Shared descent into the maelstrom of addiction

Opinion Article

2012 October, 12

Last weekend I wrote that indigenous kinship and alcohol were bad friends. Some interlocutors asked me to explain my position. I do not know any discrete indigenous community that successfully uses alcohol. I have not been everywhere, but from all I have ever seen, read and heard about, the situation seems common across the continent. 


Let me make two things clear from the outset. 


First, whenever I see Aboriginal people who consume alcohol in social settings in mainstream Australia, I perceive no problem that is different from that caused by alcohol in the general community. Indeed, the pleasure and social function of alcohol is no different for Aboriginal people who consume alcohol according to the social and cultural mores of the mainstream. Yes, like white fellas, individual black fellas experience harm from alcohol, but in their nature and cause the problems are common. While some people may argue a particular biological susceptibility of indigenous people to alcoholism, I do not think this explanation is decisive. 


Second, my argument that alcohol is highly problematic in discrete indigenous communities is not a condemnation of our people or our culture. The problems are the consequence of a good feature of our culture: our propensity to share with our countrymen, and indeed the strong obligations that arise from kinship. Whether in traditional remote areas or in the more settled areas of the country, the power of this culture is compelling. 


There are many assumptions behind the question of whether alcohol access regimes applying to Aboriginal people should or should not be the same as for mainstream Australians. I will refer to two dominant assumptions. 


There is the assumption that the history of the introduction of alcohol resulted in our people learning the worst habits and developing problematic drinking cultures. Alcohol was novel and we never had the time or opportunity to properly acclimatise to this new (and pleasurable) substance. Therefore with time and with equal treatment with other Australians, Aboriginal drinking will become less problematic and harm will diminish to mainstream levels. 


The response of authorities based on this assumption is to "normalise" access and promote "responsible drinking". Tighter and better regulation of service is assumed to lead to the formation of better consumption habits. 


Next there is the assumption that economic and social un-development of indigenous communities, the welfare dependency, the free time and free money, the idleness and boredom, drives the alcohol problem. Therefore, if these communities develop economically and we improve employment and housing standards, harm levels from Aboriginal drinking will diminish. 


The response of authorities based on this assumption is to promote economic and social development. With developmental "normalisation", the use of grog will normalise. 


I agree the history of Aboriginal drinking cultures, intertwined with absence of development, are strong drivers of our past and present problems with alcohol. I certainly do not disagree that efforts must be aimed at development, and at breaking the destructive relationship between passive welfare and substance abuse among indigenous people. By the way, this nexus is the same for mainstream people. 


However, I want to question the assumption that things can and will "normalise" across time. To be truthful, I do not just question it, I absolutely doubt it. 


I doubt it because there is a cultural dimension to the indigenous Australian problem with alcohol that is irreconcilable. This cultural dimension arises from the traditional kinship of our people and that feature of our culture that anthropologists identify as "demand sharing". Kinship obligations are not merely the "caring and sharing" of post-Noble Savage romance but rather in the nature of implacable demand. There is little discretion on the part of the giver in any transaction, and a thankless entitlement on the part of the taker. 


Demand sharing has its roots in our hunter-gatherer society. It makes complete sense: survival in precarious and capricious nature required it. 


The traditional mode of life has largely passed, but demand sharing remains a strong feature of indigenous kinship and identity and few indigenes are exempt from its commanding obligations.


My old friend, Charlie Perkins, used to jokingly tell how he kept two wallets when he went to Alice or Mount Isa where his relatives were. When prevailed on for money, he would pull out the one with the $10 note so he could limit his outlay. 


I do not know any indigenous leader, no matter how acclimatised into mainstream Australia, who is exempt from this cultural system. This system based on kinship is, in my view, a great feature of Aboriginal culture. I am sure other cultures share these traits, but I do not know of a more generous people than our people. Some people will observe features of Aboriginal culture that are inimical to development, and it will be necessary to abandon them. However I think indigenous generosity and reciprocity are admirable, and indeed beautiful, features of our culture.


But when you add addiction to foreign substances and habits to this culture, things that are admirable and beautiful become deformed and destructive. Demand sharing and alcohol just don't mix. Alcohol (and other addictive substances and processes such as gambling) cannot be managed when people are subject to such intense obligations to share as Aboriginal people are with their relatives and countrymen. The problem is most pronounced in discrete communities, where you have all of your relatives and countrymen around you.


There are individuals in communities who consume alcohol without harming themselves and their families. But these are invariably people who have managed to put up barriers to kinship obligations that are understood and complied with (even though not accepted) by relatives. 


But elsewhere, where Aboriginal culture and alcohol mix freely, it is a descent into a maelstrom.


This view of the problem of alcohol challenges the assumption of indigenous and mainstream leaders across the country, that our people can travel the journey to "normalisation".


My view is Aboriginal people in Australia who want to maintain aspects of their traditional cultures face the same question as many other orthodox cultures: is alcohol compatible with those things about our culture that we value and wish to maintain? It seems this serious decision has not been made by our people, and we are hoping our people can have our cake and eat it too.

Shared descent into the maelstrom of addiction