Just Stop! Just say no!

At last count eight people had been seriously injured and seven arrested after an extended family group returned to the Central Australian remote Indigenous community of Yuendumu, having earlier fled to Adelaide to escape “payback violence” after a stabbing murder in Alice Springs.  That was despite the presence of a police taskforce sent there specifically to try to prevent such an outcome.

The extent to which a perverted form of “payback” vengeance is embedded in Aboriginal society is illustrated by this unashamed and uncompromising observation:

Senior people in one family say they fear the conflict will not end until they are allowed to carry out tribal punishment on the other family.

Troppo’s Alice Springs informant Bob Durnan anticipated just such an outcome in an ABC radio interview only last week

Anti-violence campaigners in Central Australia are increasingly concerned that cultural practices, such as payback, are being distorted and used to commit acts of terrible violence.

There were 455 violent assaults in the first three months of this year, and in the past six years assaults in and around Alice Springs have almost doubled.

The murder rate is very high and payback is being used as an excuse for endless feuds between individuals and groups of young men.

Bob Durnan has been working in Central Australia for 33 years and says payback has become a major problem for the region’s communities.

“Young fellas who drink get all fired up about the need to avenge some real or imagined slight or sorcery, or whatever, and go and assault and often stab people who are trying to sleep or lead a normal life,” Mr Durnan said.

“You get case after case going through the courts and cycles going on in the communities of payback for that kind of activity.

“A lot of them end up in jail now [and] there’s quite a few in the cemetery.”

The chairwoman of the Northern Territory Government’s Indigenous Affairs Advisory Council, Bess Nungarrayi Price, says what is known as next-of-kin payback is out of control.

“If they don’t find the right person that they want to carry out the payback on, or the revenge out on, they get the next person, which is either your sister, brother, uncle, nephew,” Ms Price said.

“It just happens out of the blue if you’re the person in the wrong place at the wrong time.”

One Aboriginal woman, Abi, says: “Payback now is more revenge, more of who’s going to be the dominant family. Don’t tell me it’s the Aboriginal way, because that is rubbish.”

Veteran anthropologist Peter Sutton discussed these issues in an ABC interview earlier this year, and the audio is still available (about 30 minutes but worth the time if you’re interested in this area).  He emphasises that “payback” violence is not just a modern artefact of a society destroyed by the impact of white colonisation, but a core aspect of customary Aboriginal law, albeit rendered even more toxic by the combined effects of alcohol and an idle, sedentary, town-based lifestyle.  Injuries and deaths are typically ascribed to “sorcery” on the part of some individual or family group, irrespective of whether the actual cause was violent crime, illness or accident, with the imagined “sorcery” then used as a drunken pretext for a succession of “revenge” attacks.

In a recent reply to Sutton (about 24 minutes), another anthropologist Jon Altman puts the conventional left-liberal white guilt view: grossly dysfunctional Indigenous communities are the result of decades of neglect, underfunding and mismanagement by federal and NT governments.  There’s an element of truth in that, underlined by the fact that almost $1 billion being spent on renewed housing under the SIHIP program looks like it will barely make a dent in the housing backlog.  However Altman’s argument loses some force if you accept that no government can feasibly fund the full cost of all housing for all residents of all remote communities due to their unemployed, dependent status, still less so when houses are trashed almost as quickly as they can be built and repaired.

All this is given a sharp focus in light of current proposals by the Gillard government to conduct a referendum to give constitutional “recognition” to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and culture.  If the proposal is just empty symbolism (recognition in the Preamble which would have little or no legal force or influence) then it isn’t a worry,((Actually, recognition in the Preamble may have some limited indirect effect in influencing interpretation of substantive constitutional provisions.  See this article by McKenna, Simpson and Williams.  For example, it might assist in resolving an unresolved issue about whether the race power s51(xxvi) should be regarded as authorising only laws beneficial to Indigenous peoples.  However, a Preamble reference certainly would not serve to reduce the legislative powers of either the Commonwealth or the States in relation to conduct allegedly authorised under customary law e.g. payback violence. ~ KP)) unless it signals a reversion to the politics of bullshit symbolism of the 1980s and 90s (treaties, apologies and the like) in place of the hard practical slog of tackling the real and massive problems on the ground, an overdue emphasis on real reform triggered (to the Coalition’s credit) by the Howard/Brough Intervention.

However, any attempt to give substantive recognition to customary law in the body of the Constitution would be dreadfully problematic, because it would potentially subject women and children to even greater danger of extreme sexual and physical abuse by entrenching the malignant power of violent “Big Men” who still control far too many remote communities.

It’s unfortunate that so many “southerners” still have a naive, idealised vision of traditional Aboriginal law and culture, or else hesitate to express any views because they genuinely don’t know and are afraid of being labelled “racist”.  It’s evident in the almost complete lack of comment box responses that my fairly frequent posts about Aboriginal affairs typically elicit. Although ultimately only Aboriginal people themselves can confront and address these problems, the dominant society does them no favours by averting our eyes and keeping our mouths shut.  Of course there are numerous negative aspects of the dominant culture, and quite a few positive aspects of traditional Aboriginal culture.  But neither “payback” nor belief in sorcery is among the latter.

Update – Tommy Watson, one of the “senior people” demanding payback in Yuendumu, has today appeared in court in Alice Springs charged with inciting a riot and was refused bail.

About Ken Parish

Ken Parish is a legal academic, with research areas in public law (constitutional and administrative law), civil procedure and teaching & learning theory and practice. He has been a legal academic for almost 20 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 the early 1990s.
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Nicholas Gruen
Admin
11 years ago

Yes, the stuff about recognition of aborigines in the constitution left me cold. I don’t even know what it would mean other than some words (I was going to write ‘nice’ words, but I don’t know why they’d be particularly nice).

The first fleeters were horrified at the violence the aboriginal men meted out to the women. Aboriginal women were checked into whitey’s hospital with hatchet wounds in their head.

Meanwhile when Phillip had people publicly flogged for mistreating aborigines, the aborigines who were called to witness the flogging were disgusted.

Anyway, those things have all been sorted out and things are much better now . . .

Anna
Anna
11 years ago

Oh what a can of worms the situation in Australia is with regard to Aboriginal peoples.
I could bore you with my linage and my personal circumstances but let’s just get to the nitty gritty of my OPINION.
1. We have reverse racism so to speak in Australia
2. There is a an aboriginal belief in a “feather foot” that I had grown up knowing was possibly responsible for many deaths in custody yet have never heard discussed in mainstream media.
3. The housing projects in remote locations like Warburton are a total waste of tax payer dollars as the recipients trash them to do things like use a new stove in the outdoors with a wood fire lit in it.
4. I have been honoured to meet a fair dinkum Aboriginal elder who was not shy in expressing his disgust at how his people CHOSE to behave – other nationality’s of people do not make them behave a certain way.
5. Australian’s share their outrage at female circumcision in other countries but what about the brutal practice of male circumcision for aboriginals that still goes on here, to the best of my knowledge. The end result has often been called “whistle dick” which may give you some indication as to the severity of the process.We sure wouldn’t want to say anything against aboriginal people now would we for fear of being labelled RACIST.
6.I have seen a number of bush dwelling Aboriginal women bash their male partners on a weekly basis; just after he gets out of hospital she gets drunk and does it again.
7. Politicians, powerful business identities and everyday people use the “plight of Aboriginals” as a platform for self promotion. Its a marketing tool and a PR sensation.
8. ALL human’s need the same basic things; Shelter (it doesn’t have to be a 4×2), food, water, clothing and companionship.These things do not change because of the colour of your skin, your religion nor your sexual preferences.
9. You cannot change what has been done, you cannot make amends for injustices done to people who are long deceased. We, the current generations CANNOT do anything about actions we didn’t have anything to do with in the first instance.
10. Are Aboriginal people not equal to non-aboriginal people? Of course they are, so stop creating a great divide by treating them as a separate entity. Being Aboriginal is not a handicap, being Aboriginal does not mean you are incapable of accomplishing what a person of any other ethnicity can. There is no valid reason for social security payments to be different, for university entry requirements to be different, for healthcare to be different, for anything to be different.

Get rid of the damn box “tick if you are Aboriginal or Torres Straight Islander” – we are all people capable of the greatest crimes and the most divine acts of kindness.

I will be sure to keep reading your posts in the future.

wmmbb
11 years ago

Ken,

I am assuming the photo is recent. If so, the demonstration is encouraging, and thereby an important part of the way forward.

John
John
11 years ago

Having come from a community with several Indigenous families living across the road and the resultant ‘flow’ of visitors from Palm Island, I can support Ken’s view that it is time Indigenous men, perpetuating violence in their communities, stop what they are doing. Unfortunately, the Indigenous families living in the one bedroom units, who were just trying to get on with their lives, suffered from the invasion of numerous vagrant ‘relatives’ who brought in drugs and alcohol to an artificially crowded abode. Violence occurred and on a regular basis we would ring police because one of the women would be assaulted. The police wouldn’t respond. They wouldn’t get involved and so the violence would just get worse. On a number of occasions it was the ambulance that punctuated the endless screams, swearing and physical abuse. On some occasions the violence was so bad that the police had no option but to arrest the aggressor but it wasn’t long before they were back at the same rental. We had many sleepless nights and eventually we had to demand the landlord evict the tenants. This just moved the problem onto some other location but we couldn’t do anything else.

The long-term alcohol and drug abuse means that the level of dysfunction in these communities is severe. And it is the children who have to live amongst this chaos. My children would go to school and find that the Indigenous children were victims of the violence or had to skips days of school because they couldn’t sleep during the night. Only the other day, my daughter told how her friend’s sister, an 8 year old Indigenous girl, was walking home from school and was viciously bashed and raped by an out of control Indigenous man. It didn’t even make the local paper. That family is suffering something that could have been averted. The girl will never get over that event.

If this dysfunction is going to be addressed we have to stop ignoring the problem. Only by providing a generation of genuine security, health and education services for all Indigenous women and children will the cycle stop.

Paul Frijters
Paul Frijters
11 years ago

Ken,

you know where the rub is: what real solution do we have to offer for the problems you raise? Inevitably, as the comment above by John illustrates, we fall back on what has worked for ourselves: we advocate punishment for violence and good education for the new generation so that ‘they’ can learn to function within our society. Fudge as much as you like, but that means we really saying ‘they’ should become like ‘us’. That has probably always been the only long-term solution we have had to offer but it is an innately bitter pill, and not just for the men of violence. And when culture A says to culture B it should become like culture A, then that is a form of cultural superiority, isnt it? Which is where the rub is. Though our solutions do imply this, our politicians cannot admit it and need face-keeping formulas. Hence the constitution and hence the silence of the commenters.

Mt Isa Miner
Mt Isa Miner
11 years ago

Paul, I was born and schooled in Mt Isa and I have lived next door to this and worked around it for many years. How much pain and how many 8 year olds are we willing to sacrifice to our white refusal to privilege the ideals of western European culture over the general ignorance and savagry of the Aboriginal world?

Most white supporters who identify with “Aboriginals” [sic} are both gutless, in that they never challenge what they are told/sold and embarrassingly uninformed. To their shame, most Aboriginal spokespersons rarely disillusion their followers.

Pappinbarra Fox
Pappinbarra Fox
11 years ago

Can I ask a question?
Just what the hidy-ho does “the intense resolution of the tensions between opposing principles” mean? It is gobbledegook as far as I can tell.

chris bullock
chris bullock
11 years ago

Ken, there are two 45 minute radio programs on this subject – the psychology of violence in Central Australian Aboriginal communities, and the clash between customary and mainstream (NT) law. The audio and full transcripts available at http://www.abc.net.au/rn/backgroundbriefing. And you can leave comments.

Mel
Mel
11 years ago

“It’s unfortunate that so many “southerners” still have a naive, idealised vision of traditional Aboriginal law and culture, or else hesitate to express any views because they genuinely don’t know and are afraid of being labelled “racist”. It’s evident in the almost complete lack of comment box responses that my fairly frequent posts about Aboriginal affairs typically elicit. ”

There is an awful lot of left-liberal denialism surrounding indigenous issues. Try mentioning problems like indigenous alcohol abuse or family violence on a lefty blog and you’ll probably be (a) accused of racism and (b) told the same thing happens in Toorak and on the North Shore but we just don’t notice or acknowledge it.

Mike Pepperday
Mike Pepperday
11 years ago

One reason for the lack of comments might be the feeling of sheer, hopeless futility. After generations of failed well-meaning interventions, what is there to say? I don’t know if it counts as progress but we are, now, somewhat freer to speak of the violence and dysfunction of Aboriginal life than we were a few years ago.

Clearly, the separateness has to end. Culture B should change to culture A. Is that not what is actually meant when politicians speak of providing Aborigines with opportunity?

In everyone’s interest, Aboriginal boys have to be seduced into our culture – the secular, technological, consumer culture of the whole planet.

Milangka
Milangka
10 years ago

Oh how the noble savage has turned into the useless black. And the unfortunate situation is that the people about whom so much is written (and told and discussed, ad infinitum – and what would the media do without Aboriginal peoples’ lives to sensationalise?)- the unfortunate thing is that most of the topic of the writings do not read what is being written, not because they can’t read but because access to the internet and other media is limited. Where or when does anyone actually speak to the subjects of the discourse? Why is it always second or third hand stories being told? – the whitefellas who worked here, or the Aboriginal person who was born there but now observes from afar, or someone who knows someone, or who lived next door.

Why are Aboriginal people such subjects of curiosity? What is our fascination? Why do we all have the answers but the solutions are not forthcoming? Perhaps we need a genuine, on equal terms, dialogue with the original owners of this land.

Paul Frijters
Paul Frijters
10 years ago

Milangka,

yours is exactly the kind of reaction that makes ‘whitefellas’ like me usually just ignore these kinds of debates. If all we have to offer as a solution is basically the gradual destruction of the prior culture, then what on earth is ‘genuine, on equal terms, dialogue with the original owners of this land’? What would the conversation be like? ‘Hello, respect to you, now how can we destoy what remains of the prior culture you are hanging on to as quickly and painlessly as possible? For your own benefit, of course’. Some conversation that will be.

Dibirdi
Dibirdi
10 years ago

“..all we have to offer as a solution is basically the gradual destruction of the prior culture…”
@ Paul
That’s all that ‘whitefellas’ usually offer!
The our way or the highway mentality normally, & when they do happen to say “right we’ll let you drive”, we get enough fuel to get us a quarter down the track (Self Determination) & as we’ve seen now, us blackfellas get blamed for wrecking the car.

The problem with some of the ‘information’ is that they don’t give the truths wholeheartedly.

In my opinion, while I agree that the contemporisation of Payback is wrong, most of this mob have become so frustrated with the situation not improving to their expectations (like most Aussies) that wholesale social policy testing & brown-nosing of anyone who will keep the NTER (Intervention) going has blinded them to the damage & lack of beneficial outcomes they strive to achieve (not to mention some of them earning nice little pay packets as well, didn’t see Ken declare Bess & Daves cross cultural courses for Intervention workers in there)

So while you may like to sling mud at those who probably are more objective but don’t like to stomp the backs of most blackfellas to prosecute the few baddies, at least they don’t usually have conflicts of interest or blur the reality to suit their agendas.

PS. I’m an initiated ‘yellafella’ with a brain & a voice but I doubt it will count for much if it doesn’t reinforce the general euro-centric concensus… I can but live in hope.

PPS. You can’t call it a ‘well-meaning’ Intervention if the legislation doesn’t even mention the word ‘children’.