Should Australian aborigines succumb to capitalism?

Author:Grant, Randy R.

For more than 50,000 years Aborigines (1) successfully inhabited the rugged land of Australia without much change and with little contact from the outside. In a mere fraction of that time, little more than 200 years, foreign invaders/settlers forever changed the Aborigine reality, introducing diseases, invasive species, western institutions, and a capitalist culture. Motivated by the vast cultural gaps that exist between Aboriginal Australians and modern capitalist values, this paper asks the question, "Should Australian Aborigines succumb to capitalism?" The underlying question is, however, "What path should Aborigines take to preserve their culture, mitigate social ills, and enjoy economic and social contentment?" Ultimately that question is best answered by the indigenous people themselves, but evidence suggests that a largely self-contained system, with carefully selected points of contact with non-indigenous institutions, would promote Aboriginal interests.

A Brief History of Australia

Before white settlers impacted their lives, Aborigines existed as hunter-gatherer societies, establishing no known written languages. Historical knowledge was transmitted orally, through "dreamtime" stories, painting, and sculpture. While seemingly primitive, Aboriginal "mobs" (tribes) were sophisticated in knowledge of their world and in their methods of transmitting that knowledge across generations. They were accomplished conservationists, effectively managing both scarce natural and genetic resources. Society was organized with well-defined social and economic roles. Individual activities were focused on the role within the mob, with kinship ties an integral component. Groups within mobs would specialize in certain natural resources. Those responsible for the kangaroo, for example, would know everything possible about their behaviors and how best to manage their population. There was something of a tribal or spiritual property right, where those wanting to hunt or gather something outside of their specialty had to seek permission.

As some of the first white explorers observed, Aborigines lived communally focused, contented lives. Explorer William Dampier remarked, "Sometimes they get as many fish as makes them a plentiful banquet; and at other times they scarce get everyone a taste: but be it little or much that they get, every one has his part, as well the young and tender, as the old and feeble, who are not able to go abroad, as the young and lusty" (Strong 1986, 177-178). Captain James Cook, upon claiming Australia for England in 1770, noted that "[i]n reality they [Aborigines] are far more happier than we European; being wholly unacquainted with not only the superfluous but the necessary Conveniences so much sought after in Europe ... the Earth and sea of their own accord furnishes them with all things necessary for life" (Strong 1986, 180).

Europeans first settled Australia in 1788, with the arrival of the first fleet of convict ships. Over the next century and a half, more settlers came, claiming lands and seeking fortune, while Aborigines were dispossessed of their lands and deprived of their lives. Settlers committed acts of genocide and introduced invasive species and new diseases that the indigenous population lacked the resistance to fight. There were more than 300,000 Aborigines in 1788; by 1901, when the Commonwealth of Australia was formed, that number had dwindled to 70,000 (Ross 1999). In the early 1900s, the government attempted to anglicize the Aborigines, rounding up half-caste children to educate and prepare them for service and integration into "civilized" society.

In the latter half of the twentieth century, the Australian government acknowledged the historical mistreatment of the indigenous population and enacted policies intended to improve Aboriginal fortunes. Australian citizenship and voting rights were granted to Aborigines in 1967, allowing them access to welfare and unemployment benefits (termed sit down money). The Department of Aboriginal Affairs was established in 1972; three years later, the Northern Territory Land Rights Act allowed Aborigines to make land claims based on traditional ownership.

In response to expanding indigenous claims for unemployment benefits, in 1977 the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island Commission (ATSIC) created the Community Development Employment Project (CDEP). The CDEP remains a dominant source of employment for rural indigenous Australians, providing jobs to those with limited education and English language proficiency. Some see it as a hindrance to Aboriginal economic development.

The past twenty years have seen progress in the restoration of traditional Aboriginal lands. Uluru and Kata-Tjuta, sites of great historical, cultural, geological, and economic value, were returned to the Aborigines in 1985. In 1992, the High Court of Australia overturned...

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