A powerful difference between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal cultures has to do with family. It was illustrated to me by an Aboriginal friend who told me a simple yet very powerful story to paint the picture I’ll try to paint for you.
Our backs were against a rock beside a large pool deep in the gorge, watching the little children play. The red cliffs surrounding the pool on three sides reared up, seeming to caress the hazy blueness above us.
I was fascinated by the way the little ones seemed to have so much freedom. Three women I took to be their mothers sat on a ledge maybe ten metres above the pool, dangling lines in the water while little ones would clamber up or down a steep incline to the ledge. I knew non-Aboriginal children wouldn’t be allowed by their parents to undertake what seemed to me to be a hazardous climb.
“What if one of those kids falls?” I asked Jimmy.
He smiled. “They won’t. Those ladies know they won’t. If they thought there was danger, they wouldn’t let them climb. Do you see how a bigger kid goes with a real little one and sort of keeps guard while they climb.”
“That bigger kid, as you call her, must be all of five years old, Jimmy.”
“That’s old enough in our culture, Dave. Kids start early looking after little brothers and sisters and that’s what the ladies are letting them do.”
“What do you mean, ladies. Aren’t they the mothers of those kids?”
“I think one might the mother of one of the kids, but the other two are aunties of all the kids, like the mother is too.”
“So, the kids are here without their mothers or fathers, running around a ledge in a gorge above a pool and nobody is worried?”
Jimmy eased his hands behind his head. “I think there are a couple of things that may help you understand,”
“I’m think you’re going to give me one of your gentle lectures,” I told him.
“Think of your world Dave, as a station wagon going down the highway, with Mum and Dad in the front seats, two kids in the back seat, and the dog in the luggage compartment behind the kids. Then picture my world as a family group in about eight or nine landrovers or troopies bouncing over country, all with kids and dogs in them. And each time we stop, some kids and dogs will swap from one landrover to another one. That’s my description of the difference. In your world, you have the nuclear family, while in my world, we have the extended family. In your world, mum and dad are responsible for health care, love, discipline, imparting values and all the things that go with raising kids. In my world, mum and dad nuture and love, but at a certain age, grandparents or aunties and uncles take over with discipline and imparting values which are part of our culture.”
He paused and smiled sadly.
“Or that’s how it should be in my world. But disease, grog, incarceration and other things have impacted on the role that parents and other family members can or should play. It’s one of things we need to deal with: to come to grips with how things have changed and how we are going to deal with bringing up the kids in a proper way. At least here,” and he waved his hand around the gorge, “you can see how it used to be and, in some places like here, it still is. Whether we can go back to any of that is something we have to decide. But whatever decision we reach, it has to be about helping the kids live ‘proper way’.”