Dan is a former school-teacher and researcher developing a program to help Aboriginal students complete high school in the Pilbara region of Western Australia. Jimmy is an Aboriginal man from the region with whom Dan had worked with in Perth, several years before. The period is the late 1990s. Apart from Perth and the Pilbara Region, the names of towns and the Aboriginal language groups are fictional, although some photos below are of Roebourne, which was part of a process to develop a program like the one described above. One photo below is of deceased Aboriginal people, and I trust it causes no concern to traditional groups. If so, and if requested, I will remove it. But I felt that non-Aboriginal people’s understanding of past history would be challenged by its inclusion.
Dan struggled with how to undertake the research he’d been asked to do, particularly interviewing Aboriginal people. As the struggle continued Jimmy Firth, an Aboriginal man from the Pilbara and a qualified teacher currently working in regional education office came to mind. They’d worked together for a year or so in the Education Department Central Office after Dan had completed his studies. That had led them to chat about western education, its influence on Aboriginal peoples, and Dan had learned some of the history of Jimmy’s Yarama language group. He vividly recalled an extended explanation from Jimmy about the effects of western culture on that group and others close by.
Jimmy had spoken in his quiet way. “Mintjimi language group is the traditional owner of Chiltern. Their country runs from Vlaming to east of Chiltern and south to the Tainault Ranges, which borders on my Yarama country. Until kardiyas arrived, we all lived and roamed our countries. But once you mob arrived, “he grinned at Dan, “blackfellas began to come to Chiltern and stayed. Do you know why?”
“My knowledge suggests missionaries, grog, and trinkets, sugar and flour?”
Jimmy had chuckled. “That’s what your history says. of it. But some of it was because my mob had nowhere else to go after station owners kicked them off country. Others came to be with family members who’d been sent to prison for breaking whitefella laws. Then came government policies, like assimilation, that made groups come to Chiltern to live whether they wanted to or not. A reserve was set up on the other side of the Hand River to accommodate us and we weren’t allowed in Chiltern after dark.
“Being herded together in the same place meant our cultural identities and languages mutated and damage was caused to the individual cultures and values. Kardiyas never understood that each Aboriginal language group is its own nation with its own culture and values, carried by its language. Then missionaries and Christianity arrived to add to the confusion. Soon our cultures started to disintegrate. What’s left is mostly preserved in the heads of some of the elders and old people . They still know and practice many of the old ways, so my culture is still visible, but it needs resuscitation among young people. In a lot of places in Australia where whitefellas have been for a long time, language groups are extinct or they struggle to survive. The causes are probably genocide, intended or unintended assimilation, cultural desecration or all three.”
“Jimmy, what do you mean by assimilation, and then what do you mean by intended and unintended?”
“I define assimilation simply as trying to make blackfellas be like whitefellas. Intended assimilation was done by forcing us into compounds to live just get us off the land of farmers and station-owners or to keep us out of towns. That form of assimilation started the disintegration of cultures. Then came taking caste kids from black mothers or getting us to renounce our Aboriginality if we wanted to live in towns or go to schools. That’s what I meant by intended assimilation. But there were, and still are, four more insidious assimilation strategies occurring: religion, the education system, the legal system and the economic system. They’re all part of what I mean by unintended assimilation. Laws passed since the 1960s, as well the 1967 referendum, were supposed to help us and do away with assimilation, but I don’t think they have. Assimilation keeps happening and kardiyas don’t even know they’re doing it. So, it continues to damage us.
“For all their good intentions, and the protection they offered in some places, Catholics, Anglicans, Lutherans, Methodists and so on saw us as heathens to be saved through conversion to Christianity. That dragged a lot of us from our religion, which is our lore: l-o-r-e.
“Then there’s what you call education and I call schooling. Our kids were originally barred from the education system, until laws were changed and it became compulsory. But enforcing schooling the way it was done, without any consultation with us, ignored two things: that schooling is all whitefella values and ways of knowing and doing, and the values and learning that are part of my culture were, and often are still excluded, totally ignored or, in some cases, seen as criminal acts.
“Then there’s your law: l-a-w. It divides us with land claims, creates conflict and usually ignores our lore. That sort of division, often over money, hurts our language groups, and that hurts me.
“And finally, there’s the idea that the panacea to all our ills is to be employed by whitefellas, with no consideration of what that sort of employment means to our traditional values, or any alternative thinking or ideas about ways for people to be employed, or to own the means of production.
“If I’m struggling with all of that, no wonder our kids are totally confused. They have to try to live in two worlds, and that’s a very hard thing to do. I know because I’ve had to do it all my life. I feel for our kids and understand why many seem so lost and angry. A lot don’t know who they are, where they’ve come from, or where they’re going .
“We need space, Dan: space to decide who we were, who we are now, and who we want to be in the future. And we know your ways, whitefella ways, will need to be part of that future. But first, we have go back and learn about ourselves, before it’s too late.
“But then, once we’ve decided our future, we have to be permitted to work as equal partners with whitefellas to create our future, and not be seen as less capable and less important than your mob and how they do things.”
The sadness in his eyes in that split second had mirrored his words . Even as Dan picked up the phone to ring him, the echo of the moment chimed and resonated down the years
Author’s Notes: I stress that this story is the interpretation of a non-Aboriginal man about what he has seen, felt, been told and has analysed to make his own sense. This story is not necessarily how any or all Aboriginal peoples see their history since the arrival of non-Aboriginal (waibala, kardiya or wedjella) people. Only they can tell you their stories. I also stress that I have no objection to people being assimilated into another culture IF THAT IS THEIR CHOICE. But my interpretation is that Aboriginal peoples have usually not had that choice.