I couldn’t visit any Aboriginal families last year because I was so ill, but I kept in touch, and some of the news was very bad. In August, one of my young granddaughters killed herself. It was a double grief to have to stay home when I wanted to go and cry with the family; later I sent a message of comfort to be read aloud at the funeral as a small way to make up for not being there in person.
My grief and bewilderment flared up recently when I heard that a ten-year-old girl in the Kimberley had killed herself. This Kimberley death has brought into public view the horrifying statistics about youth and child suicide across North Australia. In the Northern Territory, Indigenous youth suicide was recently reported to be 30.1 per 100,000 people, compared with a figure of 2.6 nationally among non-Indigenous people. A recent report indicates a 500% increase in reports of child self-harm and suicide in NT over the past two decades. Gerry Georgatos, a specialist on Indigenous suicide, describes the problem as a ‘humanitarian crisis’.
Everyone is shocked, everyone wants to understand why, and everyone wants to do something. But what? No one knows exactly how to understand these deaths, and no one knows exactly what to do. I am an ‘everyone’. I too am shocked and want to do something. I too feel baffled and powerless. Even the work of writing becomes a field of impossibilities. To write publicly risks saying the wrong thing. To say nothing is to turn one’s back on suffering, and thus to refuse the ethical call inherent in suicide. The biggest fact, to my mind, is that everyone with a conscience feels implicated. We are called, perhaps more powerfully than ever, to ask what reconciliation might look like – not as a political outcome but as an ethical response.
These recent deaths shine a cruel spotlight on our connections as well as on our inequalities: we, non-Aboriginal and Aboriginal people, are part of the same nation, but in general we are leading radically different lives. Part of the difference concerns health, life expectancy and well-being. I turned to my friend John Boulton for more insight. He worked as a medical doctor in the Kimberley for ten years. His specialty is paediatrics, and his practice has forced him to think deeply about the suffering of children. As he struggled to understand the catastrophes he encountered he found it necessary to consider the intergenerational transmission of trauma. His eloquent words tell a story that is at once biological, social and ethical: for Aboriginal people in North Australia ‘History is inscribed on the body and branded in the mind’.
John was seeing the long-term impacts of two types of trauma: starvation and violence. Both types affect unborn babies as well as everyone else in their grip. Much of the evidence about intergenerational trauma comes out of World War II, and is perhaps best known amongst Holocaust survivors and their children and grandchildren, and those offspring of women who survived the lesser-known Nazi atrocity, the Dutch Winter Famine of 1944-45. The effects of under-nutrition put children who experience it whilst in the womb at far higher than average risk of diabetes, high blood pressure, heart attack and obesity in later life, with the risk and type of illness dependent on the timing of maternal starvation. In parallel, the trauma of enduring psychic violence leads to alterations in hormone receptors in the offspring’s brain and may lead to low capacity to withstand stress. This can happen throughout life, and typically leads to a tendency toward impetuous and violent behaviour in the face of a level of frustration or stress that could otherwise be managed. ‘Self-medication’ with alcohol or other substances is one of the ways in which people seek to manage repeated trauma. Alcohol regularly leads to more violence, bringing more trauma into more people’s lives. In the Northern Territory and the Kimberley, evidence indicates that suicide rates took off about 20-30 years after the time it became legal for Aboriginal people to purchase alcohol.
Youth and child suicide can thus be understood as part of a great wave of intergenerational trauma which manifests in poor health and shorter life expectancies, and far greater risk of exposure to violence compared with the national average. Self-harm is one of the most dramatic forms of violence.
These facts do not tell us the situation is hopeless; rather they serve to remind us that colonial and post-colonial social relations are key contributors to the contemporary social environment. Violence, trauma and starvation are well documented in the Victoria River region where my young granddaughter lived and died. I know the social history well, having learned about it from old people who had lived through most of it. I also know that across the generations there has been fierce determination: there has been a will to survive, to uphold the meanings of life, to take an ethical stand in spite of regulatory regimes of savage discipline. There is a will to remember; these are strong stories, and so at this time I want to think about three generations of individuals who lived from the 1880s until now. They brought my granddaughter into the world, and I am wondering what challenges they faced, and what sustained them. I called the girl ‘jaju’ in the kinship system, and I will use that term in writing about her.
First generation: Warriors
In the 1880s there was a group of adult clansmen whose country included some of the rough ranges and mesas of the Wickham River catchment. The men were clan brothers but had different mothers and fathers so their ages were widely disparate. I was privileged to meet the youngest of these men, Old Johnson Pitutu. In 1980 he was about eighty years old, and he died not long after I met him. His words have had a strong influence on my thinking; in his succinct eloquence he articulated an ethic of fidelity that is shared by most of the Aboriginal people I have ever met. The old man was living at the outstation, on land that was close to his ancestral country and near a place by the river where his uncle had been killed by Whitefellas. Old Pitutu told me that the ‘Wickham river is filled with blood of Blackfellas killed in those days. Their bones are all broken up along the bottom…. We are camping now on the blood of Aboriginal people killed in those days.’
To return to the 1880s, these Jangala clansmen were warriors; over the next three decades they fought invading Whitefellas and they fought other Aboriginal clans. They took revenge as necessary, killing other men outright, stealing women, and doing sorcery. They were incredibly courageous. They were fierce, prideful, unforgiving, and wildly defiant. As their descendant Daly Pulkara explained, they decided to go ‘for win or lose’, knowing the Whitefellas had guns, but still determined to fight. They were Lawmen, as well, and they struggled to protect the sites and the country, to carry out the ceremonies and to raise a new generation even as they were seeing much of what they had known and valued in the world fall apart. The women in their lives, their sisters and wives, are not prominent in the stories, but the hints are that they were every bit as fierce as the men. It was a wholly unequal war, and along with warfare there were new and deadly diseases afflicting people. In the period 1880-1930 the loss of Aboriginal population was about 93%. This figure is consistent with estimates for nearby regions, and indeed for the whole of Australia, as assessed by Larissa Behrendt.
Conquest and dispossession started in earnest in this region in the 1880s. White people brought in cattle and set up Victoria River Downs station on top of Aboriginal people’s homelands. They had already decided that it was best in the first instance to shoot and terrify people. Clans and tribes whose country was out in the open plains were at a terrible disadvantage in those years. There are numerous massacre sites; the stories are well remembered although the names of individuals are lost. Once the Whitefellas had destroyed the initial resistance, they brought the survivors into the station as an unfree, unpaid (later underpaid) workforce.
The Jangala men were ‘bush blacks’; their country was in the rough ranges, and they carried on a guerrilla war against the Whitefellas for several decades. At the same time, they were defending their country against other local Aboriginal groups who also were seeking refuge. It was war in every direction. The most prominent of this group of clan brothers was a man whose Whitefella name was Gordon; the people who spoke with me about him invariably called him Old Gordon. He was born about 1870. Defiant to the last, he was one of Jaju’s great-grandfathers.
The story goes like this. One day in June, 1910, Gordon had gone out hunting, leaving his wives back at camp. While he was away, one of the Aboriginal men who was working for the Whitefellas, a guy named Murphy, found the camp and ended up killing the two women. We can only speculate about what might have happened. When Gordon got home he found his wives dead. He tracked Murphy back to the station, waited till the man was alone, and threw spears that injured but did not kill him. The station manager sent out a group of Aboriginal men led by a notoriously savage Whitefella. Among the group was Humbert Tommy, a man Old Gordon called ‘son’. One of the Aboriginal men shot him in both legs, crippling him, and afterwards shot him in the head. Between these shots, Humbert Tommy speared him. Finally, members of the group cut off his hands and took them back to the station, apparently as evidence that the job was done. Later, some of the Jangala men turned to sorcery to kill the man who had shot Old Gordon.
The action against Old Gordon seems excessive, but everyone was edgy at the time because earlier that year a white man had been killed. ‘Brigalow Bill’ Ward had taken up a license allowing him to muster cattle at the edge of VRD station. He was a rough and tumble duffer with a poor reputation among other Whitefellas, not only for stealing cattle but also for abusing the Aboriginal women he kept in his camp. The Jangala men tolerated him for a while, perhaps because he gave them tobacco, but in the end they decided they’d had enough of his threats and abuse. They may well have been stirred on by the women. One of them, Judy, hid Brigalow’s gun and alerted the Aboriginal men to come and kill him. A police report says that while Brigalow was dying Gordon cut his throat with a tommyhawk. Judy ripped out his beard, saying ‘good job him dead, mefellow no more like him’. This much is reported in the police files. Local knowledge adds more to this fierce story: as Judy stood over him in triumph, she pissed on his face.
One of the youngest of the Jangala clansmen was a man named Fishhook. He was born in about 1895 during a time of warfare and high nutritional stress. The description of him as a skinny kid with a large belly vividly conveys the effects of starvation. In spite of his tough start to life, he was the father of many of the men who continued the clan by having children of their own. (Judy did not have children who lived.) Fishhook argued against fighting, saying they needed to learn to get along with Whitefellas. Their transition into station life was eased by the fact that in 1919 a new station, Humbert River, was taken up in the area where Brigalow Bill had had his license, and which, cynically enough, had originally been set aside as an Aboriginal reserve. This station was located partly on country of the Jangala clansmen. It was run for decades by Charlie Schultz, described by his Aboriginal workers as a hard but decent man. Life was by no means easy at Humbert River station, but it was better than at many other places in the region.
Second generation: Workers
The people of this generation were the backbone of the cattle industry in North Australia. They became Law men and Law women in the bush, and were skilled at station work. They were extraordinarily secure and judicious in their own knowledge. While stockmen were the public face of the Aboriginal workforce, women point out that they, too, worked hard for Whitefellas. In the early days they were stockwomen, later they were domestics, and all the while they struggled to raise children under difficult circumstances. Mothers and fathers endured the heartbreak of one infant death after another, and across the region many parents lost children to authorities as part of the stolen generation.
Humbert Tommy Nyuwinkarri bridged the gap between the warriors and the stockmen. Jaju would have called him ‘grandpa’. He was born in about 1894, a son of the Jangala generation. He had tried station life once and ended up ordered to attack his father, Old Gordon. Later, on Humber River station he became drover and a saddler, and was respected throughout the region. Daly Pulkara, Jaju’s maternal grandfather, told me that as a young man he spent time living in the bush with Humbert Tommy because he ‘wanted to learn to kill a man’. When the moment came, though, it was Humbert Tommy who held him back. It happened in 1938, when Daly was 14 years old. There were a lot of people camping in the bush, and a policeman came upon them and shot a lot of their dogs. Daly went wild, grabbed his spear and started to throw it, but Humbert Tommy took his arm and restrained him, telling him ‘don’t do it! Tensions were already high because just days before this incident Humbert Tommy had himself speared an Aboriginal police tracker, although the person he really wanted to attack was the white policeman who had killed his dogs, treated him condescendingly, and hit him in the head. As soon as he threw the spear he took off and hid out; later a more experienced policeman persuaded him to give himself up, and spoke for him in court to ensure that he would receive only a short jail sentence.
Until 1967 Aboriginal people were wards of the state, their rights were massively constricted. Under the regulatory regimes of the stations, their opportunities for redress were extremely minimal. This enclosed world changed abruptly with citizenship, the walk-offs and land rights. The men and women who had learned hard lessons of self-control were the leaders in the pastoral strikes. They turned the cattle station world upside down and brought in an era of land rights. At the same time, their own lives were also turned upside down. Citizenship meant equal wages, and cattle station owners and managers, angered over the disruption of their established way of life, decided to kick people off the stations and replace them with helicopters. Aboriginal groups went from full employment to almost zero employment. Having walked off the stations, they found there was almost nothing to return to.
For decades the Whitefellas in the cattle industry had made money out of Aboriginal labour; they had claimed to understand Aboriginals better than any welfare officer or other government official could do, and to have a genuine regard for Aboriginals. And yet, at the exact moment when they could have worked with Aboriginal people to form a post-colonial cattle culture built on co-existence and shared histories, they chose to opt out. Suddenly, the people they claimed to have cared about were expendable. Many Aboriginal people experienced this turning away as betrayal, as indeed it was. It was also, in many cases, mean-spirited, vindictive, and cruel. Worse yet, it was a foretaste of a much wider national turning away that gained ultimate expression in the ‘Intervention’ with its savage regulatory control over Aboriginal people, and the massive privileging of Whitefellas at their expense.
Third generation: Citizens
Jaju’s mother’s generation was the first to be born as free Australian citizens. I came into the story in 1980 when I arrived to live with people at Yarralin. I was amazed at the optimism people brought to lives that had been filled with so much hardship. They were clear about the injustices they had suffered, and aware of many on-going injustices. At the same time, they had walked off the stations in protest, and had returned home to found new communities, to make claims for the return of at least some of their traditional lands, and to raise a new generation that they expected would be educated in both Anglo-Australian ways and Indigenous ways. The house I was allocated looked out to the hills where Humbert Tommy had speared a police tracker. Soon I was spending time at Lingara, the new outstation on Humbert River station, where I hung out with the descendants of the Jangala clansmen and where I met Old Pitutu, the man who spoke so eloquently about fidelity.
I met the girl who would become Jaju’s mother in 1980. Liribin was about twelve then. She was lithe, beautiful, intelligent, funny, and, I came to understand, trapped. She had been promised in marriage at a young age, and when I met her she was for the first time being required to acknowledge her future husband. She hated having to cook for him when she wanted to be playing with the other kids, and when it was time for her to go away to boarding school for secondary education the family made the decision to keep her home. Everyone worried that she would meet boys and want her freedom. Of course, she already wanted her freedom; she didn’t need boarding school to teach her that. Moreover, she was exactly like her parents and grandparents, Daly, Fishhook and the rest of them – she was always going to be her own person. It took a few years, but she did extricate herself from the marriage and begin to organise her own life. Liribin is strong and forceful. She has immense pride; she can’t bear to be condescended to, and walks away in disgust if she is not treated respectfully. Her lack of education may limit the kinds of jobs she can aspire to, but she also refuses many local jobs, such as police aide, that would put her at odds with her own people. She understands her life in part through the global experience of Indigenous (tribal) people, and she named her youngest daughter, the girl who took her own life, after an African-American pop star. Liribin is a key person in her community, and yet from a bureaucratic perspective she is almost invisible.
The optimism I encountered in 1980 has been eroding. Over the years there has been an accelerating barrage of people telling Aboriginal people that nothing they did was good enough: the missionaries told them that everything they had believed and understood about creation and life on earth was wrong and, actually, the work of the devil; the education department dismantled the two-way education system they were so proud of; the health system trained Aboriginal health workers but kept hammering the message that people’s health was terrible, often undermining their confidence in their own bodies; at one point everybody had to work, and then the local white women were hired to run a day-care centre while Aboriginal mothers worked at watering lawns (which could have been done by sprinklers); later funds for local employment were cut; Whitefellas from time to time found ways to steal community funds. Every improvement seemed to require Whitefellas on high-paying jobs.
Under the Intervention
One day in June 2007 I was chatting with Jaju’s father about some of the changes he had been observing. As we talked, there came a sound of large vehicles, and then the army rolled in. The Intervention had started, and the optimistic community I had been welcomed into in 1980 became occupied territory. The accelerating process of disempowerment flipped into an all-out assault on people’s remaining freedom and autonomy. Over the years violence has become more harmful and more frequent. Whitefellas now live in upstairs houses surrounded by hurricane fences and barbed wire. The dry community rules are infringed so regularly that infringement no longer seems exceptional. There are few jobs, and the young men are in and out of jail, mostly on trivial offenses. Yarralin is massively over-policed and over-scrutinised. The country Jaju’s family had truly desired to regain possession of, the old Jangala strongholds, became a national park; the borders of the sacred and dangerous country they wanted to protect were whittled away, the ranger jobs didn’t materialise as had been promised, a number of Dreaming trees were chopped down. Many young people are cheekily optimistic, but not all: one boy killed himself, other kids were fighting and drinking and doing other bad stuff.
The Northern Territory Emergency Response, generally known as the Intervention, is a federally funded government program addressing dysfunction in Aboriginal communities through extreme management of people’s lives, finances, and communities. It includes a massive shifting of funds; Aboriginal ‘aid’ is a billion dollar industry, a large portion of which ends up in pay checks for Whitefellas. And while the rhetoric addresses improvement, the implications may be genocidal. Ron Merkel, QC, in an oration on Human Rights, quoted (then) Prime Minister John Howard and asserted that the aim of program is to assimilate Aboriginal people into the mainstream forever. With singular self-righteousness, the program has hammered away at Aboriginal people’s rights and freedoms; it is widely understood as an attack on people, their homelands and their land rights. One voice from the bush states: ‘This is our Holocaust’. The Intervention is set to continue until 2022. It is a regulatory regime of savage disempowerment inflicted on people already suffering extreme intergenerational trauma; it treats Aboriginal people as totally abject, and it has actually become one of the sources of contemporary trauma.
There is a monumental disconnect between public perceptions of Aboriginal neediness and the actual fierce pride that animates people. This chasm is visible in the case of the one and only suicide known in this region prior to the current wave. It took place on 28 February, 1965, and it came as a total shock to everyone. No one ever felt able to explain it fully, but the threat of powerlessness lay at the heart of it. That was the day Humbert Tommy shot himself in the head.
This was the son of warriors, a man who had speared his own father and later used sorcery to avenge the death. This was the man who had settled into station life and become respected by Whitefellas, including police, throughout the region. He had kept Jaju’s grandfather, Daly, from ruining his life by killing a policeman, and had helped many young men recover from the psychic and physical wounds of racial violence. Like his fathers, he was proud, intelligent, and wilful. In 1965 a number of things went wrong for him: the young Aboriginal men were not taking Law as seriously as he demanded; the station book keeper appeared to have embezzled his money. The final blow came when the doctor insisted he go to Darwin for medical treatment. In Humbert Tommy’s mind, as Daly explained, leprosy loomed large. Being found to have leprosy had meant that the person would be forcibly taken away and confined in a leper colony until they died. That kind of death, far from loved ones – country and family – was the ultimate form of disempowerment. It is not certain that this was going to happen to Humbert Tommy, but this is what worried him. Like his warrior fathers he took a defiant last stand, choosing to die rather than be taken prisoner.
Humbert Tommy’s death tells us that lessons derived from war are every bit as important as lessons derived from medicine and psychology.
An outline of an ethics for reconciliation starts with remembrance. It embraces both warrior pride and fidelity. It requires non-Aboriginal people to draw insights from complex stories, and this includes honouring the determination never to give in to powerlessness, and honouring the determination to remain close to country and ancestors.
These are not arcane points. They become lost in seas of statistics, and buried under mounds of policy, but they are at the heart of how Aboriginal people will overcome the current state of disaster. They are the foundations of a yet-to-be-visualised post-war reconstruction. At the moment national policy relentlessly and remorselessly inflicts regulatory trauma. Surely it is possible to turn things around, to be supportive without being controlling, to make peace without producing abjection. The allies did this after World War II, responding well to the humanitarian crises of the time. Here at home, today, our efforts toward peace deserve at least that much thoughtful consideration.
© Deborah Bird Rose (2016)
Dr John Boulton shared with me his expertise on intergenerational trauma as I
was struggling to understand some of the context of Aboriginal youth suicide. It
was therefore a pleasure to attend the launch of his book Aboriginal
Children, History and Health in Sydney a few days ago. The book develops some
of the themes that Dr Boulton has been working on concerning intergenerational
trauma. According to the description: ‘The high rate and root causes of ill-health
amongst Aboriginal children are explored through a unique synthesis of
historical, anthropological, biological and medical analyses.’ I recommend the
book highly. Professor Ngaiare Brown launched the book and gave one of the
most impressive speeches I have heard in a very long time. Her main theme is
expressed on the website of her organisation ‘Ngaoara’: ‘There is no greater
privilege than a child. Our children may be our future but they are also our
present and our most sacred responsibility.’
Facts and figures on suicide and alcohol are available at a number of sites and documents. The link between suicide and alcohol is found in a report by Parker and Ben-Tovin titled ‘A study of factors affecting suicide in Aboriginal and ’other’ populations in the Top End of the Northern Territory through an audit of coronial and other records’ (here). Georgatos quote is found here. An extremely lucid, recent discussion of violence in Aboriginal communities was on Late Night Live, with Marcia Langton and others (listen here).
John Boulton’s analysis of intergenerational trauma draws on a range of technical literature. I have relied primarily on the excellent plain-English summary he wrote for Aboriginal leaders in the Kimberley who wanted to understand the medical-physiological side of intergenerational trauma (here).
The summaries of historical events I present here are discussed in greater detail in my book Hidden Histories: Black Stories from Victoria River Downs, Humbert River, and Wave Hill stations, North Australia. It was published by Aboriginal Studies Press in Canberra and won the 1991 Jessie Litchfield Award for Literature. Unfortunately it is now out of print. Information on Old Gordon and Brigalow is in chapter 13 (here); the story of Humbert Tommy’s death is told in chapter 22 (here). The gender issues are explored more fully in my book Reports from a Wild Country (UNSW Press). Powerlessness and the question of genocide are explored in a special issue of the journal Aboriginal History dedicated to genocide. My article ‘Aboriginal Life and Death in Australian Nationhood’ is available here. More widely, there are many regional Aboriginal histories, especially from the Kimberley, many of them published by Magabala Books (visit here). Peter Read and Jay Arthur published an excellent set of oral histories collected across the region: Long Time Olden Time. There are two excellent histories by Darrell Lewis written to include Whitefella perspectives: Beyond the Big Run, Charlie Schultz’s story as told to Darrell Lewis, and A Wild History: Life and Death on the Victoria River Frontier. The best source for thinking about Aboriginal-Settler history in national perspective is the work of Henry Reynolds. See, for example, his excellent book This Whispering in Our Hearts. I have published a couple of other essays about land rights on this site, for example ‘Gurindji Freedom Day‘.
Figures for population loss can only ever be estimates because it is not known exactly how many Aboriginal people there were when the British first started to settle. Larissa Behrendt’s median figure of 90.% is published in her book Indigenous Australia for Dummies.
The most detailed and informative set of information on the Intervention can be found online (visit here). The quote ‘this is our holocaust’ is published here, and there are several excellent videos. Rev Dr Djiniyini Gondarra OAM has made a very powerful statement against the intervention (read here). Ron Merkel’s Oration can be read here.
An excellent new resource on the Intervention is the Report issued by the Castan Centre for Human Rights Law. The figure of 500% is taken from this report (read here).
For a lively and positive ‘take’ on young people’s lives, YouTube has videos of the White Water Band, including their educational song about buckling up to survive. (view here).
The story I tell in this essay has many parallels with Richard Trudgen’s book Why Warriors Lie Down and Die, published in 2000. His area of focus is Arnhem Land. There are also important resonances with Colin Tatz’s recent essay ‘We need to move beyond the medical model to address Indigenous suicide’, available online.