Indigenous Culture

I read Muriel Bamblett’s article in The Age yesterday with some disappointment. She suggests that Australia is blaming Aboriginal people and Aboriginal culture for the sexual and physical abuse facing women and children in some Aboriginal communities. I agree with her that any suggestion that Aboriginal people or culture should be blamed is entirely inappropriate. However, Bamblett then goes on to identify the main problem as the abuse of Aboriginal culture:

“When the culture of a people is ignored, denigrated or, worse, intentionally attacked, it is cultural abuse. It is abuse because it strikes at the very identity of the people aimed at; it attacks their sense of self, it attacks their connectedness to their family and community.”

She seems to suggest that there has been a deliberate attack on Aboriginal culture and that this is the “real” issue facing indigenous communities.

It is perhaps unfortunate that two different issues have become tangled here. The first issue is the problem of sexual and physical abuse of women and children in some Aboriginal communities. The second issue regarding Aboriginal culture has arisen as a result of a government report suggesting that Aboriginal culture should not be taught in schools. This seems to have muddied the waters.

I think that the reports of sexual and physical abuse have not been intended to place blame on Aboriginal culture or people. If this has been intended by any commentators, it is neither productive nor helpful. The “blame game” is just so much political hot air, whichever side of politics you are on.

However, Bamblett finds it offensive that commentators are arguing that her “culture sanctions child abuse”. She seems to be closing her eyes to the unpleasant fact that some Aboriginal men are claiming that they have a cultural right to abuse young women. As I have noted in an earlier post, some Aboriginal men have argued before Courts of law in this country that raping and assaulting young Aboriginal women is allowable according to Aboriginal lore and culture. As a consequence of this argument, these men have received reduced sentences.

This should not be an argument about whether Aboriginal culture is “good” or “bad”. What a fruitless argument! The stereotypical portrayal of Aboriginal culture really bugs me. It seems to oscillate between two extremes – on the one hand, there is the ideal of the “noble savage” and on the other side of the coin, the “ignoble savage”. The first suggests that Aboriginal culture is spiritual and inviolate, and the second suggests that Aboriginal culture is debased and degenerate. I do not think either of these stereotypes are helpful; they hide the real issues and real people involved. Real people can never live up to an idealised image – Aboriginal people are just like any other people, with normal human foibles and failings.

The issues of assimilation and whether Aboriginal culture should be taught at school are also entirely separate from questions of abuse. Commentators who confuse these issues are doing Aboriginal people a disservice. If there is any argument, it should only be an argument about whether assault, rape and sexual abuse should be sanctioned by any culture. Put like that, the answer seems clear!

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Filed under indigenous issues, politics

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