The “Cultural Awareness Wheel” has been used as a process of introduction to the history and diversities of Aboriginal people.
ABORIGINAL HISTORY IN GENERAL
Before the Europeans came to Australia in 1788 it is now estimated there were approximately 600 Aboriginal groupings. These groups all had their own distinct dialects and individual cultural identities.
European settlement had profound effects on every Aboriginal group in Australia. Many people believe that had they been permitted to remain as they were, these groups would have had status equivalent to individual countries with separate languages such as those that make up Europe. However their progress was terminated by the British attempt to incorporate Australia into the British Empire.
To the majority, 1788 marks the beginning of modern Australian history; however, to many Aboriginals it marked the beginning of the European invasion. Aboriginals were expected to integrate into the European ways swiftly and unquestioningly.
With the Europeans came diseases to which they had no immunity and as a result many Aboriginals died. Aboriginals also encountered social attitudes they could not understand. They were also introduced to firearms, alcohol, tobacco and other devices that bought premature death.
This is an overview of groupings within Western Australia.
Noongar – occupying the area of the South West.
Yamatji – occupying the area of Geraldton and the Pilbara.
Wongai or Wankai – occupying the area of the Goldfields.
Kimberley – occupying the area of the Kimberley
Ngaanyatjarra – occupying the Central Desert region.
National Native Title Tribunal map of Western Australia
SIGNIFICANT ABORIGINAL & TORRES STRAIT ISLANDER EVENTS
May – National Sorry Day is a continuing effort to achieve appropriate education, reconciliation and recognition for the Aboriginal stolen generation. Website
May/June – Reconciliation Week celebrates the rich cultural heritage of Australia’s Aboriginal, and aims to continue reconciliatory efforts. Website
June – Mabo Day commemorates the anniversay of the 1992 High Court decision in the case brought by Eddie Mabo and others which recognised the existence in Australia of native title rights. Website
July – NAIDOC Week celebrations are held around Australia in the last full week in July to celebrate the history, culture and achievements of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. The week is celebrated not just in the indigenous community, but also in goverment agencies, schools, local councils and workplaces. Website
ABORIGINAL CONCEPT OF FAMILY AND COMMUNITY
Understanding structures and concepts that exist in Aboriginal families and communities is important in building relationships.
Aboriginal people have strong family values. The family system has an extended family structure, as opposed to the nuclear or immediate family structure which is common in Western society. This extended family concept is rarely endorsed or understood by government authorities so it is important to have an understanding of this when working with Aboriginal communities.
For example, the concepts of extended family and ‘community as family’ in Aboriginal communities encompass the idea that children are not just the concern of the biological parents, but of the entire community. The raising, care, education and discipline of children are the responsibility of everyone — male, female, young and old.
An extended family structure is based on:
• blood-related (mum, dad, brother, sister, grandmother/ father, cousin, aunty, uncle)
• marriage (aunty, uncle, cousin)
• community (Elder, neighbour, friend, organisation)
• kinship system (aunty, uncles, cousins or Elders)
• non-related family (Elder, friend, community member)
• mutual respect
• a sense of belonging
• acceptance and knowledge of Aboriginal kinship ties
• mutual obligation and support.
Kinship systems define where a person fits into the community.
Kinship systems may vary across communities and nations but the principle is the same across Australia. Kinship defines the roles and responsibilities for raising and educating children and structures systems of moral and financial support within the community.
The family structure is linked with the community and with this knowledge comes a complex system of roles and obligations within the community.
Aboriginal children learn at an early age the kinship ties that exist within their community and subsequently their place in the community.
MEN’S AND WOMEN’S BUSINESS
In Aboriginal culture certain customs and practices are performed by men and women separately, often referred to as Men’s and Women’s Business. These practices have very strict regulations attached and penalties for breaking these rules can be severe.
Some Aboriginal communities that continue to practice their traditional
customs will also continue these segregated practices and it
important that this is understood when working with Aboriginal people.
An example of Men’s and Women’s Business in modern circumstances is when Aboriginal specific courses and conferences are held. It is common to see Men’s and Women’s Business on the agenda. In this context the group will split by gender and discuss issues separately.
Aboriginal groups lived all around Australia and as a result of their geographical differences they lived according to the resources available to them. For example coastal inhabitants lived different lifestyles to those who lived inland in the more desert areas.
Every Aboriginal group has a separate identity and it would be incorrect to say that all Aboriginals lived a certain way. In fact some groups prefer to be called by their individual groups names rather than just “Aboriginal”.
The Dreaming is equivalent to other religions around the world. Various
Aboriginal groups all have different names for the Dreaming. Dreaming stories and characters vary among Aboriginal groups. Although they may share many of the same beliefs, the messages and the characters in the stories are different.
RESPECT AND SENSITIVITY
Respect is very important in every social structure in Aboriginal communities. Respect for Elders, the land, animals and ancestors are fundamental aspects of Aboriginal culture.
Following a death in some communities, people may find it disrespectful to say the deceased person’s name or to refer to the deceased person in general conversation. Where this occurs, different names may be used to refer to the deceased person. This practice may last for months or even years, until all relevant ceremonies have been concluded.
Generally, it is unfavourable to display pictures or images of deceased people. This is particularly the case when the images may be seen by the family or community of the deceased. You should seek appropriate permission from the family and local community before broadcasting names or images of deceased people. Family and communities will be able to advise of the appropriate practice.
A familiar term used by many Aboriginal people is ‘Sorry Business’ which indicates that there has been a death within a community. If a community is dealing with Sorry Business, it is respectful not to make any requests (e.g. for a community meeting or consultation) for a period of at least two weeks or as advised by the community. During Sorry Business you should ensure you are respectful at all times.
Like all genuinely mutual and productive relationships, engagements with Aboriginal communities need to be based on respect. We need to offer and earn respect, particularly in dealings with community Elders and leaders.
Elders and community leaders not only hold key community knowledge but they also have a great deal of influence over when, how and if a community will work with those from outside. This is also true for other representatives of the local community.
An Elder or leader may not necessarily be an older person. They may also be a younger person who is well respected within their community and holds significant community knowledge. Many Aboriginal people acknowledge Elders and leaders as Aunty or Uncle, even if that person is not blood-related or kin as this is a sign of respect in Aboriginal culture.
Always be aware of the need to consult Elders and treat them with respect. The same courtesies accorded to dignitaries should be applied to Elders. Where extensive consultation is required, ensure that Elders are paid at the same rates as professional consultants. It is unreasonable to assume that consultation can be undertaken with Aboriginal people and communities at no cost.
If the intended consultation is not expected to take a long time, then remuneration may not be required. However, it may be appropriate to supply morning or afternoon tea or refreshments. Transport to and from the venue may also need to be arranged.
CHALLENGES FACING THE ABORIGINAL COMMUNITY
Proving land ownership
Today, the issue of land ownership is still an important one. Ancestral land is a vital element in maintaining Aboriginal culture. It is also used by Aboriginal people to determine their economic worth in their community.
Although most Aboriginal people live in country towns and cities there is still a large percentage that live in rural and remote areas of Australia. This remoteness creates many challenges for them as it limits access to necessary services, like health services and educational institutions. It also reduces employment opportunities, which results in high unemployment.
Most Aboriginal people have the same access to health care as the rest of the population. Yet, they still have the highest rates of poor health. Remoteness, lack of trust towards the medical industry and negative social attitudes are some of the reasons identified for this poor health.
Education and employment
Although statistically there have been improvements to Aboriginal education, Aboriginal people still have the lowest statistics (attendance, retention, continuing their education) when compared to other groups in Australia. Today the major concerns in regards to Aboriginal students are low retention rates and high rates of absences. There are also negative views from older Aboriginal people who are wary of European education, due to their own past experiences.
One of the major challenges that unfortunately still faces the Aboriginal community today are the negative social attitudes that are still common. Much has been done recently to create an understanding amongst non-Aboriginal people about their past and how it still affects them today. Reconciliation has become important in creating better understanding of Aboriginal culture and building stronger relationships within the whole community.