The Fraught Pursuit of Indigenous Culture

It is hard not to despair about indigenous disadvantage. Every week we hear anecdotal evidence of indigenous children being neglected, resulting in high rates of criminal activity, substance abuse and incarceration. Despite a huge expenditure on efforts to improve indigenous welfare we see little concrete evidence of improvement in the more dysfunctional communities.

Mind you, largely unreported in the media, a major cohort of indigenous people is prospering in Australian society. They are the ones that have largely integrated into mainstream Australia. Parents in this cohort are providing caring and nurturing environments for their children. They are largely employed, well-educated and responsible. Their children are attending school and moving onto universities. Their health outcomes are similar to non-indigenous Australians and they are basically law abiding.

Contrast these outcomes with those of indigenous people in our remote communities where children are neglected, school attendance is low, substance abuse is high and health outcomes leave much to be desired.

Now, those that indigenous researcher Anthony Dillon has termed as “blacktivists”, maintain that these unfortunate outcomes are a result of racism, intergenerational trauma resulting from colonialism and the waning of indigenous culture. The constant repetition of this sort of propaganda has resulted in a heightened sense of victimhood in many indigenous people.

One manifestation of the dysfunction experienced in some indigenous communities is the disproportionate numbers of indigenous children placed into care. A recent article in The Australian newspaper highlighted the appalling number of indigenous children in care in Western Australia. The government spokesperson outlined how the government will attempt to work collaboratively with the indigenous community to improve this outcome. I couldn’t help but think the government’s main objective was principally to reduce the embarrassing statistic of the number of indigenous children in care (which makes them look bad) rather than to address the substantive issue of indigenous child welfare.

If we were to be perfectly blunt, the issue of indigenous child welfare has more to do with a lack of parenting skills and an acceptance of parental responsibility than any of the confected cultural and historical excuses. In some of these dysfunctional indigenous communities we have seen four or five generations of children who have been neglected and not subject to responsible parenting. As a consequence we have generations of parents without role models of effective parenting.

Now this outcome has been exacerbated by the slavish commitment to perpetuating indigenous culture, or probably, more truthfully, someone’s interpretation of indigenous cultural. Many of the cultural attributes that are being championed result in misogynistic and paternalistic outcomes which result in domestic violence, the disrespect of women, elevated physical injuries and the abandonment of male parental responsibilities. The champions of indigenous culture however probably believe that they are trying to recreate some ideal indigenous society that pre-existed European colonisation.

This indeed seems to have been the motivation of “Nugget” Coombs when he convinced government to set up the remote communities.

Herbert Cole “Nugget” Coombs was a very distinguished Australian. In 1949, Labor Prime Minister, Ben Chifley appointed Coombs to be Governor of the Commonwealth Bank. When later that year Menzies led the conservatives to power, to the surprise of many, he kept Coombs on. In 1960, when the Reserve Bank was created to take on the central banking functions, Menzies appointed Coombs as its first Governor.

Coombs retired from the Public Service in 1968 but maintained an active interest in the Arts and more particularly in Aboriginal Affairs.

Coombs’s early life was in Western Australia where he had engaged with the Aboriginal community and became concerned for their welfare. This became a lifelong passion for him.

In 1968 he was appointed the Chairman of the Australian Council for Aboriginal Affairs which was set up essentially to prosecute the changes which were brought about by the 1967 Referendum that furthered the legal rights of indigenous Australians. He subsequently became a close advisor to Gough Whitlam who was then leading the Labor party. It is said that Coombs essentially wrote the Labor Party’s policy on Aboriginal Affairs which it took to the 1972 election which it won, ensconcing Whitlam as Prime Minister.

Coombs opened the 1968 Council for the Advancement of Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders. In his speech he assured those present that the Council he chaired would “strengthen the sense of Aboriginal Australians as a distinctive group within our society, with a distinctive contribution to make to the quality of our national life.” This, obviously, was at odds with the views of the Liberal Country Party Government that was espousing assimilation.

Coombs also championed the proposition that indigenous people should be able to be repatriated to their traditional tribal lands. He supported the establishment of remote aboriginal communities and had a romantic notion that they would thrive if the residents were allowed to take up more traditional lifestyles.

As a consequence of Coomb’s recommendations the Government of the day facilitated the establishment of remote Aboriginal communities, ostensibly to return indigenous people to their homelands where they were expected to hone a living from traditional foraging and hunting augmented by commerce associated with traditional art and culture and hopefully tourism. The Government provided generous economic support for such communities in anticipation that they would eventually become self-sufficient.

Nugget Coombs championed these remote communities as a vehicle for enabling Indigenous self-determination. (One can infer in Coombs philosophy that he had in mind some modern equivalent of Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s concept of the “noble savage”) Self-determination might be defined as the right of a group of people to determine their political status and pursue their economic, social and cultural development. Unfortunately, most of these communities are not sustainable because they don’t provide reasonable economic opportunities. Consequently they contain large numbers of Indigenous people who are doomed to exist on welfare. What’s more their social and cultural mores have declined (as the appalling statistics regarding unemployment, the incidence of domestic violence, the abuse of drugs and alcohol, educational outcomes, rates of suicide and the burgeoning levels of foetal alcohol syndrome will attest). It seems therefore unlikely their circumstances can be improved without major philosophical change.

In an Australian University working paper in 1979, Coombs proclaimed that the so-called homeland settlements would be “autonomous and self-sufficient economic units”. He proclaimed that “production, including hunting and gathering will be directed to home consumption and the reduction of dependence on imported goods”. Of course he was gravely mistaken and the remote indigenous settlements have continued to be a drain on the resources of the Federal Government, and what’s more. As we have seen, they have become dysfunctional enclaves which have caused great suffering to indigenous peoples and created many barriers which have prevented them from partaking in the normal lives enjoyed by other Australians.

The separationist philosophy of Coombs was highlighted by his recommendation that the curriculum of the indigenous schools in the remote communities should be restricted to basic literacy and numeracy “to minimise assimilationist influences.”


And of course, fundamental to Coombs’s intervention was the notion that for those returning to the homelands, indigenous culture could be restored.

Now it has often been said we don’t know who discovered the sea but it certainly wasn’t fish! Fish are totally immersed in the sea such that they are most likely oblivious to it.

Culture is a similar concept. Indigenous people would have been unaware of their culture – they simply lived it. Anthropologist Peter Sutton in his insightful book The Politics of Suffering relates a story of one of his colleagues talking to a native Hawaiian. The Hawaiian said, “Hey, we didn’t know we had culture until the White Man came and told us!” And no doubt indigenous Australians were in the same boat. The various tribal groups would have had their own particular cultural features, and these were not set in stone but varied over time being influenced by their particular circumstances including, but not confined to, tribal skirmishes and conquests, intermarriage and natural disasters.

Historian, Dr Yuval Noah Harari in Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind points out that many tribes had no concept that people outside their own tribes were part of a common humanity. We recognise others in our tribe as people because we share language, religion and culture. But we don’t see “outsiders” in the same way. We are distinct from them and owe them nothing.

He writes:

We don’t want to see any of them in our territory, and we don’t care an iota what happens in their territory. They are barely human. In the language of the Dinka people of Sudan, ‘Dinka’ simply means people. People who are not Dinka are not people. The Dinka’s bitter enemies are the Nuer. What does ‘Nuer’ mean in Nuer language? It means ‘original people’. Thousands of kilometres from the Sudan deserts, in the frozen ice-lands of Alaska and north-eastern Siberia, live the Yupiks. What does ‘Yupik’ mean in Yupik language? It means ‘real people’.

Harari maintains that the forces that unify humanity have been largely economics, religion and the aggregation of peoples under the influence of empire building and colonisation.

It is hard to argue that before colonisation there was any concept by Australia’s original inhabitants of an Australian indigenous people. Individual tribes would have been aware of neighbouring tribes that they sometimes fought with or sometimes traded with, or raided to abduct their womenfolk, but their concept of aboriginality would have been greatly circumscribed.

Harari writes:

There are schools of thought and political movements that seek to purge human culture of imperialism, leaving behind what they claim is a pure, authentic civilisation untainted by sin. These ideologies are at the best naïve; at worst they serve as a disingenuous window-dressing for crude nationalism and bigotry. Perhaps you could make a case that some of the myriad cultures that emerged at the dawn of recorded history were pure, untouched by sin and unadulterated by other societies. But no culture since that dawn can reasonably make that claim, certainly no culture that now exists on earth. All human cultures are at least in part the legacy of empires and imperial civilisations, and no academic or political surgery can cut out the imperial legacies without killing the patient.

And our own indigenous cultures are no different. In Australia any attempt to transport indigenous people back into some much vaunted idealistic culture which will somehow restore them to an idyllic lifestyle is an ill-conceived fantasy.

Colonisation is greatly abhorred by many of the indigenous activists. And it is true that colonisation resulted in the murder and dispossession of many in the indigenous population. Of course this was not a unique Australian event but has happened in all countries around the world at various different times. But colonisation also served to unite many of the disparate indigenous groups into a people with shared ambitions and common causes. That was an inconceivable outcome prior to colonisation. It united a bewildering array of culturally different and often warring tribes. (Mind you that unification is anything but complete. This is often manifested in the difficulty the indigenous bodies have in arriving at anything like a consensus on difficult issues.)

But colonisation also provided the benefits of civilisation to Australia’s indigenous peoples. It brought the benefits of a lawful society, modern medicine, fruits of a modern economy, universal education (if they wished to partake of it) and the mixed blessing of welfare. It also brought cultural artefacts and influences from the European society that they were eager to embrace but ill-equipped to handle. Chief among these influences were alcohol, drugs and pornography, exposure to which has resulted in indolence, criminality, domestic violence, incest and sexual abuse of children. It is informative that those who strongly advocate a return to indigenous culture to gain an illusory social benefit are reluctant to put aside the more insidious attributes of Western culture.

Returning now to my introduction, many indigenous children in dysfunctional families are being doomed to pointless lives with little prospect of escape. Reaction to the so-called “stolen generation” has caused governments to shy away from removing children from such families. Even when they are compelled to do so an elevated regard for indigenous culture results in these unfortunate children being moved to a kinship group who are often no better equipped to care for the children than their biological parents.

Sometimes, due to a lack of suitable parental candidates from close kin, indigenous children are placed with non-indigenous families. But government’s fixation on indigenous cultural issues often puts the long-term placement of these children in jeopardy and they are regularly reassigned to indigenous families when the opportunity arises to the detriment of the welfare of the children.

It is obvious that the welfare of children is being compromised at the altar of some dubious concepts about indigenous culture.

Rhonda Marriott, Murdoch University Pro Vice Chancellor for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Strategic Leadership commenting on the large numbers of indigenous children in care in Western Australia has been recently quoted as saying, “Hospital staff are seeing far more removal orders in labour wards than they should.” That is probably so if we are concerned with window-dressing government initiatives regarding indigenous welfare. But a more pragmatic approach to indigenous child welfare might suggest that in protecting children of dysfunctional parents perhaps more children should be removed!

Two causal elements in perpetuating indigenous disadvantage (and they are irrevocably intertwined) are:

  • A conflated regard for indigenous culture, and
  • An exaggerated sense of victimhood and loss of personal agency.

Most of us relate positively to our cultural antecedents. Rightly or wrongly it becomes part of our sense of self and helps explain who we are and where we came from.

But who we are is much more than that and, tellingly, we were born into a particular culture and had no choice about that.

Consequently I wince when I hear indigenous people say for example “I am a proud ……… man.” or “I am a proud ………. woman.” (Insert the tribal identifier of your choice.) Please explain to me how or why we should be proud of an accident of fate! I had no choice but to be this person with my particular hereditary background and nor did they.

I, for example, am not proud to be Australian. I would concede though that I often feel lucky to be Australian, but it would be foolish of me to try to take some credit for this fortunate accident of birth. I am blessed to be able to partake in the Australian way of life and my innate conservatism is due to my reluctance to jeopardise that way of life. But in any event it is natural for people to recognise and cherish their traditions and culture.

So what is going on here? What we are confronting is a variant of identity politics. We all need something to anchor our identity with, however inconsequential.

Most of us cement a robust sense of self by contributing meaningfully to our society by raising our families, being employed constructively making a contribution to the economy, giving back to society through involvement in community organisations, charities and politics. (I have discussed this in previous essays. I call this the “management of meaning” which helps us meet our spiritual needs.)

Whilst it is no doubt beneficial to connect with others through our cultural ties, a human being’s sense of self needs to be centred on something less parochial. My ultimate anchor is not my cultural affiliations but how competent I am as a human being.

Success as a human being is little influenced by how much money I’ve made, the colour of my skin or the politics I have adopted. When we look back on our lives as we grow older we mostly judge our lives by how much we have contributed. A big part of that contribution, if we are parents, is whether our children have become positive contributors to society.

So if we go back to those indigenous people trapped in dysfunctional communities, what chance have they got to develop a robust sense of self? Rather than contribute to society at large, many rely on the beneficence of our modern society. Rather than have pride in their children’s achievements they have condemned their children to continued dependence and dysfunction by not providing proper parenting which in the end results in poor educational attainment, little prospect of meaningful employment, the terrors of domestic violence, drug dependency and chronic health issues.

You would have to concede there is not much in that suite of dysfunctionality to make you feel good about yourself. What is left for you in these circumstances to provide an anchor for a sense of self? Only race and culture! And this is a sad state of affairs that so many might depend on such arbitrary and often confected criteria,

The philosophical subjugation of indigenous peoples is aided by the left’s assertion that indigenous people are victims and they have no hope of rehabilitation because of racism and colonisation.

One of the strongest advocates for improving the lot of disadvantaged indigenous people by encouraging personal responsibility and resiling from victimhood is Jacinta Price. Price is a Walpiri woman, Alice Springs councillor and a coalition candidate in the recent federal election. Price is passionate about improving the lot of indigenous women and children and points out the notions of culture largely pursued by remote indigenous communities perpetuate the indignities meted out to women and children because of the patriarchal nature of such culture. Speaking out against indigenous victimhood and questioning the patriarchal underpinnings of the cultural mores in those dysfunctional communities requires considerable courage because it runs counter to the conventional wisdom of the left and the “blacktivists” that indigenous disadvantage is caused by racism and such historical factors as colonialism and the suffering resulting from the “stolen generation”. Her principled pursuit of a more reasoned approach to resolving these issues puts her at loggerheads with the activists and many indigenous people.

The myriad of indigenous people who are succeeding in Australian society don’t seem to have been unduly hampered by the factors the purveyors of victimhood put such stock in.

But Jacinta Price, despite her intimate knowledge of indigenous issues including the diabolical state of many remote communities is pilloried for suggesting that indigenous disadvantage won’t be ameliorated until such time as indigenous people take responsibility for their own lives and abandon the mantle of victimhood that has so conveniently sheltered them from the realities of the world.

Jacinta is currently involved in a national speaking tour which she has called Mind the Gap. But at some locations local indigenous groups have attempted to deplatform her on the dubious basis that she has refused to perform a “welcome to country” ceremony prior to speaking. Jacinta rightly maintains that “welcome to country” is not a traditional ceremony at all but an artificial concoction dating from mid-1970. It is appalling that Jacinta’s freedom of speech should be curtailed by those propagating such nonsense. It is well and truly time that the truth about indigenous disadvantage be heard, and Jacinta is a powerful voice of reason in this debate.

So I will conclude by asserting that indigenous welfare is not advanced by pursuing illusory concepts of indigenous culture. By all means let us acknowledge that the culture of our ancestors, if it can ever be objectively assessed, colours who we are, but it is not an indelible marker of our selfhood. Each of us is far greater than our personal and genetic history.

Secondly, assuming the stance of victimhood is just demeaning. It removes our sense of agency and consequently our hope for the future. Taking the easy way out of asserting our destiny is irrevocably settled by our history is both wrong and cowardly. Putting race aside, most of us know people who have overcome great adversity to live meaningful lives.

The good Dr Phil has taught me that the prime determinant of our sense of freedom and well-being is how we view the world – our so called worldview. By encouraging indigenous people (or indeed anyone else) to feel they are victims condemns them to lives of despair.

But confronting victimhood in indigenous affairs puts us in conflict with a substantial industry that is underpinned by that concept. Jacinta Price could well attest to that!

10 Replies to “The Fraught Pursuit of Indigenous Culture”

  1. It’s good to see commonsense in Australian Indigenous affairs being discussed more often than before.

    It would be good to read something from those people who have some indigenous ancestry and who live productive lives as a result of being “assimilated” how they view the situation between those in remote communities and themselves & the role of the ‘blactivists’ in aboriginal society today.

  2. Nice to read a more objective summary than all the politically laden stuff pursuing various tangents.
    A comment on, “….that have largely integrated into mainstream Australia.” There is a basic assumption about integration and assimilation that is easily disproven in a visit to billions of people to our north that are bi or even tri-lingual. Assimilating or integrating into another language and culture can be done without losing any of your primary culture. Millions of young children in these culture can swap, at will between cultures an language because they have grown up with them.

    The idea that gaining another culture/language inhibits the original is a western construct perpetrated by mon-linguistic academics. They have even fabricated a problem “code switching!” Of course it is much more difficult to learn another language as an adult, but millions of tri-lingual brains to our North prove than younger brains can retain far more than stultified adults.

  3. An excellent article, but a couple of points I believe are relevant, but not mentioned.
    1. You mention the WA hospital staff are seeing the removal orders in the labour ward. What was the age of the mother? Was she a child or not much more than a child herself? Who was the father? What age was he?
    Was the baby accidental or to get the baby bonus and the income?
    I believe the worst thing that happened was the introduction of the baby bonus . when you have a 14 year old having a baby because the government will hand over $5000 she probably didnt have a lot of choice! Mum was probably early 30’s, grandma mid 40’s no one really wanted to be bothered with the day to day requirement of a baby or a toddler once the money arrived. The income was good, so along came another baby and another $5000, and the income doubled. And again and often again. 4 kids in 5/6 years! If there was a strong elderly auntie or nana in the background they were the lucky ones. Baby bonus was introduced in 2002 by Peter Costello and rose to $5000 in around 2006. Cash payment. Now at least it is paid over 3/4 months so it spreads it all out a bit. Now we have kids 8 – 14 running amok, many with poor health due poor nutrition in the early years, many sniff or smoke or drink, dont go to school, no rules! Honestly what chance do they have?? Their allocated guardian gets the childcare allowance of which they might get a bit of, if they are lucky, so they just take what they want and what they need from whoever they can intimidate. As they get older, if nothing changes, they end up in gaol. Its not going to be easy for anyone to undo the habits and actions of their first 10/12 years. I honestly wish them a great deal of luck. They are going to need it.

    2. You also mentioned the high level of kids on communities in kinship care. I think I read a statistic it was over 17%. Did you look into why? If mum gets $175 a fortnight, but auntie gets $250 a week, (these appear to be the figures on the government websites but could stand checking) it’s a good business deal. Why wouldn’t kids move house and when there are several of them it can add greatly to everyone’s income. They are all family and all see each other everyday, ao life goes on.
    All the money for alcohol, gambling and drugs has to come from somewhere and I am sure it’s not Newstart.

    I have lived in many places around Australia for the past 54 years that most people would call remote. I have worked in the Kununurra Hospital 42 years ago and there was nowhere near the problems we hear about today.

    Now with the NDIS and “carers” being paid full government wages to look after the elderly and disabled on communities will throw massive amounts of more money into the mix. The carers will be more than like be family members. Who will monitor the level of care? Who will ensure people are bathed and fed and looked after?
    Maybe the money would be better spent on following Shepparton in Victoria’s example and build a chain of these amazing facilities across the country. Bring back respect for the old people and have them looking after and teaching the young people. Everyone would be better off.
    Darwin, Katherine Tennant Creek Alice Springs Ayers Rock Kununurra Halls Creek , Wyndham etcetc ….

    I posted the following in March last year after some very disturbing news
    In the local press :
    it’s the why that I don’t understand. Why aren’t aboriginal parents and grand parents looking after their children? Has having a baby become a commercial option and no longer about love? Is getting an income stream with child support payments become more important than the life created. Why aren’t mothers fighting for their children? Why aren’t fathers keeping their wives and children safe? Taking it right back to basic level, it’s ultimately a complete failure of family, why? What has changed and in the last 20/30 years and why? How can normality be restored?

    Voices like Jacinta and Warren Mundine need to be listened to. There has to be a better way. Huge resources are just being frittered away as the situation gets worse and worse. The baby bonus kids are growing up. Many are bad at 12, how will they be at 22?

  4. I hope Jacinta Price and Candace Owens cross paths. They will no doubt have a lot to talk about, and if we don’t all start listening we will end up truly divided.

  5. Morning ted.

    The email alerting me to this essay featured this:

    “As much as I admire Scott Morrison (he has made me feel comfortable being Australian again) …”

    Would you mind elaborating please?

    Many thanks.


  6. Ted, a sound analysis of the indigenous situation. Shedding the light of truth upon the culture can only help resolution.
    Coombs, like many much lauded men, has much to answer for. Most cultures, when invaded, must leave behind (not go back) what is no longer relevant and decide the best of their culture to hang onto. Tribal violence towards women which astounded members of the first fleet is what they still struggle to let go. Where aborigines do achieve are contemporary areas that express their natural talent: in sport, dance, entertainment.
    A bit of gratitude would not go astray either – that is was the English who came with a policy of equality for all under the law (if imperfectly expressed), universal language and opportunity.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *