"To What Degree Can We Generalize About The Contact Of Aboriginals?"

Essay by YoddiHigh School, 12th gradeB+, July 2007

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“To what degree can we generalise about contact between indigenous and non-indigenous people in Australia?”It is both possible and in some cases impossible depending on the circumstances to generalize about contact between indigenous and non-indigenous Australians. If we do generalise it needs to be broad. I will focus on the following tribes; the Lardil of Mornington Island in the Gulf of Carpentaria, QLD; the Nyungar of modern-day Albany (SW corner of WA); the Nyari of coastal Victoria around modern-day Portland and the Twelve Apostles; and the Fortescue River People from the Kimberleys in the north of WA.

That the culture was affected by contact and adapted is one such sustainable broad generalisation. The Lardil are a perfect example, my case studies reveal two adaptations; one of which was by choice and the other by force. The adaptation by choice was the first to occur. The Macassans came to Lardil waters on boats looking to harvest “bêche-de-mer” (commonly known as sea cucumber), as it was a delicacy in their lands.

They traded with the Lardil and would even take some of them back to their land with them until the next trip. This represented an adaptation through the learning and acceptance of another culture. Later on came the adaptation by force. Missionaries who came to ‘help’ the Lardil were paternal and forced them to change and lose their culture with the exception of Belcher who encouraged their way of life. They did this by; banning native ceremonies and religion, disrupting their way of life and exploiting them for labour. Detail of this can be found in the experiences of the missionary Reverend McCarthy. He banned all forms of their traditional way of life, forced marriages between wrong skin groups, exploited them for labour and just mistreated them in every way. He was a very ‘my way or the highway’ sort of person. Another example would be the Nyungar, who after contact started dressing their dancers when around Europeans and began eating the once taboo shellfish. The Fortescue River People were subjects to the forceful approach; all the tribes that lived along the river land, that was to be cultivated, were moved in together into the township of Roebourne onto a government reserve. This was against traditional social practice of tribes not living together. (All this may support this generalisation and yes this is true as all Aboriginal cultures did adapt to contact either by choice or unintentionally, but the circumstances of force or choice is where the line not to be crossed by the term generalisation comes in.)Language has been a barrier that has caused many complications and misunderstandings throughout history. The Nyungar had an interesting misunderstanding with the settling garrison. As the garrison were trying to make a place that could become a settlement and thus were starting to cultivate and as they were on Nyungar land; the natives believed that the growing potatoes were free for their taking. A mild melee broke out but quickly dispersed to nothing as the garrison authority realised what the Nyungar understood the potatoes to be and worked through to an understanding. The missionaries of the Lardil (except Belcher) and Nyari tribes also had this language barrier problem. Their actions, although altruistic, were paternalistic and lead to the slow devastation of the culture of the natives. For example, Mrs McPhee, who ran the Barrunbull Christian Mission near the Nyari, changed the names of natives coming into her mission made them learn her language and religion. In payment for this safety and religious cleansing she exploits them for labour. The Fortescue River People were victims to multiple misunderstandings due to their language barrier; which leads into the next topic of violence.

Violence being a part of most contact cases is an incredibly supported and valid generalisation. The violence occurred in most part due to the language barriers and cultural misunderstandings. The Fortescue River People were taken from their lands to be treated derogatorily and be exploited for labour. The largest form of violence recorded involving the Fortescue River People would have to be the ‘Flying Foam Massacre’. The year was 1888; pearlers and squatters massacred forty to sixty Yabbarra men, women and children at the infamous King Bay. An apparent justification was made by Alexander Robert Richardson “nothing more then administering stern justice to savages, shooting an inferior race.” The Nyari tribe also involved massacre; settlers who did not understand, were settling on sacred land and were speared by the Nyari. As a ‘repercussion’, the entire Nyari tribe were slaughtered by a small group of Europeans. The Nyungar were lucky in the sense that no violence occurred between them and the garrison Europeans. This was mostly due to the fact that their greeting of peace is a handshake (just like Europeans) and that one individual, Mokare, befriended the garrison instantly, due to his intrigue, and became a link between the two cultures very quickly. Mokare was also the brother of the leader of the tribe, thus his word as a link to his brother meaning more. The Lardil’s only true form of violence, that we know of, was the Burketown Peter situation. Peter was a stolen boy who grew up through labour in Burketown. As a man he returned to Mornington Island and due to all his pent-up hatred towards Europeans, he murdered the missionary and held the mission hostage until arrested. This supports that violence was extremely possible in all contact, but not always occurring.

Within the introduction of this essay, I made a point that it is both possible and impossible to generalise about the contact between indigenous and non-indigenous people; depending on the circumstances. The three generalisations explored and elaborated throughout, using four main tribes for reference, posed the pattern that would come to support my point. The patterns being that some examples were a ‘yes’ and some were a ‘no’; for example the Nyungar’s lack of violence as opposed to the Fortescue River people massacre. Thus coming to a conclusion that co-insides with my conjecture.

Bibliography1. My own personal notes from watching movies and massive hand-outs from our class teacher.