UNDERSTANDING ABORIGINAL CULTURE

 

Dr. A.B. Kelly, 2nd December 2004

 

(Paper Presented to Terry Roberts, S.A. Aboriginal Affairs Minister, 2.12.04)

 

“If the current policy towards Aborigines had been planned by a rabid racist whose aim was Aboriginal Genocide, it could not have been made more effective.”

 

There are two cultures in Australia. There is the European influenced culture of the majority, henceforth ‘Australian Culture’, and the original Australian Aboriginal Culture, henceforth ‘Aboriginal Culture’.

 

There is both ignorance and confusion about Aboriginal Culture. There are a number of reasons for this situation. Few Australians have any contact with Aborigines. The ‘Aboriginal Industry’ has fostered deliberate distortions of the truth. More importantly there is the lack of any general understanding of the importance of culture. There is an even greater lack of any understanding of what constitutes the essence of any culture.

 

With very few exceptions, members of the Aboriginal Culture are genetically Aborigines. The exceptions are individuals who have some non-Aboriginal genes, but whose first part-Aborigine ancestor was incorporated into the tribal system on the assumption that he or she was the offspring of his Aboriginal parents. On that fallacious assumption the part-Aborigine had been allotted a ‘skin’, and was incorporated into the tribal ‘skin’ system. To marry or to be initiated, an Aborigine had to have a ‘skin’ (Anthropologically, belong to a ‘moiety’). Some members of the Aboriginal culture tested by de Lemos at Hermannsburg (mentioned later) fit into this exceptional category. Such people are part of the Aboriginal Culture. The majority of part-Aborigines are part of the Australian Culture, not of the Aboriginal Culture.

 

Any sensible policy directed towards the welfare of Aborigines has to take account of the fact that the majority of part-Aborigines are members of the Australian Culture, and are not members of the Aboriginal Culture. This is not to say that such part-Aborigines may not have suffered disadvantage, but there are other members of the Australian Culture who have suffered disadvantage for other reasons. The present policy towards such part-Aboriginal people, which assumes that they are members of the Aboriginal Culture, is based on a mistake.

 

In the Northern Territory in the 1950’s, I was one of a small number of non-aborigines who had the opportunity to live and work with Aborigines who retained their tribal culture. I was one of an even smaller group who were fully accepted by tribal Aborigines, and invited by the elders to attend secret ceremonies, and to accept initiation.

I set out to understand the Aborigines and their culture. At that stage I had an interest in, but only a slight understanding of Anthropology and Philosophy. Despite my unusually close contact with Aborigines I found them very difficult to comprehend at that time. They are significantly different from other Australians.

 

After 40 years of working life, I commenced Tertiary studies in Sociology, Philosophy and Theology in 1985. My studies included research in the Northern Territory on the problems Aborigines were encountering due to alcohol. I found that the social situation of Aborigines had deteriorated significantly since the 1950’s.

 

In my Postgraduate research I sought to put my lifetime experience into context and, in particular, to make sense of my observations of Aborigines in the field. I obtained my Doctorate in 1998 for my thesis on ‘The Process of the Cosmos’. This thesis considered the nature of the cultural process, among other matters. My interest in Aborigines had developed towards broader cultural questions.

 

The situation of Aborigines has continued to deteriorate. An article in the April 2000 issue of Quadrant reported on the state of barbarism that had developed in every remote Aboriginal community. This report came as no surprise to me. The seeds of that decline into a state of barbarism had been initiated in the 1960`s. Before anything can be done to try to repair this situation, we have to understand where we went wrong.

 

When there was prohibition of the supply of alcohol to Aborigines, either as Aborigines or as Wards of the State, there was an incentive for part-Aborigines to gain an exemption from such prohibition, by demonstrating that, as members of the Australian Culture, they could conduct themselves appropriately. This incentive was lost when the prohibition on the supply of alcohol to Aborigines was abandoned.

 

At the same time it became financially advantageous for part-Aborigines who were members of the Australian Culture to be considered to be an Aborigine rather than a disadvantaged member of the Australian Culture. The blurring of the real cultural difference between Aborigines and other Australians, and the introduction of a pseudo-racial, rather than a cultural criterion, had to give rise to an abuse of any system designed to assist real Aborigines.

 

This pseudo-racial criterion led to the encouragement of a professional victim-hood on the part of part-Aborigines. Ironically, the historical basis for such a pseudo-racial categorisation had its origin in the slave-owning American Confederacy. Part-Negros were categorised as Negro rather than White, so they could still be bought and sold. It had no scientific or cultural justification.

 

In the Australian Magazine of 20-21 November 2004, Noel Pearson stated: ‘The Australian people set a lethal trap when indigenous people were exposed to the combination of welfare payments, idleness and access to legal and illicit addictive substances and gambling. I marvel at the ignorance and lack of foresight that allowed Australians to settle on such a policy after the end of the era of protection and official discrimination. How could we not see that the consequence would be short lives, illiteracy, tens of thousands of cases of severe sexual abuse and violent crimes, and cultural dislocation?’

 

It was the new policy that was based on both ‘ignorance and lack of foresight’. The previous policy of the ‘era of protection and official discrimination’ had not been based on ignorance. It had been based on both first-hand experience and the exercise of foresight. It was based on a realistic recognition of the cultural differences that existed, and still exist, between Aborigines and other Australians.

 

The adverse consequences of the new policy were not foreseen for one simple reason. It stemmed from the belief that Aborigines are the same as we are, just a bit darker. This belief is false. Real Aborigines are significantly different from us. Those who have never had any contact with real Aborigines tend to hold this false belief most strongly. By a real Aborigine I mean a person who is culturally and, almost without exception, genetically fully Aboriginal. The application of this false belief to real Aborigines has devastated them. If the current policy towards Aborigines had been planned by a rabid racist whose aim was Aboriginal Genocide, it could not have been made more effective. Every aspect of the current policy is effectively aimed at the destruction of vital aspects of Aboriginal culture. The survival of real Aborigines depends on recognition of the difference between the Aboriginal culture and our own. Any successful policy must be aimed at supporting the traditional culture by every means possible. No action should be taken that is detrimental to the Aboriginal culture. This does not mean that there is no room for any cultural development, but any cultural development should result from encouragement, not imposition.

 

The problem is essentially a problem of culture. The nature and role of culture has to be understood before we can hope to deal with the current problems in Aboriginal society. The roots of a culture are to be found in the ideas that the people of the culture take for granted, as to the meaning and purpose of human life. (Dix 1967,7)

 

Every culture is ultimately based upon a belief system, which tells the members of that culture who and what they are, and what the world is all about. This is the central role of a culture. Humans are made in such a way that they need a culture to complete them. We have an innate need of a culture, and we cannot live without one, or without creating one. A culture provides the necessary matrix for each individual’s development. (Midgley 1978,286) A person’s culture is literally that person’s second nature.

 

As humans need a culture to complete them, successful attacks on the Aboriginal Culture will reduce them as human beings. The state of nature adverted to by Hobbs, where the life of man is solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short, is the life of humans without a viable culture.

 

In the 1950’s, when Aborigines were healthy and enjoyed long lives, every cattle station supported an Aboriginal camp where Aborigines were able to maintain their culture. They were able to conduct the ceremonies that were vital to the transmission of their cultural beliefs. The status of Aboriginal elders is based solely on the extent of their knowledge of the foundational stories of their Dreaming. That status enabled them to maintain social discipline. At the same time the camp provided a source of labour for the cattle station.

 

The two main disasters that overtook Aborigines in the 1960’s were the decision to apply Award standards to Aboriginal workers on stations, and the decision to remove the prohibition on Aborigines drinking. The Award ensured that the homogenous camps would be disbanded, with the Aborigines gravitating to towns or settlements and going on welfare - ‘sit-down money’. The second disaster, access to Alcohol, ensured their total demoralization. The elders no longer had the capacity to maintain the culture.

 

The inability of Aborigines to handle alcohol is similar to the inability of Europeans to handle heroin. This inability had been recognised everywhere there was contact between the two cultures, and prior to the 1960’s, prohibition had been the universal consequence. Aboriginal culture had never had to contend with drugs, intoxicants or narcotics, other than pituri, a mild and rare narcotic that was reserved for initiated men.

 

Europeans had been culturally and physically exposed to alcohol for thousands of years, and yet they still produce alcoholics who cannot tolerate alcohol. However in the 1960’s we were busy abandoning many of our own cultural restraints. So why should we continue to impose restraints on others, which earlier generations - who were clearly not as enlightened as the 1960’s generation - had found necessary?

 

The obvious consequences of cultural breakdown include increased crime, increased suicide and increased substance abuse. We cannot understand these symptoms without first having an understanding of the nature and role of culture in a society.

 

There was truth in the understanding of primitive Aborigines as a proud, innocent and noble race. In my experience, initiated Aborigines, particularly the elders were self-confident and proud. The pride of the initiated Aborigine came from knowing who they were, what they were, and what their role in the world was. They were convinced of the truth of their own cultural beliefs.

 

The cultural deterioration in Aboriginal society is far worse than in the broader society. There are a number of reasons for this. Aboriginal culture was transmitted through the process of initiation. The foundational myths were a male preserve. Only males were initiated. A non-initiated person was a non-person, with no rights.

 

Early contacts with Aborigines in remote areas were mainly made by European males. Aborigines were willing to ‘lend’ their females for a consideration. The result was a growing number of half-castes. While some early half-castes were initiated and so incorporated into the tribal system, it was soon realised by the elders that male half-castes presented the tribe with a problem. They were not the product of both their Aboriginal parents, so they could not be initiated or be fitted into the strict marriage system.

 

In the Aboriginal system, who a person could marry was strictly determined by the moiety or ‘skin’ of both parents. Once it was realized that half-casts were not the offspring of both Aboriginal parents, they presented a problem. They were despised, and likely to be killed. As a tribal elder expressed the position to me in 1951, ‘White fellow all-right, black fellow all-right, yellow fellow rubbish’.

Aborigines always referred to themselves as black fellows. A retired Aboriginal Welfare Officer, Les Penhall, with whom I had been on patrol in 1953, was recently told by an old black fellow in Darwin ‘There used to be black fellows, and there used to be white fellows, now there are black fellows and white fellows and there’s  all these bloody Aborigines!’

 

Burnam Burnam, philosopher, writer and actor, was a lot more Aboriginal than many who claim to speak on behalf of Aborigines. He suggested that the authorities should listen only to full bloods on Aboriginal matters, rather than those who claim to be Aboriginal but who have, as he put it, ‘a severe pigmentation problem’.

 

Burnam Burnam’s view was that the attitude of the chromatically challenged to the real Aborigines, was that the real Aborigines exist to perform for the tourists, while the half casts were made to look after the money side of things.

 

Prior to the disastrous decision to make alcohol freely available to Aborigines, part-Aborigines had a motive to distinguish themselves from Aborigines. If they maintained normal community standards they could seek exemption from the prohibition on alcohol, but this exemption could be withdrawn if they abused alcohol. This system worked to the advantage of many individuals, and of their families. This incentive was removed when it became financially advantageous to be deemed Aboriginal, and alcohol was made available to all.

 

Although there are only two cultures in Australia, the Aboriginal Culture and the Australian Culture, there is also a sub-culture comprised of many part-Aborigines. With some exceptions, part-Aborigines could not become part of the Aboriginal Culture, as they did not have a ‘skin’. They also tended to live on the fringes of Australian Culture, abandoned by their sires. Unless they were able to become part of the Australian Culture, through the actions of Missions or similar bodies, they tended to revert to the state of nature adverted to by Hobbs. The only useful response to this sub-culture is a program of overt enculturation in the only culture available to them, the Australian Culture.

 

Everyone who has had contact with real Aborigines, particularly in those areas of Australia where there was no contact with other races prior to the arrival of Europeans, has described the Aborigines as childlike. Objective support for this anecdotal view has been provided by a series of tests, based on the work of Piaget, carried out in Hermannsburg, a remote Central Australian Aboriginal Mission, in the 1960’s. Piaget is an educational psychologist who describes three distinct periods of mental development through which children pass. The first stage lasts until about age 2, the second to age 11 and then there begins the development of the final stage, where children begin to reason realistically about the future and to be able to deal with abstractions. The capacity to deal with abstract matters is the mark of mental maturity.

 

A paper by M.M. de Lemos, who carried out the Hermannsburg tests, is republished in The Psychology of Aboriginal Australians (1973) Kearney & Os. In the group of 80 children tested by de Lemos in the 1960’s, half the children were Aborigines and the other half were seven-eights Aboriginal. The environment of both groups was identical. The part-Aboriginal children had white great-grandfathers. These children, with a trace of European ancestry, showed markedly better performances in the tests. The general standard of the full-blood Aborigines implied ‘an inability to form logical concepts or to apply logical operations to the organization and systematisation of concrete data . . . affecting the level of logical thinking in all areas.’ Later studies appear to have avoided distinguishing between full blood and part Aboriginal subjects.

 

The occurrence of children in a tribal situation with white great-grandparents is rare. In the case of the Hermannsburg children it appears that the first children born after the initial contact with whites were not recognised as being other than the children of the Aboriginal parents, so they were initiated and incorporated in the tribe. The remoteness of European ancestry in the Hermannsburg test group shows that it took some time for Aborigines to realise that those, who they would later categorise as yellow fellows, did not have an Aboriginal ‘skin’ and so could not fit into the marriage structure of the tribe.

 

A Masters Thesis by Margaret S. Bain, published as The Aboriginal-White Encounter (1992) concludes that Aborigines are only capable of first-degree abstractions. These are abstractions that retain a direct link with empirical reality. Westerners regularly recognize and utilise second-degree abstractions, abstract concepts that have no direct link to concrete reality. Westerners understand the world differently from Aborigines. Bain also finds that while social processes in western society are both interactional and transactional, utilising both first degree and second-degree abstractions, Aboriginal social transactions are purely interactional, utilising only first-degree abstractions. They are one-way actions, prescribed by law.

 

This analysis came too late to prevent a number of tragedies in the black-white encounter. When whites gave food or other gifts to Aborigines in early encounters, the Aborigines interpreted this as the performance of a duty. Their law prescribed all their giving. They had no concept of a charitable action. When the gift was not repeated this was interpreted as a failure to obey a law. The white man was liable to be punished by spearing. A number of people speared during early contacts were known to be well disposed and generous to Aborigines.

 

In The Psychology of Aboriginal Australians, we find that Mathew had concluded in 1910 that Aborigines ‘were unreflective and averse to both abstract reasoning and sustained mental effort’. In 1872 Wake had suggested that to speak ‘of intellectual phenomena in relation to the Australian Aborigines is somewhat of a misnomer’.

The explanations of these phenomena put forward at the time were all evolutionist, the assumption being that social development could be understood on the biological model.

I would argue that Aboriginal mental development is better understood as a function of human cultural self-creation.

The Aborigines had a culture that provided a complete explanation of the world. Knowledge was passed on, but there was no motive to increase the sum of knowledge.


Aboriginal Australians became locked into a non-progressive culture, which limited their possibilities of mental and cultural self-development. The fact that a small admixture of European genes has a significant effect on mental development seems to indicate a Lamarckian form of mental development in other people and their progeny. Evidence of the ‘Flynn Effect’, which shows a generational increase in IQ in problem-solving societies, supports this view.

 

The differences between real Aborigines and part-Aborigines have to be taken seriously if Aboriginal policy is to be effective. Most Aboriginal policy is premised on the assumption that there is no difference between Aborigines and part-Aborigines, or between Aborigines and Europeans. This is clearly not the case. Aborigines think, understand and act differently.

 

Aborigines find any contact with the white man’s law confusing. In their culture, punishment is immediate, physical and mandatory. There is no room for a plea in mitigation. The rituals of our law are largely meaningless charades to them. The approach of our law to offenders is constantly changing. Law enforcement in 2000 is different from what it was in 1950. It is even more different from what it was in the 1890’s. It is vastly different from what it was in 1788. Is it reasonable to apply the latest fashion of such variable standards to people whose idea of law was set in stone thousands of years ago? It makes great business for the Aboriginal Industry, but it does nothing for the Aborigines.

 

The present day situation of real Aborigines is worse than it ever was previously. Most of the damage that has been inflicted on Aborigines was done with the best of motives, but in ignorance of the reality. The activities of good-hearted but ignorant do-gooders have hastened the passing of the Aborigines more rapidly in the last half Century than ever before. The cynical Aboriginal Industry is still hard at work. It is time for a rethink.

 

The primary cause of the disastrously mistaken policies that are applied to Aborigines is the failure to recognize how different they are, with the consequent projection of Western attitudes and concepts onto them. The Aboriginal mind-set is fundamentally different from ours. Western man is oriented towards the future. Aboriginal man is oriented to the present and the past.

 

As we have seen, Aborigines think, understand and act differently from other Australians. In scientific studies de Lemos found an absence of the ability to form logical concepts, which affected the level of logical thinking in all areas. Margaret S. Bain concluded that Aborigines are only capable of first-degree abstractions, abstractions that retain a direct link with empirical reality. Bain also found that Aborigines only ever utilize first-degree abstractions, those that have a direct link to concrete reality, even in their social transactions. These studies confirmed earlier, less rigorous observations, which had concluded that Aborigines were unreflective and averse to abstract reasoning.

 

Western thought is essentially abstract. There is a premium on clarity of thought, and on the making of distinctions, which comprise the essence of clear thought. However clear thinking can be impeded by faulty basic assumptions, lack of knowledge or by the `thought control` of political correctness. All of these factors are affecting and have affected Aboriginal policy. Aborigines have suffered and still suffer from mistaken policies.

 

The most basic distinction is the one that should be made between Aborigines and part-Aborigines. This distinction is based on the distinctiveness of Aboriginal thought patterns, which does not apply to part-Aborigines.  Real Aborigines are in need of specifically tailored policies, which take account of their cultural base. Their cultural base is essentially Paleolithic in both material and mental terms.

 

That is not to say that there should not be appropriate policies for disadvantaged part-Aborigines, but because the circumstances of Aborigines and part-Aborigines are quite different, the policies should be different. There is no reason for any difference between the policies that should be applied to disadvantaged part-Aborigines and those applied to any other disadvantaged Australians. There are compelling reasons for quite different policies to be applied to real Aborigines. Such policies must take into account the real differences between Aborigines and other Australians.