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Aboriginal culture: who wants it, who needs it?

By John Morton - posted Friday, 26 May 2006

Ever since Europeans first came to Australia, public views of Aborigines have veered between two extremes. Aborigines have been promoted either as disgusting savages or as admired paragons, uncivilised riff-raff or as noble bearers of their culture - bad or good, but never ordinary.

As we now enter a new phase of Aboriginal affairs, Indigenous Australians once again enter the public mind as radically different types of people. On the one hand, we are bombarded with material about dysfunctional communities plagued by drug and alcohol abuse, rampant violence, uncontrolled children and chronic sickness. On the other hand, we routinely hear about “the oldest living culture in the world”, Aboriginal people caring, sharing and looking after country, and the profound qualities of Aboriginal art.

In these circumstances, it’s hard to know what “the oldest living culture in the world” might be. Indeed, it’s hard to know what people are talking about at all when they refer to “culture”. Yet people refer to “culture” a lot, particularly in the context of providing services to Aboriginal communities. Some say these services should be “culturally appropriate”. Others say that Aboriginal culture needs to change to fit the modern world.


It seems that defining Aboriginal culture invariably involves judgments of its worth. The same thing happens when people talk about the threat to “Australian culture” posed by too much American television, or when a new footy coach says he intends to “change the culture” of an unsuccessful club. But why is it that we don’t talk about culture without such hefty doses of moralising. Why is it that we feel compelled to label cultures good or bad and stereotype them as “appropriate” or “inappropriate”?

Stereotyping is a way of simplifying something complex and making it uniform. Our politicians often do this when they speak of “Australian values” and condemn other values as “un-Australian”, even when they are held by Australian people. Of course, politicians’ appeals to Australian values are not descriptions of Australian culture. They are prescriptions for Australian culture - and many of us are rightly sceptical, even cynical, about politicians force-feeding us our identity in this way. We have every reason to believe that the appeals are motivated and highly partial.

Should we be any less sceptical or cynical about appeals to Aboriginal culture and Aboriginal values? If Aboriginal culture is defined as bad, we can blame Aborigines and Aboriginal sympathisers for any problems in Aboriginal communities. Equally, if Aboriginal culture is defined as good, then the blame can be sheeted home to others - non-Aboriginal policy-makers and bureaucrats who have failed to deliver “culturally appropriate” services.

It’s a bit like a playground conversation between two outraged children. One says “You did it!” The other replies, “No I didn’t; it’s your fault!” - an exchange reminiscent of many which take place in Australian parliaments and in the media. Much of what has passed for public debate about Aborigines in recent weeks has been of this kind. If only Aboriginal affairs were that simple.

There is another and better way to look at Aboriginal culture. We can simply say that it’s what Aborigines do - the way they go about their lives and deal with their problems. But such a simple description opens up a very complex vision, because, in spite of oft-heard statements about Aborigines “clinging” to their culture, Aboriginal people don’t do things for the sake of it or just out of habit.

Like everyone else, Aboriginal people do things for reasons and because they try to advance their interests. But there is a complicated relationship between the purpose of people’s actions and the ensuing outcomes. Alcohol use is a good example. People drink to be sociable and to feel more powerful, yet they sometimes become less sociable and less powerful in the process. While culture is about problem solving, it would be naïve to think that the solutions always work. Of course, this is true of all cultures and Aborigines are no exception to the rule.


In Aboriginal culture, as in any other, interests might often be held in common, but that is has never been the whole of the story. There are also conflicting interests, so that differences of opinion are often voiced about the right and wrong ways to go about things. Sometimes, the conflicts and differences are muted by allegiance to an idealised version of “our culture”, but they don’t disappear. Aboriginal groups have much which binds them together as communities, but they are also divisive. This has always been the case; the divisiveness can’t simply be put down to white interference.

We’ve heard a lot of arguments about the “true” nature of Aboriginal culture in recent weeks. Some say Aboriginal culture fosters violence against women and children. Others gainsay this and suggest that violence is cultural breakdown stemming from neglect and marginalisation by mainstream Australian culture. There are many more axes to grind in relation to employment, health and education, but always with a view to promoting a good or bad image of Aboriginal people, not to mention a good or bad image of the “mainstream culture” which provides Aboriginal services. But these conflicting views are advanced by both Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people, and the pros and cons do not simply divide along racial lines.

This blame game doesn’t give us “the truth” about Aboriginal or any other culture. It simply reduces the extremely complicated relationship between Aboriginal communities and all the arms of the state (governments, bureaucracies, the police, land councils, schools, health centres, etc.) with which they engage. Recourse to “culture” always seems to deliver imagined parodies of real life, transforming it into something inordinately valuable or completely worthless.

British cultural critic Raymond Williams once remarked that “culture” is “one of the two or three most complicated words in the English language”. He perhaps should have said that the word is about as slippery as an eel. Similarly, American anthropologists Alfred Kroeber and Clyde Kluckhohn once surveyed usage of the term “culture” and came up with scores of different definitions. With that many meanings, it’s not surprising that the word often doesn’t make a lot of sense in public debate. In fact, it’s an empty word: you can fill it with pretty much anything you like. That’s why it functions so well in slogans.

In the meantime, there are many people both inside and outside Aboriginal communities who recognise that there are big problems in Aboriginal affairs. It’d be good if they could all be allowed to get on with the job of finding appropriate solutions to those problems without “culture” getting in the way.

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This is a longer version of an article first published in The Age on May 24, 2006.

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About the Author

Dr Morton currently teaches general anthropology and Aboriginal studies.

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