Are Aboriginal people in a violent and abusive relationship with the occupation of “Australia”?
The connections between violence against women and colonialism…….… Written By Teila Watson
For myself as a Murri woman, I can not talk about domestic violence and abuse without talking about colonialism and colonial violence. I find it distressing that most articles about domestic violence, (as specially involving Aboriginal people) fail to mention the history and possible root causes of this issue. These men didn’t just wake up one day and think, “oh.. Today’s a good day to oppress this person I love and control them and hurt them any way I can”. There is something more disturbing than what gets reported and it’s a legacy of abuse, violence and holding nothing sacred in the mainstream society that has been brought about, fostered and forced onto Aboriginal people through colonisation. In the past engllish colonial society considered women as goods and chattels of their husbands and fathers much like the ownership of land, blocking it off from others who may have strong cultural and spiritual ties and obligations to it. Quite often, this is what happens when men abuse and commit violence against women, the whole community and world loses access to her, and in turn she loses access to them. The amazing things this person could contribute to their community, society and world, it all gets shut off, limited and controlled. Often this disconnection will last many years after the violence has ended, or the woman has fled. Is domestic violence and abuse just colonisation on a much more personal level? Is colonialism just domestic violence and abuse on a mass scale over a longer period of time? It certainly feels like it.
Colonialism And The Aboriginal Family
For Aboriginal people the colonial process included a systemic breakdown of the family unit. This breakdown was created by force, white colonialists, farmers, “settlers” and even priests and nuns took part through massacres, poisonings, rape, controlling and manipulating the natural food supply, the stealing of aboriginal children aside from the missions and of course the missions themselves. People have often referred to the missions and other institutions like them as concentration camps. Women had their children forcibly removed to grow up in the painful grip of white supremacist’s christians (“the great white saviours”), who often tortured and abused them, turning them into slaves to earn the government money which has still not been given back (google stolen wages). Aboriginal people even below the age of ten years were sent to work for white people where they were isolated from their families and culture and again often sexually, verbally, mentally and physically abused. This went on for many many years meaning that Aboriginal people were largely kept from their families and unable to keep each other safe and loved; let alone being able to carry out cultural responsibilities, passing on and participating in culture and kinship between family members and country. The trauma of this deliberate breakdown of Aboriginal families is still very prominent today and will always be burnt into the history of this country and the hearts of our youth who will continue to suffer from the drastic loss of many cultures, languages, kinship ties and significant places.
This loss means that many Aboriginal people are to some degree unable to explore and experience our individual cultural meaning of life; from childhood, to parenthood to becoming grandparents, being connected to a large family, with many socially, culturally and spiritually nourishing relationships with people inside of family groups and of course with lands and waters.
Being forced to stop speaking language and practicing culture by means of physical and emotional punishment meant even when people left the missions there was often hesitation to teach others language and culture. It also meant that the specific cultural definitions of the family structure was under complete threat and is still unknown to some, all the while being forced to take on the beliefs and ideologies of the colonialists who came from a long history of dehumanising women and perpetraiting family violence and abuse.
When talking to Wiradjuri Artist Lorna Munro, she reminded me of the importance of the family structure; “Our concept of family informs the way we see ourselves, each other and the world”.
So what happens when we don’t have that? Who do we become? Where do we model our idea of self? Of parenthood? Of love?
Remember also that even after this occurred, most of us have still not had ownership of our lands returned to us in a substantial and meaningful way. I have always been taught that our people need our country and our country needs our people. The relationship between us and our country is important for many reasons, even the most basic western science tells us, without air to breath, without water to drink or food to eat — we cannot live. Yet in this imposed western colonial society these basic life necessities have time and time again seemed not to matter at all. The planet is on the edge of riding itself with our destructive colonial pattern of disrespect for life. And it will take us out to do it if we can’t control ourselves and stop the violence we are causing — as the human race. Murris need control and ownership over our relationship with our lands so that we can heal it and stop the destruction. White people and especially the government need to understand the importance of our sovereignty, culture, knowledge and practice if we’re planning on existing anytime in the next 10 years or more years. Yet at this moment, still, we are again blocked off from fulfilling our obligations to our countries and limited to the detriment of ourselves, our countries and our world at large.
I have heard many of my family members, and other elders close to my family talk about the way we ran the country, my whole life. (Aunty) Dr Mary Graham seems to sum it up in many ways with sayings like “We invented strategic cooperation”. My understanding is that my culture and LAW has come from country, and it is all based on a very important and highly sophisticated respect for natural Law, land and life. My father taught me that in our old way, each person would have a responsibility to be a part of a congenial fellowship and be fully accountable in their position within their tribe, clan, skin and family groups. I cannot convey all that has been lost through colonisation because english language simply cannot express the meaning of humanness to the degree it deserves and I know from my late fathers work ‘The River Story’ (soon to be published) that it literally takes a book to explain. What I can say is that our humanness, our entire world and our place within it, has been so disrupted by western colonial knowledge and practice that for some it is completely lost, shut off and limited. Similar to a woman experiencing domestic violence and similar to ownership imposed over stolen lands.
What Happened To Humanness?
It’s hard to talk about something that has been so meaningfully lost, but if humanness is to have a justified logical and moral compass, surely respecting other forms of human life as specially that which gives us life — our mothers and the planet — is a large part of it. Yet dehumanisation through myth making are some of colonialism’s greatest tools to justify genocide, major land theft and slavery. Myth making is still highly functioning today, with mainstream media, politicians and social commentators always weighing in.
Aboriginal people are still suffering many forms of colonial violence, the generational trauma as well as new traumas experienced by Aboriginal people have been referred to by Wiri, Willi and Wonnarua artist, Kaiyu Bayles as “Bouncing on hot coals our whole lives.”
In western colonial society women have always been labelled as less than men in millions of ways and many feminists do great jobs at articulating the wider issue of sexism, rape culture, violence and abuse against women. Desensitisation happens all the time through various mediums including socially and through random forms of media. The sexist gaze is always accessible and never to far from home, but far too often exists within it, this is how it becomes normalised and even cool, or funny to disrespect and degrade women. When any degradation and/or disrespect for another human is allowed to happen without anybody speaking against it (and being heard and respected) this desensitises all who engage with it and reinforces the social acceptability of the issue at large.
However, Indigenous and other non white women have specifically suffered from sexism throughout the colonial process and often without support from or inclusion in white feminist groups; recently though there has been more information and care about intersectional feminism then possibly ever before. Which is definitely a move in the right direction, though “a mother’s work is never done”.
In “Australia” however, Aboriginal women in particular have always suffered colonial abuse and dehumanising myths, through racist, sexist, sexualised cartoons and name calling. Violence and especially sexual violence against Aboriginal women was socially accepted, encouraged and mocked by mainstream white society not so long ago, and in some places, to some people it still is. (Look up “The drover’s boy” by Ted Egan). Yet have we ever in mainstream media seen stories that highlight the connections between colonial violence and violence against Aboriginal women? Or even women in general?
Because of the dehumanisation that racism causes its victims and perpetrators, there are massive double standards when it comes to violence against women in this country. It feels like the mainstream media all of the sudden care more when the violence is committed by an Aboriginal man as opposed to a white man, or even two white men, like those who have pretty much gotten away with raping an Aboriginal woman to death in 2011.
Could you imagine if a woman experiencing domestic violence and in need of urgent medical attention ended up being locked up by police officers who disregarded her pain by calling her a junky and saying she was faking it? Could you imagine that she then died? At only 22.
Sadly, you don’t have to imagine it. This is what happened to Ms Dhu, not 50 or 100 years ago. This happened in 2014. And perhaps if she weren’t Aboriginal this would of never been the case. At the very least, the dominant society and white feminists would be losing their minds and raising awareness any way they could. Like the horrifying case of Jill Meagher, would Ms Dhu’s name have rang out all over the globe with mainstream media all over it?
There are countless ways in which myth making contributes to Aboriginal people and culture being stripped of its humanness. When the colonialists “invented the native” (Dr Lilla Watson) they gave licence to kill, simply by not identifying us as human. However what is very rarely acknowledged is the impact the colonial process has on the people especially the white people or ‘members of the dominant culture’ who perpetuate it. The history of this country is desensitising in itself and could not have happened the way it did without the dehumanisation of the dominant culture. Every time a child hears the word “Abo” or “boong” (this word was created by mocking the sound a car made when running over an Aboriginal person’s head) they are being told that Aboriginal people are less then human. Being taught that diversity is not a part of humanness and difference is not respected or valued, their moral and ethical compass is being broken. But racism is not the only way white Australians have lost their humanness, the long trail of their sexism is well documented and still alive and re-modelling the kitchen today, with men being pardoned for killing women and then paid large amounts to tell the tale.
The human relationship with land and water in colonial societies, has always been disrespectful, destructive and violent. Again -as if we could live without them. Yet as children grow they are constantly observing and exploring their world, living in a world that puts financial gain before life itself, the children are witnessing humanity’s violent attempts at killing itself without even knowing, this in itself cannot be a human trait or we never would have made it this far.
Separating domestic violence from the suffering caused by white male supremacy and generational colonial violence and trauma is almost impossible. Yet many mainstream media outlets, politicians and social commentators still leave the legacy out of the picture; much like the way western colonial society has a knack for leaving out history before slavery and labelling indigenous people’s societies as uncivilised and even subhuman. Of course violence has always occurred to some degree anywhere you go, but to imply that evolution lead us to slavery is to deny humanness to the oppressed but also to the oppressors. Frantz Fanon wrote about “killing the coloniser”, which my Aunty Lilla has explained as expressing the idea that each and every person that has had contact and been affected by colonialism, has been shown through the colonial process, how to colonise. These traits and thought patterns can easily appeal to anybody who colonialism has disempowered and dispossessed, in a number of different ways, whether aiming the colonial gaze inwards to ourselves or outwards and onto others. So Fanon’s remark is referring to people killing the coloniser within themselves, the decolonisation of the mind.
Domestic Violence In Aboriginal Communities
Aboriginal women and women in general aren’t the only people who suffer colonial violence and dehumanisation.
Many Aboriginal men don’t commit violence against women and they stand up when others (of any race) do, to try and settle the situation and ensure safety for women and children, this is cultural, this is a part of Aboriginal manhood.
Why do I feel the need to state this?
Because the common myths about Aboriginal men, their lifestyles and treatment of women are often used to justify violence against them. Even when they too have been continuously affected and traumatised by colonial violence, again, many of our brothers, fathers, uncles and cousins never have committed violence against women. So it’s not impossible and it begs the question of men who do commit acts of violence and abuse “why do they do it?”. Personally I have realised that there are many questions I do not have the answers too. My father once asked me “what happens when you put pressure on a balloon?” The balloon is unable to keep its form, expanding outwards and unable to effect anything above or below it which is holding it there, trapping it even. The pressure keeps being redistributed to its sides. This is a metaphor for the ways that many people react to pressure, often the frustration of feeling powerless is taken out on those around us, close to us. Similar to the saying that “hurt people, hurt people”, implying the reason it continues to perpetuate in all places, races and intersections.
My Aunty Lilla Watson has talked about the “unconscious and conscious collective loyalty” that Aboriginal people feel when other Aboriginal people commit acts of violence, often contacting police is the last resort, because we know too well that when your Aboriginal, making that call could lead to death, or other negative impacts and detrimental outcomes for any non-white poeple involved. Sometimes it is the only way, but forcing Aboriginal women to choose between domestic violence and the threat of police violence is really not much of a choice at all.
Colonially, politically and socially Aboriginal mothers are always being put into positions of needing to defend themselves and protect their children, all whilst upholding their other commitments to family, culture and country. Being an Aboriginal mother is not an easy feat but “We are the latest models of our Ancestry” (Hot Brown Honey) and “If our ancestors can walk, barefoot, afraid in the dark, for miles and miles an miles and miles and miles and miles and miles and miles and miles, I know we can do this come on let’s start..” (Jill Scott — the sky ain’t a ceiling — Def Jam poetry). And many, many of Aboriginal mothers already do and always have. Sometimes that means escaping violence and putting themselves through an awful lot to create a better life for their children, however there needs to be a deeper understanding of trauma and colonialism before the issues of DV and FV (Family Violence) can be dealt with in a more substantial way. There is a massive lack of understanding and assistance to women who are experiencing DV both in terms of policy, outreach and by people who witness it. This is undoubtedly contributing to the rising numbers of violence against women and death because of it. I would like to see more education about dealing with trauma and violence in this country in general, as family members, community members and humans.
Aboriginal violence is a big issue, however it is not just ours. The general population of this country is suffering from violence against women as well and i do believe that all women in these situations do what they feel they can to prevent violence and stop it when it does happen. Yes, there is a massive silence, from ALL parties, all onlookers and namely the justice system. But being silent about violence against women and children or even in general is NOT Aboriginal culture and those who believe it is, need only to think about all the non aboriginal women experiencing violence and the lack of options they have, think about how many women die and get no justice. Violence is everybody’s problem and everybody’s business and the whole population needs to find more meaningful ways to prevent and intervene in it. There is NO excuse for violence but through outlining the way that colonialism has affected this issue we can gain some understanding of why it is occurring and what will be the best solutions.
My family, community and Elders have always taught me about how all land is sacred because of its production of fresh air, clean water and healthy food, thus providing life.
Yet looking around, even in beautiful water ways we see the legacy of colonial destruction, abuse and violence towards the earth. From the rubbish on the banks to the cain toad tadpoles in the water and the grease and run off on the surface. Of course it seems easy to block off and limit the way we look at colonialism and it’s impact on people and land, separating the pattern from domestic and family violence. But if we are to survive as humans, surely we must acknowledge the correlation between the acts of violence committed to women, to non white men and non white women with the acts of violence that are committed ted to the earth, the very thing that gives us life, acts of violence and abuse that are pushing us closer to extinction.
Surely we cannot believe that a colonial system that abuses the very things that give us life, has the ability to maintain respect for women and children. For to respect our children would be to respect earth and women - as disrespecting earth shows disrespect for all life. So when people imply that culture is somehow to blame for violence and abuse, I’d question them as to the health of our country before colonisation. I would tell them to read Bruce Pascoe’s “Dark Emu”, Bill Gammage’s “The Biggest Estate on Earth” and (my late father) Dr Ross Watson’s “The River Story” to gain some insight.
This is to give some context to the fight we are actually up against. We cannot approach violence without confronting the history and legacy of it. Demonisation isn’t the answer, neither is being complacent and thinking things will change without using our power to change it. I would love to say I have the answers and solutions but I do not, however i do know that there are many people who have alot to offer (check out the suggested links- the panel on trauma).
I do believe that many of the mothers of today have a powerful position to ensure that our sons and daughters grow up with more tools to deal with their frustrations and the violence of others in a way that provides more options for those who suffer. I know that if we practice things like self love, self care, emotional literacy, community and social fulfilment, if young men and boys have some pathway where they are socially and emotionally being fulfilled, successful and valued within themselves and society — I believe the numbers of domestic violence could begin to drop.
I believe if Aboriginal youth are actively involved and immersed in their culture it gives them a sense of pride in being a valued part of their family and community, learning about their Law and Philosophy can be an exhilarating and greatly rewarding experience that also encourages honour, respect and care for self, for women, for children, culture and country.
This song was not therapy for me but simply to shock people and bring them into the world of worries that a woman carries with her when she has fled from violence and abuse. Women and the earth (thereby all people, and many species of plants and animals) are under great threat and the time to protect us is NOW.
Trigger Warning: This song contains threats and distressing, voilent lyrics.
All pictures taken by me to outline the connection between western civilisations rubbish being forcefully dumped on country and western civilisations knowledge, practice and bad habits being forcefully dumped on Aboriginal people. Inhibiting the productions of clean air, water, food and humanness.
“I often feel like this country is the epitome of being in a relationship with a domestic abuser and I am the spouse that keeps believing things will get better or buys into the apologies. But, as we know, the beatings never stop and a tragic end is always a distinct possibility. I will even confess to being the girlfriend that’s kind of embarrassed to tuck her tail between her legs and go home to Mom and Dad and just knows that I can still fix him/her. I am the battered wife who has forgotten why she even fell in love in the first place. There seemed to be so much promise and so much charm while I was being wooed and now, I find myself often defending, to outsiders, the actions of my constant attacker. I live day to day, fearing I have nowhere else to go, that no one else will have me or that it’s too late for me to adjust to a new lover. I have my days of feeling older, slower, less attractive and far less confident than when we met. Thank the Universe that ain’t every day. But, it’s too many days to stand anymore.” ~ Christine Rhone on What it Feels Like to Be Black in the United States.
I am Ancestress otherwise known as Teila Watson. I am a Birri Gubba Wiri and Kungalu/Gungalu Murri, woman, mother and artist from the Dawson river. My perspective has been informed by my culturally rich upbringing, my connection to family, culture and land as well as my direct experiences with colonialism and the western colonial colony of “Australia”. I retain sovereignty over this space and claim it as my online LAND RIGHTS.
Suggested links –