Bennelong Papers

‘A Culturally Inappropriate Understanding’

Surely everyone can see that an Aboriginal ‘Voice’ has failure written all over it? But even so, and just as surely, the mainstream will sign up to it. In order to understand why failure is the only option, it is only necessary to look at the decision-making processes of traditional Aborigines. Anthropologist, Professor Peter Sutton, gave this example of a community consultation meeting in a remote community:

I was once invited by the NPY (Ngaanyatjara Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara) Women’s Council to take part in a meeting between them and senior police officers in Alice Springs. When the need for increased police presence on the remote settlements came up, one of the officers promised more positions for local Aboriginal police aides. This aroused the fury of a fair number at the meeting. One senior woman from Kaltulatjara (Docker River) harangued him in Pitjantjatjara. Didn’t he understand that local (Aboriginal) police were beholden to kinship obligations? Were his ears shut when they insisted on having piranpa (white)(sic) police in remote settlements?  [[i]]

The community apparently wanted the impartiality of a ‘piranpa’ police presence, and their un-biased interpretation of the law with respect to domestic violence.

However, unfortunately, there is another side where similar community meetings have resulted in  completely different outcomes. In some communities, it is the piranpa police who are accused of a culturally inappropriate understanding of violence, and it is Aboriginal police aides, and an Aboriginal interpretation of what constitutes domestic violence, that is favoured :

The Kurduju Committee met at Lajamanu in August 2002. They were concerned about what appeared to be discrepancies in the collection of data on family and community violence between government agencies such as police, health clinic and courts and community organisations such as night patrols, safe house staff and Elders. They were concerned this was leading to different perceptions about what was happening in the communities. Often community organisations were reporting declines in the levels of violence but government agencies were reporting there were no changes. [[ii]]

They decided to document some of the main types of violence affecting their communities and the implications of how this could be interpreted and reported differently. The types of violence  were duly identified and listed, each category with its own component of cultural justification, and each with its appropriate cultural response, in opposition to the response to violence that one might expect from the police and mainstream law :

# Grog violence.

# Family violence.

# Sorcery

# Payback.

# ‘Wrongway’ payback

# Cyclical family, estate owner and language group feuding. [iii]

# Jealousy

# Ritual associated with dispute resolution.

# Conflict over community management and control.

# The spirit world.

# Malevolent curses.

The Kurduju Committee Report continued:

Their work showed that community perceptions about violence were substantially different to those of non-indigenous data collectors. This resulted in different interpretations about what was being witnessed and consequently about how it was being recorded. For example there were cases where community recorders regarded incidents as being either under control or part of broader dispute resolution and consequently they did not see a requirement to record the incident at all. Non-Indigenous recorders would automatically record the same incident as verbal, emotional or physical assault.

Indigenous recorders were also aware that ‘ritual violence’ is an important part of dispute resolution. This often results in ‘low level’ violence that is part and parcel of the processes of problem solving and is supported by the community as acceptable and necessary…

Non-Indigenous observers on the other hand were unable to distinguish the subtleties between the rituals associated with dispute resolution and between controlled violence and ‘proper violence’. Recorders are likely to record all these events as a form of community violence.

Thus, the police were seen as being insensitive to levels of violence that the communities themselves deemed to be culturally appropriate and, therefore, totally acceptable. These two attitudes to the police — that recorded by Sutton, and that reported by the Kurduju Committee — can be summarised into a fairly typical, generic, community-consultation in any number of remote communities:

Do you want more white police  …? 

Yes!  White police show no favouritism. Black police are no good. They favour their own clan in administering justice. 

Do you want more black police …?   Yes! White police are no good. They don’t understand our culture. We want more black police.

As if to underline this, an informant described a “consultative meeting” he had attended, this time convened by Education Department officials at a remote area community, with an almost identical outcome to that described above:

Do you want more white teachers …? 

Yes!  White teachers show no favouritism. Black teachers are no good. They favour their own clan with results and rewards. 

Do you want more black teachers …?   Yes! White teachers are no good. They don’t understand culture. We want more black teachers.

Exactly how any government department could implement policies that satisfy community expectations based on such consultation meetings defies logic! Is it little wonder that even with the best will little progress in Aboriginal communities has ever been made?

And yet, I suggest, that this is precisely how an Aboriginal ‘Voice’ can be expected to work in the real world of remote Aborigines: the same way that the current models of consultation ‘work’ in remote communities now. All those who have attended community consultation meetings will have witnessed exactly how well they ‘work’. Such a ‘Voice’, as proposed in the eastern States, may well be appropriate for Europeanised Aborigines of the urban areas. But a ‘Voice’, as heard in remote areas,  can be expected to be nothing less than a disaster.

Now, apparently, this type of decision-making will be raised to the level of an official ‘Voice’ to government – with outcomes which, one assumes, will be binding on governments to implement. The government is being set up to fail and, just as important, set up to disappoint.  

Some years ago, Quadrant Online used to be an outlet for an excellent Bennelong Paper written by Pastor Paul Albrecht of the Hermannsburg Lutheran Mission in Central Australia. In it he made what I thought at the time was a rather remarkable statement :    

The authoritative nature of the rules laid down by the supernatural beings, can be gauged also from the language. No Aboriginal language that I know of has words for either/or Aboriginal societies were not about personal choice for their individual members. They were all about living according to the rules laid down by the supernatural beings. [[iv]]

And yet, on thinking about it, particularly with respect to the above description of Aboriginal community consultative meetings, Pastor Albrecht may have identified a rather important deep characteristic of indigenous culture — and problems, deep problems, associated with decision-making which should sound an alarm to policy formulators and ‘Voice’ proponents. This apparent difficulty in selecting between multiple options does appear to be a real phenomenon, going by the community consultation meetings that I have attended. [[v]]

Even if you do not want to buy into the lack of ‘either/or’ in Aboriginal vocabularies, there is an even larger issue here which Albrecht has identifies. He points to the idea in Aboriginal society that ‘personal choice’ is always subservient to the ‘rules laid down by the supernatural beings’. These ‘supernatural beings’ are, of course, the totemic ancestors, who, in the Dreamtime, decreed the eternal and binding laws that have traditionally controlled every important aspect of Aboriginal life. And which, in the remote communities, still control every important aspect of Aboriginal life.

There is, however, a subtle complexity buried in the detail of Albrecht’s observation, a factor which has huge implications for the success of the ‘Voice’ in remote, ie traditional, communities. Anthropologist Ted G.H. Strehlow pointed out the limits of ‘legal precedent’ under Dreamtime Law:

The decisions of these elders were obeyed only if they rested on the traditional norms and on what might be termed legal precedent.(my emphasis) [[vi]]

Traditionally, the outcome of all group decisions would be required to be rooted in Dreamtime precedent, or else the group would never have bothered to assemble to make them in the first place. Each individual or clan would simply have done as it saw fit. But Dreamtime Law provides no precedents that cover the minutia of daily living in modern mainstream society. Thus, we already know that any decisions made by an indigenous ‘Voice’ in the present day would not be considered ‘legally’ binding by almost all remote-area Aborigines. We have already seen many years of examples of the implications of this fundamental truth.

For example, way back in 1981 Pastor Albrecht described a failed attempt at installing Aboriginal councils to take control of the Hermannsburg Lutheran Mission in the late Sixties/early Seventies.

The high expectations we had for these councils did not materialise. In spite of encouragement and discussion, none of the councils showed the slightest interest in drawing up a constitution. I helped draw up a simple constitution for the Church Council, but the document was not worth the paper it was written on, for no one took any notice of it. Decisions were made at meetings, but no one felt bound by them, least of all the councillors. Aboriginals had control of the school, Aboriginals were teaching most of the classes with professional support from white teachers, but this had no effect on truancy rates, except perhaps to increase them.  [[vii]]

And …

Alcohol abuse increased. Councillors would hold meetings about grog-running, and how to prevent it, and then would become the worst offenders. [[viii]]

Fifty years later, time and time again, we see media reports of the same phenomenon, with administrators for some inexplicable reason still expecting a different outcome! We see reports in the media of Aboriginal men appointed as school truancy officers, but even their own children failing to attend school. Night patrols are established to police community-imposed alcohol prohibitions, but the night patrol vehicles are found to be the ones involved in ferrying alcohol into the various remote communities. There is no Dreamtime precedent that mandates school attendance – therefore there is no ‘legal’ reason, in an Aboriginal sense, why any directive on this, from white legal authorities, or even from traditional elders, should be implemented if it is inconvenient. There is no Dreamtime precedent that prohibits alcohol or drugs.

But there is another consideration as well.

Every anthropological description of Aboriginal ‘tribes’ emphasises that the main political unit of Aboriginal society is not the tribe, but the clan – a patriarch and his immediate family. For example, anthropologist, Lloyd Warner in his Arnhem Land study area, noted explicitly:

The clans are of basic importance. They are the largest units of solidarity…  [[ix]]

And, on the other hand:

The tribe is of minor importance in native life[[x]]

Later, he explained:

The tribes of northeastern Arnhem Land, of which the Murngin is one, are very weak social units, and when measured by the ordinary definitions of what constitutes a tribe fail almost completely. The tribe is not the war-making group. On the contrary, it is usually within it that the most intensive feuds are found. Tribal membership of the clans on the borders of two tribes is uncertain and changing, or the people may sometimes insist that they belong to both tribes. Even clans well toward the centre of a tribe’s territory will, under certain circumstances, range themselves with another group…  [[xi]]

Thus each clan was/is fiercely autonomous and acted only in its own interests, or in consideration with the interests of broader kin. No clan could be expected to agree to, or be bound by, any decision that disadvantaged that clan with respect to others. This raises further complexities involving the contradictions between the fiercely partisan nature of traditional kinship obligations based on ‘the clan’ and, one assumes, the supposedly democratic mechanisms proposed for an Aboriginal ‘Voice’ based on ‘the tribe’. One never sees references to ‘tribal obligations’ in traditional culture. Incidentally, it is why ‘Aboriginal communities’ and ‘Aboriginal’ nations’ are Eurocentric projections.

Pastor Albrecht, back in the Eighties, expanded on the implications, again summing up 50 years of subsequent experience with the already failed experiments:

Further, because linguistic groupings/units are wrongly seen as socio/political units, it is assumed that they can, for example, elect representatives to speak for them and act on their behalf. Many past and current programs aimed at helping Aborigines improve their socio/economic situation have failed because these linguistic units had no traditional mechanisms for electing representatives to speak for them or act on their behalf. This latter fact is supported by the lack of a word for representative in indigenous languages. The idea of a representation is one introduced by Europeans for their purposes of dealing with the Aboriginal people. [[xii]]

The idea of a ‘Voice’ which would place some Aboriginal patriarchs in positions of authority over Aborigines of other clans has no traditional precedent. In reality, the composition of the ‘Voice’ would have to include as many voices as there are clans, and one could never realistically expect compromise between clans. Pastor Albrecht continued, describing the reasons for the failure of Aboriginal Councils at Hermannsburg Mission in the Sixties and Seventies:

Instead of the councillors concerning themselves with the issues as they related to the whole community, individual councillors were only concerned with their own families.  [[xiii]]

Not only because (in Aboriginal eyes) it meant placing Aboriginal in positions of authority over other Aboriginals – a step for which there was no traditional legitimation, – but also because Aboriginals in authority could not be ‘fair’ – they had to direct their attention and channel whatever resources they had control of back to their own groups (clans). For them to have done otherwise would have amounted to a denial of their Aboriginality. [xiv]

Professor Ronald Berndt and wife Catherine, both respected anthropologists, noted the significance of kinship obligations in Aboriginal life. The rules pertaining to any particular ‘tribe or language unit’ are underwritten by clan kinship obligations:

In Aboriginal Australia kinship is the articulating force for all social interaction. The kinship system of a particular tribe or language unit is in effect a shorthand statement about the network of interpersonal relations within that unit — a blue print to guide its members. It does not reflect, except in ideal terms, the actuality of that situation: but it does provide a code of action which those members cannot ignore if they are to live in relative harmony with one another. And kinship, in this situation, pervades all aspects of social living. We cannot understand or appreciate traditional life in Aboriginal Australia without knowing something, at least of its social organisation and structure — of which kinship is the major integrating element, or, to put it another way, the fine mesh which holds the society together.  [[xv]]

And further from James Franklin:

Indigenous society is fundamentally more communal than modern white society. Private property is a meaningless concept if one is enmeshed in a network of obligations to give away everything if kin demand it. There is shame in refusing a request from someone appropriately kin, and refusals can engender grudges that are held for a long time. For the division of irregular hunting kills, there was a good reason for a system of rights to portions of it. The same practices are dysfunctional in a modern setting. No one except ‘bigmen’ has the unimpeded power to spend their own wages, pension or baby bonus, retain their own medicines, repair anything, or find a place to study in a house full of twenty relatives. It does not make sense to talk of ‘economic incentives’ in the usual sense or the provision of jobs or training in situations where people do not retain the fruit of their labours.  [[xvi]]

The crippling nature and corrupting influence of kinship obligations, combined with its corollary, demand sharing, has been well documented across Australia. Professor Peter Sutton provided this simple example from an Aboriginal community in Queensland:

The role of demand pressures from relatives was often central to the theft of store goods and cash. … Under pressure which he (the Aboriginal store keeper) described, he felt obliged to supply goods at no cost to certain people, especially in-laws.  [[xvii]]

But I rather like this example of an Aborigine, denied rights to ‘the fruit of his labours’, this taken from evidence presented to the 1877 Royal Commission on the condition of Aborigines in Victoria. Here we see an early example of kinship obligations crippling a budding Aboriginal farming enterprise, and where kin end up treating kin with no more respect than they would treat the functionaries at the local Government-run Aboriginal station.

Tommy Farmer (an Aboriginal from Coranderrk) examined:

Q. How long had you been living on this piece of ground?

A. I believe I may say six years.

Q. Did you support yourself?

A. Well, I used to keep myself.

Q. By the crops?

A. Yes

Q. What did you get?

A. Potatoes and wheat. The wheat that I grew I took to the Castlemaine mill and ground it to flour.

Q. And sell some?

A. Yes, and sell some.

Q. And keep yourself?

A. Yes, I did keep myself, but a great number of my own people came and camped round me and eat me out.

Q. If you had not been eaten out by your own people, could you have kept yourself?

A. I believe I could, if they had not camped there [xviii]

Thus, after the binding obligations of adherence to Dreamtime Law comes total subservience to kinship obligations.  An Aboriginal ‘Voice’, however constituted, can have no traditional legitimacy within the broader Aboriginal community.  For any decision-making to be binding on Aborigines it has to have either…

# The authority derived directly from the Dreamtime Law.

# The assent of each patriarch who could then bind his entire clan to the decision by kinship obligation, but which would require that clan patriarch deliver largesse commensurate with the nature of the decision.

What I am suggesting is that any decision-making derived from an Aboriginal ‘Voice’ will, in all probability, be considered by Aborigines to be binding on the white mainstream. The mere talk of setting up a ‘Voice’ creates the obligation for the ‘Voice’ in the Aboriginal mind – and also for it being binding. For example, a senior member of staff of a former Aboriginal station once advised me that if a housing agency sounded out an Aborigine on the possibility of a house becoming available in the near future, that would be considered by the Aborigine as effectively admitting to the existence of a prior obligation to provide that Aborigine with a house, and the agency would then be considered to be obligated to carry through with the offer. If no house was forthcoming, it would be seen as the terrible reneging on an obligation, and that Aborigine would feel entitled to be very angry and disgruntled.

Incidentally, those who live in remote areas see evidence of this every day. At some point in the past, a white person has (seemingly) generously provided an Aborigine with tobacco. This has, in effect, signalled that that white person recognised that white people have an obligation to provide Aborigines with tobacco. From then on, every day on a street corner in some outback town [xix] the following exchange can be heard.

            Aborigine: Got a smoke mate?

            White bloke: No mate, I don’t smoke.

            Aborigine: Racist white c***!

However, the ‘Voice’, while will be considered binding on the white community, we can expect that no remote area Aborigines will consider any of the ‘Voice’s’ decisions to be personally binding on them — unless, of course, those decisions can be linked in some way to eternal Dreamtime law — for which, as noted, there is no current precedent, or it will be linked to some aspect of kinship obligation, which has its own downside. One assumes, though, from past experience, that even when any directives from the ‘Voice’ are simply ignored by the Aborigines themselves, they will still be expected to be implemented and enforced by mainstream police officers and by the mainstream judicial system. The failure to act on these decisions, or the act of acting and attempting to enforce these decisions, can be expected to stimulate even more anger in the communities against these authorities.

I cannot see how a ‘Voice’ can do anything except provide substantially more division between the Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal communities. And having raised expectations in the Aboriginal communities, I cannot see how government could ever expect to fulfil them.

Alistair Crooks is a regular Quadrant contributor

[i]  Professor Peter Sutton, 2009, p137. The Politics of Suffering: Indigenous Australia and the end of the liberal consensus. Melbourne University Press.

[ii]  Peter Ryan, 2019, The Types of Violence Impacting on Centralian Communities.  A Kurduju Committee Report, 15/3/2003.

[iii]  Just as an aside, confidence in traditional dispute resolution is somewhat undermined in the Kurduju Committee Report which records with respect to this type of violence : “In some centralian communities the origins of the disputes are thought to pre-date contact and settlement.”

[iv]  Pastor Paul Albrecht, A.M., 2008, p17. Relhiperra : About Aborigines. Bennelong Society.

[v]   It is possible that if two opposing options are presented at a meeting, perhaps supporting both options, even if they are blatantly contradictory, rather than choosing between them is seen as the best way of avoiding conflict and maintaining peace.

[vi]  TGH Strehlow, as quoted in Pastor Paul Albrecht, A.M., 2008, p17. Relhiperra, About Aborigines. Bennelong Society.

[vii]  Pastor Paul Albrecht, A.M., 1981. Hermannsburg, A Meeting Place of Cultures : Personal Reflections. The Doreen Braitling Memorial Lecture, 2/3/1981, Alice Springs.

[viii]  Pastor Paul Albrecht, A.M., 2008, p4. Relhiperra : About Aborigines. Bennelong Society.

[ix]  W. Lloyd Warner, 1937, p5.  A Black Civilization : A study of an Australian Tribe. Harper Torchbooks.

[x]  W. Lloyd Warner, 1937, p16.  A Black Civilization : A study of an Australian Tribe. Harper Torchbooks.

[xi]  W. Lloyd Warner, 1937, p35.  A Black Civilization : A study of an Australian Tribe. Harper Torchbooks.

[xii]  Pastor Paul Albrecht, A.M., Acknowledging the Indigenous Custodians of the Land,. Unpublished pamphlet.

[xiii]  Pastor Paul Albrecht, A.M., 2008, p4. Relhiperra : About Aborigines. Bennelong Society.

[xiv]  Pastor Paul Albrecht, A.M., 1981. Hermannsburg, A Meeting Place of Cultures : Personal Reflections. The Doreen Braitling Memorial Lecture, 2/3/1981, Alice Springs.

[xv]  Professor Ronald Berndt and Catherine Berndt, 1999, p91. The World of the first Australians: Aboriginal Traditional Life Past and Present. Aboriginal Studies Centre.

[xvi]  James Franklin, 2008. The Cultural Roots of Violence. Quadrant Magazine.

[xvii]  Professor Peter Sutton, 2009, p81. The Politics of Suffering: Indigenous Australia and the end of the liberal consensus. Melbourne University Press.

[xviii]  Tommy Farmer, 1877. In : Evidence to the Report of the Commissioners appointed to inquire into the present condition of the Aborigines of this colony, and to advise as to the best means of caring for, and dealing with them, in the future, together with Minutes of Evidence and Appendices. The Royal Commission on the Aborigines. John Ferres, Government Printer, Melbourne. Victoria, 1877.

[xix]  Actually, these days, on most days you could probably hear in King William Street in Adelaide.

4 comments
  • James Franklin

    Quite so. At some point the city people who go on about diversity have to learn that indigenous society is actually culturally diverse, and they have to learn in what ways.

  • Alistair

    Yes, Jim. Pastor Albrecht had to learn the nuance of Aboriginal culture the hard way 40 years ago. In the intervening 40 years it appears that no body has bothered to listen to him. Thus the mistakes will inevitably be repeated over and over again.
    Incidentally, with respect to the “got a smoke” anecdote, one should remember not to take such a response personally – you should hear what they call their clansmen if they think they are being shortchanged in their kinship obligations!

  • woolfe

    Yes its difficult for us to understand.

    I had a similar experience on the mines. We had a young Aboriginal plant operator resign, he was very good at his job hard working and marked for additional training and promotion.

    On asking why he was leaving he told me that when he went home on R&R his relations (clan?) asked him for money and he had to give it to them, eventually ending up with nothing. He said what was the point of him working hard and earning money if he ended up with very little for himself. So he left and went back home.

  • john.singer

    Thanks for a well developed argument with which I whole heartedly agree. Perhaps if our politicians studied the life and times of Albert Namatjira one of the first Aboriginal men to live in both worlds and a product of the Hermannsburg Mission.

    The Aboriginal people who have escaped the strictures of “aboriginal culture” are already over-represented in voices to both the Parliament and Government. In using that voice through the labyrinth of committees and associations they do more harm than good.

    The kinship system is not unlike a football code where the clannish system equates to the “team” and any representative is only safe from undue influence when he/she has retired.

    There are no wise solutions in the current proposals.

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