ABORIGINES AND MODERN COLONIALISM
For 230 years, the Australian Government has maintained a regime of ostensible 'communication' with indigenous north Australians in a language that is foreign to them. This guarantees their marginalisation and powerlessness.
A discussion paper
by Tony Ryan
That most Indigenous Australians living in the Northern Territory, 90% of whom speak Aboriginal languages and very little English, have little or no idea what has been said to them by representatives of government, is the primary reason very few remedial or development programmes have been successful. Regardless of the nature of the government programme... health education or services, education, employment... all perform as cultural impositions, many of which damage cultural integrity and even family. Ergo, this is colonialism seamlessly continued, unhindered by Federalism or the more recent pseudo-rights movements.
As the council members of Goulburn Island put it to me some years ago, “We have received 60 delegations from government departments so far this year. We politely said yes to whatever it was they said but we still have no idea what they were talking about”.
This was and is a total communication gap... due to absence of a common language.
In the north of Australia, until around 1975, Aboriginal children routinely learned the language of their mother. By age 9 or 10 they began to learn the language of their father. In the ensuing years they became proficient in other local languages. As testament to endemic intelligence, by adulthood English was a fourth, fifth or even seventh language.
Up until the mid 1970s, it was not unusual to encounter older indigenous Australians who were also fluent in Japanese and Indonesian. Manifestly, Aboriginal linguistic ability is not the issue yet, in stark contrast, few Anglo-Keltic Australians are able to speak a second language. Moreover, few speak their own language with the proficiency that was common a century ago (ie compare today's average vocabulary with that used in the 1880s Pickwick Papers).
The logic is undeniable, that in these rural parts of northern Australia, where Aborigines outnumber other Australians forty to one, it is clearly the responsibility of government to defer to the majority means of communication.
As always, bureaucrats seek effort-minimising compromise, even when this is clearly counter-productive, and more especially so with the officially recognised compromise language pidgin.
From adults, and even in some schools, but mostly from out and about, children pick up pidgin, which is essentially Aboriginalised English combined with an average of one Aboriginal language derivative per 17 English-derived words (ref Dept Com Dev Bamyili/Burunga files, 1979).
Over the past three decades, hopelessly monolingual linguists have developed unlikely
careers by institutionalising pidgin into what they have dubbed “Kreole”... a shallow
Americanisation which is also a serious developmental error considering that pidgin:
Thus, “Kreole” actively erodes indigenous culture. As culture erodes, so too does the fabric
of social cohesion, spiritual activity, family identity, clarity of thought process, and personal
self-esteem. It also cuts the user off from Songlines, which are essential for cultural survival.
As if this onslaught on Aboriginal languages were not enough, the NT's Department of
Education bilingual programmes have further devastated natural intra-family language
development. While bilingual programmes may make some kind of sense in bilingual
communities... Bathurst and Melville Islands; Groote Eylandt; and Yuendumu (respectively:
Tiwi, Anandilyagwa, Warlbri languages, alongside semifluent English), it does not work in
multilingual communities; which describes all other NT communities.
Most NT Aboriginal communities support four to seven local
languages... plus quasi-English. If one indigenous language is chosen for use in school this is
to the detriment of all other local Aboriginal languages, and English. Worse, children
become confused about the role of language across moieties and of language choice
It needs to be firmly understood by governments that local Aboriginal language and culture
can best be learned at home and on family Homelands where context is regulated and
appropriate; but formal education for future employment and wider Australian interaction
must be in English. Currently, fluent English language proficiency is almost non-existent although it
was widespread in missionary times. Teachers please note.
These principles apply to all government communication with Aboriginal communities which
must at the very least engage the local lingua franca but, preferably, the listener's own first
It is at this point that public servants and politicians try to pontificate with world-weary
knowledgeability that with 83 languages and dialects in the NT relevant language use is
impossible and impractical.
However, the quoted figure of 83 is four decades old and pedantically included languages, each spoken by a single person; now long since extinct. Arbitrarily, there are some thirty to forty major languages commonly spoken in the NT and some 15 regional lingua franca.
There are hundreds of competent Territorians who speak at least one of these, plus reasonably sophisticated English. There is no valid logistical reason why NT consultation cannot be in local languages, especially if relay volunteers are used to translate from one local Aboriginal language to another. It happens informally, on a daily basis. Government communication with indigenous Territorians does not occur in their first languages simply because of white colonial attitudes and opposition from urban Aborigines who speak only English and who are devoid of Aboriginal culture. The latter group have fraudulently secured employment in liaison roles for which they are entirely incompetent. The harm they do is immense.
Australia needs to confront the ugly truth: Public servants, politicians, and anthropologists do not want to learn Aboriginal languages because they do not care enough about the future of Aboriginal people to make the effort, and because they do not want to diminish their power base by delegating to others. In the wider community, which includes many of these public servants, there is also lingering resentment over restrictions to enter Aboriginal land, which has alienated generations of keen anglers and campers now locked out of former favourite fishing holes. This latter is not the fault of Aborigines but of the power-abusing Northern Land Council; itself colonial and imperial in outlook.
Not only must government adopt less flagrantly racist practices, Aboriginal languages must be reinvigorated to enhance the social cohesion and personal motivation that is critical for ongoing development.
It may hasten reform in this regard if it is realised that certain European universities are contemplating a globally-based stripping of Australian anthropology degrees, because failure to demonstrate linguistic proficiency prior to investigative intervention in the said culture is a serious breach of ethics, they say.
So too is the fabrication of culture to expedite certain land claims (ie Kenbi). Both of these breaches invite litigation and, possibly, prison sentences for anthropologists, ethnologists, lawyers and commissioners who have so abused the power entrusted to them.
- Is useless for anything but casual or domestic communication;
- Is tightly regional in Aboriginal content;
- Inspires non-Aboriginal listeners to regard the speaker as functionally illiterate, if notactually stupid; and
- Entirely ignores the role of genuine Aboriginal language as the cradle and primary expression of culture.
Meanwhile, yet another racist imposition must also be urgently addressed:
Mode of government on communities
In the mid 1970s, erroneously believing this to be more democratic, newly formed NT Young Labor passed the recommendation to ALP branches that local councils be introduced on Aboriginal communities... which duly became urban-based ALP policy. The CLP followed suit and all MLAs supported the NT Administration establishment therein.
There is no record that Aborigines were ever consulted, other than those who had already adopted western leadership roles. And it should be noted that iconic NT 'Aboriginal leaders' were groomed for this role while young, being sent to a Charters Towers boarding school wherein they were inculcated into the culturally alien role of leadership.
Local council eventually became upgraded to Community Government Council in the 1980s and this has more recently morphed into the regional shire version of local government.
The overall impact has been progressively to shift decision-making from the traditional consensus-utilising clan/language groups, to the wider multi-clan community, and then to entire regions. Evidently the power concentration progression was quite deliberate and most certainly rendered communities more easily controlled by government policy makers. A less kindly description is absolute disenfranchisement of most community members through alien and imposed hierarchism, and the formalisation of corruption that is the benchmark of local government.
Not one of the undoubtedly well-meaning persons who supported the introduction and evolution of councils was aware that Indigenous Territorians already possessed an infinitely more democratic decision-making process which consisted of implementation of very formal consensus protocols which ensured that every man, woman and child had ample opportunity to become informed about relevant issues and to express their considered determinations thereof.
It is typical of the arrogance of academics, politicians, and bureaucrats that it was simply presumed that the white way was the right way... that whatever Aborigines did must be intrinsically inferior.
The racist implications were not lost on Indigenous Territorians but their endemic desire to avoid conflict prevented confrontation over this blatant reversal of the Self Determination Policy. Ironically, the unanticipated consequence of eroding culture is that the prime Aboriginal determinant of avoiding conflict is also eroded.
Today, a new breed of Indigenous is emerging. These are men and women who are educated and articulate, strong in culture but comprehending of the innate corruption of hierarchical power. And they now realise that nothing they say to wider Australia is being listened to.
It does not take much imagination to guess the nature of the only political direction available to them.
0417 427 470 Text only
Copyright © Tony Hayward-Ryan 2015