By Alexis Wright
First published in Meanjin Quarterly, Summer 2016: https://meanjin.com.au/essays/what-happens-when-you-tell-somebody-elses-story/
Cover photo from Meanjin Quarterly, Summer 2016.
Reprinted with permission from the author.
Through many years of researching stories from all over the world and through my own communities, which I have always felt I had to do to understand how to be useful in my work—including being a writer—I have grown more curious about what would impact on my ability to tell stories that might be embraced anywhere in the world.
It has been a life’s work of growing increasingly aware of how other people were telling stories on behalf of Aboriginal people in Australia, and how stories are used in campaigns to achieve certain goals. I think it would be fair to say that we are the country’s troubling conscience and managed by its most powerful power brokers through a national narrative. I saw the fallout of this changing negative narrative in our communities, and in the lifetime of hard work our people do to fight against each political story-making trend.
I knew the style and intent of the national narrative would always be one of the greatest challenges I would have as a writer. We are all collectively the inheritors and generators of the country’s psyche, and I wanted to know how I would be affected by this. The way that this country shapes its people would constantly be on my mind while trying to tell stories of who we are, how we see the world, what our traditional ground means to us, and our desires and ambitions. The cloud is always present.
Aboriginal people have not been in charge of the stories other people tell about us. The question then was, how should I be an Aboriginal writer when the stories that were being told nationally about us would shape and impact on what I can do as a writer? I wanted to explore what happened in our imagination and our creative efforts when we write under the cloud of those who fear us, and who instil their fear in us. Why do I write at all? And why do I write what I write? These are questions I wanted to explore while trying to create stories more authentically; and on the other hand I wondered, am I just telling stories I have been conditioned to tell by the stories other people tell about us? How would I free my mind to write differently?
When it comes to how our stories are being told, supposedly on our behalf, or for our interest or supposed good, it has never been a level playing field. We do not get much of a chance to say what is right or wrong about the stories told on our behalf—which stories are told or how they are told. It just happens, and we try to deal with the fallout. I think we often feel it is pointless to take on the endless stream of other people’s points of view about us that comes through the media, or to make the effort any more to turn around each new and mostly negative storytelling trend. The truth is, we have simply become other people’s subject matter in the stories they tell, and pay the high price of their foolishly playing around with the Aboriginal sense of self, aimed at dismantling our knowledge and belief in our rights, to have us question our truths and our times.
Foolishness is another word for stupidity, and this is generally what the national narrative about Aboriginal people has been, because its bottom line has never changed. The plot line has always been for one outcome, to erode Aboriginal belief in sovereignty, self-governance and land rights, even when it has gotten to the point where most Aboriginal people have been silenced, or feel too overwhelmed to fight any more. Look at the years where it was impossible to mention the words treaty, sovereignty or even land rights without creating a major backlash in the media. The term ‘native title’ was non-existent in the national lexicon of Australia until the 1990s, when Eddie Mabo overturned the commonly accepted term of terra nullius—empty country on white settlement.
I have seen firsthand the shameful and injurious impact that many public stories have had on of our people over a long period of time. We have been boxed in by the Australian psyche, its fear of the other. It is widely understood that we are being pressured by this country to assimilate, to abandon our culture in order to survive. This was confirmed in a recent study undertaken of hundreds of Aboriginal people in Darwin by the Larrakia Nation in the Top End, together with the University of Sydney and the University of Tasmania. A former head researcher of the Larrakia Nation, Penny Taylor, noted that Aboriginal people hear a lot about themselves from the non-Indigenous population: ‘They run the newspapers, they’re on air, there are the politicians that are speaking out, but we don’t hear much from the Indigenous population themselves.’
Many of our people continue to be treated like third-class citizens in every aspect of their daily interactions with white people, from the bus drivers who keep driving because they see blackfellas at the bus stop, to harassment by police and being over jailed in an overpoliced Northern Territory, or the brutal treatment of our children as we saw at Don Dale Youth Detention Centre in Darwin. We are not able to choose a future of cultural independence while the burden on Aboriginal lives grows greater due to the continued denial of hundreds of millions of dollars on a yearly basis, over decades, by the governance arrangements of the Northern Territory. Take your pick. All the statistics are linked to the national narrative, to story-making, to the way that stories are told, to keep the status quo in place.
I have seen how stories have been manipulated to achieve certain political outcomes, for example, those stories that are intended to play around with the sense of Aboriginal identity—that impose a sense of self-censorship, shame and friction in the Aboriginal community itself; or superficial stories intended to create a negative image of Aboriginal people with the aim of shaping a national perspective of acceptance for achieving political outcomes—think Northern Territory Intervention.
While I was developing my interest in the way stories are told, it seemed to me that the point of many of the stories created either directly or indirectly by government, politicians and through the media, or people who thought they knew what was best for us, simply had the political motive of dominating Aboriginal people, to sensationalise, utilise and keep in place the racism that underlies the historical lies about this country, and so maintaining a national ideology that would continually remind Aboriginal people: we control you.
The media overall has just gone along with what it thinks the public feels passionate about, the sensationalising of racism, the idiom in which Australians say whatever they want to say about Aboriginal people, because of a generally understood sentiment, historically made and kept: that they (Aboriginals) should be like us, Australians and white, and meaning they (Aboriginals) should not be like themselves and black, they should not be like an Aboriginal. Often media articles will quote non-Aboriginal workers but not the Aboriginal people being written about. Where does this leave an Aboriginal person? Speechless? We continue to be seen through racially orientated eyes trained by a long tradition of focusing on white supremacy, paternalism and assimilation. Our part in this legacy is to be the people who will continually need looking after, always need direction, education, training and, most of all, need to be controlled.
I knew we were not in charge of the national story about Aboriginal people when other people needed to create the narratives for the diorama in which we should exist, of how we would be visible in the eyes of Australia. Imagine the decades. Story begat story, begat more of the same story … Imagine the result. Australia’s big psychotic conscience was now also rampaging in the Aboriginal mind. The poison. The struggle. The injury. The shame. The meticulous struggle to be … This is the weight that infiltrates everything we try to do, the burden in all creativity, the handicap in vision.
Nothing much changed for the better in the state of Aboriginal suffering through the powerful influences exerted and exercised by the stories told in the public arena, and which were foisted upon the Aboriginal domain through government policies such as the Intervention. The policies influenced by these stories came and went, but the stories have remained as negative as ever. It seemed to me that the physical control and psychological invasion of Aboriginal people has continued as it began, from the racist stories told about Aboriginal people from the beginning of colonisation two centuries ago. It is this style of story that has continued to invade every sense of Aboriginal sovereignty and resistance. There has never been a good time for an Aboriginal person to risk dropping out of the safety net of our own world.
If you ever wanted to know why Australia is not capable of grappling with the truth of its history, it is because we have remained in this storytelling war with each other. And the side that thinks it is the big winner in keeping Aboriginals controlled is enjoying the war far too much, and is far too addicted to the power of building and maintaining the conditions of entrapment by negative storytelling about Aboriginal people to be interested in changing the story. There are distractions aplenty to keep Aboriginal minds busy, such as, should there be recognition in the Constitution or not, and what should it say? How many years have we been led by others to keep us busy?
At the pinnacle of Australia is a whinge, the principle that glues this country together. Australia has seen Aboriginal people as the problem for so long—from day one, at the heart of our combined colonial history. The whinge simply means fear of one another. The fear that we cannot have too much change from the status quo kind of thinking because it will make the place feel really frightening, and we would all have nothing left to complain about, and then what? Everything would become undone. And who wants to be left floundering about with nothing left to moan about, or having to compete with ideas, or even having to work with a vision from an Aboriginal perspective?
In turn, Aboriginal people live with the narratives of government policies, such as the Intervention or Closing the Gap, even though among ourselves we think that we are smart by learning how to appropriate whatever becomes the latest catch word, fad or theme to distract attention from the personal and so much of the communal and family suffering that has been created, while we are being thrown around in yet another policy direction. This is the storytelling war of bullies and you need to know how to fight in the ring, know how to fight the strategy of story-making from people who impersonalise other people’s sufferings, and again use key words such as Intervention to publicly erase the high level of emotional turmoil that suffocates Aboriginal people’s ability to respond, and their ability to be heard. Who wants to hear an emotional Aboriginal person who can’t speak the emotionally dead language of the expert academic, or professional bureaucrat—the doctors and other experts on Aboriginal people? ‘It’s doctors only, Wrighty,’ my old friend Tracker Tilmouth, who was an Aboriginal statesman and economist, and who had one of the best political minds in the country for building an Aboriginal economy, would say of professional forums about Aboriginal people, where those most spoken about were never themselves heard.
It has been these battles with barriers, where we have tried to break through the impersonal narratives in order to breathe, to tell and have heard our own stories of what it really means to us, but sadly on too many occasions our own thinking was already compromised and contaminated. We have been exposed for too long to this colonial contact history and to other people’s ideas and attempts to change us. We have learnt how to use the white man’s impersonal language and it means nothing to anyone when we speak. It certainly has not changed much. We try not to become or appear too emotional lest we offend non-Aboriginal people who do not like to be confronted by emotional and angry Aboriginals. We speak in a polite language that has been invented for talking about Aboriginal people and how non-Aboriginal people want to hear us. Sadly too, some of us are immune to or unaware of our own loss, and rush to emulate the oppressor to oppress our own people, and censor our thinking and feelings in the act of compromise.
Yes it is hard to admit this, but one cannot help but feel that we are becoming, bit by bit, the indoctrinated fools of the rhetoric, where we start to believe the stories we continually hear other people tell about us, and take the opportunity to be liked, in order to survive the times. When this happens, we cannot even see or feel the harm we cause our own people. We are too blind to see, as we are attacking ourselves, or turning a blind eye, or making excuses for the status quo in government policies, or for what appears in the media. How strange this is, where the media just pushes its own story.
One gets the feeling that in each new vision that is chosen for us, created either casually, ignorantly or by profoundly racist means to keep us preoccupied and controlled, we spend our time either fighting against what other people have wanted of us, or believing what other people say, even as we are being pulled into their narratives. We start to think, behave and make decisions based on what we think we can do at the time from the stories told about us. In this act of compromise we contribute by creating more disarray and complexity for our future. We have done this in the past, and we will do the same thing in the future.
This means that we work to other people’s direction whether we want to or not, to what the government has prescribed for us to do to keep us busy and distracted. We are in a cesspit, and far from concentrating on any meaning drawn from a fuller Aboriginal-defined sense of self, where we may have learnt more from the legacy of ancestral law stories that had been passed down through the ages from our own people for the purpose of keeping this country alive. We need these laws for understanding others, to realise ourselves fully and to give ourselves a greater capacity in understanding how to live on our own culturally attuned economic, social and sustainable terms. Instead, we have just about been overcome, smothered by and immersed in the control of outside narratives. It is almost a miracle wherever you find a really solid Aboriginal-defined vision forging its way through a maze that only seems to work to destroy possibility.
The more the stories we create about ourselves are influenced by the imposition of other people’s narratives about us, the more our stories will become disunited and ineffective. We are already a scattered people in our thinking, although this is not just through isolation so much any more. While we should be linked through our own ancient laws and stories, what is changing is our thinking and our telling conflicting stories, by assimilating into our thinking a lesser view of ourselves from the negative stories that other people have created for us. We have no cohesion. We self-implode. We have lost the sense and direction of our moral selves, what our humanity means, and in cynical Australian political terms, we have lost the moral high ground.
In other words, we have lost the plot line in the story about who we are, because we are too distracted by a history of imposed agendas from other people’s stories about and for us, and where policies have left us unstable and just about disabled and ineffective as a people. We are becoming a wasted people who once instinctively knew how to get our own story straight, who knew the story of the Aboriginal vision, who were skilled in the art of an oral culture, and now struggle in regions, struggle as voices in the wilderness trying to make sense of our selves. We play into the hands of assimilationist politics that promotes a culture of forgetting—and forget that our culture is an epic of sweeping themes.
In this turmoil, it has always seemed to me that the media’s overall story about Aboriginal people has been the most politically useful method throughout the country for negatively constructing or deconstructing, confusing and mangling, and above all else attempting to govern the direction of the national Aboriginal story. The media, particularly its rich and right-wing conservative elements that dominate what is called the free press in Australia, ran rampant to promote the Intervention policies, and was the dominant public narrator of Aboriginal stories, and for training the population in how to think about Aboriginal people. It was the media’s choice to highlight negative stories about the conditions of Aboriginal people, but it was too often silent about what Aboriginal people thought, had to say about what happened, or wanted. An outpouring of stories about Aboriginal people followed.
A huge space was created for a one-sided public outcry, involving just about anyone who was interested in criticising Aboriginal people with anecdotal stories of a racist nature that they just had to tell, and their own personal bias and ideas about how to fix the Aboriginal problem. This action to belittle Aboriginal people seemed an intentional strategy by the media to intimidate and shame Aboriginal people, to exclude them from telling their own story. It was just like the early days of the last century, when Aboriginal people were treated like public pets. The public was now encouraged to be part of an open discussion, by knowing that it was now safe for all Australians openly to speak their mind about how they believed the Aboriginal ‘problem’ should be fixed.
It did not matter if most of the commentators had little to no idea about what was happening on an Aboriginal community because they had never been to one, or had little interest in the historical context, nor the circular nature of government policies that resulted in poverty-stricken communities, nor did they have any idea of the immensity of these problems. They just went ahead and said whatever they liked no matter how hurtful or unjust. Perhaps it is correct to say that much of the commentary was meant to hurt and shame Aboriginal people into silence, as a form of censorship, and this was essentially racist.
So I understood that the media had enormous power to influence public thinking and how we thought about ourselves. And it was very clear to me that the stories that Aboriginal people saw as important about ourselves—a self-defined vision of the future—hardly ever featured in the media. The spirit of our voices was censured through public media campaigns in which we were condemned if we spoke about issues fundamental to us such as Aboriginal rights, treaties, sovereignty, compensation, self-government, or even if we spoke at all in a dissenting way during the implementation of the Intervention. One could go back through every Aboriginal issue through the decades and say we have been no stranger to media campaigns intended to undermine the implementation of issues of importance to us such as national land rights, native title, mining and other resource developments, or to times where we have had to fight the wedge politics of race-based elections.
Much has been missing in the national narrative concerning Aboriginal people simply because most Aboriginal people have been too busy working on things that we have needed to build, maintain or safeguard. There have been times when we have not been prepared to enter into dialogues that we knew were basically incorrect, for the little we would gain from our efforts, or because it would be a waste of time.
There was no point entering into these dialogues, even if we wanted to. We would just be giving fuel to those commentators who were using bullying and thuggish tactics to protect the direction they supported. In recent times this was a new negatively fuelled national Aboriginal storytelling narrative they were helping conservative and backward-thinking governments to build. The media during the Intervention, for instance, seemed to want a one-sided view promoting right-wing politics and a drama that it assumed the country needed while it opened the doors to anyone who wanted to criticise the country’s poorest and historically most mistreated population, while mostly closing the door to Aboriginal people defending themselves with other points of view.
The media chose which of a handful of Aboriginal voices would be heard, in this most conservatively provocative and negatively charged public space. Anyone would have thought the media might have preferred a lively debate with the best Aboriginal minds, where both sides could be heard, but it instead chose simply to rule out or drown out anyone who might have told a different story: a story that might have indicated some facts and analysis, that came from a wealth of experience inside the Aboriginal world.
The media campaign, for I suppose that was what it was, during the time of the Intervention promoted its own small group of Aboriginal public intellectuals or commentators. They were used rigorously to push this new Aboriginal story, by giving greater legitimacy to how Australians felt about Aboriginal people. The overall sentiment of the outcry was the same old, conditioned through history and belief in dominance over Aboriginal people. The strategy behind this corporately backed media campaign was to weaken any residual strength in Aboriginal separatism—belief in Aboriginal rights, resistance and resilience.
Aboriginal people have not usually fought their differences in public or condemned their own people publicly. I know many Aboriginal people who have been working for change for a long time, and who know the difficulties of achieving change. But some of the commentators who supported the Intervention campaign found it easy to hide behind Australian libel laws, not naming offenders but instead accusing an entire race of people of committing various crimes against our humanity.
In about 40 years of working for Aboriginal rights I have never really seen a fully Aboriginal-defined and -endorsed vision being given serious attention in the Australian media. What I mean by an Aboriginal-defined vision is one I saw formed by the elders in Central Australia across some of the very best of their communities during the 1990s, where they called for Aboriginal self-government in the Northern Territory. There has never been a real discussion in Australia about how to create Aboriginal self-government in the Northern Territory.
There was next to nothing about this in the media, although much about how to create a government vision of taking away Aboriginal rights in the Northern Territory, and which led to many millions of dollars being wasted on the Intervention and then the policies of Closing the Gap, money that might have been better spent on creating fairer government arrangements in the Territory. Sure, just to cover my tracks as we get good at this, anyone may recall various instances in the past where particular Aboriginal voices have been heard in the media—for example with land rights demonstrations and native title—but I would question to what degree we have been really heard rather than selectively and prejudicially chosen, like snapshots, to represent the whole Aboriginal point of view.
The story of the call by elders of Central Australia for Aboriginal self-government, for instance, was killed before it could breathe. It was like so many other good stories from Aboriginal people that have either become compromised, gone underground to survive or are only shared in private and safe environments. Yet why is it that there has never been the will in the country as a whole to listen to an Aboriginal-defined vision?
I can see no change in the status quo of Aboriginal people being used as pawns in political games—you can only call it that—and we will continue to be crippled and compromised by the increasingly poor administration of the Northern Territory Government.
This form of self-governance bestowed on the Territory by an Act of the Com-mon-wealth has never been reviewed to find out if it works or where all the money it received for the benefit of Aboriginal people was spent, or what form of governance might be more legitimate and could work for Aboriginal peoples. The experiment of the Northern Territory (Self Government) Act 1976continues to be a downward-spiralling failure, having produced a government of losers who have the arrogance to think the Territory is worthy of becoming a state. Time and again the government has proven it does not have the ability to govern for all Territorians, especially Aboriginal Territorians, who are about one-third of the population, and it is well known that whichever party has been in power in the Territory, it has misused the millions of dollars allocated on an annual basis through the Australian Grants Com-mission to combat Aboriginal disadvantage. Aboriginal schools, health, economic development, housing, infrastructure and so on have been short-changed for a very long time, and the accompanying intergenerational social problems of Aboriginal disadvantage and poverty grow ever greater.
As a consequence of these unworkable governance arrangements, the Territory has a police force that is nearly three times the size of most other jurisdictions relative to population. It builds more jails to lock up Aboriginal people because it does not know what else to do. The graphic images on the ABC Four Corners report in August 2016 have finally triggered a royal commission into the treatment of children in youth detention (where Aboriginal children are overrepresented), which resembles what we have seen of prisoners being tortured in Guantanamo Bay. Why is it that no Territory politician or government has shown a shred of decency and guts and said, This is the wrong form of governance arrangement for the Northern Territory. We do not know how to govern for Aboriginal people. Let’s not do this any more. Let’s find a better way.
Is this structural racism, is that where it starts? Why is it that while the Aboriginal land councils in the Northern Territory since the 1970s have achieved much from good management and hard work to acquire and build Aboriginal land and interests, they are continually threatened and scrutinised, but not the NT Government?
So I came to understand better after the Intervention that the Australian media was the storytelling bard of Aboriginal stories for the nation. How else, in view of Aboriginal people not having any real form of self-governance or real governing ability to promote their own stories, were Australians in general to be informed about Aboriginal people? We could continue to demonstrate in the streets or by democratic means, using the power of our votes, or competitively voicing our opinion to change the way Aboriginal stories were told.
In what was called ‘status quo welfare dependency’ arguments put forward in the late 1990s, the years of the Intervention and through much of the following decade or more, the issue of welfare dependency was frequently spoken about and driven by Noel Pearson. Pearson was one of the main focuses of the Australian media and promoted by the governments of the day. He became Australia’s nominated chief town crier on the subject of Aboriginal people. Many Australians, including those involved in the powerful Reconciliation movement, joined Pearson’s brigade, desperate to be led by an Aboriginal leader who fitted in with many middle-class sensibilities, and wanting to form a relationship with Aboriginal people who were the target of the welfare dependency rhetoric. They joined the vast majority of other Australians who just had a historic gripe about Aboriginals, but found an Aboriginal hero of their times in Pearson. He perfectly understood that their favourite story was titled ‘The problem with Aboriginal people’, and he served up what all these Australians wanted, to give Aboriginal people a good kicking.
These were the years when the Australian Government was walking then galloping away from Aboriginal self-determination policies that it had neither respected nor supported. It was never going to offer what the great majority of Aboriginal culture would require in order to recover from two centuries of harm and injury. Given existing resources, as one academic has since put it, referring to current policies, Aboriginal people would take something like 575 years to recover. Full recovery was never the plan. It was just a three-year by three-year electoral dance of dodging the issue of doing anything useful in Aboriginal affairs, until the next election.
Australian governments have been fearful of the growing power of the Aboriginal movement since the 1960s, its forceful agenda for Aboriginal rights and change, and its ability to show up in any arena—nationally or internationally—to articulate the government’s inability to govern rightfully—forget parity for Aboriginal people living in dire straits in continued, increasing and intergenerational poverty.
The Aboriginal world had already been forced to comply, knew it had to be subservient to the greater authority of public service administration over funds and direction, during the self-determination policy era. Our stories were continuously being reshaped through our reliance and dependency on an Aboriginal affairs bureaucracy that also grew from the 1960s. The administration was still maintained, with the firm and unbreakable grip of the overseers in the previous assimilation policies, by having the same entrenched career bureaucrats at senior levels, administering the policies of Aboriginal self-determination.
Although the storytelling voice of the Aboriginal affairs bureaucracy was hardly ever heard publicly—except by one or two recognised in the field as the most prominent experts on Aboriginal issues, it had the power to advise government and the power to create the style and to implement the programs delivered to Aboriginal communities. It was the public servants who governed the Aboriginal world, instead of the Aboriginal world governing itself and being properly supported to fix the incredible level of harm created by the failure of government policies. Bureaucrats should never have had ultimate control over the lives of Aboriginal people, controlling the purse strings, controlling and manipulating direction, while not being held responsible for the consequences of their administration.
Over the decades from the 1960s, Aboriginal communities were not able to avoid being governed by public servants, and many of us tried to join them to create change from inside. The situation remains today where bureaucrats direct and control the funding of programs designed under government policy for Aboriginal affairs, and Aboriginal people and communities try to either fight against how decisions are made or to fit in with the decisions that are made for us, and just continue to try independently to make things possible for ourselves. Is this a source of much happiness? Perhaps for some people, I do not know.
If you had to think more deeply, you might ask what is lost and what is gained. It might be found that government programs only worked because of Aboriginal resilience and where their ownstory-making and storytelling mattered most. Economist academics such as Jon Altman have described the Aboriginal ability to build their own hybrid economy on remote communities. David Ross, the director of the Central Land Council, in his speech to the National Native Title Conference in Darwin in 2016, and speaking on 40 years of land rights in the NT, said that the members of the land council, the traditional owners of their Central Australia region, are busy developing their own solutions, their own programs and their own skills to pursue the goals they want to achieve.
Aboriginal people are expecting less and less from other people, or nothing, and are trying to make the impossible journey to our vision of the future achievable. We are a pragmatic people, just trying to take responsibility for our own survival in an almost impossible situation of continuing generational lost and injury, and we are trying to build our own expertise, trying to find our own solutions, trying to build subsistence economies, because we know full well how governments will keep failing us. We have come to realise that the bureaucracy, and whatever the government in power, will have enormous power to be the story-maker, and to compromise the storytelling and decision-making of Aboriginal communities, and our service organisations. We have followed this pattern for too long, and as a result, perhaps, we are becoming experts in the expectation of loss, and yes, greater experts in hope.
If you were to examine the power play of government domination in Aboriginal affairs that has occurred over a long period of time, then you would also see the accompanying and perhaps equal extent of deterioration in the practice of Aboriginal story-making or storytelling. Our stories have become confused and cluttered with what is truth and what is believed, of what can be told or what can be heard, and by whom. These stories, a whirl of historical and contemporary fragments of what has happened and what has never been resolved, are at risk of losing their strength in the telling. Our voice can be overwhelmed with the complex of historical intensities in the unique stories of each and every one of us. Our storytelling requires enormous energy, and increasingly requires even greater storytelling skills. It is difficult to get the story straight as a group, as a people, to form a vision. The story becomes one of compromises, and so complex in the nature of grievances that storytelling becomes impossible for the Aboriginal person who should be telling his or her own stories in depth and vision, and it is almost impossible to get the story straight, impossible to reach consensus about stories, and paradoxically, actually contributing to all of those outside processes that are at work to compromise the voice of our oral storytelling culture.
In other key areas of the Aboriginal world we have been forced to develop a dependency on professional people to argue on our behalf. Think of the bandwagon of academics writing and giving advice on Aboriginal issues, or the lawyers, anthropologists, historians, scientists, economists, accountants, doctors, health professionals, consultants and administrators who have been employed to give advice, persuade with their skills, knowledge, values and influence, and so have helped to reshape the Aboriginal story. But what is the Aboriginal story becoming, if other people are telling it for us? We are the matter of the law, for conflicts between them and us. The law courts and governments of Australia do not want you to turn up on your own behalf, they want to hear and argue the Aboriginal story from the professional point of view, and the government provides the money or professional support mechanism so that these arguments can take place in the language of the court.
The Aboriginal subject with the story he or she is supposed to own is relegated to being a primary informer at best to the professional person who then argues the story on their behalf. Often the original storyteller would be hard pressed to recognise the language of the story being put to a judge in a court of law. I suppose it does not matter if you are one of the lucky ones whose legal case succeeds; you may not want to know the details and you might be happy to just get on with your life in any case. But if you lose the case you may never understand what went wrong, or how your story as interpreted by the professional collector of it was being argued in a court of law. In some native title cases, families and communities who always thought they were related have been divided and may remain divided for the next century. This is because the law has its own rules for stories about land ownership. In many cases, Aboriginal people have missed out on native title because the legislation is virtually based on the idea that land theft and oppression did not happen, such is the strength of the lie of how Australia was settled by white people. It does not recognise the stories that were the realities of Aboriginal people’s lives, of being forced off their land, and apparently losing ongoing connection to it then their native title.
A good example of professional story-telling in a language far removed from how Aboriginal people could tell their own stories was the many drawn-out land rights claims in the Northern Territory, some lasting decades. The relationship depended on telling law stories for the detailed work of professionals to analyse and use in arguing traditional ownership as defined in the legislation. Although traditional owners also gave compelling evidence in the hearings, the story was translated into academic and legal language, and would in many cases have been quite difficult for the traditional owners to recognise as their own story, in the gruelling arguments that took place around them, or to even maintain the thread of the arguments because of their dependence on translators.
The story must go on even in the Aboriginal cultural world, and perhaps it is good that such a great wealth of cultural knowledge was safely collected and has been stored for our future generations, though I would think that in the continuing difficulties of maintaining our culture through these important stories and unless these stories are archived in their land councils, the often remote Aboriginal inheritors of these cultural stories will still find it difficult to retrieve information that might be gathering dust somewhere, or be used to teach students in distant academic institutions, or be stored by academics who are known to use our stories to build very powerful positions for themselves as the gatekeepers, almost as the inkarta of this knowledge.
This type of professional storytelling and collecting was required for native title claims through lawyers, anthropologists, linguists, historians and so on. It was another huge issue for many, where the Aboriginal voice and story was assessed and sometimes lost or misshaped through political or other deliberate considerations. The most important stories of Aboriginal law and rights became dependent on professional advocacy in high-stakes resource arbitration, and our voices and stories were again placed under threat, controlled, open to the misinterpretation or misunderstanding of historical circumstances, and could be subject to compromise or dismissed, even in the successes gained through this relationship of dependency.
So the history of Aboriginal self-determination from the 1960s and into the 1990s had become the territory of more and more people both Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal, who were speaking for others with or without the permission of the people they were speaking about, and during the Intervention years, with decreasing respect for Aboriginal protocols about who speaks for whom. The list is very long of policymakers, media and academics, but on the other hand there were many Aboriginal community leaders and national Aboriginal leaders also speaking on behalf of the Aboriginal community.
By 2007 the government had completely killed off the policy of self-determination/management/co-responsibility by implementing its severe set of intervention policies in the Northern Territory. This approach aimed to denigrate Aboriginal culture and humanity, and sought to reinforce Aboriginal assimilation into white Australia. It was a return to pre-1950s thinking, and the terrible thing was, modern-day Australia allowed it to happen.
Governments had done nothing of much benefit in the laissez-faire style of governing in the 1990s, which virtually left the Aboriginal world to fend for itself with years of ever-dwindling resources to fix an escalating third-world problem in Australia. But this was to change for the worse when the Howard Coalition government, along with its powerful conservative media supporters, conducted an extremely nasty and hostile storytelling war in implementing its intervention policies in 2007.
They clearly won this storytelling war, which was quite blatantly about the media determining what stories would be told about Aboriginal people, and who told the stories. There was no-one really listening to Aboriginal people in the 1990s in any case other than in native title arguments, where the strength of the Aboriginal leadership demanded the government listen. The Aboriginal aim was strategic, concentrating on the recognition of rights—including at the level of the UN, as the platform to rebuild the Aboriginal world, and some of our best minds did much work to secure land rights and economic rights for many Aboriginal people. In many cases these battles lasted for years, then in the complexities of securing the most from native title. There were some powerful gains, but the decade also saw dwindling resources for Aboriginal communities to develop and prosper, such as helping to build communities. There was no-one listening or who cared much about the Aboriginal perspective on what was happening in our communities and in the cutting back of funding for services, unless there were votes in it or ways of kicking Aboriginal people for having too much, or grog issues upsetting tourism in the main streets of regional towns. But after an election, politicians just went on, business as usual. For instance, the book Grog War that I wrote in 1997 was the story of a ten-year battle by the Aboriginal people in Tennant Creek to cut back the amount of liquor sold by liquor outlets in that town. It was not easy, every fight to do anything was a monumental one.
While it is true that Aboriginal people across the country have always found it difficult to be heard, or to expect to have positive stories told about them in the media, the changes or strategies that were starting to be put in place at this time were to radically change and firmly control how Aboriginal stories would be heard in the future.
What would go up in a ton of smoke was any expectation that we should have the right to tell or own our own stories in the political mainstream, even if the word ‘expectation’ had never featured in Aboriginal terms with Australia. Many years of hard work by Aboriginal people on cultivating highly credible leaders who were presenting our story in a movement that had already changed much of its direction and focus from a national pan-Aboriginal movement to its traditional grassroots regional homelands amounted to nought.
Aboriginal strategy up to this point was to insist that the rest of Australia think twice before presenting their prejudicial views or ignorance so openly as it had been able to do up to the 1970s, in the long assimilationist era.
But the country now returned holus-bolus as quick as it could with a good deal of media support, to the attitudes of those days, when just about anyone became an expert on the Aboriginal problem in a vicious national debate—except, of course, the Aborigine. The media no longer thought it was necessary to ask Aboriginal people their opinion, the very people who were being talked about so openly in the public arena. You never heard what they really wanted, how they wanted to live, and what had been happening in their world to stop them from achieving their vision. Only the minister for Aboriginal Affairs would sometimes point to a few people who supposedly supported the Intervention. That was the story. This was the story of chosen individuals, not the story of widespread consultation.
Anyone ought to have been able to see what the difficulties were for any resource-deprived third-world people, and that it is hard to compete against the power of the majority. It is very easy to criticise a weaker people with the knowledge that the less powerful will have little ability to retaliate. It is very easy for the criticism to grow out of proportion as it did during the introduction of the Intervention and the maintaining of those policies, and just like the schoolyard bully, the more you bully the weaker grows the target of your vindictiveness. Once you have destroyed their will, well, you can do with them whatever you like.
These changes were about who would be able to tell Aboriginal stories in the public space of the media, and they began during the Howard government. It was a matter essentially of controlling how and what Aboriginal stories would be told in the media, and who told these stories. This was a media strategy planned to control what mainstream Australia heard about Aboriginal people—especially those living in remote poverty-stricken communities in the Northern Territory—and to make it almost impossible to hear any Aboriginal voice other then those few chosen by the media, to be the Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal national storytellers and opinion-makers.
The media campaign was to accompany the build-up of the Howard government’s decision to implement a set of policies that would so undermine the Aboriginal world that it would never recover the powerful place it seemed to be building in Australian politics. The media did its part to accomplish Howard’s vision through its dictatorial approach to the information it provided to the Australian public about Aboriginal people, and by sensationalising negative stories of Aboriginal violence, welfare dependency and paedophilia in Aboriginal communities, which pointed to the failure of Aboriginal people to be determining their future, and hence the failure of land rights and of Aboriginal people having a say over their land. The tactic the media adopted during this initial period, perhaps to boost sales from a public with flagging interest in the media, was to promote negative stories supporting the very conservative and, as proven, backward policies that followed. This campaign was so vicious that the strategy of a ‘free for all’ is now firmly entrenched today and is likely to remain.
What the Howard government feared was its own perception—one built on fear and paranoia—that there was growing support in the nation for Aboriginal rights, and for Aboriginal people stopping resource development on the land they had won back. There were thousands of decent and well-meaning Australians involved in the Reconciliation movement by this time. Reconciliation was the previous government’s official nation-building Aboriginal storytelling initiative that the Howard government inherited, along with social justice, the stolen generations and a legislative response to native title. We have seen the national narrative swing either way at election time, between positive promises or negative wedge politics. The Aboriginal story is always a useful tool to drag out when it suits political parties to harness votes. It helps to tamper with Aboriginal policy. It helps governments to control the modern Aboriginal story, to ensure the lid is kept on the ever-percolating shameful history of white settlement in this country—this would have meant dealing with the facts of history. One of the more spectacular recent results of the sympathy for justice for Aboriginal rights established through the Reconciliation movement is that the Victorian Government is now negotiating a treaty with its Aboriginal Nations. Howard was no different to other Australian governments in attempting to control the national narrative about Aboriginal people, for tinkering with the facts and implementing policies that were never designed to work, the result of which is the modern story of Aboriginal injustice.
What was clearly changing in these modern stories about Aboriginal people was the style of presenting the story in the media, which had moved from journalism to commentary, from journalists canvassing all points of view to simply presenting the personal point of view of the writers of feature articles in front- or double-page spreads, more like political commercials for the newspaper, which had moved from journalism based on thorough research to hearsay and opinion. The substance of these stories enforced a change of thinking in the Australian public from a fair- and liberal-mindedness established by previous Labor governments to one of meanness and single-mindedness that insisted that there can only be one Australia, and that Aboriginal people should be like everyone else.
One of the interesting points about this exercise, along with excluding prominent Aboriginal rights voices, was the extremely hostile criticism of the nameless ‘some people’ accused of being violent men. The insinuation that ‘some Aboriginal people’ were culpable was a bullying tactic to create self-censorship and self-questioning throughout the Aboriginal world, to be damned if we were supporters of Aboriginal rights and not caring for or loving our Aboriginal children and were supposedly against the rights of Aboriginal children, and supporters of violence in Aboriginal communities. This intentional vagueness, of insinuating through the use of the term ‘some people’, which might be used in a cultural sense by very senior people who sometimes prefer to use the tactic of not naming, because of wide-reaching ramifications through law structures when someone is named, is unfair and unethical when used to persecute, stereotype and bully an entire race. This is how the promotion of self-censorship works, and it was damaging to the self-esteem of Aboriginal people who became the target of this kind of generalised commentary, using blame to justify punitive policies aimed at controlling all Aboriginal people living in their communities, on Aboriginal land.
What became very noticeable in the Aboriginal world during this time was the silencing of its leadership when the Howard government used the Little Children Are Sacred report to shame and roll out its Intervention package to control Aboriginal communities, through the army at first, then through a firmly fixed web of bureaucracy.
Although law stories may be epic in nature and directly tied to country and place, the oral nature of Aboriginal storytelling is generally personal, and the known way of dealing with concerns. But in a barrage of public criticism that seemed to be targeted at all Aboriginal people, our voices virtually went to ground, and apart from a few ripples, were insignificant and ineffectual. No-one then really publically and personally attacked the leading commentators or presumed supporters of the Intervention. This came much later, notably through criticism made by Gracelyn Smallwood in her doctoral study of 2012, and the burning of effigies of Noel Pearson and Warren Mundine by Aboriginal protesters at a G20 rally in Brisbane in 2014.
Otherwise the wall of nastiness and vitriol that supported these policies created a deathly silence from Aboriginal people for more than a decade. Nothing could be said or debated in a sensible forum that was not attacked by the staunch supporters of the Intervention. This silence continued during the following Labor then Abbott/Turnbull governments. There has now been a resurgence where Aboriginal people are trying to reclaim the lost ground of their storytelling and are finding a voice again although in different ways than previously, independently in home regions, as independent artists or politically as servants of major political parties in the Northern Territory and in federal politics.
The deliberate attempt to silence the long-established Aboriginal leadership was achieved when it failed to express itself with a sense of legitimacy, while shamed with being responsible for the policy of self-determination. This was accomplished by withdrawing or threatening to withdraw the resources necessary to pursue self-determination, and consultation with their constituencies. The benefit of these community-based platforms with whatever scare resources they had at their disposal was that Aboriginal leaders would try to ensure that the important fundamental idea of consensus in Aboriginal culture could somehow be reached about the Aboriginal story, which they would support.
Admittedly there were flaws in the story at times, or with the storyteller, and more work could have been done in the area of improving our storytelling abilities, but it was expected that the leadership kept the story straight, were censured if they did not through Aboriginal criticism in our own forums, and they were always under great pressure to ensure the truth was told about our constituencies on the ground. The work of the Aboriginal leadership up until the Howard years had developed into an extraordinary and exemplary knowledgeable and sophisticated movement. Even with its turmoil and infighting and jealousies it was a highly robust community and one that had a sense of direction. This was a highly capable movement in lobbying at all levels of Australian political and economic structures that many learned Australians had admired, and its idea was to bring about the recognition of Aboriginal rights and economic development of Aboriginal peoples across Australia.
This sense of unity was what the Howard government wanted to kill. It wanted to create disarray. The intent seemed to be to create so much disharmony and discord, sustained over a long period of time, that the established form of community-controlled leadership would never recover. By denying a voice to community consensus-based Aboriginal leadership, there would be little chance for Aboriginal people to have a strong voice of dissent in the national debate that was raging about the failure of Aboriginal people to do anything with the right of self-determination, and the need for more government control over, and the power to replace, a rights-based landscape.
In this strategy of overturning the kind of self-governance structure Aboriginal people were adhering to, the Howard government had created space for new Aboriginal voices of its own choosing. Its aim was to create its own puppets: ineffective politicians representing their people through the parliamentary system. It became easier for the media to control the Aboriginal story and to promote those Aboriginal people or other commentators whom they believed to be more suited as Aboriginal leaders, to articulate what actions should be taken. These commentators, some of them Country Liberal Party NT parliamentarians, assisted the government to implement new policies aimed at controlling Aboriginal communities. They had to carry the party line or lose favour, and were used essentially to create a wedge between traditional and so-called urban Aboriginals.
Some of these CLP Aboriginal leaders were promoted by the media—in stylised journalistic advertisements disguised as feature articles and cover stories—as being the real thing, a pure blood Aboriginal from remote communities who spoke a traditional language. I remember Tracker Tilmouth saying to me at the time that it did not matter if you spoke an Aboriginal language or English if you only spoke gibberish. In comparison, Aboriginal leaders of similar backgrounds but who spoke instead about Aboriginal sovereignty and Aboriginal government—rights—were given very little media coverage.
This approach paved the way for a complete overhaul of Aboriginal policy, which begun with the disastrous backward-looking policy package that the Howard government rolled out as the NT Intervention in 2007, continued through the Rudd/Gillard/Rudd Labor governments and into the present Coalition Abbott/Turnbull governments as more or less these same harsh but ineffective policies called Closing the Gap.
This form of government control remains. The nasty and aggressive campaign that saw the enforcement of the Northern Territory Intervention in remote communities has more or less subsided. Those who opposed the policy rollout and who had been so viciously attacked as being supporters of Aboriginal violence, of not loving Aboriginal children enough or of supporting welfare dependency are finding new ways of telling our stories. But the effectiveness of the original campaign is pretty much absolute. It was hard to shake horrific ideas of Aboriginal violence and Aboriginal parents neglecting their children, and it is these sentiments that will keep whispering in the mind of Australians. The people who supported and pushed the Intervention, and who have seen how all the promises failed, are now quiet and have not offered either apologies or ideas about solutions.
What remains? There will always be doubt in the Australian psyche about the capacity of Aboriginal people to determine our own future, and always the whispering of the official story: that Aboriginal people do not deserve anything different and must be controlled by the government. It took two centuries and the High Court of Australia in the Mabo case even to begin to change the official story that this country was terra nullius, but many Australians still prefer to see Aboriginal people as outsiders, the people who must be controlled. Except for small glitches in a history of controlling the Aboriginal situation until assimilation could be achieved, the thinking and stories based on eradication, containment and assimilation have changed very little for the better for us, even in the extension of the Intervention policies to Closing the Gap.
Once upon a time I believed that we had the right to tell our stories and articulate our vision for developing the health of our people, culture, land and economic power. I believed that our survival depended on strengthening the cornerstones of our humanity through our ideas of self-governance in the modern age, even with a reliance on government to overcome the long-term damage caused by dysfunctional and unworkable government policies. In reaching this vision I always thought it was about having hope, where our stories were the most valuable tool of the heart and mind for maintaining hope in the struggles that were taking place.
The publication of story after story blaming the victim for failing to demonstrate any responsibility for their struggling and poverty-stricken communities has had the intended effect. Even some of our people started to believe they could not handle self-determination, that they were violent and lazy, welfare dependent, did not care for their children and needed to be controlled. From the beginning of that highly orchestrated conservative theatre, the story war has run on. It is in the blood. Everyone has caught the disease in some measure. It is now accumulated history, just as what was learnt through the history wars, which were basically a pitiful argument pushed by conservative academics who felt disenfranchised and unheard, to question whether the killings of Aboriginal people during the early colonial settlement were acts of genocide, and whether such killings actually happened.
The roll-on effect of a politically hyper-charged race-based strategy for controlling Aboriginal stories is to keep Aboriginal self-censorship in place, and at no real cost to the government. It is a cheap strategy. But the cost of what has happened to us is enormous. Think of the cost of removing Aboriginal self-censorship, and the cost of allowing Aboriginal people to have real storytelling rights and justice platforms to work towards their vision of the future. The cost will continue to escalate, and the cost at this point in time, would possibly be more than the country could afford. It would mean the end of a history of wasteful government policies that have never worked, or were not meant to do any work other than to ensure votes at election time, and so keeping everything contained at a minimum cost, to ensure that real money will never be spent overcoming the injury of colonisation.
The only solution that Australian governments have really come up with is for the complete assimilation of Aboriginal people, even as the cost of this failure increases but it may not even be the goal, when it is always easy to accuse Aboriginal people of failure for political expediency, and of being victims if they do not hit the road to assimilation. So there is a general assumption that Aboriginal people are victims and only tell victim stories. This results in further loss in our ability to create some of the best stories of this country, as we lean in to do what is expected of us. In the injurious nature of the realities for Aboriginal people, the full cost will be borne in the stories we can tell to shape our world. Our heritage will always be weighed by how prepared we are to compromise or lose sight of our cultural storytelling vision. The further we bend our stories to suit mainstream Australia, resulting in further loss of our cultural norms, the more we hasten our total acculturation into mainstream Australian society. Why? Because we will lose what is special about our inheritance if we cannot understand it or fight for it. One might ask, why can’t we have it both ways? This is the tricky question about Aboriginal storytelling.
Stories from Aboriginal people about rights will be ineffective if these stories fall on deaf ears—even our own. Our stories may never be heard or taken seriously by those who pay lip service to Aboriginal rights. These stories mean nothing to them and will be unappreciated and not run in the mainstream media, or will be rendered unfathomable. Who would know how to read stories encompassing all time, when most are incapable of understanding the stories of the earth and the long cultural heritage of this country?
With no dedicated platform for developing stories about Aboriginal rights, including cultural and economic sovereignty and security, as time goes by there will be even fewer options for Aboriginal people to tell their stories without compromising or further eroding fundamental principles of culture and belief. Aboriginal storytellers may feel the need to make more deliberate choices in the way we tell stories, as many did from the force of criticism during the early Intervention years. We might ask, how will my story be heard? What is the new benchmark of articulation here? We risk our cultural existence, authenticity and voice if we accept a pattern of compromise by trying to construct a story or belief that matches the mainstream national story for Aboriginal people.
A number of us might just allow other people to continue looking after our communities as the storytellers in the current pattern of Closing the Gap, because we have lost confidence in our ability to articulate our own stories. Some of us may have taken the decision to live in a more specialised form of interior separatism, where we only recognise and remain familiar with the value of continuing cultural laws, ideas and beliefs, where our lives seem to make sense, have security and surety, while the surface appears both patronised and controlled. We will continue, despite government policies, practising a rich Aboriginal culture in virtual isolation, and in relative peace, even though the struggle to maintain culture without resources, or being dependent on outside resources, will always be there, and one of the biggest issues of our survival. But vision is not beyond us, in spite of the national narrative that belittles us.
The repetitive Closing the Gap narrative and platform has become even more firmly established in the mind of Australians, and works to deepen Aboriginal self-consciousness and self-censorship. Australians have been trained to think in this new way, and now expect Aboriginal people to reset their behaviour to approximate the official story. How we choose our own reference points, and how we develop these practices, will be one of the most important stories of our times.