This is an attempt to find an explanation for today's "way of life" of the Australian Aborigines.
What I expected to see
Before I came to Australia I envisaged to meet many Aborigines and visit some of their communities, not on the east coast (I was there 14 years ago) but especially in the Aboriginal Reserves in the Northern Territory.
I was looking forward to hear, from them only, about their ancestral customs and maybe seeing some demonstrations of one of their celebrations or festivals with dances, playing didgeridoos, even if it was staged for the tourists.
I wanted to watch them creating all the handicrafts (not just paintings), tools, instruments and weapons, like boomerang and spears. I wanted to intermingle and converse with them (like in "Crocodile Dundee" and in some other movies I have seen) and maybe making some friends. I wanted to go with them on a fishing trip (in the top end) or going on a hunt (I know that this may have been difficult).
I am not a dreamer. Everything described above did not seem far fetched to me, because I have experienced the like in the highlands of West Papua, in the jungles of Sabah and Kalimantan (Borneo) and with the hill tribe people in northern Thailand, even all original and not staged for the tourists (though some festive costume dancing for me only) despite the fact that I could hardly find anything like it in any guide book.
It's also true, that neither did I read anything about my expectations in any Australian guidebook nor .... anything about the miserable life of the Aborigines either.
Does this all sound a little bit naive? Because this is Australia and not a Third World country?
What I saw
Firstly, I want to recapitulate a little what I have already written throughout my travel report, which did not always seem to be politically correct, but it was actually what I have seen and experienced:
In the pub of Urandangi I saw only Aborigines (except for the white proprietor couple) in the middle of the day and seemingly hanging around all day. Some men were drinking beer, others bought beer by the case to take out, one was drunk. A lot of children were running around. No school child seemed to have school. A lot of garbage was lying in front of the houses located around the pub.
The Katherine Hotel pub was full with Aborigines at high noon, drinking, gambling (mostly women sitting at the poker machines), playing billiards. One man was painting on a canvas on the floor with a beer can in front of him. He begged me for another one, when I looked interestingly at his work of art. I saw drunk Aborigines staggering out the pub door and walking down the street. I also saw indigenous men coming out of a super market with carriages full of beer can cases.
In the towns of Alice Springs and Katherine I saw a lot of Aborigines sitting on a lawn along the pedestrian areas and parks or in the middle "grassy" part of the streets staring in the air. I have read in the newspaper that Darwin is trying to get the "grassy people" out of the center without mentioning that these people are Aborigines (that was politically correct). And really: I did not see any in Darwin.
In the evening (it gets dark almost at 6 p.m.) the streets of Katherine were deserted. Only Aborigines were roaming around in the back streets. Not that they seemed to be dangerous but some were really annoying by coming towards you and then sit down in front of you blocking your way on the sidewalk.
In Katherine I also saw some Aboriginal women either limping around or having a bandage around their head.
I saw many groups of Aborigines "camping" all night in the dried up river in Alice Springs and in the woods around Katherine.
During a stopover I saw two Aboriginal couples entering the roadhouse, drinking four cans of beer and then driving off again with a Landcruiser (had their own chauffeur).
And then the rubbish and garbage (and junk cars) I saw around houses in Aboriginal communities, whether in Attjere on the Plenty Highway (Urandangi anyway) or in Hermannsburg or in Arnhem Land, even in some suburbs of Alice Springs.
What I did not see
Then, what I did not see were Aborigines working in any hotel, restaurant or store, not even in the shops selling (their own?) Aboriginal paintings and handicrafts. I did not see them working in the Aboriginal cultural centers all over the Northern Territory, neither in the National Parks of Uluru, nor in Katherine and not in Kakadu, even if they own these places.
I did not meet any one as a guide (except one in the Desert Park in Alice Springs and the half-caste on the East Alligator River cruise, both with impeccable English). All Aboriginal owned tour companies announced in their brochures that their "guides are all indigenous, if available", but no one was available.
I hardly saw any Aborigine in the streets of Cairns or Darwin, except some street musicians playing guitar, but no one with a Didgeridoo.
What I read in local newspapers and announcements
I read in a newspaper about some kind of a riot in the suburbs of Alice Springs, because of the "anti grog law", i.e. not to sell grog (alcohol) in certain designated areas in the Northern Territory. No mentioning that this is aimed at the Aborigines (newspapers still always seem to exaggerate political correctness).
The official announcement (or Northern Territory Emergency Response), which became effective shortly before we arrived in Alice Springs, was more specific and it explicitly mentions and applies to all Aboriginal Land in the Northern Territory. The reason is as stated in a flier: "to help create a safer place for children and stem the flow of alcohol that is destroying Aboriginal communities".
According to the Combined Aboriginal Organizations of the Northern Territory, there is not only the new Northern Territory Emergency Response (as shown above) but another 500-700 pages of multiple, inter-related pieces of legislation issued by the Federal Government. I did not get a chance (yet) to read that, though.
One flier of an opposition party in NT states that Darwin and Katherine statistics show a tremendous increase in crime. The solved ones, though, are not broken down by background of the delinquents (politically correct) and stating that the government is not doing enough to fight crime.
There is generally no mentioning of Aboriginal background in reporting of crimes, but if a criminal is wanted then it talks about a person with Aboriginal appearance (otherwise it would be hard to find him - or her, right?).
Before I did get to Darwin I read many articles about some riots in some communities there, but also here no mentioning of any indigenous background.
I also read in the newspaper that Aboriginal girls are bashed into having "bonus babies" by their boyfriends, because they will be getting $4000 Commonwealth baby bonus for each baby born. But girls try to get secretly contraception implants (lasting for three years).
What I read about child abuse and domestic violence
Because of the immense material about this subject, I will list only few examples. I also tried to connect them with some comments of my own.
To repeat: the new Alcohol Restrictions on Aboriginal Land in the Northern Territory is aimed "to help create a safer place for children and stem the flow of alcohol that is destroying Aboriginal communities".
My question is: will those alcohol restrictions really create a safer place for children?
Ok, it may be that many child abuses are fuelled by alcohol. But if there is no alcohol supposed to be involved anymore, then the excuse that the perpetrator did abuse a child under the influence of alcohol will not mitigate his crime anymore and thus the penalty would only be harsher. Then there is only left the old common defense strategy in which male Aborigines are stating cultural traditions to literally get away with rape and murder (and child abuse).
So the most appalling issue is not only alcohol abuse as far as child abuse is concerned, but more so the male Aboriginal sexual violence against children, partially committed under the guise of cultural tradition. Also in the western society most child abusers did not act under the influence of alcohol.
And there is some truth to their "cultural tradition", or better indigenous "common practice": all throughout history in Aboriginal society (as reported by pioneers, early settlers and writers of the 18th and 19th centuries) children have always been sexually abused to an excessive degree (and not under alcoholic influence).
Actually, sexual abuse is an inadequate term for these incidence of horrific sexual offences against young girls and boys. An anthropologist in the 19th century observed and published that male Aborigines committed the most horrible gang rapes on girls of their own tribe, who just showed the first sign of puberty. Those incidents were so horrible, that I decline to describe them here. And this is just one example of many others.
It seemed that not much has changed. Today, Aboriginal children are ten times more likely to be sexually assaulted than non Aboriginal. And one third of all Aboriginal 13 years old girls in the Northern Territory have sexually transmitted diseases. Some cases are equally horrific as in the past, many are of the worst in medical books and required surgery. And the list is long of child abuses of girls and boys - from seven months old to their 13th birthday - in many Aboriginal communities.
Girls between 13 and 16 have been equally abused but that was even permitted under traditional law (by claiming marriage to that girl) though contrary to the Territory law. Some Aboriginal rapists justify their actions even by saying it was a traditional "sacred rape". One judge even took the traditional law into account and sentenced a perpetrator only to one month and $250 penalty. (Similar reduced sentences in cases of domestic assaults have happened in Europe because of conflicting Islam and western laws, where, however, the judge has subsequently been dismissed).
And what the new law or better the "Northern Territory Emergency Response" does not explicitly mention is that for women there should also be a safer place, because they are equally abused, not only sexually but also and more so out of petty motives, and with a brutality that death would be or actually was a relief to some of those women.
The first (white) woman to explore the Northern Territory in 1883 wrote in her diary: "if the poor unfortunate thing (the woman) returned to their camp without plenty (of food) then they (male Aborigines) beat and knock them about in a most fearful manner". A French zoologist of an expedition wrote about Aboriginal women: "... nearly all were covered with scars, shameful evidence of their ill-treatment of their ferocious spouses"
Unfortunately, it didn't get any better today: The number of Aboriginal women being treated in the Alice Springs hospital for domestic assault is 800 a year. The rate is 8 to 10 times that of whites (sure they also do it).
I want to give here one example of the brutality one Aboriginal woman has endured: she was "looking as though an incompetent butcher had conducted plastic surgery with a hammer and saw". Black eyes seemed to be the least. More common were split lips, fractured cheek bones, broken hands, broken limbs and ruptured kidneys.
In October 2006, an Aborigine killed his wife next to a river bank in Katherine (were just one year later I was strolling around). He punched her in the face and head and hit her with a rock while she was lying on the ground. She died from 19 injuries, which included ruptured liver, a fractured skull and broken rips. The reason: he blamed her for their itinerant life in Katherine rather than living in their community.
Many male Aborigines assault their women for the most minor of reasons. In one community it was observed that it was common for men, drunk or not, to bash their wives when the women returned from a trip, just in case they have done anything wrong while they were away.
Fear of sexual violence is a constant, so much so that some women and children of Mutitjulu (people of Uluru) are scared to take a shower in case they are raped. I have read in a newspaper recently that in Ululu the Mutitjalu people (only around 100 are left living there) are getting $400.000 a year from the National Park. Now they want a swimming pool for their community, but the Park "unfortunately" denied their wish because of a new construction restriction in that area.
That's unfortunately not all. A lot more cases have been published and many more are unreported.
What I read about self-determination of Aborigines
The Aborigines now control more than 40% of the Northern Territory after the Northern Territory Land Rights Bill was passed 1972. Also, from the beginning the promise of self-determination was inextricably linked to those land rights.
After 30 years of self-determination, the Northern Territory Government Minister John Ah Kit told the parliament "It is almost impossible to find a functioning Aboriginal Community in the Northern Territory."
Somehow he must have found out. For the Aborigines, self-determination actually meant to shut off themselves, in the first place. Nobody is allowed to pass through their land or even visit their communities without permission, and they hardly give any to enter one of their villages, with few exceptions (some tour operators). Generally, they did not want non-indigenous people to know what's going on in their communities.
Also somebody must have found out by chance that very valuable archeological artifacts have been found on a community garbage dump, which had been previously claimed and passed back by court order to an Aboriginal clan. No outcry occurred the way when the Taliban destroyed the Buddhas in Afghanistan.
So what is going on in all the Aboriginal communities?
Despite billions of dollars of government spending (total annual Federal expenditure is more than $2 billion for all the Aborigines, i.e. 2% of the Australian population, or around 400,000), indigenous Australians remain far more likely to suffer unemployment, poverty, domestic violence, imprisonment and low level of education.
Many Aboriginal communities have an unemployment rate of up to 95%. Everyone exists on welfare payments, also called "sit down money". Except for television, listening to music, drinking or taking drugs (petrol-sniffing is one) there is nothing to do. Nepotism prevails which means regular financial corruption and the misuse of public funds. "Big Men" control their communities by thuggery. Young males rove in gangs and fighting each other. All in all: a dysfunctional community.
All the landowning Aboriginal people in the Northern Territory have received $500 million in mining royalties and National Park gate takings alone over 20 years, but their living condition often resemble those in the slums of Mumbay or Jakarta. (After doing some math with the official funding chart in the visitor's guide of Uluru, the $8.2 millions of National Park entry fees aren't enough to maintain the park and must be subsidized with another $6.4 millions, thus the annual $2 millions for the Aborigines are actually paid by the taxpayers.)
Noel Pearson, former Land Councel chief, already spoke out in 1998: "Endemic welfare dependence was poisoning indigenous people, resourcing a 'parasitic drink-and-gamble coterie' and stripping communities of a sense of responsibility. Why have material and financial improvements been unable to prevent social problems escalating to 'horrendous' and 'outrageous' levels? He finds the immediate cause in a ready supply of (social security) cash, no work, to much free time and permissive social ideology."
Just recently I saw a television documentary on Australian TV, which was about the many endeavors of Noel Pearson to convince people in a community to join one of his programs, but not many seemed to be interested. In a community gathering I saw him holding an enthusiastic speech how everything can be better if everybody pulls on the same rope, but the faces I saw around were just looking bored and nobody spoke up.
The most astonishing fact is, however, that the living condition of the Aborigines in the last 30 years did not only get any better but worse, despite all the money. Junk food is ubiquitous (see "Chips and Coca Cola in Urandangi"). Kidney disease and diabetes have reached near-epidemic levels. The poor health of the Aborigines results in a life expectancy of twenty years less than the non-indigenous. Aborigines hardly reach retirement age, though it sounds like a joke, if they didn't work in their life anyway.
A doctor expressed a common sense of horror that their health, education and general welfare has seriously deteriorated since he worked among them last, some forty years ago.
It will be even getting more worse with the next generation coming of age. How can they be better off than their parents, if only 2% of the school-age children in some communities are attending classes and grow up in broken families.
Some children of the Mutitjulu people in Uluru (the one who are getting $400.000 a year from the National Park and wanted a swimming pool) have been so damaged by sniffing petrol that they are permanently wheelchair-bound.
Abused and neglected children are on the rise. There are more children now being put into care. In the mid-1990 indigenous children made already up about 4% of the Australian population but comprised 34% of all children in care.
What I read about genocide and holocaust of the Aborigines
There was a lot more I have read about the Aborigines. But also how badly Europeans have treated Aborigines in all of history.
There were once hundreds of Aborigines of the Kalkadoon tribe killed by a white police expedition in a battle after farmers (around the area where the Plenty Highway is today) had been attacked by them for over a year more than hundred years ago. This was one of the significant massacres in Australia, if you really can call this battle a massacre, though the whites had the superior weapons. There were many more "battles" like that.
However, a "real" massacre was the Myall Creek massacre, where 28 unarmed Aborigininal men, women and children were shot and burned by British colonists in 1838. At first, eleven colonists were tried for murders and acquitted, which sparked a public outcry. At a second trial, seven were convicted and hanged. So, at least there was some justice done.
Altogther, casualties from a century and a half have been estimated at about 20,000 Aboriginal deaths and 3000 colonial deaths. The Aboriginal population at that time was around 700,000.
More devastating than the conflicts with the colonists was the impact of European diseases, to which Aboriginal people had no immunity. Smallpox, measles, VD and TB drastically reduced Aboriginal numbers.
There was no genocide, though.
But an exaggeration, however, was calling the practice of removing half-cast children from their Aboriginal unmarried mothers genocide or worse: holocaust. This was phrased by the newly founded "Bring Them Home" (BTH} organization who also called these children the "Lost Generation". When it came out, it started a big discussion in all of Australia's media and involved all political parties. Labor pushed it up, the Conservatives played it down. (The former Prime Minister, John Howard, finally wrung out a "regret" but Kevin Rudd, the new Labor Prime Minister, officially apologized now, as always demanded by Aboriginal activists.)
Ok, later on, the word holocaust was less mentioned but the expression genocide was changed to a "cultural genocide", because it was actually no ethnic killing like in Bosnia or Ruanda, but an assimilation attempt to eradicate the Aborigional culture, as some believers in the "Noble Savage" stated, though BTH and some Aboriginal activists still adhere to the hard headed original definition.
Ok, it was unrighteous that Aboriginal girls and women were abused and even kidnapped by stockmen (cowboys) and rancher in areas where white women were in short supply. Also some Aboriginal girls were traded by their fathers for tea and tabacco. Many whites took an Aboriginal women as a wife and had several children with her.
During the years from 1910 to 1940 a lot of these children were taken from their Aboriginal unmarried mothers, who where left alone by the white fathers, and put into institutions and missions (or care by foster parents) . It seemed now that most have been taken with the consent of the mothers, or even the then fathers took their child or children (by stating neglect by the mother) from their mothers. After 1940 up to today, children are still taken away but only on the grounds of substantiated neglect and approval by the court (the figures in the previous chapter suggest that there are many, many more now).
Many of these children, some are now Aboriginal activists, went to court with the support of BTH, each claiming millions of Dollars for "damage". All with a verdict, up to now, have lost their case. If all 700 lawsuits had been won it would have cost the taxpayer several billion Dollar.
One of those children and an Aboriginal activist (once a "woman of the year") has admitted after many years in an interview that she was not "stolen" but "removed".
Also, the number of children, either stolen or removed, is still unknown, because there have been no records kept. A figure around 100,000 was estimated in the beginning of the discussion, which then faltered to around 20,000 to 25,000.
A final word: the judge of the final verdict ruled that there was no policy other than the protection of the children's welfare. Ok, there was some thinking behind the policy too of having those children assimilated into white society. But what was so wrong with that? What strange mind can label that genocide, cultural or not, or even "holocaust"?
A 1975 survey found a pronounced tendency for Aboriginal women to seek out non-Aboriginal husbands or de facto spouse. Cultural genocide wished by Aboriginal women? Ok, there have been many books written about that subject. I really can't elaborate more about it here and now. I can only leave it up to everybody's common sense (the problem was and still is that common sense is not so common).
Still, whether the treatments of the Aborigines by Europeans have been bad or worse, it is no excuse for all the misery of the Aborigines today. Can you believe it, that many advocates of Aboriginal causes really believe that the history of mistreatment and domination of Aboriginal people, and particularly the legacy of child-removal policies, has contributed substantially to high rates of crime, alcohol abuse, and drug abuse among Aboriginal people?
Actually, the chances the Aborigines have had during the last 30 years were unprecedented in history and in the world.
What can be done?
The general conclusion is obvious: up to now all the Aboriginal policies have failed, more or less. Also many solutions will fail which have been proposed by many organizations like ANTaR (Australian for Native Title & Reconciliation) which was also behind the demonstration at Mindil Beach in Darwin.
What is the solution? It only can be a radical one and may not be politically correct. I dare to suggest some, open for discussion (many people may say how can I dare to propose anything like that without all the knowledge and experience other had and made for many years. My only answer will be: You tell me what they have accomplished).
There is one alternative (of several) which feasibility may come too late now: getting back to basics and have the Aborigines live their way of life as they have practiced for up to 60,000 years by providing them on their own land now with everything they had before the whites turned up (that was real self-determination). Since the international Human Rights Commission and the Women's Movement have not cared that much about the inhumane indigenous violence against children and women until today (they only accused Australia of violating human rights standards in its treatment of Aborigines in prisons) they shouldn't be concerned then either. Some romantics even may invoke the version of Rousseau's "Noble Savage" pursuing a life somehow purified ... from western vice...
As a matter of fact, the Papuas I visited in the Baliem valley in Western Papua still lived the old way like in a Stone Age (though with some steel axes already, so some trades with outsiders will be ok). They even staged a revolt after the central government wanted to outlaw men's only "costume", the penis gourd. This means that they didn't want to be modernized, even if they used battery run tape recorders already, but only to record their own old songs.
The Aborigines today, though, will starve to death if they had to go back to a hunting and gathering society (without welfare), not so much because of missing resources (there are still plenty of wild animals, fowl and fish in Arnhem Land, for example), but more so of lost skills. Nevertheless, it should be proposed to the Aboriginal people just to convince them that some other alternatives may be better.
The other alternative is assimilation (more everybody's pursuit of happiness then self-determination). As one famous anthropologist stated: "the best chance of a good life for indigenes is the same for you and for me: fluency and literacy in English, as much maths as we can handle, and a job". He assumes that these things can only be achieved within an assimilation framework.
Ok, school education is inherently western. In developing countries compulsory education for children is a symbol of progress. The United Nations considers formal education the right of every child and thus it is already automatically an assimilation tool to western standards (and progress).
The compulsory school for indigenous children today is already an assimilation instrument, to force social change, more or less, even if only a fraction of the children attend classes. As one Canadian teacher in Arnhem Land has reported: Only 50% or so students attended regularly, who are the brighter ones. For the other 50% hunting was a better alternative.
So why not have a compromise as the third alternative: Giving the bright and motivated children a chance for a better education and thus jobs and a better life, western style, later on (second alternative). The other children will be "educated" in their indigenous way with traditional values and live and work like their ancestors, by also keeping up their culture (first alternative). Some children may even pursue both. So, there will not be attached any of the "Cultural Genocide" stigmas nor forced assimilation scheme, because it will be all based on freewill (but only to choose between two alternatives, or accepting both).
Another alternative is doing nothing, but this would be cultural suicide instead of cultural genocide.
But all this will require the following:
Firstly, self-determination for Aborigines has to be postponed until all Aboriginal communities are "functioning" and a democratic autonomous federal state (of all Aboriginal Land) can be established with an elected Aboriginal governor and several parliamentary representatives, whether assimilated or not.
Secondly, all current income (royalties, national park gate fees, etc.) plus additional funds as needed have to be managed and distributed by a central independent institution with top-down affiliates (putting the billions spent before to a better use). No welfare money will be distributed, only food stamps for the one in need. Also a work-for-dole-scheme will be funded.
Thirdly, a taskforce consisting of well-educated social workers, teachers, doctors (and psychotherapists?) policemen, judges and administrators, etc. have to be mobilized. A new infrastructure is also imperative: kindergartens, schools, youth centers, libraries, health centers, etc ... and regional trial courts and jails. A good idea would be having children villages for children whose natural parents are dead, absent, or unfit or unable to look after them, similar to the SOS Children Villages already functioning in many countries (one foster mother per about 8 children living like a family in one house).
Fourthly, Aborigines who want to advance will have the opportunity to participate in all programs designed for them and a work-for-dole-scheme will be introduced to the ones who didn't find a job yet. The existing Community Development Employment Project (CDEP) must be made more effective. Children's school attendance is compulsory and the parents will be penalized, if not adhered to.
Fifthly, all Aborigines who does not want to be assimilated, can live their own old indigenous way (also without alcohol) and teach their children the traditional values and skills (maybe teaching enough teachers first), i.e. creating spears and boomerangs for hunting and how to hunt, collecting staples and prepare tucker (food), etc. One man was busy the whole day to carve a spear, a guide told me (so they are kept busy and are not sitting around). They also will continue to paint and weave, etc. to sell their products to tourists. Even traditional shows for the tourists may be conceivable. So they have to try to make both ends meet like in the old days, no welfare money will be paid to them, but maybe food stamps for the one really in need.
As a matter of fact, ANTaR has put together 97 recommendations of which I can only show some of them:
But I still think that ANTaR and the other organizations do not go far enough and will thus not be successful in the end (provided they get through with their recommendations). Consulting the Aboriginal Community is a good thing, but only if they are pressed to take either alternative. Their (the Big Men's) attitude or mind-set can hardly be changed (not yet). Also, it will cost a lot of money more, if this is in addition to the current welfare expenditures.
It is also necessary to establish a program for the transition, including slowly phasing out welfare monies (all together may temporarily increase the federal budget for the Aborigines). Even if this may take one generation, then at least the new generation will know what is expected of them and where they belong to.
And many Aborigines have already taken the assimilation route, even if some of them are still attached in some way or the other to their roots. Many have become actors, film directors, producers and singers, and writers and artists.
I did not find an explanation for today's "way of life" of the Australian Aborigines, actually.
Neither do I believe in any solution for a better life for the Aborigines in the near future, essentially.
I hope, future Aboriginal generations have reached a "way of life" worthwhile living, possibly.