Thursday, February 15, 2007

Stocktake - Belshaw Writings on Australia's Aborigines 2: Methodological Issues

Photo: Charles Perkins, Aboriginal Activist. From Film Australia's Australian Biography series.

Charles Perkins was born in 1936 at Alice Springs NT, dieing in 2000. Often a stormy petrel, he had a life of achievement as a soccer star, university graduate, Aboriginal activist and Canberra bureaucrat. In his 1998 Film Australia interview interview he gives his own account of the personal experiences that fuelled his great anger against white injustice and his determination to fight for Aboriginal rights.


In 1964 or 1965 Charles Perkins spoke to students at the University of New England. He made a simple point. There was no such thing as an Aboriginal problem, just a European problem, since the Europeans had created the problem in the first place through their invasion of Australia and subsequent treatment of the Aboriginal people.

In 1966 I read an article (I no longer have the reference) in Oceania, the pioneering Australian anthropological magazine that first seriously discussed Aboriginal issues, on the impact of stereotyping.

The article made a simple point. Adverse images of the Aborigines held by the white community were reflected in Aboriginal perceptions of themselves, regardless of truth or otherwise. That is, white perceptions fed back into Aboriginal perceptions as if (my words) the white perceptions were a distorting side show mirror.

I was struck by both points of view. They provide the entry point to this next post where I want to look briefly at some methodological issues. My comments are not profound, simply reflecting my own experiences.

Problems of Perception

In my first post I said that I wrote as an outsider simply because I was not Aboriginal. This problem is not unique.

All historical research and writing is written by outsiders to greater or lesser extent simply because the past is just that, the past. The historian's challenge is to find a way to overcome this problem, to tear aside the veil, to put aside her/his own preconceptions to understand the past. We can never do this perfectly because we can never fully understand the perceptual framework of that past time even when we sit in the same cultural stream.

When I first did prehistory we were taught to think of culture in terms of the complex of things we learn from birth, from nurture rather than nature. This simple definition, while correct, conceals this problem of perceptual understanding.

The world is a complex place. To simplify, we all construct mental models of the world, simplified abstractions that we can use to interpret and understand complex realities. These models reflect our understanding of the world including the culture in which we live.

I know that this sounds self-evident, but these models vary between individuals, groups within cultures and between cultures themselves. Every individual's model is different in some way from that of other individuals even in the same family. This leads too often subtle and unseen differences in perception.

Sense of Country

Photo: Gordon Smith, Yellow Scape. New England's Northern Tablelands can be very beautiful in the late afternoon light. As a child I loved late afternoon drives looking at the way the setting sun changed the familiar landscape, softening some features, highlighting others.

I have tried to explore some of these differences in perception as part of my work.

In Australia and its people - a funny upside down world, I talked about the way in which Europeans developed their perceptions of the Australian landscape, moving from a European to an Australian frame. In On Travel Time and our Sense of Space I looked at the impact of changing travel times on our changing perception of the world around us.

Both these examples are important because they bear upon our changing sense of country. By sense of country I do not mean abstractions such as Australia, although they can be linked to sense of country, but the smaller more localised world that we classify as our own in a personal sense. Sense of country is important to the Aborigines but is also, I think, important to all human beings.

My wife was born in the eastern suburbs of Sydney, an area where much of her family still live. While my daughters were born in Armidale, they have spent much of their childhood in the eastern suburbs. My wife and her family think of the eastern suburbs in just the way I am using the term sense of country. So now, too, do my daughters, although they still recognise Armidale as ancestral country.

My own sense of country is very different. I classify the broader New England as country, with the Tablelands around Armidale as my immediate personal country. "South of my days' circle, part of my blood's country," Judith Wright wrote of this area while living in Brisbane.

I know Sydney well and can enjoy its beauty and attractions, but still I live here to some degree as a stranger in a strange land, observing but not really sharing the view and habits of the locals. Worse, in my absence I see my personal country changing, creating a gap between my view of country and the evolving on-ground realities, including especially the deaths of family members removing personal connections. I have become the classic expatriate, not quite fitting in where I now live but not necessarily able to return to a changed home.

All this means that I have empathy with what I understand to be the Aboriginal view of country. But there is another point to the story as well.

What, do we do when differing views of country conflict or when another need is deemed sufficiently important to override some one else's sense of country?

We all react strongly when our sense of country is threatened. You can see this in Sydney, for example, in the fight that went on over the removal of old trees in Hyde Park or the Domain. The talk back lines ran hot. The issue was not really the trees as such, but the loss of familiar symbols forming part of country.

This type of conflict is common at local level. However, here I think we have a broader evolving problem, a decline in our understanding of country combined with a greater willingness to override or ignore other people's sense of country in pursuit of perceived broader community interest.

This is a slippery one, so let me try to illustrate.

Increasingly, metro Australians appear to regard the countryside as somewhere to visit, something to be preserved, not somewhere to live. We can see this in all sorts of ways, in the debate on water, in the creation and management of national parks, in the often expressed view that we would be better of ceasing to use certain types of land.

I am not debating the rights or wrongs of individual actions. My point is that there does appear to be a trend and that the outcome affects sense of country as well as community for those living in the affected areas.

Our Aboriginal people are an increasingly important part of Regional Australia.

In an initial post on the demographics of Australia's Aborigines I noted that in 2001 485,000 Australians classified themselves as indigenous. Of this, 346,506 (71 per cent) lived in Regional Australia. This means that action to improve the condition of our indigenous people must necessarily have a regional focus.

The indigenous birth rate is higher than the average in the rest of the Australian community. This in combination with out migration by non-indigenous young means that the indigenous proportion of the regional population is rising. Indigenous intra-regional migration to major regional centres such as Armidale, Tamworth or Dubbo in the case of NSW is further increasing the indigenous proportion of the population.

Unlike the metro centres where the proportion of the indigenous population was around 1.1 per cent in 2001 if higher in specific suburbs, the much higher percentages in Regional Australia makes indigenous development a central, not peripheral, issue to the broader community.

I will talk about broader policy issues here in a later post. For the present, I would make the point that resolution of conflicts over sense of country between the indigenous and non-indigenous communities and within the indigenous community itself is important in a way not seen in the metro areas.

To illustrate.

In January I reported on a major native title deal giving the Githabul people joint control of 19 national parks and state forests in Northern New England. I had no problem with this. But what happens when the original Aboriginal landowners themselves become a minority in the local Aboriginal population because of in-migration, leading to tensions and conflicts. How do we manage this?

Cultural Creation and the Process of Mirroring

In my opening to this post I referred to an article in Oceania, on the impact of stereotyping.

This made a simple point. Adverse images of the Aborigines held by the white community were reflected in Aboriginal perceptions of themselves, regardless of truth or otherwise. That is, white perceptions fed back into Aboriginal perceptions as if (my words) the white perceptions were a distorting side show mirror.

All cultures are affected by cultures around them. A current international example is the desire of the French to preserve the purity of the language by expunging English words. This impact is necessarily greater where the culture is a minority culture within a broader dominant culture. So mirroring and stereotyping should not come as a surprise.

However, there is a broader issue.

There was not a uniform indigenous culture in 1788. When I was studying Australian prehistory in the sixties, something that I will talk about in my next post, I certainly did not think of a uniform Aboriginal culture. We were concerned, however imperfectly, with patterns of cultural change and diffusion across the continent over time. Our focus was therefore on difference.

There is clearly not a uniform indigenous culture today. However, what we do have, I think, is a still evolving national Aboriginal culture sitting sometimes very uncomfortably on top of different already existing Aboriginal cultures.

This culture, a new construct created since 1788, is a joint piece of Aboriginal and European work in that it emerged as an Aboriginal response not just to the European invasion and dispossession, but also to changing Government policies initially at colony/state level and then, more recently, at national level.

As a simple example, take the decision to create ATSIC (while now abolished, the ATSIC web site is still available via the National Library).

A national government wanted a national body to talk to so, working on the principles that the Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders were in some sense an entity as well as a belief in self-determination and democracy, they created the ATSIC structure.

This was, as I remember it, resented by some Aborigines at the time such as traditional owners in the NT who saw themselves as having little in common with southern Aboriginal activists. However, its creation in turn played a role in the creation of national indigenous linkages.

This issue of the creation of a national indigenous culture fascinates me, although I know so little.

When and how, for example, did the Aboriginal English I now hear on radio emerge and become so widespread? The Aboriginal activists of the sixties did not speak like this, nor did the limited number of Aborigines I came in contact with during this period.

These are issues beyond the scope of this post. So I will finish with two pleas.

First, recognising the way mirroring works, let's stop feeding in negative material about the progress of our indigenous people. This does not mean not recognising or dealing with problems. We have to. But let's also recognise and celebrate their achievements.

Secondly, let us recognise and deal with the enormous variety in Aboriginal culture and experience so that we actually target what we do.

Previous Posts in this Series

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