The symbolism behind recognising Aboriginal people in the constitution shouldn’t be mistaken as some lofty or empty ideal with no effect on real people and real communities. Until the possibility of this moment, we have grown up an Australian society that has not recognised Australian indigenous people as genuine or valued citizens. There is almost a sense of hoping we would fade away. We come from a history of colonisation that has denigrated Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and culture — a history where we were painted as savages, as less than human.
Over past decades a process has been under way of indigenous cultural renaissance through decolonising ourselves and reclaiming and reconstructing our cultural identity. The struggle for survival and to be recognised as human, and for indigenous people to name themselves and their realities is a continuing concern. To be recognised as different but equal is not a privilege many of us have experienced.
The appalling statistics of our disadvantage is a consequence of this history and lack of recognition. As someone who has seen the toll of suicide on our young people and our families first hand, and who has researched the causes of community distress in Australia and overseas, I believe taking this big positive step forward in our nation’s founding document will help to make our communities, and especially our young ones, feel stronger.
For example, since 1999 there have been horrific rates of Aboriginal suicide deaths in the Kimberley where my people are from. This is not isolated, but common across the country. These headlines of Aboriginal crisis and disadvantage such as suicide always trigger a flurry of government activity, with new or old dollars announced, crisis talks and new promises. But the underlying grip of community distress remains as strong as ever because the root causes stay untouched.
As human beings, we all need to feel a sense of worth and control over our destinies. We need to feel that our heritage is respected, no matter where we come from. And that the people to whom we belong are strong and confident going forward.
Before 1788, this country was home to hundreds of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander nations with different languages and traditions reaching back tens of thousands of years.Thousands of years before the Incans built Machu Picchu, and the Egyptians built the pyramids, our ancestors were living on this land.
But as it stands, the founding document of this nation says we, the indigenous people of this country never existed. That silence is very harmful to all of us and denies us a genuine place in the nation’s identity. We have to start undoing the harm of this silence to our young ones especially.
The causes for distress in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities leading to youth suicide are broad and steeped in historical, social and economic circumstances, as well as the contemporary choices of individuals.
Psychologists often refer to “protective factors” as things that serve as a unique reservoir of resilience for people in the face of prolonged adversity — factors that help to moderate the impact of stressful circumstances on people’s social and emotional well-being. We need to look at ways to support and increase that in our communities.
For Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, the answers lie in reconnecting back to our country, our culture, our families and our communities. These are our protective factors.
In Canada, indigenous communities that have sought to preserve and rehabilitate their cultural values and have some measures of self-determination, have suicide rates that are remarkably lower than communities where this does not exist.
In a recent consultation we undertook in the Kimberley, community members said that their priorities were to make themselves strong as individuals, to rebuild respect for culture, to praise and support each other, and focus on positive goals for the community. These desires are probably no different to those white families living in the growing number of other Australian communities that have social problems. These are the aspirations of any human being. They are a part of being human.
This is where recognising Aboriginal people in the constitution can help. It won’t change things overnight nor will it change indigenous disadvantage by itself. But it goes some way towards undoing a silence that is harming our people and is one of the many positive changes we need to have happen.
*Professor Pat Dudgeon is from the Bardi people of the Kimberley. She has significant involvement in psychology and indigenous issues for many years having many publications in this area and is considered one of the “founding” people in indigenous psychology.