I’m currently writing my fourth novel with the draft title of “Life Sentence”. Over the story, a major focus is on the consequences of the use languages to impart and gain information. Through this, I’m trying to highlight to readers how the processes of arresting and sentencing of Aboriginal people in the late 19th Century in Western Australia were badly flawed. This applied not only to language groups like the Yindjibarndi, Banyjima and Ngalawangka speakers who are central to the story, but to varying degrees with all other language groups in this state and across our country. I believe the different ways of knowing and doing of Aboriginal cultures were never investigated nor understood by wayijbalas (meaning whitefellas), and differences in language were never a focus for us. We, as whitefellas, assumed Aboriginal people would behave according to our customs and written laws, which were never translated and if any rationale were ever given for them, it was usually lost in the translation. Conversely, Aboriginal people continued to follow their traditional or cultural lore which could only be explained orally in a language we couldn’t understand, aided by sketches in the dust and paintings. So the few who tried to understand also had difficulty. But, as we whitefellas had power, guns and money, Aboriginal people had to do what we told them, including not breaking our laws which we never explained and which often, they didn’t understand or thought were senseless.
I recall working in the Northern Territory, undertaking Alcohol Management Plans (AMPs) with remote community people in 2009 and 2010. The motivation for these plans was a product of the NT National Emergency Response (the Intervention), when the Commonwealth Government put 73 Aboriginal communities under external controls in the space of about a week, including control by the army, because of evidence of rampant child abuse. Among the many rules and procedures imposed by the Australian Federal Government were those making the possession of alcohol and pornography inside twenty to thirty kilometre boundaries around each community, illegal.
When I commenced working on the AMPs, I was told a reason for the boundaries was to make communities safer for the women and children, and to prevent many deaths, particularly of young men, caused by alcohol consumption on highways or roads into those communities. That was the version I took with me to the communities, and the safety of women and children was echoed, often very quietly, by a number of leaders, many women and a few men whose wives were alcoholics. So safer communities was never an issue. What was were the deaths of young people on highways from drinking.
Over time, I learned that when the Intervention started, community leaders were taken along roads and highways into each community in each or every direction to show them precisely the spots where the alcohol ban started. Signs were then erected signs, in English, to emphasise the point. The law had spoken: no grog could pass this point.
But talking one day to an Aboriginal elder, however, I learned another version that helped me better understand the deaths of the young men. In a quiet spot under a tree, he told me, When that Intervention thing start, Government fella take us on highway and show us where grog got to stop. Tell us no grog go that way. I aks him what boys do if they still got grog. He say tip him out or stop here here and drink him. We tell boys that.
A number of young men from his community had died at the drinking spot, run over by road-trains after going to sleep on the road to stay warm on cold nights. So the translation ‘stay here and drink him’ was taken literally. No one thought of potential consequences or of saying something clearer, such as: if you’re stop here to drink, make sure you set up camp well back from this highway, and keep well away from the bitumen. Everyone seemed to take it for granted that all was understood and would be undertaken with due diligence.
Such is was the pattern in the 1890s which led to unintended consequences when laws were imposed by one group on another in a rushed manner and through a different way of knowing and doing. Is it any different today?