Contemporary Aboriginal living
The early Aborigines in the Kakadu National Park along the Alligator Rivers region used to live in shelters made of bark or stone. Food was solely hunted and gathered. Even with the early tradings with the Macassan fishermen who came to collect trepag (sea-slugs), their culture and tradition remained pretty much intact. Life began to change in the late 1830's when the British residence became more permanent in the north...
Effort had been made by the Australians to segregate the Aborigines in the early 1900s. Only "full-blooded" Aborigines were allowed to live on reserves under the Aboriginals Ordinance of 1918. By the 1940s, the Government decided to assimilate the Aboriginals into the European culture. In the 1960s, the assimilation policy was found to be a failure and was dumped in 1972, to be replaced by the policy of self-determination. For the first time, Aborigines were allowed to make decisions. In 1976, the Aboriginal Land (Northern Territory) Act was passed in Canberra and the Aborigines were handed back all reserves and mission lands in the Territory. They were also allowed to claim ownership of lands which they have traditional ties with (except those which were already leased or set aside for special purposes). The Northern Territory Act helped to improve the living conditions and morale of the Aborigines a bit. In the 1970s, they started to leave their settlement and return to a more traditional and semi-normadic style of living in the Outstations.
European culture has certain impacts on the Aborigines over the years. Technolgy also changes their social life and conditions forever. It is not unusual to see Aborigines in the remote areas equipped with TVs, refrigerators, teleophones, fax-machines and other modern days electric applicances. Motor vehicles and outboard motor boats are the main tranportation devices nowadays. Various studies have been done on the Aboriginal living in the outstations in different parts of Australia.
One study was done on the Momega outstation, about 100km east of he Alligtor Rivers region by John Altman in 1984. There are approximately 25 other outstations in the Maningrida area of Arnhem Land. The whole Maningrida area covers about 10,000 square kilometres of the Aboriginal Reserve in the Northern Territory.
Momega is a semi-permanent camp which is used as a base by the eastern Gunwinggu. The area covers about 600 square km. There are about 18 to 44 people in the group, with an average of 31 over the season. The group only camp at Momega during the wet season. For the rest of the year, they live in a semi-normadic life style and always camp away from Momega for long period of time. By late March or April, they move 10-12 km towards the Livepool River to get fish and then east 11 km to get bird and fish in the Mimanyar region in late April or early May. The third move is 8 km north to Bulgai for fish harvest on the Tomkinson flood plains. Not until August when fish supply is exhausted, they begin to split into smaller family groups and spread throughtout the area. They come together again for the main regional ceremonies during the late dry season.*
Over the year, the Aborigines hunt and gather food on land. Kangaroo is still hunted by firing the landscape in the dry season. Buffalo, wild cattle and pigs are also eaten. The use of motor vehicles widens their area of hunting and gathering of bush food. Fishing and hunting are more efficent nowadays with the use of shotguns and fishing lures. Digging of yams, lily pods, etc and gathering of plant food are dramatically reduced because of the relatively cheap and easy commercial supply of flour and sugar. An estimate of 47% of the kilocalories and 81% of the protein of their diet came from bush food.*
The Aboriginal outstations in Maningrida are serviced by the Bawinanga Aboriginal Corporation which was formally established as a resource centere in 1979. Please see their home site for a list of the 25 outstations and the growing activities the Corporation is doing.
Jobs are difficult to come by in the remote areas, but the Aborigines can be productive. Apparently, a lot of time is spent on arts and crafts production in the outstations. Richard Fullagar and Lesley Head worked with the Marralam community in the northwest of the Northen Territory, close to the Western Australian border in 1987 and 1988 and reported that on one occasion when a payment on a vehicle was due in 1990, the whole community came together to make arts and crafts for several days to cover the payment.*** Wood was collected for making didgeridus, coolomons and clapsticks..
The Maningrida Arts and Culture, a cultural support division of Bawinanga Aboriginal Corporation, was one of the arts center established in the early 1970s to promote and to provide sales in the Arnhem Land Aboriginal Reserve in the Northern Territory. Its online site is informative and comprehensive.
Since employment oppportunity was not much in outstations, the Aborigines depended very much on social security benefits at the beginning. In 1977, the Fraser government developed the Community Development Employment Project (CDEP) scheme by converting the unemployment benefits of the members of an Aboriginal remote community into a development grant when the Aborigines asked for development aid. It is an income supporting scheme, allowing Aborigines to have meaningful work where there are hardly any in remote areas. The scheme allows Aborigine to be self-sufficient. It also helps to restore dignity and respect. These projects are managed by the Aborigines themselves.
The projects can be various activities of different nature. For instance, there are several projects going on in the Maningrida Culture Office of Arnhem Land, Northern Territory. These are the Mann River Region Rock Art Recording Project, Maningrida Languages Dictionary projects, Site Register Surveys and Oral History Projects. Since 1987, even non-remote Aboriginal communites became qualified for the CDEP grant. In 1991, 166 communities with 18,266 Aborigines benefited $189 millions under the scheme.
At the beginning in the 1970s, the Australian Aborigines strongly opposed to any mining at Jabiru in the Oenpelli region of Arnhem Land proposed by the Ranger Uranium Mines Pty Ltd. But, under the Land Rights Act, they were powerless to stop it. After much negiotation, the Aborigines were granted a lump sum of $7 million and 4.25% of the royalties (approximately $13 million a year) in August 1978 when compared to the 18 to 25% that some American Native Indians were getting. With the money from royalties, the Aborigines would then be able to improve their housing, education and health programs. However, not all Aboriginal were so lucky in the ways they spent their money.
The Gagudju used their money wisely. They distributed 13% of the royalties collected between 1979-1985 equally to every individual, amonging to $1,000 annually. The rest were spent on housing, outstation service, a new school and the employment of a doctor. The latter two were now funded by the Government. They also invested in a hotel, a motel, a store, contracting business and made big profits.**
The Kunwinjka Association which is just 70 kilometres away from the Gagudju at Narbarlek wasted their money on poor administration and investment. The lost is lessened because only 30% of the royalties goes to the local owners. 40% of the royalties goes to the Aboriginal Benefits Trust Fund for the benefits of all Territory Aborigines and 30% goes to the regional land councils. Although the councils uses the money effectively, a lot of it is spent on administration and court battles.**
The distribution of $1,000 for each individual might not be much to many people but it was able to raise the Aboriginal low per capita income by almost half.**In the 1980s, a lot of Aborigines who initially opposed to mining saw it as a means to get out of the welfare trap. Even though a lot of people argue that it should be the responsibility of the Government to improve their quality of life.
Mining caused a lot of disruptions to the Aborignal way of life. The rapid set up of an European mining community close-by created more tension between the races. Alcohol consumption increased dramatically. There were cultural breakdowns, leading to lots of social and psychological stresses within the Aboriginal community. Mining also created few jobs for the Aborigines.