[Jenny Green is a linguist who has worked for many years in Central Australia. She's currently studying sand talk.]
It seems that it is much easier to post something on a blog rather than write a coherent letter to any paper and make new points about ‘the situation’. In an agitated state of mind I have been agonising about what to say for the last week, and I have not yet completed my 500 words. Several thoughts and images do come to mind though. In the past week I have been out and about in what will probably count as affected areas – if not yet declared as such then maybe soon. I was of course interested to hear what Aboriginal people who I have known for a long time make of the situation, and where they are getting their information from.
A colleague and I were returning from a very pleasant day spent in a dry river bed eating bar-b-qued chops and recording songs and stories with a group of Aboriginal women. On the way back we filled the back of the troopie with the remains of a recently slaughtered bullock -– head, feet and a few parts of as yet un-named (to us linguists at least!) guts that we all enjoyed talking about on the way home. This was food for dogs, and part of the practice of a culture that does not usually discard the useful remnants of animals. As we arrived we heard the latest broadcast on ‘the national emergency’ blaring from a radio in a community house, including the list of persons on Howard’s task force. It was one of those juxtapositions of realities that often strikes you when you are out bush. Aboriginal people make the best of their lives, often in very difficult circumstances.
Last week the people I spoke to in the bush were confused and worried, thinking that their kids will be taken, or that parents will be locked up if children don’t go to school. They had not been consulted at all, and what they knew came from the radio and television. Others were concerned that the scrapping of the permit system will open the flood-gates to all sorts of unwanted visitors in communities. Even as a person with ‘language’ it is hard to explain the intricacies and nuances of power; to work out culturally appropriate metaphors to describe the interplay between Federal and Territory politics; and to outline the possible motives for and the consequences of Howard’s intervention. By this week perhaps there may be a more informed view?? Perhaps not, as it seems clear that the plan is haphazard at best.
I also thought back to the history of mobilizations in regard to Aboriginal health. One certainly was the use of volunteers from interstate (then labelled ‘southern do-gooders’) in the trachoma campaign of the mid 1970s. Not many of those whitefellas who up-rooted their lives from the southeastern seaboard and handed out the requisite antibiotics in Aboriginal communities remained here for long. With notable exceptions. One of the differences between that campaign and this is that trachoma was a specified problem with a specified and measurable solution. Poor eyesight. In that case it was not that hard to talk about, and nobody in their right mind was going to suggest that it was in some way linked to culture or kinship. I do remember old people being frightened at first when army hospitals were set up in their communities, but many Aboriginal people benefited from the program. See Jack Waterford’s piece at Eureka Street.
Going further back, some of those old people, and their parents, were subject to anthropological investigations of the 1930s. These involved procedures such as the taking of blood, and various other measures of bodily functions. Some of those old people believed, albeit with interpreting, that they were being tested to assess their status as human or ‘other’, and that the outcome was linked to the availability of work on cattle stations. Part of my point is that it is really important to place these recent developments in some sort of historical context, and also to be aware of how various measures, however well intentioned, are understood in the targeted communities. We have been given no indication of the measures that will be used to catalogue success in the current situation, and media images of Aboriginal children playing footie with troops or of old Aboriginal women wearing army camouflage jackets certainly don’t count.
There is a sense in town (Alice Springs) that there has been in fact a sort of exposure and a betrayal of trust, and that this changes the balance of how the Aboriginal and the non-Aboriginal communities view themselves and each other. This has the potential to polarize and paralyse people and does not lead to constructive solutions for problems. I feel very much for my Aboriginal friends who have children, especially daughters. Some would say that this action was necessary – a dose of shock therapy that is needed to affect any real change as governments have been more than negligent when it comes to real measures to improve the lives of Aboriginal people. Others argue that the ‘national emergency’ is really an ill-concealed and cynical plot to degrade human rights, and that the emotive issue of child-care may turn out to be a ruse for the erosion of some of the hard-won gains that Aboriginal people have made in the last decades.
I am neither a romantic nor an uncritical apologist for the recent decades of Aboriginal policy. I believe that it is crucial that we as an Australian community have the courage to continue to scrutinize the real consequences of social policies for the people most affected by them. But I don’t think that simple-minded solutions, outside intervention and coercive and punitive measures will work. Perhaps I am wrong – the results will be sustainable, and the goodwill of many people will be harnessed and be of some lasting community benefit. But I am concerned that after the hysteria of the ‘national emergency’ has died down little will have changed. This moment in history may be regarded as yet another sideshow. The third "army-time"?