In my last blog, I tried to convey the different feeling that the Northern Territory has to other parts of Australia, but it was absent of even mentioning a major difference of the NT – the proportion of people who are Aboriginal.
For Australia as a whole, 3% of the population are Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander – relatively few. Considering this, and the fact that only one-third of Aboriginal people live in the main cities compared to 68% of non-indigenous people, it is easily possible for many people in Australia to have never met an Aboriginal person. Indeed, a previous survey found 6 in 10 people thought that they have had little or no contact with an Aboriginal person.
The phrasing of this statistic is interesting in that it says that people thought that they had little or no contact with an Aboriginal person. Some of those 6 out of 10 people may have had contact with an Aboriginal person and not known it.
Some international readers, like myself before coming to Australia, would think this to be a bit strange. Surely a person would know if they had contact with an Aboriginal person or not? This thought comes from a belief that Aboriginal people are black and would have similar features to somebody like David Gulpilil, an actor in Baz Lurhman’s film Australia.
In one of my first blogs I wrote about how I had been at meetings where an Aboriginal person would deliver a Welcome to Country and talk about their heritage, and I was silently intrigued that all of the Aboriginal people doing these talks had been white. Many people who are Aboriginal have ancestors who are not Aboriginal and may indeed be white, and thus some Aboriginal people are also white, especially in states like Victoria and New South Wales.
The process of colonisation has meant that the dominant language and culture of Australia is one rooted in Britain and built upon by European migration post World War 2. Aboriginal languages and cultures have been suppressed and sidelined, to the stage that Aboriginal culture is viewed as being something separate to Australian culture. It is outside, it is different, it is unAustralian.
The preponderance and dominance of non-Aboriginal custom, language and people means that in many parts of Australia it would be easy not to see, hear or feel any semblance of Aboriginal life on a day to day basis. However, in the NT, 25% of the population is Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander. Many of the Aboriginal people in the NT are black and are therefore visually different to the predominant white, Anglo Australian. Additionally, you will hear Aboriginal people speaking their language in the street or park, meaning that visibly and audibly it may be easier to know if you have had contact an Aboriginal person. Unfortunately, it’s not clear that greater awareness of Aboriginal people necessarily leads to respect and understanding.
In conversations I’ve had with Australians about Darwin and the NT, there’s often some mention of “it” being a bit dysfunctional. The “it” may not be identified and whilst the government is often the reference, sometimes the person is meaning that society as a whole in the NT is dysfunctioning. One of the dysfunctions described is the levels of racism towards Aboriginal people.
The type of racism can be a subtle, even unconscious thing, for instance people assuming that all Aboriginal people are drunks, irresponsible, incapable and lazy, and then treating them based on these biases. Racism may come as more overt hostility and abuse, or it can even become a societal and institutional thing where it pervades the way that Aboriginal people are considered by government, institutions and society.
Last year, an investigative TV programme showed guards at Don Dale Juvenile Detention Centre in the NT tear gassing young people, putting hoods over them, stripping them naked and beating them. The Prime Minister pointed out that there may be some racial element as nearly every young person in juvenile detention in NT is Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander.
A situation where nearly every young person in juvenile detention is Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander can only be possible if the way that society exists discriminates against Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. The situation is the result of communities without good schools, health care, jobs, or transport, and a majority population that treats them as being different, maybe even inferior. They can be outcasts in their own home and trapped in a world that is not theirs. They are unable to live in a white, Western world and unable to rebuild the lives they had before we came.
Yet alongside this struggle, and unlike in states like Victoria, there are parts of the NT that are owned by Aboriginal people. These huge areas enable Aboriginal communities to live more akin to what life would have been like before colonisation; retaining their language, customs and culture – retaining their way of life. Non-owners can only enter these areas if they receive a permit from the Northern Land Council.
Once a year, the people of Tiwi Islands (top left of the map above) allow non-owners to enter without the need of a permit. This falls on a day that they host multiple art exhibitions and sales, and the grand final of their Australian football league. On this day, you get a couple of hundred tourists going across, as we did, and you immediately feel that you are in a very different part of Australia. You are in a part of Australia that is not dominated by British or European immigrants and English is not the dominant language. It looks, sounds and feels very different.
Despite the obvious problems in the NT for Aboriginal people, the NT appears to be a focal place of sorts for Aboriginal people throughout Australia. Uluru, in the NT, is not only an icon for many Australians as an outstanding rock of beauty, it has special meaning for Aboriginal people throughout Australia. This is represented by it being the location chosen for a convention of hundreds of Aboriginal people to discuss constitutional arrangements between Aboriginal people and Australia. Additionally, the recommendations of that convention were called The Uluru Statement from the Heart.
The NT is also home to Garma, which is the biggest Aboriginal festival in Australia, and is much more than music and dance. Garma’s organisers, Yothu Yindi Foundation, proclaim it to be the Aboriginal equivalent of the World Economic Forum at Davos. The National Indigenous Music Awards are held in Darwin and of all the major festivals in Australia, it is Darwin’s that has the most performances by Aboriginal artists. Indeed, Darwin’s Festival was recently opened by the B2M band from Tiwi Islands. Despite the problems the NT has, it may be a place where Aboriginal culture can thrive.
Something that is in a state of dysfunction may be more liable to change than if it was in a state of function. Therefore, I wonder if the NT offers a possibility of change for Aboriginal people in a way that other States cannot. These other States are functioning, and function in a way that Aboriginal culture is dominated by another. Can the NT find a way to function for all cultures within it?