Northern Territory: A Distant Land

IMG_1086The separation of the Northern Territory (NT) from the rest of Australia is something which troubles me from time to time.

I mean, the rest of the country ignores us most of the time, and when they DO write about us, or pay us any kind of attention, they get it WRONG.

Shamefully, ignorantly wrong.

In fact, to other Australians, the NT might as well be a tiny nation in west Africa -or one of the ‘Stans.

To the rest of Australia, we’re the unruly uncle who’s buggered off into the bush to study insects, drink grog, and drive through fences, who every so often arrives home, having not changed their clothes or washed for days, full of incredible stories and tall tales…

… Of giant crocs (that’s Australian for crocodiles), cane toads, camels, Aboriginal dysfunction, and roads without speed limits.

And then, once uncle has spoken, you go back to your diet of My Kitchen Rules the Biggest Loser Block Idol and forget about him for another three years.

Well, that’s kind of how it feels living here in relation to the rest of the Australian population…

People from elsewhere don’t really ‘get’ the NT. They think we’re all racist, XXXX-or-rum-swilling bogans, hooning around in B&S utes, shooting buffalo, missing teeth, uneducated and disconnected from the urbane life of the ‘cosmopolitan’ south.

And yes, most of you are down south in relation to us, and we do call you ‘southerners’.

Some people don’t like being called ‘southerners’ because of the racist and narrow-minded religious bigot undertones that the term carries for Australians: you know, the white plantation owner, thumping the Bible and demeaning Black people.

However, the fact is that most Australians are geographically and culturally south of us. And like those stereotypical Southerners wrestling with atheism and the fact that Black people are humans, many Australian Southerners do not seem to understand the NT at all.

When someone from the NT labels you ‘southerner’ it has a more nuanced meaning than you might suspect.

This is what we’re actually telling you: a Southerner is someone who hasn’t lived here in the NT, but who believes that they can pronounce solutions for the Territory’s ‘problems’, based upon their perception of what the NT is (a failed state) even though they’ve never experience life in the Territory firsthand.

Failed States and East Coast Guilt

The Territory in our school day was always a rather vague country. Our knowledge was of scant population, of Darwin in the north and Alice Springs in the south with miles of desert waste in between. We envisaged a land occupied by small tribes (sic) of Aborigines and roving cattle herds on individual stations as large in area as one or two smaller States in their entirety. Our textbooks covered very little of the coastline or of the interior, because the Territory’s minimal economic importance compared with the States. – Alex Tanner, The Long Road North.

Nothing much has changed in the south’s perception of us, really, since Alex Tanner’s 1930s school days, apart from the fact that most people know that the Stuart Highway is sealed now.

When the NT Emergency Response (the ‘Intervention’ as it has become known), commenced in the dying days of the Howard Government in 2007, the reaction here was not the same as that in the southern states, amongst a certain… shall we say ‘inner city intellectual group’ and a number of Australian anthropologists.

The reaction was here was part anger: the bloody Commonwealth Government marches in and makes laws which we can do NOTHING about – apparently for our own good – and paints us all as dumb racists and paints ALL Aboriginal men as paedophiles. There was cynicism: Here we go again. More social experiments by southern do-gooders. There was also some hope: well, we can’t afford to fix up the housing and social problems in Aboriginal communities, maybe this will help…

We were likened to a ‘failed state’ – a third world country in Africa, where there’s been a succession of military coups, a largely corrupt and barely functional bureaucracy, widespread poverty and lawlessness.  As an example, I recall one post-structuralist/cultural theorist who bleated at length on the anthropology blog, Savage Minds, and on her own blog about the NT Intervention being about ‘bio-war’ and ‘bio-politics’ -basically the dominant society declaring a silent kind of genocidal war on Aboriginal minorities, just like those in Rwanda and Sudan.

The irony of this was that this theorist -by her own admission- had not only NEVER been to the NT, she had never -NOT ONCE- set foot on an Aboriginal community, and did not seem to understand that this immediately detracted from any credibility she might have had.

As an anthropologist who’s lived and worked with Aboriginal people in the NT for over a decade, I’m going to name as a FRAUD on any social commentator/theorist/social scientist/expert who has not EVER been here and yet claims to ‘understand’ what is going on. This includes government officials engaging in one or two day ‘tick-a-box’ consultations with Aboriginal communities. You need around two weeks in ANY Aboriginal community just to start to understand how things work, who’s who, and what’s really going on -and even then, things happen that simply can’t be explained.

Had this post-structuralist person bothered to actually spend some time here, she might have retracted the verbal and mental gymnastics she’d written, and viewed Aboriginal people as humans, rather than as literary figments of her imagination: the ‘subjects of power’ who were powerlessly ‘suffering a biowar’ of her own creation.

She might have seen that language, kinship and traditional (albeit modified) rites of passage and a lifelong massive, but utterly necessary, investment in sociality are the driving forces in Aboriginal culture in Central Australia – and no matter WHAT policy or imaginary post-colonial Foucauldian readings of power you might like to infer.

If your policy/polemic can’t navigate these structures, has no idea they even exist -these, the most basic, important things to Aboriginal people here in Central Australia, then your words are just tits on a bull.

Likewise, in the language of the NTER, throughout all of its incarnations, these things are mute; given lip service with terms such as consultation, culturally-appropriate, cultural awareness training.

What is ‘consultation’, really, but an Orwellian form of Newspeak: a ‘tick’ on a piece of paper to say ‘we told them what we want to do, we asked for their ideas, they talked” ? I’ll come back to the tyranny of consultation and participatory planning some other time.

Real story: When the former Labor government’s Indigenous policy, ‘Closing the Gap’, was announced, many Aboriginal people whose first language is something other than English thought the government planned to close up Heavitree Gap in Alice Springs to make a dam. These people are not stupid. It is the language of governments that is stupid: to quote my work colleague, Vaughn Jampijinpa Hargraves: White people talk all round things like wiggly snakes.

Yep. There's that gap they're gonna close!

Yep. There’s that gap they’re gonna close!

From the perspective of someone who’s lived in the NT for over a decade, it seems to me that the NT never ceases to be the playground of social engineers and ideologues on both sides of the fence, be it assimilation, land rights, self-determination or multiculturalism.

(I do note that Australia does seem to do multiculturalism better than most countries, most of the time).

The SIN that the Northern Territory currently has to bear is that of white, middle class guilt over the treatment of Aboriginal people -not just in the NT, but everywhere and all times in Australia. Coupled with this is the utter irony and ignorance of the rest of Australia that casts Territorians as dumb, drunk and racist -yes, just like the TV show.

We are supposed to bear Australia’s guilt, but we are apparently too stupid and rednecked to deal with it. We can’t be trusted, so the government has to deal with it instead.

(Of course, even more ironic and yet, UTTERLY revealing was that when the Indian TV crew of Dumb, Drunk and Racist came to Alice Springs, they were set upon by two drunk Aboriginal women for filming near the Todd Tavern… ).

Dumb, Drunk and Racist

I’m going to turn this on its head here.

It’s not Territorians who are dumb, drunk or racist.

We live with, are friends with, work with and encounter Aboriginal people every day.

We do not all drink – and neither do Aboriginal people.

Alice Springs has one of the highest populations of people with degrees and PhDs in the nation: we are not dumb. What’s more, what about the Aboriginal people who write their own town plans, only to have them trounced by white bureaucrats from Canberra? Again, we are not dumb. Don’t believe me? Ask the people of Yuendumu what happened to their 5 year town plan when the Intervention started.

The dumb, drunk, racists? Let me spell it out for you:

Dumb: It’s those people who see Aboriginal people as one great, big homogenous mass. Those from the southern states who ask me ‘Can you say something in Aborigine (sic)?” ignorant to the fact that there are over 50 languages still spoken here in the NT.

Dumb: To the depth of cultural differences between Aboriginal nations/peoples: from confident, tall, forthright Warlpiri people, demanding but also incredibly sharing Pitjantjatjara people, to the welcoming, quiet, but thoughtful Arrernte persona. These are as striking and individual as the national psyches of Germany, France and Italy – but UNKNOWN by most Australians living in the south, not because the information isn’t out there to learn, but because Masterchef is really much more interesting.

Drunk: On their own stereotypes about Aboriginal culture (warm, fuzzy, proto-greenies gone bad). This new age-noble savage fantasy completely misses the inseparability of social relationships from survival, identity, economics, safety, and what it means to simply be human in Aboriginal culture – to the point where, yes, dysfunction and poverty are often chosen over their opposites, because the alternative is often to refuse kin, to shame yourself and to behave inhumanly to others.

Drunk: On their own self-purported expertise on what to do about the NT and its ‘problems’. One hundred years of social experiments has made us the lab rat that everyone can write about -whether they’ve seen us firsthand or not. And if you haven’t seen us, met us, experienced us, well, go ahead then, just make up your own stories and call it biowar or the multidimensionalities of power or ‘failed state’. Stay drunk. You’ll never see further than your own pee-pee.

Racist: Every time someone from down south says: Australians must talk English, they deny Aboriginal people their identity and culture. Every time you like a ‘funny’ meme on Facebook,proclaiming: I’m an Aussie and I speak English, oi, oi, oi!’, you’re being racist to Aboriginal people – the First Australians. Every time a government dismantles bilingual education or defunds Aboriginal legal aid organisations and interpreter services, it is racism.

Racist: Every time some white theorist or ideologue purports to write about the NT when they have not been here, they are enacting racism. They are stealing OUR voices. Silencing us, rather than allowing our voices to be heard authentically in their writings, based not upon stereotypes, but firsthand experience.

Yes, You Can.

If this upsets you, good.

If you don’t like me calling you a ‘Southerner’ good.

If you’re an armchair theorist, an anthropologist or some other kind of blogger who’s never been here, and you’re upset at me, GOOD.

Because your stereotyping of the NT and its people is hurting us. Not just metaphorically, but in actuality. Think about this: the NT has been the playground of ideologues and social engineers for the last 100 years. People have died -are dying- thanks to these experiments.

Experiments, I note, which continue to run unchecked (land rights in its current form, the intervention, welfare, the way Aboriginal communities are structurally marginalised from the rest of Australia, dismantling bilingual education, the super shires … I could go on).

Connections must be made, common languages defined, issues debated. Stop seeing Aboriginal people as one dark, homogenous mass, get the voices of urban Aboriginal people out of your heads -these are NOT the voices of the NT’s people- and get yourself to the NT to unmask the fictions of your own making.

The answer is simple: the more Australians who come here, who spend real time here, who care about us enough to understand who we really are and give us our voice in their writings and most importantly: see us as humans, not just as the crazy uncle who lives in the bush and drinks rum, then the quicker the end to social engineering and pissing billions of dollars up against a wall that isn’t of the Territory’s making.


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