Black Alternatives: Aborigines in the Seventies and Beyond(edited)

Black Alternatives: Aborigines in the Seventies and Beyond




Terry Widders

'SELF-DETERMINATION'. The coining of the phrase was, semantically speaking, the official clearing of the air by the Federal Government about what they intended to do about the Aboriginal situation. A contradiction in terms? You are forgiven for thinking so. No, this is not what self-determination meant. Rather, it was intended to start again the political game of administering Aborigines from a new set of rules. This is easily understood from the briefest of reviews of the four eras of official policy of the past.



a The colonial era: 1788—late nineteenth century

The game here was to treat Aborigines as criminals if they dared reject the declaration that all lands were Crown lands. Any fighting against compliance with official policy was criminal, and attended to accordingly (i.e. massacre, mass gaolings, hang-

in g s, 'Abo shoots' etc.). Although Aborigines were not aware of it, we had been regarded as British subjects, and it just wouldn't do (it just could not be) to mention in official reports matters such as 'frontier wars' or 'rebellions' between white and black subjects of the Crown. No, it was a matter of the Crown maintaining peace by whatever means, and expediently so.

b The protection era: late nineteenth century-

1948 As a result of the peace-keeping methods used by the colonial police and army, in addition to the more expedient methods practised by the land-hungry colonisers, the first stage of making over the Aborigine to the stereotype of the white middle-class British citizen caused a considerable decrease in the Aboriginal population. The remainder, by official policy, were to be 'protected'. Implicitly, Aborigines were now looked upon as maladjusted, mal-coping citizens, being now unable (and too decimated) to be 'criminals'. The heavy hand of the colonial approach was translated now through state policies. The era of the 'dying Aborigine' was made into a do-gooders' moral issue (provision of rations and blankets), and no longer an ideological problem to be tackled politically. And so was laid the racist foundation on which Aborigines were to be dealt with. From here on 'whites were right'. These two policy eras were basically concerned with the segregation of white and black societies.

c The assimilation era: 1948-1967 With Aborigines firmly established as welfare cases (i.e. dependant on the 'boss') the states and the Common wealth governments met to try and rationalise, in reasonableness, the most appropriate methods of ensuring Aborigines could exist, on white terms in white society (i.e. social benefit payments, unskilled labour, and the 'perhaps' of proper employment, wages, health and education rights, voting rights). Such rationalisations, however, were difficult to agree on in view of the differing controls on Aboriginal freedom exercised by each state through their 'Aborigine Acts' and the discrimination in

employment awards ('liberally' interpreted by employers, particularly in the pastoral industry). In other areas where Aborigines were failing to meet require d standards (housing, health, education), it was a simple matter of seeing the causes in 'Aboriginal cultural patterns, attitudes, intellect', ad infiniturn . If Aborigines could not be made over, the reasons had to be made up.

d The integration era 1967 A semantic change in official stance. Regardless of the declaration of a 'self-determination' policy by the Labor Party in 1972, there are two major forces at play in Aboriginal society. One was, and is, the constant social/political manipulation of the Aboriginal status, in all spheres, in an attempt to make over the resisting British subject. However, since this was never 'spelled out' in clear political and social terms, the result in Aboriginal society was the creation of an incredibly high level of tension. Aboriginal people, consequently, developed behavioural techniques to prevent them being 'got at' by the continuing colonial expectations. The amount of lies, written and oral, that have been perpetrated in the name of studying

reasons why Aborigines fail in white society has been one of the more evident results of this manoeuvring. The other is that the game goes on, and rationalisations from both points of view are ground out endlessly. With self-determination, however, new rules are being applied to this game. In essence, they go something like this:

Rule 1 Make a decision, any decision, so long as it is an Aboriginal decision.

Rule 2 Send this decision to your appropriate office (education, housing etc.) and they will receive it.

Rule 3 Have high, and often unreal expectations about the result of your decision.

Rule 4 Be patient until a decision is made on your decision. This may take some time.

Rule 5 If your first decision hasn't been successful, make another one and repeat process.

This admixture of cargo-cult, 'sugar-daddy' politiking is the trend of present government policy. The aim of this policy'? My guess is the making over of the political Aborigine, albeit the self-determining one.



What are the contradictions to this within the guts of Aboriginal reality? One major point is the reality of powerlessness. And why powerlessness? Since Aborigines have not been made over by colonial expectations, they do not pretend to share in power by voting, as citizens of Australia, in public issues. Therefore, the push has been towards definition of 'Aboriginal' issues, and an avenue in which to be oneself. This is a very hard task to achieve in view of being classified a 'welfare citizen', and therefore having the 'boss's' expectations to fulfill before knowing one is free of that restriction. And what are Aboriginal issues'? Land rights is one, yet it is almost a closed issue. This is simply because all states—Queensland and Tasmania excepted—have already 'given' land rights to Aborigines over the past four years. That is, land rights to the extent of vesting control of gazetted Aboriginal reserves in Aboriginal land trusts. The federal government is going through an analogous procedure with its Woodward Commission in the Northern Territory. Perhaps Tasmania will never receive even this minimal concession, and Queensland may be too racist to grant even apparent land rights. The situation of apparent, and minimal land rights is simply because reserves reduced by up to seven-eights of total original size over the years—were never land grants. They were simply 'protection areas' for the siting of Aboriginal groups prior to attempts to make us over. Having control over one's former training

institutions is what land rights is all about in Australia. Control of cultural material is another Aboriginal issue. And by cultural material I mean the rock art, sites of significance and artefacts : the material manifestations of Aboriginal culture. Since the majority of Aboriginal tribes have been displaced from their traditional grounds, however, the ceremonial/teaching cycle which supported and protected the responsibilities and rights to conserve and protect cultural material has lapsed, and irretrievably so in most areas. However, where these duties and responsibilities are no longer in the proper Aboriginal hands, then such matters

have become controlled by political government and their advisers anthropologists and archaeologists. Additional to these, the Institute of Aboriginal Studies in Canberra is the primary source of funding of research into and control over Aboriginal cultural material. This institution was funda- mentally rooted in the premise that the Aboriginal was a 'dying' race—culturally and that a comprehensive, well-sponsored programme was needed to 'salvage knowledge' for posterity. European controlled and directed, the Institute's programme of 'ethical concern' for Aboriginal culture concretely expressed and vindicated the academic 'concern' for same. A third Aboriginal issue is being Aboriginal. While policy makers have difficulty with the definition in theory, racism in the society has little difficulty with definition in practise.



What then is the point of this article? It is simply that as official policy has reached an end (where can it go after 'self determination?'), so too have the practising welfare institutions reached an end in relevance for Aboriginal society. Unfortunately,

this is not yet completely clear to either party at the moment. And the alternatives to neo-colonial citizenship, and welfare institutions'? In practical terms, such alternatives do not exist in concrete forms, with the exception perhaps of:


o making the Department of Aboriginal Affairs a statutory body, and not an extension of a political party as it now is ; and

o Aboriginal control of the funding of and decision making over research areas of the Australian Institute of Aboriginal Studies.

Broadly, therefore, there exist two broad directions in which Aborigines can move. One is an increasing large-scale entry into and participation in facets of Australian life, experiencing the realities first hand as fair-dinkum neo-colonial citizens. The other is to review the historical, and present realities of Aboriginal existence, and shape alternatives to that. While the former is basically

an individual political decision, the latter is a cultural group one. Assuming the trend in Aboriginal society is the latter, areas of achievable alternatives are :

1 Control and propagation of culture

2 Recreation of social/cultural norms.

There is, however, one major block to the freedom of Aborigines exercising thought and having the means to implement alternatives in the above-mentioned areas. That is the existence of the present structure known as the political state, which , rightly or wrongly, assumes the complete right to make decisions and implement the same for Aborigines within its boundaries. The concerns of all Aborigines therefore, fall within the boundaries of the state, and the state enforces this superior position—ruthlessly, more times than not through its instrumentalities : the law, resources control and the concept of political representation

(the final weapon totally truncating Aboriginal wishes, we being one percent of the total population ).

However, to list the achievable alternatives for Aborigines :

1 Control and Propagation of culture Abroriginal culture, like all cultures, is one with a world view. Unfortunately, this view has been circumcised by the coming of the colonisers, and the concept of the political state. And whereas before this event, the Aboriginal cultural world view existed within the bounds of the Australian continent now the political state—it can be recreated within the bounds of the finite globe. This means Aborigines should have control not only over the means of communicating their cultural world view within Australia, but also within other countries. This translates itself into notions such as international cultural exchange, initiated and controlled by Aborigines. The effects of such exchanges can only lead to a wider appreciation of cultures different and varied as they are—and in turn both an appreciation of one's own culture, and the creation of a 'reflective context' (i.e. other cultures) in which to recreate parts, or the whole of one's culture. The first tentative step taken towards Aboriginal cultural control was the creation of the Aborigines Arts Board in 1973, along with six

other European arts board, all within the Australian Council for the Arts, now the Australia Council. But, who is to say that the Aborigines Arts Board could not be snuffed out of existence at a moments notice? Cultural elitism is rampant in the Australia Council, and the former head of that organisation is the political 'sugar daddy'.

2 Re-creation of cultural/social norms Aborigines have been stigmatised, initially as mal-coping, third rate citizens (Protection Era), and then the rationalised reasons found by anthropology justified this with the term 'intelligent parasitism' (on white

society). Current social science jargon has changed the terminology, yet the underlying attitude remains the same. The spectrum, therefore, for Aboriginal social/cultural norms is either 'traditional' ones, or current 'welfare' ones. One, black, one white, add racism and guess who's right? From where, then, could recreated social/cultural norms come from! Part would flow on from the proposed initiation and control of culture, and cultural exchange, and the other could only come from a direct, hard look at differences between Western and Aboriginal concepts—legal and social. Very little of either 'traditional' views will survive into

the remaining two and a half decades of this century. To create social/cultural norms, then, requires a focus on the reality of 'now'—the now of personal values, of world view, and a desperation to recreate the malfunctioning order of life. For Aborigines, the order of life is very much bound up in parliamentary Aborigine (Welfare) Acts, and the existing social/personal relations operating within Aboriginal society, and between Aboriginal and white society. The various parliamentary Acts exist for fine

reasons ; political manipulation and a standing expression of the 'boss's' official attitude toward Aborigines. To change these Acts requires a struggle based on the 'servant-boss' relationship. In other words, pleading with the 'boss'. To alter, and recreate social and personal relationships, (inter- and intra-), requires being oneself, having dialogue with others on that basis, and maintaining relations at that level. Anything more, or less, is the 'boss-servant' relationship. The question here is one of 'doing it'. A re-created order of life in man's mind re-creates the outside order of life through action. These, then, are the two areas I see as achievable alternatives to the present restrictions (through law and attitudes) on Aborigines in Australia.

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