Academic journal article Australian Aboriginal Studies

Living in Two Camps: The Strategies Goldfields Aboriginal People Use to Manage in the Customary Economy and the Mainstream Economy at the Same Time

Academic journal article Australian Aboriginal Studies

Living in Two Camps: The Strategies Goldfields Aboriginal People Use to Manage in the Customary Economy and the Mainstream Economy at the Same Time

Article excerpt

Abstract: The economic sustainability of Aboriginal households has been a matter of public concern across a range of contexts. This research, conducted in the Eastern Goldfields of Western Australia, shows how economically successful Aboriginal persons manage 'dual economic engagement', or involvement in the customary economy and the mainstream economy at the same time. The two economies sometimes reinforce each other but are more often in conflict, and management of conflicting obligations requires high degrees of skill and innovation. As well as creating financially sustainable households, the participants contributed significantly to the health of their extended families and communities. The research also shows that many Aboriginal people, no matter what their material and personal resources, are conscious of how fragile and unpredictable their economic lives can be, and that involvement in the customary economy is a kind of mutual insurance to guarantee survival if times get tough.



This research project started in frustration. Centrecare Goldfields, with which I worked as a program consultant from 2002 to 2005, is a counselling and human service agency providing financial counselling (among other services) in the Eastern Goldfields region in Western Australia. The service was free, funded by the State Government. A major client group, the agency hoped, would be Aboriginal persons. (1)

When this research project was conceived, the program had no Aboriginal clients. The deeper problem was that we (that is, myself and other management within the agency) knew that even if we had Aboriginal clients, we wouldn't know what to say. We could provide some advocacy, such as negotiation with creditors for time to pay, or maybe very limited emergency relief. But we knew that our mainstream approaches to budgeting, to saving and to the management of bank accounts bore no relationship to the everyday practices of Aboriginal families that we were in contact with. To close that gap and to be able to offer something, we needed to know more about how Aboriginal households worked financially, to enable us to pass on best financial practice from the point of view of the customary economy. We received a modest grant from a fund directed towards consumer protection and financial counselling. (2) We used a practice research context, directed towards helping practitioners work more sympathetically with the economic realities of Aboriginal lives. This is reflected in our language, methodology and analysis, which aim to be direct, accessible and fit for purpose.


Ontologically, this study is located in Country and in relationship. The participants and the researcher grew up in Wangkatha Country, centred on Kalgoorlie in Western Australia and stretching from west of Coolgardie to Leonora, Laverton and Mount Margaret, and with close ties to the Ngaanyatjarra lands to the north-east and the Spinifex people along the Trans line. All the participants were known to each other and to the researcher (some since we were children) and there are familial ties between many of us. (3)

This also affects where the study stands epistemologically. We do not claim objective universal status. It is an embedded study, and as a researcher I am obligated and accountable to this people and this line of Country ethically, politically and relationally. My purpose was to document a body of knowledge about economic sustainability at the micro level that might be useful to Wangkai and other Aboriginal peoples, and to Walpela who may be designing interventions into Aboriginal peoples' lives, including counselling and service delivery, and policy research. Development of theoretical frameworks may be useful in explicating the relationship between the customary economy and the mainstream, and the practice of dual economic engagement is driven by an acute awareness of the tensions and difficulties inherent in dual economic engagement, expressed also in my own reluctance to engage in it. …

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