We’ll be taking a break for a few months, at least until early next year to focus on two novels being completed. Best wishes for the forthcoming festive season, thanks to 101.7 for the opportunity to have presented these stories, to Tony Howes as the compere, and to Paul-David Goddard for his superb interpretation and reading. I am deeply indebted.

This story returns me to a major theme in my novels and many yarns played on 101.7 over nearly three years. That theme is Aboriginal/non-Aboriginal relationships in this country and the most apparent consequence of assimilation. I stress once more I’m not opposed to assimilation if it is a choice freely made by those who participate. But as I’ve also said before, I’m certain it’s never been a choice for Aboriginal people. 

Jimmy spoke in his usual calm, quiet way about the region, his language group and its history. “Mayidjula mob is traditional owner of country around Chiltern. Their territory runs east and west of Chiltern and south down to the Tainault Ranges and Yarama and Yintjimi countries. Before wayijbalas, we blackfellas all lived and roamed our places but when you mob arrived,” he grinned, “blackfellas started to live in Chiltern. Do you know why?”

“I’d guess water, food, missionaries and grog,” Dan mused.

“Yes, them, as well as being kicked off country by station owners with nowhere else to go, or else coming to be with family imprisoned for breaking wayijbala law. With so many people arriving in towns like Chiltern, governments set up camps to manage and feed people. The camp where I lived was outside town, on the other side of the river, because by law, blackfellas weren’t allowed in town after dark. But the camp, or reserve as it was known, also meant different blackfella language groups were all living together in one place, with only Mayidjula mob on their actual country.”

He explained simply, and with little emotion, that being together on the reserve meant cultural identities, values and languages of the different groups mutated, usually in negative ways. As if pardoning the perpetrators, he added that even now, most white people still had no idea that each language group had once been a nation with its own land, identity, culture and values and the transference of identity, culture and values to young people depended on being in country, the use of language and role modelling. The arrival of missionaries promoting Christianity only confused things further and Aboriginal cultures were besieged; under attack in several ways, which began the process of cultural disintegration.

“Cultural knowledge remaining about the three mobs I named ,” Jimmy sighed, “is preserved in the heads of old people. They still know and enact many old ways, so each culture is still alive, but each needs resuscitation. Still, that’s better than some places in Australia, where language groups are extinct or nearly gone through genocide, cultural desecration, or three forms of assimilation.”

“What do you mean by three forms of assimilation, Jimmy?”

Jimmy smiled and settled back in his chair. “Have you got half-an-hour while I explain the history of assimilation and the consequences for blackfellas?”

Dan grinned in response and closed the office door.

“I’ll start by defining what I mean by it, Dan,” Jimmy began. “I say it’s causing blackfellas, whether by choice or not, to live and behave like wayijbalas: whitefellas. Are you okay with that?”

At Dan’s nod, Jimmy outlined the three types of assimilation: unintended, accidental and intended, with each one taking precedence in different historical periods. He felt the first was mainly a consequence of the takeover of Aboriginal lands by whitefellas. That action dispossessed and dislocated language groups which led to accidental assimilation, a product of western concepts of capitalism and the pursuit of profit. Those twin goals generated extreme levels of political legislation and the harsh imposition of the English legal system on Aboriginal people, to manage what were seen as the rights of white people, land holders and supporting businesses in towns and cities. At the same time, the government began to virtually sub-contract religious orders to become de-facto ‘protectors of natives’, because they were cheaper and more effective than government operations.

Those political and legal frameworks, according to Jimmy, meant intentional assimilation had arrived. From 1905, the establishment of compounds and sites across the state, where Aborigines were ‘trained’ to live and work like white people, became standard practice. Additional controls followed: policies or laws preventing Aboriginal people being in towns after nightfall, the removal of caste children from black mothers to train them to live like white people, forcing Aboriginal adults to renounce their Aboriginality and culture if they wanted to live in towns or go to schools, and even needing to seek permission from a government department to marry. And the justification for most of these, Jimmy added, was that Aboriginal races were dying out and the laws and policies would achieve two goals: to ‘smooth the dying pillow’ of full-blooded people and provide a future to those of ‘mixed descent’.

Intentional assimilation lasted basically from the 1900s to the mid-1960s, and caused many deaths from either diseases like influenza against which Aborigines had little or no resistance, or from the oppressive whitefella legal system.

Dan’s mind whirled as he tried to make sense of what he was hearing. While his historical knowledge of Australian history was reasonable, including the unpalatable actions of the slaughter of Aborigines at many sites across the country, what Jimmy was describing created a mosaic that it would take him years to comprehend and decipher.

He finally asked, “But things are better now, aren’t they, Jimmy?”

“It depends on your view. For me, we’re still being assimilated. I call it a return to accidental assimilation through four strategies: religion, education, the legal system and the economy.

“Let me explain in more detail. For all their good intentions and the protection provided by religious orders, they viewed us as heathens to be saved by conversion to Christianity. That dragged many of us from our religion which is our lore, l-o-r-e. Then there’s what you call education and we call schooling. Our kids were originally barred from it, then offered it in segregated schools, until it eventually became integrated. But whitefella values and your ways of knowing and doing dominate and drive it, and my mob’s values and learning aren’t part of it. Sure, a blackfella language might be taught in some schools, but even that happens according to whitefella ways of teaching, not our ways of learning.

“Then there’s your law, l-a-w, which basically gaoled us for just following our customs, like spearing animals for food, and today it divides us by causing conflict over land claims and mining royalties, leading to vicious disputes between people in the same language groups and families. And last, there’s the whitefella belief that the panacea to our ills is employment, educating and training us without giving us time to accommodate or alter our traditional values and preserve them.

“So, yes, from the 1967 referendum, some things have improved, but I’ve never forgotten what I heard you once describe as unintended consequences. For example, the referendum gave us two rights and they’ve both been killing us; grog kills us quick and welfare kills us slow. Assimilation pulls us hard towards whitefellas values and ways of knowing and doing, but then leaves us in a nowhere place. It leaves our kids lost between your world, in which they don’t belong, and ours, which they don’t really understand. And into that situation came a host of whitefella organisations, like religious orders which think they’re helping, when really, they’re doing more damage.”

In long silence, Dan was as much affected by Jimmy’s lack of anger towards the perpetrators as what he’d said.

“So if I struggle like this, no wonder our kids are lost. They’re caught between two worlds, not part of either but not knowing which one to go to. That’s a cruel thing to have to live and survive. And I know, Dan! It’s been my life! I feel for them because I’ve lived their confusion and angst. They don’t know who they are, where they’ve come from, or where they’re going. At least I had oldies to help me when I was a kid, but these days, kids don’t listen to oldies anymore.

“If we don’t do something soon, all that is, and was, my culture will have died. At what cost, not just to my people, or blackfellas, but this nation as a whole?” The expression on Jimmy’s face pierced deeper into Dan’s feelings as he added, “I wonder how white Australians would feel if their culture was taken from them the way ours has been?”