What do you call an Aborigine falling off a cliff in a minivan?
A waste. You could fit plenty more in the back.
What is the difference between an Aborigine and a park bench?
A park bench can support a family.
We were in Melbourne, being hosted by friends of friends for a long weekend. On a train ride to attend a party celebrating the end of the term and a brief respite before exams, each person attempted to outmatch the last joke told.
“Why do Aborigines smell so bad?” Remmy asked.
“So blind people can hate them, too.”
They crowded in and lowered their voices, but I still couldn’t believe how casually these jokes flew from one to the other in the circle.
I also had questions to ask. Why are Australia’s Aborigines dispatched so far from modern society’s gate? Why the racial barrier? Why such hatred?
Not everyone in Australia shares the hateful attitudes I observed, of course. At Warrawagine Station, the Mills family was very friendly with many Aborigines: Robin employed Aborigines; Scott invited Aborigines to hunt; everyone spoke fondly of Aborigines when the topic of segregation arose at dinner.
Even among polite company, though, there existed a very clear separation between the natives and everyone else, and while uncommon, open racism seemed to be accepted. I was appalled by the jokes told by the mix of guys and girls hosting us in Melbourne. I have been to some remote nooks of the States, but even there, I’ve never heard such filthy language used to describe another race. I was surprised and confused. Mostly, I was disappointed.
At the house we went to for the end-of-semester party, there was a swastika carved into a wooden bench on the back porch. Another swastika was painted on a huge empty water jug sitting on a shelf in the kitchen. A swastika, just hanging out on the water bottle; just hanging out on the shelf. People walked by it as if it was totally unremarkable, normal. Yeah, you know. A swastika. A water jug. That’s what we drink out of when we’re thirsty. You ready for another burger?
Post–World War II, who could imagine seeing multiple swastikas in someone’s home?
Swastikas may be an extreme occurrence, but a clear divide still strangles Australia. A black man comes into the bar to pick up a case of Export and the crowd around him falls instinctively silent; he pays; he leaves; conversation picks up again. Another couple natives sit off in the shade of a dark corner while the whites laugh and joke by the bar.
The biggest riddle, however, is why Australia’s native people have struggled to fit into society while the Māori, New Zealand’s native people, just over that sea there, have not only fused into society but thrived in it, becoming not only accepted and respected but represented so prominently along the tourist trail. Both indigenous groups—each with dark skin and eccentric rituals—were minding their own business when the British arrived. For years, there were gatherings and intermixing and trading, but then the British whipped out their weapons and started bullying. And now, here we are with two completely different fates bestowed upon the natives of these two countries. Why? Years after colonization, why is one group the butt of jokes over lunch, in those few times they’re even remembered, while the other group is, despite persistent social problems of their own, now an important part of its country’s national identity?
Australia was colonized by criminals and prostitutes. The first settlers were British explorers who found the island ripe for unloading the overflow of prisoners glutting jail cells back home. After their sentences ended, most prisoners stayed in the new land. Indigenous peoples were already there, of course, having—over the course of tens of thousands of years—established the longest surviving artistic, musical, and spiritual traditions on the planet. Their art was some of the oldest and finest—and most intricately crafted—in the world. They developed exceptional musical instruments. They had a rich and fascinating oral tradition. Their culture was strong.
Initial relations between the two groups were civil—trading for food, water, and clothes—but as the settler population swelled, conflict over land and resources flared up. Aborigines rebelled, a futile pursuit considering the primitive Aboriginal weaponry in the face of the Brits’ firepower. Aborigines knew their environment well, but their forces were sparse and divided, and they couldn’t offer worthy resistance in such a vast landscape. There were occasional skirmishes and battles in the open, but mostly British ranches and settlements slowly pushed Aborigines onto more and more marginal tracts of land. Over time, gold and agriculture brought prosperity to the British colonies, while the Aborigines were dismissed or pushed out of the way. Reports home by early settlers said that the land was unoccupied; Aborigines were originally dubbed “flora and fauna” by nonindigenous inhabitants.
Traditional Aboriginal society is nomadic. Sharing is a major component of the hunter-gatherer lifestyle. They followed food across the land, settled down for a spell when it was available, and moved along when it wasn’t. When British occupation restricted their movement, many Aborigines died of starvation. Others were beaten and enslaved. Many contracted diseases from the newcomers. Alcohol was introduced, inviting symptoms of the social sickness that continue even today. Hundreds of thousands of lives were lost. Now there are almost no natives left. Tasmania, an island off the southern coast of Australia, saw a genuine genocide. The Aboriginal culture began to dissolve.
In 1869, the government of Australia thought assimilation might be a right fancy idea to save the “naturally” dying Aboriginal people. Government officials began to take Aboriginal children from their families. The children were given to white families to be raised as white children, or they were put in orphanages to be raised the white way, to adapt to white society. As many as one hundred thousand children were stolen during the one hundred years between 1870 and 1970. 1970!
Was this child thievery the result of a desire to wipe out the population in a “clean” way? Or was it guilt? Or genuine fear for the children? No one knows for sure the exact motivation, though historians are quick to offer theories. These thefts preserved the Aborigines, they say; these thefts prevented a race from self-destruction; these thefts protected the Aborigines; these thefts gave them a shot at a better life.
Except they clearly didn’t.
New Zealand is a different story. When Dutch explorer Abel Tasman sailed up the West Coast, he met with a group of natives unlike any other on the planet. The Māori had domesticated plants and animals for their personal use. They were accomplished fisherman and seamen and skilled artisans, and they’d developed their own fast-paced sports. Their advanced societal structure based on social standing (mana) and reciprocity (utu) meant that conflicts, though endemic, were also resolvable.
Māori also rapidly gained a reputation as skilled warriors. Hulky, tough fellas they were. An early encounter with Tasman’s crew resulted in the naming of Murderers Bay, after a skirmish between his crew and the locals led to several Dutch casualties. Tasman’s crew didn’t stay ashore for too long because they were being killed and eaten by the Māori. Killed and eaten. The Māori didn’t possess modern weapons, yet they managed to combat intruders. Kill and eat them. A common trophy was the severed head of the enemy. While it can be argued that Europeans sought peace with the people they encountered in these new lands, the fact persists that they were attempting to take over the land. In Australia, it was easy. In New Zealand, though, the Māori fought back.
Years gave way to colonization. Sealers and whalers came to New Zealand, setting up small bases around the coast. Missionaries were next, moving in on Māori communities. The major wave was British settlers sailing to New Zealand, lured by the promises of private settlement charter companies. The Treaty of Waitangi was signed, ostensibly uniting both sides, and for more than a decade, there was relative peace. However, as the number of British settlers increased, the Māori found themselves increasingly dispossessed of their own land. Eventually, an uneasy, tumultuous coexistence gave way to open warfare. However, the Māori turned out to be highly capable of defending their land, certainly more so than the Aborigines in Australia.
Much of the Māori success came down to advantages in organization and tactics. While intertribal conflict still occurred, with Māori fighting both for and against the British settlers, several prominent Northern tribes unified against intruders in the 1850s under a newly created Māori king. Facing the prospect of conquest, the Māori leveraged their knowledge of local conditions to undermine British military superiority, developing trench warfare and enticing the troops into areas where they could be ambushed and wiped out.
Once, during a British-Māori battle just north of Wellington, a group of Māori held up a white flag, walked to the middle of the field, and spoke directly with the British officers. “Could you lend us some bullets?” they asked. “We’ve run out.” They wanted to continue the fracas, which they said was great fun.
The Māori were effective warriors, and they defended their land against conquest for far longer than expected. They won tactical victories, and this earned them the grudging respect of many Pākehā, nonnative New Zealanders, making it much harder to simply marginalize and forget them. It created traditions of strength and independence, which were important for holding communities together in the dark times.
And the Māori were accommodating. They traded for the guns and potatoes and neat trinkets that the British had brought with them from home, offering land, food, labor, and their own knowledge of agriculture in return. They had a social organization that the settlers could relate to. The Treaty of Waitangi, signed in 1840 and thereafter forgotten, was given new prominence in the 1960s and ’70s as Māori culture underwent what would become known as the Māori Renaissance. The Māori have managed to create a place for themselves among the white men. They have been adaptable, and they are very much a part of daily life in New Zealand. There are powerful Māori politicians and social leaders who work to shape a positive discourse around race relations in New Zealand. More than a billion dollars have been given in historical redress. Most Māori are educated at the same schools everybody else’s kids are educated, and all children, Māori or not, are exposed to the Māori language during their education. Everyone eats together and shops together. Many sites and towns are named in Māori. Māori is one of the two official spoken languages of New Zealand, and it’s custom to sing New Zealand’s national anthem in both Māori and English. Kia ora, a traditional Māori greeting meaning “be well” is a regular phrase in New Zealand English. There are television stations entirely in the Māori language—no subtitles. A traditional Māori war dance is performed before rugby games.
It’s fascinating. Though racial intolerance is certain to exist on some level in every country, New Zealand included, I never heard one cross word spoken about the Māori.
The tourist trail is loaded with opportunities to dip into Māori history. Bus drivers offered tidbits at random, not to sound cultured or relevant, but because they are proud. “Aotearoa means ‘Land of the Long White Cloud,’” Soap, our driver, informed us over the sound system during one of the first few days of our adventure through New Zealand. “When the Māori first navigated here by canoe from Polynesia, there was a huge white cloud covering the entire North Island. So there ya go. Today, Aotearoa is one of many common Māori terms blended into our vocabulary.”
Conversely, racism in Australia today has taken a different form than I’ve seen in any of my travels, and equality in Australia remains a fantasy. Some nonindigenous Australians point fingers and call names, while others are ashamed of the way Aborigines are treated. No one knows how to bridge the gap. The Aboriginal life expectancy lags behind that of the white man by twenty years; they go to the hospital three times as much; statistics for things like incarceration, suicide, and mortality are two to twenty times as bad as those of the nonindigenous; Aborigines still don’t own much of the land originally taken from them.
It’s unfortunate that colonials never recognized Aboriginal achievements: it’s not your everyday person who can simply walk along and know which plants to eat and which to avoid. Australia is a beautiful but brutal land, and to navigate it the way the Aborigines have is impressive. Ivana and I went camping for one night along the riverbank at Warrawagine Station, and—as serene as our adventure was—we wondered how we could ever make it one more night in the Australian outback. The sun was hot, the mosquitoes were relentless, and it took an old magazine for kindling and a lighter to start the fire at dusk. I caught a three-kilo catfish and managed to scrape out two-and-a-half bites of meat after cleaning it. Ivana cast her line into a tree, and midway through the night, she left her sleeping bag to finish her slumber in the truck. “The potential for me to get bitten is simply too high,” she declared. We would have both gone hungry at breakfast if Pete, the cook back at the station, hadn’t loaded his famous meatballs into a Tupperware container. “Just in case the fish aren’t biting,” he’d said. That morning at breakfast under a tree, I said to Ivana: “Can you imagine having to survive out here without these meatballs?” And she added: “Or Tupperware?”
Wonderful artistic creations and adaptation to the land, though, were not enough for the Aborigines to ward off conquest. The Aborigines simply consumed as needed and walked north or south or east or west when food became sparse. Their lifestyle couldn’t be expected to embrace a sophisticated form of trade. Woggabaliri, the sport of the Wiradjuri people of New South Wales, was a cooperative game without any element of competition. The Aboriginal way of life just doesn’t seem to show any signs of winners and losers.
Responding to European settlement, therefore, was a challenging experience for the Aborigines, while, on the other hand, the Māori way of life has always been adapting and advancing and was much more compatible with the society of their invaders. Mutual dependence, as an example, has always been an important means of association for the Māori, so having already established trading patterns among themselves, shifting to trade with the Europeans—for muskets, for instance, which changed warfare both with the Brits and among themselves—was an easy and logical transition.
Even when many Māori saw settlers snatch their land from them, they were culturally better equipped to handle the transition. When urban centers began to spring up, the poor among the Māori were pulled into more populated and resource-laden areas of New Zealand, rather than pushed farther and farther into the outback where there was little opportunity, as the Aborigines were. Both groups struggled to maintain their identity, but while the Māori came into town and blended there, the Aborigines fell victim to the white man’s vices and kept mostly to the barren outback.
Today, while the Māori are present in everyday life, I never really saw many Aborigines. Once, I passed by an indigenous family at the grocery store, and I saw three aboriginal gentlemen across the room at a pub in Marble Bar, but that was it. I saw zero among four hundred or so college students in Melbourne. They have remained with their own kind. The white man’s efforts to help have been largely rejected or poorly received. Aborigines, now predominantly welfare dependent and detached, are dismissed as lazy, ungrateful drunks. Some Aboriginal children go to school and some do not. “Generous” tracts of land have been offered by the government but denied on the grounds that it’s still not enough. It will never be enough, many say. One governmental program gave houses to many Aboriginal families, but most of those houses—rarely maintained and now dilapidated—were used only for storage or to accommodate an excessive number of people in substandard conditions.
One Aboriginal leader, Lowitja O’Donoghue, has said that the government has spoiled and patronized Aborigines and that “the time has come for white people to get out of remote communities.” The government has failed to deliver efficient welfare, and the Aborigines have failed in their receipt of it.
So the government of Australia is offering to help, but is it a half-assed effort?
The Aborigines say they want help, but are they pulling their own weight?
Where must we place the balance of a government helping its people and those people helping themselves?
This entire dynamic irks me, and worse, I recognize that mutually agreeable solutions are a fantasy. I remain just as stumped as people who are far, far more intelligent than I am. I know the government of Australia wants to champion its underclass and offer equality; I know that Aborigines don’t want to be poor and uneducated and afflicted with diabetes at alarming rates.
Beneath all these problems rests the undercurrent of racism. Racism is a vicious circle. People hear stories of drunkenness and child abuse and believe them. The mainstream then casually condemns them as a drunk, abusive race of people. This condemnation begins to define these people, so they start to play the role of the victim, thinking that’s all they can do. They drink; their children play in the streets rather than going to school; they stop caring for their houses. They start to have liver problems; their children can’t get jobs because they’re uneducated; their houses become basically unlivable. So they drink.
So how is this cycle meant to end? If the plight of the modern indigenous Australian can be traced back to the destruction of the social norms that reinforced positive behavior, should they now be expected to adjust their thinking? Shouldn’t we all—the world over—be held to the same standard of forward movement rather than expecting that everything will always be as it always was? If manufacturing jobs were here last week but gone today, should you and I cry about it and complain to politicians that we want those jobs back or should we educate ourselves for the next wave of employment?
Imagine that you’re a young Aborigine. Your parents had no jobs, and their parents had no jobs, and you did poorly at school because you had no support at home. Now, how are you meant to derive the motivation to compete in this modern capitalist society?
Likewise, once you near adulthood, and you’ve witnessed success, shouldn’t you be expected to make your own effort at achieving it rather than playing the victim and looking for handouts?
Maybe the cycle won’t end, ever. Maybe government will always place a limit on its aid to its citizens, since it’s been proven that unlimited aid doesn’t solve these kinds of problems anyway. And maybe certain slothful members of every racial group will always exist to drag that group down, no matter the level of support they receive and no matter how much success other members of that group have enjoyed. Maybe the cycle isn’t designed to end.
Really, both sides are ignorant: most whites don’t know a single native, and they draw conclusions from the propaganda they see on TV or hear from their friends. This is laughable; you can’t expect understanding if you don’t know each other.
When a culture is so broken and has spent so many years oppressed and resisting change, perhaps the end result will always be a self-perpetuating cycle of dependency and despondency.
Why do I care about all of this? I’m not Australian; I know Aborigines only via a glance across the grocery store or pub, and I’ve seen authentic Māori only in brochures. In answer, I say that these are the kinds of questions, and this is the kind of curiosity, that spark when traveling. I sing karaoke, I visit a monolithic castle, I eat salami and sip wine out of the bottle next to a picturesque river, I climb a mountain, I go fishing off the coast, and I muster a mob. And then I take a moment to relate my present circumstances to my life back home. In the United States, we have the same lower class–upper class social dynamic they have in Australia and we’re baffled by the same questions about how to narrow the gap. Hundreds of years ago, the same European conquest happening elsewhere in the world was happening in my home country. Colonizers met natives and traded with them; there were feasts, and there was story time by the fire; life was good; then, a new generation of Americans emerged, busting out their muskets and pushing the natives onto reservations to create their own autonomous life in the corner over there. A theft of children happened to the Cherokee of North Carolina as it did to the Aborigines of Australia.
Today in the States, some tribes have prospered; many Native Americans have stepped off the reservation to go to universities and find work and blend into the rest of the country; but others still have a low quality of life and struggle to find their own cultural identity. What leads to such different outcomes? How does one succeed among persecution while another fails?
These questions only beget more, but above all, I’m wondering this: Am I just as guilty as those I judge of preserving weak relations among races? I walked into that house for that party in Melbourne and saw two swastikas. Despite my repulsion, I remained silent. I should have said something. Anything. Maybe I should have stood atop a wooden chair to deliver a lecture or maybe I should have cleansed that house of its swastikas. At the very least, I could have raised a few questions. I wrote home that it “bothered me” and that “this was disgusting,” yet in the moment, I stood idle and did nothing. Now in that house, hate persists.
And on the train? Those awful jokes? I should have told those guys what I really thought about their sick humor. Tragedy is a mere news bulletin until witnessed. I witnessed it. And, like a coward, I turned the other way. You might say it’s not my place, but my goodness, it is!
So, here we are. Land was stolen. Children were stolen. Livelihoods were stolen. The days of yore were ugly and shameful, an embarrassment and black mark on the history of Australia. Now how do we light a fire of hope under the seats of a race of people whose culture of achievement is relatively stagnant and so different from the Anglo-Protestant industrialists who conquered them? And most important for tomorrow, how do we get a younger generation—on both sides of the aisle here—excited about the culture of a native group that, historically, has been so incredibly oppressed and so resistant to discipline? What can Aborigines do to garner more respect from the white man, and why won’t the white man stretch a little further to extend that respect?
How do we bridge the divide?