Archive for December, 2011

A Christmas Reflection

And so another year fades to an end
but then that fading light is overwhelmed
by radiance of memory once again
an uncommon birth in a common stable
the divine indwells the profane
light enters the darkness
a light that will never be quenched
a helpless child
whose fingers once shaped the universe
God exchanges infinity for humanity
and all our futures are turned around
in this divine exchange
hope for hopelessness
meaning for futility
reconciliation for alienation
and so we turn to face a new year
once again renewed and reassured
that God is with us and knows us
has shared our humanity.

24/12/2011 at 01:07 Leave a comment

Christians and Indigenous Politics

More ignorance from a beginner. My reading of the books I have commented on in recent posts is that a significant change in the debate has taken place in the last decade. It is significant that much of the change of opinion has come from anthropologists and others who once held a different view.

The thing that has surprised some on the Left is that the Welfare-Rights paradigm appears to have overseen a significant decline in quality of life for Aborigines in remote communities. The suggestions as to how to reverse this are varied, although there is a kind of consensus that the younger generation is the key, and education and the life they are taught is crucial.

Christians have been involved in Aboriginal affairs from the time of white settlement. They have had a varied report card, but increasingly there is recognition that their role has generally been positive and in some cases crucial to the preservation of Indigenous life and culture.

It is possible that those who live in the southern cities will hear little about all this. And those who have a heart for it will be working away at it somewhere else. Political persuasion was a crucial part of the establishment of Christian work in Northern Australia. No doubt there are Christian politicians with a heart for Indigenous brothers and sisters. But the public debate is wider than politicians.

Two recent books have pointed the way. In the last chapter of “One Land One Saviour”*, John Harris makes a strong plea for urgent action to help Aboriginal churches. In general, whether it is missionaries or Government Interveners, consulting and listening, he says, is the crucial starting point (p 234).

Murray Seiffert’s “Refuge on the Roper”**, also has a final chapter in which he begins to reflect on the issues connected with the Intervention (p139).

But my feeling is that more is needed in the public debate from the point of view of Christians (Indigenous and non-Indigenous) who know about these things.

*Peter Carroll & Steve Etherington (eds), One Land, One Saviour: Seeing Aboriginal lives transformed by Christ. CMS Australia 2008. ISBN 9780947316051

** Murray Seiffert, Refuge on the Roper : The Origins of Roper River Mission, Ngukurr. Acorn Press, 2008. ISBN: 0908284675.

23/12/2011 at 07:04 Leave a comment

Up from the Mission

I have to confess that Noel Pearson is one of my favourite writers. This collection of writings* brings together various speeches and articles from roughly the mid 990’s through to 2008.

The first part has some memories of his origins at Hope Vale and some of the characters who were part of that community. The paper, “Anthropology and Tradition”, from 1987 was already highlighting both the alienation many Aboriginal people felt from white society as well the “exploitation and parasitism” that continued within Aboriginal societies. This exploitation depended on myths which have been created and perpetuated by anthropologists and other white ‘experts’ (p23). Myths that have been internalised by Aborigines, especially with regard to alcohol and Aboriginal identity.

The second part, “Fighting Old Enemies”, contains lectures an papers to do with land rights, Native Title, Mabo, and include a strong paper related to the 2002 ‘Yorta Yorta’ High Court decision which in Pearson’s view “misinterpreted the definition of native title under the Native Title Act” (p100). Some valuable historical and legal reflections here.

The third part, “Challenging Old Friends”, contains a variety of papers related to the passive welfare debate. Pearson was one of the first to draw attention to the failure of the welfare system and its contribution to the terrible state of remote communities. These lectures and papers all date from 2000 and later and form a crucial deposit of intellectual and social debate on this vexed question.

The fourth part, “The Quest for a Radical Centre”, includes a paper discussing black rights in the US, Barack Obama and the situation in Australia. It also contains articles about Cape York and more on passive welfare. This from 2007 is typical, “In an article about the Aurukun rape case, academic Marcia Langton wrote, ‘It would be a fair bet that each of the adults who pleaded guilty to raping this child was receiving a government social security or Community Development Employment Program payment. It is difficult not to draw the conclusion that dysfunctional Aboriginal behaviour is financially supported by government funding.’ Langton identified the nub of the problem in remote communities: government funds dysfunctional behaviour and there is no connection between what a person or a community does and the income they receive. Money for nothing – passive welfare – is in the long term corrosive.” (p287). Other articles include the Intervention, and Jobs and Homes.

The last part, “Our Place in the Nation”, includes articles about people hood, identity and language. He also take issue with both sides of the political debate and again pleads for an economic development paradigm.

Not included in the collection is the2009 Quarterly Essay, “Radical Hope”**. Pearson’s thesis is that “Our hope is dependent upon education.” (p11). And education depends on good teachers. Not those with good personalities and inspiring pastoral relationships, but those who are effective instructors. This is a big part of Pearson’s thesis. He strongly promotes Direct Instruction, a teaching method that goes back to Ziggy Englelmann.
Controversial as you might expect, but stimulating and challenging and written by someone who has worked hard to try these idea out in his Cape York Institute. This is an essay worth reading – and not only by educators.

*Noel Pearson, Up From the Mission: Selected Writings. Black Inc 2009. ISBN 9781863954280
**Noel Pearson, Radical Hope: Education and Equality in Australia. Quarterly Essay Issue 35, 2009. ISBN 9781863954440

22/12/2011 at 04:31 1 comment

Ngukurr: a Special Remote Community

A long time ago I had the privilege of visiting Ngukurr a couple of times to do some Bible Studies with the translators who were working on the Kriol Bible. It is an historical place because of how it developed as a place of refuge and also because of its strategic location in relation to nearby Communities, such as Numbulwar, and the Communities on Groote Island.

A couple of recent books have added to the history of this fascinating place.

We are Aboriginal. Our 100 years: from Arnhem Land’s first mission to Ngukurr today. Published by St Matthew’s Church Ngukurr 2008. (ISBN 978 1 875126 26 2) and available from Acorn Press. This is a book by the people of Ngukurr. It is their story about their country, their people, their languages and their main modern language, Kriol. It tells their history of how the tribes came together at Ngukurr in the face of the systematic slaughter being carried out by white men. It traces the different eras in the mission times (1908 – 1940; 1940 -1968). Here is eye-witness, source document, history from the people who lived in these places and times. It also deals with the last 40 years and discusses land rights, education and the Kriol Bible. The book also contains a DVD.

It is not just a book that celebrates an anniversary. It can also be read over against the various writings that criticise the work of missions amongst Aboriginal people. This book is not a whitewash, but it does give the view of those who lived and experienced the mission (and the subsequent non-mission) eras from the inside.

By contrast is a report called Ngukurr at the Millennium: A Baseline Profile for Social Impact Planning in South-East Arnhem Land, by J. Taylor, J. Bern, and K.A. Senior, published in 2000 by CAEPR ANU as Research Monograph No. 18 (ISBN 0 7315 5102 8). Available here as a pdf. This is “a largely synchronic social statistical analysis” of the community of Ngukurr. It “comes after a generation of self management and land rights and immediately prior to the possibility of major introduced economic development based on mineral exploitation.” (p iv). It is meant as a baseline study against which later studies would be able to assess the impact of large scale mining on the community.

There are some valuable insights in the report. However it seems generally to correspond with reports of other remote communities and indicates a general level of dysfunction across most categories of social and life well-being. It thus reinforces and is consistent with the kind of discussions found in Sutton and Austin-Broos for example.

If this is too depressing, I am looking forward to reading Murray Seiffert’s book, Refuge on the Roper : The Origins of Roper River Mission, Ngukurr. Acorn Press, 2008 (ISBN: 0908284675).

He has also just published Gumbuli Of Ngukurr: Aboriginal elder in Arnhem Land, Acorn Press, 2011 (098713292X). While tracing the story of this remarkable leader, the blurbs indicate that the book also takes up the recent issues of health, education, welfare and so on. Looks like a must read.

18/12/2011 at 09:33 Leave a comment

A Different Inequality

Diane Austin-Broos is Professor Emeritus in the Department of Anthropology at Sydney University. Her book, A Different Inequality* continues the discussion about remote Aboriginal life. The book is about cultural difference and inequality in the context of a debate that has often been ideological and inadequate.

She has two dialogue partners. One is her own group of anthropologists and the associated group she calls “humanistic social sciences’ , history and indigenous studies for example. This group she thinks has left a space in the debate due “to a failure in critical thought among anthropologists”. (p8) The other is the group of opinion writers “whose pronouncements were not always well informed.” (p8), and who have filled the space left empty by the first group.

The inequality that is described in the book “is that which began to unfold once Aboriginal Australians were encapsulated in a European-derived state and became increasingly positioned by a capitalist economy.” (p10) But the nature of that inequality and how it should be described is what is at issue.

The book has helpful chapters (‘background briefings’) on culture and ethnology, the postcolonial critique, the opposition to separate development (“remote communities had become sites of pathology and suffering” p23), and on the issues to do with land rights.

Austin-Broos argues for a new way of describing the tension between cultural difference and inequality. Has the traditional way of describing remote Aboriginal communities become a kind of abstraction, an ideal concept that does not accurately describe the reality? She sees that the remote communities debate was polarised quite early (p138). The pathology of suffering in remote communities brought some out on the side of government welfare and intervention (the ‘rights-pathology axis’). Others such as Noel Pearson maintained that the main actor in development is the individual not the government.

Austin-Broos seeks a way through these complex debates about cultural difference , marginalisation, poverty, and issues within the culture including violence and the circulation of goods through the kinship network (rather than accumulating them).

She sees political debate focussed on two issues: the maintenance of self-sufficient communities and hybrid economies; and human rights and their restoration in the light of the NT intervention. Austin-Broos thinks these politics are limited. She argues against separatism. She says, “…I propose to add a further dimension to a politics that does support land rights, human rights and appropriate development. I refer to widespread, forceful and persistent support for mainstream primary education on remote communities.” (p159)

Austin-Broos has a nuanced approach, consistent with Sutton and Pearson, with a strong emphasis on primary education as well as giving a voice to the people in remote communities. Clearly written for the choir (in the hope that they will sing together), it is accessible to those on the outside and provides a very helpful education for those trying to make sense of the debates.

*Diane Austin-Broos, A Different Inequality: The politics of debate about remote Aboriginal Australia. Allen & Unwin. 2011. ISBN 9781742370491

15/12/2011 at 03:28 Leave a comment

The Politics of Suffering

The Politics of Suffering

I have been catching up on my reading about Indigenous issues (starting again might be a better way to put it). I thought I should share some of it in the hope that those who know more might add their wisdom, since the church and Christians have a share in the history but may be unsure how best to contribute in the present confusing debate. Certainly I am unsure. I have lived as an adult through many of the defining moments in changes in relations between Indigenous people and the majority population. Although I voted in the 1967 referendum, many of the terrible events that have happened since then have passed me by (been ignored by me/were unknown to me).

In 2000 Peter Sutton gave a lecture in Perth that signalled a watershed in new and more realistic discussions about indigenous policy (although he credits Noel Pearson with getting the discussion going in the late 90s). It was such a momentous speech that it developed into a book*, now in its second edition.

Sutton is a linguist and anthropologist who has spent a lot of time in indigenous communities, particularly Aurukun, since the 1970s.

His book has aroused a lot of controversy, partly, he says, because of his “unqualified position that a number of the serious problems Indigenous people face in Australia today arise from a complex joining together of recent, that is post-conquest, historical factors of external impact, with a substantial number of ancient, pre-existent social and cultural factors that have continued, transformed or intact, into the lives of people living today. The main way these factors are continued is through child-rearing.” (p7)

The book represents a turning away from the simplistic idea that Indigenous disadvantage arose merely from external impacts, particularly the colonial invasion, and that it can be helped by the victims being given various kinds of support. What has brought about a change of mind is the overwhelming evidence that, in the period of massive welfare support, the key indicators of quality of life have consistently continued to decline.

Sutton gives a very helpful review of the recent history of policy debates and government action. He discusses community violence, culture, rage, the way old practices have been transformed by modern pressures, and grapples with issues of integration and separation. He puts forward many radical and controversial suggestions about a realistic way forward. He has a wonderful chapter called “Unusual Couples” in which he relates some of the impact of relationships between Indigenous and European partners, including Biraban and Lancelot Threlkeld. He has a balanced and sympathetic view of much mission work, and his comments complement and are consistent with John Harris’ One Blood.

He concludes with a chapter called “Feeling Reconciled”. Reconciliation is a relational category. It may require a retreat from legal racism, he says. Removing “race itself as a legal category of distinction in Australian Law and bureaucracy.” (p212) It will require new thinking about national oneness on the part of both Aborigines and Whitefellas. In passing he notes the very high percentage of Indigenous people marrying non-Indigenous.

It is an amazing and forthright book. Beginners like me would benefit greatly by reading it. In another blog I will comment on some other recent books in the field.

*Peter Sutton, The Politics of Suffering: Indigenous Australia and the end of the liberal consensus. Melbourne University Press. 2011. ISBN 9780522858716

06/12/2011 at 03:04 Leave a comment



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