This is an update to my earlier post on Aboriginal Australians.
After a really great hike through the Valley of the Winds in Kata Tjuṯa on the 20th, Lisa and I stopped into the national park’s Cultural Centre. It was really interesting reading stories from the Aṉunga Dreaming about the formation and significance of Uluṟu.* Other displays in the Cultural Centre focused on how they thrived in this harsh desert environment. It was clear that a lot of consultation with the Aṉunga went into the creation of the Centre, which was commendable.
But none of the displays answered the main question that I wanted answered. So I went up to the (white) ranger staffing the information desk.
“If one wanted to learn about contemporary Aboriginal life, what’s available?”
He looked at me skeptically, as if sizing me up. “Are you asking about the daily lives of Aborigines?”
“Yes. There are a lot of exhibits about the traditional ways of life and knowledge of the Aṉunga, but it doesn’t say anything about whether that represents their daily lives.”
“The Aṉunga have lives very much like our own. They live just down the road, here.” He pointed to an area labeled “Restricted. No Entry.” on the map. “It’s very hard for them to live a traditional lifestyle because most of their lands have been taken over by pastoralists.”
We talked briefly about some of the similarities between the situation of Aborigines and Native Americans. The ranger got a little circumspect.
“It’s obviously going to be exceedingly difficult for any people whose land has been . . . overrun by another group. The best that we can do is to aim for reconciliation and to try to improve the situation of Aboriginal people in Australia. We’ve got a long, long way to go.”
It’s now a few days later. We’ve been back to Alice Springs, which has one of the largest Aboriginal populations in the Territory. I’ve talked to gallery staff about Aboriginal artists and their works; we even bought some art. We’ve seen people from all walks of life on the Todd Mall and in the shopping centers: old people, young people, parents with children, single people, packs of youths, native-born, foreign-born, tourists . . . everybody. Some Aboriginal women stayed at our hotel, and there were a couple on our flight to Cairns this evening. Clearly, there are many Indigenous Australians who have lives like white Australians and recent immigrants.
But at the same time, there’s clearly an enormous racial divide between Aborigines and everyone else. Everybody can occupy the same space, but that seems to be where it ends. The native-born and immigrants work in shops and service and construction and everything else; we didn’t see a single Indigenous Australian working in any of the restaurants, hotels, or shops that we visited, even the ones that dealt in Aboriginal goods. With a few exceptions that I saw in the public spaces, Aborigines stick together, not interacting with other groups; and vice versa. (This, in no small measure, is partly due to language issues.) Basically, there is no mixing between whites and Aboriginal people, and non-white immigrants seem better integrated into mainstream society.
I’m not going to pass any kind of judgment on this, except to say that it feels very odd. In fact, it reminded us of a trip that we took to Philadelphia, about six or seven years ago. I’ve never really spent any time in the south — not that Philly is in the South — and I’ve only ever lived in overwhelmingly white regions of the country; so this was my first trip as an adult to a place with large neighborhoods with “majority minority” populations. I wasn’t uncomfortable, just perplexed at how awkward everything felt. Alice Springs had that same feel.
And once again, I find myself looking in from the outside. Do Aboriginal people want more interaction with other Australians? I don’t know. Once upon a time, it was official policy that all Aborigines should become fully “assimilated” Australians, essentially just the same as whites (if they weren’t completely killed off beforehand).
All Aborigines and part-Aborigines are expected eventually to attain the same manner of living as other Australians and to live as members of a single Australian community, enjoying the samerights and privileges, accepting the same responsibilities, observing the same customs and influenced by the same beliefs, hopes and loyalties as other Australians.
In practice this was very cruel to Aboriginal people. And it never really took into account the wishes or agency of the Indigenous population. Those wishes and the results of exercsing that self-determination today is what I’ve been hoping to discover. It’s also what I haven’t been able to learn yet.
* — I don’t think I had realized just how much you can miss talking to people from your own country when away on a long vacation. They are living in Sydney now after moving from Seattle and have an interesting perspective on Australia. We couldn’t quite ferret out their exact feelings, except they think Australia’s a bit “behind on a few things.”
** — The Aṉunga are the Aboriginal groups most connected to the monolith of Uluṟu and the neighboring rocks of Kata Tjuṯa, and they hold the title to the land, which they have leased back to the government.