The problem with always looking back is that there is nothing we can do about what has already happened. How can the constructive future of Indigenous nations be founded on festering grievances of the past? Should we not be focussing on positive, forward-looking solutions to a new policy, a new economy, a fresh outlook, rather than being anchored entirely in rancorous injustice of the past (no matter how justified such views are)? How is dwelling on historical injustices going to lift indigenous people out of the morass of social and political pathologies? … We should be asking, “What pragmatic steps can we take now to make the lives of ordinary indigenous people better? It should be obvious that we must begin moving forward and start looking for real solutions.
(Calvin Helin from Dances with Dependency)
The opening quote is from a Canadian Aboriginal man and pretty much reflects the view I take with what impact the past may have on today’s Australian Aborigines. It is an important topic and one I have written on before. I am writing again, because sadly, I continue to see some people push their message that Aboriginal people are still suffering today because of colonisation. This message, like the messages of “it’s the government’s fault” and “racism is everywhere,” are seductively appealing and damaging to Aboriginal people. This ‘terrible trio’ as I like to call them, sap Aboriginal people of their motivation to make a difference in their own lives. When Aboriginal people are constantly bombarded with the terrible trio, they are likely to think “What’s the use of even trying?” Fortunately many Aboriginal people don’t buy this nonsense. Nonetheless, it is an issue that needs discussing.
Australia’s shameful history or poor race relations between the original inhabitants of the land and the invading British is a matter of public record. This event unequivocally changed life for those Aboriginal people originally opposed by the British. Many Aboriginal lives were lost. Now come into the present. While many Aboriginal people today are doing very well in terms of health and wellbeing, there are many who are not. Interestingly, among those who are doing well, there are some who like to think that they are suffering. Their alleged suffering is described with such rhetoric as ‘genocide,’ ‘assimilation,’ and ‘white supremacy.’ To identify any of these rhetoric culprits is like trying to nail jelly to the wall. Those claiming to be suffering are the victim brigade and whinja ninjas. As an example of the trash they carry on with, consider the words of Celeste Liddle when she tweeted: “this colonial system is literally murdering Aboriginal kids.” Her rant would be funny if it wasn’t so damaging to Aboriginal people. If Celeste abhors this ‘colonial system’ so much, she is free to give up her city privilege, take off her clothes, and go back to living off the land.
I am not particularly concerned about the victim brigade and whinja ninjas. I am more concerned about that other group of Aborigines whose suffering is real; those who live in an environment where violence and child abuse are far too common. These people often live in remote communities where their living environments are overcrowded, unclean, and unsafe. There’s no doubt about it, they are suffering, and as Australian citizens this should not be. What I question is the assumed causal relation between events of the past and the current state of suffering today. That is, is colonisation the cause of the problems afflicting Aboriginal people today? I think not. Peter Sutton in his excellent book The Politics of Suffering, has stated that while the past is a significant factor, “it is not enough, on its own, to explain the Indigenous-non-Indigenous health gap in Australia.”
The fact that many Aboriginal people today are not suffering, and indeed are thriving, must cast serious doubt on the assumed cause-and-effect relation between the past and the disadvantage observed amongst some Aboriginal people today. This is not to suggest that the past is irrelevant, but only that is not the insurmountable stumbling block that prevents success from being achieved in the present.
Never Victims of the Past, Only Ever Victims of Our View of the Past
I’m going to explain my reasoning by way of an analogy. Stick with me, as it is short and I believe its relevance will be readily apparent. Imagine you and I are working in the hot sun for a few hours. I’m not wearing a hat or shirt and I’m not using any sunscreen, but you are. It’s easy to see which one of us gets sunburnt. It’s also easy to know what I can do to avoid getting sunburnt in the future. It would be a waste of time to blame the sun. What I need to do is take some personal responsibility here and now, and be sun smart. The sun may be a necessary condition for getting sunburnt, but it is in no way the cause of me getting sunburnt. It’s true that without the sun I would not get burnt (we’d all be dead) but its presence is no guarantee that I’ll get burnt.
So yes, the sun plays a part, but it is not really the cause for getting sunburnt. So it is with our pasts, they play a part, but so do we. As my friend Dr Phil Harker has said: “We are never ever victims of the past, but only ever victims of our view of the past.” That is not to say that some of us don’t have difficult circumstances that may have some link to the past, but it is not the historical past that is directly causing present suffering. Professor of psychology, Gerard Egan, states it this way: “But the fact that past experiences may well influence current behavior does not mean that they necessarily determine present behavior.” In this current discussion on Aboriginal people, the fact that several thousand of them today (and for many years in the past) are doing very well is proof positive that the past does not determine one’s fate.
I explained my analogy of the sun to a colleague and he responded with: “Well we should be trying to understand why they are without their shirts, hats, and sunscreen today.” I agree fully and will respond here. If people have the opportunity to either move to the shade or wear skin protection, then they usually will. It is about opportunities and action; and here in Australia, there are many, many opportunities. While many Aboriginal people have taken advantage of these opportunities, many have not been so lucky. It’s not that they lack the capability of taking action, but rather they lack access to the opportunities. For Aboriginal people, just like non-Aboriginal people, the best opportunities are usually available in cities that have a sizable population. It is here that they can access employment and education opportunities. Sadly there are too many activists who wish to keep Aboriginal people in remote ghettos under the pretense of them ‘living on country.’ I’m not suggesting to just uproot the people and dump them in the city. This needs to be carefully planned and requires some tough decisions. This is something Stan Grant has spoken about before.
Overcoming the Past
Duran and Duran, (sorry, not the 80s band) when discussing Native American postcolonial psychology, have suggested that historical trauma is passed on by the same mechanisms by which culture is generally carried forth from one generation to the next. However, cultures are not destiny; they can change and bad aspects, or aspects that may have at one time served a purpose, can fade away or be discontinued or modified to better serve the immediate demands of one’s present environment. The renowned psychologist, Abraham Maslow, remarked that culture is only a necessary cause of human nature and not a sufficient cause. Cultures do not, in themselves, define one’s destiny, and therefore provide only a potential for one’s destiny and this potential itself is constantly changing. This is not to suggest that culture is not important, but we know that among people of the same culture (or even the same family), there is often much variation in their attitudes and behaviours – some succeed while others fail. Therefore, just like culture, it is not a given that the deleterious effects of past traumatic events need to pass from one generation to the next – again, unless they serve a positive purpose in the upcoming generation’s ability to cope with their present world.
Aboriginal people as individuals must decide for themselves whether they will allow the past to be the determining factor in their lives today or if they will focus on what they personally can do to improve their lives. But to have a true choice, they need to know (as so many already do) that they do not have to be governed by tragic events of colonisation. If they only ever hear the popular message that past experiences (which cannot be changed) are responsible for their current plight, then it is unlikely that they will be able to take up opportunities – however many there are – and move forward. My purpose in writing this article is that Aboriginal people hear an alternative to the dominant message of “You are suffering due to the past.” I am not suggesting that people forget history or their personal pasts, but only that they do not energise them to the point where they dominate in the present or define their identities, or psychologically cripple them.
Jewish psychiatrist Viktor Frankl, spent time in Nazi prison camps and learnt much about the human ability to make choices after experiencing traumatic events:
The experiences of camp life show that man does have a choice of action . . . We who lived in concentration camps can remember the men who walked through the huts comforting others, giving away their last piece of bread. They may have been few in number, but they offer sufficient proof that everything can be taken away from man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms – to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.
Helin, the Canadian Aboriginal lawyer quoted at the beginning of this article, acknowledges the usefulness of looking back: “The elements that for millennia contributed to the survival and success of Aboriginal societies may provide some clues to solutions in the present situation.” It is good for Aborigines today to look back in the past to see what skills, attitudes, beliefs, and character attributes their ancestors possessed that enabled them to survive. However, Helin cautions against dwelling on the past, which is very different from reflecting on the past. My message for Aboriginal people is to reflect and move forward, not dwell and remain stuck.