Bennelong Papers

Squaring the Circle of Aboriginal Identity

aboriginal head profileIt is interesting that some people look at remote Aboriginal communities and see the poorest people in Australia. Of course, to see this they must use a Western metric of affluence and completely ignore the obvious fact that Aborigines of the remote communities have been systematically rejecting Western mainstream metrics for the past forty years. The overwhelming majority of Australians supported and, one supposes, still support, the idea of “self-determination” for Aborigines, and clearly self-determination in the remote communities involved Aborigines making their own choice of either the acceptance or rejection of those mainstream norms and mainstream metrics.  Their choice is obvious.

Rather than the poorest people in Australia, what I see is a group of hunters and gatherers who have grasped self-determination by the horns and returned to a more relevant version of their traditional hunter-gathering life-style. As the noted anthropologist W.E.H. Stanner put it while describing traditional Aborigines:

“One of the main employments of intelligence was to keep low the fixed and variable costs of material life … Why look for new solutions of problems already solved satisfactorily? The ‘savage’ or ‘primitive’ façade concealed a rational calculus of gain and loss in terms of return for allocations of time, energy, and skill, and exemplified a least-cost solution of maintaining an acceptable plane of material and social welfare. The least-cost routines left free time, energy, and enthusiasm to be expended – as they were without stint – on all things for which life could be lived when basic needs had been met: the joys of leisure, rest, song, dance, fellowship, trade, stylized fighting, and the performance of religious rituals.”

The majority of Aborigines in the most remote areas have never been separated from their lands, nor separated from their traditional practices, but have found a new “least-cost solution”, while voluntarily abandoning those practices they no longer find relevant. This is something Stanner himself conceded as long ago as the 1930s:

“Nowhere, as far as I am aware, does one encounter Aborigines who want to return to the bush, even if their new circumstances are very miserable. They went because they wanted to, and stay because they want to.”

Pastor Paul Albrecht of Hermannsberg Mission reported:

“The fact that no Aboriginal land-owning clans have chosen to return to a traditional life of hunting and gathering — a situation made possible for a number of clans in the Northern Territory with the passage of the Northern Territory Land Rights Act 1976 — would indicate that no Aborigines want to return to a traditional way of life.”

And why should they return to those old practices? As Pastor Paul Albrecht has also pointed out, for traditional Aborigines

“the correct performance of certain rituals, was the means of production. It was the ritual which produced what the various clans needed to live on. This was then gathered, and the kinship system provided the mechanism through which this production was allocated and distributed to individual clan members.”

Remote-area Aborigines are freed from the need to perform those “certain religious rituals” themselves, the “input” part of Stanner’s equation, by the availability of the endless harvest of the white people’s “increase ceremonies”. They are also freed from the drudgery and uncertainty of the actual hunting and gathering part of their daily routine, and similarly liberated from the need for a perpetual cycle of nomadism in search of game, by the presence of a constant centralised food supply at the local supermarkets. There is also the easy access to that abundance by the traditional means of “demand-sharing” (or “humbugging”, in the vernacular) both of welfare money from the non-Aboriginal communities or from other Aborigines themselves. What do we imagine that the traditional Aborigines of remote areas, with their culture largely intact, would be doing differently? In the remote communities we are simply looking at an updated version of the hunter-gather lifestyle.

Poor though they may appear by Western metrics, the fact is that a hunter-gatherer society has the means, via the broader society’s financial support and indulgence, to be better fed, better dressed, better housed and with better access to healthcare than at any time in the past 50,000 years.

Better fed?

When Dr. Charles Duguid undertook medical patrols during a drought in the Thirties through the remote north-west of South Australia, then largely untouched by white settlement and pastoral activities, he was appalled by the death toll from starvation. As recounted in his 1963 book, No Dying Race, it spurred him to set up a mission station at Ernabella to be used as a ration depot by the nomadic tribesmen. It was Duguid’s attempt to ameliorate a desperation observed by Mounted Police Constable Willshire, who wrote in 1891:

‘George King (who afterwards died of thirst on the plains northeast of Tennant’s Creek) declared that while looking for horses thirty miles east of the Tennant’s Creek station he came across a small mob of blacks, mostly lubras.  He rounded them up in order to ascertain if they had seen any horse tracks, and then discovered that two old lubras were carrying portions of a cooked child. He dismounted and examined the parts carefully, finding them to be legs, with no feet on, and arms, well burnt. The lubras explained, “No bushy tuck out sit down; father bin kill ‘em the ‘quei’ (little girl). Only eat ’em piccaninny when big fellow hungry.” The same thing has occurred as far down the country as Charlotte Water; this is spoken of by the blacks themselves.’

The life of even a skilled pre-settlement hunter-gatherer in his traditional environment was not always bountiful, as we are so often led to believe. These days, Aborigines may die of many diet-related complaints due to poor lifestyle choices, but starvation is rarely one of them. Importantly, it is the elderly, the culture-carriers, and the children, the future-carriers, who have the potential to benefit most. Dr. Hall, issuer of rations at Boolcoomata in South Australia’s northeast, wrote in 1865:

“We have had several deaths lately in the neighbourhood of Boolcoomata, which I attribute to the difficulty of procuring nourishment. Several aged blacks have been left near the Springs by their tribes without any visible means of subsistence; and I regret to say that child murder has been very much more frequent since the prevalence of the dry weather and scarcity of game, than formerly.”  

Better housed?

The same Dr. Duguid, while travelling near Oodnadatta, lamented the terrible shanty town of bag wurlies and corrugated iron huts occupied by the Aborigines of the pastoral districts, but then waxed lyrical about the rude stick windbreaks so easily thrown up each night in the far northwest, those still un-settled areas. He also talked of the number of burns cases he had to deal with each morning, after various people had rolled during the night into the numerous small fires that were lit to keep warm.

How well-housed does a hunter-gatherer need to be beyond the level of shelter provided by a  windbreak of sticks and scrub?

Better health care?

Access to health care is there for those who require it, and seek it, but lifestyle choices are just that – a matter of choice. And a resurgence in the preference for traditional healing over western medicine is also a matter of choice which affects medical outcomes. Examples were published recently in The Australian (see “Super powers of central Australia’s traditional healers”, May 18, 2013). Health worker Sandra Stacy, speaking on ABC Radio National on “Aboriginal Nutrition” (The Best of the Science Show, 1983) actually listened to what the Pitjantjatjara women had to say about sickness:

“We know sickness is caused by spirits. Sometimes spirits enter people and make them sick, and sometimes their own spirit leaves them. … The medicine man is person who knows how to deal with the spirits that cause sickness. When he has done this we know a person will get better. Sometimes the white doctor or nurse can give medicines which help the person recover quicker. These white people tell us that if we give our children a lot of special food they will not get sick. We know this is not true. We know sickness is caused by spirits.”

Again, paraphrasing the thoughts of the Pitjantjatjara women, she ends with:

“The health workers say they want to help us. They come to us and ask us what we think.   We tell them, but sometimes they don’t seem to hear what we say.” 

What Sandra Stacy was effectively saying was that, equally, the Pitjantjatjara women were not listening to what the medical workers are saying.

So, for sure, the Aborigines of remote areas may lack the material wealth of the Australian mainstream, but, after self-determination, its seems totally inappropriate to use the mainstream metrics relating to Western education, law, the economy, work ethic, and western standards of medicine and hygiene, rather than use their own metrics relating to genuine, pre-settlement, traditional cultural norms. As indicated in my chapter, “An Aboriginal Constitution”, in the book “Recognise What?”, I contend that, apart from the two functions, hunting and gathering and the rituals, many of the traditional social structures and practices in the remote communities remain intact. We are frequently told how much we could learn from Aboriginal culture if we just looked and listened, but when confronted with the reality, those same people are the first to look the other way. These people laud the concept of the “Noble Savage” in his natural state, but when presented with the reality of hunters and gathers living their chosen lifestyles, the very non-materialistic lifestyle the progressives themselves claim to aspire to, the “Noble Savages” are apparently to be the objects of great pity.

Traditional culture revisited

Notwithstanding the above argument, I doubt there are many in Australia who would argue that Aborigines in the remote areas are better off under self-determination than they were forty years ago. Professor Sutton conceded this point in three separate places in his 2009 book, “The Politics of Suffering”.  Of the mission era he stated:

It wasn’t heaven but it certainly wasn’t hell.  That came later.”


There is, in fact, much complaint that life was substantially better under the old pre-1970 mission regimes.  Even if we discount the distorting factor of Golden Age nostalgia here, for many settlements this is the uncomfortable truth.”


Public recognition of mission time as far happier and safer than the post-liberation era, in segregated communities, came not just from Indigenous people but was increasingly being recognised among others, even academics.”

So the disaster of the “post-liberation era” was recognised “even by academics”!

Of course, we should not be distracted by Sutton’s phrase “post-liberation.” His “post-liberation era” is, in fact, the same “self-determination era”. What Sutton is effectively doing is disguising with obfuscation his underlying acknowledgement of the failure of the self-determination model, by the very champions of self-determination itself.

Anthropologist, Roger Sandall, in “The Culture Cult” (2001) stated:

At seminar in Sydney in 1999 the effects of bilingual teaching were described. The principal of a Darwin college told how, between 1965 and 1975, Aboriginal students from out-lying bush communities arrived with sixth-grade literacy levels. By 1990, after primary education had been handed over to local Aboriginal communities themselves, this had fallen to the third-grade level.  Today (1999) they arrive at his college completely illiterate, he said, identifying “self-determination, bilingual instruction, and the priority given to preserving Aboriginal traditional culture as the reason.”

Suddenly, self-determination, the preservation of language and traditional culture are the core of the Aborigines’ problems and not the actual solutions. Andrew Forest recognised it too – From the First Nations Telegraph (July 25, 2014):

​“Billionaire Andrew “Twiggy” Forrest wants to stop distractions like sport, celebrity visits and cultural shows at indigenous schools. The Fortescue boss suggests Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students must go to school to learn without other activities such as tribal ceremonies taking kids away from class for lengthy periods of time.”

Suddenly, Aboriginal culture is to be sidelined.

Closing the Gap

A clear indication that traditional culture has been recognised as the main impediment to Aboriginal progress is the traction which the Closing the Gap initiative has gained. It appears obvious that this initiative is the antithesis of self-determination. It is about imposing that Western metrics, described above, on Aboriginal communities – whether they like it or not. The children will go to Western schools, the men will fit into the Western economy, they will have better and Western medical outcomes. They will “close the gap” with the white mainstream. “Closing the Gap” is simply assimilation by another name.

And yet, no one appears to have had the courage to admit that self-determination is dead. In fact, Indigenous leaders appear to be playing both sides of the game. They talk “Closing the Gap” when they are looking for a justification for additional funding, and then “traditional culture” when they wish to pursue a separate identity.

In fact, it appears to me that there are two competing definitions of what “the gap” actually is and hence two competing agenda as to how Closing of the Gap is to occur.

Firstly, there are the urban Aboriginal elites who want to “close the gap” between the remote-area Aborigines and themselves, but open an even wider gap between themselves and the white mainstream population. Think here the imposition of Western mainstream law, Western mainstream education, and the Western mainstream economy on Aborigines of the remote areas. Think also the adoption of European political and social models — “communities”, “parliaments”, nations” — rather than the traditional Aboriginal political forms. The Closing the Gap agenda is essentially assimilation into the mainstream community but with separate a Europeanised form of Aboriginal identity permanently embedded in the Australian Constitution.

However, assimilation is clearly not on the agenda of the remote area Aborigines. They have self-determination, and while they are happy enough to see a closing of the gap between the urban Aborigine elites and the white mainstream, their agenda is to open a wider gap between themselves and urban Australians, both Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal. Here, think the lifestyle of the hunter-gatherer described above. Think also of the resistance in the communities to the Intervention and the Closing the Gap initiatives. And think, too, of the proposal to recognise traditional culture and traditional law, as I outlined in “An Aboriginal Constitution”, my chapter of the book “Recognise What?”

The important point to note is that there are two, incompatible, agenda and the “Recognise” campaign is in denial as to how these two competing agenda can be reconciled. Once the Recognise campaign can explain openly and honestly how it proposes to square this circle,   we will be closer to understanding just what hope there is of success.


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