion of mainstream media and contemporary literature, it would also prompt accusations of ‘victim blaming’ and, inevitably, racism and white supremacy.

But academic research done by one of Australia’s most renowned academics, William Stanner, paints a much more complicated picture of Australia’s colonisation. Famous for popularising the concept of the Dreamtim’, Stanner’s career included that of an Oxford academic, being a leader of the successful 1967 referendum campaign, a member of the Council for Aboriginal Affairs, and an architect for the first native title handover. Significantly, it was Stanner who coined the term ‘The Great Australian Silence’ in reference to the historical neglect regarding the mistreatment of Aboriginal people.

Despite being a vocal progressivist, he was also responsible for documenting the migration patterns of Aboriginal people in the Northern Territory and found regions ‘entirely empty of its former inhabitants.’ The remarkable thing about this migration was that it was not primarily caused by disease, violence or dispossession but instead occurred voluntarily. Ironically, his research into this issue has now received its own ‘silence’ from modern activists who do not want to confront the complex reality of Australian colonisation.

In his book ‘White Man Got no Dreaming (1979), Stanner notes that many Aboriginal people had migrated to cattle stations while others went as far as Darwin. He argued that there was no evidence the migration was anything other than voluntary. European settlement was miles away. There was no forced labour or dispossession of land. Police violence was absent too. In fact, so remote were these communities that inter-tribal Aboriginal warfare was a greater threat to Indigenous communities than colonisation. Interestingly, this is not Stanner’s explanation, but of the Aboriginals themselves:

They say that their appetites for tobacco and, to a lesser extent, for tea became so intense that neither man nor woman could bear to be without. Jealousy, ill will and violence arose over the division of the small amounts … Individuals, families and parties of friends simply went away to places where the avidly desired things could be obtained.

Stanner goes onto to make the observation this likely occurred across the country.

… for every Aboriginal who, so to speak, had Europeans thrust upon him, at least one other had sought them out. More would have gone to European centres sooner had it not been that their way was often barred by hostile Aborigines. As late as the early 1930s I was able to see for myself the battles between the encroaching myalls and weakening, now-sedentary groups who had monopolised European sources of supply and work.

Stanner never encountered an Aboriginal who ever wanted to return to the bush and their traditional way of life, even in cases of miserable urban circumstances. They simply ‘went because they wanted to, and stayed because they wanted to.’

What’s more, this was also true of intermarriage. He observed that ‘the Aboriginal women single or married, were eager for associations with Europeans and Chinese. While ready enough for casual affairs, they tried by any and all means to make semi-permanent or permanent attachments.’ Even their husbands, with few exceptions, ‘not only did not object but often pushed them to such service, which always led to a payment of tobacco, sugar, and tea, and might lead to a steady real income…’

As Stanner points out, not enough work has been done to properly account for the numbers and scale of this migration. Instead, scholars are prone to reductionist models of explanation which place all the weight on ‘dramatic secondary causes’ such as ‘violence, disease, neglect, prejudice, or on the structure of Aboriginal society, or both.’ Observers who are ‘blinded either by interest or preconception’ fail to appreciate that Aboriginal people have their own agency and self-will to change their own cultural practices. To argue that all Aboriginal people are destined to remain culturally static not only goes against the patterns of voluntary migration across Australia but is also a form of reverse racism.

Some critics use the connection Aboriginal people have to country to justify Aboriginal cultural stasis. This ignores the simple fact that Aboriginal people can both have a connection to their land and want to migrate to improve their living condition. For example, Stanner saw ‘a man, revisiting his homeland after an absence, fall on the ground, dig his fingers in the soil, and say: ‘O, my country.’ But he had been away, voluntarily; and he was soon to go away again voluntarily.’ As Stanner acknowledges, ‘Country’ is of high interest, ‘but there are other interests; all are relative, and any can be displaced.’

Injecting our own sentiments onto Aboriginal people and ignoring their ability to adapt with modern civilisation is a misunderstanding of Aboriginal migration history. Many Indigenous people have voted with their feet, and not only choose to live in urban societies but also intermarry with many different races and cultures. This does not in any way diminish from the traumatic experiences some Aboriginal people went through, but it does show that not every Indigenous person responded to colonisation in the same way.

If Australians have any chance of reconciliation, we should acknowledge the significant voluntary nature of Aboriginal assimilation into broader society, and especially understand the distinctive nature of Aboriginal culture and its ability to adapt and change.

Luke Powell is studying English Literature and Modern History at Sydney University

14 thoughts on “The Overlooked Willingness to Change

  • Brian Boru says:

    Thanks Luke for bringing the work of William Stanner to us.
    No surprise that Aboriginals are not different from any other people of the world who are prepared to migrate and assimilate for a better life.
    The great shame for Australia is that so many Aboriginals have been trapped in the zoos that many remote communities have become. It will not be until those that wish to migrate to a better life are enabled to do so that this human tragedy of drunkenness, violence, and youth suicide will end.
    This great shame is the product of an “industry” that perpetuates it and gains from it whilst thinking it is doing good for the people who are trapped.

  • Elizabeth Beare says:

    Thanks, Luke. I see you are studying history, not anthropology. I suspect anthropology these days might not suggest you read Stanner, nor in particular A P Elkin, which would be anthropology’s loss. A P Elkin’s book ‘The Australian Aborigines, How to Understand Them’ was being pushed off reading lists even in 1964 in my first year of anthropology at Sydney University, for he was the ‘father’ of what was then regarded as a backward step – assimilation. His term ‘intelligent parasitism’ for those aboriginal peoples voluntarily wandering in from remote areas to missions and cattle stations was regarded as insulting. But it was true.. In other words, they came freely and because they gained much for doing so; they could clearly see their own interests. Black armband stuff and a lamentably ideological ‘indigenous anthropology’ with ‘indigenous anthropologists’ has pushed Elkin and Stanner into the never never now.
    It seems Bruce Pascoe is the loadstar now.

  • john.singer says:

    Great article and comments. Much of the current problems stem from not only a n appropriation of cultures but also of semantics or terminology. Apart from the fall from grace of Professor Elkin, the work of his students Ronald and Catherine Berndt seems also to have been sidelined.
    As to the comment about Bruce Pascoe being the Loadstar, I would think Loadstone might prove to be more appropriate.

    • Daffy says:

      Happily, I have a copy of the Berndts’ book. Some good reading and quite interesting, if sometimes revolting in what was inflicted upon children in some places.

  • RobyH says:

    The early Protector’s report from Victoria state that all Aboriginal women became prostitutes and the money obtained was widely used for alcohol. They were attracted to cities and more importantly the golf fields and the Elders simply sold their women for white men goods. There was extreme concern – alcohol and pulmonary diseases were having a devastating effect. Those that could continue their nomadic life gave it up and couldn’t be persuaded to return to it. Concern for the race and their self directed degradation on contact would lead naturally to the mission system. Very different to the history taught nowadays.

    • Alistair says:

      “All Aboriginal women became prostitutes….”
      One should remember that in Traditional Aboriginal society Aboriginal men were duty bound by culture to “lend” their wives to other “right-way” relatives or visitors to their camps. “Prostitution” you describe was just an extension of perfectly acceptable traditional culture This from Daisy Bates …

      “Although there were marriage laws, the communal state forbade exclusive ownership, and a man’s tribal brothers might at any time ask or be given the loan of a woman.”

      Usually this “lending” of wives was done strictly according traditional marriage rules and Daisy Bates also detailed the often unrecognised implications for the white settlers:

      “When the first white man took the young native woman he fancied, his status in her family and group was adjusted according to native law. He chose his woman, and automatically became her husband’s brother with all the rights and obligations, of the husband’s brother, son-in-law, etc. So long as the white man took other women from amongst his new brother’s wives, he incurred no bodily risk, and the foods he gave were distributed according to the food laws in this respect. But when his lustful eyes fell upon women and girls who were tabu to him in his new ‘native’ relationship, he committed a breach of native law punishable by death. Many a white man has been killed for this offence, of which he may have been ignorant or defiant. “

  • brandee says:

    Luke it is so reassuring to find a current student so aware of Aboriginal history.
    A sympathetic record of cultural contact preWW1 and interwar can be found in the prodigious writings of Australian author Ion L Idriess -a minerologist, fossicker, adventurer, an ANZAC and Australian patriot. Observations in his books The Tin Scratchers and Our Living Stone Age sometimes overlap and are in agreement with details in the extensive anthropological work The Native Tribes of Central Australia by Baldwin Spencer and FJ Gillem published 1899.
    Idriess returning to the Cape York Peninsular few years after WW1 observed that Spanish Influenzas had disrupted and destroyed much aboriginal tribal life. Also the appeal of cattle station work was much more attractive to the young men than onerous tribal life where the old men of the tribe had exclusively procured the young women.

  • rosross says:

    Excellent article. Historicallly and anthropologically accurate.

  • Stephen Ireland says:

    Luke, I hope that you can appreciate, from the comments posted here to date, how encouraging it is for we of the older generation to read such a well-grounded essay which touches on a number of contentious issues.
    Alistair Crooks said to me once words to the effect that it seemed that Stanner, eminent as he was in his field, seemed to want run with the hares and hunt with the hounds.
    Robert Manne published a collection of Stanner’s essays and his 1968 Boyer Lecture series. This collection spans from 1959 to 1973; in other words either side of the cataclysmic effect of the adoption of Cultural Relativism into Anthropology and related fields.
    I have a suspicion that Stanner, not alone, got carried away with the ‘It’s Time’ vibe of the early 1970s which in turn led to the ill-informed, in my view, excesses of HC Coombs in Aboriginal Affairs, an area for which Coombs was eminently unqualified. Geoffrey Partington’s Hasluck vs Coombs is an excellent archive of the statements of those protagonists in this area at this time.
    Here are several quotations from Stanner’s Boyer lectures which seem to illustrate a relatively balance view:
    ‘In practical [Aboriginal] affairs one has to make some division, and one will come to no great harm by assuming thar most of the spectrum is covered by three divisions. In the first I would put ‘bush people’ with whom I have had most to do. In varying degrees they still have [in 1968] a sense of local and corporate identity and are substantially in touch with their traditional life, but they have no real grip on modernity even though most of them live on mission or government stations. I would call the second group, the ‘outback people’. In the main they are to be found in residential camps on the pastoral properties, where they are tangling with modernity in a more disturbing way and from a less traditional background than the bush people. The third group is a double one: the people who have made their own shanty-settlements on the fringes of country towns, as distinct from those in the older settled areas who prefer, or feel there is no alternative to, life in government or other institutions. They are both shifting and unstable groups which often neither know nor care about traditional things, They gain or lose members as individuals or families fail or succeed in the struggle for assimilation. They are the main source of recruits into the fourth group, the city dwellers, who are growing rapidly in numbers, and include people at all stages towards, within, or beyond that rather indefinable state of life we describe as ‘assimilation’.’ [Interestingly, no mention of full-blood or mixed race peoples, which I think is fair enough]
    WEH Stanner The Dreaming & Other Essays collected by Robert Manne 2011 – The Boyer Lectures – After the Dreaming 1968 p. 215
    ‘The more substantial are the theories that there would be a rapid general advance if only some one sovereign remedy were applied, such as better education or health measures, or modern sanitation or improved housing, or higher wages or so on. They are all in part right and therefore dangerous.
    . . .
    Then there are those who advocate community development or co-operatives in the belief that joint enterprises are especially suited to the Aborigines. I do not discount these ideas but some theorists are not at all troubled by the known facts that the record of experiment with such schemes are not impressive, and that Aboriginal groups, for all their ideals, are usually made up of factions. This divisiveness is supposed, somehow, to be certain to vanish within any joint venture.
    . . .
    Possibly the most dangerous theory, though it is scarcely that, is that things are now going well, that all we need to do is more of what we are already doing, that is, deepen and widen the welfare programme, and the rest will come at a natural pace in its own good time. The trouble is that things are not going well. The gap between the average real conditions of the Aborigines and ours shows signs of widening, not narrowing. This appears to be the reason why there is such a steady drift from country to city. . . . This [the increasing Aboriginal birth rate] is a sobering thought. The bill for welfare expenditure will increase without offset until such time as Aborigines begin to make a contribution to the national product. At present they hardly contribute at all.’

    WEH Stanner The Dreaming & Other Essays collected by Robert Manne 2011 – The Boyer Lectures – After the Dreaming 1968 pp. 218-219
    In 1972 Stanner is still pragmatic, at least to degree. I was very taken with this as it echoes my long-held opinion, after quite a few years in remote Australia, that Aboriginals, individually, are not entirely dissimilar to the rest of us.
    ‘I have never wanted to deny Aboriginal short-comings, in their own life, or for life in our kind of world. But I like to invite people to make an act of imagination and to suppose, just for argument’s sake, that Aborigines are, in every essential human respect, much of a muchness with us, and to put ourselves in situations like theirs.’

    WEH Stanner The Dreaming & Other Essays collected by Robert Manne 2011 – Aborigines and Australian Society 1972 p. 248
    The current impasses may well be due to the tendency of academia to collectivise every aspect of Aboriginal Affairs (and virtually anything else that they put their collective minds to). Thomas Sowell has told us many times that lumping individuals arbitrarily into sociological or economic groups always leads poor policy. If anyone is able to testify to this it is Sowell.
    .Then we get a Stanner’s slightly later more utopian view, paraphrased by me:
    Bill Stanner, apparently a recent convert to the new anthropological ideologies of the late 60s and then 70s, wrote in 1973 that he was with the ‘utopian visionaries’ for ‘this at least can be said for them: they may simplify unduly: they may live and work for what turn out to be illusions; . . .[but] ‘illusions’ begin as visions; they can be powerful instruments of social struggle.”
    SDI referencing WEH Stanner The Dreaming & Other Essays collected by Robert Manne 2011 – Aborigines in the Affluent Society 1973 p. 279
    !973 was fifty years ago and there have been many illusions and subsequent delusions over that period.

  • Stephen Due says:

    In addition to the desire for assimilation on the part of many Aboriginals, a sensible, humane policy of assimilation was adopted by the early settlers. Broadly speaking, this approach was pursued in the Australian colonies with some vigor and consistency over time.
    Interestingly, the ‘progressive’ Left are extremely conservative on this and some other issues involving social and environmental change. Thus ‘climate change’ is bad and must not be allowed to happen. Similarly, flora and fauna must not change: what is supposedly pristine must be protected, and the introduction of new species is seen as a threat to the environment. The same mind-set demands that pre-colonization Aboriginal culture must be preserved or restored – like an exhibit in a museum.

  • Alistair says:

    Interesting stuff, but I wonder about Aborigines’ ability to adapt to change. It seems to me that it is done within a very narrow range defined by culture. I wrote this in a QOL article published in June last years

    AXIOM 9: We are constantly told that Aboriginal culture did not change
    substantially over 60,000 years. Accepting that assertion at face value for now (there
    is scope for nuance here), after 200+ years of policy-making in regard to Aborigines
    and 200+ years of policy failures, it seems that Aborigines’ traditional resistance to
    change is the most fundamental cultural attribute that we face. Nothing works or can
    work where there is no will amongst the greater bulk of traditionally-minded
    Aboriginal people in the communities to experiment with something new.
    Let’s face it, we are all being called upon to respect traditional Aboriginal culture.
    Innovation is potentially a betrayal of the Dreamtime ancestors, so change is not
    traditionally part of Aboriginal culture. It seems to me the failure to take that aspect
    of culture into account has resulted in 200+ years of non-progress. Perhaps for
    traditionally encultured Aborigines’ welfare dependency and traditional “demand-sharing”
    are just too close a fit to make change seem necessary. The “least cost
    calculus” of traditional Aborigines’ lifestyle, which includes the practice of
    demand-sharing, is perfectly suited in the context of traditional living patterns but
    maladapted in a modern setting.

    “Least cost calculus” – Bill Stanner’s phrase incidentally That is traditionally what Aborigines have sought … and (so it appears) still seek.

    • pmprociv says:

      With all due respect, Alistair, I suspect you might have succumbed to some of the mega-humbugging to which we’re all being exposed. “Aborigines’ traditional resistance to change’ is refuted by their widespread and avid exploitation of everything that outside (“Western”) society has to offer them: housing, power and water supplies, food, clothing, road and air transportation, healthcare, telecommunications, entertainment, alcohol, gambling etc. (I doubt many still depend on shanks’ pony to get about . . .). That’s all part of “culture”. Only the easy, specious, manipulative dregs of “traditional culture” survive (e.g. as in Garma festival), the term being invoked mainly when seeking excuses to avoid responsibility to take charge of (or blame for) their own lives, to seek meaningful education, to find proper employment, to take responsibility for the care and upbringing of children.

      The majority who’ve moved into towns and cities have, for all intents and purposes, become assimilated, many taking full advantage of the benefits Western society provides. Some (such as Stan Grant, who only in recent years decided he was a Blakfella, and seems to be darkening by the day) now find it beneficial to exploit victimhood, as if “The Gap” applies to them, while loudly castigating the society that has enriched them. There’s not much “traditional” about Stan’s lifestyle!

      The unfortunate few, the 20% restricted to living in remote communities, who account for The Gap (while hardly figuring in demands for The Voice), also have lifestyles that bear little resemblance to those of the Old People. And I very much doubt any of them wish to go back there, although many don’t want to lose their dependence on passive welfare, either. It truly is a terrible dilemma for people who have no idea of life’s possibilities: if only they showed some initiative to “get ahead”, instead of mindlessly resorting to the cliche of traditional culture. Instead of harping on about their common victimhood, perhaps Stan should be sharing the secrets of his own success with them.

  • Stephen says:

    Thanks for this article Luke. Speaking the truth these days can come at a cost so thanks also for your courage. As for myself, I am now an elderly curmudgeon and I don’t really care what anyone else thinks.
    Roughly on the same subject but specifically about Australia day, I offered the following comment on an article in the Australian.

    First I will repeat what I have said before about the Voice. It is racist and divisive and will cause more harm than good. Secondly. Australia being settled by a technically and organizationally more advanced people that the Aboriginals was inevitable. There were a few candidates. The worst possibility would have been the Maoris. Their cannibalistic and warlike culture would have treated the Aborigines like livestock. Of the European colonial powers like the French, Spanish, Portuguese, Dutch and British. The British have, and deserve, the best reputation. Thirdly. An article in Quadrant online accurately describes Aboriginal culture as practiced when Europeans settled our wide brown land, and as it’s noxious vestiges persist in remote settlements, was and remains a vile, dominating, patriarchal ethos that condemns women and children to physical and sexual abuse by older men. I am all in favor of compassion toward others but I believe that the best hope for Australia’s Aboriginal citizens is to drop the victimhood and accept that the 26th January, 1788 was Liberation day not Invasion Day.

    Occasionally the Australian will reject a comment and usually I don’t care but this time I asked for an explanation as to why they rejected this one. Evidently my $40 a month subscription doesn’t mean I’m worth of a reply.

  • Daffy says:

    There was an article in The Australian in 2017, by Amos Aikman on the 1967 referendum. An interesting editorial in a local paper that he quoted:

    “Sections of the Australian Constitution were out of date even at the time they were written; today they are a national embarrassment. … Mr Wentworth’s proposal would place the non-racial nature of Australian society beyond question … it is hard to believe that a recommendation with the wholehearted support of every major political party would be rejected by the Australian people”

    Yet we now return to that very racism care of Mr $275 Albo.

    Another editorial, tendentiously misunderstanding history wrote:

    ““The referendum, among other things, will ask people to abolish the extraordinary provision that refuses to recognise Aboriginals as human beings by excluding them from the census…”

    And still the idea of ‘non-human’ prevails, failing to understand the exclusion of Aborigines from the count to avoid them being used to boost state funding from the Commonwealth while being excluded from full citizenship in those states, as I understand it. Perhaps even to avoid forcing them into a polity that they might not have chosen…although, we see, they often did choose it, as rational humans would seek the best benefit for themselves.

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