Echoes Of History
issue 186 - August 1988
Paul Conklin / CAMERA PRESS
Echoes of history
The Western view of native people is a cliched mixture of misinformation,
part fancy and part ignorance. Julian Burger explores this legacy of colonial
stereotypes and examines how they effect indigenous people today.
It is winter but still a baking hot day in Kununurra, Western Australia. There is not a breath of a breeze. The official from the Mining Council has been eloquent. He has talked about job creation, opportunities to learn new skills, the importance of mineral exports to the national economy and the flow of income into the region.
But the 200-300 Aborigines sprawled on blankets and seated in chairs under the shade trees are restless and unconvinced. An Aboriginal woman speaks angrily about the destruction of the sacred site 'Baramundi Dreaming'; an elder asks 'What will happen to the bush tucker (wild food) when the mining begins?'
Northern Land Council Chairman Galarrwuy Yunupingu stands to speak: 'The mining industry follows the smell of money,' he says. 'When the money goes so do the miners. Our way is not to pack up and move; we stay in one place, in the country of our bones.'
It is a meeting of two quite different cultures and it could be happening in many parts of the world: in Amazonia, along the rivers of the Yukon, in the deserts of Nevada, in the forests of India, along the Cordillera spine of the northern Philippines or wherever indigenous peoples live on lands coveted by outsiders.
The attitudes, prejudices and myths we hold about native peoples are still determined by the experience of colonisation. The belief that we know what is best for them is born of an arrogance which is deeply rooted in history.
Native inhabitants were too often regarded as a subhuman species suitable at best for subjugation and at worst for extermination. After long debates Spanish theologians in the 16th century concluded the Indians of the recently-conquered Americas had no soul and were not human. The Jesuit missionary, Jose de Acosta, wrote that Indians deserved no more consideration 'than would be shown a game bird caught in the forest.' It wasn't until 50 years after the invasion that the Pope - in one of the first pieces of anti-racist legislation - recognised that Indians were human enough to receive the Christian faith.
But the view that Indians were primitive and backward continued. During the 19th century this prejudice was given a pseudo-scientific respectability when anthropologists began to rank different races. Charles Darwin's theory of evolution was distorted to vindicate this bigotry. Implicit in this 'social Darwinism' was the idea that the native inhabitants would become extinct because they were inferior. The Reverend Bishop Hale speaking of Australia's Aborigines expressed a widely held belief when he observed: 'Everyone who knows a little about aboriginal races is aware that those races which are of a low type mentally and who are at the same time weak in constitution rapidly die out when their country comes to be occupied by a different race much more rigorous, robust and pushing than themselves.'
Genocidal policies, often sanctioned and sanctified by the highest State and Church powers, caused dramatic falls in native populations. The Brazilian anthropologist, Darcy Ribeiro, estimates the numbers in Latin America dropped from over 70 million in 1492 to around 3.5 million by the mid-I7th century. In Australia an Aboriginal population of 300,000 was reduced to about 60,000 in a little more than a century.
The prevailing view was that indigenous peoples were merely obstacles to the onward march of progress. Nonetheless there were other attitudes. There were plenty of settlers who thought that natives should not be murdered with impunity, but ought to be treated as children requiring guidance and demanding indulgence. George Worgan, an English doctor on the first fleet to New South Wales in 1788, described Aborigines with amused condescension as 'active, volatile, unoffending, happy, merry, funny, laughing and good-natured.'
That view, which circulated largely unchallenged until the 1950s and still finds its defenders, was used to justify government paternalism in dealings with indigenous peoples. In the US, Australia and Canada, Indian peoples were herded onto reservations, hundreds and even thousands of miles from their homelands. Indigenous clans and families were split. The children were taken from their parents and trained as domestics and servants. In time, the theory went, nature would take its course and the original peoples would disappear.
The racism that developed towards indigenous peoples during the colonial period was based on fear and ignorance. Fear because in the early years these new lands appeared strange and the invaders were deeply uneasy. And because, after sometimes an initial welcome, the native inhabitants began a fierce resistance against the white colonizers. Ignorance because the Europeans never understood that the peoples they conquered had highly-sophisticated, complex cultures. Where there were no cities or stone buildings, there could clearly be no culture worth preserving, let alone trying to understand. Even where the complexity was strikingly evident, as in Mexico and Peru, native people were still scorned.
From such prejudices other myths emerged. For example, that the land was unclaimed and unexploited. And that somewhere in the forests, hills and valleys of these ill-understood regions lay great stores of riches. In South America the myth was embellished by stories of lost cities whose buildings were lined with gold. El Dorado, like King Solomon's Mines in Africa, became a symbol of easy and limitless wealth waiting to be seized by whoever had the courage to brave the native spears and wild beasts.
The idea that indigenous peoples are obstacles to 'progress' is still strong. The governor of Roraima in the Brazilian Amazon summed up the view of many governments and planners: An area as rich as this with gold, diamonds and uranium cannot afford the luxury of preserving half a dozen Indian tribes which are holding up development.'
In Asia, too, governments have used similar phrases about the tribal groups living in regions ceded to them after independence or subsequently annexed. According to Indonesian Foreign Minister, Subandrio, his government's policy towards the West Papuan people is 'to get them down out of the trees, even if we have to pull them down.' Papuans have been beaten for using their own languages and are taught nothing about their own history in school.
In Central America, Guatemalan soldiers have been taught the Indian majority is subversive by nature. According to Amnesty International there have been massacres of entire Mayan communities, including children - the dangerous seeds of the Indian race as they are known by the armed forces. The government-sponsored violence in Guatemala is only an extreme example of the kind of colonial relationship dominant societies have towards indigenous peoples almost everywhere.
The echoes of history are strong. Today the lands of indigenous peoples are the new frontier full of the raw materials coveted by industrial society - timber, minerals, water and agricultural land. Governments, multinational companies, international financial institutions and investors are all racing to collect the prize.
This new colonisation recalls the old: colonial powers believed they had a civilizing mission. The same conviction exists today in the minds of political leaders, World Bank officials and executives of transnational corporations. Yet it is an ill-disguised bonanza with no thought for the long-term effects on the land, the environment or the people who live there.
When the representative of the Mining Council stands before an Aboriginal audience and claims to know what is best for them and for their land, he expresses, perhaps unwittingly, the accumulated bigotry of centuries of colonisation. He argues that his way will bring benefits. It never has because it has always been imposed. Only the elimination of the colonial relationship itself can lead to a partnership of the two cultures.
Julian Burger is the author of Report from the Frontier: The State of the World's Indigenous People, Zed Booka, 1987. He is currently Deputy Director of the Independent Commission on International Humanitarian issues. This article reflects the author's personal views and not those of the Commission.
THE ABORIGINAL INDUSTRY
Australia has a bewildering array of government organisations that are supposed to improve the lives of Aboriginal people. The fact is this Aboriginal industry does just the opposite. Bureaucratic meddling, political stonewalling and plain neglect have stymied gains for black people in employment, training, education and self-government.
Aboriginal unemployment is at least five times more than the general population, while their income is half that of the average Australian family. Yet, according to a 1985 report the Commonwealth Employment Service not only failed to refer Aboriginal people to job vacancies; it also failed to inform employers about various government incentives for hiring Aboriginal people.
Within Aboriginal communities, economic development has often suffered from short-term strategies that fail to develop skills or long-term employment. For example, government contracts are constantly awarded to non-Aboriginal companies because it is assumed that Aboriginal people lack the skills necessary to meet the needs of their own community. The government also boasts of providing essential services like sewers and electricity to communities. Unfortunately, the services are then maintained by outside companies - while the communities suffer from chronic unemployment.
Even modest attempts at economic development have been derailed by bureaucratic meddling. In 1973, a small community in the Murray River District in South Australia sought assistance for developing a trial project in Yabby Farming (a Yabby is a fresh water lobster). The government agencies involved transformed the small trial project into a grandiose scheme, spending $800,000 on fences, breeding ponds and buildings. Due to engineering errors, the project was cancelled in 1986. Yet reports in the local and state media gave the impression that the Aboriginal people were to blame for the failure.
In South Australia, there have been ten papers on Aboriginal employment and training needs in the past five years. Yet few of the recommendations have seen the light of day. In Queensland, Aborigines have been locked into training programmes for the past 20 years without receiving their certification. These people have provided services in their community while not receiving the recognition given non-Aboriginal people doing the same work.
Although government agencies claim they want to cultivate Aboriginal leadership, the leaders are expected to be conduits for government policy. For example, despite repeated requests that the board for Pika Wiya (an Aboriginal health organisation in South Australia) be elected, the minister refused to listen and instead appointed his own nominees. Real community control was not on the agenda.
Even the land rights of Aboriginals are subject to the whims of politicians and wealthy business interests. In 1986, the Western Australian state government abandoned its plans to implement land-rights legislation in the face of intense lobbying by the mining industry and opposition politicians. In another case, the Queensland government refused to recognize the Federal Department of Aboriginal Affairs. The result? For years federal funding for Aboriginal development in Queensland was simply unavailable.
The politics of Aboriginal rights is a sensitive issue during this Australian bicentennial year. But it seems clear that until Aboriginal people in Australia are given a greater measure of freedom to make their own political and economic decisions, the wrongs of the past - and the present - will not be rectified.
David Rathman is an Aboriginal educator based in Adelaide.
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