An Unfortunate Situation

One of the things that I was really anticipating during my stay in Australia was learning more about Aboriginal culture. After coming over from New Zealand and seeing the relationship between Maori and European settlers and how it has evolved into mostly a fair and mutually respectful arrangement, I was curious to see how the relationship between the indigenous Aborigines and European settlers measured up in Australia.

Getting a clear and complete picture of that relationship has proven to be quite difficult. Unlike New Zealand, where Maori have settled and established themselves as members of most communities and openly promote and celebrate their history and culture, Australian cities are for the most part void of Aborigines aside from the occasional street performer. Upon learning that the vast majority of Aborigines live in the outback and in the Northern Territory (where they represent over 30% of the total population), I was eager to try and learn more when we arrived and hopefully set up a story including some interviews similar to the ones we conducted with various Maori in New Zealand.

Unfortunately, I found that Aborigines are vary wary of outsiders coming into their communities, especially those with camera in hand. I guess this is understandable and most likely a result of being exploited and misrepresented countless times in the past. As a result, simply getting access to Aboriginal land requires permits. Getting these access permits is a fairly straight forward process, however, actually getting into a community and speaking with people and capturing it on film requires a significant amount of time and preparation. Community leaders and elders must authorize the visit and the final media product must conform to certain requirements that have been established for all commercial productions.  

Knowing that gaining access to these communities might take some time, we sent several requests to various Aboriginal groups and we placed several calls in advance. Unfortunately, we must not have appealed to the powers that be because all of our attempts to contact or obtain suggestions for people and places to visit went unanswered. There were a few schools that we attempted to arrange meetings who were receptive but unfortunately, the timing of our expedition did not allow us to visit them either.

Disappointed but not dismayed, we hoped that once we did arrive here in the Northern Territory, a story might pan out or we might meet someone who would be willing to teach us more about Aboriginal life in Australia. Upon arriving in Alice Springs and subsequently traveling through towns in the Northern Territory such as Tennant Creek and Katherine, we did encounter many Aborigines, however, what we saw was shocking and upsetting. Although there are some Aborigines who come into the towns to sell their unique and beautiful paintings and crafts on the street, many of the Aborigines we came across were loud, unpleasant, visibly disheveled and intoxicated. It was a sad sight, especially in Katherine.  Alcohol and alcoholism is enough of problem among Aborigines that it is completely banned in many communities and even a crime in some areas for outsiders to provide it to them. Personally, I have never really seen anything like it. Back in the States, the stereotype of the drunken Native American exists, but it exists on a whole new level over here.

Very confused as to the condition of the numerous Aborigines we were seeing in town streets throughout the NT, we asked some locals if they could shed some light on what we were seeing. We learned that unfortunately, for most tourists, travelers and foreigners, their only exposure to Aborigines is either in the form of a guided, packaged tour, or in the form of the Aborigines who congregate in the streets of the towns… the later being a very visible population of Aborigines yet only representing a minute percentage overall. Unfortunately, those Aborigines who have become addicted to alcohol, drugs, violence, etc. have been ostracized from their own communities and thus forced to search for a means to feed their addictions and to survive on their own in the towns. Most foreigners, or even Australians for that matter, don’t get a chance to see Aborigines in their communities, where they live in peace, celebrate and cherish their history and culture and still thrive in areas that are inhabitable to most others.    

After learning that what we were seeing was apparently only a very small percentage of the Aborigine population, many other questions then came to mind: What was being done to address this visible problem a) by the government, b) by the towns c) by the Aboriginal communities? Additionally, if most people are only exposed to a very negative side of Aboriginal culture, especially foreign travelers and tourists, why not try and do more to open and expose people to the positive aspects? Obviously there are some cultural elements involved that Australians, Europeans and Americans might not be able to easily grasp, but the bottom line is, there is a problem and at first glance it appears to be one that is not being adequately addressed. Maybe people feel that if the problem and those who constitute it are ignored, it will go away on its own, but history often dictates that this is far from reality. I wish I had more time here to try and explore some of these questions, time to explore the countless positive aspects Aboriginal culture has to share and learn more about what if anything is being done to address the negative ones. Unfortunately, I don’t have more time and like many others who travel through the outback and through places such as Alice Springs and Katherine, I have developed a very misleading yet vivid view of Aborigines and their place in Australian society,  a view that will be hard to forget. This is a real shame, because I know it is a far cry from the celebrated Aboriginal culture I was anticipating.

I am curious to see what other people think about this issue. I know that people in Australia are now following us on our journey and I welcome comments on this blog so that maybe I can get a better picture of modern day Aboriginal culture. I realize that our time there was short and I may have only seen a glimpse, so it would be nice to have some more information to fill in the gaps even though we have already left Australia.