Who better understands Aboriginal culture?

The great contradiction of Aboriginal policy of the last 30 years is that the assimilationists better understood both Aboriginal culture and its faults and the impossibility of its preservation than those who uncritically sought to preserve it. The latter idealised culture and hoped that it could survive when its economic base was long gone and the very basis of the culture was no longer useful to sustain Aborigines in their new economy. While there were problems associated with the assimilation period, many were transient. Instead, the problems were mistakenly judged permanent. The permanent problems arose when programs were devised to stop the integration of Aborigines into the modern economy.

As Pastor Paul Albrecht, lately of the Finke River mission at Hermannsburg and a critic of the assimilation policy, has remarked:

There is nothing sacrosanct about cultures, and the Aboriginal culture is no exception … the rationale for taking seriously those aspects of Aboriginal culture still shaping the lives of the more traditional Aborigines is not to preserve the culture, but to utilise the culture to assist Aborigines adjust to the current social and economic situation (Albrecht 2008: 89).

A practical application of Albrecht’s observation is the successful Aboriginal secondary school at Djarragun College in Gordonvale, in far-north Queensland. When faced with unruly students, the principal understood the necessity to be utilitarian about Aboriginal (and Islander) culture. She recounted:

[The students’] joy and energy needed to be nurtured and celebrated and so we dreamed up every excuse for days of celebration and feasting. Cultural performances became a feature of all these celebrations and relatives became involved in teaching students their traditional dances and music. As students’ self-esteem and belief in themselves grew, so the behaviour across the school improved. As behaviour improved, so we introduced a more rigorous curriculum and gradually minimised the amount of days of celebration. We got down to two days of celebration a term which allowed us to really spend quality time on delivering accredited courses and to follow the Queensland syllabus (Illingworth 2007: 3).

Therein lies the solution to the wicked problem. If the problem arises because the policy-maker or some clients have impossible or misconceived demands, there is indeed a problem. But if the problem is differently conceived — that is, that Aborigines must learn to adapt to their new environment — it will resolve itself more quickly and with less pain. The idealists may suggest the solution is tantamount to killing the patient, but is the patient an idealised Aborigine or a person? It is possible that policy-makers enjoy the complexity of the multi-faceted problem. It is rather deflating to be told that it really is straightforward in conception, if not resolution.