David McKnight's From Hunting to Drinking (Routledge, 2002) brings together all the available sources to track Mornington Islanders' change from their original hunting and gathering society in less than a century. Not a happy tale; and it shows why indigenous people cannot go back to their hunter-gatherer past, even when there are older members of their groups who were brought up in, and know, the traditional ways. They are just like us; as Daniel Quinn and John Zerzan say, we can only go forward. The experience of the Mornington Islanders, although unique, has resonances with the experience of other hunter-gatherer societies overwhelmed by Western society - North American, Amazonian as well as Australian. We in the industrialized West understand some of the terror of the Jewish holocaust perpetrated by the Nazis. But 70 years on, we could say that the Jewish people have largely recovered from the direct trauma of that experience. 200 years on, the Australian Aborigines show little signs of recovery; that is how significant the White invasion was to their ancient culture.
The following chronological account has bolded sub-headings. The supplementary contents, at the foot of the page, is an additional navigation aid. Most of the following is direct quotation from McKnight's book; however, I have interpolated my own interpretations, made my own summaries and otherwise strayed from McKnight's original in order to make the points I wanted to make - for which McKnight provides, unknowingly, a vehicle. Generally, I do not distinguish McKnight's (overwhelming) contribution from my own. I have, however, given From Hunting to Drinking page numbers so the reader can check the original.
Most of the evidence is about the destruction beyond recognition of a previously integrated, stable and self-sufficient culture; it is not directly about food, health and fitness. My purpose in publishing this page is to show how a whole society was pressed and seduced into surrendering their rich inheritance of culture, well-being and health for life on the margins of the globalized economy.
1901, 1903 - Queensland Northern Protector of Aborigines, W E Roth, made three tours of the Wellesley Islands. McKnight's view is that from Roth's reports, it is clear there had been no fundamental change from their traditional lifestyle. Roth's 1903 report refers to 'digging for roots' (p.30) and 'Both sexes were in good condition (with no signs of venereal disease) and of fair stature, the men up to 5ft 9in, the women up to about 5ft 5 in' (p.37).
David McKnight's observations on pre-contact life on Mornington Island (and nearby smaller islands) include:
Not primitive affluence - Too much has been made of the reputedly easy life of hunter-gatherers and that they are the 'original affluent society' (Sahlins 1972) (p.66). For most of the year there may be if not plenty, at least, not a scarcity; yet there are periods when there may be scarcity which may be very acute (p.66).
Cosmology - Mornington Islanders do not fear death to the extent that Westerners do. In their traditional beliefs there is no heaven or hell (p.201). There is some belief in reincarnation, which takes the form of a person's totemic spirit being reborn but the individual dies never to reappear (p.201). The stars of the Milky way are said to be camp fires one is here one is destined to go. Mixed up with all this is a belief that this world is not the real world. It is a sort of fake of the real world, which is the timeless Dreamtime world (p.202).
Sharing - The Kaiadilt had a taboo whereby a hunter was prohibited from eating his 'own kill' - a taboo discarded in the famine of 1947 (p.66). Normally it is to the advantage of a hunter to be generous because he cannot always consume what he has caught so he might as well share it and, in so doing, establish a right to share in the catch of others (p.66). Sharing permeates traditional Mornington culture: what can and cannot be shared, with whom one can, cannot and must share etc.(p.66). In the case of big game, such as dugong and sea turtle, people had the right to certain portions which they did not have to ask for (p.200). The obligations to share have a converse: shame at refusing a sanctioned or permitted request (p.66). (See below - 1999) Giving and sharing raised the standard of living of everybody in the band. Top
Teaching and learning - Teaching and learning in traditional Lardil society was through watching and experience. Complex bush skills were learnt by observing, listening to the running commentary and actively applying it. Questioning (using words rather than sharp observation) was not encouraged. There was no curriculum. Teaching took place as opportunities arose and learning varied according to the readiness of the learner, the ability of the teacher and the relationship between them (p.135) (See 1967).
The elders - their upbringing - They hunted and gathered without the benefit of European technology. If they were not successful, they went hungry, which was a powerful inducement to develop into skilful hunter-gatherers. They were familiar with the sacred sites and the stories associated with them. They were initiated and had shown themselves worthy of being instructed about sacred matters. They had participated in many ceremonies and knew many songs. They knew about the Law, the proper behaviour of kin and affines, and how people were related. They were well-versed in sorcery and rhetoric and were skilful fighters with boomerangs, spears and clubs. Their first language was Lardil, Yangkaal or Kaiadilt and this influenced how they viewed the world and how they expressed themselves and enabled them - to some extent - to stand confidently aloof from white culture (p.52). See also the quotation below from AP Elkin.
The Law - When people broke the Law, they knew what they were doing and risk of being punished through beating, spearing, forced exile or killing (p.214). The Law had broad support and reflected shared values.
Characteristics of Mornington Island society - Looking back from 1999, McKnight writes '... they appear to me not to be moderate people who seek a golden mean. They like to live on the edge and enjoy the excitement of dances, initiations, mortuary rituals, arguments and even violent clashes. Their world is full of mystical dangers (markirii and sorcery). (See below for how alcohol complemented this cultural setting)
Decision-making - There was a reluctance to make a decision in traditional Mornington society, a common feature of many hunter-gatherer societies who place a great deal of importance on discussion of issues and consensus. People prefer to leave matters in the (well-founded) hope that something will turn up and that problems will solve themselves. Making decisions can cause controversy and fragment groups. In a real sense, talking is doing something and it is often enough (p.111). There is also a distinct reluctance about interfering in other people's affairs (p.206) Top
See contrasts at - 1966 and 1999
1906 - Roth forced to resign and his successor was R B Howard.
1908 - Howard reported on his 1908 visit: 'The Mornington Island natives are a fine race of people, healthy, clean, well-fed and agile.' (p. 31).
1912 - Howard opposed the establishment of a mission because 'the natives were isolated, giving no trouble whatsoever to anyone but living their primitive life contentedly after their own fashion. They were practically the only natives ... who still remained in the stone age and in the interests of ethnology and anthropology these conditions should remain undisturbed.' (p.31).
1912 - the Mornington Island natives had heard of the ruthless disruption of the mainland tribes by pastoralists and, apprehensive of a similar fate, supported the establishment of a mission as the lesser of two evils. Revd Hall reported that 'They appear to be healthy. I saw no sign of disease about them' (p.32).
1914 - a Presbyterian mission established on Mornington Island. The sole inhabitants of the island were the Lardil. The much smaller Forsythe Islands were home to the Yangkaal (p.29) Revd Hall reported giving the natives [Western] food (p.32). In the early years of the mission store goods, mostly tea, sugar, rice and flour were bartered for bush food to feed the dormitory children. As the people became more involved in the cash economy, more store goods were sold. Gradually more goods were sold including an expanding range of foodstuffs, clothes, tobacco, hooks, fishing lines, axes and kerosene lamps (p.165).
1915 - Bleakley omits to mention in his reports the White men who captured the Kaiadilt (Bentinck Island) women and used them for sexual purposes and the eleven Kaiadilt, including two children, who were shot by the whites (p.38). Top
1917 - Revd Hall killed by a mainland native who was later joined in an attack on the mission by Lardil youths. They were captured, tried and sent away. This was a devastating loss because they were all warama, second degree initiated men, and the possessors of much ritual knowledge (p.33)
1918 - Revd Wilson replaced Hall. Wilson arranged for the bush children to be rounded up and brought into the mission where they were put in dormitories and given a European Presbyterian education which, very soon, created a generation gap. (p.34) The mission's aim was to raise the children and educate them as if they were white Australians. There were separate dormitories for boys and girls. Their lives were closely regulated for years, unlike the brief period of control during initiation (p.60).
1941 - Two Kaiadilt (Allen island) men, Shark and Rainbow, attacked Mornington Islanders on their way to the mainland. The police arrested Shark and Rainbow and put them in the Burketown lockup where they mutilated themselves by cutting off a testicle (p.40)
1943 - [During WW2] some of the older Mornington Island girls of mixed descent and a few young boys were sent to the mainland on the assumption they would not be able to cope with bush life (p.34). During WW2 most Islanders returned to a hunting-gathering way of life and despite 25 years of missionary influence they evidently did so without difficulty, although the change was hard for dormitory children (p.34)
The appeal of the cash economy - The young men were invited to work on mainland cattle stations as the white stockmen had been drafted for war service. One reported 'How happy we were to have a job after all those years sitting idle, a proper job with money and a chance to learn, and to see new things and new places ...It was better than lying about the mission or hunting tucker [food] in the bush and on the reef' (p.34). (See boredom) While working on mainland cattle stations, Lardil stockmen were away from Mornington for long periods with the result that during their absence they missed the opportunity to acquire traditional knowledge from the elders and become husbands and fathers at the traditional age (p.55).
1953-1962 and 1964-1972 - Revd Belcher the Mission superintendent.
1965 - the law permitted Aborigines to purchase and consume alcohol, but not on the reserves (p.195) (See 1971). The law was changed because White law makers felt the previous prohibitions unjustly discriminatory; some risked gaol and purchased alcohol for Aborigines. For other White Australians, the prohibition gave them a fine opportunity to make money by selling grog at exorbitant prices (p.195). Top
The elders - undermined - Revd Belcher was concerned about unruly behaviour of the youths and hoped that the elders would do something. But what could they do? Their authority had been usurped by the mission years ago. When the elders attempted to prevent wrong marriages, for example, the mission stepped in and informed them that, according to White law, such marriages were legal and there was nothing to prevent the couple from being married in the church. The traditional rhetorical discourse was primarily about right and wrong marriages (p.214). The imposed White Australian marriage rules, above all monogamy, individual choice and the right to marry on reaching legal age (p.214). These struck at the core of traditional culture. Now the elders were much concerned about the young people's rejection or neglect of traditional ways. However, the elders had no traditional measures to bring them back into line as this was a totally new phenomenon. In their youth the elders had lived at a time when there were no White people on Mornington and the surrounding islands. The new order gave young people an opportunity to avoid control by the elders and to marry who they pleased. In their pursuit of the advantages of the new order they turned their backs on other aspects of the old order (p.214). English is a poor vehicle of communication about traditional marriage and relationship rules. many elders could not express themselves as clearly as they wanted to because of their limited command of English and the lack of direct English equivalents (p.214)
Loss of traditional culture - The elders were scathing about the ignorance of the youth. None of them were initiated and hence had not acquired knowledge of Marlda Kangka and Demiin, the languages of the first- and second-degree initiates (p.55). Very few of them could even speak Lardil or Yangkaal, or even understand much of what was being said in these languages. They were unable to give a coherent account of the important myths. None possessed the bush skills and hunting skills of the elders; the village was the centre of their lives. They contributed little or nothing to family food supplies, other than by stealing (p.56). Parents found it hard to raise children because they had no role models of the family setting, having themselves been raised in dormitories (p.61). In the mid-1960s initiations with the full traditional meaning were long past and it seemed they would never be revived (p.63). Nevertheless, the Islanders still viewed their presence in the village as temporary and they occasionally dismantled their makeshift accommodation and moved to another location (p.95). Top
1967 - there were 12 missionaries, including four married couples and two single school teachers and two nurses. The Aboriginal population of Mornington Island was 628 with approximately 130 children attending school. There were 283 children under 15 and 345 persons 15 and over. There were 253 Lardil, 111 Kaiadilt, 70 Yangkaal and 194 mainlanders (See 1999) (p.46). (Compare with pre-contact learning.)
1971 - Alcohol could now be consumed on the reserves (p.195) (See 1965). McKnight observes that when the Mornington Islanders began drinking in earnest, it was not because of cultural breakdown. At this time, Mornington was still a functioning community. People started drinking for quite ordinary reasons. As citizens, following the 1967 referendum (which gave equal rights to Aborigines), they believed they had a right to drink and they genuinely enjoyed the convivial atmosphere (p.198). Top
1972 - Revd Belcher decided to leave Mornington Island, so the people would be more inclined to take control of their own future (p.82). One elder, Gully Peters, remarked to McKnight that Belcher had raised the people from off the ground. The people were anxious about taking more responsibility for their own affairs; they were suspicious of the Queensland government and the pace of change being forced upon them (p.82).
1974 - The young people were going more and more their own way.
Loss of traditional culture - The elders were outraged when they discovered that some young men were ignoring both the traditional taboos and obligations by cutting out the choicest parts of dugong for themselves and leaving the rest (p.83). An initiation was held but it was superficial and lacking in the richness and sacredness of the past (p.87). However, there was a struggle by some to retain the essential features of the traditional culture. Although there was a concern about the need to maintain the traditional culture and the men and women took children into the bush to learn traditional bushcraft, the Demiin initiation language and dancing. This endeavour was supported by the school principal who obtained funds to support it. However, it became self-defeating to pay people to teach their own culture - the free giving within a traditional framework of such teaching had been essential to its cultural integrity. Traditional culture was transformed into just another commodity and having it taught under school conditions meant school staff exercised control (p.88).
1975 - Although the economy was deteriorating with the decline in the prawning industry, there was more money in the community from increased social welfare payments, specifically, unemployment benefits or 'sit down money' (p.86). A canteen was being built specifically to sell alcohol, supplementing the sales through stores and through personal cargoes from the mainland (p.86). During the dulnhu fish season, which only a few years previously was a time of great excitement, the meagre catch was blamed by the few interested elders on the breaking of taboos by the young people. There was much sickness from influenza (p.87).
Pre-canteen - daily routine - Before the canteen era, when people went hunting, they rarely returned before dusk (See 1977) (p.89). They did their household chores in the late, cooler afternoons: chopping wood, drawing water, preparing the evening meal. This was also a time for visiting, socializing and discussing the day's events (p.90). (See 1977)
1976 - The canteen was opened. The government, sensitive to accusations of paternalism, did not intervene. They wanted the people to make decisions for themselves. But, paradoxically, a government knows best policy prevailed (a) they had the money, and (b) they ruled out possibility of external or government control, even if this might have been what the majority wanted (p.88). 37% of the people's income was spent in the canteen (p.89). Top
1977 - The missionaries - Keith Cole wrote about the missionaries: "Even though certain aspects of mission policy and practice may come under criticism, the fact remains that the early missionaries really cared for Aboriginal people. They may have been somewhat paternalistic, but they did show kindness and concern in a practical way for a people who had been hunted and massacred in the bush, despised and kicked around pastoral stations, or were killing themselves with White vices in towns..." (p.48). Although the missionaries did not understand the complex Lardil marriage rules they could relate to the debates about marriage because they too valued marriage and family (p.214).
Post-canteen - daily routine - There was an attempt by the community to restrict access to the canteen but this found to be illegal according to Australian law (p.89). Islanders hastened back from hunting by about 2:00pm (See 1975) so they would not be late for the canteen's opening (p.90). The fact that hunters had a shorter day meant less food and children were not fed properly; many children went to a non-drinking grandmother who could afford to give them only tea and damper - which they relished (p.90). Not only hunting was affected by canteen hours, but also chores, visiting and meal preparation gave way to visiting the canteen (p.90). (See 1975). Because there were drunks around, even non-drinkers stayed indoors. School attendance was poor, parents lax about sending their children and also claiming that they were too poor to afford to dress their children properly (p.91).
1978 - the missionaries were forced to leave Mornington Island when the mission was transformed into Shires by the Bjelke-Petersen Queensland government (p.45). McKnight leaves Mornington Island for seven years.
The Shire - The Queensland government turned Mornington Island into a Shire to thwart the Australian government over tax revenues from nearby bauxite deposits (p.93). The Shire councillors were elected every three years and there is a hierarchy of local government bureaucracy with the key positions held by local government careerists who had little knowledge or interest in Aborigines. The prevailing opinion is that most of them could not hold a post except in the far north or in some isolated community (p.93). The missionaries, on the other hand, were concerned about the spiritual and moral welfare of the Aborigines. Some of them stayed for many years and were genuinely incorporated into the kinship system (p.94); the Aborigines could understand their interest in things spiritual; they had far less in common with the new type of White people (p.97). The Shire's main source of income is from the canteen. Top
1981 - The dying wish of the popular chairman of the Shire council, Larry Lanley, was that the canteen be closed. This did not happen, largely through the opposition of campaigner Mary Willnot, who made her case in terms of people's rights (p.95).
1985 - McKnight returns to Mornington Island for more fieldwork. He describes the community as no longer a 'camp' (as he had epitomized it in 1966), but as a 'beer town' (p.95) in which the effects of alcohol were quite noticeable (p.115). By now there were 50 Whites on the island, not counting their children (p.93).
Children vs Western education - Children had become progressively more unruly and demanding (p.136). Violence, tantrums, screaming with rage and striking opponents - all unknown traditionally - are now the norm (p.137). Many children were neglected; those aged 3 to 10 suffered in the competition for food with older siblings. By the time they were about 10 they began to fill out more because they could fight back (p.136). When children get their own way about food they sometimes discard what they cannot use to thwart others from getting a share, bettering their chances of survival (p.136). In school children do not want to appear better than their peers. In many cases they do not want to learn, are embarrassed to learn or hide the fact that they are learning. They are aware that most of their teachers are White; they know they are politically dominated (p.140). They seem to rejoice in displaying rejection of discipline, routine and authority - crucial attributes in industrial societies and may argue with a teacher to gain sympathy with close relatives (p.141). Top
The canteen - The canteen was open six days a week (p.95) and the extended opening hours (after Mary Willnot's campaign) were accompanied by an increase in drunken violence and rape (p.96). No rapes had occurred during McKnight's earlier fieldwork (p.96). McKnight attributes the rapes to alcohol and pornographic videos, but also to resentment by men against White society (Aboriginal women are seen to have better, sustained relationships with Whites) (p.97, 101).
Personal incomes - The CDEP is a federal government scheme which replaces the amount that would be paid individually in unemployment benefits with a block sum to the community to pay people to work on projects of the community's choosing. Many of the jobs are of low esteem, such as picking up litter, carting rubbish and tidying public areas. Both women and men are employed and this gives many households an income of well over $1,000 a week (p.95) (when $AU was roughly equivalent to 1/3 of a pound sterling and one half of a $US.). About 50% of people's total expenditure was on alcohol (p.99, 105). One result is that less money is available for food and the debilitating effects of alcohol are even more devastating (p.103). Likewise other household bills accumulate (p.104).
1987 - The hospital treated 1,000 cases a month which is high, given that the total population, including non-Aborigines, was about 900 (p.104).
1995 - The Shire decided that people could purchase as much beer as they wanted. There was pressure for this from Whites who were under the same restrictions as the Aborigines (p.107).
1997 - The freedom to purchase as much beer as people wanted was extended to hard liquor. There has been a corresponding increase in sickness, violence, suicide and social breakdown (p.109).
1999 - (compare 1967) - Population now approximately 1,000. McKnight makes the following comments on contemporary society:
Destruction - In the end it has to be said, loudly and often, that the Aborigines paid a great price in coming under the control of the missionaries and the Queensland Department of Native Affairs. The price they paid was the destruction of much of their culture (p.49). See the quotation below from A P Elkin describing the loss of traditional culture.
The elders - It is one of the striking features of Australian Aborigines that in religious matters the elders are able to form a common front and to organize themselves, but outside the religious sphere they show scant ability for sustained organization (p.60). There was no possibility of the elders exercising control or instructing the younger generation. There was a muuyinda (big men) association, but many members were young men who would not have been muuyinda in the past (p.97). See also the quotation from A P Elkin below. Top
Blaming Whites - Like their parents they blame Whites for everything wrong in their society; they are unable to face the reality in later years that many of their immediate problems stem from their own choices (p.140). When they get drunk and fail to show up for work so that an important project is thrown into confusion this demonstrates that they are needed, and if whites are upset, so much the better (p.141). Whatever they do, they can be certain of being looked after, but in the past it would be inconceivable that they never learned to hunt or refused to hunt and yet expected to be fed and cared for (p.141).
Characteristics of Mornington Island society - Drinking is experienced as a welcome, exciting activity and drinkers quickly move into a high pitch of emotion: singing, shouting, embracing each other, calling one another by kinship terms, arguing and fighting. Collective binge drinking seems very much in accord with traditional values (p.199). (See above for a depiction of how this cultural setting was not destructive pre-contact.)
Societal breakdown - Even the drunken brawls are unrelated to traditional moieties; they are simply meaningless violence (p.98). People frequently excuse their anti-social behaviour on the grounds that they were drunk; nevertheless, they cannot undo the fact that they acted improperly (such as speaking to, or even swearing at, their mother-in-law) and that their words and actions have undermined the traditional relationship (p.98). Public drunkenness and the associated violence, demanding of unreasonable favours and other anti-social behaviors meant it was no longer feasible to visit friends at night or sit beside a campfire; people retreated indoors, and another community link was broken (p.98). What appears to have happened is that the Islanders have internalized the stress, strain and conflict that are mysteriously inflicted upon them. They know they are being taken advantage of but they do not know how this is being done (p.203).
Boredom - Before the canteen was established young people often complained about being bored (see 1943). It is strange that a people who had made a life for themselves for thousands of years, whose main activity was hunting and gathering, with the occasional ceremony, now found themselves bored although they were doing many other things and they could also hunt and gather. They were and are bored because life is meaningless in he new political context; under the shire, there is literally nothing for them to do except become passive (p.200).
Homicide - Excluding the murder of Revd Hall, during the 64 years of the mission (1914-78) there was only one homicide (and general opinion was that the killing was an accident). Since the time of the canteen and the Shire there have been 15 homicides (p.117). Suicides show a similar increase (p.133). Top
Alcohol - Men and women are literally drinking themselves to death and in the process community life is destroyed (p.115). They suffer from high blood pressure, diabetes, ruined livers, stroke, collapsed kidneys, heart attacks, under-nourishment etc. Several people in Townsville (1,000 km away) who are on kidney machines and confined to wheelchairs will never return to Mornington.
Alcohol - Community pressure opposes abstinence - Even those disabled (through kidney failure, for example) find no support for abstinence on their return to Mornington; their drinking mates 'practically cheer' when someone falls off the wagon or when someone drinks for he first time (p189). The problem is that anyone faces in attempting to give up drinking is the levelling mechanism, a phenomenon well known in White Australian society where it is called 'the tall poppy syndrome'. People are continuously pulled down so that no one is better than the others. People are worried that other people will think that they consider themselves better than them (p.190). If someone cannot be pulled down with words, people may physically beat them down (p.191). The emphasis on egalitarianism fits well with an activity that in the end makes everybody broke and no one can hold his head up higher than other people. A drunken person manifests that he or she is no better than anyone else (p.199). People are constrained into not discouraging the excessive drunkenness of others because of a cultural reluctance to interfere in the affairs of others (p.206).
Alcohol - why the excess? - One reason is that it is customary to consume immediately whatever is available. There was in the past little reason for saving and little opportunity to do so. People ate whatever food was available (p.200). Perhaps this hand-to-mouth existence fostered the volatility McKnight describes as characteristic of Mornington Islanders.
Alcohol - male/female differences - Explanations for the abuse of alcohol in terms of external factors fail to adequately account for the typically lower rates of alcohol use by Aboriginal women than for Aboriginal men (p.204). Perhaps women drink less because they have lost less in terms of the traditional Law (p.205).
Alcohol - why the islanders do nothing effective to change - There is never a meeting when people say that enough is enough and that suicide, homicide, drunkenness and violence are unacceptable and that what is wanted is the good life. McKnight declares they could rid themselves of the Shire if they were determined to do so (p.212). The Shire councillors tinker with canteen hours, dress rules and price changes, but they never come anywhere near the heart of the problem. (p.213). In the end it is usually left to the teachers, Shire, police, magistrates and other Whites in positions of power to take action. When they do, the Islanders almost invariably misinterpret their words or intentions and suspicions of White hegemony of racism, domination and Aboriginal powerlessness contribute to cultural confusion in which no clear rules, no clear frame of reference emerges (p.213). Top
Education in traditional culture - The people want to have their culture included in the school curriculum; this seems to mean - for them - the languages, songs, dances, art and bushcraft. In the past most of this would have been acquired in the home on in day-to-day interaction in the bush and the community (p.141). However, the teaching of Mornington Island culture nowadays requires the financial support of white Australian society. This leads to a dilemma: if the children are given a Western education, the people complain that their culture is being neglected and disparaged. If, however, the children are not given a Western education, then the people complain that they are being given a second-rate education and prevented from competing with Whites on their own terms (p.143). When it was suggested that the older men should take the youngsters into the bush for weeks and teach them to hunt and make handcrafts, the men rejected it as they would have to go without their grog (p.101).
Even in 1967 McKnight had observed that young people were spending little time with older people and so did not have the opportunity to learn traditional culture in traditional ways (p.135). See also the quotation below from A P Elkin.
Importuning - In a society with many belongings, people frequently ask for a loan of articles such as an axe, saw, torch, dinghies, outboard motor. They also frequently neglect to return them, straining relationships which, in traditional society, were unproblematic (p.73). Either through ignorance or design, people ignore the constraints on whom they can make legitimate demands. Likewise, the thrifty and provident need, for their own preservation, to ignore their giving obligations (p.77) (See above).
Language and meaning - The many community committees and associations make decisions and when they choose to communicate them to the community at large they use formal language which few people can fully understand. The Shire councillors are at times uncertain what resolutions they have passed and what the consequences are likely to be (p.144). They are unaccustomed to the Shire's decision-making. This separation of language (about real things) from the meaning (for people's daily lives) extends into other areas. McKnight reports that 'People tell me that so-and-so died on the mainland yet he turns out to be very much alive. A woman is rumoured to have chopped off her hand and the person recounting the incident claims he saw her do it, which he describes in gory detail. Then someone else says the cut off her fingers. Finally it turns out that she accidentally cut her thumb and requires a bandage. Eventually one begins to wonder if anyone knows anything ... there is a social reason for people's poor communication and complete misunderstanding of what is happening: they no longer have a meaningful cultural framework in which to operate their lives and to evaluate what is being said and done" (p.144). See also remarks on cosmology and how the present world is somewhat unreal; also entry on literacy. Top
Literacy - Most of the young generation are functionally illiterate and in addition to being barely able to read and write they have trouble talking. Many people in their thirties and forties are unable to carry on a sustained conversation about complex matters, which the elders handled with ease in the 1960s (p.215).
Gaol and crimes - About 10% of the adult male population is in gaol or detained and any time. Almost all arrests are alcohol-related (p.147). Incest (which in the past would have been punished by spearing of one or both offenders) and child abuse occurred (p.97).
Male/female relationships - Where previously a man or a woman could win the attention of a lover with a song, now beer had become more powerful and attractant (p.97). Gone are the days when there were lengthy discussions about proposed marriages; temporary relationships, broken marriages and neglected children are the rule (p,100).
In the past it was enough for men to be skilful hunters and to provide for their wives and children. Women were proud of their men's hunting abilities and children knew they would all get a fair share in the division of food. But now the men have to pursue money in the globalized Whiteman's market economy (p.202). The women in turn are caught up in the economy where traditional skills count for nothing. They turn against their humiliated menfolk who can no longer earn the cultural authority and so have to resort to physical force and mental torment to belittle and control their women. Women frequently seek relationships with White men and if they are successful they are able to live better than the Aboriginal men, which must be galling to the men (p.202).
Non-drinkers - There were about 40 women and eight men who did not drink (p.98). Most of these were older people who had been raised in the dormitory and regularly attended church (p.198).
Mornington Islanders today - People now in their twenties and thirties know of no other world than the canteen/Shire world. They have little first-hand knowledge of the missionary world. They have no functional Aboriginal language. Their knowledge of story places and myths is limited. They have never experienced the Dreamtime beings singing to them in their dreams. What they know best is the canteen and the power of White people and money (p.216). There is almost no one who can pass on the traditional culture and no one willing to learn it. McKnight concludes: "The saddest part is that if the Mornington Islanders ever do turn away from alcohol they will discover that only a dim shadow of their traditional culture remains. They will literally have drunk away their culture" (p.216). Top
Supplementary contents list:
Children educated in traditional culture
Fitness: good condition, stature, free from disease,
Food: roots, Western food, Mission store food, dugong, fish, tea and damper, turtle, hand-to-mouth existence
Health: venereal disease, influenza, alcohol related diseases,
Language integral to culture
Preference for employment over traditional ways
The Islands and their associated people and languages:
Mornington Island: the Lardil
Bentinck and Allen Islands: the Kaiadilt
Forsythe Island: the Yangkaal
Boredom - McKnight reports that he found 'boredom' a strange explanation in this setting. I (Evfit.com site owner) agree and so consider his analysis here unconvincing. There has been research done on boredom, as a word, as a phenomenon and as an explanation for behaviour which should be drawn on to enrich this part of McKnight's account.
A P Elkin writes about the demise of Australian Aboriginal culture in the face of the non-Aboriginal invasion: "But such is their loyalty to their secrets, that they never drop a hint to the white 'authority' of the great world of thought, ritual and sanction of which he is unaware. They feel either that he would not understand it or that he would despise it, and so the 'past-masters', the old custodians of secret knowledge, sit in the camp, sphinx-like, watching with eagle eye the effect of white contact on the young men, and deciding how much, if any, of the knowledge of their fathers can be safely entrusted to them, and just when the imparting of the secrets can be effectively made. If the young men are too much attracted to the white man's ways, if they are inclined to despise the old ways, and above all, if they show a looseness of living which denotes lack of stability in character, the old me either teach them nothing, or else traditional false versions of some myths as means of testing their sincerity and loyalty. But only too often, after contact with the white man, the time is never propitious for the imparting of 'truth', and so the secrets pass away with the old men; and though the latter die in sorrow knowing that the old rites and myths will pass into oblivion, that the sacred places will no longer be cared for, and the tribe is doomed to extinction, yet they die triumphantly, having been loyal to their trust." (I - Evfit.com site owner - am not convinced that Elkin depicts the most likely actual thoughts of dying elders; however, I believe it highly probable that that the elders would have discussed at length among themselves the dilemmas facing their tribes - as depicted by Elkin.)
W Lloyd Warner wrote about another Indigenous group in his 1937 book A black civilization; a social study of an Australian tribe. I have not read the book, only reviews but, as I believe it covers in detail the world view of the tribe (in this case desert people), I have referenced it here.
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Updated 29 March 2009