A close-up portrait of an Indigenous woman in darkness staring into the distance with a solemn expression and watery eyes

Anthropology: Lasting Sociocultural Impact on Australian Aboriginals From Colonial History

Note for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander readers: this written material contains the name of a deceased person and may contain images of deceased persons.

I recognise my position as a White Australian writing in the area of Aboriginality. Therefore, I do not intend to impose particular truths on Aboriginal Australian realities. Rather, I aim for this piece to contribute to important conversations regarding the harms of enduring colonialist structures.

This article explores how Australia’s colonial history creates vast social problems for Aboriginal Australians today. In this way, the past’s harms seep into the present and colonialism cannot be understood as an isolated event. Most evidently, this is woefully represented by the disproportionally high suicide rates among Aboriginal Australians when compared with their non-Indigenous counterparts. Shockingly, in 2017, suicide remained the primary cause of death for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children, accounting for 40% of all young Indigenous deaths.

A close-up portrait of an Indigenous woman in darkness staring into the distance with a solemn expression and watery eyes
Image Source: Ella Archibald-Binge via The Point

Mental health is typically perceived as an individual problem. However, it’s increasingly important to recognise that social structures play a huge role in the way individuals experience these harms. Certainly, high rates of suicide in Aboriginal communities result from an elaborate web of interrelating personal and social conditions. As such, this article addresses social maladies that perpetuate Aboriginal suicide and mental health problems.

Increasing rates of Aboriginal Suicide

Before the 1960s, there were few reports of Aboriginal suicide in Australia. Today, however, the Indigenous suicide rate is on an upward trend.

A graph with a blue line representing a decline of non-Aboriginal suicides in Australia in recent years and a red line representing Aboriginal suicides with an increasing trend
Image Source: Creative Spirits

Aboriginal suicide and self-harm are now at crisis levels. According to South Australian Elder Tauto Sansbury, ‘death is our life’. Among the highest suicide rates of youth in the world, the mourning of young Aboriginal lives lost is now an inevitable occurrence.

Aboriginal suicide due to a disturbance of the original collective order

Aboriginal Australians are caught between two cultures

Colonisation led to a disruption of the social order of Australia’s first people; a social imbalance that was non-existent before European Settlement. Consequently, it is not uncommon for Indigenous youth to express a sense of emptiness and hopelessness; they are ‘caught between two [contrasting] cultures’ (Elliot-Farelly 2014). According to Bundajung woman Judy Atkinson, a lack of social integration for Aboriginal Australians has instigated a ‘loss of spirit…a destruction of [the] self [and] the soul’. Australia’s settler society and its paternalistic guise have done irreparable harm to the social and cultural institutions through which social life is regulated and sustained for Indigenous individuals.

A black and white photograph of a man curled on the flaw with his hand and head on a patterned pillow. There is a walking stick and a dog on either side of him
Image Source: onyamagazine.com

The mutually incompatible values and ways of life which exist for Indigenous and non-indigenous Australians means that neither group will be able to rationally reach a deep understanding of the other. Consequently, a gap fuelled by racism and misunderstanding endures. The collective order necessary for optimal societal functioning may never truly be restored. While there have been attempts to ‘close the gap’, these efforts have been criticised. Often, it involves Western organisations imposing their knowledge onto Aboriginal cultures with little community collaboration. As a result, there is a continued disconnection and lack of integration for Indigenous individuals. This is linked to the disproportionality high suicide rates for young Aboriginal people; an immense and ongoing social problem.

Differentiation and othering

The practice of othering relegates Aboriginal people to a ‘cultural minority’. In doing so, there is no recognition of them being the First Nations people of Australian land.

Australia’s enduring frontier mentality thrives off this process of differentiation and othering. It perpetuates a division between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians. Interestingly, there is critique in using the language of ‘Indigenous’ and ‘non-Indigenous’. This is because of its tendency to create an ‘us versus them’ binary. According to Aboriginal academic and activist Aileen-Moreton Robinson, these processes of othering continue in contemporary society, fuelled by post-colonial racism.

A close-up portrait of a young Indigenous man staring seriously into the camera with white paint covering his face
Image Source: Borgen Magazine

Aboriginal suicide due to oppressive surveillance processes

Aboriginal Australians were included in the national census and counted as citizens in the 1967 referendum. However, suicide rates have continued to rise.

One way of looking at this disjuncture is through the lens of paternalism. Paternalism refers to actions that limit a groups autonomy through well-intentioned desires to promote their own good. In the case of Indigenous Australians and the 1967 referendum, Aboriginal Australians were paternalistically absorbed into a white national identity foreign to their own. In other words, they were recognised as citizens, but only to the extent that they existed within settler colonial notions of law and living.

As Western societies become ‘surveillance societies’, Aboriginal Australians increasingly face an oppressive regulation. Indeed, many of them no longer feel in harmony with their own needs and the demands of the settler group they have been granted recognition within.

Oppressive regulation through welfare governance systems

One form of regulation imposed on Aboriginal Australians – with the intention of helping them – is the expansion of welfare governance systems.

Specifically, surveillance and society academics have been concerned with the introduction of the BasicsCard in the Northern Territory. In 2007, the federal government staged an intervention called the Northern Territory Emergency Response, allegedly to ‘protect Aboriginal children’ from sexual abuse. As a result, heavy regulation dominates Aboriginal people’s lives without any form of consultation or communication with those communities.

A white and blue square sign warning against the possession and use of liquor and pornography issued by the Australian Government
Image Source: Wikimedia Creative Commons

There are widespread protests and concern about the level of unnecessary regulation. However, the intervention has been extended until 2022. Australia is the first country in the world to sanction this mode of income management on identified income support claimants.

A white fabric poster sign with the Aboriginal flag painted over the shape of Australia and the text 'if sorry is what you mean don't intervene'
Image Source: AAP/Simon Mossman

Critiquing the BasicsCard

The BasicsCard is a personal identification number (PIN) protected card that can only be used at BasicsCard approved merchants.

A green credit card with 'BasicsCard' embossed on the top and numbers down the bottom, to the left is a green square with white text 'we accept BasicsCard'
Image Source: servicesaustralia.gov.au

The card offers a secure way for people to access their income managed funds. However, this ‘compulsory’ form of income management has been criticised for opposing fundamental forms of social justice that promote human dignity and freedom. Undoubtedly, this welfare control represents a discreet, yet pervasive, furthering of colonial domination.

A front-view shot of protestors holding large piece of fabric with the Aboriginal flag, a fist is painted in the yellow circle and text 'Aboriginal control of Aboriginal affairs' and 'no racist intervention' line the black and red segments of the flag
Image Source: The Point

According to Mike Dee’s study on welfare surveillance in Australia (2013), some Aboriginal communities have resisted the BasicsCard. Many condemn income management for its effect of lowering trust and individual agency.

For interventions to be effective and culturally considerate, we have to look at how the oppressed respond to what the oppressors do. Aboriginal communities have responded negatively towards the BasicsCard, yet it remains in force. This one-way – and rather paternalistic – approach to addressing Aboriginal health issues further represents the cultural disjuncture between Indigenous Communities and non-Indigenous communities.

As a result of these structural governance systems, Indigenous Australian’s often feel they have no real control or agency over the most important aspects of their lives. This oppressive regulation, disguised as a protective measure, leaves Aboriginal communities feeling hopeless and misunderstood.

A long rectangle shape split with black solid fill at the top and red at the bottom with the text 'stop the NT's intervention' and '10 years of Australia's shame'
Image Source: stoptheintervention.org

Oppressive regulation through hyper-incarceration

Aboriginal communities are also oppressively regulated through ‘hyper-incarceration’ behind bars. Chris Cunneen, professor of criminology at Jumbunna Institute for Indigenous Education, writes extensively of this phenomenon in Penal Culture and Hyperincarceration: The Revival of the Prison.

As noted by former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, Australia is now facing an Indigenous incarceration epidemic. As of 2021, the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander imprisonment rate was 2,333 persons per 100,000 adult Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander population.

Supporters of the Aboriginal community and police officers gather in front of Parliament House during a rally, a square painted with the Aboriginal flag and the text 'most incarcerated people on earth' is held above people's heads
Image Source: Getty Images

Mass incarceration is a visual indicator of control over Aboriginal people. Symbolically, however, those individuals who are not physically detained in prisons are nonetheless imprisoned in ongoing colonial oppression. For example, through welfare management techniques as described above. In other words, there is no escape from our Western surveillance societies.

An Aboriginal boy stands with his arms spread facing bar fence with his white handprint painted back facing the camera
Image Source: AAP

Trapped by excessive regulation and continuously ‘mugged by the darkness of [our] history’, Aboriginal people contemplating self-harm are engaging in a normal human response to inescapably harsh social conditions.

Aboriginal suicide due to intergenerational trauma

During colonisation, a wave of frontier warfare, massacres and dispossession removed Aboriginal people from their homes. Western social and legal systems controlled all aspects of their lives. Most significantly, this involved the forced removal of thousands of Aboriginal children from their homes. These young people were assimilated into a non-Indigenous society with contrasting values and different ways of life. This horrific instance of oppressive regulation lasted over 50 years and is now known as ‘the stolen generation’. In 1997, the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission recognised these practices as a form of genocide.

An old black and white image of a large group of Aboriginal children in uniforms standing in front of a building with a white male standing beside them
The ‘protection’ era – Image Source: https://www.sydneycriminallawyers.com.au/

While dispossession of Aboriginal people no longer occurs in such visibility, the events continue to have consequences in the lives of contemporary Indigenous communities. Indeed, intergenerational trauma caused by colonialism inescapably marks Aboriginal communities with a constant reminder of their violent, painful past.

The trauma transmitted across generations also impacts internal relationships between Indigenous Australians. For instance, weak attachments with caregivers and parental physical and mental illness impact children. Intergenerational trauma causes a detachment from extended family and culture.

An cartoon artwork of seven silhouetted bodies with red hearts painted on their chests, two bodies at the centre of the frame hold hands, the landscape is a pale rusty orange with tree branches and Aboriginal art styled hills in the distance
Image Source: healingfoundation.org.au

Moreover, intergeneration trauma hastens community dysfunction. It is not uncommon for community members to interact with violence and antisocial behaviours. Professor Pat Dudgeon from the Bardi people of Western Australia notes that these internal community conflicts might contribute to high rates of suicide.

Colonialism as a structure, not an event

Australian anthropologist Patrick Wolfe perceives settler colonialism as an enduring structure, not an event.

A white mind map on a red background with white text at the top reading 'settler-colonialism is a structure not an event', below is a circle with offshoots of information
Image Source: @decolonize_this via Twitter

Certainly, enduring traumatic incidents and stressors that Aboriginal people experience in contemporary Australia compound the colonial problem. Therefore, intergenerational trauma is a clear example of colonialism as an ongoing structure, not merely an event of the past.

Alcohol and drug use as coping responses to intergenerational trauma

Statistics show that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples are less likely to consume alcohol than other Australians. However, those that do drink are more likely to drink at dangerous levels. In a 2016 report of the inquiry in Aboriginal youth suicide, it was found that suicide was the most common cause of alcohol-related deaths among males. It was the fourth most common cause amongst males.

A group of Aboriginal people sit in dry bushland, beneath them is a circle of dirt littered with hundreds of crushed VB beer cans
Image Source: Photography by Paul Blackmore

Often, we perceive alcohol and drug misuse as an individual action, and therefore, an individual problem. But it is more complex than that. Substance abuse in Aboriginal communities is rife and is often the result of unhealed trauma. Author GT Nadew (2012) supports this. He argues that there is an undeniable link between Aboriginal Australians’ trauma and alcohol and drug use.

Aboriginal suicide as a result of limited access to mental health services

Compared with non-Indigenous Australians, an Aboriginal person who is at risk of suicide is less likely to gain access to healthcare services.

In a study analysing Indigenous suicides in Queensland between 1994 and 2006, De Leo and his associates found that around 23 per cent of Indigenous cases had received treatment from mental health professions throughout their life. Compare this to around 42 per cent of the non-Indigenous cases.

Even where access is available, many Aboriginal people are reluctant to access Western healthcare systems. This is partly because racism and discrimination cause distrust and avoidance of these services. In this way, Institutionalised racism (racism embedded in how organisations operate) causes a clash of cultures between Aboriginal people and non-Indigenous institutions. Additionally, it is common for Indigenous individuals to fear hospital-based services due to its association with death.

A close-up shot of the hand of an aboriginal man resting on a hospital bed frame. An IV is inserted into the hand and the man's white hospital gown can be seen in the background
Image Source: Sasha Woolley via Sydney Morning Herald

Aboriginal suicide due to racism: the lasting effects of colonialism

As aforementioned, Patrick Wolfe envisions colonialism as a structure, not an event. Its effects are lasting, discreetly woven into Australia’s social fabric through instances of institutional racism.

Two Aboriginal man walk towards the camera holding a black poster with the text 'White Australia has a Black History' written in white, yellow and red
Image Source: Daniel Munoz/Getty Images

Indeed, racism has been shown as a key factor contributing to ongoing health disparities between Australia’s Indigenous and non-Indigenous populations.

Current programs aimed at improving these health inequities implement strategies that focus more on lifestyle factors. But the design and delivery of these interventions seldom address racism.

A 2020 study found that racism and discrimination are undoubtedly linked to substance abuse within Aboriginal communities. Importantly, this relationship occurs within the context of intergenerational trauma and the enduring impacts of colonisation.

Have changes in the Law helped?

There is an irony in using a Western mode of law and governance to remedy an issue created by those same modes to begin with. As such, changes in the law result in surface-level action, devoid of any recognition of the underlying structural issues.

In 1967, the National Census included Aboriginal Australians. This was an achievement of ‘legal equality’. Despite this, the effects of colonisation foster enduring institutional racism, discrimination and social exclusion.

The Racial Discrimination Act of 1975 made it unlawful to discriminate against Aboriginal Australians. However, in practice, this legal response did little address the underlying trauma experienced by Indigenous people as a result of colonisation. And Aboriginal people are still subject to discreet forms of institutional racism. In other words, the ways our Western systems of medicine, law and society operate with values that contradict those of Indigenous peoples – Inherently, this is a form of racism.

The law may have recognised Aboriginal Australians as equal. But they remain socially barred from the benefits of social, economic and political life.

Addressing Aboriginal suicide: what can we do?

To develop effective and culturally sensitive suicide prevention strategies, we must recognise and understand the cultural differences between Indigenous and non-Indigenous populations.

Aboriginal concepts of social and emotional wellbeing differ from non-Indigenous models. For instance, the role of family and kin relationships, Elders, connection to country and spirituality are key values in the health and wellbeing of Indigenous communities. These elements are protective factors against suicide and other mental health problems.

A close-up shot of two young Aboriginal girls siting side by side with smiles on their faces with an orange sand background
Image Source: aboriginalchildrensday.com.au

Reducing Aboriginal suicide by empowering communities

To address Aboriginal suicide, we need to move away from the individualistic health model of the West. Instead, we must focus on a model that recognises the significance of community and cultural values in Indigenous communities.

Future initiatives should focus on strengths-based responses. These should empower communities by supporting their cultures and restoring community functioning.

An artwork featuring a string of silhouetted people holding hands in a line with an orange patterned background
Image Source: nacchocommunique.com

Unlike in Western societies, individuals in Aboriginal communities place extreme importance on the collective. Therefore, by recognising the collective dimensions of Indigenous life, community-level responses will foster individual resilience and may protect against suicide. To enhance resilience further, we need to implement measures that allow Aboriginal Australians a level of self-governance. Rather than paternalistically imposing Western modes of governance.

We must build strategies that reconnect Aboriginal Australians with their authentic culture. This disconnect occurred at the time of colonisation and continues today through barriers of racism and cultural disconnectedness.

A birds-eye view shot of ten hands placed on top of one another in a circle
Image Source: Shutterstock

Reducing Aboriginal suicide with community-managed health services

Community-managed healthcare services and groups will help empower Aboriginal Australians within those communities.

As noted earlier, it is not appropriate to deliver services based on Western notions of health and wellbeing. Unfortunately, these responses further the cultural divide and perpetuate a misunderstanding of Aboriginal issues.

As such, we must create culturally safe service settings. With Aboriginal community leaders at the forefront, these initiatives can provide spiritually, emotionally and socially safe spaces that do not paternalistically deny the identities of Indigenous people.

An Aboriginal style artwork with a circle texted 'strengthening our spirits' in the centre. Streams of blue, red and green offshoot the circle with further information
A community-based response by the Australian Government / Image Source: ntphn.org.au

Reducing Aboriginal suicide through cultural competence training

Furthermore, there have been suggestions that ‘cultural competence training’ should be essential for non-Indigenous practitioners. This approach prioritises the voices of Aboriginal Australians and trains others to listen sincerely to those voices before they respond.

For example, the Centre for Cultural Competence Australia (CCCA) is an Indigenous-owned and managed cultural consulting organisation. Their aim is to ‘make a tangible difference in Indigenous communities’ by offering cultural competence training services to clients. CCCA follow a ‘deep listening approach’. This method authentically hears Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander voices and represents them within organisations, communities and workplaces.

Cultural competence training has the potential to diminish the cultural gap I mentioned earlier. It helps Aboriginal people escape the despairing position of occupying a space between two cultures. Therefore, high suicide and mental illness rates among Indigenous individuals are consequences of colonialism and cultural dispossession in Australia’s shameful colonial history.

A red and yellow symbol consisting of semi-circles positioned to the left of the text 'centre for cultural competence Australia'
Image Source: reconciliationnsw.org.au

Examples of current community-led initiatives that aim to reduce Aboriginal suicide

The National Empowerment Project

The National Empowerment Project (NEP) is an Indigenous-designed and delivered program that promotes resilience in communities across Australia. It aims to prevent suicide, self-harm and psychological distress with a specific focus on intergenerational trauma and the enduring harms of colonialism. The high Aboriginal suicide rates in the Kimberley region was the catalyst for the project’s initiation.

Six main principles guide the NEP. These include human rights social justice; community ownership; community capacity building; resilience-focused; building empowerment and partnerships; and respect for local knowledge.

A white background with black text outlining what community ownership means, an aboriginal artwork contained within a small circle sits to the left of the text
Example of principle 2 – Image Source: nationalempowermentproject.org.au

The NEP places Aboriginal voices at the forefront. The project derives knowledge from an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander perspective. In this way, there is a recognition and appreciation of Indigenous people’s self-determination and cultural diversity. According to academics Cornell and Kalt, self-determination is one of the only policy focuses that has made significant progress in reversing otherwise distressing social, cultural and economic conditions in Native communities.

Guided by these principles, the project is a culturally appropriate way of addressing the social (rather than individual) determinants of suicide and poor mental health in Aboriginal communities.

The Bubup Wilam for Early Learning Aboriginal Child and Family Centre

Bubup Wilam childcare centre focuses on ‘training for Aboriginal people by Aboriginal people’.

Bubap Wilam Aboriginal child and family centre text encapsulates a child drawing of a circular Aboriginal flag and stick figures holding hands
Image Source: bubupwilam.org.au

In recognising the effects that intergenerational trauma and cultural disconnect have on Aboriginal children, the centre embraces Aboriginal knowledge systems and focuses on ‘building a sense of identity.’

For instance, Bubup incorporates lessons of kinship into the curriculum. When the children sign up, they write out family trees that connect everyone in a shared cultural relation. As you walk into the centre, an honour roll of Elders’ names captures your vision. Many of the children who attend the centre are related to those names. As a result, young Aboriginal people gain an understanding of where they came from; it solidifies their identity.

In this way, Aboriginal children reconnect with their culture at an early stage in life. This is a key protective factor in the development of mental health issues later on in life.

Three young Aboriginal girls with white lines painted on their faces hold leaves and are standing in front of three adults
Image Source: Adam Elwood via heraldsun.com.au

Using an anthropological framework to address Aboriginal suicide

The goal of anthropology is to learn about other cultures, preferably without the guise of Eurocentric goggles. Applying anthropology to the case of Aboriginal suicide means we look at the issue beyond the surface of the individual (and beyond the law’s efforts). It entails a deep understanding of Indigenous culture without imposing our ideal modes of Western healing.

A hand drops red sand into another hand positioned below, a red dirt trail lined by trees on either side is in the background
Image Source: Shutterstock

An anthropological framework is useful in this case because it allows us to consider the cultural history of Aboriginal Australians. It directs our attention towards the ongoing impacts of colonialism, forcing us to address the problem of Aboriginal suicide within the context of complex cultural disconnectedness. Without this understanding, attempts at tackling these problems will continue to appear paternalistic, functioning fruitlessly within the guise of settler-colonial views.

Undeniably, culture is crucial when addressing the mental health of Australia’s First Nations people.

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