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Adelaide Festival of Ideas 2007: Indigenous Futures #2 « Previous | |Next »
July 8, 2007

The best session at the Adelaide Festival of Ideas that I attended on Saturday was the Indigenous Futures one chaired by Philip Adams in the form of a conversation. I discussed here in a pre-Festival blog on self-determination. John Howard's intervention into Indigenous communities in the Northern Territory formed the backdrop to the discussions. As Adams said something strange and unpleasant is going on and we need to put our finger on it. Eliot Johnston, to whom the festival is dedicated, had a good go at the opening.

What was contested in the conversation was the claim that realistically, there is no alternative to assimilation, as land rights and self-determination haven't worked. So Howard's intervention can't do any worse. The wrongness of this claim was shown from a number of perspectives that argued self-determination was crucial to a better future for indigenous people.

Wilma Mankiller highlighted how the story of oppression and intervention (stolen generation) is the same between Indian and aboriginal peoples. Indian people in the US have their own self-government run their own show and have control over education and health services. Kerin O'Dea then argued that master and control have physical impacts on health as the lack of control over one's life (self-determination) caused chronic stress, depression, increased blood pressure, appetite for sweet foods and so increases the risk of heart disease and obesity.

So Howard's intervention, because it disempowers indigenous communities, increases the ill health amongst the members of those communities. Aboriginal people needed control over their own lives.

The issue is the one mentioned by Paul Keating in 1993:

I am not sure whether indigenous leaders can ever psychologically make the change to decide to come into a process, be part of it and take the burden of responsibility which goes with it. That is, whether they believe they can ever summon the authority of their own community to negotiate for and on their behalf.

Does the non-conservative indigenous and non-indigenous peoples’ failure to take sufficient political and practical responsibility for social functionality in indigenous communities made the recent intervention by conservative leaders inevitable?

Tracey Bunda contested Noel Pearson's positioning of being the indigenous voice who provided justification for Howard's intervention. There are different indigenous voices --eg., those of the strong indigenous women---and Pearson does not speak for all aboriginal people.

Bunda also contested Pearson's argument: that though he would prefer there to be no need to prioritise land rights over social order, if political circumstances became such that he was forced to prioritise, then he would place social order ahead of land rights. Bunda contested Pearson's position that social order should be addressed in punitive language saying that Indigenous people want to be consulted, that they would never give up their land or sovereignty and that Howard's plan won't work unless he consults and gives power to indigenous people.

Jay Griffiths, who worked in terms of the indigenous culture being dominated by the white culture, argued that what the dominate culture could do for an indigenous culture is to leave them alone and for indigenous people to listen to the tribal elders. I'm not persuaded by the first point. Aboriginal people need political help --they cannot do it on their own. What progressive whites can do is to critique those tendencies in white culture that legitimate the conservatives refusing to consult, respect, and work with indigenous people.

| Posted by Gary Sauer-Thompson at 9:16 AM | | Comments (14)


Perhaps there is a difference in the indians and the abo's. The indians may have higher intelligence and more likely to have larger numbers with leadership abilities. They were better in managing their herds and crops.
I would think the average I.Q of the N.T abo would be around 70.

i was pleased to see that the attendance of wilma mankiller made material evidence that indigenous people could manage their own affairs. further, self determination has positive effects on health and morale.

unfortunately, this evidence can not be accepted by any oz politician, as it would lead to questions about why the white people can't manage themselves as well.

Wilma was very strong on the importance of self-determination. She was very well received by the Adelaide audience who thought very highly of her and respected her deeply.

She pointed out that white culture sees indigenous people as one dimensional --as lazy drunks sexual abusers and indigenous culture as dysfunctional. They are not seen as multidimensional.

the aboriginal people speaking at the conference were much smarter than me. They were brighter too.

in the light of Thelma Bunda's remarks about diverse indigenous voices and strong aboriginal women we have Noel Pearson's comments in the Australian about the Cape York Institute 's recent hosting of Strong Foundations: Rebuilding Social Norms in Indigenous Communities conference. He says that this follow the completion of their report to the federal Government on proposed welfare reforms for Cape York Peninsula and adds:

'The most momentous presentation did not attract the attention it deserved. Marcia Langton challenged the audience with an analysis of the dramatic political events that were unfolding hourly, but her comments distinguished themselves from the statements of other indigenous leaders and non-indigenous champions of reconciliation.

Many of these people have expressed some or all of these objections to the Government's intervention policy:

* The Government's primary motivation is the next federal election, not concern for Aboriginal children's welfare.

* The Government has a hidden agenda of taking control of Aboriginal land.

* Strategic intervention should build on approaches that are already working instead of draconian measures that will fail if there is no community ownership of the policies.

* Some of the interventions will do more harm than good.

Langton did not need to dwell on these issues in her speech. She has struggled against all forms of racism for decades. It is well known where she stands on land issues, in particular the acquisition of and defence of communal land.

Langton cut to the chase: the non-conservative indigenous and non-indigenous peoples' failure to take sufficient political and practical responsibility for social functionality in indigenous communities made the recent intervention by conservative leaders inevitable. Of course the conservative leaders would ultimately intervene, Langton explained, and it is hardly surprising that their plan is shaped by their conservative ideology.'

It would seem that Marcia Langton as one strong indigenous woman has sided with Noel Pearson. Was this mentioned at the Conference?

Yeah the smart ones have been lining their pockets for years while the others have run amok

Marcia Langton was mentioned in passing in the context of the article you mention. There was puzzlement.

The consensus was that The Australian is really being ideological on this issue. Consider Monday's editorial, which says:

Only the most heartless and hopeless politicians and bureaucrats will now try to return to business as what used to be usual, where money is spent on reports and plans but nothing changes in bush settlements plagued by domestic violence and the sexual abuse of children. But even with awareness, this is a task that is far from accomplished. Because we are still burdened in some quarters with a culture of correctness which holds it is wrong to point to the appalling behaviour of individual Aborigines. The idea that the complete story of indigenous Australia, past and present, should never be told, which took hold a generation back was, and remains, as patronising and pointless as the paternalism and outright racism it replaced....And it seems that we are still stuck with the old orthodoxy that present Aboriginal cultures or past practices must not be criticised, lest it encourage racism. This is as inane as it is offensive.

That completely ignores all the times that Aboriginal leaders--other than Noel Pearson-- have raised the issue. of child sexual abuse and family violence.

The Australian has given Noel Pearson a platform to beat his own drum---and it's a conservative message that he is propounding in the name of social order.

Thanks for the comments on the indigenous futures panel. I too thought it was excellent and has certainly galvanised me to take action. However I have just discovered on your comments page one of the disadvantages of the net (Les and his? ilk) previously I could have irnored him. Why do his type feel the need to express such pathetic views. Could it be he is an idiot? All power to you for your excellent blog and for leaving the idiot to condemn himself

I tracked the indigenous sessions through the Festival and they were the spaces of high emotional intensity. I thought they were the best sessions I attendedat he Festival cos something--lefty public opinion as a counter discourse to the conservative one articulated in The Australian --- was in the process of being formed.

People at the Festival were deeply concerned about the awful conditions indigenous people live under, very worried about Howard's intervention cos something is amiss at a deep level, and they were troubled about Noel Pearson's legitimation of that intervention. So people were trying to work things out during those sessions.How do we respond to the Howard/Pearson stuff?

The internet is a very democratic space, and though Les sees all things indigenous darkly (negatively through and through), he is required to argue for his views. The less he argues his case about bad aborigines the more his views are treated as personal opinions than considered judgements.

I see that Pat Dodson has critiqued Howard's interventon. He is reported in the Australian as saying:

This is a question of trust and I'm finding it very hard to trust the federal Government.The last thing I think you need (for) children who are being abused by people they may have trusted, (is) having a federal government come in and further enhance their anxieties and worries....Most of those things could be done if you had a decent dialogue and better arrangements between the commonwealth and territory governments and the participation of the Aboriginal communities.

It is very similar to what you are reporting was said a the Festaval of Ideas--things won't work unless there is consultation with indigenous people.

He adds that indigenous communites are desperate for more resources to help improve their situation.

I mean if you have overcrowding - that's a recipe for disaster, if you don't have real jobs - that's another recipe for disaster, if you don't have adequate education - that's another recipe for disaster and if the police aren't enhanced on the ground to carry out their functions, then you're asking for trouble.It's about resources and it's about strategic planning and thinking and it's about partnershipping and it's about participation of the locals in the resolution of the problems and it's about making sure you understand the cultural nuances and use those to support the methods that you want to implement to improve the situation.

Was that kind of approach explored at the Festival?

Agh get out in the bush and look with your eyes!

The only good place for Academics in Native issues is in a big black pot with carrots and potatoes over a roaring fire.

My advice to anyone that is interested in the aboriginal issue is to go to your local police station and find out the names of the towns in your state that have problems. Then go to these towns and spend a few days in each. Book into the local pub and talk to as many people like police,ambo's, health workers, teachers,locals as you can.
First hand experience is always best.

and they would find that indigenous communities are diverse and treating violence and alcohol differently and hear different indigenous voices to the ones that are given a platform in the Australian.

Secondly, violence is by no means an exclusively Indigenous phenomenon. It exists in non-Indigenous communities although in somewhat concealed ways and often unreported. The media applies one standard for the portrayal of Indigenous violence, and another standard for portraying non-Indigenous experiences of violence.

Thirdly, the portrayal of Indigenous communities by the mainstream media in recent years has been one of violence, abuse, alcoholism and general chaos. The media has been littered with articles depicting this scene continuously, from one Indigenous community to another.

The media has a tendency to portray all black men as ‘violent sexual predators’, ostensibly done with the intention of protecting Aboriginal women.

So what we have is the control of social perception by the dominant white population, therefore allowing their experiences to remain hidden if they so desire, while at the same time, casting Indigenous violence into constant public view.

It can be argued that this discourse both expresses a concern for the protection of Indigenous women and children and racist vilification (eg., Indigenous men are characteristized by exhibiting vicious, brutal and sadistic behaviour).

Yes, Australia needs to introduce a License to to drink policy for all its population.
Far too much police resources are taken up by alcohol related crime like assault,domestic violence and destruction of property