why indigenous psychology?

From Terra Nullius to recent trends towards self-determination and land rights, Australia’s indigenous people have been variously declared non-existent, treated as animals and savages, dispossessed of their homelands, deprived of their language and culture, forced to become Christians and separated from their loved ones. Even in more enlightened times today, it is assumed that indigenous peoples need supervision and ‘intervention’ and that they lack the skills to look after themselves. These practices, and the inherent racism that underlies them, have had far-reaching and continuing psychological effects which must be recognised to understand the pressures that shape their lives today. But so too is the concept of resilience, and this provides a way out of the mire of past iniquities. Although history is not destiny, it is important to realise how it shapes the world of indigenous Australians today.

The period of initial contact from 1788 onwards was marked by the assumed superiority of the invaders cultural and economic needs. Land conflicts developed quickly between indigenous people and squatters. Many atrocities occurred in this period where attempts were made to not only eradicate indigenous culture, but the people themselves. Colonisers assumed the inferiority of the ‘savages’ and saw fit to kill them with guns, poisoning waterholes or by purposely giving them diseases. Christian missionaries sought to replace indigenous beliefs and culture with their own, and ‘protectors’ were established to take over where indigenous parents were thought to be incompetent. Children were placed in missions where they were trained to be servants to white colonists or otherwise incorporated into the western economic system. Colonial society, from the start, assumed that indigenous people must be controlled and did not attempt reparations for stealing their land wholesale.

The psychological impact of early colonisation must have been devastating. Indigenous people were treated as worthless. Everything they believed, their entire society was devalued and destroyed by the invaders. They were pushed around and treated as slaves without rights. Centuries of traditional beliefs and lifestyles were ended upon contact with white people. The immediate effect would have been disorienting. A grieving process for their way of life resulted in angry retaliation in some places where indigenous people attacked settlers. At the same time, some sympathetic settlers like Tom Petrie in South East Queensland, sought to hide and protect indigenous rebels from the police retaliation. However, the indigenous people were on the whole not war-like and lacked the firepower of the invaders.

By the 1930s most indigenous Australians had been relegated to missions and reserves ostensibly for their own ‘protection’, although there were some isolated peoples in Western Australia who did not make contact with white people until the late 1960s. Protectionism had been very effective in freeing up indigenous land for the needs of the colonisers. Dispossessed of land and culture, separated from family, it is not surprising that rebellions did not continue. The protectionist era saw the native population, rather callously, as a ‘dying race’ (Ranzjin 2010: 80) that should be protected until the inevitable occurred. The ‘half-caste’ children were seen as a ‘problem’ that could be resolved by absorbing them into white society. This was achieved by the harshest of means: stealing them from their parents through kidnapping, force or threat under the protection of law. The theft of children for assimilation into white society continued for 150 years, from early colonisation to the late 1960s. The “Bringing Them Home” report of 1997 estimated about 100,000 children of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander heritage had be removed from their families, although the true numbers may be greater due to destruction of records. The majority, 80%, were girls. One of the few voices against this policy in 1915, Parliamentarian P. McGarry, called the legislation “state slavery” and decried “the absolute despoiling of the black people of this country of their progeny after we have taken their lands” (Ranzjin 2010: 98). Queensland was the last state to abandon state assumption of guardianship of aboriginal children in 1965.

Christian doctrine taught indigenous children quite a different worldview than previous generations held and this facilitated the move, in the 1940s, to Assimilationist policies as it broke down cultural unity between past and future generations. The goal was to make indigenous people part of mainstream white society by teaching them to “adopt the values, the beliefs and the lifestyles of the dominant Anglo-Celtic segment of Australian society” (Ranzjin 2010: 82). The children were seen to be the best hope for this social engineering project to be achieved. However, the project was failing in the late sixties, because despite one hundred and fifty years of colonisation, many indigenous people retained a link to their cultural past and resisted the brainwashing of their children into a culture that despised them. Racism was both overtly expressed and inherent in the failure of institutions to serve the best interests of indigenous people who were being gaoled, dying young and generally impoverished in greater numbers than white people.

During the 1960s and onwards has seen the emergence of a political resistance to the policies the oppress indigenous Australians. Three high profile landmark events occurred in this period that are iconic acts of resistance: the Freedom Rides (1965) the aboriginal stockmen’s strike at Wave Hill (1966) and the establishment of the Aboriginal Tent Embassy in Canberra (1970). However, indigenous dissenters was also establishing a movement for political reform in alliances with non-indigenous groups including unionists, legal professionals and environmentalists. Popular support for the rights of indigenous people was shored up by the 1969 referendum that granted them the right to vote as full citizens. Although aboriginal political entities has existed since the 1920 establishment of the Australian Aborigines League, after the Whitlam era (1972) many new bodies sprung up to facilitate increased justice for indigenous Australians. In justices were exposed by investigations including the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody (1987) and The Stolen Generations Report (1997). Legal instruments dealing with land rights resulted from important court outcomes including the Mabo decision (which granted the first legal land rights to the people of Murray Island while refuting Terra Nullius) and the Wik decision (which extinguished claims to land rights on privately held land, but that leasehold land and native title could co-exist). The ownership of their traditional lands has been an important step in increasing the self-confidence of indigenous Australians by affirming their attachment to country and giving them the means to survive economically and culturally. The extent to which mainstream Australia supports the rights of indigenous people as equals and wishes to make amends for the past is integral to their well being and perhaps symbolised by the weight given to the Sorry Day marches and the apology given to the Stolen Generation by Prime Minister Kevin Rudd in 2009. However, by many real standards, indigenous people remain severely disadvantaged, and the trends in shorter life-expectancy are testimony to that.

In 2007 the Australian government instituted the Northern Territory National Emergency Response, or ‘intervention’, ostensibly in response to allegations of child abuse in indigenous remote communities in The Little Children are Sacred Report (2007) commissioned by the NT government. However, the legal changes that accompanied the intervention (including the suspension of anti-discrimination laws, a halt to land rights claims and stringent welfare controls) have been criticised as unrelated to any alleged problems and described by some welfare organisations as a land grab, blatantly racist and a “violation of Australia’s international obligations” under United Nations agreements. Social justice group Stop The Intervention says, “the intervention has created chaos, increased poverty and racism for Aboriginal communities living in “proscribed areas”” and that “Not one person has been prosecuted for child sex abuse since the intervention was rolled out, clearly revealing what a farce this excuse was” (2010). An investigation into the intervention by the United Nations (UN) in August 2010 found that racism was entrenched in Australian society.

It is my thesis that Aboriginal Australia underwent a rape of the soul so profound that the blight continues in the minds of most blacks today. It is this psychological blight, more than anything else, that causes the conditions that we see on the reserves and missions. And it is repeated down the generations. (Kevin Gilbert, 1977 in Living Black, cited in Purdie etal 2010: 65)

The psychological implications of the displacement, separation and downright violence that is part of indigenous history since colonisation is far reaching. Attachment to the land and to significant others has been severely disrupted by the dispossession enacted by colonisation and beyond.

Because of the greater numbers of girls taken from their parents under assimilationist laws, a great number of indigenous mothers were thus affected. The implications for their capacity to form close personal relationships is likely to have been influenced by this circumstance and subsequently their parenting of the next generation. Those girls were further abused by the impoverished conditions in which they lived including inadequate diet, cruelty, sexual abuse, denying of their Aboriginality and their family names, labour exploitation and being told that “their parents did not want them” (Ranzjen 2010: 100).

In 2010 the Australian Indigenous Psychological Association released a report Working Together which outlines the many ways in which indigenous Australians are disadvantaged by their history and current situation and proposes action to correct disadvantage at a psychological level:

the decimation of Aboriginal populations, destruction of Aboriginal culture and significant disempowerment and marginalisation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples following the British colonisation of Australia has resulted in what is widely regarded as widespread, devastating effects on the physical and mental health of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. (Purdie etal 2010: 39)

It is easy to form a very negative picture of the prospects for indigenous Australians based on the ill treatment they have and continue to receive in our society. However, there is a strong resistance movement running through all periods of Australian history from the early tribesmen who fought back against colonisation with spears to the modern day activists and social justice workers who continue to fight for the rights of indigenous Australians and measures to improve their wellbeing. Resilience has emerged as a measure of the protective capacity of connection to community to mitigate risk factors.

The importance of support for resilience factors was highlighted in the Living on the Edge report as a recommendation to more community controlled health services, as well as enhancing the social cohesion and cultural practices in communities. Interestingly, the 2004-2005 national indigenous health survey found that

Despite multiple levels of disadvantage, the majority (71%) of Indigenous respondents reported being a ‘happy person’ all of most of the time, with 56 per cent reporting they felt calm and peaceful all or most of the time, and 55 per cent feeling full of life all or most of the time during the previous month…Respondents in remote areas were more likely to report that they felt calm and peaceful, were a happy person, felt full of life and had lots of energy all or most of the time when compared to those in major cities.

The recognition of indigenous resilience is integral to the overall wellbeing of indigenous Australians. One realm in which indigenous people excel and are recognised by the entire community is in sports. There are many national prizes established to foster indigenous excellence such as The Deadlys in the arts or the Dardi business awards. Indigenous run media have done a great deal to foster connectedness between diverse indigenous populations and advocate for indigenous rights. The National Indigenous Times and the Koori Mail, television programmes like Living Black and Message Stick and the many indigenous radio stations and shows such as the National Indigenous Radio Service and 4AAA in Brisbane are some examples. However, as the Papa women’s statement points out “programs created by the community for our community” foster the ownership and control of indigenous community, and by essence are small scale and localised. Examples of successful community controlled endeavours are numerous.

One such example is the success of the The Aboriginal Mental Health Workforce Program which in 2010 received an award for their endeavours to increase the number of indigenous people working in mental health. The aim is to make mental health services more accessible to indigenous people. Area co-ordinator Len Kanowski said the program was born out of a recognition that, “A lot of Aboriginal people weren’t accessing mental health services because of a lot of fear and mistrust of mental health services and a lot of people didn’t see the services as culturally appropriate” (Cox 2010).

Resilience can be reinforced and maximised when thinking about the whole-of-life cycle, in particular the developmental problems that difficult circumstances can cause. The Working Together report identifies multiple places where action can be taken to maximise psychological resilience from pregnancy and childhood health and nutrition education for parents, responsive health care, though school programmes that reinforce successes and develop life skills, community support for stable and secure housing, though to employment support and community support for parenting, positive socialisation and “meaningful participation in society”

You can read the Working Together report here:


Futher reading:

Ranzijn, R. etal. 2010. Psychology and Indigenous Australians: Foundations of Cultural Competence. Palgrave Macmillan: South Yarra


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