Irene Watson has moved beyond anger whenever she thinks about the heavy price Aborigines pay for being Aboriginal. Anger achieves little except to raise her anxiety levels. Her health comes first these days, she says, and there is no point in being angry about a situation that is not going to end tomorrow.
“One can think more clearly if you are not angry and anxious,” she said.
Dr Watson, associate professor in Aboriginal studies at UniSA, has spent her life weighed down by the plight of indigenous Australia. “It’s something I see daily in my life; it’s a context I see much of my family still experiencing,” she said.
Watson, a Tanganekald-Meintangk woman from the country south-east of the Coorong, was interviewed by InDaily as part of a series on the SA justice system, which is heavily stacked with indigenous prisoners. Pick any number, the statistics are grim: 25% of prisoners are indigenous; the imprisonment rate for Aborigines is 14 times higher than for whites; and young Aboriginal men are 25 times more likely to be in jail than whites. And so it goes.
Watson, a 50-something lawyer academic, sees the legal system as another form of prejudice, saying Aborigines have been treated differently in law “from the time of the initial invasion settlement”.
“From that earliest contact in Australia’s legal history, Aboriginal peoples were inducted into the criminal justice system as prisoners or detained by the criminal justice system in a variety of ways,” she said.
Watson says the system from the outset had an embedded view that Aborigines were a backward race, of blacks behaving badly because they couldn’t help it. Fast forward and the legacy today is to dismiss Aborigines as inherent criminals, as if being indigenous itself led inevitability to crime.
“There’s always been this tendency to criminalise or use the criminal justice system as a way of dealing with Aboriginal peoples’ differences,” she said. She called it the “deficit model of Aboriginality”.
“It’s clearly a deficit when we look at the criminal justice statistics of Aboriginal peoples, the large number of Aboriginal peoples, particularly juveniles. I mean, 25% — what do we infer from that? That Aboriginal peoples are more criminally inclined than non-indigenous peoples? Well, no, we don’t.”
Watson uses the term “Aboriginal peoples” in the plural, as in First Nations peoples, to acknowledge and respect Aboriginality in its diverse and distinct groups. Especially respect.
“It’s important for our children to love that sense of themselves,” she said. “If Aboriginal children are growing up in a society where their languages are not enabled; their own histories are not enabled; a sense of themselves is not really core at the centre of their being, then we’ll continue to have problems with our children really suffering from a massive inferiority complex.”
Watson says it’s natural for black kids to want to fit in with the dominant white culture but at the same time they also know they are at a social disadvantage simply because they are Aboriginal.
“If Aboriginality equals disadvantage and a deficit, we have to look at what that tells our kids,” she said. “What does that tell the future generations of Aboriginal kids that are growing up in this country?”
Watson keeps returning to white colonial settlement as the root cause of what she called a “gnawing, oppressive assimilation process”. “I think it’s all been said by our old people for generations. We’re landless, we’re dispossessed and we lack autonomy,” she said.
She feels deeply about the colonial origins of endemic poverty and disadvantage, and the dispossession of a sense of Aboriginality. The problem, she says, is no one wants to listen to this truth.
She says it’s an old conversation that is rarely talked about in the open, and certainly not among whites. People have grown bored of hearing the same old argument or they think blaming white colonialism is a lame excuse for bad black behaviour.
All the while, too many Aboriginal children are born to a life of suffering. The inter-generational trauma continues, in jobs, in education, and health and welfare, and in the prisons. Governments between them spend hundreds of millions of dollars on Aboriginal affairs and change nothing.
South Australian Attorney-General John Rau recently told InDaily the failure of government in managing indigenous issues is a “terrible social experiment” that had turned Aborigines into clients of the state.
Yes, Watson says, precisely. The state took control and Aboriginal responsibility diminished as a consequence. The more government imposes different “fixes”, the worse the Aboriginal situation becomes.
“A lot of Aboriginal people are born into this ongoing position of being captive of the state, whether it’s captive of the welfare state or the criminal justice system or the mental health system, or the health system itself,” she said. “There’s an overriding lack of independence … because of the way policies have historically positioned Aboriginal peoples in this country as peoples who are landless and disempowered.”
Watson says she had no new remedies for how Aboriginal disadvantage might be turned around. If she did she would bottle them. But she thinks part of the answer is to reconnect with the “spiritual side” of being Aboriginal.
“That covers a whole sphere of things in terms of our Aboriginality and connection to country, connection to kin and language and beliefs,” she said.
While the spiritual side did not directly address the statistics of homelessness, poor health, unemployment and so on, Watson says it touches a deeper sense of cultural disadvantage. She says modern Western existence creates a kind of cultural hunger among young indigenous people.
“You know, it just seems like generations are losing a sense of Aboriginality and responsibility and obligations,” she said.
A rescue mission was needed, she says. The kids need to be shown that growing up Aboriginal is a positive. Instead, government signals are all negative, typically coming from the outside and imposing its views and its authority.
Watson says the Commonwealth’s intervention in Aboriginal communities in the Northern Territory, and suggestions that something similar should occur in the APY Lands of South Australia, is terrible for indigenous people. It further disempowered communities that are already weakened, and also created a false impression that all women and children in those communities are in constant danger from violent, aggressive Aboriginal men.
“We don’t need interventions where we are further disadvantaged and disenfranchised … we need to re-empower senior Aboriginal people in the local communities to sit down and come up with the solutions for themselves,” she said.
Women have a special role to play as cultural instructors in the Aboriginal way of being, Watson says. However their involvement is usually ignored because the framework for discussions is determined by white males.
“As we know, the dominant culture in holding power will inevitably have the power to construct how those conversations in reality are processed,” she said. “That’s something we need to remember, that women are core. Women always have been and to ensure women are involved in these processes rather than pretending or forgetting that the gender mix is critical within an Aboriginal cultural context.
“The position of Aboriginal women is core and needs to be centralised in any future sort of strategies of how we restore and heal the current predicament of indigenous peoples in this country.”
*Irene Watson is putting the finishing touches to a book about Aboriginal law. In 2000, she was awarded the Bonython Law School prize for best PhD thesis at the University of Adelaide. This first appeared on InDaily.