We must support our communities to achieve their gaols
by Philip Winzer
welcome the fact that issues confronting remote Indigenous communities are being pushed to the forefront of the Australian consciousness, and that all Australians are being challenged to think about them and advocate for change. If change is to occur, we must focus on identifying the underlying causes of the disadvantage confronted by these communities and empowering communities to develop solutions to address these causes and take control of their future.
Coinciding with this increased awareness has been a vocal public debate about the nature of Indigenous identity and the connection between â€œtraditionalâ€? Indigenous culture and the level of disadvantage in these communities. One prominent Indigenous voice in both discussions recently has been Warlpiri woman Bess Nungyarri Price. Mrs Price, who describes herself as a modern, rather than traditional, Warlpiri woman, has vocally criticised Indigenous people she describes as urban for not having an understanding of life in remote communities.
She strongly disagrees with many Indigenous traditions and believes they should be discarded. She accuses those in non-remote areas of having a romanticised view of traditional culture. She believes that what she sees as a strong focus on maintaining traditional culture at the expense of the safety of women and children is one reason these issues are neglected. Where Mrs Price and those that she attacks agree is that there is a serious issue in many communities across Australia. Children are being brought up in unacceptable, third-world like conditions. Abject Page 1
poverty, violence and social dysfunction are widespread and levels of suicide are shocking. Where we disagree is in the causes of these issues, and the solutions that will lead to real, longlasting change. I do not believe that abandoning traditional culture is the solution to these issues, and I certainly do not believe that assimilating and adapting and aspiring to the modern Australian culture and values system is the solution. Yes, there was violence against women in pre-colonial society. This violence has been a common, but deplorable, feature of all human civilisations for thousands of years. It is important to identify, however, that violence did exist in many areas, and, in some societies, as in most of the world right up to today, women held a lesser status than men. I do not dismiss this fact, and I condemn it as outdated and having no part in Indigenous culture moving into the future. As we have done for thousands of years, our culture must learn and adapt as we encounter other cultures and viewpoints and see new ways of understanding the world and the impacts of our own behaviours. Consider, however, the moral standard to which precolonial society is being held in comparison to modern Western society. Consider the millions of late-term and post-birth abortions performed legally and illegally in medical clinics throughout Western societies. Australian society has accepted the wholesale imprisonment and mistreatment of people fleeing persecution and violence in their home countries to seek a better life. It accepts that a handful of people control the majority of resources, while millions worldwide starve to death. It supports wars and regimes that murder and maim millions of innocent people, including
children. Millions seek self-advancement and the pursuit of personal wealth or pleasure with little or no regard for the wellbeing of others, and often knowingly at the expense of others. Children are losing their innocence at younger and younger ages, and more and more families are being torn apart. Consider all this, yet consider that this is the culture and values system to which people demand that Phil Winzer (above) said we must support each other. Indigenous people aspire exposure to appropriate parenting and adapt! Assimilating to the skills, and this affected all future standards, values system and way generations. of life of modern Australian society When people lose their sense of is not the way to eliminate issues in belonging and connection, their our communities. mental health suffers, and this To understand the root causes of is manifested in their behaviour social breakdown and dysfunction towards themselves and others. in our communities, I believe it is When men were lost in battle necessary in any conversation about and women killed in massacres, this topic to acknowledge what has young men and women grew up been lost, damaged or destroyed without role models and with only through the impacts of colonisation. fragments of their culture, identity There are supporters of Mrs Price and values system. who deride those who acknowledge Our people lost the power they these impacts as some sort of had over their own lives, and saw “victim brigade.” However, I it replaced by people exercising encourage them and you to take a power in a way that was lawless moment and think about some of and immoral. Many of our people these impacts. have long lost faith in the “system” Prior to colonisation, our people to do anything to help them and had a complex social structure, improve their lives. Yet they also an age-old system of law, a stable see themselves as having no power system of government and a values to do so themselves, because of the system that underpinned that law deep and long-lasting scars caused grounded in a complex spirituality. by these events. From the beginning of The sustained attack on the colonisation, our people were integrity and values of our culture massacred, poisoned, killed in only serve to compound these battle, killed by illness & removed effects and undermine people’s from their families & homelands. sense of identity and personal They have been encouraged, values system more and more. and at times forced, to abandon Combine this cultural dispossession their values systems and social and breakdown with the associated structures, in favour of those effects of mental illness, alcohol brought by the colonising power. and drug abuse, poverty and lack of When children grew up in economic opportunity and you have institutions, they did not have
a recipe for a dysfunctional society. Using “positive psychology” to encourage people to believe that these things have no effect on them and that they have full power over their own lives is an unrealistic solution to these effects. Human psychology is more complex than simply believing you are not a victim without addressing the scars. It is equally as unrealistic to demand that people be prepared to leave country or take up a more typical Western lifestyle in order to be considered “successful” in Australian society. I feel it is important to identify these impacts of colonisation and this loss of a values system as the narrative underpinning the disadvantage and dysfunction in many communities. Mrs Price should be aware that many of these effects are seen in communities outside the Northern Territory and Cape York, including many places that have mixed populations of Indigenous and nonIndigenous people. They are seen in many places where my family and extended family live, like West Tamworth, Glen Innes, Moree, Boggabilla and Toomelah. They are seen in urban communities, like Logan and Mount Druitt. They are seen in regional communities, like Cherbourg and Woorabinda. They are not unique to places she describes as “traditional”, but they are common to places where Indigenous people have shared experiences of colonisation, and where both Indigenous and non-Indigenous people live in entrenched poverty and unemployment. What then is the solution? I believe a few key principles must underpin the development of local solutions to rebuild communities and address these issues. As space is limited here, I will write in more detail about ideas and strategies based on each of these
principles in later articles. Firstly, healing and restoration of traditional values: we must support and stand alongside our brothers and sisters to help them find spiritual healing and wholeness. We must keep alive positive traditional cultural values. We must encourage cultural connectedness and reconnection. Secondly, an end to welfare dependency: this is the only way to end the endemic poverty many communities experience. I have long believed welfare dependency is one of the biggest blights on our communities, and radical structural change in the welfare system is required to eliminate it. Welfare contributes to boredom, drug and alcohol use, abuse and violence, and ending dependence on it is a must if we are to address issues in remote communities. Thirdly, and closely linked to both of the above, enabling people to take power in their own lives. Local communities must have genuine input into the delivery of services and the making of decisions that affect them. Finally, local communities must be supported to genuinely address issues related to substance abuse. Local strategies that may include complete alcohol
bans, restricted trading hours, night patrols, increased local security, and drug and alcohol rehabilitation are required to address the devastating effects of alcohol and drug abuse. I again welcome the renewed concern that Australians are taking in the issues facing many Indigenous communities. My dream is for all of our communities, urban, regional and remote, to be able to have the best of both worlds. To maintain traditional values systems and cultural practices and to keep strong connection to country, while also having access to education that supports them to set and achieve their own goals, a safe and healthy living environment within a functional and supportive community, and the ability to provide the basics for themselves and their families in life. We must support our communities to achieve these things in a way that does not require acquiescing to Western ideals of success or values systems and does not compromise our cultural integrity and unique identity. I look forward to exploring some ideas and strategies that would help achieve this objective in more detail in later articles.