MurUEJL 36
Cultural Maintenance and Trauma in Indigenous Australia
Paper presented at the 23rd Annual Australia and New Zealand Law and History Society Conference, Murdoch University, Western Australia (2-4th July, 2004)
||Michael Halloran BA, PhD|
Lecturer, La Trobe University School of Psychological Science
||Volume 11, Number 4 (December 2004)|
‘Because the colonization has really done a number on us, it’s hard to undo the mind-set.’ 
- There is compelling evidence from a broad range of indicators to demonstrate that the indigenous peoples of the world experience a state of living and health that is well below acceptable standards. In most cases where this situation exists, the cause is attributed to the impact of Western colonization and its ongoing effects 
- Although such a view is clearly justified, the history, complexity and prevalence of negative experiences suffered by Indigenous people deserve deeper attention and analysis. The aim of this paper is to put forward one such analysis, which relies upon the notions of cultural maintenance and cultural trauma. First, I will introduce ideas about the nature of cultural maintenance and trauma, and then apply these to an analysis of the historical and contemporary experiences of Indigenous Australians.
- To begin, culture can be thought of as a complex and diverse system of shared and interrelated knowledge, practices and signifiers of a society, providing structure and significance to groups within that society and ultimately an individual’s experience of his or her personal, social, and physical and metaphysical worlds 
Shared knowledge includes collectively held norms, values, attitudes, beliefs, and the like, while cultural practices are evidenced in the language, law, and kin relationship practices of a society. In part, cultural knowledge and practices are dynamic phenomena; collectively maintained and transformed by the ongoing interaction of societal members over time and space 
Cultural maintenance, transmission, and transformation are the result of ongoing interaction of people engaged in shared activities in concrete situations. Put simply, culture is socially constructed and maintained.
- Despite the generally counterproductive view that culture, as a by-product of human interaction, is ‘merely’ arbitrary 
cultural knowledge and practices are effective human adaptations. On one level, culture can be seen as essential to effective and coordinated human interaction. At the individual level, culture provides collectively validated ways to think about and value oneself, and ultimately behave towards the physical and social world. Culture has also evolved, in part, to suppress some fundamental human anxieties or fears, especially anxiety about social isolation and anxiety produced by our unique ability for self-consciousness and mortality awareness, which is commonly referred to as existential anxiety 
- Culture suppresses existential anxiety by its capacity to give meaning and value to individual existence. Culture meets the need for meaning by tying the individual and society into meaningful relationship and, in doing so, provides a general order, structure, and purpose to social interaction that imbues individual existence with significance. By prescribing valued social roles, personal qualities and standards of behaviour, culture also generates opportunities for deriving a sense of personal value. Thus, at the most fundamental level, cultural conceptions of reality provide people with a sense of meaning and value; thereby assuaging anxiety that life could be no more significant than taking in food, expelling waste, and temporarily clinging to survival on a clump of dirt and rock hurtling through space.
By implication, individual existence would be anxiety-laden and productive action stifled without the meaning and value culture provides to existence.
- Given the significance of culture to human existence, it is not surprising that people purposefully engage in social practices and activities to maintain or even defend their cultural worldviews, despite, or perhaps because of, its arbitrary nature. With a touch of irony, social anthropologist Ernest Becker observed that:
this is one of the reasons that people often show derisive glee and scorn over the
“strange” customs of other lands - it is a defence against the awareness that his or
her own way of life may be just as fundamentally contrived as any other.
As implied by Becker, a byproduct of cultural worldview maintenance and defense is intercultural conflict over competing worldviews, as evidenced by the type of justifications made by the different protagonists for their part in the recent Iraq war.
- In most cases, however, conflict over competing cultural priorities occurs in the context of unequal power and status relations between groups, with the result that dominant cultures are largely inclined to actively suppress minority cultural group practices and meanings; supposedly motivated by the need to assert the significance of their own cultural worldviews.
Yet, as described elsewhere 
widespread and persistent suppression of cultural practices severely disrupts a culture, making it susceptible to trauma. Moreover, we have proposed 
that cultural trauma is a state wherein cultural knowledge and practices have been weakened to the extent that they fail in their capacity to imbue individual existence with meaning and value.
- There are two significant predicted effects of cultural trauma. On the one hand, members of that culture are likely to be susceptible to anxiety, which is manifested in maladaptive coping strategies. As a case in point,
the depopulation of Melanesia earlier this century, as well as the loss of interest by Marquesan Islanders in having children did not puzzle anthropologists: in the face of inroads from white trader and missionaries upon everything that gave them a sense of value, the islanders simply gave up.
Thus, the effects of cultural trauma are manifest in form of collective helplessness, and pervasive anxiety. Furthermore, and as maintained by others, 
it is also likely that the resultant maladaptive coping practices become endemic to a society or even normative, increasing the likelihood that cultural trauma and its effects are carried forth into successive generations.
- The theoretical framework described here can be summarized with a number of central points. First, culture is a shared repository of interrelated knowledge and practices, and is maintained and transmitted by the ongoing activities and practices of cultural participants in concrete situations. Second, culture is a significant contributor to psychological stability; by providing meaning and value to life, culture protects people from basic human anxieties. Third, and due to its significance in societal and individual existence, people regularly validate and defend cultural practices and knowledge. Fourth, factors that severely and continuously suppress or undermine culture would be expected to produce cultural trauma, which is likely to result in anxiety-based maladaptive behaviours amongst its members. This framework provides a number of insights that are pertinent to understanding the situation of Aboriginal Australians since European invasion.
- The experience of Aboriginal Australians since European settlement is replete with suppression of their cultural practices and knowledge by the dominant cultural group/s in Australia.
In the first century of settlement, these included land dispossession by force, theft of women, slavery and war, introduced diseases, and the missionary zeal for Aboriginal people to embrace Western religion and reject their own spiritual beliefs such as the dreaming. Moreover, settlement brought with it the assertion of British sovereignty and law, which effectively displaced indigenous customary law.
- In the 20th century, further intervention into Aboriginal culture and life was evidenced in the Government’s White Australia Policy and an explicit strategy of indigenous assimilation through forced removal of children from their family of origin and placement with Europeans. This latter strategy, referred to as the Stolen Generations, was perhaps the most critical assault on Aboriginal culture as it undermined and destabilized Aboriginal social structures central to cultural practice, and thus, transmission.
- Contemporary events in Australia have also undermined attempts by Aboriginal people to address their cultural priorities and autonomous life-ways. These include legislative interference in the Native Title Act, equivocal support for the aims of Indigenous reconciliation and for the findings of the Stolen Generation report into the forced removal of children,
and the recent dismantling of ATSIC. Significantly, the current government dismissed the cultural importance of ATSIC by claiming that it was ‘too preoccupied with symbolic issues’,
as well as unambiguously adopting a policy of mainstreaming Aboriginal services. As surmised by others, 
these strategies potentially undermine the pursuit of indigenous cultural autonomy and implicitly encourage a culture and cycle of dependency amongst Aboriginal Australians. Although one might argue that there is no direct motive by the majority in Australia to encourage Aboriginal dependency, research shows that people prefer to offer dependency- rather than autonomy-based help to low-status outgroups to maintain social dominance and insure intergroup status-relations.
Thus, dependency based policies subtly discourage cultural independence and, as also implied by the current analysis of inter-cultural dynamics, can be seen to be motivated by the majority culture to maintain its superior status.
- Altogether, the contemporary and historical interventions into Aboriginal life have been argued to represent a form of cultural genocide.
At the very least, the destruction of Aboriginal law, spirituality, social structure, and the possession of sacred lands (the central foundations of cultural life-ways) is a representative case for cultural trauma.
- From perspective put forward in this paper, the interventions into Indigenous cultural knowledge and practices are likely to completely undermine the effectiveness of their cultural worldview as an anxiety-buffer, and lead to anxiety related cognitions and behaviours – a sure indicator of cultural trauma. In fact, regardless of the criteria used to measure them, anxiety related cognitions and behaviour are prevalent amongst the Indigenous people of Australia, and have been likened to the symptomatology of Post-Traumatic Stress Syndrome.
- For instance, there are disturbingly higher reported proportions of Indigenous imprisonment, infant mortality, suicide, drug dependence and substance abuse, and general medical conditions, as well as lower life expectancies.
Indigenous people also show very high levels and rates of self-reported hopelessness, helplessness, and disorientation as well as anxiety, irritability and insomnia,
and are four to five times more likely to die from the consequences of a mental disorder than the non-Indigenous Australian population.
In addition, due to their low social status and poor living conditions, the Indigenous peoples of Australia are reliant upon welfare assistance, which has exacerbated their perception of dependence and feelings of helplessness.
- The experiences and state of Aboriginal people in Australia are not dissimilar to that of Indigenous peoples in other parts of the world. The devastating loss of population, lands, law, and spirituality resulting from contact with Europeans has been experienced throughout Indigenous America and the Pacific.
Peoples as distinct as Yup'ik Eskimos, Navajos, Athabaskan Indians, and Hawaiian Natives have experienced the same physical, social, behavioral and psychological effects of cultural trauma (e.g., high rates of incarceration, suicide, alcoholism, accidental deaths) in the context of cultural trauma.
Moreover, intergenerational transmission of cultural trauma and its effects have also led to alternative cultures of aggression and violence becoming normative for many indigenous societies.
- Altogether, the various histories of Aboriginal people across the globe provide a compelling picture of cultural trauma; alongside weakened cultural knowledge and practices, we see prevalent anxiety related cognitions and behaviours. I argue that the cultural trauma experienced by Indigenous peoples has undermined their basis of meaning and value to the extent that they have little protection from basic human anxiety, which has become manifest in the extent and prevalence of social and psychological problems they suffer. Although various approaches have been implemented to address the situation of Aboriginal Australians, the most promising measures are those that reinvigorate Indigenous culture and life-ways.
- Indigenous people throughout the world with a history of cultural trauma and its associated effects continue to seek solutions that acknowledge their cultural life-ways. By implication, efforts toward cultural reinvigoration represent an important step towards the restoration of the essential psychological prerequisites for adaptive action. Although the positive impact of cultural reinvigoration may be demonstrated in various types of practice, such as education, where, for example, school programs in Hawaii incorporating indigenous culture and language have impacted positively on educational outcomes,
the analysis here focuses on Australian Aboriginal health practice.
- Historically, Western style approaches to Aboriginal health were prominent in practice. In most cases however these approaches were largely ineffective and served to undermine Indigenous culture further, as they focused on diagnosis and cure of disorders, which “…had the effect of individualizing and pathologizing what are complex social and historical issues”.
Nevertheless, of late, recognition of the importance of culture to Indigenous health has developed at the highest levels of Australian society, as evidenced by a Parliamentary report that states:
It is very clear to the Committee that the issue of culture and importance to Indigenous Australians is a key matter in the planning and delivery of services, if those services are going to be used by, and meet the needs of, Indigenous Australians.
- Although it not possible to conclude with any surety the effectiveness of a culturally sensitive approach to Australian Indigenous health, due to the lack of relevant program review, research activity and investment in this approach that has occurred thus far, some of the available evidence supports the contention that rebuilding a world of Indigenous cultural meaning and relevance goes towards addressing the poor health and ill-being problems of Aborigines.
- The We Al-Li program focused on strategies to heal pain and trauma of Indigenous Australians through the use of traditional ceremonies of healing.
We Al-Li (the Woppaburra term for fire and water), uses a supportive social context and traditional practices in places of cultural significance for the expression of anger and sorrow. With this method, the program participants report deep emotional healing and a shift from victim self-perceptions to those of a survivor. Other programs, such as an Aboriginal Empowerment Program in the Northern Territory,
which focuses on family well-being, have also shown promising indications of the value of culturally minded programs to the improvement of Indigenous health and well-being.
- More general health programs also show the positive impact of cultural recognition and rebuilding with Indigenous Australians. The Belyuen Health Centre 
showed significant improvements in health outcomes of Indigenous people by taking into account aspects of Aboriginality, such as social kin relationships and responsibilities, methods of time-keeping, gender issues, and the use of traditional healers and language. Furthermore, the “Strong Women, Strong Babies, Strong Culture Program” led to marked improvements in the health and well-being of pregnant women when cultural factors were taken in account.
This initiative involved participants undertaking traditional food collection to increase exercise, and traditional pregnancy practices, such as the smoking ceremony. The program has demonstrated its success with a significant decrease in the rate of low birth weights and pre-term births amongst participants. Anecdotal evidence also shows that simply using culturally appropriate language to explain medical conditions impacts positively on indigenous health outcomes.
- While there is lack of strong evidence at this stage, there is substance to the claim that health and well-being programs with Indigenous Australians that adopt culturally relevant strategies are likely to be relatively successful. This is because culture, through its provision of a world of meaning and value, protects people from basic anxiety and its effects. Indigenous Australians are likely to find greater social and psychological harmony to the extent that there is investment in recognizing and using their culture in practical ways.
- In this paper, I have linked the historical and contemporary situation and experiences of Aboriginal people in Australia to the dynamics of cultural trauma. This framework predicts that when a culture is severely undermined, its members are susceptible to anxiety-related maladaptive behaviour. There is little doubt that in real and symbolic terms, Australian Aboriginal culture has been traumatized by the ‘European invasion’. There is also little doubt that Aboriginal Australians suffer a poor state of social, psychological and physical health reflecting a general state of anxiety. This situation mirrors that of other Indigenous cultures throughout the world despite their distinct genetic, geographical and cultural backgrounds. Thus, there is strong evidence to support the relationship between cultural destruction, cultural trauma, and the situation of Aboriginal people today.
- The analysis of culture herein suggests that an important strategy towards addressing the anxiety related effects of cultural trauma suffered by Aboriginal Australians is through recognition and reinvigoration of Indigenous meanings and practices. In reality though, the pursuit of Indigenous culture recovery is not without its obstacles and challenges. One challenge to overcome appears to be clearly articulating priorities of culturally-relevant practice;
as noted by a Parliamentary review into Indigenous health, ‘many of the witnesses to the Inquiry, found it difficult to articulate which were the important aspects of culture and how they may be encompassed by health and related services’.
The implication of the views put forward here is that the importance of certain cultural knowledge and practices may be ascertained by their capacity to emphasise the significance of the indigenous worldview and values and give them priority. As argued by others, culturally relevant health practices show positive results because the ‘great relevance for such forms of healing lies in their meaning-making aspects and the coherence-engendering qualities of the healing ritual’.
Furthermore, the effectiveness of such practices may be measured by their capacity to reduce the anxiety related health and behavioural effects of cultural trauma. Thus, an important step towards addressing the health related effects of cultural trauma is in developing the means to recover, implement, and measure the effects of culturally-relevant health practices with indigenous Australians. Given that the effects of cultural trauma on health often involve significant legal factors (e.g., drug and alcohol issues, family abuse), the aims of cultural recovery are also relevant for an analysis of Aboriginal Australians’ experience of the law
- On the positive side, Indigenous cultural recovery has been an underlying theme in the Aboriginal legal rights movement for some time. Significant cultural recognition has occurred through the courts in Australia, with the acknowledgment of Indigenous land rights 
and in legislation enacted in the Native Title Act.
These advancements have also opened opportunities for the pursuit of some form of Aboriginal treaty, sovereignty and self-government,
which would provide a significant framework for the reinstitution of Indigenous cultural practice. However, one can imagine these aims to be long-term given the long history of reticence by the judiciary to put into question the ultimate sovereignty of the Crown or the State.
Similarly, the pursuit of restitution for past injustices towards Aborigines (e.g., stolen generations; breach of employment contacts), which is also about cultural recognition, requires a long-term commitment and strategy. As noted by Cunneen,
reparation for past injustices in Ireland that were akin to the those that occurred amongst the stolen generations in Australia, proceeded only when there was political will to do so.
- Alongside the pursuit of these aims, various state and national jurisdictions have begun restorative practices that recognize the importance of Indigenous cultural factors to the achievement of procedural justice before the law. In Australia, the Nunga, Koori and Murri courts have been established to handle cases involving indigenous parties with relevant cultural practice and procedures.
In North American courts, the methods for dispute resolution include peacemaking and the Circle Court sentencing, which encourage the participation of the community, elders, victims and offenders (and their families) in a process of seeking solutions that restore harmony and balance and bring about healing. While the benefits of restorative practices are yet to be rigorously tested (e.g., via rates of incarceration and recidivism), there is at least anecdotal evidence to demonstrate the positive effects of reintegrating traditional justice practices into Indigenous culture.
As in health practice, one of the biggest challenges to restorative practices has been the limited support by government in both policy and funding initiatives to implement, and evaluate the effectiveness of traditional justice practices.
Nonetheless, due to their foundational role in culture, restorative practices in cultural institutions, such as the law, should be seriously pursued.
- On the negative side, a significant impediment to cultural reinvigoration in many areas of Aboriginal practice is the ongoing resistance by the majority culture/s in Australia towards the achievement of Aboriginal cultural objectives. As previously mentioned, the cultural objectives of the Native Title Act, Reconciliation Australia, Stolen Generation Report and ATSIC have been undermined by majority culture intervention. This may be the case because, as research has shown, non-Indigenous Australians have a poor understanding of Aboriginal cultural imperatives and, thus, endorse prejudicial attitudes towards Indigenous Australians.
There are a few other relevant explanations for the behaviours of non-Indigenous Australians towards Aboriginal Australians.
- The approach in this paper implies that resistance to the aims of Indigenous Australians is due, in part, to the assertion of majority culture/s racial superiority,
because of the psychological threat posed by an Aboriginal worldview which is quite distinct in many respects from the majority worldview. Yet, other minority cultural groups have found relatively greater acceptance in Australia despite their unique worldviews. A further explanation in the literature 
is that non-indigenous Australians may be threatened by an experience of collective guilt regarding treatment towards Aboriginal Australians because they have been the main beneficiaries. The resultant perception of threat from collective guilt would explain defensive reactions in the form of prejudicial behaviours towards Aboriginal Australians.
While untested in Australia, this possibility has received empirical support elsewhere.
- Alternatively, perceptions of deservingness of resources 
might mitigate positive attitudes towards indigenous Australians. As case in point, recent political commentary has reflected the view that Aboriginal Australians do not deserve to be treated any differently than other Australians.
This view also seemingly has cultural weight due to its perceived relationship with the central Australian value of egalitarianism with a fair go for all.
In other words, resistance to Aboriginal claims is due to them being perceived as above and beyond what all Australians equally deserve, although there is little evidence to suggest they do so. No doubt, it is likely that these explanations are each, in part, responsible for resistance by the majority culture/s in Australia towards Aboriginal cultural reinvigoration.
- In conclusion, the ultimate thrust of this paper is that the history of Indigenous people as a result of European colonization is one in which they were subject to oppressive suppression of their culture. As a result, they currently suffer the effects of cultural trauma, wherein the meaning-making capacity of Indigenous culture has been undermined as evidenced in the prevalence of anxiety-related cognitions and maladaptive behaviours amongst Aboriginal Australians. Moreover, cultural trauma, without redress is highly likely to be carried forward by successive generations; as implied by the opening epigraph of this paper. But, the analysis of culture in this paper also strongly suggests that cultural recognition and reinvigoration is a path towards addressing the negative experiences of Aboriginal Australians. One way for this to occur would be through greater acknowledgement and usage of significant Indigenous knowledge and practices within central Australian cultural institutions and practices, especially those that involve Aboriginal Australians directly, whilst simultaneously accounting for the impediments to this possibility.
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