Of the few Indigenous Australian languages still spoken as a first language, Warlpiri is one of the most alive. My people have an earthy, often self-deprecating sense of humour. Their profound linguistic awareness leads them to invent hilarious jokes about their constant mispronunciation of English, and other Aboriginal languages, as well as the mispronunciation of Warlpiri by tin-eared English-speakers. As with any language there are rules around politeness, obscenity and sacrilege. However, once those rules are observed words become playthings to be used to produce wit and humour. My favourite examples are probably unpublishable in a literary magazine. Clever and funny but too politically incorrect.
I am a Warlpiri woman from Central Australia; I am Celtic; I’m Australian—a product of several cultures. My mother is from Yuendumu, a remote community in desert country. Her parents spent their childhood in the desert out of contact with the rest of the world. My father is a whitefella, originally from Newcastle. I was born in Darwin, conceived on Melville Island. My baby spirit Dreamings are from that salt water country; Crocodile and Deep Water. My inherited, family Dreamings, Jukurrpa, from my Warlpiri fathers are Ngapa (Rain) and Warlu (Fire) and from my mother, Jajirdi (Western Quoll) and Janganpa (Possum).
Warlpiri Creator Ancestors, Jukurrpa-warnu, came down from the sky and out of the ground to travel across the country creating the land forms and living creatures of today. The whole of the landscape has been made in this way so the dreaming stories tell us of how places came into being and explore what it means to be human in a vast, harsh landscape. As the creator beings travelled they also left behind in the land their spiritual essence. Some of this essence becomes child spirits, which enter the bodies of passing women, forming new life in their wombs. This gives us our very own personal dreamings. This is how we are connected to our country forever. The matrix of their tracks gives us an extremely useful and complex mental map of the country. This tells us where we can access the resources we need to survive. We share Jukurrpa with our families, binding us together and telling us how to relate to each other. The Jukurrpa-warnu created our country and our society.
Jukurrpa underpinned all of Warlpiri society, our economy and legal system. These have always evolved to accommodate change. We survived through massive climate change, through much colder and drier times than now. We took the dingo into our Jukurrpa after they arrived around 5000 years ago. We adopted the eight skin-name kinship system only centuries ago and used it to structure our dealings with everybody we come into contact with.
In old times we took everything we needed from the land. No floors, vehicles, domestic animals, shoes or bedding separated us from it. We had no clothes, no hats, no blankets and no money. Our culture gave us the tools to survive then. There was nothing but Country (Nguru) and Family (Warlalja). I spent much of my childhood in the bush surrounded by family. The best memories are walking barefoot across red earth, with a stick in hand, poking at the ground between tufts of spinifex looking for goanna burrows or tracking honey ants through mulga leaf litter.
We kids played while our grandmothers, aunts and mothers did the serious hunting and gathering. They used the skills and knowledge given them by their traditional culture but we straddled tradition and the modern world. We wore shoes and clothes. We drove cars. We took plastic eskies with ice and store-bought food and drinks. We used metal billy cans and steel digging sticks. We lit fires with matches. We used money.
We’re often told we must maintain our old ways unchanged because ours is the longest surviving culture in the world. Today Warlpiri people are among the most marginalised in the world, a status shared with many others living in the remotest Australian communities. Those who try to live now by the rules of a culture invented to allow survival as hunter-gatherers in a desert are doomed to poverty and disadvantage.
There are many who believe the disadvantage experienced by Aboriginal people today is caused solely by colonisation, racism and governments. This argument has sat at the forefront of political debate and brought about much needed change. Now it is drowning out the voices of those who are being victimised by our own forms of oppression.
If we want to address the current crisis affecting Aboriginal families and communities, we must look within. Why is it Aboriginal women are hospitalised at a rate 35 times higher than the national average? Why is that rate up to 80 times greater in the remotest communities, where culture and language are still strong?
We must be willing to analyse our culture critically to decide what should be kept and what should be discarded. Whitefellas can’t do that for us. We must address these issues from within our cultures, our societies and our families. And this means acknowledging the very real beliefs that exist in Aboriginal cultures contributing to the use of violence and the subjugation of women.
Like most traditional cultures around the world, Warlpiri culture is deeply patriarchal; men are superior to women and more privileged and the collective quashes the rights of the individual. These principles, thousands of years old, come together to oppress women now.
If I misbehaved as a young girl, some well-intentioned family member might threaten me with forced marriage to a much older ‘promised husband’. I would obey out of terror. Aboriginal children are rarely punished physically, but are controlled psychologically. I recall when I was a little girl, my female kin playing cards at Yuendumu. A Japangardi, one of my potential husbands, walked past. The women pretended he was coming to take me away. They teased me and huddled around, pretending to protect me from his clutches. He played along, pretending to grab for me. I was terrified. Everyone burst into laughter. Japangardi signalled it was all a joke and handed me a $20 note to compensate me for the terror he caused me. Girls are trained to be submissive from birth and their fear is laughed at.
My mother was expected to join her middle-aged promised husband as his second wife at the age of 13. She would have gone to her big sister’s household as her co-wife. Mum rebelled. Her father and promised husband relented and told her she could finish school first. They were good and thoughtful men who knew the law but also knew when not to enforce it and that the world was changing. Others of my mother’s age weren’t so lucky and were beaten senseless for daring to rebel. My parents were determined I would be able to choose my husband. There are still some not granted that right.
In customary law, a man is entitled to have sex with his promised wife without her consent. This has been used in court to defend men who had violently and sexually assaulted their teenaged promised wives. In 2002 a 50-year-old Aboriginal man faced court over the abduction and rape of his 15-year-old promised wife. He had already killed one wife. Despite this his new wife’s family had promised her to him. She was held against her will at his outstation and repeatedly raped. When she attempted to leave with relatives, he fired his shotgun to scare them off. His lawyers argued he was acting within the parameters of his law and fulfilling obligations to the victim’s family. This was true. The initial charge of rape was reduced. He received 24 hours imprisonment for unlawful intercourse with a minor and 14 days imprisonment for the firearm offences. When the details were published in a national paper there was outrage and a successful appeal.
I know of many other cases like that; stories of rape, domestic violence and murder; stories belonging to women in my family and many other Aboriginal families. Stories that never reach the ears of the wider public.
My close family regularly contribute to the hideous statistics relating to family violence. My Aboriginal sisters, aunts, mothers, nieces and daughters live this crisis every day. There is not a woman in my family who has not experienced some kind of physical or sexual abuse at some time in her life. And none of the perpetrators were white.
One of my aunts had her childhood violently stolen from her at the age of 14. Her promised husband, a much older man, held her captive. She was bound with rope ‘like a kangaroo’, as it was described to me, and repeatedly raped. No-one reported the incident. Everyone went about their lives as if nothing had happened. My aunt—one of the most loving, caring and, as I’ve come to learn, resilient women I know—lived on in silence. She lost the ability to bear children. She was left to deal with her scarred womb and tormented psyche while her perpetrator lived on to die as an elder and law man, revered by both the Aboriginal and the wider community.
I was told of another aunt who had also been promised to a much older man who, again, had been convicted of killing his first wife. She was terrified she’d suffer the same fate. Her female relatives tried to protect her. I was told her promised husband and other male relatives took her out bush with the connivance of her own father who had also caused the death of his wife. No-one has seen her since. That was more than 30 years ago when I was a baby. No complaint was made to the police.
These are the kinds of women’s stories I’ve grown up with, told to me in whispers by aunts, grandmothers, mothers. They were also warnings of what can happen when a girl breaks the law. As an Aboriginal woman I have grown up knowing never to travel on certain roads during ‘business’ time for fear of accidentally coming across a men’s ceremonial party. Like all Aboriginal women, I am at risk of being killed as punishment for making such a simple mistake. This was, and still is, the rule for Aboriginal women in Central Australia.
In January 2009 a police car drove onto a ceremonial ground in a remote community. They were pursuing a man who had assaulted his wife. There was a female police officer in the car. That evening the ABC news reported white police had shown no respect for Aboriginal law. The fact they were pursuing a man who had perpetrated violence against his wife wasn’t mentioned. Interviewed for the evening news, the late Mr Bookie, former chairman of the Central Land Council, said ‘it’s against our law for people like that, breaking the law, they shouldn’t be there. Aboriginal ladies, they’re not allowed to go anywhere near that. If they had been caught—a woman, Aboriginal lady, got caught—she would be killed. Simple as that!’ He knew the Law and he told the truth.
There was great anger in June this year when Victoria Police issued a statement cautioning women to have ‘situational awareness’ and be ‘mindful of their surroundings’ after the terrible rape and murder of a young Melbourne woman in a Carlton park at night. Aboriginal women in remote Australia must be acutely aware of their situation and surroundings all the time during Aboriginal men’s ceremony. They are taught this from birth. This is the way it is and has always been.
A few years ago I was contacted by a female family member who told me that because of feuding between her family and her in-laws she was wrongly accused of insulting a man in a culturally sensitive way relating to sacred men’s business. As a result, she and her daughter were told they had to strip naked publicly in their community to be humiliated. Women know insulting a man with reference to men’s sacred ceremony can result in severe punishment. An accusation is usually believed and supported by the accuser’s female kin. Denial is useless.
A son-in-law can do whatever he likes and his mother-in-law will blame her daughter. In traditional communities in the Northern Territory, the patriarchal and kin-based society is so deeply embedded it’s common for female relatives of even violent offenders to support them against the victim. The obligation to male kin is so strong it can be crippling.
Premature death and life-threatening illness are blamed on sorcery. Misfortune falling on a family can be blamed on the misbehaviour of women who have attracted the attention of sorcerers. They may be blamed for the death of their children or husbands. Mothers and widows in mourning are sometimes badly beaten after attracting blame. They usually accept punishment because they share the belief system that imposes the penalty.
As long as the belief that women can be blamed for the bad behaviour of men, or for accidents and illness, exists in the hearts and minds of Aboriginal people, we will never progress in the fight against physical and sexual violence against women. It is heartbreaking but true.
Ironically, in my experience many of those most horrified by the idea of Aboriginal people questioning the old ways or adapting to the new are people who fully embrace modernity themselves. They are often well educated and employed, fluent and articulate in English. They live safely in suburbs, have access to the media and the world’s best health services. They don’t die young and they stay out of prison. They have their own culture, don’t live by our customary law, perhaps don’t know what it is. To me, it’s never clear what it is they’re so keen for us to hold onto. Or why we should.
In a small-scale society without prisons and without material wealth, incarceration or fining weren’t available as penalties for law breaking. Physical punishments such as wounding by spear, beatings or death were the only ones available. Once the punishment had been carried out, conflict could be resolved and everyone could carry on with life. With no defence services or police everybody, male and female, was trained to fight to defend themselves and their families when called upon.
Communities haven’t fully shed these ancient practices. But they don’t work in a complex, modern society, especially one suffering from high levels of alcohol and drug abuse; a world where we have all of these old traditions plus internet connection to the world, pornography and poker machines—new things that can kill, none of which existed when our culture and laws were formed. This is the point at which traditional culture and the modern world collide to tear each other apart.
My peaceful childhood days in the bush were a stark contrast to town, where members of my family lived in town camps. There, alcohol-fuelled violence took a strangle-hold on their lives. I watched as my uncles, whom I loved dearly—men who loved their families—became addicted to grog because they no longer knew where they stood in society. I’ve witnessed alcohol-fuelled rage from men and women towards each other and inflicted on themselves.
The principles of traditional and modern economies also clash. Traditionally we couldn’t preserve or transport food in a harsh climate. Food had to be consumed immediately and shared with those present; and it could be demanded. That was the only way we could survive. But the only things my ancestors possessed that could be shared were food, water and firewood. The principle of demand-share cannot coexist with money, with the need to save, invest and budget. It cannot coexist with addiction.
Now, in the cash economy, demand-share and immediate consumption applied to money, clothing, vehicles and houses cause poverty. You can’t say ‘no’ to kin. They have unrestricted access to your income and all of your assets under the old rules. Some kin will be addicted to alcohol, drugs and gambling. The addicted are allowed, under the rules of traditional culture, to demand their kin fund their addiction. It is the single biggest barrier to beneficial participation in the modern economy. If you are obliged to give, with no questions asked, you can’t budget, you can’t save, you can’t invest. It strips away your incentive to work. I have had to live with this and cope with it all of my life.
Sharing reinforces kin relationships and the status of the sharer. Men have higher status than women and are less obliged than women to share. This system further subjugates women. To avoid the pain of saying ‘no’ my mother insists her white husband won’t allow her to share. My father is happy to take on this role and use the ‘male privilege’ given him by his wife’s culture to protect his Aboriginal loved ones from poverty.
These problematic attitudes and practices I’ve described did not arrive on the Australian continent with white people in 1788. They are millennia old and fundamentally rooted in a deeply patriarchal culture.
Dr James Massing is a senior minister in the Sarawak state government in Malaysia. His people are the indigenous Iban. His great-grandfather was a head-hunter. He has a simple message for other indigenous peoples: ‘If you don’t adapt you die.’ He knows the traditional culture of his people and speaks their language. He has a PhD in anthropology from ANU. He no longer hunts human heads. He has kept the best of the old ways, and taken the best of what the world has to offer now, to lead his people out of poverty and marginalisation. He knows how his people must adapt to survive.
Recently I was helping my 33-year-old niece to cope with end-stage renal failure and her 11-year-old daughter to attend to an ongoing battle with rheumatic fever; we have the highest rates in the world. Their mother and grandmother, my sister-in-law, is in her forties. She walks with a limp and has permanent damage to her sight and hearing resulting from assaults by Aboriginal male partners and a Warlpiri man who bashed her in the head with a rock because she had no grog or cigarettes to give him.
Not long before that I helped ambulance and police officers to place the body of my aunt in a body bag. She had died of a massive heart attack following a week-long drinking binge. She was one of my favourites. Not long before that I identified the body of my young cousin killed in a car crash caused by alcohol abuse. None of these, my female loved ones, had the English skills, confidence or competence to deal with the wider world effectively when crises hit.
They all spoke their traditional languages. They were all traditional owners under the Land Rights Act. They knew their Jukurrpa and they could name the sacred sites in their country. The old rules of traditional culture simply do not give them, the most marginalised of our communities, the tools they need to deal with contemporary problems and challenges; challenges that the old ones, elders past, couldn’t have imagined.
Dr Massing is correct. We need to adapt to survive and we can do it our way. I have spoken of the need for cultural reform. I have called on Aboriginal people to question long-held beliefs, to challenge that which contributes to violence in our culture and to hold ourselves to account for the part our own culture and attitudes play in our communities’ problems. Just as European women have challenged the treatment of women in their cultures to bring about change, I am doing the same in mine.
My message is too much for many people to hear. When I or others relate stories like the ones I’ve told here, we attract labels like ‘coconut’ and ‘sell out’, and obscene, misogynist, violent abuse. If white people do so, of course, the label is ‘racist’, ‘assimilationist’ and ‘white supremacist’. Truth can be threatening and offensive. Truth can be too much for some.
Aboriginal women and children are Australian citizens and they must be able to make the same choices as other citizens. Aboriginal activists campaigned for decades for my people to have the full rights of citizens. Now we have them. We also won the responsibilities of citizenship. They can’t be separated. If Australian citizens are in danger of abuse and neglect they deserve to be protected, not on the basis of their culture, but on the basis of their human rights. We cannot sacrifice their lives on the altar of ‘culture’.
Thirty per cent of us in the Northern Territory are of Indigenous descent. We are determined to hold onto the best of traditional values. We need to let go of the ones that no longer work. My kinsmen, who suffer through these crises, haven’t been taught the best of Western, indeed world, culture to help them cope with the problems whitefellas have brought to us. Many haven’t even been taught to speak, read or write the national language. Our traditional culture simply doesn’t provide all the tools they need for a modern world.
The West has progressed so far because constructive criticism is embraced. Progress cannot be made if long-held beliefs cannot be challenged or if we cannot be honest. My people are intelligent, pragmatic and resilient. We’re not delicate or weak, but clever, funny and strong, like our language. And just as our language has adapted to a new world, I have faith our culture can be adapted and improved. And it will still be our culture.
Jacinta Nampijinpa Price is a Warlpiri/Celtic woman from Central Australia. She is a fierce campaigner for the rights of Aboriginal women and children against family violence, an elected member on Alice Springs Town Council and a cross-cultural educator.