John Hilary Martin OP

indigenous children
sorry, Mark Roy, flickr cc

Nowadays, few groups live entirely by hunting and gathering. Indigenous groups have all, as we say, ‘come in’. Peoples of outback Australia, folks of the Kalahari desserts of Africa, even the Amazon River basin, now make use of, or actually take part in the national or world economy. Australian aboriginals, like other indigenous people, now prefer to hunt-and-gather from the shelves of a local shop or in the aisles of a supermarket. Hunter-gathering strictly off the land is for vacation time or less happily, as necessary during unemployment times.

If best dressed are the first in, then worst dressed are last in, into a welfare state. Indigenous people leaving their small volume economies (with no capital and making little profit) are, as it were, the worst dressed, and so when they do ‘come in’, they usually have to take a lower places on the social ladder. Indigenous people do better, however, if they happen to come into a rich welfare state. Australia has some of the best social services in the world. Moreover it is a country which, at least in theory, wants to bring all its citizens ‘up to speed’ even if they cannot pay their own way. ‘Up to speed’ – that is to say, Ozzies want to enable incoming individuals or groups to join and get along in the larger community on an equal basis.

Australian governments have pledged to take responsibility for providing food and shelter, health care, education, transport, job opportunities, retirement; in short, all entitlements for those citizens who are genuinely unable to pay for them. The responsibility for paying all these bills falls on the general resources of the larger community.

But why should the larger community take on such a responsibility? A number of answers are usually given for this practice: if a community does not provide welfare, the bad living conditions and ill health of those left out will eventually flow back and pollute the community at large. On the other hand, if we do provide welfare, we will all eventually benefit from the labours of the newcomers or from their childrens’ labours later on. Other reasons given for taking on the responsibility are that it is the decent thing to do, and/or that God told us to do this.

This is not the place to argue which of the above answers is best, in fact all four of them are, but to ask about responsibility. For hunter-gatherers the land was the source providing for all community needs (the ‘bank’ that people drew on). The land offered resources to fill the basic needs of everybody. The local hunter-gatherers were responsible, of course, for making use of them.

Aboriginal people did much more than walk about over the land; they observed the land carefully, saw its possible uses and used them fairly well. Successful communities understood their land and even learned to live with major changes of landscape over generations. Their ability to live through an ice age 10-20,000 years ago and change their culture to fit is a testament to their creativity.

The land also held spiritual resources as well. There were powers lying in the land, the source of the powerful notion of the Dreaming.

Let us now return to the land itself. Each year the rains came and the land supported growing vegetation, the geese migrated from the north, animals appeared that could be speared, the proper roots dug up, the healthy fruits gathered. The children were initiated and taught the ‘Law’ by the Elders and learned how to live on the land as their ancestors had done for countless generations.

There was a mutual relationship between the people and its land, enshrined in the maxim, if your take care of the land, the land will take care of you. This phrase encapsulated both a hunter-gatherers’ opportunity and responsibility. The land was the source of work and meaning, but if the land is taken away (as has happened in Australia and to most indigenous peoples) and if the skills used to understand the land are no longer particularly required as you came in off the land in order to enter a complex commercial economy, how will you discharge your responsibility of paying the bills for food, shelter, health care, transport and all the rest that befits the members of the society you have entered. Where will opportunity lie in what could be a truly desperate and an unjust situation?

Enter charity and the welfare state. The decent welfare state did two things, it paid the bills (more or less) for food, shelter, health, education, transport and retirement, but in paying the bills, in handing out services, it also took away the responsibility of paying for these services, or better, effectively placed responsibility out of local reach.

This has created an imbalance in the local indigenous community. The ability to take responsibility for providing for services no longer lay with the group itself, but had been taken on by the offices and officers of the welfare state. This was a good thing, but with some unintended consequences, resulting in lack of initiative and loss of direction of their personal and collective lives.

What action can the small group take to right this imbalance? A tribe or community may take the road of assimilation. Another road to correct the imbalance was or is to maintain a cultural separation, either on a special patch of land or in a cultural barrio and there to preserve language, old ways of doing things, work habits and maybe even one’s religion. This road can be accused of being backward-looking, and indeed sometimes it is, but it need not be.

No culture is immune from the wider world in which it lives and none is immune from the future. Indigenous communities as they ‘come in’ need not preserve themselves like a fly petrified in amber. There will be a need to take responsibility for paying for food, shelter, aged care, etc., (the old-time debts), but also will be a need to pay for cars transportation, a gun for hunting, a computer to write papers, email and twitter to contact one’s now distant tribesfolk (the new-time debts). Even a culture of hunter-gatherers does not stand still.

A welfare state gives everyone a chance to catch their breath, but unless someone suffers from major permanent disability, it is not healthy to stay on welfare if it lasts too long. It is here that discussions of reconciliation need centre.

John Hilary Martin is a Dominican priests with a long involvement with Aboriginal communities, especially in Wadeye, Northern Territory, where he has been almost every year since 1985, and returned from there last September. He has taught for many years at Yarra Theological Union and at Catholic Theological College in Melbourne, and is now teaching at the Dominican School in the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley California.



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