Friday, November 26, 2010

Day 9: Aboriginal Mind

November 23, 2010

We camp the night at the Yarla Kutjarra Campsite 94kms east of Warburton. It’s a free campground run by the local Aboriginal community and there’s friendly signage welcoming visitors to the site and telling us about their way of life and traditions.

Yarla Kutjarra Campsite

It is obvious by now that the interior of Australia belongs to its indigenous people. Even though the landscape is quintessentially Australian, we have a sense of being in a foreign land, where the ‘locals’ live lives very different to ours. The small towns we’ve passed through are home to anywhere from 50 to 500 Aboriginal people and the land surrounding has been deeded to indigenous communities through Native Title. Permits are required to travel through these lands, but no one so far has asked to see ours.

Occasionally we hear it said that the Aborigines are living ‘traditional lives’ in Central Australia. But it’s hard to see what that means. The towns are like shabby shanty towns with single family dwellings littered with rubbish and rusting old cars and dilapidated furniture. Every house seems to have a solar hot water heater, air conditioning and a satellite dish – their way of keeping in touch with the ‘outside world’, primarily through TV I should think. Aboriginal people are given welfare payments from the government and are not required to work or be looking for work. Most of them have little to do all day and it shows in their grimaced faces and frequent loitering. They’re dressed in western clothes, though not particularly fashionable. The young men look similar to the men I worked with in prison: dread locks and half shaved heads, earrings and tattoos, oversized baggy pants and t-shirts with cryptic advertising written in graffiti-style type. The young children seem the closest to our western ideals of the ‘traditional native’: scantily clad with chocolate skin, bare feet, unkempt hair and big honest smiles.

Our Melbournian acquaintances seem to have the most optimistic view of the Aborigines of anyone we’ve talked to so far. Others we’ve met living in the communities are more cautious. Peter at the Service Centre in Warburton warned us to keep watch over our vehicle at all times – “if they see something they want, they’ll find a way to pinch it.” Petrol (unleaded fuel) is not allowed in the communities because the young people are prone to sniffing it – so our jerry can of fuel is a prime target (it’s locked to the trailer but the lid isn’t lockable). The roadhouses sell “opal fuel”, developed by BP, which apparently doesn’t have the noxious fumes that give the sniffers highs. We fill our tank and the jerry can with it as a preventative measure against theft.

The man at the Giles Weather Station, the world’s most isolated, says he doesn’t have much to do with the Aborigines in town. The police have a hard time of it keeping order as they are not respected by the locals. Much of their time is spent intervening in family feuds. It’s a tough job and burn-out is common.

Diabetes is rampant amongst the Aborigines, along with its associated problems: loss of hearing and vision. A white woman who recently came to work in one of the roadhouses we stop at tells us she tries to regulate their diet by only offering fish and chips for sale one day a week. Still, the shop reeks of greasy food and chips and healthy options aren’t readily available amongst the mostly processed and packaged food -- probably because they don’t sell.

Though all the businesses in the communities are purported to be owned by the Aboriginals, none of them work there. Shop attendants, health workers, teachers, Centrelink employees, maintenance crews, police are all staffed by itinerant white workers, most of whom don’t stay for longer than six or twelve months. The roadhouse workers we’ve met stick around for a month or two. Apparently the black people aren’t reliable enough to hold down jobs, we’re told. Most of them don’t want to work anyway, preferring to live off their dole money. The roadhouses primarily service the locals, as well as the few hardy tourists that occasionally pass through, and there’s a pervasive sense of “us and them” in the interactions between the blacks and whites. I recognize the pattern from my work at the prison: on the surface there’s a friendly rapport, even a bit of joking. But underneath there’s a game being played: the blacks want something they’re determined to get, mostly through surreptitious means; the whites are aware of the blacks’ scheming and are vigilant to prevent it from happening. In one roadhouse, the attendant, who didn’t look much over 20, told a young black man that he hadn’t been charged for a soft drink that was sitting on the counter. The Aborigine turned away as if to leave, but when the attendant turned his back, the black man quietly went to the counter, grabbed the can, put it in his bag and left the shop. I suspect the young attendant knew it had happened, but didn’t feel secure enough in his authority yet to do anything about it.

But under the subversive game-playing lies another story: the age-old power-play between the Oppressed and the Oppressor. Defeated, the Oppressed look for interminable ways to reclaim their power. Threatened, the Oppressor seeks equally covert ways to retain his. It’s a dance that never ends.

So where’s the ‘traditional community life’ in all this? Do they still practice their sacred and social rituals, dances and corroborees in the bush the way our history books tell us they once did? Or has the influence of western values and modern civilization impacted on their traditional life – even out here in this isolated desert land – to the point where it seems trivial to them, quaint or irrelevant, like many of our western religious practices do to us today? They seem to me like a people in exile: disempowered and disenfranchised. Like any people under stress, their behaviour degenerates to the lowest common denominator. The attitudes white people have towards blacks are often quite justified – but fail to take in the whole story.

What I know about the Aboriginal mind, their way of thinking, is that it encompasses a more holistic view of life than ours. Greater priority is given to being rather than doing, accepting what is rather than striving for goals, accumulated wealth, prestige. Alternative elements of our society may revere this, but in everyday life in western society it is either considered quaint and impractical, or lazy and irreverent. It is in opposition with our capitalist, progressive thinking and the rational, scientific paradigm that underpins it. This devaluing of their worldview further subjects them to a position of irrelevance.

The truth is, however, that their worldview could compliment ours, if only we would listen.

I spend an hour’s vigil watching the full moon rise above the nearby range where we’re camped. I wake from a restless sleep with a strange surreal dream. Its other-worldly quality makes it impossible to decipher. The only thing I have a sense of is that I’m in Aboriginal mind, the only one allowed out here in the extreme isolation of the desert. I’m filled with a sense of awe and fear – what are we doing out here, so vulnerable, so susceptible? 

View of the ranges campsite; great place to watch the full moon rise.

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