Academic journal article Australian Aboriginal Studies

Cultural Resilience and Social Wellbeing: A Case for Research on Groote Eylandt

Academic journal article Australian Aboriginal Studies

Cultural Resilience and Social Wellbeing: A Case for Research on Groote Eylandt

Article excerpt

Abstract: The Anindilyakwa people of Groote Eylandt have encountered extraordinary social upheaval since the arrival on the island of missionaries and the development of a large manganese mine. The communities of Groote Eylandt currently experience high levels of social dysfunction and deculturation. There is a case for research into the link between cultural resilience and social wellbeing and consideration of the role that the flow of capital and issues of agency play in negotiating the impacts of cultural change. Social sustainability has been largely overlooked in policy development and mine lease negotiation, and research into this area, including critical transnational analysis, would enable the Anindilyakwa greater agency in negotiating their cultural futures.

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Following the national Apology to Indigenous Australians and the Australian Government's commitment to addressing the social inequities existing in Indigenous Australia, there has never been a more opportune time to investigate some of the contributing factors to Indigenous social wellbeing. The Apology may well have been directed to the Anindilyakwa of Groote Eylandt, whose history has been marked by dislocation, disadvantage and disempowerment. Media interest in the social functionality of Aboriginal communities is high following the previous federal government's intervention in the Northern Territory and widespread reports of violence and abuse.

There exists a research lacuna in analytical and comparative investigation into the sociocultural impacts of external agents of change and local peoples' responses to these impacts. Such research would aim to inform policy and support community initiatives on cultural rehabilitation, as well as to investigate how the combination of past social policies and the contemporary flow of capital impacts on cultural practices and identity. Similarly, despite significant research into cultural preservation and policies of social sustainability in southern Africa, transnational comparative research has not taken place. This is despite the congruence between the Indigenous groups investigated in southern Africa and Australia in terms of their marginalisation, history of dislocation, social wellbeing and engagement with mining companies, and the opportunity to develop an international best practice model of social responsibility.

History

Groote Eylandt lies in the western part of the Gulf of Carpentaria, in north-eastern Arnhem Land, about 630 kilometres east of Darwin. The Anindilyakwa of Groote Eylandt had been in contact with Macassans of southern Sulawesi (Indonesian archipelago) long before Europeans took an interest in the island, and a largely harmonious and mutually beneficial relationship based on trade endured for more than two centuries. As visits were only ever seasonal and transitory, Macassan encounters had left social organisation and practices largely unchanged, with the Anindilyakwa incorporating only the aspects of Macassan culture that they desired, such as the dug-out canoe.

In 1921 the Anglican Church Missionary Society, which had been active in Arnhem Land for some time, set up a mission station on the Emerald River on Groote Eylandt. This was the beginning of a dramatic change in the social and cultural landscape. The mission was established with half-caste children who had been taken from the Roper River region, around present-day Ngukurr. McMillan (2001:107) wrote that 'half-caste children'

   were held in a state of exile and isolation,
   living under harsh conditions and somehow
   dealing with the loneliness that removal from
   their families entailed ... Barbaric punishments
   were introduced to counter minor
   breaches of discipline.

Traditional hunting practices and movement around the Country on the island were altered as the Anindilyakwa began to settle around the mission. By 1950 almost all of the Anindilyakwa clans living on the west of the island, together with some from Bickerton Island, had settled at the Angurugu mission (Cole 1988:12). …

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