We used to call it ‘Culture Conflict’

Jun 15, 2023
The Sydney Opera House at night with bright projections on its surfaces during the Vivid Festival. In 2016 the inspiration was Aboriginal art. Image:iStock / Nicolas Jooris-Ancion

It is a sad fact that the White staff who take jobs in remote Aboriginal communities tend to socialise together after work, thus maintaining a clear social distance from the people they are working for, or working with, or working among. Close and trusting relationships between the locals and the strangers — teachers, health workers, and manager — do exist, but rarely. The knowledge and skills of such outsiders are needed in communities. But their knowledge and skills were acquired in quite different social circumstances, and carry cultural norms and everyday common sense that is at odds with the cultural norms and the common sense of the ‘remote’ locals.

Colonised circumstances require Indigenous residents to accept the rule of government departments in Darwin or Canberra that authorise funding for the houses, the shop, and the clinic that have become necessary to their newly installed sedentary life. A myriad of forces have nudged erstwhile hunter-gatherers to accept sedentarism.

Dr Les Hiatt, a pre-eminent classical anthropologist, was living with and learning from Yolngu in Arnhem Land in 1966 when he wrote:

aborigines often resent the moralistic and reformist demands which are being made of them . . . it is extremely unlikely that [they] will ever make a bid for power. . . . They may wish increasingly to be left alone, but until they are able and willing to throw off the shackles of government and mission charity, they must continue to pay the benefactors’ price. (my emphasis).

‘Charity’ is a peculiar term for mission and government enterprises in rural and remote Australia over the last century. The ‘moralistic and reformist demands’ made by recently arrived Whites (Balanda in the north, Kartiya in Central Australia, Gubbas in Bourke) challenge local, traditional authority and induce a quiet but pervasive resentment.

Our settler moralism is enfolded in our White common sense and everyday value system, while the necessity for houses, a shop, school and clinic have only been introduced to Arnhem Land Yolngu (Yapa in Central Australia, Blackfellas elsewhere), since the 1970s, with sometimes disturbing consequences. The prime significance of individual ownership above family need has yet to take a firm hold of the minds and feelings of many older Yolngu. Notions of private property and individual ownership are taught early to western children and become so normal that it is a visceral shock to see them breached by Aboriginal people who practice what anthropologists have callously and misleadingly named ‘demand sharing’ — the accepted obligation to respond positively to relatives’ requests and desires. Hiatt greatly admired the powerful ‘ethic of generosity’ which he observed among the Yolngu people among whom he lived. Since then the flood of material goods, foodstuffs, money and grog has tended to transform such generosity into ‘humbug’.

Ironically, when ‘self-determination’ replaced ‘assimilation’ as the primary theme of Indigenous policies in the 1970s, many more government agents were needed to manage the ‘development’ of Aboriginal communities. Distant government authorities’ control over small self-governing, egalitarian communities grew exponentially. The government appointed Whites who arrive to run things are not accountable to local people but to public servants in local, state or commonwealth governments. The local teacher’s job depends on protecting government property, trumping senior traditional owners’ status in their own country. A colleague observed:

So many Balanda [white] people who live in North-East Arnhem Land show interest and dedication to Yolngu people, but it is masked by condescending and patronizing attitudes. The school here was full of these people. They tried their best to understand but they kept keeping the keys to all the classrooms. They made friends but would complain to each other in private about all sorts of Yolngu ways of being.

The very notion of distant authorities who must be obeyed was not only strange but offensive to people who expect to accept responsibility for their own actions. Remote teacher Ralph Folds had to overrule senior men’s desire for the school vehicle that sat unused in his yard all weekend. Why, these traditional owners asked, do the policeman and the teacher hide behind unfamiliar laws and rules rather than take responsibility for their own actions? Rejection of the power of the new authorities has led some older Aboriginal people to withdraw and refuse to engage on the terms offered. They are often consulted about matters framed elsewhere but are seldom offered a chance to negotiate the outcomes. The offensiveness of this condition to egalitarian hunter-gatherers is clear in David Graeber’s observation:

… any anthropologist who has had direct experience of an even moderately egalitarian society can attest, these are not, generally speaking, societies where everyone behaves like we expect a worker or a peasant to behave, but ones where everyone acts like an aristocrat.

Hunter gatherers did not have bosses. Even the most senior men habitually negotiated with one another before collective decisions were made.

The anthropologist had none of responsibilities of government employees. By joining the locals as a student attempting to understand the prevailing social dynamics, the anthropologist could become acutely aware of cultural incongruities — different norms, beliefs and linguistic and bodily habits.

Traditional Aboriginal ‘ways of being’ include mundane manners and everyday habits that differ from those of mainstream society. Such differences can form serious barriers to trust and communication. If someone laughs when they are expected to apologise — or vice versa — there may be a visceral response that causes a rift because the other appears rude, or arrogant, or humourless. We assume our own manners are normal, even natural, and that it is Other people who display ‘cultural differences’. ‘They’ have culture and what ‘we’ have is normality. Our norms are our common sense, but can we recognise that Others’ norms are their common sense?

An acquaintance, thrilled by a visit to a remote Kimberly Aboriginal community museum, told me:

They had culture all over the walls, in every room. There were paintings, weaving, artefacts, and they showed us their traditional dancing. They shared their culture with travellers like us.

Such enthusiasm for Aboriginal art and artefacts — culture to White Australians — emerged gradually in recent decades. Aboriginal people have been observing White culture for very much longer, but not culture expressed on museum walls or on stages but in the behaviour of early settlers and the police who protected them. Through interactions with the everyday cultural norms of Whites they soon learned that the sheep and cows, the crops, and even the land itself, had become the private property of white settlers. Private property, and the authority of individual owners, were strange concepts for egalitarian Indigenous Australians who Hiatt spoke of as a ‘people without politics’, or anarchists, people who regularly assert ‘I am boss for myself’. Individual autonomy is sacrosanct among Yolngu; no one tells others what to do. Children are not instructed, but learn autonomously, through experience.

There is little recorded, public knowledge or interest in how Indigenous people initially interpreted white settlers’ habits and values, or how they came to terms with mainstream lifestyles. Avoidance and resistance were common responses to settler domination, but learning English, obeying a boss and accepting the colonisers’ law could alleviate settler violence, save the children, and enable survival. Enticing rewards could accompany ‘settling down’. While government policies of aggressive assimilation are now denounced, complex processes of adjustment and assimilation crept across the continent with a cruel inevitability, but remain partial. While such shifts may reduce local autonomy, they allow for wider political inclusion.

It is hard for all of ‘us’ in the mainstream to recognise our own everyday habits as specific and peculiar, rather than normal or natural, and especially hard for those Balanda who see themselves as bringing progressive advantages to remote, deprived peoples. Cultural interaction in specific places is complex and subtle. In remote Australia it is regularly tinged with racism, by which I mean the assumption that the authority of Balanda and their institutions is normal, necessary and never negotiable.

An Aboriginal friend of mine — this one from Bourke, NSW — said ‘What you call extended family we call family’, an apparently trivial observation but one with important implications. All the residents of a Yolngu outstation, and many in southern Aboriginal communities, relate to each other as family, but in distinct sets of relationships with a range of terms that the English language lacks. English terminology cannot specify the difference between the children of our sisters and the children of our brothers, whereas Yolngu consider these quite different kinds of relations. Similarly, in English, the siblings of our mothers and fathers are equivalent aunts and uncles but in Yolngu traditions they have different responsibilities. Categories of relations — known as skins — mark foundational principles of Yolngu relationships. The invisibility of these principles to English speakers can have sorry consequences.

“Valerie” a Rembarrnga girl of eight, asked me why her teacher had said X was not her brother. She was distressed and confused as she told me that the teacher had told her to sit next to X. When Valerie said she couldn’t because that was her brother, the teacher had laughed and said: ‘What? That’s not your brother’, and insisted she take the seat. Valerie was afraid to contest the teacher’s authority, but troubled that this stranger was contradicting her knowledge of her kin. It is likely that the teacher was ignorant of the brother-sister avoidance practice, and that X was Valerie’s ‘parallel’ cousins and thus her ‘brother’ among Yolngu. Many such passing but painful ‘culture clashes’ have effects that are not confined to children, but create mistrust, fear and a distancing discomfort. It is absurd for Balanda to try to change Yongu without really knowing who they are.

What we call ‘our European civilisation’ developed over centuries in changing circumstances. Its cultural foundations are as deeply embedded — and as malleable — as are Yolngu cultural practices. Traditionally, Indigenous knowledge and authority was grounded in locality. Traditional Owners had responsibility in their own country, not among others. Thus, when Balanda strangers from elsewhere turn up and wield powerful knowledge and authority, Yolngu ‘way of being’ is disturbed. The teacher keeps the school keys because they do not trust their Yolngu ‘teaching assistants’, to protect the school’s possessions from Aboriginal children who are accustomed to autonomous exploration and experiment among their friends. In my experience, small Yolngu children habitually fished and made fires to cook their catch without adult interference. In my house, one such child explored everything and always knew where I had left my glasses or phone.

Anthropologist Burbank commented on Yolngu views of Balanda institutions:

School and work simply do not engage many of them because of the emotional incompatibility of the cultural self with a Western arrangement of others; thus the sense of senselessness when many Aboriginal people engage in Western acts. Rather than not seeing the point of doing something, they often do see the point. For example, one works in the shop to earn money to buy food. Critically, though, they do not feel the point of the work.

Social interaction across unfamiliar social worlds is likely to discomfort both parties, but with humility and humour, such discomfort can be transcended as Folds showed. However, the ongoing imbalance of authority presents a serious stumbling block. Balanda association with Aboriginal people is mostly in terms of work, of a job, a paid position that entails certain responsibilities and lasts a finite number of years. CVs are greatly enhanced by ‘remote Indigenous experience’, but when Balanda staff are confronted or affronted by what they perceive as Yolngu ‘bad’ manners, or hostility, or resistance, it is easier for them to create social distance than to discuss their differences or explain their responsibilities. Fear of embarrassment, and mutual misunderstanding increases, entrenching social distance.

Alienating local Yolngu people does not endanger the jobs of government employed Balanda. Their jobs depend on following the rules and responsibilities determined in other places by authorities that remote Indigenous people have no access to. Kim Mahood expressed a stumbling block to her work on art projects in remote desert regions thus:

Once the kartiya attachment to identifiable results forces its own formal structures onto the process, it upsets the delicate calibrations, the continual adjustments necessary to keep [Aboriginal] people engaged.”

Since settler society began to regularly recite its recognition of ‘Traditional Owners’, those ‘owners’ have learned not to take such assertions literally. Rather, the Yolngu complaint of the 1970s has become common knowledge: ‘Your law changes all the time. Our law stays the same’. Consider how unpleasant it has always been for Indigenous communities to deal with powerful Balanda who arrive, often unannounced, with the authority and the power to impose formal and informal practices on locally established social norms, while judging those norms negatively from a foreign perspective. Can mainstream Australia silence hypocritical, arrogant and absurd objections, and humbly offer a measure of respect and self-determination to the varied Indigenous peoples of the continent by overwhelmingly affirming ‘The Voice’?

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