Sunday, April 10, 2011

Sunday Essay - Bolt, Aboriginal culture & the nature of Aboriginality

Today's post is in part a companion post to one done by Ken Parish On Club Troppo, Sorcery and the black Hatfields and McCoys. That post is worth reading as an introduction into the complexities associated with Australian attitudes and approaches towards its Aboriginal peoples. It deals with the issue of Aboriginal culture. 

This post is also a companion post to Legal Eagle's Bolta, racism and free speech. Both the post and the comments are worth reading. LE's post and the Bolt case deal in part with the vexed question of what is Aboriginal. For the benefit of international readers, Andrew Bolt is a Melbourne journalist whose comments on the nature of Aboriginality led to a case being brought against him under the Racial Discrimination Act.

As it happened, the paper that I gave in Armidale on Friday 1 April on social change in Australia's New England 1950-2000 included a large slab on Aboriginal New England. I took the 1965 student ride by students at Sydney University as an entry point because this has achieved iconic status[1].

With one exception, all the towns they visited were in Northern NSW, the broader New England. The one exception was not far south of New England. At the 1971 census, the first census to count Aborigines, no less than than 55% of those identifying as Aboriginal in NSW were resident in the broader New England[2]. Another uncounted group were Aborigines of New England ancestry living in Sydney. All this makes the New England story kind of important. It's not a sideshow.

To tell the story, I described the position in 1950, a time when change was already underway, then traced to story through to the present time. As an aside, Jenny and Neville Crew came to the paper. I have known them for a very long while, but had no idea that Jenny played a key role in the formation of Abschol in 1951[3]. This was the national scholarship scheme set up by university students to support Aboriginal education.

Abschol is important, and not just as an indicator of changing social attitudes. In 1963, the first Abschol scholars entered Sydney University. It was the presence on campus of Garry Williams and Charles Perkins that drew students at Sydney into contact with growing movements concerned with Aboriginal advancement.

The material that follows is not a full historical essay. Later, I will post a discussion draft of my paper on the New England history blog after I have revised it. Rather, I am using the difficulties and complexities of the NSW position to draw out some of the issues.

This is not an opinion piece, although my opinions are there. My objective is to give information, to illustrate the complexities involved.

Diversity in Aboriginal Australia

Ken's post deals with the conflicts that can arise between Aboriginal culture and modern life. He expressed it in terms of Aboriginal culture, but it is clear from the context that he is actually talking about the Aboriginal peoples of Northern Australia, something that he later makes clear in a response to a comment. So to his mind there is a distinction between those living in Northern Australia and Aboriginal people further south.

The same type of distinction came up in some of the comments on Legal Eagle's post, as well as comments elsewhere on the Bolt case; see the comments on Andrew Landeryou’s post at VexNews for example. There you see the distinction between north and south, the confusion over what constitutes an Aboriginal, the continuing focus on identifying Aboriginality by proportion of blood.

The first thing to remember in considering all this that Australia's Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples are quite diverse. In socio-economic terms, they range from fringe dwellers on benefits to upper middle class professional or business people. In cultural terms, Australia's Aboriginal people come from a range of cultures that have been affected by subsequent events in different ways. They are not the same.

I make this point because there is a tendency in discussion and certainly in statistical analysis to treat "Aborigines" as though they were a single entity.

In Beyond Humbug: Transforming government engagement with indigenous Australia[4], Michael C Dillon and Neil D Westbury point to the differences between Aboriginal groups. These, they suggest, must be taken into account in policy. Policy has failed because of a failure to accommodate difference.

The first part of the book is an incisive analysis of policy failure. The second part then fails because it breaches the premise of the first part. Instead of recognising diversity, the analysis is all weighted towards the Northern Territory experience.

I am personally concerned with the Aboriginal peoples of NSW and especially those of New England. The NT experience is relevant to the degree, and only to the degree, that it informs thought on those Aborigines in which I have a special interest.

This may sound partial. It is. However, I find that a lot of discussion based on generalities, conditioned by the NT experience, is not only misleading but actually dangerous when applied on ground to the Aboriginal peoples in whom I have a special interest.

What is an Aboriginal?

At first, the definition of an Aboriginal was really quite clear. They were the native inhabitants of this land. Then with interbreeding between the original inhabitants and the new arrivals, problems emerged. How did you classify people of part Aboriginal descent?

This was not an academic argument from the viewpoint of the individuals involved, for it affected the way that people were treated. There was a deeply held view that, to use my own grandfather's phrase from the 1930s, the Aborigines were a "child race". The personal reference is deliberate: my grandfather was Minister for Education in NSW for an extended period. His views directly affected Aboriginal parents and their kids[5].

I should note that I feel no personal guilt over my grandfather's views, nor am I especially critical. He was an honest man who tried to reconcile the irreconcilable. He was also the man who later gave me as presents the books on the US civil rights movements that helped form my current views.

As a child race, the Aborigines deserved special treatment and protection, but they were also perceived as less capable. The result was a paternalistic treatment that essentially quarantined them from the broader society.

To be Aboriginal in NSW was to be protected, controlled and limited. However, it also gave you access to certain restricted benefits - blankets and rations, certain types of housing.

Initially the Aborigines were perceived as a dying race. However, the NSW population then expanded: full bloods may have been in decline, but the number of part Aboriginal people was growing. A real problem emerged. Who should be classified as Aboriginal for the purposes of controls and benefits?

The response was to look at Aboriginality by blood, by proportions. This type of response is present today. It creates very real problems.

NSW in 1950: a snapshot

To illustrate the problems that arose, consider the position in NSW in 1950.

The Aborigines Welfare Board had legal responsibility for the welfare of NSW’s Aboriginal peoples[6]. From 1918, the legal concept of Aboriginality as defined in the Aborigines Protection Act was based on the proportion of Aboriginal blood: “any full blood or half-caste Aboriginal who is a native of NSW.” Formally, people with less than 50 per cent Aboriginal blood fell outside the Board’s supervision, although those living on stations or reserves were effectively subject to Board management. Further, from 1943 Aboriginal people could obtain certificates of exemption that exempted them from the scope of the Act. These could be granted to people whom the Board believed were sufficiently advanced in life style to warrant being exempted from the restrictions of the Act.

The Board controlled stations, each under a resident manager, plus reserves supervised by police officers, who distributed rations, clothing and blankets as required. In theory but not in practice, the stations were for the aged, the infirm and those the Board considered insufficiently advanced to care for themselves. Reserves were for Aborigines of more independent character requiring less supervision.

In 1950, a dual education system existed. There were Aboriginal schools for those living in Aboriginal communities on stations or reserves. This had a special curriculum based on the assumption that Aborigines were less capable of an academic education; their education should focus on work as a domestic or labourer. Other Aboriginal children were expected by the Board to attend the public school system, as were those Aboriginal young who wished to achieve a secondary education.

Aboriginal children could enrol in the public school system. However, the Education Department had a policy that Aboriginal children could be excluded if non-Aboriginal parents objected. In that case, Aboriginal children were expected to attend an Aboriginal school assuming, of course, that one was available.

The on-ground position in 1950 was already changing. For example, trained teachers were entering Aboriginal schools, while it was becoming easier for Aboriginal children to enter the normal state school system.

As an illustration of changing attitudes that has some resonance today, in 1954 the Commonwealth Office of Education proposed that there should be a national curriculum for Aboriginal children. This was based on Northern Territory experience and incorporated many of the standard assumptions about the ability of Aboriginal children to undertake certain types of study. NSW rejected it. Aboriginal children should study the standard curriculum.

Now if you look at my simple description of the NSW position , certain things stand out.

The first is the definition of Aboriginality based on blood, not family connections or culture. If you were 50 per cent or more Aboriginal by blood, you were Aboriginal. Over that, you were not. At 51 per cent you were subject to the penalties and benefits of being Aboriginal, at 49 per cent you were not. Further, if you obtained a certificate of exemption you ceased to be Aboriginal for the purposes of the Act no matter what the proportion of your blood.

The broader community did not share this simple definition. To them, you were Aboriginal if you looked as though you might be Aboriginal or had known Aboriginal connections. Blood based definitions created their own complex definitional problems, the combination of them with community attitudes made the problem worse. The historian Peter Read summarised the type of results that could arise this way:

In 1935 a fair-skinned Australian of part-indigenous descent was ejected from a hotel for being an Aboriginal. He returned to his home on the mission station to find himself refused entry because he was not an Aboriginal. He tried to remove his children but was told he could not because they were Aboriginal. He walked to the next town where he was arrested for being an Aboriginal vagrant and placed on the local reserve. During the Second World War he tried to enlist but was told he could not because he was Aboriginal. He went interstate and joined up as a non-Aboriginal. After the war he could not acquire a passport without permission because he was Aboriginal. He received exemption from the Aborigines Protection Act-and was told that he could no longer visit his relations on the reserve because he was not an Aboriginal. He was denied permission to enter the Returned Servicemen's Club because he was[7].

Development of a new definition of being Aboriginal

The type of mess summarised by Peter Read led to the progressive adoption of a new definition of Aboriginality.

In 1981, the Constitutional Section of the Department of Aboriginal Affairs' Report on a review of the administration of the working definition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders offered a new definition:

An Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander is a person of Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander descent who identifies as an Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander and is accepted as such by the community in which he (she) lives[8].

This three fold definition (descent, self-identification and community recognition) was a huge advance because it overcame many of the difficulties that had gone before. In one blow, it got rid of all the difficulties associated with definitions based on proportions of blood that may or may not be accepted by the broader community. However, it also raised its own issues.

One is the dramatic expansion in the number of people claiming to be Aboriginal. The 2006 census recorded the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander population of NSW as 138,506, a huge increase from the 1971 figure of 23,10, far higher than could be explained by the natural increase in the Aboriginal population alone. Part of the increase was due to better enumeration, part to changing attitudes associated with the changed definitions of what constitutes Aboriginality. More people can and indeed are willing to claim Aboriginality.

I will return to this point later. For the moment, I want to add one further thing.

Many Aboriginal families were very large and stayed large after the birth rate fell in the rest of the community. Eight to twelve children was not unusual. This gives twenty four to thirty six children, grand-children and great grand children over three generations. This makes for large extended families.

With family members taking partners from different backgrounds, it is not unusual in the one family to have first cousins who appear white, others who are clearly identifiable as Aboriginal. It pays to be cautious in making judgements based on appearance.

NSW Aboriginal Cultures

I now want to turn to culture. Culture is important but also difficult because it links to identity and to policy. Because the story that follows is a complicated one that I will inevitably be shorthanding, I will give my conclusions now rather than at the end of the section.

Today’s Aboriginal culture(s) in NSW are amalgams that combine elements of traditional culture with Aboriginal responses to their treatment under official policy, as well as responses to changing community attitudes. Just because NSW Aborigines are further removed from their traditional pasts neither invalidates the uniqueness of their culture, nor necessarily reduces the problematic elements.

Evolution of NSW Aboriginal Cultures – survival of traditional elements

There is a commonly held belief, one that has been in existence for more than one hundred years, that the collapse of traditional Aboriginal life extinguished traditional cultures. That view has been reinforced by explicit and implicit comparisons with Northern Australia. That view can also be demonstrated to be incorrect.

Traditional culture did not just vanish. Rather, what happened was a rolling process in which certain elements vanished, while others survived if sometimes in modified form.

Three generations is often cited as the length of time in which memory carries down through a family. Most of us know something about our grandparents, while our great grand parents are hazy in our memories.

The last traditional initiation ceremonies that I know of occurred in New England towards the end of the nineteenth century. Many of the New England Aborigines of 1950 had grandparents who had either been initiated or were the children of those who had lived traditional lives. There were still full speakers of at least five of the New England language groups. Three languages were still living tongues. Individual dialects may have collapsed, but the core language was still spoken.

Knowledge survived about kinship, traditional patterns of friends and enemies, about land and food. The extent of survival varied from group to group, but it was there.

NSW Aboriginal Cultures - Impact of the Aborigines Protection & Welfare Boards

Before talking about the impact of cultural revival movement, I need to talk about the cultural impacts of the policies of the Aborigines Protection Board, the precursor of the Aborigines Welfare Board.

The policies of the Board, affected the Aborigines in a variety of complicated ways. The Board brought together Aborigines from different areas, languages and cultures and concentrated them on stations and reserves since this was the most cost-effective way of providing services.

The effects were profound. It accelerated loss of culture and especially language; it merged groups together; it helped create a culture of dependence; and it led directly to the rise of racial tension and then to segregation. So long as NSW Aborigines were seen as a scattered dying race, there was limited overt racial tension. However, once larger numbers of Aborigines were concentrated in particular country towns, tensions did emerge.

We can take Moree as an example, one of the towns targeted by the 1965 student ride. As Jim Fletcher noted in his history of Aboriginal education in NSW, there was originally little racial prejudice in Moree simply because there weren’t very many Aboriginals. By the early 1960s, Moree’s Aboriginal population had increased to approximately 700, over 11 per cent of a total town population of 6000.[9]. Today, it is around 22 per cent.

This concentration of the Aboriginal population in particular communities, the reaction of the white population to the growing number Aborigines, led to a system of segregation in places like schools, hospitals and cinemas that mirrored the US situation. Black-white relations varied between communities, they were good in Casino as an example, but the segregation that existed in some communities has to be recognised.

I am making the point in this way because this segregation is in the living memory of many NSW Aboriginal people. Its impact has been reinforced since by the way the Aboriginal story is presented as an oppressed people, as victims.

I will come back to this point in a moment. For the moment, I just want to focus on one little reported element. Reports of teachers dealing with Aboriginal children focus on their niceness and shyness. There are also a number of references to defacto playground divisions within integrated public schools. Racial prejudice was very much alive and well in playground taunts. Shy kids in a hostile environment starting from a lower educational base were very vulnerable.

I note to avoid getting caught in the culture wars, that the picture was multifaceted. Again, we can take Moree as an example.

As early as 1961, four years before the student rides, the parents and citizens associations and infants mothers clubs of the two Moree primary schools had indicated that they favoured the transfer of Aboriginal primary children to their schools provided that the process was gradual and that the health and hygiene of white and Aboriginal children alike were carefully monitored.

NSW Aboriginal Cultures – Assimilation, Jobs and Schooling

I recognise that this post is getting very long. However, despite that, I need to introduce new elements to the story.

From early in the twentieth century, official policy in NSW focused on assimilation. This word has deservedly acquired a bad flavour, although the reality was a little different from some presentations.

In the beginning, the focus was on the absorption of the growing number of part Aboriginal people into the broader community. These people, and especially those who looked white, should not grow up in an Aboriginal environment and consequently absorb Aboriginal culture. They should be separated from other Aboriginal people and assimilated.

Not surprisingly, this policy was feared and opposed. The Board actually found that attempts at enforcement led whole groups to shift to escape the Board’s reach.

Later and especially from 1938, the policy broadened. The focus shifted from individuals to families and progressively from part Aboriginal people to Aboriginal people as a whole. The aim was to get Aboriginal people off the reserves and living in town as normal members of the community. This was to be achieved through things such as education – the Board’s equal to white policy – and housing.

So what happened?

In the 1920s, the reported Aboriginal population of NSW split 25 per cent between those living on reserves and stations and those living in the broader community. Beyond that, there were an unknown number of people of Aboriginal descent living quietly in the broader community.

By 1950, the proportion of Aboriginal people living on stations and reserves had increased to over 50 per cent, peaking around 60 per cent. Today, the proportion of Aboriginal people living in “discrete communities”, the new official jargon name for stations and reserves, is quite a small percentage. But over 30 per cent of NSW Aboriginal people live in one form or other of social housing: a smaller proportion of NSW Aboriginal people in 2011 live independently of some form of official support than was the case in the 1920s[10]. I find that sad.

Key problems can be summarised in two words, jobs and schooling.

The rise in the proportion of Aboriginal people living on stations and reserves from the 1920s reflected the impact of drought and depression. This reduced jobs. Then, from the end of the Second World War, the agricultural jobs that had provided a measure of independence for many Aboriginal people declined. From the second half of the 1970s, progressive economic restructuring swept away unskilled and semi-skilled jobs in areas such as transport and manufacturing. The painful progress that had actually been achieved in Aboriginal advancement in the twenty years after the war went into reverse.

Poor schooling was central.

By 1965, the equal to white education policy of the Aboriginal Welfare Board appeared to have been achieved. However, in that year a NSW Department of Education Survey showed that Aboriginal students as a whole were underperforming compared to students as a whole[11]. It could hardly be otherwise, given the history of Aboriginal education.

The problem now was that an adult working population, the next generations already in the school system, were hardly equipped to manage in a job market where those jobs best suited to their skill sets were being swept away. Aboriginal education had in fact improved, but at a slower rate than that holding in the broader community. The social problems created are still with us today.

Aboriginal responses to change

Summarising the discussion to this point, we began with traditional cultures that varied across what would become NSW. Those cultures were greatly affected by European settlement, but the collapse was not as great as had been thought. It was a rolling process, with elements remaining that varied somewhat between groups.

Official policies introduced new elements into the social and cultural mix affecting Aboriginal culture in a variety of ways. Groups were forced together, segregation emerged in some places, while attempts to improve education as a tool for assimilation and advancement were less effective than had been hoped. These educational failures left Aboriginal people ill-equipped to handle the economic restructuring that was to occur.

Aboriginal responses to these various changes were complicated and have not been properly charted. Views about the Aborigines in the broader community affected the way Aboriginal people felt about themselves. However, Aboriginal responses were not passive as people tried to get on with life.

A number of Aboriginal people effectively removed themselves from Board oversight, becoming fringe dwellers or moving into towns or to Sydney. Even today, some Aboriginal people distinguish themselves because they grew up as fringies, not on the mish.

Individual Aboriginal families or groups actively fought for better education in particular. Others became activists in emerging Aboriginal movements. A sense of Aboriginal corporate identity emerged.

In 1960, Professor Elkin as Vice Chair of the Aboriginal Welfare Board put the problem this way:

The policy of assimilation was to get them of the reserves and housed in towns. However that does not entirely coincide with what the Aborigines want as a whole. They want to remain in some sense as a corporate body whether they are on the reserves or not. They do not wish to be absorbed.[12]

This is hardly surprising. Key attitudes about kinship and the nature of relationships had been carried directly from traditional cultures and then reinforced through separate treatment. The culture was collective rather than individualist. However, the collective focused on the extended family or kinship group. Further, and despite melding, traditional patterns of friendship and enmity still existed. The evolving sense of Aboriginal or being Aboriginal sat on top.

End of Assimilation and the rise of Self-determination

NSW’s Aboriginal peoples now faced a new wave of change, one again often imposed from without. Some elements of that change were positive, others were not. All further affected Aboriginal cultures.

In any shorthand summary of this type there will be errors. I apologise in advance for these. Further, I can only sketch some of the key features of the changes.

The first change was the rise of interest in the Aborigines and in writing on the Aborigines. This began in the 1950s and then extended rapidly in the 1960s. One part of this was a focus on the injustices done. A second but less sustained part was an interest in traditional Aboriginal life. Both fed back into NSW Aboriginal culture(s). The first affected non-Aboriginal perceptions of Aborigines, Aboriginal perceptions of themselves. The second laid the basis for things such as the Aboriginal language revival movement and fed back into Aboriginal culture. One side effect was a growing interest, even hunger, by Aboriginal people for specific interest in their own unique pasts.

The second change was the rise of self-determination. Aboriginal activists themselves sought to take over leadership roles. Then the Whitlam Labor Government extended this through the creation of new structures. These treated Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders as a whole as an entity and effectively placed responsibility for Aboriginal advancement upon the people involved. Assimilation had been replaced by self-determination.

Self determination introduced a whole new set of power dynamics into Aboriginal communities. The development of the land rights movement added to these impacts.

Now at this point I do not want to go into details of the cultural impacts that took place then or a little later as a consequence of new approaches, in part because I am still researching them, more because it would detract from my present argument.

My key point is that NSW Aboriginal peoples do have a distinct culture and that that culture combines traditional elements with elements created later as a consequence of the interaction of official policies, changing community attitudes and Aboriginal responses. Further, that culture is not a single entity but actually varies across space and groups.

Whether that culture is the same or not as that holding in the Northern Territory is beside the point. It exists and needs to be recognised and responded to.


I had intended finish this post by linking my discussion back to issues raised by the posts and surrounding comments that began this post. However, because of length, I am going to focus on these in a new post.

[1] Freedom Ride, 1965, National Museum of Australia,, accessed on-line 2 March 2011. See also Anne Curthoys’ Freedom Ride: a freedom rider remembers, Allen & Unwin, Crows Nest, 2002

[2] The figures are calculated from J Griggs, L Greenwood and D Lea, Population, in David A M Lea, John J J Pigram and Leslie M Greenwood (eds) An Atlas of New England, Volume 2, The Commentaries, Department of Geography, University of New England, Armidale, 1977, pp 183-216. The Aboriginal population is covered in pp198-202.

[3] Jennifer Clarke, Abschol: More than a Scholarship Scheme, NLA News, National Library of Australia, October 2001 - - accessed on-line 5April 2010

[4] (Seaview Press, South Australia, 2007

[5] The material on education in this post is drawn especially from J J Fletcher, Clean, Clad and Courteous: A History of Aboriginal Education in New South Wales, published by the author, Sydney, 1989

[6] Material in this section on the Board is mainly drawn from Fletcher, 1989. See also Jim Belshaw, Report of the NSW Aborigines Welfare Board, year ended 30 June 1940, blog post, 3 February 2008

[7] Cited in John Gardiner-Garden, The Definition of Aboriginality, Social Policy Group, Australian Parliamentary Library, 5 December 2000 - accessed on-line 8 February 2011

[8] Material drawn from Gardiner-Gaden 2000.

[9] Fletcher p 228

[10] Material on percentages is drawn from Fletcher plus my own work with the NSW Aboriginal Housing office

[11] The survey is covered in Fletcher pp279-283.

[12] Fletcher p214


Caroline Chapman said...

Hi Jim,

This is indeed an interesting area and a discussion that will continue over many years to come. DNA testing adds another dimension to the issue which in the future may decide who qualifies for benefits etc. It is hard to predict how that will turn out. The fact that Aboriginal schools had a different cirriculum as well as untrained teachers or teachers that had failed their teacher training is something that not enough people know and the wider community needs to know in order to understand the concept of closing the gap in education.

Jim Belshaw said...

Hi Caroline. I doubt that official DNA testing would ever come in. Just too many problems. However, as I understand it, some Indian US groups do insist on DNA testing if you want to be recognised as a member of that group.

I didn't go into the group membership issue here because its something of a minefield.

The education one is interesting because it shows very long term effects of specific Government decisions. The wheel turns. Many of the aruments today actually bear a striking resemlance to those of sixty or seventy years ago.

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