Brutal traditions of Aboriginal culture have no place in society today

by:Stephanie Jarrett From: The Australian January 12, 2013

ABORIGINAL people suffer violence more than other Australians. This was so in pre-contact times, as it is today.

It is important to acknowledge this link between today’s Aboriginal violence and a violent, pre-contact tradition because until policymakers are honest in their assessment of the causes, Aboriginal people can never be liberated from violence. The nation needs to understand that to liberate Aboriginal people from violence, deep cultural change is necessary, away from traditional norms and practices of violence. Such fundamental change is unlikely to occur in separate, self-determined communities which are premised on maintaining traditional culture.

Our courts also need to acknowledge the link between today’s Aboriginal violence and a violent, pre-contact tradition. Securing justice and safety for Aboriginal victims of Aboriginal violence depends upon it. “Cultural rights” thinking favours Aboriginal perpetrators, so Aboriginal victims need the full force of liberal-democratic law, which disallows the private use of violence.

Our legal system currently gives some allowance for heinous acts committed by “others” as part of their tradition. This renders Aboriginal victims vulnerable, because our law can reach back past living memory to anthropological, judicial and other colonial records to validate a perpetrator’s claim that his act is consistent with pre-contact tradition. This specious, perpetrator-favouring situation should be anathema within our liberal democracy.

Above all, the safety of Aboriginal women depends on our governments understanding and responding to the reality of the brutal side of Aboriginal traditional culture. It should be self-evident that a program of self-determination is a high-risk enterprise in cases where the traditional culture is inherently unsafe for women; but post-Enlightenment principles have successfully rendered it not self-evident, and Aboriginal women have been condemned to suffer.

Serious interpersonal violence in remote Aboriginal communities is catastrophically high, while Aboriginal people commit and suffer less violence in mainstream locations and amidst mainstream cultures. These facts sit uncomfortably with the ideology that Aboriginal suffering can be alleviated by returning to a more traditional lifestyle in self-determined communities. Such discomfort is blunting critical scrutiny of Aboriginal violence statistics even at the highest echelons of data analysis and report-writing. This is a national travesty.

There are harsh realities here. The idea that violence was not part of tradition has allowed policy rhetoric about Aboriginal violence to appear relatively non-threatening to Aboriginal culture and power structures. Indeed, emphasis on the white invasion and the effects of alcohol could enhance the palatability of programs addressing Aboriginal violence. While providing scope for progress here and there, overall this approach has not worked because the premise is wrong. Change has to occur on the deeper level of traditional beliefs, laws, tolerances and measures of “normality”.

The prevailing traditional toleration of violence as a normal and useful phenomenon, plus the idea that individual rights and needs are secondary to keeping culture alive, are key reasons why violence has a tenacious hold over remote Aboriginal communities, and why reducing that violence is so difficult, even when it is clearly destroying Aboriginal lives.

Adjustment to the mainstream is not about taking anything from Aboriginal people, but about equipping Aboriginal citizens for full participation in contemporary Australia and all its health, education and economic benefits, and their full universal rights. Aboriginal lands won back after years of hard political struggle are precious ancestral lands, including for Aboriginal people living mainstream lives. The problem is the maintaining of oppressive and violent traditions.

We need to reverse policies and programs that have encouraged Aboriginal people to remain separate, particularly geographically separate, from mainstream culture, and have allowed their subjugation to traditional practices that are incompatible with principles of human rights.

Older Aboriginal people are filled with grief and despair at the social breakdown of their young people, particularly when the young commit violent crime against family, end up in prison or die through drink or suicide. These older people look to former times, recent and vivid as their own parents and their own childhood, as a time of more traditional discipline. The mainstream world was pressing upon them, but there was enough youthful respect for the traditional authority of elders, enabling elders to guide children to a life of belonging and accomplishment in both worlds. This included wise parents voluntarily sending their children to mission or town schools, indeed insisting that their children attend.

It seems that remote young Aboriginal people of one and two generations ago could comply with the heavy demands of both the Aboriginal world’s respected, traditional authority of older people, which taught, implemented and so handed down the culture, and of the Western world’s disciplined mission schools, facilitating traditional young students’ adaptability to mainstream education and its benefits.

Extraordinarily accomplished people grew up in this world straddling both cultures, such as Bess Price, Alison Anderson and Noel Pearson. No wonder the dream continues that a reconciliation of both worlds is possible for today’s troubled young Aboriginal people, as a remedy for their disaffection and their violence. There remains a yearning that the authority of wise elders who transmit law and traditional knowledge can be just as restorative today.

Ultimately, the wellbeing of young Aboriginal people entails more than the traditional world can give them. It entails full access to rights and freedoms that belong to a non-traditional world. Straddling both worlds for the young and powerless is getting too hard.

Disaffected young Aboriginal people seem to have less respect for their elders, while still taking advantage of tradition’s greater acceptability of violence. They use violence against each other and against distraught elders, particularly when fuelled by alcohol and a desperate, at times suicidal sense of entitlement to get their own way in the family, often to get more poison spoils of mainstream life like cash for drink.

At the same time, these young people are baulking at restrictions that tradition places against access to mainstream’s benefits such as personal freedom and achievement. In the resultant generational clash, there are no winners, but the impact on young people is more tragic, and everyone grieves.

This is my worry about the compliance idea, that if only the young people would sit down and listen to the wisdom of their elders and the old law, and follow what they have to say, all would be well.

Reducing Aboriginal violence requires a cultural shift, and such a shift occurs through daily, positive experiences of friendship and belonging within the mainstream culture. With core emphasis on generating positive, trust-building, daily interaction between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people and on assisting Aborigines to acquire full, equal and non-segregated participation and success in mainstream life, programs similar to the Family Resettlement Program warrant broadscale support.

Edited extract from Stephanie Jarrett’s new book, Liberating Aboriginal People from Violence (Connor Court Publishing)