Self Sustainability - Self Determination - Lost!?

First it must be said I am not Aboriginal nor speaking on behalf of Aboriginals. Having said that I have spent 6 years living in an Aboriginal community and have had the priviledge of looking on from the side, not being directly involved in the administration or politics of the community. The experience was not a happy one.

What appears to be happening in communities is a struggle by Indigenous people to come to terms with the responsibility to make decisions and run their own communities in spite of tremendous difficulties. They are confronted with the desire by governments and instrumentalities, even their own, asking that they work and make decisions without the experience, training, and knowledge required to do this effectively or appropriately. The constraints put on people does not take into consideration, their background, education or cultural values. In addition they are constrained by the inhibitors in these communities; inadequate or poor accomodation, poor health, lack of education or training, family violence, drugs, petrol sniffing and alcohol. In the community I know, land rights was no longer an issue nor to any great extent lost children. However the pressures were immense, particularly for many of the elders, whose authority with the younger men was weakened by substance abuse or modernity.

Leadership in the community was often bolstered by the women. It seemed they had a greater vision of future for their children as indeed this was a traditional responsibility. The women strongly supported the school, worked in it and got good pay. The women often made clear at public meetings that they saw the need for both the boys and the girls to attend school so they would learn the secrets necessary to be leaders in the community as partners, working together. Unfortunately the culture also left it up to the kids whether they came to school or not and the boys drifted away at the end of primary or beginning of secondary school leaving the girls to gain all the white man's wisdom. There were few role models of western- educated men. Often the un-western-educated husband demanded that the western-educated working wife hand over all her money. I guess the moral of the story was to get a good western-educated female to marry rather than get western-educated and get an income yourself. At worst the woman would be beaten if she had no money to hand over. As the culture strongly emphasised sharing with the wider family in the worst cases women I knew gave up jobs or didn't use their skills because they just got sick of working for nothing for themselves. Some tried to hide money by opening secret bank accounts. Others just worked for the good of their communities or the intrinsic value of the work and relationships that this brought and the pay didn't matter so much, although they gained stature from providing for their families.

Some of the men who were gifted in English speaking or had skills in community leadership did not always use them for the benefit of everyone. The community that I knew was broken into family groups. The obligation was to the family not the community. So having access to resources as a community leader often meant rewards for family members irregardless of the benefit for the community as a whole. The pressures on individuals in such positions was immense and required real strength of character to resist. I was aware of some exceptional Aboriginal leaders in neighbouring communities that had wilted under the pressure of family. One had a nervous breakdown, the other left the community. The lack of understanding and support from their own families was a real problem. In short the pressure to be "corrupt" in the western sense is immense.

So we have the stories of missing Toyotas, broken vehicles, damaged infrastructure and mis-spent funds being common. For many Aboriginals, only recently come from traditional nomadic living, if the community owns it it belongs to them. If so it is there to be accessed, taken and used. If it gets broken then we get another one. There is no conception of where the money comes from! Its all some kind of magic and the "whitefellas" are keeping the secret and not sharing properly. Or the community will decide to use all the money for something and then find nothing is left for other issues.

It is seen much easier to get a "whitefella" who has no cultural obligations to do the job. Even so the pressure is still applied until the person gives in or leaves. I have heard Aboriginal people remark that if this one doesn't do what they want (despite its wrongness) they will just get another one. Often the popular office managers are the corrupt ones. The damage they have done is immense. The one's who go by the book are often not popular and are frequently subjected to threat or violence. They leave. The apparent unconcern for the welfare of their employee does not enhance relations in the community office.

This says as much about lack of communication between cultures as anything. The analysis in the book, Why Warriors Lie Down and Die says this is the major sticking point in the development of self governing and sustaining communities. As communities develop their own understandings and real communication between cultures happens community members may also see the "whitefella" as the tool to get the right things to happen in the community and defend against the families or individuals wanting inappropriate spending. It will be some years before this dependency can be dispensed with. It takes an outsider with skills, cultural understanding and a willingness to work long and hard in extremely isolated circumstances for this to work well. It would be one of the hardest jobs going. One might ask how can you get the right sort of people for this job? It is unique.

My experience is that any non-indigenous worker seeking gratitude from the people shouldn't wait around too long. It is, if present, not overtly expressed in a way that European culture understands. Manners are not the same. Communities, however, need to start to recognise that there are necessary ways required to "look after" the resource of useful foreigners in their midst and ways to get the best out of them. Saying "thank you", a word not present in many Aboriginal languages, is a communication skill needed by community members. On the other side any outsider to Aboriginal culture will find it a long job to gain any real understanding. It happens with time, committment and patience. Aboriginal people wait to see if you are dinkum.

(Working for CDEP and looking for meaningful employment, coping with modernity, violence and substance abuse - extra section to be written and inserted here)

What does all this say so far. Certainly we cannot drop western understandings of community and work on Aboriginal people. They see things differently. The problems are certainly real and understood by the people but the answers are not easily forthcoming. Each community will need to sort out the issues in a way that answers concerns about families and culture. And it will take a long time. Government instrumentalities will need to be patient, become good listeners, be consultative, provide better training and support and do things in such a way as to minimise corruption and maximise self-sustainability. In my view, Aboriginal people need to realise that the funding will not be forever, they will need to make changes and take greater responsibility for everything in communities including beyond their own family groups.

Peter Russell
Draft 2 May 2002