Thursday, April 19, 2012

Suffer the little children: the burden of culture

A description of what confronted a Commonwealth officer in the Northern Territory during the Pacific War (1941-5), when thousands of service personnel passed through the Northern Territory:
… once you introduced a European or Asian father any child of that liaison had any rights as an Aboriginal extinguished at birth. They were not classed as Aboriginal people by the Aborigines …
… the Aboriginal midwives were well aware of the problems that could exist through a woman have a half cast[e] child and in this respect particularly in the Centre where Aboriginal children were born over a hole in the ground where a fire had been lit and when the child was born green leaves were thrown on the first so the child was smoked at birth. Also if the child was of light colour the Aboriginal midwives just grabbed a handful of ashes out of the fire and placed it over the nose and mouth of the child so that the child didn’t live. The child was then taken away from the camp area and buried 99% of the time under a small ant hill. This was just levered up with a yam stick and the body placed underneath and then put back in place and the area swept so that no one could tell where it was or anything else.

The author apparently made two attempts to give evidence to Sir Ronald Wilson’s Bring Them Home enquiry, and was both times refused. (Like the report’s use of the word ‘genocide’, Sir Ronald later publicly admitted that was a mistake.)

While the narrative of celebrity achievement is a universal exception, as an Older and Wiser friend of mine has pointed out, there are two permitted narratives about indigenous Australians among what Judith Brett calls ‘the moral middle class’: victims or Noble Savages. Which narrative does the above fit? And if neither, why is there anything morally righteous about writing those nameless, culturally euthanized children out of history?

Fetishising indigenous cultures is not remotely the same as understanding them. And, without understanding, what is moral judgement worth? Indeed, what is moral about wilful blindness?

Forager constraints

Hunter-gatherer desert cultures have to deal with an enormously constricting environment. There has to be a brutal pragmatism about such cultures if those who live according to their precepts are going to survive from generation to generation; let alone for thousands, indeed tens of thousands, of years.

Hunter-gatherer—that is foraging—cultures have to control fertility: a control which has to all the more strict the more constraining the surrounding environment is. Children are burdens, having to be carried and fed, to be taken on with due care.
A process whereby young girls are married to older men, and their widows are married to young men, transfers knowledge between the generations, commits the younger to support the older, and keeps fertility rates down. It is functional in an environment where not being functional means starvation.

Strictly controlling who can marry whom provides genetic protection, embeds children in a protective network and binds folk together in known patterns. Cultural selection when the non-functional means starvation selects brutally for what works.

Mixed parentage children had no place and no place means an unsupportable burden. The rules that led to the above behaviour make perfect sense under the constraints of desert foraging. Twins, for example, would be culled for the same reason.

Of course, even in the 1940s, those constraints no longer operated. But the culture had not yet shifted. It did later; once non-Aboriginal partners were seen as not-forbidden, instead of not-permitted, mixed-parentage children became much more acceptable.

The culture fetish

But this is where the fetishing of culture comes in. Cultural practices and outlooks that make perfect sense under the constraints of desert foraging make none at all in a society of industrial (or even post-industrial) prosperity. If the welfare of indigenous Australians is the measure, then their cultures must change. If fetishising them as noble savages with morally pristine cultures is what folk are about, then dysfunction is an embarrassing reality which indigenous Australians-as-victims can be invoked to hide from.

[Read the rest at Skepticlawyer.]

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