The year 2000 has seen some important advances in the cause of justice for Aboriginal people in Australia. The walks for reconciliation in several major cities have provided a way in which many thousands of Australians have been able to express their opinions. The imagery of the opening of the Olympic Games gave Aboriginal people an appropriate place as the ‘elders’ of this ancient land. The participation of Aboriginal athletes in the Olympic games, especially Kathy Freeman, gave both non-Aboriginal and Aboriginal Australians a new pride in the Aboriginal people. But the issues raised by the health, life expectancy, the numbers of incarcerations, and so on, will not easily be resolved. A major contribution to understanding the issues has been made by Richard Trudgen in his new book Why Warriors Lie Down and Lie (Aboriginal Resources and Development Services, Darwin, 2000).
History from a Yolngu Perspective
According to the traditions of the Yolngu people, life started in Arnhem land at the dawn of creation, when the Great Creator Spirit, Wangarr, sent women as creators to an island east of Arnhem Land. These women created the features of the land and the people themselves. They gave the people language and the way to live. This way of living, called Madayin, provided the basis for laws about property, resources, crime, economic, political, moral and religious life. It involved boundaries for clans, conservation and production of plants and goods and trading highways. It taught the people discipline of mind, body and soul and respect for all life and the importance of the greater good of the community and cosmos over individual need and greed.
For centuries the Yolngu traded, not only with other Aboriginal groups, but with people from Macassar, and through them with the Chinese. Sea slugs and oysters were traded for implements made of metal such as knives and axes, fishing line and fish hooks, string and alcohol. Some Aboriginal people visited the lands of the Macassan traders.
The first contact with white people was probably with Portuguese and Dutch sailors in the 17th century. The Yolngu people recorded their visits in their song cycles and their art galleries located in rock shelters.
50 Years of War
According to Trudgen, the Yolngu people became aware of the conflict between Aboriginal people and white people in the south of the continent as trade dried up in the 19th century. They heard of the wars between the Aboriginal people and the white people (whom they called the Balanda). They had no knowledge, however, that Arnhem Land had been divided into eleven pastoral leases by 1885 by the South Australian state government.
In 1885, the first pastoralist tried to take up his lease in east Arnhem Land: J. A. Macartney. The Macassans had always respected the Yolngu people and their law. They never encroached on their land without permission. The fact that Macartney showed no respect for the sovereignty of the Yolngu, ignored the official trading highways, and aggressively fired at the Yolngu people trying to force them off their land, made the Yolngu very angry. According to their law, animals feeding on their land were rightfully theirs. They killed some cattle to feed their people, not knowing the white pastoralists thought they had a legal right to both the land and the animals.
Some pastoralists offered a group of Yolngu people some meat, which was soon discovered to have been poisoned. Battles developed in which many Yolngu and some white people died. In 1893, the white people left the area.
Nine years later, more white people arrived with larger numbers of cattle. One day, while the men were hunting, all the women and children of a village were rounded up by the white stockmen and shot dead. Then they hunted down the men of the village killing them with their rifles. Using horses for travel and superior weapons, and with the help of some Yolngu people whom they had captured, they hunted down the clans of Yolngu people, shooting men, women and children to the point where some clans became extinct. Remaining Yolngu planned many campaigns against these law-breakers and murderers, attacking the stockman and their cattle and horses. In 1908, the white men moved south.
In 1906, Trudgen tells of another blow to the Yolngu way of life. The Macassan traders failed to appear. The South Australian government had revoked the licences of the Macassan to trade the sea slugs. The Yolngu people were concerned that their source of axe heads, flint spears, fish hooks and fishing line had disappeared.
Other problems emerged, such as boat crews which molested the Yolngu women, lawless crocodile and buffalo shooters, and new diseases. In 1917, malaria spread through Arnhem Land.
In 1916, the first missionary arrived in the area, the Rev. James Watson. Trudgen says that the Yolngu found that he treated the people fairly as no other white person had ever done, and he traded fairly. They found it most difficult to understand how he could argue with other white people, who were armed, and would win. They wondered about his power and authority and wondered if it was because he knew about the Great Creator. Most of the Yolngu clans decided to work with the missionaries to try to defeat the other white people.
In 1927 or 1928, another group of white people arrived. They were welcomed into a village and allowed to sleep there. But in the morning, they turned upon their hosts, killing them in cold blood.
Other pressures came from Japanese hunting the sea slugs. Some Yolngu were employed by them, but then the Japanese would demand the wives and daughters of the Yolngu. The Yolngu decided to fight back and killed a group of Japanese. A policeman from Darwin came to arrest the Yolngu. He captured a wife of one of the Yolngu and handcuffed her to himself over night. The Yolngu retaliated and killed the policeman. The result was trials in which several Yolngu were sentenced to 20 years jail with hard labour and one to death.
The Yolngu were emotionally and physically exhausted after these years of war. Their trading patterns were broken and their homeland sovereignty shattered. Dependence on the mission stations grew as the Yolngu needed to trade in order to survive. However, it was not until the 1950s that serious attempts were made by white people to learn their language.
In the 1960s, the mining companies began to move into the area. The Yolngu had discovered the white men had their own law and courts. They thought their entitlement to their land which had stood for millennia in their own law might be recognised. They were shattered to find that the white courts did not and could not recognise their own system of law. It seemed that the new white people had brought in a lawless world, and the rule of the Madayin law, which, from their point of view, was given at the beginning of time, had ended.
The Failure of Programmes of
In the 1970s, new policies were announced such as those of ‘self-determination’. According to Trudgen, some Yolngu people were hopeful, but others were simply confused. The Yolngu did not understand how the white people’s world worked. They were suspicious of the motives of the government. They did not know what it meant to incorporate in order to take over control of the mission. They did not understand the white financial arrangements. They did not know why government finance came sometimes and not at others, and how it related (or did not relate) to work. Trudgen tells that some Yolngu thought money came from the Queen because it had the Queen’s head on it. Misunderstandings with banks led to the closure of banking services. Traditional patterns of trade and traditional clan ownership were not recognised. Industries and services collapsed and the Yolngu blamed themselves.
New services were organised for the Aboriginal people, including housing, power, water, sewerage and rubbish collection. Time after time, work done by Yolngu people was taken over by white contractors. Many Yolngu had taken jobs as tradespeople, book-keepers, fishermen, and so on, but gradually they were replaced. There were a number of reasons. In terms of housing, the government in Canberra was concerned at the slow rate of building houses, and so instructed that the Aboriginal councils had to agree to contractors or lose their funding. The Yolngu builders became so demoralised that they gave up.
White resource staff who came to work in the communities, often for short periods, had no knowledge of history, customs, language, and no commitment to the people. The new community councils were set up in a white style, using elections and processes that the traditional elders did not understand. The process generally meant that the these elders of the people were disenfranchised.
Through the processes of ‘self-determination’, the Yolngu people actual lost control of their situation. The result was that many Yolngu people have given up. Suicides are rapidly increasing, as are domestic violence, alcoholism, drug abuse and homicides. There is apathy and social disintegration. Many are dying young, and there is no pride in their way of life. The warriors are laying down and dying. They have lost confidence in their own cultural heritage. They hear the blame of officials who say they must learn English and join the real world, and take responsibility for themselves. But Trudgen argues that these patterns of blame only destroy the people’s self-confidence, ignoring the fact that structures put in place by white authorities are the major cause of the problems.
Failures in Communication
Trudgen argues that many of the problems arise out of failures in communication. In so many instances, the white people and the Aboriginal people do not understand each other. He suggests that there are two components in this failure of communication.
1. Language. For many Yolngu people, English is not a second language but a fourth or fifth. At the same time, very few government officials or other white people have become competent in Yolngu Matha, the language of these Aboriginal people. The structures of the language, some of the sounds and grammar are quite different. The Yolngu people are generally better linguistics than white people and most know several other Aboriginal languages, but find English particularly difficult. The problem is exacerbated by the fact that there are no dictionaries to help in the interpretation process, only a few short word-lists. So it is not possible to look up unfamiliar words.
Many Yolngu people can speak English in some areas of conversation, such as family, football and fishing. But they are not competent when it comes to technical areas to do with health, business, law, and so on. They may be familiar with words like ‘bacteria’, ‘mortgage’, or ‘percentage’ and even know when to use the words, but not understand what the words mean. They speak of ‘secret’ or ‘hidden’ English.
The Yolngu people have their own technical areas of language which contain the deposited wisdom of the people accrued over the millennia, the language of ‘Madayin’, but no white person has become competent in this area. The linguistic and philosophical analysis that is necessary to translate it has not yet been accomplished.
Language is not only the words spoken, but also the body language, eye contact and response patterns. The Yolngu will not start thinking about a response until the speaker has had their full say. They consider it rude to interrupt, and, on certain occasions, to speak directly. With the processes of interpretation, listening to one language, translating, framing a response in their own and translating it back, the time taken to respond can be lengthy. Trudgen says that white people quickly become uncomfortable and impatient with the silence, failing to give time for communication to take place.
2. World-view and the cultural knowledge base. Behind language lies world-views which have been established over long periods of time. Words and concepts are understood in terms these world-views. Trugden provides a range of examples. For example, a doctor tells a patient that he cannot ‘conclusively’ say what is causing the patient’s heart to be enlarged. Behind the word ‘conclusively’ are understandings about the nature of scientific knowledge and how that knowledge is obtained. The doctor is not saying that he does not have a good idea, but rather that be could not be certain, in a scientific sense, without those further elaborate tests, which he might only do if the situation warranted it.
The Yolngu patient has heard this word ‘conclusively’ over a period of time. He begins to think that when the doctor says ‘he cannot say conclusively what is happening’, the doctor is saying that the problem must be caused by ‘something else’, which is not a clear physical cause. This ‘something else’ means sorcery. While sorcery is illegal and is seen as despicable and cowardly within the Yolngu world-view, it is certainly something real. Thus the small element of uncertainty in the doctor is interpreted as a fuzziness about the situation which is good reason for suspecting foul play. Why, then, should the Yolngu patient take too seriously the doctor’s advice to give up sugar, salt and smoking? The patient has no idea how these might affect his enlarged heart anyway, for he has no idea how the kidneys work, or their relationship to the heart.
Trudgen gives another example of how he was walking on a rough vehicular track with a group of Yolngu people. He was told to stay behind the leader rather than walk beside on the other wheel track. He would do as he was told for a while, but after a time would move up to walk parallel with his fellow walkers. He suddenly discovered the reason for the instructions when a large snake crossed the track. The Yolngu knew about the snakes in the area, the possibility of disturbing them, and how best to protect themselves from the snakes. They had cultural knowledge that the white people had never acquired.
However, as Trudgen explains, many of the Yolngu have lost confidence in their own wisdom and have lost motivation to learn the white wisdom. They have been bombarded with information they have not been able to relate to their view of the world. They do not learn as well as white people in Western-types of settings. They see white people go on to become doctors, accountants and airline pilots while they remain unemployed. They begin to see themselves as inferior and unintelligent, and their motivation to learn plummets. Trudgen lays the blame on ineffective cross-cultural education patterns.
Trudgen says the Yolngu have experienced ‘culture shock’ combined with ‘future shock’ arising from the rate of change. The people have been traumatised. For years they have struggled against the dominant culture in order to retain their sense of identity and dignity. But they can no longer maintain the struggle and are giving up.
Dependency and Hopelessness
Further, the Yolngu people have become deeply depressed because of their dependence on white people. The well-meaning welfare programs have led to debilitating dependency for the people. The missions began the process as they encouraged the Yolngu people to give up being nomadic hunters and gatherers to learn new ways of living. Their trade in sea slugs was stopped in 1906 by government regulation. Further government regulation stopped the crocodile skin trade in 1972. The Yolngu people heard the instructions to give up their way of life as being instruction to give up being self-sufficient, to live on the missions, and be fed by the white people. Mission ‘rations’ became the basis of the new economic order. The government welfare was seen as an extension of this, provided by an all-powerful, very rich government, paid directly to the people.
Trudgen tells stories about how unemployment benefits have taken away the will to work from young people, leading to gambling and alcoholism. Malnutrition has increased. There has been a loss of roles, a loss of mastery. Without meaningful employment or traditional skills, many Yolngu believed they have nothing to offer and nothing to be proud of. Without a role to play, many turn to substance abuse. The volatile mix of alcohol, hopelessness and despair inevitably ends in violence, says Trudgen.
A Beacon of Hope
Trudgen maps out some processes which may give hope for the future.
Education must be done in appropriate ways.
– The information must come from a credible source – the owners of the knowledge.
– It must be delivered in an appropriate correct way – through respected political leaders among the Yolngu people, the elders. In doing this, it is inappropriate to teach the children first so that they will teach the elders, or to teach only some elders. It must be taught to whole cultural groups to be respected. Otherwise it may be seen as one group trying to exert power over others.
– It must build on culturally accepted knowledge and truths – or will be rejected out of hand, or not understood.
– The information must be able to survive intellectual debate rather than be presented in a simplistic way.
– The information must receive peer group affirmation.
2. Identify the primary causes of the problems.
The primary cause, says Trudgen, is ‘an almost total loss of control over their lives and living environment’ (p.218). This loss of control is related to a loss of optimism and self-esteem and heightened levels of anger and hostility. It is accompanied by increased chronic and acute stress in daily life arising from racism and a lack of control over decision-making and resources.
Ironically, he says, the policies of self-determination, self-management, self-reliance and self-sufficiency have failed to put control in the hands of people. Structures and programs have been developed to deal with specific problems, but so many of these have failed because they have been seen as outside answers, often culturally inappropriate, often dependent on external resources. Few of these programs have addressed primary causes. Trudgen cites the work of Prof Leonard Syme and others who have found the sense of control to be a major factor in community health levels in other studies overseas. (A discussion with Prof Leonard Syme on the relationship between community health and sense of control can be found in the ABC health report materials on the Internet: see www.abc.net.au/rn/talks/8.30/helthrpt/stories/s14314.htm. ) Other studies among indigenous people have found similar trends occurring as a result of ‘Western development’ (John Bodley, Victims of Progress, Cummings Publishing Company, Philippines, 1975).
Trudgen suggests five steps in helping the Yolngu to take control over their lives.
1. Take the people’s language seriously – with well-funded language research and media outlets in the people’s language, and by requiring dominant culture personnel who enter Arnhem Land to learn the language.
2. Require dominant culture personnel to have special training to deal with the cross-cultural setting in terms general orientation and background as well as language. While the Yolngu need dominant culture knowledge in order to survive, this must be transmitted in a Yolngu-friendly way.
3. Re-orient education programs, so that rather than serving dominant culture accreditation needs, they meet the real learning needs of the Yolngu, starting where the people are at, meeting the different cultural knowledge base content, and delivered in the language the group thinks and constructs knowledge in. Problem-solving or discovery methods of education are particularly appropriate.
4. Replace existing welfare programs with programs that empower people. So many current programs are part of the problem rather than part of the solution, failing to give people information, employment and assisting with the task of communication.
5. Deal with basic legal issues including security of tenure and rule of law. While most Yolngu are protective of present ‘land rights’, they dream of the time when these rights will be recognised in the form of their traditional tenure. Trudgen says that the Ylongu will show little interest in economic development until they know they have a true security of tenure.
Similarly, many are trying to live under two sets of legal systems which do not recognise or support each other: the Australian law and the Yolngu law. Sometimes the enforcement of Yolngu law has led to Yolngu people being jailed by the white courts. This tension needs to be resolved.
The issues developed in this book are profound and of widespread importance. They have implications for cross-cultural situations in which missionaries, business people, diplomats and even tourists find themselves. They also apply to cross-cultural issues which arise between different generations.
In situations where the gap between cultures is large, where one culture so overwhelms another, the results are horrific and the issues so stark.
Trudgen shows clearly how new knowledge is absorbed in terms of pre-existing cultural understandings. While the book does not explore what this means for the transmission of religious ideas, the principles apply.
This book is warmly recommended for its contribution, not only to the understanding of an Aboriginal culture and its significance for Aboriginal reconciliation, but also its elucidation of basic principles of cross-cultural communication.