Transition to Permanent Settlements

Transition to Permanent Settlements

The transition from religious missions to remote settlements began during the 1950s and 1960s, and gained momentum following the 1967 referendum, which extended voting rights and acknowledged Aborigines to be Australian citizens. This obliged both State and Federal Govts to become involved by acknowledging, and accepting responsibility for, their original citizens.

Over time, States Govts took over from the churches, and various forms of a bureaucratic small town model replaced the mission community structure. The rigorous, paternalistic control was often replaced with a Community Adviser, who could be anything from kindly to dictatorial. In many cases, the Adviser may have had few proficient management or bookkeeping skills, many were racist to some measure, almost none had community skills, and even fewer had sustainability skills. Often, those who had administrative skills, had correspondingly fewer practical skills, and were very uncomfortable living in non-temperate climates, including tropical and arid lands, while those who were more comfortable in the bush and had practical skills, were less likely to have much in the way of administrative skills. In general, these small, remote Aboriginal settlements had to make do with what they could get. The luckier ones might get a husband and wife team with bookkeeping skills.

In many instances, the transition from missions to settlements proved difficult and problematic. Usually it meant shifting from a well-implemented paternalistic model of living under strict, prescribed conditions that ensured their basic living needs were catered for, to one of being far less supported, trained and supervised, while being held far more responsible for their own affairs. Often this transition took place coincident with a dramatic reduction in hands-on involvement by missionaries, and in many cases without any semblance of a proper, responsible handover to ensure a smooth, responsible, functioning transition.

One mission had brought the children up as virtual orphans, locked away from their traditional parents, who were left to fend for themselves. Several decades later, after failing to secure sufficient religious conversions amongst the new generation, they abandoned the mission, taking with them vital infrastructure. As these “orphaned” children, who had known only harsh and severe church discipline, became adults and parents, they found themselves devoid of parenting skills to assist their own children, especially over issues of training, control and discipline.

Feeling over-controlled in their own upbringing by the missionaries, the young parents generally opted to err on the side of non-interference, which they later felt resulted in a directionless, becoming wayward, generation of their children, which gave rise to endemic problems such as alcohol and substance abuse, making community harmony difficult.

Eventually, the self-sufficient mission model was replaced by a Govt funded, unsustainable, importing scenario, which required far greater funding to be successful than was ever forthcoming, and in many cases, chronic impoverishment became entrenched.

In most cases, the incoming support from State and Federal Govts had little orientation towards remote, tropical and arid conditions, and were almost totally devoid of any understanding of the particular needs for sustainable and community living. These last two specific needs continue to be unmet even to this day. In many cases, the outcome was a severe, permanent lowering of living standards and health.

One highly successful coastal mission provided all people with a decent standard of living. Mission projects included a cattle farm, vegetable gardens, fishing, fowls, pigs, butchery, bakery etc. Excess produce was exported by ship to distant Island communities.

In the Early 1950s, following the discovery of significants amounts of mineral ore on their traditional land, the mining co entered into an agreement with the State Govt for the people to be shifted, and land to be assumed by the mining company. The Church initially opposed any moves but later under pressure, cooperated with the Govt. The people themselves did not want to move at all, and put forward proposals to move to various site that were nearby and familiar to them, but none of these were accepted.

Eventually, the Church withdrew. One night in 1963, the six families making up the mission were rounded up and removed under armed escort, and taken by ship several hundred kilometres away to a windswept, flood-prone plane, midway between a small port and the local town it serviced, chosen for reasons of economy, convenience and assimilation. Their new settlement was a double row of houses that stretched more than 1 klm long, lining either side of the main dirt road between the town and the port.

They no longer had a farm, and fishing was remote and difficult, and on another mob’s land. Not even having transport, they were taken from self-sufficiency to refugee camp conditions and made completely dependant on the State Govt. The thoroughfare of trucks and 4WD between the port and the town ensured that the “dormitory suburb”, as the settlement was referred to, was constantly in a cloud of dust, which together with the wet season permanent damp, and flooded septic tanks, ensured that respiratory and other chronic diseases were common place.

The post mission period has been very difficult for many Aboriginal people. In many cases, the numerous benefits of the mission period simply disappeared altogether. Too often, the authority held over them, on location, was highly autonomous, and without the requisite checks and balances, namely dedication, commitment, competence, high ethical standards and empathy with the locals.

Often Badly Sited

Remote Aboriginal settlements are likely to have been located out of the way, for reasons of convenience and expedience, very often on marginal land that nobody was able to do anything with. They are often appallingly sited with respect to elements, on flood plains, away from good water, on barren land, and without tree shelter, etc. They are not likely to be near places to ply trade, and there is unlikely to be much commercial interaction, internal or external. Local store prices are likely to be very high with few choices, and over represent junk food. Few people have full time work, and part time CDEP does not provide sufficient income to provide basic living requirements in these circumstances. For those whom have no substantial paid work, their lives are likely to be boring, empty, unfulfilled, destitute and increasingly desperate.

Some remote Aboriginal settlements, to this day, have never fully gotten out of the decline that occurred during this transition from missions to permanent settlements.

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