issue 186 - August 1988
Wayne Ellwood looks at what we can
learn from the global battle of indigenous
peoples for self-determination.
Alice Springs feels like Disneyland - a little bit of make-believe plunked down in the middle of the Australian outback. The streets are wide and clean. T-shirt clad tourists saunter through spanking-new shopping malls buying postcards and sipping cool drinks.
In the distance the rust-red, razor-backed hills of the MacDonnell Ranges flank the town like a natural stockade. This is the stuff of the white Australian dream - an unending expanse of rugged land, rich with natural resources, a treasure trove to be exploited by those with the vision and the guts.
But white Australia's dream has become black Australia's nightmare. In fact, Alice Springs, a tidy, prosperous tourist town of 25,000 is a microcosm of the industrial world's treatment of indigenous people.
The German, Japanese and American visitors sleep in crisp, clean sheets and drink cold Australian riesling. But that's not why they travel thousands of kilometres to the centre of this vast continent. No, the real attraction is the land - and the Aboriginal people who live here. Visitors can take coach tours to local landmarks which are also Aboriginal sacred sites; they can see ochre-daubed ceremonial dancers or pick up an Aboriginal dot painting in one of the shops selling local handicrafts. This is a town that thrives by marketing Aborigines and their traditional homeland.
But there is also another Alice Springs, one that is not featured in the glossy tourist brochures. You won't find many visitors wandering through the squalor of 'Little Sisters', 'Old Timers' or the other dozen or so 'town camps' discretely tucked away only a few kilometres from the four-star hotels. And you won't see coach loads of camera-toting tourists queuing up to visit the major Aboriginal organizations based in Alice. There are no hiking tours along the dried-up Todd River where knots of Aboriginal people collect under ancient gum trees to drink cheap wine. ('Bottle shops' peddle take-away booze on nearly every corner in Alice - at last count there were 70 outlets, one of the highest number per capita in the country).
Aboriginal people are the economic backbone of Alice Springs. Yet many townspeople would prefer if the Aboriginals were invisible. 'It's ironic,' says Dr Peter Tate, a white Australian working with the Central Australian Aboriginal Congress, an Aboriginal-run health organization. 'Many locals actually feel blacks just clutter up the streets.' When black drinkers were judged 'an eyesore' interfering with the tourist trade, the town council prohibited outdoor drinking within two miles of the town centre. Out of sight, out of mind - that same approach characterizes relations between white 'civilization' and aboriginal nations almost everywhere.
Alcohol abuse is endemic among Aboriginal people. But alcoholism is just a symptom. You don't have to be a psychologist to see that 'grog', as it's called, is a direct response to racism and the devaluation of Aboriginal culture.
Paul Conklin / CAMERA PRESS
Australian blacks have been treated as stone-age relics from a bygone age, a people eclipsed by the modern world. But 1988 has marked a turning point. In January, as white Australia celebrated the 200th anniversary of the First Fleet's landing at Botany Bay, Aboriginal people staged an extraordinary march which culminated in Sydney with a rally of over 50,000 Blacks and their supporters - the biggest gathering of Aboriginal people in history. 'Nothing to celebrate in 1988' was the theme and 'land rights now' the demand. The mood of optimism and strength was palpable. Said Central Lands Council chairman Pat Dodson, 'We have survived and we are here to stay.'
Like indigenous people in the Americas and elsewhere Aborigines were forced - often violently - from their land. Fences cut through tribal territories: cattle and sheep cropped the grasses, dispersing game and disrupting nomadic hunting patterns. Hundreds of Aboriginal people were manacled, beaten and shot for resisting the European invasion. Thousands more were rounded up and settled on church-run missions. Aboriginal languages were prohibited in mission schools; traditional dances, songs and ceremonies were discouraged.
'We wish to make you happy,' said Governor Gawler in Adelaide in 1835. 'But you cannot be happy unless you love God . . . love white men . . . learn to speak English.'¹
These racist stereotypes still infect and distort the relationship between native people and dominant societies the world over. Aboriginal clergyman Jack Braeside remembers growing up in Western Australia in the 1930s. 'We were taken from our families and mixed up in different schools so no-one had the same language. All the boys were given the same birthday, July 1 - that's my birthday. It was 30 years before I saw my family again.'
Heartbreaking, tragic stories of dislocation and oppression are common to all indigenous peoples. Aboriginal nations were seen as dead or dying, their artifacts suitable for museums and their people for the ash heaps of history. Families were torn apart and communities uprooted to make it easier for white bureaucrats to minister to their native charges. 'School was like the military', remembers Ellen In The Woods, a Sioux grandmother from South Dakota. 'They'd march us there and march us back. We were punished if we tried to talk Indian.'
What was an ancient tribal homeland for native people was simply another new frontier to be conquered by European explorers, traders and settlers. Lands where indigenous peoples lived for millennia were suddenly 'discovered'. In Canada, the US, Australia and Aotearoa (NZ) tribal lands were seized and settled by the newcomers - sometimes 'legally' under treaty agreements, sometimes not. In either case the end result was the same. 'When the Pakeha (whites) came to our shores they had the Bible and we had the land,' one 19th century Maori wrote. 'With the signing of the Treaty we now have the Bible, the Pakeha have the land.' Native people were cast adrift, tiny islands in the midst of a dominant, all-engulfing white, European culture.2
In some cases indigenous nations were simply wiped out by a combination of disease and firepower. New diseases stalked hapless native people before they ever set eyes on European colonizers. Initially it was the natural wealth of indigenous lands - the gold and silver, fish and furs - that Europeans coveted. Later, when hordes of settlers arrived, the land itself was the target. Native people were advised to drop their age-old hunting culture and join white colonizers as sedentary farmers. In the process they were to be converted to Christianity and assimilated: red, black and brown tribal peoples were to become just like white people. As Duncan Campbell Scott, superintendent-general of Canadian Indian Affairs said in 1920: 'Our object is to continue until there is not a single Indian in Canada that has not been absorbed into the body politic and there is no Indian question and no Indian problem.'3
Despite the efforts of white bureaucrats like Scott, assimilation was a resounding failure. Native people in the Americas and elsewhere did not disappear. Instead they rejected the values of industrial capitalism and retreated into the cultural traditions which had sustained them for centuries. Nonetheless they did suffer terribly from centuries of racist stereotyping and imperial pillage.
From the brush and cardboard 'humpies' where Australian Aboriginals shelter to the one-room, leaky clapboard cabins in northern Manitoba, indigenous people today exist on the fringes of society in conditions scarcely imaginable to the average NI reader.
The dry statistics are uniformly dismal but they need to be faced head on (see Native peoples - the facts, p16/17). In both Third World and industrial nations alike tribal peoples have been pushed to the bottom of the social ladder. Unemployment rates are high, incomes low. Basic services like electricity and running water are scarce; imprisonment rates are among the highest in the world. They also suffer from endemic alcoholism and high suicide rates - especially among young people. Conditions in rich countries like Australia and the US are especially appalling - exactly like the Third World. Except, says Klaus De Jonge, a doctor who worked with the Pitjantjatjara people in South Australia, the Aboriginal people 'are surrounded by the material wealth of the modern pioneers.'4
Today tribal peoples are still seen as barriers to the spread of 'civilization' and 'progress'. Indigenous lands are under enormous pressure from an ever-expanding industrial economy which is probing every corner of the earth for new resources. Lands once considered worthless desert or inhospitable jungle (suitable only for 'reserves') are now resource frontiers. In the US alone an estimated 80 per cent of all uranium reserves and a third of all strippable coal reserves are on native land.5 So highly prized are these resources that Navajo land around Big Mountain, Arizona was declared a 'National Sacrifice Area' by the US government in 1974. No points for guessing who gets sacrificed.
Blair Seitz / CAMERA PRESS
In Third World countries, too, indigenous lands are under pressure. And the stakes are high - tribal peoples are intimidated, beaten and sometimes killed for opposing modern-day land grabs. In countries like Brazil and Malaysia governments want to open up new territory to mining and lumber companies. In Sarawak, Malaysia, the Orang Ulu have protested unchecked logging by blocking roads in to their territory. And in Madhya Pradesh, India, more than 60,000 tribal people are fighting a huge dam project that would flood their traditional homeland.
Increasingly, native territories are seen as vast empty spaces to absorb growing populations. In the Chittagong Hill Tracts in southeast Bangladesh more than 600,000 tribespeople are threatened by the resettlement of thousands of Muslim Bengalis - enforced by the Bangladesh army. If the influx continues the tribals will soon be a minority in their homeland.
In Latin America, the rights of Indian people are played off against the poverty of landless peasants. The continent's vast Amazonian heartland is under siege by impoverished settlers from the coast. Rather than support sweeping land reform, governments in Brazil, Bolivia and Paraguay send landless peasants and poor city-dwellers to the 'uninhabited' Amazon to make their fortunes.
Nearly a million Indians are scattered through nine countries in the Amazon Basin and all are threatened by industrial development. Latin American governments are for the most part sanguine: the 'national interest' is paramount. When the Confederation of Indian Nations of the Ecuadorian Amazon denounced violent invasions of their lands as part of a strategy to open the jungle to foreign palm oil plantations the official response was typical. 'The country can not afford the luxury of keeping millions of empty hectares in Amazonia,' Ecuador's Land Title Office Director said.6
The same assault on native cultures that took place in North America a century ago is happening today in the Amazon. Forced from their land, Indians are decimated by European diseases; their self image and self-respect are shattered. Ethnocide - the wholesale destruction of entire tribal groups - is an apt charge. 'The surest way to kill us' says Hayden Burgess of the World Council for Indigenous People, 'is to separate us from the Earth. we either perish in body or our minds and spirits will be altered so that we . . . build a foreign prison around our indigenous spirits, a prison which suffocates rather than nourishes.'
This primal identification with the earth is a central touchstone with all tribal peoples. Native spirituality is intimately linked to the landforms and the natural world. The land is a source of food, medicine and clothing. But it is also part of the human soul: the earth and its inhabitants are infused with the same spirit. This link ensures a dependency and a harmony between all life forms. 'The grass and the trees are our flesh, the animals are our flesh,' says Susie Tutcho, a Dene from Fort Franklin in the Canadian Northwest Territories.7 Many native people drift to the city after losing their land and their livelihood, but even in this white man's world the affinity for the natural world is deeply felt.
Photo: Peter Solness
It's not surprising then that control over land is at the heart of indigenous struggles everywhere. Whether it's the Philippine Cordillera, the Atlantic coast of Nicaragua, or the Australian 'outback', native people are claiming their rights with a new sense of urgency. They are refusing to assimilate into the dominant cultures which surround them and are proudly standing up for their native heritage.
There is a new militancy but there is also a growing recognition of the need to push for indigenous rights on many levels at once. Native organizations are becoming stronger and more sophisticated. The Inuit Circumpolar Conference now unites Inuit people in Canada, Alaska, Greenland and the USSR. And the World Council of Indigenous People has pulled together native peoples from around the world to pool information and share strategies.
In Aotearoa, Maoris near Auckland have taken their claim for land and compensation to the UN Human Rights Commission. In the Philippines, the Cordillera Peoples Alliance has brought together more than a million Igorot tribespeople to fight development over which they have no control. In British Columbia, the Gitksan-Wet'suwet'en Indians are engaged in a drawn-out legal battle to win their land claim, while the Haida Indians successfully blocked attempts to log Lyell Island - one of the last stands of virgin timber in the Pacific northwest.
There is still a huge amount of myth and ignorance to overcome if tribal peoples are to win control over their homelands - and the right to decide the pace and scope of development on those lands. But there are signs of hope, especially in the potential for alliances with non-native groups. Environmentalists, peace and disarmament groups, community activists and women's groups are all beginning to identify with age-old indigenous values.
By their actions and their strength native people are pointing to another way of being and a better future for us all. 'Look', they are saying, 'we are different and we have the right to be different.' In their demands they are showing us the need for equality; the need for local control over resources; the need for decentralization; the need to value and respect diversity; and the need to care for the land and steward natural resources.
They want the political space to exist as distinct societies based on renewable resources. Where they are the majority, indigenous people want self-determination and the right to govern themselves. But the very least they want is to be accepted as equals in society with the right to choose their own futures.
As Helen Liddle of the Central Australian Aboriginal Congress in Alice Springs emphasizes, the choices have been made by others for too long. 'The government has been making decisions for us for 200 years, and I bet we'll do a darn sight better job.'
1. Invasions: Tribal Peoples and the Struggle For Land. Survival International, 1985;
2 Waitangi Tribunal submission, Ngai Tahu Claim wai 27, evidence of Henare Rak,ihia Tau;
3. Home and Native Land: Aboriginal Rights and the Canadian Constitution, Michael Asch, 1984;
4. Nganampa Health Council Report, 1985/86:
5. Report from the Frontier: The State of the World's Indigenous People, Julian Burger, 1987;
6. Survival International News, no II, 1985;
7. Living Arctic. Hugh Brody, 1987.
Worth reading on. INDIGENOUS PEOPLES
There are libraries full of books on native peoples but a lot of them repeat the same old racist clichés and biased stereotypes. To get a good global overview I highly recommend two recent books, Report from the Frontier: the State of the World's Indigenous Peoples by Julian Burger (Zed Books and Cultural Survival, 1987) is a well-written work of wide scope and detailed research. You should also look at Indigenous Peoples: A Global Search for Justice, a report by the Independent Commission on International Humanitarian Issues (Zed Books, 1987). In a more academic vein you'LL find rivetting reading in Beyond Geography: The Western Spirit against the Wilderness by Frederick Turner (Rutgers University Press, 1983). In an exceptionally literate and compelling style Turner explores the psycho-spiritual dimensions of the European domination and exploitation of native cultures in the Americas. You can't go wrong picking up anything by anthropologist Hugh Brody. His latest Living Arctic: Hunters of the Canadian North (Faber and Faber and Douglas and McIntyre, 1987) is a sensitive exploration of the correspondence between native peoples and their environment. It bristles with insight and is written in Brody's usually elegant prose. There are several periodicals worth looking at for up-to-date information on current native struggles. Survival International News (write SI, 310 Edgeware Road, London, UK WC2 1DY for subscription details) is a must for informed research. As is the more scholarly but still campaigning Cultural Survival Quarterly (write CS, 11 Divinity Ave., Cambridge, MA 02138 USA for subscription information). Each Quarterly is organized around particular themes like militarism or traditional health systems and each is a goldmine of scarce information. You should also investigate the impressive Akwesasne Notes (Mohawk Nation via Rooseveltown, NY 13683 USA), the bible of North American Indian activists. They especially need your support now since their office was recently gutted by fire. Arson is suspected.
This special report appeared in the back from the brink - native peoples and the future issue of New Internationalist. You can buy this magazine or, to get stories like this one through your door every month, subscribe.