Friday, April 19, 2013

here’s why part 3

Why Aboriginals think and live the way they do
[a necessarily over-simplified version]

here's why 2 looked at the evolution of western ideas that are totally incompatible with Aboriginal culture: Savings; Planning; Accumulation of Wealth; Permanent Settlement; Individual Responsibility;

There are many different indigenous peoples in Australia, as well as a range of different ecosystems and micro-climates.

aboriginal languages map

rainfall in oz


most orstraylyuns live where there is water

a lot of aboriginals don't live in urban areas

The Gunditjmara people Near Lake Condah in Victoria, lived a settled life, capturing and breeding eels and fish in a series of man made weirs. They built permanent stone dwellings.


stereotypical Aboriginal is a desert-dwelling nomad. Perhaps because desert areas have been the least appealing to white settlers, some desert dwelling peoples have not been quite as “assimilated” as other Aboriginals.

Unfortunately, [former] desert nomads are possibly the most marginalised Aboriginals today.


Whether the climate was kind or harsh, western style agriculture could not develop in Oz before white settlement.
  • In many areas, the soil is poor, and water supply unreliable.
  • There are no native plants suitable for cropping.
  • There are no native animals that could be domesticated except for the dingo.

With few exceptions, survival on pre-invasion Australia’s mainland required a nomadic or semi-nomadic lifestyle.

Planning and saving and the accumulation of wealth – key aspects of western culture – were irrelevant and impossible.

Water was not saved, it was “stored” at its source. Game was hunted when needed, not hunted in quantities and then stored. Deferred gratification, or what westerners called “saving” was not just impossible, but counter-intuitive. People took what they needed while they could and, while there was no waste, feeding was opportunistic because tomorrow was uncertain.

A successful hunter-gatherer existence means gratification cannot be deferred, people must live one day at a time and move purposefully from one area to another according to natural cycles.

A hunter-gathering lifestyle necessarily involves co-operation and a team effort. If a little tacker 4 years old manages to dig up only a small number of the grubs or yams an adult could, then he was learning essential skills at a reasonable pace.

Resources were shared more or less on a basis of “from each according to his means, and too each according to his needs”.
Life is a series of “reciprocal obligations”. A gives B a kangaroo tail, and B shares some grubs or seeds. Old look after young and vice-versa.


Sharing open space at night when there is little shelter means no one has any chance of privacy. Just one of the rules of Aboriginal society which had tragic consequences was the idea that it is rude and invasive to look at any but the most intimate relation when talking to them.

In a white courtroom, Aboriginal witnesses or prisoners appeared downright shifty and untrustworthy because they avoided eye contact.
[Today, Judicial Bench Books provide a heap of information about communication issues, but these inclusions were a long time coming, and other problems with language or legal representation continue.]

Traditionally individual responsibility meant that everyone was responsible for upholding the law. If a law was broken, justice had to be swift. There were no circuit or travelling courts, or judges who could split hairs about the severity of a crime, criminal intent, the need for rehabilitation and so on.

What more traditional Aboriginals point out is that 
  • everyone knows the rules and 
  • if punishment is inflicted it is accepted, 
  • punishment means the matter is done, and 
  • the law-breaker starts afresh with a clean slate. 

In the context of a hard nomadic life-style, this is just a practical application of John 20:23*.

There was no law to deal with living off-country, or interacting with a white world. There is often a vacuum of guidance or certainty about what is expected, replaced by a distorted and inadequate set of inherited rules.

Governor Davey's proclamation that if Aboriginals acted the same they would be treated the same by the law was a nonsense. It assumed that the benefits of agriculture and permanent settlement, of saving and of long-term planning to achieve change were self-evident, and assumed Aboriginals could readily understand western law.


Land was not wealth, it was life. While westerners talk about “mother nature”, in traditional Aboriginal culture, the landscape is literally mother. It is an instruction book, and the relationship between land and the people who belong to it carries the same reciprocal obligations as other relationships within a group.

See e.g. my post on  Yepenyere Dreaming 

There is a great deal about traditional Aboriginal culture to admire. But the traditional lifestyles have been compromised by land titles, the degradation of landscape and sacred sites by cattle or buildings, and “ownership” of water rights, murders and forced evictions from peoples’ mother/landscape. 

We cannot wind back the clock.


There were extensive Aboriginal trade routes across the country, and there was interaction with Macassans and other seafarers, but trade was a social and practical business rather than something done for profit.

Aboriginals have proven repeatedly that they are quite able to adopt and adapt new ideas where
  • the resources exist and
  • the idea is useful to their current reality

In the North West, Aboriginals took to cattle farming with relish. Just one of the benefits was that cattle stations offered them a chance to stay on their own country, often influencing station managers’ decisions that might have affected dreaming sites.
They were finally awarded "equal wages" for their work just as helicopters were starting to make them redundant. Once they were redundant, they were usually evicted from station properties.

There are reports that during the very early years of cattle stations, Aboriginals had copied white ideas, building corrals and helping themselves to cattle. Spear heads have been found that were made of porcelain insulators from the first telegraph line.


In the early 1970s, the Whitlam government implemented some land rights initiatives which sought to give Aboriginals access to their land [or some of it] and provide ongoing access to important sites.
In many instances, portions of cattle stations where Aboriginals had lived [outstations] before helicopters made them redundant were returned. This restored access to country important to Aboriginals' spiritual and mental welfare.

These land rights decisions marked the end of an era of “assimilation” [total destruction of culture], without necessarily encouraging the compromise of integration.

Fast forward a few hundred years from settlement, and here is what we have:

  • people living on outstations with little access to services, and little reason to integrate
  • people suffering cognitive dissonance or anomie because their entire belief system is at odds with where and how they must live
  • drunks and diabetics who don’t understand that not all food or drink has been given to them by benevolent landscape spirits
  • diabetics because people do not understand the concept of deferred gratification, or do not have access to decent food, or that it is possible to continually eat too much;
  • people who eat junk food and too much of it, but have no reason to walk it off;
  • people who are brutal to each other when drinking, because the concept of summary justice has become perverted
  • people who might integrate except there is no point because they cannot save. Reciprocal obligation has become corrupted, and now results in “humbugging” [you must share any money you have, even if I’m going to use it to poison myself]
  • kids with no sense of planning, and nothing to plan for so they use grog drugs or anything available to numb their numb existence
  • people unaware of western hopes/expectations and too often even incapable of communicating properly in English
  • people who must travel long distances to stay with family/relatives, sometimes to commune but mostly to attend funerals following suicides, murders etc

One of the unsurprising things about fringe dwellers is that they tend to congregate in clusters which face the direction of their home country. Town Camps [townships] grew up spontaneously to meet this need.

poor quality footage from 2010? - a lot has happened since then [and a lot hasn't]

In town camps the number of people living in one house can fluctuate from 2 to 40 over the space of 24 hours, but hospitality is mandatory.

Imagine a teenager who is literate and keen enough and lucky enough to land a job, trying to turn up for work rested, showered and properly dressed if they live in conditions like this.
Because of the hospitality obligations and the noise levels when they congregate, marginalised Aboriginals are rarely welcome when they move into houses within urban areas.

In many instances housing is destroyed because living in a house seems crazy. For example, it’s often a lot cooler outside than it is inside when you live in a very hot environment. There is no “school of life” inside a house. Outside, sand is the blackboard.


The idea of “assimilation” – now taken to mean the total destruction of Aboriginal culture - was cruelly misguided. Suggestions that we must allow Aboriginals unfettered access to their own country, preserving every aspect of their culture[s] without hoping for any adaption are equally misguided.

We must stop assuming whites have no right to make decisions on behalf of Aboriginals, and start accepting that in some cases we have no right to not make decisions.

Nothing will improve until coming generations of marginalised Aboriginals grasp concepts like savings, deferred gratification and planning. Where traditional law is inadequate or there is no longer any “authority” within individual communities, this must be replaced by the rule of personal responsibility.

*“If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained”


  1. Nice work and I think I shall go to bed thinking about what you have written.

  2. 'Imagine a teenager who is literate and keen enough and lucky enough to land a job, trying to turn up for work rested, showered and properly dressed if they live in conditions like this.' Exactly. Far too many hurdles to overcome.

  3. Interesting facts's a very complex situation and for sure it's not working out very well for the Aboriginal people.

  4. It certainly is a difficult problem to solve. There needs to be a lot more understanding from both races.

  5. A complementary theory I've heard is the disenfranchisement of Aboriginal males with other parties like the government/missions taking away (for example) their traditional responsibilities of breadwinner, provider and decision-maker. And one of the many reasons for the cattle station thing working was little or no wages; no accommodation other than a rough 'camp' required; and females provided assistance to the station homestead for little or nothing.

    Maybe it's time to go back to basics and determine a 'without prejudice' vision of where we want to end up that is negotiated by, and acceptable to both sides because too many assumptions are being made by both.

    1. I think in some states there have been successful claims for compensation for stolen/unpaid wages in the pastoral industry, which is at least correct in principle.

      There has certainly been a breakdown in traditional authority, or respect for the opinions of elders.

      You are absolutely right about the need to go back to basics. The closing the gap initiatives are commendable but, as usual, couched in terms of specific outcomes rather than as part of any agreed vision.