Abstracts for Issue 2, 2004
Return of the 'noble savage': misrepresenting the past, present and future
M. J. Rowland
The view that a ‘noble savage’/’ecologically noble savage’ existed in peaceful harmony with nature is a concept that has permeated writings in anthropology, cultural studies, philosophy, political science, literary and art criticism, and in the popular media over many years.
The idea of the ‘noble savage’/‘ecologically noble savage’ has resurfaced in recent publications and this article questions the reasons for this and discusses the negative implications of such views. A critique of these concepts may be interpreted as an attack on indigenous peoples or is at least considered insensitive, if not politically dangerous. But to continue to accept the ‘noble savage’/’ecologically noble savage’ requires a substantial suspension of disbelief. When indigenous peoples are stereotyped as ‘noble savages’ they are once again frozen in the past and therefore can have little to contribute to human history. There is a continuing need to search for a view that focuses on a much more positive engagement with indigenous peoples on environmental issues.
Aboriginal, Maori, and Inuit youth suicide: avenues to alleviation?
As a society, we react badly to suicide, especially by the young. We seek understanding of why youth do it, and we are determined on prevention. To date we have looked mainly to the Western medical/mental health model, one which approaches the treatment and prevention of suicide as if this behaviour was solely a ‘mental illness’. But this particular model has failed to alleviate, let alone prevent, escalating rates of youth suicide among Aborigines, Maori and Inuit in Australia, New Zealand and the Canadian territory of Nunavut, respectively. An alternative approach is to look at external social, political and cultural factors, such as ‘Westernisation’, the legacies of colonialism, chronic unemployment, and the impoveri-shment of body and soul; and at internal factors such as parenting problems, sexual abuse, alcohol and drug overuse, grief cycles, an absence of mentors, illiteracy and deafness. To generate discussion about the need for the separation of this growing problem from the mainstream medical approach to suicide, a case is made for the development of entirely different pathways to suicide alleviation (a less ambitious and less grandiose aim than prevention) in these three societies.
Addressing Indigenous suicide: a special case? A response to Colin Tatz
Colin Tatz’s article on Aboriginal suicide prevention seeks to extricate indigenous psychiatry and suicide prevention from what he regards as domination by Western medical/mental health approaches. Although Tatz fails to do justice to such approaches, because he empties them of sociocultural, historical and political content relevant to mental health, some extreme forms of psychiatry (e.g. the problematic drift of Western psychiatry towards biological reductionism) may confirm his concerns. The article lacks supporting evidence for its assertions that indigenous peoples do not experience depression, that suicide prevention approaches generally have failed and that their endpoint (‘prevention’ rather than ‘alleviation’) is flawed, and that Western medical approaches to mental illness are essentially urban, white, middle-class and hedonistic in intent. Nevertheless, Tatz raises perennially important issues to do with the realities of history and power that profoundly affect the health and wellbeing of Aborigines. These include avoiding the temptation to objectify and minimise the lived experience of members of oppressed groups, restoring the debate about existential and ‘purpose of life’ issues, and a timely protest against ‘mainstreaming’. The latter criticism is applicable in the academy, the political arena, multicultural mental health and (indigenous) suicide prevention. Tatz also offers valuable though not easily comparable data based on fieldwork experience, alludes to the difficulties of research with indigenous peoples, and suggests some compelling directions for further enquiry. It is argued that there is a need for a forum for experienced researchers and authorities such as Colin Tatz to meet with indigenous community leaders, other stakeholders, and health planners to advance the indigenous component of the national suicide prevention strategy.
What does it mean to say that Aboriginal suicide is different? Differing cultures, accounts, and idioms of distress in the context of the indigenous youth suicide.
Joseph P. Reser
Colin Tatz’s article provides a provocative and ostensibly ‘different’ perspective on indigenous suicide. There are multiple problems with the arguments and evidence presented, and the article, as a whole, is arguably more of a rhetorical ‘argument’ and ideological position and challenge than a research report, considered review of the theoretical or research literatures addressing this phenomenon, or substantive analysis of a critical and salient social problem. It should not be confused with a systematic, evidence and research findings-based study and/or evaluation of the evidence of others. Given the status of the author, the seriousness of the issue, and the social problem construction character of the public discussion to date, it is important that some counter views and caveats are offered, ideally from a spectrum of disciplinary, professional practice, and cross-cultural perspectives. Professional and ‘research-based’ analyses, accounts and evaluations have real consequences, not only in the context of prevention and intervention programs, policy initiatives and reviews, and funding in the health sector, but also with respect to public understandings of science and, in this case, health and prevention programs. The article and position offered by Tatz could well have unfortunate consequences with respect to prejudicial disciplinary and professional practice judgements, and the discounting of important and very necessary initiatives and programs at the level of preventive public health and individual and community intervention.
Incarceration of Indigenous and non-Indigenous adults, 1991 to 2001: trends and differentials
I examine trends in incarceration of Indigenous and non-Indigenous adults in Australia during the 11-year period from when the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody (RCIADIC) handed down its report in 1991. The data for the analysis are drawn from the annual prisoner census conducted by the Australian Bureau of Statistics. To calculate incarceration rates, Estimated Resident Population and the relevant Experimental Indigenous Resident Population Estimates of the ABS are used. Age-standardised incarceration rates are used for comparison to take account of different age-profiles among comparison groups. Despite implementation of several measures recommended by the RCIADIC, incarceration rates for Indigenous adults have been increasing at a faster rate than for the non-Indigenous population. A part of the increase in the rates could be due to the increasing tendency for self-identification among persons of Indigenous origin. The absence of reliable estimates of the Indigenous population for post-censal years is also a factor affecting the comparability of rates across time and across population subgroups. I discuss some policy implications of observed trends.
Traditional Owners and 'community-country' anangu: distinctions and dilemmas
In some contexts, including those that require concrete and locally specific knowledge, the term ‘traditional owner’ has come to mean something different from its original statutory definition, in daily discourse, in the routine operations of settlement life and the administration of the Aboriginal Land Rights (Northern Territory) Act 1976 (ALRA). It has also become a common referent for Aborigines resident in remote areas, rather than a specific term for land-holder. I will begin to unpack the nexus between this category and the reality of decision making by persons whom I term ‘community-country’ anangu. To this end, this post-settlement sociopolitical category is examined to contrast it from the definition of traditional ownership under the ALRA. This will highlight the tensions between the functional legal operations of the ALRA—its obligation to consult with traditional owners - and the reality of those persons who tend to be consulted about development proposals. The emerging issue of the regionalisation of remote settlements also plays directly into this issue of defining traditional owners.
Transitional traditions: ‘Port Essington’ bark-paintings and the European discovery of Aboriginal aesthetics
Paul SC Taçon and Susan M Davies
The earliest surviving bark-paintings from northern Australia derive from the Cobourg Peninsula but until now little was known of their circumstances of collection. We examine 28 extant or described barkpaintings thought to be from the Port Essington region, note the formal qualities of the imagery they contain and describe their history as far as is possible. We compare the imagery with some of the region’s rock- and more recent bark-art, note relevant instances of early European- Aboriginal contact and outline the ways in which the barks may have been obtained. We conclude that many of the barks from the late 1800s were initially acquired by Paul Foelsche. We argue that Foelsche’s activities sparked interest in bark-paintings among collectors and museums and that it was Foelsche, rather than Baldwin Spencer, who initiated the bark-painting ‘industry’ that now dominates art from the Northern Territory’s ‘Top End’.