Last week we heard the news that a nursing sister was killed in the small community of Fregon. A young man has been charged and we are yet to hear the full story. This is truly a tragic situation for all concerned.
I first remember hearing about the community of Kaltjiti/Fregon in the 1960s when John and Gwen Fletcher told me about this place in central Australia where they had set up a sheep station. John spent a number of years working with the Pitjantjatjara people 30 miles south of the main mission station called Ernabella. It was south of Uluru, across the border from Northern Territory into South Australia. At the time I couldn’t imagine how anybody could ever live in such harsh desert conditions.
Then in the late 1970s when I was working at Ramingining as a community development worker I met Margaret Bain who was helping the Pitjantjatjara people of Kaltjiti with many issues, including taking control of the local pub so they could combat alcohol abuse in their own community.
I remember at the time being taken aback by both these people’s incredible knowledge of the local people they worked with.
Things were different in those days
Things were different in those days. Many people in authority back then knew that if mainstream Australians going to these remote communities didn’t learn the language and culture of the people then things would go belly up – for them and the people. John never spoke much of the language but had a very good understanding of Aboriginal culture. Margaret though had learnt both the language and the culture extremely well. Both John and Margaret were what we call culturally competent people [see “Cultural Competency”].
Today nurses, teachers, and other mainstream Australian workers are sent to remote Aboriginal communities with little or no training. Back in the “bad old days” even many missionaries attended anthropological and linguistic training for six months before they were sent to work in the field. Government patrol officers from the Welfare Department, like Ted Egan, were required to do similar training.
Today people walk out of capital cities and into Aboriginal Communities with more instructions about how to get on and off the plane, or fill out the department’s paperwork, than how to work and live productively with the Aboriginal people they go to work with.
Vulnerable people on both sides
The present ill-conceived system and practices leaves broken and vulnerable people on both sides of the cultural divide.
Mainstream Australians arriving in these communities can suffer immensely. And the people they come to work with also suffer emotional and psychological abuse from the culturally incompetent interactions they experience.
How could this possibly be?
The problem is simple. Mainstream Australians who come to work with Aboriginal people usually bring with them a background of European culture. The Original Australian culture (Aboriginal culture) is more Asian than it is European and so is very different from mainstream Australian culture. And the reality is that many mainstream Australians know very little about Asian or Aboriginal culture.
In fact mainstream Australians understanding of Aboriginal culture has become clouded and confused by the stereotypes, of Aboriginal people and culture, which were developed at the colonial interface by the English speaking “Australians”. Sadly these are very one sided stereotypical names and assumptions that are now accepted across Australia as “Aboriginal culture”. But these stereotypes are inaccurate and in themselves are offensive to Aboriginal people who still hold to their original culture.
The people who arrive to live and work in communities can become vulnerable because many times their actions and words are misinterpreted. This is because they have little understanding of appropriate standards and manners that are central to the people’s ways. Therefore some of the ways of communicating and interacting with people are seen as rude and even abusive.
This makes them look morally corrupt and lawless in the eyes of the community and may lead to conflict and could also lead to personal, physical or verbal abuse. Many times it also results in the mainstream Australian worker being very unproductive and unable to help the community in the way they originally intended.
The people become vulnerable
Aboriginal people also become vulnerable as they suffer from the naive abusive words and actions of the mainstream Australians. They then also suffer from reaching the wrong conclusions about the people who have come to work in their community.
Nothing new here
There is nothing new or strange about what I’m saying here. When tourists travel to other countries around the world they are given some good basic advice on how to dress and interact with the local people so that their actions are not misunderstood.
Why is this advice also not made available to nursing sisters, teachers, and others who leave the safety of their culture and home environment to go and work with Aboriginal people who clearly operate within a different cultural context?
Is it just because bureaucrats find it easier to budget massive amounts of money for recruiting nurses and teachers than to put some money in the same budgets to train those they recruit? This seems to be the case and so people are employed and sent at great cost to communities only to fail in many cases. I’m not saying that there are not good mainstream Australian people doing some great work in Aboriginal communities. There are. But this is despite a flawed system that put them there in the first place. However the revolving recruitment door is very well oiled with large sums of public money moving many people in and out of communities, resulting in the retention of only a few.
It seems the system is designed this way so that public servants can say when asked, “Are all positions filled”? They can answer, “Yes”.
The cost of recruiting just one position could pay for the cultural competency training of between 15 and 20 staff members. Imagine savings to government if even only 10% or 20% of those people became effective and remained in their position more than one average staff rotation.
So nurses, teachers, and other expatriate workers are being placed in harm’s way due to the lack of foresight and understanding of the people who control the purse strings.
And people who these mainstream Australians are sent to work with are also placed in harm’s way, while the “Gap” just gets wider around all the key statistics.
Three decades of trying to get change
I have been talking about the need for this training for at least three decades now. Training that would save tens of millions of dollars in recruitment as mainstream Australian professionals come to Aboriginal communities, experience failure, psychological breakdown and leave as broken people, some so badly damaged they leave their chosen profession.
While back in the major centres the public servants blame these very same professionals for “failing in their job”. So they just recruit another group of green, untrained, unprepared, mainstream Australians to go and do the same thing all over again.
This is at a time when Australia is talking about National Reconciliation, “Closing the Gap” for Aboriginal people and finding savings in scarce public funds.
We want change
Here at Why Warriors we want to make a difference so I’ve decided to start sharing more training material that will help mainstream Australians learn some of the Original Australian culture. This will give some tools to people travelling and working in Aboriginal communities and stop some of the abuse that is inadvertently being carried out every day towards Aboriginal adults and their children.
Please see the first of this series; “The Beckoning Finger”. Help us to make a difference in the lives of Aboriginal people and share this with your friends and networks.
Richard Trudgen © April 2016