The Necessity of ‘Voice from the Heart’
“If you have come here to help me you are wasting your time, but if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.” ― Lilla Watson.
Jacinta Nampijinpa Price, the high-profile Alice Springs city councillor, makes an important point that far more Indigenous people die as a result of violence at home, than at the hands of law enforcement. The same could be said of child abuse, far more children suffer abuse at the hands of fathers, uncles, brothers, grandfathers etc than from custodians of institutions. That is quite true. But is it the right point?
Jacinta’s point, made on Sky News, was in response to the ‘Black lives Matter’ protests. She argued that protesters were being self-indulgent, that they should look to their own backyard and get this terrible family-based reality sorted before focussing outside. It is true that domestic violence in indigenous communities is at epidemic proportions, but is her point at all helpful in this context?
It seems impertinent to be arguing against a person who claims a proud Aboriginal/Celtic heritage. However, with respect, she seriously misses the point, or perhaps glosses over it, for the sake of supporting a conservative political ideology. The reality is that when people are oppressed, when dignity is gone, when identity is denied, when loss and degradation has been systematic; the complex web of societal and cultural safeguards, taken for granted since time immemorial, become broken. Is anyone going to seriously suggest that family brutality was endemic within the indigenous population prior to white settlement? Of course not, societal norms were grounded and respected in highly developed customary law. This is not to defend indefensibility, but it is to say that ordering people to ‘pull themselves together’, while they live without meaning, purpose, or dignity, separated from custom, is patronising and misplaced.
When George Floyd was dying, he cried “I cannot breathe”, for him this was literally true, but for his people it has been metaphorically true for generations. 24 months ago when I was in Hebron, the largest Arab city on the Palestinian West Bank, the Palestinians said to me “the occupation and settlements are choking us”.
More than a decade ago I visited Deepsloot refugee camp not far from Pretoria, South Africa. It was a place of absolute squaller and desolation. The behaviour of men towards women in the camp was appalling. Nothing can defend brutality and sexual exploitation; however, it is one thing to condemn this behaviour, but quite another to address economic, social, and cultural inequity and loss, which underlies hopelessness. Being suffocated by oppression with loss of societal norms is a global phenomenon.
Black deaths in custody may not be the most accurate numerical indicator of the level of suffering and abuse experienced by Australia’s indigenous community, but they speak to the power base that refuses to address, or is ineptly incapable of addressing, underlying and continuing dislocation and loss. This ineptness, or cultural bias, looks exaggerated when not one single case of death in custody has been successfully prosecuted.
It is true that many indigenous deaths in custody have resulted from suicide and therefore, in theory at least, the judicial system and its officers are absolved from responsibility. However, even with a little knowledge of indigenous culture, and one should fairly assume that judicial officers are trained, it is clear that locking an indigenous person alone is highly dangerous. Australian indigenous, like indigenous everywhere, understand their identity through community – self is nothing outside community – and community is of course inclusive of country.
This matter, as much as anything else, is the heart of the problem and why attempted assimilation through the ’stolen generation’ became such a disastrous scandal, no matter how misguided the intention. No doubt many future studies will examine cultural change initiated by COVID 19 isolation. It is already clear that Australians want higher investment in meaningful relationship building. Is it possible that Australia and Australian society will now draw back from the precipice of social disintegration wrought through an over emphasis on the individual, and the minimisation of societal common good, rooted in our economic system? If so, it may well be the case that an indirect consequence of the pandemic is that, finally, White Australia wakes to the truth that we have culturally more to learn from indigenous Australians, than they have to learn from us; and that this learning is what will ‘bridge the gap’ in a way that white devised targets in health, education, longevity etc never can.
It is for this reason that a “Voice” to parliament is absolutely crucial, not simply for the sake of indigenous people, but for the sake of us all. I realise that the shape of the “Voice “ is yet to be finalised, but let there be no doubt it needs to happen. Minister Ken Wyatt, take courage and bring a referendum to the people before the next election, it is needed for all our sakes.
“If you have come here to help me you are wasting your time, but if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.” ― Lilla Watson
(Lilla Watson is a Gangulu woman who grew up on the Dawson River, Central Queensland, her "Mother's country").