Sorcery and the black Hatfields and McCoys

The Hatfield clan circa 1897

I had a long chat recently with an old mate from my politics days who I hadn’t seen for some time.  The conversation turned to Aboriginal affairs issues, as it does when you’ve both worked with and for Indigenous groups for the best part of thirty years.

Somewhat surprisingly for an aging lefty, my old mate’s attitude was quite similar to mine (and that of another old lefty in Bob Durnan who I often mention in posts like this).  The former left-liberal approach to Aboriginal affairs, based as it was on “self-determination” and symbolic issues like treaties, apologies and recognition of customary law, just didn’t work.  The plight of Aboriginal people actually became progressively worse by just about any measure.  Of course, some supporters of that approach continue to argue that self-determination was only ever tried in a half-hearted, piecemeal, stop-start fashion.  There’s probably some truth in that , but you still can’t argue that those policies even remotely resembled a raging success.

Similarly, the Howard Intervention  and its relabelling by the ALP government as “Closing the Gap” has also enjoyed underwhelming success to date despite multi-billion dollar spending, as a recent article by Indigenous legal academic Larissa Behrendt highlights.  Part of the problem, as Behrendt argues, is the “top-down”, prescriptive, paternalistic nature of the federal programs.  As Behrendt observes, successive Productivity Commission reports (hardly a bleeding heart, left-leaning organisation) have found that the programs that work in Aboriginal communities are those based on consultation, partnership, mutual respect and communities “taking ownership” of initiatives.  That must not obviate acountability or efficiency, but the two are not incompatible.

However, I strongly suspect after nearly 30 years of observation that the lack of a  “partnership” approach per se isn’t the main problem.   The principal and possibly insoluble problem is that key central aspects of traditional Indigenous culture are simply fundamentally incompatible with a contemporary, post-industrial, western capitalist individualistic culture like that of the dominant Australian community.  However, as soon as you make such a statement, other than privately and sotto voce, you end up being howled down as a “racist” (or at the very least an arrogant xenophobe).  Even undeniably well-motivated, knowledgeable experts like veteran anthropologist Peter Sutton have experienced this backlash after daring to critique aspects of Aboriginal culture.  Here is Sutton talking about the inherent extreme violence of Aboriginal society:

The anthropologist and linguist, Peter Sutton, lived and worked with Aboriginal people for 40 years, including in Central Australia. He says violence was not considered inherently negative.

Peter Sutton: There were many acts of violence which were considered very important and positive, such as cutting open the skull with stones in grief, such as piercing the nasal septum to wear a nose peg, such as circumcision, sub-incision, and other bodily operations that were part of the religious law and status marking and so on.

Chris Bullock: He says today’s violence is a mix of things that are deeply embedded, like teaching children to react quickly to a threat, because that was a critical survival response in days gone by.

Peter Sutton: So when you’ve got children still being brought up to be quickly vengeful and quickly vengeful in a physical way when they’re slighted or insulted or attacked, if you combine that with a sedentary community, people living maybe 1,000, 2,000, 3,000 strong in what is really a kind of a suburb in the bush, where people are not dispersed and they’re not moving camp whenever they need to, but have to keep dealing with the same relatives all the time, and these people are all related in these communities, then you add to that, say, alcohol, which is a disinhibiter, it lets the steam off, you can suddenly have a tremendous amount of bloodshed because it’s the new combination that is structuring this thing and it’s going off. But one element of it, or two or three elements of it actually come down from a very long ancient line of how children are raised.

In other words, while the extreme violence, especially against women, that we witness today is certainly exacerbated by alcohol and substance abuse, violence at levels that non-Indigenous Australians rightly regard as utterly unacceptable was always inherent in Aboriginal society.  It’s a point veteran journalist Hal Colebatch makes even more trenchantly in the latest edition of Quadrant, albeit that he rather undermines his own argument by relying on egregious ideological denialist Andrew Bolt.

Sutton also emphasises a much less well understood aspect of traditional Aboriginal culture and religion, the concept of sorcery, curses and payback violence, as this summary of Sutton’s book The Politics of Suffering by the Dominican Friars observes:

Many remote-area indigenous people also believe most illnesses and deaths are due “to the ill will and sorcery of other people”, a belief that further complicates efforts to boost health. …

In fact if anything this understates the real picture.  Traditional Aboriginal people believe that not only just about all illnesses and the deaths flowing from them, but also accidents and many if not most criminal acts,  are a result of curses and sorcery inflicted by particular malevolent individuals from other clans.  There is no such thing as illness or accident!  Not only does this extraordinary belief system result in cycles of extreme and utterly irrational “payback'” violence inflicted on entire extended families for acts they didn’t cause and are powerless to prevent or mitigate, but more generally it also means Aboriginal people have no incentive to examine or change their own behaviours.  Why worry about alcohol or substance abuse, poor nutrition or personal hygiene if these things have no causative relationship with the observable chaos and misery that surround you?

The ongoing farce of 60 people from Yuendumu who keep fleeing their community and ending up in Adelaide is a result of just such a bizarre, irrational “payback” situation.  It makes the Hatfields and McCoys or the Montagues and Capulets look like models of proportionate restraint by comparison.  At least their vendettas were triggered by real acts that someone actually committed!   The Yuendumu feud between the Watson and Nelson clans is exceptional only in the large number of people fleeing town and the fact that they keep lobbing in Adelaide and hence hitting the national media.

Other aspects of traditional culture that are fundamentally incompatible with modern society include the rituals of “sorry business”.  Whole communities shut down, sometimes for weeks on end, when someone dies.  Moreover, given the ubiquitous extreme violence and range of behaviours leading to appalling health outcomes, deaths are frequent.  “Sorry business” rituals mean that Aboriginal communities cannot maintain business enterprises capable of competing in the broader economy, nor can traditional individuals hold down jobs in the mainstream economy unless they have extremely understanding and flexible employers.

Finally, the traditional system of “caring and sharing” kinship obligations, so beloved of many left-leaning commentators wearing rose-tinted spectacles, is itself rendered toxic by interaction with the modern economy and welfare state.  Why bother to hold down a job if you’re going to be forced to share your earnings with a swag of idle, welfare-dependant relatives who will intimidate you to hand over your cash to fund their alcohol, substance abuse, gambling and porn addictions?  It is largely this ugly phenomenon which causes otherwise left-leaning community workers like Bob Durnan to support the Intervention income management program despite its evident paternalistic aspects.  Income management means that mothers at least have enough unstolen money to feed and clothe their kids.

Cape York Indigenous leader Noel Pearson tries (tacitly) to undertake his own form of social engineering by advocating that Indigenous people adopt a “ladder of opportunity” world view in which they put the welfare of their immediate family first.  However, Pearson deliberately fudges the extent to which that would represent a radical departure from the traditional culture of kinship obligation.

Frankly, I despair of any lasting positive changes in Aboriginal society unless and until Aboriginal people themselves decide to address these issues and adapt their own culture to the contemporary world.  The assimilation and “stolen generation” policies of the twentieth century demonstrated the futility of imposing such changes forcibly on any culture or community.  How to effectively sow the seeds of such a desire for change is the problem, at least as I see it?  Honest discussion like this post could be a useful start, though only if at least some others participate in a constructive spirit.  Real friends don’t hesitate to level with each other when one of them is stuffing up.  The same should be true of blunt but fair and reasoned criticism of cultures in our midst, despite the post-modernist pressure for multicultural “acceptance'” of even the most obnoxious practices of oppressed minorities.   However, the real solution must lie in education, both of children and adults, as well as identification and fostering of potential future leaders.  If we had a couple of Noel Pearsons in every community then real change would become possible.  But knowing that and achieving it are two different things.

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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Mel
Mel
10 years ago

I recall a bizarre post by Mark Bahnisch at LP several years back in which he argued that Aboriginals are no more inclined than other Australians to have a problem with alcohol. Apparently we shouldn’t believe our own racist lying eyes. Ditto for the sexual abuse, violence etc that pretty well everyone outside the lefty denialosphere realise are rampant in indigenous communities.

The prevailing denialism on the left and the paternalism or indifference on the right skewers any chance of fructuous policy settings.

ken n
ken n
10 years ago

A thoughtful piece, Ken.
Well done.
I hope it provokes further thought and discussion.

Don Arthur
Don Arthur(@don-arthur)
10 years ago

Ken – Can you think of any successful examples of self-initiated cultural change?

conrad
conrad
10 years ago

Ken,

I think you are being too pessimistic, the most recent indicators suggest that things are getting better, and I would suspect that a lot of the ultra-negative things will get better with them — there are lots of cultures that have historically done horrific things to each other and especially women but most ditch them once they get better educated and wealthier. I don’t see why Aboriginals are going to be an exception here.

Alan Davies
Alan Davies
10 years ago

The interpretation Inga Clendinnen provides in her book on the first four years of British occupation in Sydney, Dancing With Strangers, is of a male warrior society consumed by face and shockingly violent toward women (and which was in turn horrified by the British practice of whipping and hanging).

Mike Pepperday
Mike Pepperday
10 years ago

Vivid post, Ken. The bottom line is that their ancient way of life is no longer viable and for their own good they have to join the dominant culture.

Everyone has to face up to that and figure out how to facilitate it. At best it must take a couple of generations.

I have a specific suggestion which I have mentioned before: seduce Aboriginal boys with high quality internet access. Probably quite low cost in the scheme of things, too.

trackback

[…] bunch from Troppo. Ken Parish on the intractability of indigenous issues, and funding infrastructure in NSW, Nicholas Gruen on the problems of rationalising rustic […]

peter tuck
peter tuck
10 years ago

Don Arthur.
Kenneth Maddock in his seminal 1971 ‘The Australian Aborigines’ details how in the 1950’s Elcho Islanders, off Arnhem Land ‘broke spectacularly with their tradition by building within the grounds of the Methodist mission a rangga’ (carved wooden figures usually for a ‘men only’ display). The sacred became profane and Maddock goes on to see this as an attempt by the locals to gain some reciprocity from white society.
OK it is a long time ago to search for ‘self initiated cultural change’ and I share the despair of others on this post. Maybe we could try a bit of ‘tough love’. Take the issue of not publicising the names of the recently departed Indigenous Australians out of some sense of respect for traditional culture. Maybe we should announce that from January 1 2012 all media are free of this informal obligation.
At the same time the NT Government could say to the Yuendumu that no more tourists can climb Uluru. Now it’s your turn! How about dropping collective clan feuds such as the embarrassing Watson-Nelson debacle. Cultural give and take.

Thomas the Tout
Thomas the Tout
10 years ago

Well put Ken. I seem to recall you having similar pragmatic views many years ago: but one would be hesitant to air them in recent time for fear of being howled down.
(I trust this comment is not ‘the kiss-of-death’ given that you think I am a ‘pompous wanker’)

desipis
10 years ago

Ken, insightful post.

I struggle to see any meaningful way the “dominant culture” can socially engineer or (as Mike puts it) facilitate change in these remote aboriginal communities given the vast geographical divide. Ideas such as internet access provide a possible avenue of influence, however given the stories I’ve heard of how other goods are treated I’m not sure personal computers would stand a chance of long term survival and influence.

Ultimately I think the lack of hope for economic independence of the communities will continue to hinder the desired social outcomes, in much the same way intergenerational welfare dependence weighs on other cultures within society.

john walker
john walker
10 years ago

Is there that much difference to the long term generational unemployment culture of parts of the SW Sydney, apart from lack of media interest (outside the odd ‘glenfield riot’ scenario)?

Mel
Mel
10 years ago

“Between 1990 and 2000, the HDI [Human Development Index] scores of Indigenous peoples in North America and New Zealand improved at a faster rate than the general populations, closing the gap in human development. In Australia, the HDI scores of Indigenous peoples decreased while the general populations improved, widening the gap in human development. While these countries are considered to have high human development according to the UNDP, the Indigenous populations that reside within them have only medium levels of human development.”

http://www.biomedcentral.com/1472-698X/7/9/

The improvement in the situation of indigenous peoples in North America and New Zealand contrasts sharply with the static or worsening situation of Australian Aborigines. I wonder what accounts for the difference.

Pedro
Pedro
10 years ago

Nice work.

“Frankly, I despair of any lasting positive changes in Aboriginal society unless and until Aboriginal people themselves decide to address these issues and adapt their own culture to the contemporary world.”

Which it seems to me they can only do individually. So we need the right incentives to help individuals in the communities abandon the problem parts of the culture. Something that unfortunately would require relocation in most cases.

john walker
john walker
10 years ago

I know its a lot worse out west- orders of magnitude worse …but ..lots of violence/crime , no go zones, drugs , 15 year old mothers, illiteracy and so on .is not that different except it is not looked at much , back in the late 80s used to do a bit of work in the area.

Paul Frijters
Paul Frijters
10 years ago

Ken,

you and I have longed agreed on most of this. The key point to keep making though is that policies have never wavered from paternalistic assimilation. The key way in which the mainstream tries to change the original culture is via compulsory education in the production techniques of urban life. We do not teach canoe making, but English and maths, skills quite useless for hunter-gatherers.

Hence it is simply a fallacy to talk about any period in policy making towards Aboriginals that the mainstream has not had an active program of assimilation (and in that sense the reports of the Productivity Commission are disappointingly lacking in vision). All that has changed over the decades is the degree of pressure the mainstream has been willing to exert and the false labels attached to that policy. The notion however that ‘we’ are truly going to engage the Aboriginal community and talk about what they would like to learn at school has never been on the table and of course wont come on the table for the reasons you state: there is no long-run alternative to assimilation.

derrida derider
derrida derider
10 years ago

Societies that have faced Malthusian conditions for millenia tend to be very violent ones – that’s a fact, and pretending otherwise has done a lot of harm. The best you can do is to remove the Malthusian pressure and wait for attitudes to adjust – a multigeneration project.

The point is that for two centuries the white fella intensified that pressure. It aint surprising that we’ve ended up where we are.

Paul Frijters
Paul Frijters
10 years ago

Ken,

of course they are not hunter-gatherers. The point is that the original culture is one of hunter-gatherers and that the remnants of those cultural proclivities are dysfunctional. The attachment to land, reverence of elders, spirit worship, etc., all makes sense in a hunter-gatherer production environment, but makes no sense in urban or sub-urban production realities. Yet cultures are tenacious and slow to change.

Don Arthur
Don Arthur(@don-arthur)
10 years ago

Ken – I wonder whether the problem is cultural breakdown rather than traditional Indigenous culture. In the early 1980s, criminologist Paul Wilson pointed out that:

High-violence reserves [in Queensland] were marked by a number of characteristics: alcohol was legally available; they had relatively high populations; most importantly, they were reserves that had received displaced Aborigines from other areas … Reserves with lower rating had nearly the reverse pattern: they were communities in which alcohol was not legally available; where relatively high levels of traditional culture survived; they had low populations; they were generally isolated from white influence; they were not receivers of people forced from their traditional areas … These trends in violence and destruction on Aboriginal reserves point to explanations which are familiar to observers of other societies. Whenever there is a lack of community cohesion, considerable mobility from one area to another and tribal disharmony, crime and violence rates escalate.

It may be that it’s the breakdown of culture that causes the most problems. In the 1700s when England was going through a period of rapid social and technological change there were huge problems with family breakdown, child neglect and abuse and alcoholism. None of this had much to do with English culture.

Perhaps it was over zealous attempts to obliterate traditional Indigenous culture that caused many of these problems.

The point of saying this isn’t to assign blame to one group or another, it’s to think about what to do next. If Wilson is right, then gathering people from different language groups together in regional centres and trying to get them to give up the last vestiges of culture might just make things worse.

Don Arthur
Don Arthur(@don-arthur)
10 years ago

On the English example — Historian Jessica Warner’s book Craze: Gin and Debauchery in an Age of Reason is a good introduction.

Don Arthur
Don Arthur(@don-arthur)
10 years ago

Ken – Noel Pearson does not accept that Aboriginal Australians must give up their culture in order to escape disadvantage. What he advocates is bi-culturalism.

In a 2009 opinion piece he insisted:

The preservation of Australia’s Aboriginal cultures is a goal in its own right – an indispensable element of reconciliation – but Aboriginal culture and languages are being weakened at an alarming rate.

Not only does Pearson argue that Aboriginal cultures should be preserved, but he insists that non-Indigenous people have an obligation to help Aboriginal people preserve them. He’s not arguing for separatism but for bi-culturalism. He writes:

… the metaphor of layered identities may give rise to the misconception that government policy is not obliged to support minority cultures within a sovereign state. If such an attitude informs public policy in Australia, Aboriginal cultures and languages will slowly (or rapidly in some cases) fade away. I argue that government has a formal responsibility for the preservation of that cultural diversity native to the territory of a sovereign state.

Cultures are not static. They are constantly assimilating new social practices and technologies. For example, Christian churches eventually found a way to modify their teachings on usury and come to terms with modern banking. The shift from feudalism to capitalism did not require Europeans to give up their religion.

Pearson argues that traditional Aboriginal cultures have yet to come to terms with things like alcohol and welfare. He thinks these have been assimilated into the culture in ways that are not functional (eg the tradition of ‘demand sharing’ allows alcoholics to divert resources from kin to fuel their personal addictions). But his solution is not to abandon Aboriginal culture.

But none of this means that Pearson accepts that Aboriginal culture is responsible for problems like alcoholism. In a 2000 speech he made it clear that the welfare system was at the root of the problem:

You put any group of people in a condition of overwhelming reliance upon passive welfare support – that is support without reciprocation – and within three decades you will get the same social results that my people in Cape York Peninsula currently endure. Our social problems do not emanate from an innate incapacity on the part of our people. Our social problems are not endemic, they have not always been with us. We are not a hopeless or imbecile people.

It seems to me that what Pearson wants is the reform of white institutions and the strengthening of black culture. It’s not the restoration of some pre-contact ideal he wants, but a living, changing culture that can help Aboriginal people come to terms with the modern economy without sacrificing their identity.

Don Arthur
Don Arthur(@don-arthur)
10 years ago

Here’s what Pearson’s written on alcohol and Indigenous culture:

It is worth remembering that in societies that have lived with and managed alcohol for a long time that as well as formal laws governing its sale, consumption and associated behaviours, there are numerous informal standards and ‘conventions’ that are integral to the social function and control of alcohol. These social standards dealing with the times and occasions for drinking, the types of alcohol, the quantities consumed et cetera are part of the culture and form the habits surrounding the consumption of alcohol in societies that have learned to ‘live with alcohol’. These standards operate to control the potential effects of an addictive substance in society. Various societies ‘live’ with alcohol with varying degrees of success, for the descent from pleasurable use to dependency is inherently difficult to control. Even for white-fellas in Australia the use of alcohol comes at a major social and health cost.

Of course in our society in Cape York, as with indigenes across the globe for whom alcohol was a novel drug, we have not mastered the use of alcohol and indeed it has been a complete disaster.

Mel
Mel
10 years ago

Peter Patton (John Greenfield)

All Don has done is quote Noel Pearson on alcohol and Aboriginals. Your accusations are distasteful and out of line.

Some radical intervention is required to deal with the indigenous alcoholism:

“It has been estimated that the prevalence of FASD in Australia is 0.06 per 1000 live births, and even higher in Indigenous populations at 8.11 per 1000 live births (Elliott, 2008). ” http://www.druginfo.adf.org.au/newsletter.asp?ContainerID=foetal_alcohol_spectrum_disorder

As Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder is about 135 greater in the indigenous community than the general population, and it impinges on the “rights” of the unborn, I would not preclude interventions that impinge on the civil rights of the worst effected communities or that appear unsavoury, such as payments in exchange for voluntary sterilisation of mothers deemed extremely high risk.

conrad
conrad
10 years ago

Mel — I very much doubt that anyone would ever think of that. I also think you are unfairly tagetting groups that you happen to know about.

The reason I say this is that there are other groups of “at-risk” mothers, and no-one is going to do anything about them. For example, older mothers have a higher risk of having children with Down syndrome, not dissimilar to your figures — but I don’t think anyone is going to suggest such radical things for them. Note that the table in that article is for Down Sydrome births, but I believe many foetuses with Down syndrome get aborted, so they are just the ones that are actually making it into existence — the actual rate in terms of pregnancies is higher.

Mel
Mel
10 years ago

‘The reason I say this is that there are other groups of “at-risk” mothers, and no-one is going to do anything about them.’

Not really. Sixty-five percent all persons diagnosed with FASD in Australia are indigenous.

“older mothers have a higher risk of having children with Down syndrome”

So what? We can and do screen for Down’s Syndrome. Besides, at least to my knowledge Down’s Syndrome sufferers are not responsible for the level of rape, assault and robbery attributable to indigenous FASD sufferers, nor are they as prone to suicide or clinical depression.