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Bringing back 'Aunty'

By Liz Conor - posted Tuesday, 4 July 2006

It's a crying shame that the courageous revelations of Alice Springs Crown Prosecutor Nanette Rogers have incited nothing but competitive and defensive posturing by Federal Indigenous Affairs Minister, Mal Brough, and the Northern Territory Chief Minister, Clare Martin.

While they bicker at and begrudge one another's proposals, they walk roughshod over the knowledge and experience of Indigenous leaders. If one thing characterises the Howard Government’s treatment of black Australia, it is its arrogant disregard for, and active undermining of, black leaders’ authority.

Brough’s determined exclusion of policy formulators, such as Marcia Langton, Noel Pearson and Patrick Dodson who recently set up the new the Lingiari Policy Centre, is symptomatic of his government's paternalism. Tying services, that white Australians enjoy with taxpayer righteousness, to school attendance and children’s hygiene moves beyond paternalism. It is racially discriminatory. Brough has the cranky swagger of Rex Harrison, cursing on the set of My Fair Lady, "Why can’t they be more like us".


He does, however, appeal to a broad-based consensus - the violence is unacceptable and somehow has to be addressed. But if he knew just a smidgen of Australia’s colonial history, it might guide him through the mire of white perceptions of Indigenous gender relations and violence and enable him to sort through long-standing myth.

Violence toward women and the early betrothal of girls in Aboriginal communities was a pervasive stereotype in settlers' and administraters' accounts of early colonial Australia. Over a vast archive of Australian print media, domestic violence, as we’ve come to call it, was as much a staple of white accounts of Aboriginal peoples as skulls, place names and artifacts.

Our present abhorrence of violence in communities, and calls for intervention, are indelibly shaped by this long-standing tradition. It says much about colonial gender relations: the cult of "true womanhood" and the pervasive trope of the chivalrous explorer or settler who was able to discern the finer of point of "lubra" grace and dignity, not to mention the naïve and uncalculating beauty of the Australian "native belle".

Colonial men had a lot of gall, given their "interference" with Aboriginal women and children, not to mention the dreadful record of treatment of convict women and girls, to portray Aboriginal men as "savages" in the treatment of their women. This specious gallantry was a colonial observance which helped to establish a rights discourse over the sexual misappropriation of not only Aboriginal women, but their children and their lands.

Also historically instructive is the writing out of Aboriginal maternity in all but anthropological accounts of Aborigines. While it was common for white men to note with a kind of inadvertent admiration the tender affection that Aboriginal men showed toward children and their direct involvement in their daily care, the figure of the piccaninny, popularly consumed by whites throughout the 20th century, was invariably alone in the bush, the unadmitted black orphan of white conscience.

Aboriginal mothers again are absent in the recent revelations of child abuse. It is not dissimilar to legal and support service attitudes toward mothers of children abused by their partners, that somehow they had to know, that somehow they are more culpable than the men that raped their children.


But these conventions are not all determining of present responses to gendered violence in Aboriginal communities. As Henry Reynolds work shows there have always been sympathetic whites who, though sometimes the appropriators of Aboriginal land - and in so many cases misguided and exploitative, they nevertheless shed light on the occurrence of violence in post-contact communities, all of them profoundly impacted by the trauma of displacement, loss of context for systems of governance, observance of law, alongside unimaginable grief, despair and rage.

Daisy Bates is perhaps exemplary of conditions and terms under which white sympathy was expressed. She lied to the elders, letting them believe she was a ghostly manifestation of their revered ancestors, Kabbarli, and she misused this authority to pinch precious artifacts, crucial in the observance of law, which she shipped off to museums.

She flogged hundreds of sensationalist articles to the press - often to fund the assistance she was providing - about infanticide and cannibalism. But she also nursed entire communities through whooping cough and an array of white-imported diseases. She was, like all of us, absolutely appalled by the trafficking and abuse of Aboriginal women and girls, but it should be stressed - by white men, along the Ooldea railway siding. Bates had an absolute horror of the "half-caste" and race degeneration.

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About the Author

Liz Conor is a research fellow in the Department of Culture and Communications at the University of Melbourne. Read her blog Liz Conor: Comment and Critique here.

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