Monday, December 29, 2008

Cultural change and indigenous Australia

In my last post Sunday Essay - academic research and indigenous ownership I referred to the interaction between historical research and current events in an Australian indigenous context. This post addresses the issue of culture and cultural change with a special but not exclusive focus on indigenous Australia.

As with so many of my longer posts, I write to try to clarify my own thinking.

In 541 AD, plague arrived for the first time in the great city of Constantinople. From then until around 750, it recurred round every generation, although the effects diminished somewhat with time.

The effects were quite devastating and changed the course of European history. At the time plague struck, the Eastern Roman or Byzantine Empire was at the height of its power. With a population of perhaps 19 million and 350,000 men under arms, its wealth and power had allowed the Emperor Justinian I to pursue his dream of recapturing the west to reform the full Roman Empire.

The plague struck hardest in the cities and especially Constantinople. While records are uncertain, perhaps 40 per cent of Constantinople's population died under the first onslaught.

The plague killed soldiers, sailors, merchants, artisans, administrators and peasants alike. The Empire was impoverished, surviving only because of the strength of its institutions.

Something similar happened to the Aboriginal population after 1788. Here European diseases spread far beyond the initial settlement in waves as adjoining groups met, transmitting disease from one to the other. 

We do not know how long it took for natural resistance to build, nor what proportion of the Aboriginal population died. However, it is likely to have been substantial.

The effects on Aboriginal cultures, by this term I mean simply all the learned things, must have been substantial.

In the Byzantine case, the loss of skills as well as wealth led to a decline in art, building and literacy itself. In pre-literate indigenous society where culture depended upon knowledge and skills directly transmitted between generations, the effects were likely to have been just as significant.

We know that Aboriginal cultures were never static, nor were they uniform across the continent. They varied depending upon resource availability and were affected by things such as climate and climatic change. There were major differences, for example, between the large and relatively sedentary populations on the resource rich North Coast of what would become NSW and the Aborigines of the western plains. 

Disease, the first shock from the new European settlement, was followed by a second shock, the arrival of the new settlers spreading in waves across the continent.

We have a modern tendency to couch this in terms of invasion and war. Certainly Aboriginal communities are entitled to argue that it was. However, the use of these terms in a general sense is likely to mislead, even twist thinking.

Continuing with the Byzantine example, there is no comparison between the European settlement of Australia and the constant wars of the Byzantium period not just between Empires, but also in response to wave after wave of invasions by new peoples. During more troubled periods, the combination of war with plague could see entire areas de-populated, re-populated, de-populated again in periods of time equivalent to the span of Australian history.

Focusing just on indigenous cultures, the first waves of settlers did not of themselves destroy those cultures. We now know that while traditional life was affected, it continued as indigenous people adapted in a variety of ways to change, adding some things, retaining others. 

The patterns here varied greatly between and even within areas and can only be understood at local level. Both the continuity of indigenous life and the variations in patterns across areas were largely ignored in the first local histories that came to be written, these were totally Eurocentric, but were picked up in settler records and reminiscences.

The better local and regional histories are now drawing this previously hidden history out. As they do, the Aborigines emerge from their often presented role as victims to become intelligent people with their own often sardonic view of the strange Europeans, trying to respond as best they could to change.

The thing that really affected the various indigenous cultures were subsequent Government policies, policies that varied greatly between jurisdictions and were themselves affected by the timing of the moving wave of new settlement across the country.

In thinking about this and the affect on culture, we need to put aside questions of right and wrong, even the why, and ask instead what happened, what impact did it have, recognising that there is no single uniform national pattern.

We also need to think about the Aborigines as people with their own responses. They were not mere passive victims, but people responding to change in ways that sometimes frustrated and even confused the authorities.

In writing about this, I want to focus on a small number of things in a NSW context, since this is the constitutional entity that I know best.

As a first and general point, all minority cultures define themselves in part through comparison with the dominant culture. This is true of the country movements of which I was part and about which I write so often. It is equally true of the Aborigines.

In 1788 there was no such thing as Aboriginal. The Aborigines did not see themselves as an entity, but as very different peoples. The very concepts of "Aboriginal" and "Aboriginality" are cultural constructs created out of interaction between the newly dominant European culture and its governing institutions and various Aboriginal groups. Further, those concepts have evolved with time, acquiring a life of their own, so that the concepts themselves feed back into discussion.

We can think of this in terms of policies and attitudes within the dominant culture, the responses within the minority culture, and the interaction between the two.

To illustrate this, let me take a simple example, the NSW system of reserves and missions. Again, I am concerned with results, not the reasons for the policies.

In simple terms, the reserve system created a separate sense of being Aboriginal.

Those inside the reserve system often forced together from different groups developed a sense of Aboriginality, of being Aboriginal as compared to being a member of their traditional group alone. Those outside the reserve system were more likely to identify with and merge with the broader community.

By emphasising distinctiveness, by creating barriers to integration, official policies actually created the very thing - a continuing and distinctive Aboriginal presence - that in some ways the policies were intended to avoid.

I had to laugh.

I was reading a chapter from a history of the reserve system. I found it by accident during a search on a different matter and unfortunately did not keep the reference. I will try to find it again, it was a thesis.  

Under pressure from local European residents, the Aborigines Protection Board created a new reserve. However, it was used not by local Aborigines, they stayed where they were, but by in-comers who often stayed for short periods. The Board had in fact created a transit point that was of great assistance to those visiting other areas! 

I could replicate this story by examples from other areas. However, the reserve example does illustrate my point about the way in which attitudes and policies in the dominant community feed into indigenous responses, leading to continuing cultural effects.

This is as true today as it was during the life of the NSW Aborigines Protection Board.

I do not fully understand just what current dominant community attitudes and policies are doing in cultural terms, although my feeling is that they are reinforcing and creating difference in just the same ways as in the past.

I actually have the dreadful feeling that current policies may in fact be worse.           

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