An Indigenous woman speaks out

Bob Durnan is an old ALP colleague who has worked in Indigenous communities in central Australia for the best part of 30 years.  Like me, he has witnessed the tragic deterioration of living conditions in many if not most remote communities and town camps in the Northern Territory over that period of time.  As such Bob is a strong supporter of many aspects of the Howard government-initiated NT Intervention, especially the income management system.

Bob has just emailed me a copy of what I think is a very important speech delivered to the Australian Alliance of Lawyers last Friday in Alice Springs by Bess Price, a senior Warlpiri woman from Yuendumu.

The background is the release last week of the Bath Report into children’s services in the NT, which revealed that not much had improved in that area since the “Little Children Are Sacred” report which triggered the Intervention in 2007.  NT Minister Kon Vatskalis said last week:

“The communities out there are in total collapse. There is a crisis in the communities,” Mr Vatskalis said.

“Yesterday, I was thinking, I said where is the person like Martin Luther King to come out and say ‘I’ve got a dream?’, because I can’t see anybody in the Indigenous community at the moment coming out and saying ‘I’ve got a dream’ and lead the communities. There is no leadership.”

Ms Price is certainly an Indigenous leader whose voice needs to be heard more widely.  Her address is over the fold. Please read it.

My mother and father were born in the desert. They lived their childhood out of contact with whitefellas. They were terrified when they first saw a whitefella. They taught me the Old Law that our people lived by. That Law worked when we were living in tiny family groups taking everything that we needed from the desert. It is Sacred Law. There was strong Law for sacred business. If the sacred Law was broken both men and women could be killed. There was strong Law for who we could marry. Men had the power of life and death over their wives. Young girls were forced into marriage. Men too had no choice in who they married. There was no law for property except that everything must be shared. There was no law for money because we didn’t have any. There was no law for houses, cars, grog, petrol or drugs – we didn’t have any except for bush tobacco which was shared like everything else we had. The only way to punish was physically, by beating or killing the law breaker. They couldn’t be fined, we had no money or wealth to take. They couldn’t be locked up, we had no jails.

Everybody knew what they had to do to make sure that everybody survived. We all knew how to make a living from our country. We lived from day to day. Everybody was taught to fight. We only had our family to defend us. We had no army, no police, no courts. Everybody needed to know how to use a weapon, women and men both learned to fight and knew they would have to do that sometime. We also believe that our Law Man can make magic, they can heal the sick but they can also make people sick and die by magic. That is what all my people believe. We kept the peace by fear of violence and magic.

Now we live in a world ruled by a new law that is not sacred, that doesn’t accept that magic exists. Now we are all equal citizens with human rights. Now we have property, houses, cars, grog, drugs, pornography. Now we live off welfare, other people’s money or we need to get a whitefella education and get a job. We still share everything and this keeps us poor. We can’t say ‘no’ to our family even when we know they are drinkers and gamblers and will waste our money or destroy themselves with it. Now too many of our men still think they have the power of life and death over their wives. My people think all property should be shared and we think whitefellas are just greedy and stingy. We don’t plan for the future, we don’t budget or invest – we share and consume. All this has happened too quickly.

The Bath report on the failure of child protection in the NT tells us that our kids live in a chaotic world where they are at terrible risk. My community of Yuendumu has been torn apart by feuding. These problems show us that government has failed but is also shows us that Aboriginal Law has failed too. Aboriginal organisations have failed as well. Aboriginal politics that focused on the ‘Stolen Generation’ and ‘Deaths in Custody’ also failed. Aboriginal politicians forgot about our women and kids, forgot about the violence on the remote communities, forgot about the problems we are causing for ourselves. We can’t just keep blaming the government without taking our share of the blame. That is the only way we can find our own way out of these problems.

Our old Law worked really well in the old days but it was not about human rights. It was about unconditional loyalty to kin, to family and following the sacred Law. It was about capital and physical punishment. There were wise old people who tried to make sure that there was justice. But they are all dying now. Those like my own parents who were born and grew up in the bush, are all getting very old and passing away. But even they could not stop the grog and the violence that came from the new world we were living in. There is nothing in our old Law that helps us deal with grog and drugs. All these new things that whitefellas brought in we have no law for. But we still respect our ancestors and we still want to keep our culture. The Two Laws, whitefella and blackfella, are based on opposing principles. My people are confused. If they go the blackfella way they break whitefella law, if they go whitefella way they break blackfella law. Our young men are caught in the middle,  they are still initiated into the old Law but they live in a world run by the new law, that’s why they fill up the jails.

Con Vaskalis is right when he says that we don’t have effective leadership. We have wonderful old people who know the old Law but are confused and worried by the new. They are truly wise when they have real authority, when they are in small, family based communities away from towns. They are ignored by the drinkers and the young people who are rushing to take the benefits of the whitefella way without learning whitefella law. Too many don’t know either law now. We have Aboriginal people who speak out all the time but don’t live in the communities and don’t speak an Aboriginal language – who don’t have any idea what life is like for my people. We have Aboriginal people who others call leaders who we know are only looking after their own families, their own interests and not those of the whole community. We have very good people who want to do the right thing but are too worried and confused and who are continually grieving over the deaths of their loved ones. We have white radicals and NGO’s with their own agendas who want to use us like political footballs. When we women talk out about our problems they either ignore us or tell the world that we are liars and trouble makers. Some of my people who carry on about human rights and attack governments every time they try to do anything new run away from their own kin and communities when there is trouble. They never find it hard to find a gullible human rights lawyer to back them up in public but they don’t do anything in their own communities to make things better for their own people.

Too many lawyers are only interested in the rights of the perpetrators. Because they are worried about racism and they don’t like a particular government they will do what ever they can to make sure that murderers and rapists and child abusers are protected from the new law. They will only advocate acknowledging traditional law when they think it will work better for their clients, the perpetrators. But they don’t know how the old Law worked. They never worry about the victims who are also Aboriginal and victims of racism, who have had their basic human rights ignored and trampled on by members of their own communities, their own families. It seems to us that human rights lawyers only worry about the black victims when the perpetrators are white. It is not somehow more acceptable to be raped, abused and murdered when the one doing it to you has the same colour skin.

Our problem is that we want to keep our culture. We want to respect our ancestors and their Law but we also want to be equal citizens and we want human rights. We can’t do that without changing our Law. But we need to change it ourselves, others can’t do that for us.  Only we can solve our own problems and we will do it in our own way. But we really need the support of governments and our fellow citizens. You need to listen to the voices that are usually drowned out by the strong, the noisy and the powerful. You need to find a way to listen to those who don’t speak English, who are the most marginalised and victimised in our own communities. You need to listen to our own women and young people, the ones who don’t have a voice under the old Law. If you really want us to have human rights then you have to find ways to protect the victims of black crime as well as white crime.

About Ken Parish

Ken Parish is a legal academic at Charles Darwin University, with research areas in public law (constitutional and administrative law) and teaching & learning theory and practice. He has been a legal academic for almost 12 years. Before that he ran a legal practice in Darwin for 15 years and was a Member of the NT Legislative Assembly for almost 4 years in he early 1990s.
This entry was posted in Law, Politics - national, Politics - Northern Territory. Bookmark the permalink.

16 Responses to An Indigenous woman speaks out

  1. Jacques Chester says:

    An excellent speech — insightful, to the point and relevant.

    I fear however that it will also become the siren of another political football match.

  2. Jen says:

    It is complicated alright.

    I agree, policy should be influenced by the bright and the knowledgeable in Aboriginal communities, not the black bureacrats and mouthpieces that sound off empty jargon to the media. The Aboriginal industry involves lots of people black and white who haven’t got the intelligence or the qualifications to think through a problem let alone to a solution.

    The result? Policy runs this way, then this way, then this way, then away.

    The ‘fix’ is always just around the corner. Never right here.

    Everyday I deal with ‘bright’ urban Aboriginal kids who aren’t making the grade.

    And yes, the whole politically correct ‘mess’ has a lot to answer for. It has created a wall.

    Yeahhhh miss ‘cos I’m black!
    Right kid that works – I’m here to teach you how to communicate in the mainstream. I’m here trying to impart to you the tools you need to survive, but you say you are too ‘black’ or ‘yella’; or more exactly, you are at a loss about what you are doing at school. There is little relief because 10-1 no-one at home knows what you are doing at school either.

    Where is the nexus between home and school for these community and urban kids who find mainstream schooling a foreign, alienating and useless experience?

    That is a rich area for constructive policy development. What about laws that get the kids to school? What about schools that can meet all the pastoral needs of these students?

    We could develop whole communities centred around the school. Why schools? – Because schooling is the portal through which kids must pass to gain access to good living in mainstream Australia.

    Many students and their families with welfare backgrounds don’t stand a chance of getting out of the welfare cycle without a strong constructive community centre. The schools as they stand are not up to it, but they are an established base upon which community education centres could be developed.

  3. Robert says:

    Thanks for sharing this, Ken.

  4. Paul Frijters says:

    bittersweet. They really are in one hell of a mess.
    The vast majority of self-identifying Aborogines live in the cities. And they are only fractionally Aboriginal. How bad is it there?

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  7. Tel says:

    We kept the peace by fear of violence and magic.

    After watching a few episodes of CSI, it’s good to discover that diverse human cultures do have some universal common ground.

  8. TerjeP says:

    This lady, Bess Price, has written a very insightful article. Thanks for sharing it. I hope we hear a lot more from her.

  9. Pingback: ”I wouldn’t have picked her for Aboriginal at all … to me she looked like an Aussie girl.” | IAIN HALL's Sandpit

  10. DailyMagnet says:

    I think if Bess Price’s words could be more widely published and more widely read, I think there’d be a lot of people who would be finally able to wrap their heads around the problems a bit better, and maybe we could all put our heads together to work out better solutions in both sorts of law.

    It doesn’t sound like an easy life under either law, for women, Bess?

    You said, “we live in a world ruled by a new law that is not sacred,” and you sure got that right – I don’t think you could find anything less sacred than some of the findings of the ‘whitefella’ courts.

  11. liz thornton says:

    I went along to a film show in Mona Vale Sydney. I have very rarely set eyes on an aboriginal person.Mike Mullen described the sort of conditions that have been imposed on these people by government and we watched an excellent film made about the true story of the stolen generation and the results of the intervention.

    I have just donated $150 to a South African village for a solar oven.These are being provided in order to avoid the rising costs of electricity.In this sunburnt country what stops us building cheap efficient housing with composting toilets.Where is all this solar energy ?Wind energy ? Geothermal? Why do we need to put people on the mains? let us get Aboriginal people trained in the solar industry jobs.Let these people teach us ways to collect water in the desert.

    We will all need to get smarter.Our way could prove to have been the destroyer of life as we know it. Twiggy has a slanted objective on what will make lives better and Aboriginals may not seek limousines and diamonds,their happiness comes from living each day meaningfully.happiness comes through staying in the moment and not allowing greed to guide them into the same mistakes that has befallen the Western world

  12. Tel says:

    In this sunburnt country what stops us building cheap efficient housing with composting toilets.

    Local council regulations mainly. The older houses around Sydney used tank water and septic-tanks. A small number on the fringes still do. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with this technology and I know people who went right through our recent drought without ever needing to buy water (although many tank owners do buy water occasionally, which is no big deal).

    When it came to providing sewage and water services, they tended to set the regulations to make it, ahem, very difficult to say no. Then ripped out existing tanks and put a ban on tanks completely in some areas or just a ban on large tanks in other areas — forcing all new property owners to join the existing water & sewage system and pay uncompetitive monopoly prices for that service.

    Where is all this solar energy ?

    Well, when they were paying 60c /kwh feed-in tariff for solar energy it was going up all over the place. When they cut that down to 20c /kwh suddenly people are decidedly uninterested. There lays the first problem with solar power — it’s much more expensive than the alternatives. The second problem is where to store the energy over night, and the third problem is maintenance (generally replacing batteries which are a shitty way to store energy).

    I have no doubt the first problem will be solved before too much longer, but the storage problem remains a biggy.

  13. Milangka says:

    I was present when Mrs Price presented her speech at the Australian Lawyers Alliance national conference. Originally advertised as “The Rights of Women and Children in Indigenous Communities” it was changed to “Caught Between Two Laws”, possibly to coincide with the current issue of community dispute at the largest Aboriginal community in Central Australia.
    Mrs Price prefaced her speech by stating that she strongly supported the Intervention. It is interesting that, despite her strong support for the federal and NT governments’ assimilation policies, she still has the vision that culture is vital (whilst envisaging that Aboriginal law must change to fit in with white man’s laws.) Also, whilst it is true that Mrs Price was born and grew up in Yuendumu, she has not lived there for many years. Passionate as she is about the need for improvements to the lives of her relatives, she is not living the Intervention. I have checked with Warlpiri residents of Yuendumu and she is not classed as a ‘senior’ woman under Warlpiri custom. She is indeed senior in terms of whiteman’s classification in relation to age and grey hair.
    It is also blatantly obvious that, after over 3 years of intense intervention, the situation for most Aboriginal people living in the Northern Territory under the Intervention is actually becoming worse with deteriorating health, promises of housing improvements broken, attempted suicide/self harm rates increasing, racism becoming more overt and intense etc.etc. The government needs to listen to the people who are crying out to be heard, many hundreds of them.

  14. Renae says:

    This is a really great article.
    Up until recently I was a youth worker in regional WA, working with Aboriginal youth who are really caught in the middle between the old law and the new law.

    These kids were being torn in half, not only by the law, but by what people were telling them. We had a few kids and adults who stepped up and were excellent leaders, but the other people in the aboriginal community would snipe behind their backs and call them ‘coconut’ so they weren’t given the respect they deserved.

    We had an excellent program running, that had started in a set mode, but we had adapted as we learned what the problems the kids faced were. We got input from the kids and from the adults, and we really had something great that was making a huge impact in the area.
    Then the bureaucrats came in and told us we should be running it a certain way, completely ignoring everything we’d learned and implemented, and it destroyed the entire thing.

    I also live right in the heart of a state housing suburb, and daily come into contact with Aboriginal people who are caught between the two cultures. It’s heart-breaking, because I know how hard myself and other people have tried to bridge the gap and help, but the odds we came up against were too hard. The odds were funding, bureaucracy, and also finding people willing to help. The kind of things that really help Aboriginal people to integrate are not glamourous, they’re not fashionable, and it’s hard work on both sides.

    I hope more people like Bess Price can stand up and explain these things, and that people will listen. I long for the day when black and white can live together, all as Australians, with true equality and understanding and harmony.

  15. Jacquie says:

    I am not sure if people understand what sister is stating here it does not matter how long you lived away from your country/homelands you will never forget your customary laws, traditional lifestyles, languages, traditional bush foods and medicines it stays with you no matter where you go. It is passed on to your children and their children it is the knowledge, skills and life experiences that just continues, from generation to generation. We need to look at ourselves before we judge others, I came from a small community we lived semi-traditional lives. We hunted and gathered both land and sea foods we survived, even though we had contemporary mechanical ways of getting things done, we still had to know how things worked. For e.g. we had boats with motors which we used to go to school in, every fortnight my parents used to row to the nearest city to buy food and if anyone needed a doctor that just took longer but they made it.
    I can tell you many stories of how life for myself and my family were we are a close community who always shared foods which was caught and joined in celebrations, we fought against one another but we were connected and our families are still connected today. What I want to say is “give a person a chance to voice their story everyone has a story to tell”. Thank you for listening to my story.

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