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The epidemic plaguing Aboriginals Why do so many turn to substance abuse?

Locals order low-alcohol beer through the back window of the pub (Fairfax Media via Getty Images)

Locals order low-alcohol beer through the back window of the pub (Fairfax Media via Getty Images)


June 21, 2024   7 mins

A little over 10 years ago, as a young anthropology student, I arrived in the dusty, shrub-infested outback town of Alice Springs in a champagne-coloured Toyota Camry. It’s an extraordinary place: vast and dry and scorched. I planned to spend my summer break managing three local liquor stores there — given the town’s reputation for Aboriginal alcohol abuse, I thought it would make an interesting case study — and ended up living in Alice Springs for much of my early adulthood.

Driving through the town’s little streets at night, it wasn’t unusual to see people staggering across the roads in a drunken stupor. One night I saw a woman, completely naked, crawling along the side of the road. Day in and day out, binge drinkers stumbled through the doors of the liquor store, some smelling as if they hadn’t washed for weeks. A few even relieved themselves in the store. Theft was almost an hourly event, and fights over alcohol were common; stores were prone to being ransacked by mobs of up to 15 people, forcing staff and security against walls or bailed up by flying bottles of bourbon, while their comrades made away with cartons of wine.

In 2022 the problem reached its zenith, when the small Outback town of 25,000 accumulated 2,653 reported assaults. There was a 53% rise in alcohol-related assaults: shopkeepers installed metal barricades to prevent burglaries and concrete bollards were put up on roads to stop stolen cars. “We’ve already filled the jails,” warned the state’s police commissioner.

In January last year, Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese arrived for an emergency meeting, keen to resolve the local disorder ahead of his divisive “Voice” referendum on indigenous representation to the Australian Parliament. The meeting ended on a controversial note, with the re-imposition of a ban on the sale of alcohol to indigenous Australians in some communities, who make up a fifth of the population. Since its reintroduction, there has been a substantial drop in domestic violence and other antisocial behaviour. However, recent months has seen a rise in crime by indigenous youths in Alice Springs and the imposition of a temporary 6pm curfew.

Many white Australians believe that Aboriginal people cannot be trusted with alcohol, a view echoed by some authorities on drug addiction. Psychiatrist and former White House drug czar, Robert DuPont, captures this sentiment in his 1997 book, The Selfish Brain: Learning from Addiction. He bemoans that: “To see Native Americans suffer from the use of alcohol and other drugs, and even cigarettes, or to see similar suffering among Australian Aborigines, is to face the painful reality that traditional cultures are not prepared to withstand exposure to modern drugs and to tolerant values governing drug-taking behaviour.” His book suggests that non-indigenous culture is superior in regulating social standards surrounding dangerous drugs such as alcohol, while tough pressure is required from an external source — white governments — to prevent their use in indigenous cultures.

What DuPont doesn’t seem to grasp is that Aboriginal culture does not exist in an a-historical vacuum. Stripping a culture of its regulatory mechanisms for discordant social behaviour and then declaring that culture to be inherently inferior in regulating substances intertwined with that behaviour leaves much to be desired in DuPont’s diagnosis of the problem. And in any case, if proximity to traditional Aboriginal culture could explain addiction, then the indigenous children of the “Stolen Generations” — taken from their parents and raised as white people as part of Australia’s Assimilation Policy — should have fared relatively well. Instead, they descended into a spiral of substance abuse. Christina Green, who as a child was taken by the government and raised in Parramatta Girls Home, recalled: “Most girls became depressed, suicidal and addicted to drugs and alcohol later in life.”

These children suffered horrific psychological scars — and some were abused and raped in the institutions that tried to assimilate them. In his book, In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts: Close Encounters with Addiction,Canadian physician Gabor MatĂ© explains how trauma in Australian indigenous communities has been passed from one generation to another through violence, sexual abuse, and child neglect that originally emanated from the trauma of colonialism. “If you look at why addicts are soothing themselves through chemicals
 you will see that they have all experienced childhood adversity — the pain and distress that they needed to escape.” This explanation is not without its critics, such as those who would point to extreme levels of violence in indigenous communities prior to white contact. Moreover, confining the explanation to psychopathology derived from the childhood period seems to miss far broader determinants of addiction.

That is because trauma is not the only cause of addiction: boredom is another trigger. In his book, MatĂ© draws from a well-known case study. During the Vietnam War, many American soldiers became addicted to opiates, causing an alarmed American public to prepare for an avalanche of returning addicted soldiers — who instead spontaneously quit drugs once back in the United States. This story is often told to highlight the causal role of the stress and boredom of war on drug addiction. Bruce Alexander’s now infamous Rat Park experiments in the Seventies came to a similar conclusion: taking fun activities away from rats induced them to drink a morphine solution that they otherwise couldn’t stand while living a normal rat life.

I’ve met my fair share of indigenous people who drink or use drugs for no other reason than stress or boredom. During the pandemic, I took up a position as a case manager in a drug rehabilitation service for indigenous people in the minute town of Katherine, to the north of Alice Springs. It was the only such centre in a 300-kilometre radius. One afternoon, I was in my office when a support worker reported a client missing who had that day tested positive for THC and had broken his parole conditions. Pushing through the long grass that extends into the bushland around the facility, I found the young Aboriginal man sitting in the bushes, wondering whether to make a dash for it. “Why did you decide to use ganja?” I asked him. It was a response I became used to hearing: “Rehabilitation is boring.”

“I’ve met my fair share of indigenous people who drink or use drugs for no other reason than stress or boredom.”

Two years later, I found myself working in the largest drug and alcohol detox and rehabilitation facility in Darwin, the capital city of the Northern Territory of Australia. One indigenous woman, Patricia (not her real name), was a former heroin-turned-methamphetamine addict. Over a period of six months, she’d tell me about the often highly embarrassing misadventures she had in trying to support her meth habit. It seemed that she held nothing back in these discussions — the people she’d slept with for money, diseases she had picked up, thefts she had carried out.  As a former secretary for a prosecutor, she was also incredibly bright; we discussed Charles Darwin and our shared love of psychology. With her intellectual curiosity and openness to discussing anything in her life no matter how raw and embarrassing, you would think that our conversation would have uncovered some form of childhood trauma. But there was nothing. She insisted that she had enjoyed a happy childhood, received all the love and support she could have asked for, wanted for nothing, and didn’t suffer any trauma that she could put a finger on. Her introduction to drugs was simply a response to the boredom of her early adulthood.

One night, Patricia turned up at the rehabilitation facility in a meth-induced psychosis, claiming that she hadn’t slept in a week. It was obvious that she required urgent medical care, but due to Darwin’s overstretched ambulance service and limited staff in the night-time hours, there was no one. I sat alone with her for hours, as she twisted, gyrated, and cursed. It was the last I saw of her.

If we are to get to the root of indigenous alcohol abuse, we have to take this apathy seriously. Much of it comes down to extreme levels of unemployment, which a series of Australian governments has tried to tackle to no avail. Stripped of the traditional hunter-gatherer lifestyle, a purgatory of chronic boredom now afflicts their communities. But there’s another problem: as in the case of Patricia, indigenous people often start taking drugs after gaining employment, especially in menial, repetitive jobs, such as in an abattoir or factory. Some have implied to me that their substance abuse is a product of the boredom and monotony of white man’s work. But there’s another way in which employment gives rise to stress in Aboriginal culture.

I would often sit with Aboriginal clients while they talked with government welfare officers. One question that was routinely asked was: “On a score of one to ten, how confident are you that you will look for work?” I never heard a client give any response other than one. In Alice Springs, I worked with an Aboriginal man, an extraordinarily bright and dedicated member of staff. But he had a problem with his family members coming into the store and asking for his pay check every week. One day, he finally decided to take the advice offered to him by so many non-indigenous people: he told his family that he wouldn’t slavishly hand over all the money he earned at his job. He was subsequently thrown out of a car and reversed over, losing both legs. Given the resentment in communal Aboriginal culture towards anyone who hoards resources individually, it’s no wonder that the usual refrain that Aboriginals should “go out and get a job” so often falls upon deaf ears. This deepens the mystery as how to integrate communal hunter-gatherer cultures into an industrial economy.

It’s also worth noting that when it comes to indigenous alcohol abuse, addiction is not the only problem. Aboriginals are less likely than white Australians to use alcohol according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, and — according to a study published in Drug and Alcohol Review last year — are no more likely to be physiologically dependent on alcohol than white Australians. The problem, in many cases, is the occasional binge.

This is what claimed the life of Jimmy, my kindly, middle-aged Aboriginal neighbour whom I befriended in Alice Springs. In the months I knew him — and we spent a lot of time sitting on the porch discussing Egyptian archaeology — I didn’t see Jimmy drink once, until one day when he started drinking and didn’t stop. That night, my partner and I briefly attended his birthday party, and she sang a karaoke duet with him. The following day I woke to find police extracting his dead body from his apartment. He was last seen drinking himself silly. As I would later discover, indigenous people are more likely to go on dangerous alcohol binges, punctuated by periods of abstinence, than go through long periods of constant drinking that we associate with addiction.

Some surmise that the historical bans on alcohol consumption by indigenous people meant that they would be more likely to drink alcohol rapidly should they chance to acquire it. But what needs explanation is not only the rapidity of drinking, but the continuance. And this could be blamed on the loss of daily structure concomitant with having traditional lifeways and responsibilities washed away. Humans are good at blaming people. I suspect that many people reading this are readying themselves to blame someone for the plight of Aboriginals — the colonialists, contemporary non-indigenous people, Aboriginals themselves — in order to tie a complicated psycho-social problem into a neat little package. But these narratives over-simplify matters and offer only a low-resolution narrative as to how we got here.


Matthew Blackwell is an Australian writer who has worked in the mental health field in the Australian Outback. He now lives in Papua New Guinea.

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Thor Albro
Thor Albro
21 days ago

Bizarre that the obvious explanation – genetics – is not mentioned here. American Indians and Aboriginies did not develop the genetic resistance to alcoholism that the Euro/Asians, big drinkers all, did over thousands of generations. Alcoholics tended to drink themselves to death and not procreate.
A recent study has found a gene for alcohol moderation that causes most people to become sick from over-intoxication, a gene which alcoholics lack. So we know there is a genetic issue, no matter how much that might make progressives blanch. Note that the author admits that indigenous children stolen and raised in “white” families had the same problems with substance abuse, obviously (though not conclusively) due to genetic proclivity.
I don’t know the answer, but blaming this on colonization or “boredom” is not going to get us anywhere.

Clare Knight
Clare Knight
21 days ago
Reply to  Thor Albro

Yes, I too was surprised that genetics weren’t mentioned and or that Europeans have been exposed to alcohol for centuries and so have a greater tolerance. It’s too much of a coincidence that Australian Aboriginals have suffered the same fate as American native peoples. On top of that are socioeconomic factors that have oppressed both races.. Europeans have had centuries to evolve from being hunter/gatherers and aboriginals have not. The writer definitely has a judgemental attitude towards Aboriginals that I suspect may be quite prevalent among whites. My sister, who lives there, has voiced a similar bias and she’s someone who goes along with the herd.

AJ Mac
AJ Mac
21 days ago
Reply to  Clare Knight

I detect from this author sorrow, anger, and frustration about a tragic level of human suffering. I think he makes a genuine effort to avoid spreading broadbrush or reductive blame in any direction.
Can you specify why you think Blackwell–a man engaged in decades of trying to help Australian Aboriginals (however imperfectly, in the face of huge obstacles)–is “definitely judgmental” toward them?

Arthur King
Arthur King
20 days ago
Reply to  Clare Knight

It’s not genetics that causes high rates of alcoholism. It is culture. Yes part is due to the struggle indigenous people have in adapting to modern cultures. This intransigence is not our fault nor is it our problem. I used to be quite sympathetic to the struggle of indigenous people until The Great Mass Graves Hoax in Canada. The hoax is well researched and debunked in the book Grave Error. I then realized that much of the narratives arising from indigenous leadership function to exploit resources from gullible modern economies. In Canada, when faced with basic scrutiny, like “where are the bodies?” ” Who exactly went missing?” Or “Why hasn’t this been reported to the police?” All sorts if nonsense is spewed out and demands for laws to be made to shut down questions. Seem too cynical. Well if we have a culture which, as the author stated, is willing to maim its own people resist exploitation, lying to gullible colonizers is nothing.

Theodor Adorno
Theodor Adorno
19 days ago
Reply to  Arthur King

I don’t think that an imperious statement that it is all culture and nothing to do with genetics is helpful or admirable. It is much more likely (like most things in life) to be a complex mix of the two.
There is literature that addresses the very long history of the role played by agricultural practices and their relationship to the purity of nearby water sources (due to the run off of manure/fertiliser bacteria) and then in turn the development of alcohol to help make the water potable and the long term genetic adaptation of populations to those processes 


Arthur King
Arthur King
19 days ago
Reply to  Theodor Adorno

Genetics has been debunked; it is called The Firewater Myth.

Clare Knight
Clare Knight
15 days ago
Reply to  Arthur King

Alcoholism is likely to be inherited by a gene whatever one’s ethnicity.

Arthur King
Arthur King
13 days ago
Reply to  Clare Knight

Research shows a 50% risk of alcoholism from family genetics. Risk. Even for people with this risk, how people are taught to view alcohol will have a factor.

Dr. G Marzanna
Dr. G Marzanna
11 days ago
Reply to  Arthur King

What’s interesting in Canada is how the most blatant “native” activists and scammers are either not native or have maybe 10% native heritage.

Jeff Butcher
Jeff Butcher
21 days ago
Reply to  Thor Albro

And yet millions of people in so called advanced societies regularly medicate themselves with alcohol and other drugs to take the edge off of stifling, monotonous working lives. None of us are really very well designed for industrial civilisation.
And it was not so long ago that things like the enclosure acts forced people here in England who had lived on the land for centuries into hellish factories.
And Georgian/Victorian London had a terrible alcohol problem as desperate people sought solace in oblivion.

Dr. G Marzanna
Dr. G Marzanna
11 days ago
Reply to  Jeff Butcher

Excellent point

Dave Canuck
Dave Canuck
21 days ago
Reply to  Thor Albro

Oversimplification of a complex social and historical problem, oboriginal societies have similar problems everywhere, including here in Canada. Their inability to consume alcohol by many is just one element, personaly I know some aboriginals who can socially drink without overdoing it, maybe because they have jobs and steady income and are more integrated in the western culture. In Canada we have the northern Cree who negotiated a huge settlement for hydro projects, and they managed the funds quite well, they even have their own airline. Many of them have good jobs in the north and elsewhere, and have education. They still have social problems, but not nearly as bad as many other mostly poorer communities. But at least they have good housing and services, but boredom is a problem for many, limited economic opportunity is a problem, and they have a very difficult time competing within our culture, it was never part of their culture being communal people.

Arthur King
Arthur King
19 days ago
Reply to  Dave Canuck

Excellent comment. Good leadership in an indigenous community makes a huge difference. The West Kelowna band owns malls and other businesses. We are seeing the rise of indigenous capitalism led by visionary leaders. Bernd Christmas, now a Canadian Senator was a pioneer. Indigenous communities are freeing themselves from bad leaders who stay in power through grievance politics and maintaining a hunter gatherer culture. The capitalization of indigenous culture is happening and it’s a good thing. Those who do withing a hundred years or two they will be running things. I’m good with that.

edmond van ammers
edmond van ammers
21 days ago
Reply to  Thor Albro

The ‘unexposed to alcohol’ is only a theory. Until very recently, high percentage alcoholic beverages could not be made, and for the majority of historical populations resources were too limited to produce large amounts of alcohol.

Dr. G Marzanna
Dr. G Marzanna
11 days ago

If you’ve ever seen the Saudis defend upon London cocktail bars gasping for a drink – and handling it pretty well – the not exposed to alcohol argument becomes pretty unconvincing

Gordon Black
Gordon Black
21 days ago
Reply to  Thor Albro

It can only be genetics: in the white man’s world I have witnessed very different reactions to alcohol consumption.
Celts, Slavs, Scandis, Teutons, Anglo-saxons, Gauls have significant average variations in drunken behaviour, some socially benign and others malignant. This also applies to their descendants in far-flung colonies.

Steve Jolly
Steve Jolly
21 days ago
Reply to  Thor Albro

May as well discuss the 800 pound gorilla in the room. There’s a taboo in the modern world against using genetics to explain racial discrepancies, especially in the media, due to the misuse of such arguments by some of history’s worst bad actors, namely the Nazis. Even mentioning genetics in the context of race is apt to invite accusations of neo-Nazism or some other form of racial superiority argument. This is despite the fact that there are demonstrable and scientifically valid genetic differences between the races.

They are minor and generally have fairly mundane explanations regarding the development of cultures and societies over very long periods of time. The one Americans are familiar with is lactose intolerance as African Americans have a much higher rate than white people. The white people are actually the outlier in this case. Most white Americans have a significant percentage of their background from the handful of areas where lactose tolerance evolved. Basically lactose tolerance is a European thing, particularly northern European such as English, Scotch, Irish, German, Scandinavian, Dutch, etc. In actuality one of the five food groups we learned as children doesn’t exist in most of the world. The reasons are debated but theories center around the survival advantage of having access to an additional source of nutrition, particularly in the northern latitudes where the growing season is shorter and there are fewer options. Lactose is a form of sugar that, in people who can digest it, is broken down into glucose, the basic fuel of cellular metabolism. The evolutionary advantage is pretty obvious.

Most genetic disorders are more common in certain races because they are heritable and generally arose in a particular place and spread throughout the gene pool from there, and it wasn’t until the past half century that much interbreeding between disparate geographic ranges occurred. Some disorders are exclusively associated with a single racial group or region of origin.

Since it’s established scientific fact that there are heritable traits that are scientifically verified to have arisen in a particular place and/or within a particular ethnic group, it makes little sense to just close off this avenue of research or discussion, but then that’s the thing about cultural taboos. They only make sense in the context of a particular culture. Given the cultural trauma of Nazism with it’s racial superiority doctrine and the visceral horror of the holocaust that doctrine produced, it’s somewhat understandable that we’re a bit queasy about discussing genetics, race, and personal characteristics like alcoholism and drug addiction. Taboos have an emotional component; fear, guilt, shame, or some other deeply held negative feeling. In this case it’s all of the above and then some.

At the end of the day, there certainly are some scientifically valid discussions of race and genetics that could be had, but there’s no getting around how similar it ends up sounding to Nazi discussions of racial superiority, and we can be forgiven for finding that unsettling. If we’re going to get over this particular taboo, it has to start with acknowledging that there is one and understanding why it exists, how it came to be, and how it affects our thought processes.

AJ Mac
AJ Mac
20 days ago
Reply to  Steve Jolly

That seems like a sensible and balanced framing of the issue(s) and the current heightened volatility around broaching the subject.
The lactose thing is an apt comparison. Native Americans and East Asians certainly have a high incidence of intolerance for alcohol. (hmm, Native North Americans are thought to have come over on a ice bridge about 12,000 years ago from present-day Mongolia or thereabouts). But chronic drunkenness or pattern bingeing is less common–though far from unknown– among East Asians from China, Japan, Vietnam etc., than among those of European descent.
Perhaps the remaining differences are largely cultural and situational. There is certainly an argument, to me a plausible one, concerning the greater likelihood that intolerance for or low resistance to alcohol will be combined with excess consumption in squalid and dependent conditions like those prevalent on many reservations. Then again, a shocking number of “Indians” had a weakness for the sauce when it was first introduced to them in Colonial or Federal times, when they still had their original lands and were not under the thumb or boot of the “big bad” white man. And the intolerance of East Asians is not identical to the penchant for excess among Indigenous peoples, is it?
These things are complex, and I think the article above at least does a good job of acknowledging and confronting that complexity, from a knowledgeable perspective. As you say, we ought to be able to bring up these issues and discuss them in an honest way without being accused of clueless bias or worse. Yet we should resist leaning in to single-story genetic explanations, even when there is clearly some truth to many of them.
Of course there are statistical differences among white folks too–just ask the majority of my ancestors, who were Irish and Scottish (never mind, they’re gone from the Earth).

UnHerd Reader
UnHerd Reader
13 days ago
Reply to  AJ Mac

Just to elaborate on this, the differential reaction to alcohol in East Asian groups is a known, studied phenomena. It’s called the Alcohol Flush Reaction, and is caused by a specific SNP(mutation) called rs671, which influences how the body metabolises alcohol. The SNP is present in only 30-40% of East Asians, but it is specific to that geographic area. There are other SNPs more common in East Asians which also have a contributory effect.
Interestingly, the effect of the Alcohol Flush Reaction is to make drinking alcohol more unhealthy. It’s also makes hangovers lot more unpleasant, which discourages consumption to the extent that the individual may be better off overall. It’s an interesting case study of how selection effects can be very unintuitive.

AJ Mac
AJ Mac
11 days ago
Reply to  UnHerd Reader

Yes I knew the basics of that difference, though not the hard science. I was speculating about a regional crossover in different types of “low resistance” to alcohol–I think pointlessly so.
The lack of past gene-pool exposure in Native North American who came over on ice 12,000-plus years ago–just before evidence of intentional consumption of alcohol–probably has a lot more to do with. And alcohol’s inherent addictiveness, especially for a sizable minority of any large population. And no cultural rules around the newly introduced “firewater”.

AJ Mac
AJ Mac
19 days ago
Reply to  Steve Jolly

I like your post and have made a reply of similar length to your comment; it won’t post for about 16 hours now, which is frustrating because all I can think that I did was to mention what seem to be relevant ethnicities from multiple continents. Ah well.

Arthur King
Arthur King
20 days ago
Reply to  Thor Albro

There is no us. It has been my experience that most of European origin do not fully appreciate the divide between our world and the indigenous one. Most indigenous are very segregationist when it comes to outsiders; not to just the European colonizers. Insular and ridge cultures do not consider outside people as part of their “us”.

AJ Mac
AJ Mac
19 days ago
Reply to  Arthur King

Whereas all of Europe in 1600 was one big inclusive family?
Several tribes combined with one another over the pre-contact centuries, and afterward. I’m not saying the stark divide you conjure is completely unfounded, but it is oversimplified and exaggerated.

Peter D
Peter D
22 days ago

This is a problem where you could fling blame in any direction and hit a responsible party. But this is a pointless exercise that just makes things worse. Having decades worth of varied experiences with Aboriginals from binge drinking rage through to one of the nicest people you will ever meet to highly intelligent and competent manager. Aboriginals are just like everyone else.
Australia’s problem is that we continue to push the “noble savage” narrative and elevate Aboriginals to a highly advanced hunter gatherer culture which is total and utter BS! So many of us young and old just tune out every time anything gets the Aboriginal treatment. Be it sport, school, TV or whatever. Most people are sick of it because it is a pointless form of bullying of non-native (and especially white) people. It is very divisive just like the referendum.
The reality is that every culture at some point in their development has to go through the phase of hunter-gather to a more modern culture. Our hero worship of indigenous cultures only delays the process that every culture has work their way through. They do, just like we did, have to let go of so much that no longer serves them in the modern world (and stop calling it a white mans world because white people were not the first ones to go through this process) They have to modernise. They can keep the best and most useful parts of their culture to create their way. Which brings me to another very important point. There is no one Aboriginal culture. There are so many different Aboriginal languages and cultures here in Australia, that picking one is beyond stupid.
We have done so much for Aboriginals to the point where it is now too much. We need to role a lot of it back and give them the space to be accountable, and bring something to the table. We have to stop trying to make up for the past. We all live in a glasshouse, and so we need to drop the stone!

Thor Albro
Thor Albro
20 days ago
Reply to  Peter D

Great observations, thanks. We need to get over blame in favor of solutions.

Arthur King
Arthur King
20 days ago
Reply to  Thor Albro

If there are solutions.

Peter D
Peter D
19 days ago
Reply to  Arthur King

As long as politicians like Albo and ScoMo have the reigns, no decent solutions will ever see the light of day. We know a few long-term Air Force people and one who basically despises every defence minister since she joined, except one. Peter Dutton is the only one with backbone. He is well respected outside of media circles. Not much charisma, but he makes up for it with substance.

Arthur King
Arthur King
20 days ago
Reply to  Peter D

Well said. No one gains agency without accountability. Social welfare should only exist to help people get out of poverty. Those who find work boring can enjoy the excitement of digging for grubs and eating small game while living under a crude shelter.

Janet G
Janet G
14 days ago
Reply to  Arthur King

I’ve been reading Orwell’s ‘Down and out in Paris and London’. In the worlds he describes there are many who will never get out of poverty. I was interested in the English treatment of homeless men. They were not allowed to stay in any one shelter establishment for more than one night a month. So, they tramped the countryside and towns, always moving on. Not sure how accountability enters into that story.

James A
James A
21 days ago

I’m currently doing some work looking at the economic impacts of programs aimed at engaging indigenous populations in construction projects.
A number of things struck me through conversations i’ve had. Firstly, the immense responsibility felt by workers to those who can’t or won’t work is real.
It’s no surprise that so many choose not to work when they’re compelled to pay a form of ‘community tax’ on top of their income tax.
Secondly, was the absolute hopelessness of their situation. In this case, a bunch have been trained, but in remote Australia, there’re no opportunities for these skills to be applied elsewhere.
Practically all work in remote Australia is government-led. There is no private sector to speak of. Whether this has cultural roots, or is a consequence of our grim obsession with stripping indigenous people of their agency, i’m not sure.
Regardless, there’s an obvious dilemma.
Without abandoning their homelands and ways of life, how can ‘gaps’ in economic and social outcomes be closed between they and the rest of us?
But the idea of compelling them to leave their land and ‘live like us’ feels like pure injustice.
I hate to say it, but there’s nothing even close to a solution here.

AJ Mac
AJ Mac
21 days ago
Reply to  James A

Thank you for this informed perspective. A solution to a problem like intergenerational addiction and unemployment among groups like Aboriginals, Native Americans, or Appalachian whites is far off indeed. That may remain elusive, as with many other longstanding human woes. But harm reduction is possible. And compassionate understanding of the hardships and complexities such as you express are not nothing. I hope more of that sort of attitude spreads, in all directions.

Seb Dakin
Seb Dakin
21 days ago

The devil makes work for idle hands.
This was first said by white people about white people. It appears to apply to other cultures too. Perhaps under our skins we’re all the same after all.
Pretty sure I’d be drinking and whatever else was available if I was sat around some isolated settlement in the middle of nowhere. And I’ve never been colonized, and my childhood was fine.

Arthur King
Arthur King
20 days ago
Reply to  Seb Dakin

No, not everyone deals with isolation that way. Just look at the various anabaptist groups in Western Canada who are solid thriving aricultural communities. Same land, same isolation, different cultures, different outcomes.

Clare Knight
Clare Knight
15 days ago
Reply to  Arthur King

But is it a hot, dusty desert? Sounds like it’s possible to work the land.

Bird
Bird
21 days ago

Such a hot topic and thank you for offering your insight. I live in Australia also. Regarding all of this, after originally choosing to vote Yes in the referendum to The Voice, I ended up voting No. I will tell you why. After much thinking on this subject and listening to emotive shouting from the Left, and then listening to some adjuncts to the Right, I came to my own decision. Like any other major social issue we have, regardless of ethnicity, colour, creed or identity, I believe it must be addressed first under the umbrella of a collective social issue before it is addressed further down field. I came from a house-hold of fathers and grandfathers who were alcoholics. Some were abusive by todays standards. I believe it was endemic in society but not spoken of or addressed. We have, in some quarters, domestic violence issues, child sexual abuse, child neglect, drug addiction, homelessness….etc. this is unfortunately a part of our wider fabric of shared humanity. All will have tales of trauma before them. You could go for millennia over time. What was the silence – shame. In our increasingly multi-cultural society, you do not ‘fix’ or address any issue by singling out one group. The ‘shame’ will only increase emotional resistance. Also it does nothing to unify ‘humanity’ in a collective problem which needs addressing. By singling out 1, you create the ‘less than’ in another. What if there are issues in the rest of society, what if your Indian, Chinese, Arab, Muslim, Asian, or heaven forbid European – let alone that ugly word ‘white’. I am not saying cultural issues don’t come into play but until we look at collectively the distinct human traits of being also prone to violence, addiction, cheating, lying, stealing, gambling, manipulation, I could go on….etc. and every other vulnerability known to our race, then you just create sacred cows with no way to move to accountability, rehabilitation, and responsibility. Like any other addict.
Our government has spent vast amounts of money – volumes of the stuff – to seemingly no avail. It doesn’t work. Like the potential and actuality of other institutions in ‘white land’ so to speak, we hear of corruption, in corporations set up for Aboriginal people exclusively. We heard via The Australian just the other week, how a ‘Aboriginal” man got to head a department for human relations whilst being convicted of domestic violence. How is this possible???? Because he is ‘Human’…..every human group has the potential also for every negative proclivity known to man – and unfortunately at the moment at least, can seem to create a special ‘soft spot’ of no-accountability or consequence for bad actions. One rule for one, another for the rest. You only need to look at the Rochdale child sexual abuse gangs in the UK to see what happens when you go too far and create sacred cows – I think it was around 476 young vulnerable ‘White” girls were targeted, groomed, and routinely sexually abused, even gang raped and sold off for sexual acts. For years and years this was swept under the rug and ignored – because the Pakistani men who were responsible – were just that, Pakistani. You cannot speak of ‘race’. Bad for politics….anyway, they were just ‘white girls’……when you hold one ‘on high’ you create the same problem for the other. Just not Ok. You must be held to account – equally – same consequences – same everything, whilst recognizing and addressing cultural differences. This huge horrendous crime should have been addressed straight away and given its due and cultural abhorrence as any act of this type, to any person should have been. It is a disgrace and a timely mirror to reflect on current consequences if……
Our government has also given away, even recently in Victoria vast swathes of land exclusively to Aboriginal Rights. They wish to live as they were to their own devices, their own way. I can understand this however, at the same token they are also asking for government hand-outs, more, health care, education, housing, jobs, welfare etc. this is all tax payer money by the way. And it come from the rest of ‘society’ – the very society they no longer want to have anything to do with. But I think they do. How else are they going to stop being ‘bored’ and be part of, inclusive and valuable to, the rest of society? The regions is one thing and the city is another. You cannot have it both ways. The old way has gone. Like so many of us even now, how do you find your place in society whilst also being a valued and valuable person who’s roots stem from a culture with its own identity. We are one and many.

Gordon Black
Gordon Black
21 days ago
Reply to  Bird

Great contribution, Thank You Bird.

AJ Mac
AJ Mac
20 days ago
Reply to  Gordon Black

Seconded.

Clare Knight
Clare Knight
15 days ago
Reply to  Bird

Well said.

Steven Carr
Steven Carr
21 days ago

‘Some have implied to me that their substance abuse is a product of the boredom and monotony of white man’s work. ‘
What is ‘white man’s work’?

Simon Blanchard
Simon Blanchard
21 days ago
Reply to  Steven Carr

Dull repetitive tasks not linked clearly and directly to survival. Plenty of us struggle with it 🙂

Mike Downing
Mike Downing
21 days ago
Reply to  Steven Carr

The stuff that (for better or worse) invented much or most of the modern world.

Benedict Waterson
Benedict Waterson
21 days ago
Reply to  Steven Carr

milk man

AJ Mac
AJ Mac
21 days ago
Reply to  Steven Carr

For one thing it’s an expression that Native people used to dismiss or distance themselves from the larger society. I guess we white folks do a version of the same thing, on a different trajectory, to Native and Aboriginal people too.
But here’s a few prime candidates for the list: filling out forms while staring at screens; covering most of the earth with pavement; moving numbers around to acquire paper or “crypto” wealth.

Arthur King
Arthur King
20 days ago
Reply to  Steven Carr

Ulster Scot cultures hate work as well. This is why they are among the poorest Americans. The parallels between Appalachian whites and indigenous social problems is quite strong.

AJ Mac
AJ Mac
19 days ago
Reply to  Arthur King

True enough statistically though absolute enough of a statement to constitute a slur, in the face of such numerous “exceptions” as to utterly explode your rule as stated. Are coal miners lazy?

Paul T
Paul T
21 days ago

A version of “Universal Basic Income” did this to the indigenous population of Australia.

AJ Mac
AJ Mac
21 days ago
Reply to  Paul T

Perhaps in part. But whether we agree with Blackwell’s experienced point of view or not I hope we can all try harder to avoid oversimplifying things “in order to tie a complicated psycho-social problem into a neat little package”.
How were Aboriginals doing prior to the onset of the benefits you blame?

Steve Jolly
Steve Jolly
21 days ago
Reply to  AJ Mac

Well said. My admittedly wild guess is that they weren’t doing all that great before UBI. It’s basic logic. If they were doing fine before UBI, why was there a perceived need for UBI? Paul is just conflating the problem with a solution that didn’t work because his only real point is to disparage the concept of UBI in any context.

Janet G
Janet G
19 days ago
Reply to  AJ Mac

Read David Collins “An Account of the English Colony in New South Wales” to see a detailed description of the lives of Aboriginal people in the Sydney region before 1810, a way of life well-sustained before the scourge of small-pox in the early days of the colony. Theories on where the small-pox came from vary, but one consideration is that Surgeon John White brought variolas matter in a bottle on the first fleet in 1788.
That was the beginning of years of undermining of Aboriginal ways of living, including massacres which, between 1788 and 1930 killed 10,000 Aboriginal people. It is estimated that 168 non-Aboriginal people died in this extended war. https://c21ch.newcastle.edu.au/colonialmassacres/map.php
Then there is the history of removing people from their land, forcing them onto reserves and removing children to be raised by white people. The story of the Stolen Generation is not over, as children are still being removed.
Yes, it is a complicated psycho-social-political problem
There are actually some Aboriginal communities that declare themselves dry. They sometimes have to fight to keep that status intact. In 2020 Woolworths planned to open a large liquor store within walking distance of three such communities in the Northern Territory. Local leaders and others campaigned against it. The plan was scrapped after an independent review found that Woolworths had failed to adequately address the concerns of local stakeholders.

AJ Mac
AJ Mac
19 days ago
Reply to  Janet G

While I am far more familiar with massacres of Indigenous peoples in a North American context–wherein the traditional ways were forcibly stamped out, or nearly so, for most tribes–I understand much about your general points.
But you refer to a time period in the pre-colonial or early colonization period, well before any UBI was introduced. So while your comments have validity and relevance to the larger conversation, they seem off to the side of the initial comment thread. Upvoted even so.

Janet G
Janet G
19 days ago
Reply to  AJ Mac

We don’t have UBI in Australia, we have the dole. Federal governments have introduced community development projects( in which people worked for the money they received), scrapped them, and now are reintroducing them. Those involved welcome the change. It is unfortunate that government chops and changes so much.
https://www.abc.net.au/news/2023-06-27/cdp-trial-nt-indigenous-remote-communities-back-new-conditions/102523276

AJ Mac
AJ Mac
18 days ago
Reply to  Janet G

I get it. I’ll look into your link when I can but I was just playing along with the terminology of Paul T, whom I suspect of living in the States as I do. Is it fair to say the dole is increased or more available for certain Aboriginal populations at least? (That’s a genuine question: How augmented or “special” are their benefits vs. non-minority or protected-group Australians?)
In Canada, where I was born, many tribes have special treaty awards or attempts at reparation, such as $20,000 for all enrolled members on their 18th birthdays. The results of this quick money–not a fortune, not trivial–is often disastrous.
I’m not saying I oppose all such measures, let alone with confidence or certainty, especially in a country I’ve never visited. But from an American standpoint, there’s a lack of will to engage face to face, rather than to cut a check or allow another tribal casino. And a bone-deep squeamishness (if you will) about calling out or trying to revise programs that are a clear failure.

Janet G
Janet G
16 days ago
Reply to  AJ Mac

There are special programs for indigenous people, e.g. to help them engage in study but to my knowledge the rates of payment for the dole, aged pension etc are the same and are means tested.

Clare Knight
Clare Knight
15 days ago
Reply to  Janet G

It sounds very similar to what happened to Native Americans including the small Pox.

Arthur King
Arthur King
20 days ago
Reply to  Paul T

No. The unwillingness of aboriginal cultures to adapt is the cause.

AJ Mac
AJ Mac
19 days ago
Reply to  Arthur King

To their deliberate exploitation and displacement you mean; to Indian Schools where their customs and very language were beaten out of them.
I don’t claim to have captured the whole picture in that one sentence, but a lot more of it than your Blame the Conquered bumper sticker does.

Liam Tjia
Liam Tjia
21 days ago

Great piece thanks Matthew

Justin S
Justin S
21 days ago

Firstly, ‘Hats Off’ to the writer who is clearly a highly dedicated, empathetic and decent human being.

What a tragic and poignant description of aboriginal life, society and substance abuse problems.

However – for all of his commentary and his insights and his real life experience… I could not find a single suggestion from him that would make even a small difference to those people and their existence.

He is helping their disfunction and tends their needs, while not offering up a single idea that would make a difference.

He makes some attempts at explaining and almost excusing their cultural norms but ultimately they don’t appear willing to work, to integrate, to aspire to or to evolve their thinking or capabilities to operate successfully in the country of Australia in 2024. Worse they abuse themselves, each other and seemingly anyone among their own who tries to better themselves.

It is very popular in the ‘liberal progressive’ community to blame all faults on former colonialism and sure that brings forth a rush of funding for the natives.
There appears Zero evidence that free government helicoptered money is the cure.

Arthur King
Arthur King
20 days ago
Reply to  Justin S

I contend that there is much evidence thar government money is the problem. Why develop a work ethic in your culture if you can just make up new accusations which instead of being scrutinized quickly bring millions of dollars. Canadians still are waiting for one body to be exhumed in Kamloops Canada after claims of mass graves. Eight million was given to this community with no accountability for the spending.

james elliott
james elliott
21 days ago

It is psychic trauma. Simple as that.

The aboriginals who first encountered the Europeans and Asians who colonized the country gradually realized they were encountering a civilizational model exponentially superior to theirs, in terms of economic success and scientific advancement.

Later generations of aboriginals simply struggle to compete on that playing field – and the incessant interventions of the modern Left (which *still* views them as helpless babies and unthinking savages) is total cancer for them. Socialist policies essentially keep them trapped as a permanent underclass in perpetuity.

Janet G
Janet G
19 days ago
Reply to  james elliott

The big difference between Aboriginal people and those who came from England was that the latter had guns, arsenic (with which flour and waterways were poisoned) and, as noted above, possibly small-pox variolas in bottles. One early way in which Aboriginal people proved themselves superior was in langague skill: they all spoke several languages and picked up English quite quickly.

AJ Mac
AJ Mac
19 days ago
Reply to  Janet G

I appreciate your principled pushback to the attitudes that prevail on this comment board. Yet I think you overcorrect in claiming they “all” spoke several languages (often more like dialects, correct?) or were “superior” rather than the fundamentally about the same in their human essence; merely equal, with different average strengths and weaknesses according to individual makeup and tribe.

Janet G
Janet G
16 days ago
Reply to  AJ Mac

Most Australians of anglo background speak no other language than English. Many of migrant background or of indigenous background speak more than one language, often several. For indigenous children living on country English is often the third or fourth language they learn to speak.

AJ Mac
AJ Mac
15 days ago
Reply to  Janet G

Ok fair enough. And I genuinely appreciate the context you provide. The multilingual thing is good and could strengthen cognitive ability and later learning, in addition to its intrinsic value. But learning English as a tertiary language is a huge beginning disadvantage in the Anglosphere (especially if some of those other languages are only or mostly oral). I’m a monolingual Anglophone except for minor Spanish and an even more pathetic smattering of German. Tengo verguenza. Ach du lieber! Yet I’m very lucky to speak what is in effect the world language, at least of the West. (China, with its “superior” number of native Mandarin speakers may change that, but not right away).
I believe in equal human dignity and prodigious potential across cultures, with some meaningful and much superficial difference. I don’t think we should essentialize, let alone denigrate whole peoples. But we should avoid broadbrush valorization too.

UnHerd Reader
UnHerd Reader
13 days ago
Reply to  Janet G

Languages are functional. At a large scale, people generally learn languages because they practical value in doing so, not because of any intrinsic cultural ‘language skill’ or particular drive to be culturally pluralistic. Languages take a lot of time, effort and repeated exposure to properly master – people need a reason to do that.
If you grew up in the US, UK or Australia there is isn’t much practical value in learning another language (relative to the amount of effort it takes), and certainly no overwhelming advantage in any specific language (although Spanish comes close in parts of the US). This is especially true if you come from a family of native English speakers and so don’t have to worry about speaking to grandma. This isn’t a particular failing of Anglo culture, just people valuing their time.

Jerry Carroll
Jerry Carroll
21 days ago

There is something in the DNA of aboriginal peoples that makes alcohol and other substances so dangerous.

AJ Mac
AJ Mac
20 days ago
Reply to  Jerry Carroll

Agreed on the booze part (generally speaking). But which other substances?
Meth and fentanyl, for example, are highly dangerous across the socioeconomic and color spectrum.

Arthur King
Arthur King
20 days ago
Reply to  Jerry Carroll

Blaming dna is patronizing.

AJ Mac
AJ Mac
19 days ago
Reply to  Arthur King

Yes, and sometimes worse. But essentializing the cultures of individual sub-populations out of context and assigning them scores for Virtue and Industry is reductive and self-serving, at best.

Martin M
Martin M
15 days ago
Reply to  Jerry Carroll

I’m not sure that it is DNA as such, but the fact is that as a person of Western European origin, I can confidently say that my ancestors have been drinking alcohol for many thousands of years. An Aboriginal person could not say the same. That might account for some of the issues.

nadnadnerb
nadnadnerb
21 days ago

The industrial revolution resulted in most of our ancestors abandoning their homelands and ways of life. It was painful but most of us adapted.
The paternalism of the endless deluge of government assistance in Central Australia designed to help people stay in their homeland has instead trapped them there.

Arthur King
Arthur King
20 days ago
Reply to  nadnadnerb

And regardless of whether it does, the generosity will be condemned as harmful and reparations demanded. In some cultures problems are always caused by outside problems.

Christopher Barclay
Christopher Barclay
21 days ago

What is stopping the Aboriginal people in Alice Springs from living a hunter-gatherer lifestyle?

Arthur King
Arthur King
20 days ago

It’s easier to gather from gullible modern societies than to the harder work of a traditional hunter gatherer society.

Andrew Boughton
Andrew Boughton
20 days ago

It’s what they do, per the author’s bottle shop experience.

UnHerd Reader
UnHerd Reader
13 days ago

In all seriousness, probably population numbers. While coastal areas of Australia could have supported relatively high hunter-gatherer populations, population densities in an environment like central Australia were almost certainly extremally low.

Andrew Boughton
Andrew Boughton
21 days ago

You’re an anthropologist and therefore possibly against, but the view of my erstwhile African-American partner who encountered this world was interesting. Which is that maintaining strident separatism based on historical grievances in a broken culture within a world that is now all mixed, that mix genetically including most Australian Aboriginals, is a fatal disservice all round. Amounting to the boxing-in of Aboriginals generation after generation, until the air runs out. If the core of Aboriginal culture is to survive, the vast majority of people identifying as Aboriginal on the fringe of that culture need to thrive independently, by breathing the same air and living the same life as the rest of the races on earth, all of whom are in Australia. Despite anthropology.

Marsha D
Marsha D
21 days ago

Congratulations Matthew and UnHerd for not shying away from a historically intractable and complex subject that concerns all Australians more than ever. I was impressed to read your account of life in Alice Springs, simply telling it as you found it, with respect and intelligence but without gloss. Something, strangely, it seems hard to do in the Australian media from my observations when visiting for extended periods.
More, please.

Arthur King
Arthur King
20 days ago

“how to integrate communal hunter-gatherer cultures into an how to integrate communal hunter-gatherer cultures into an industrial economy”
The author asks the wrong question. We should be asking why we enable people to remain in a culture which no longer works once it encounters industrial and other advanced economies?
While indigenous leaders and their enablers push the old canard regarding generational trauma from European attemps to assist the transition. Little research other than blind acceptance of anecdotes has been done to sort out whether the trauma really stems from European action or is merely the dynamic of hunter gather societies being unable or unwilling to adapt. If it is the latter, there is little foundation for indigenous people to blame Europeans for merely being the first to bring them the modern world.
My position is that most of the problems indigenous people have are theirs to solve. And to solve with their own resources. It is time to cut off the exploitation of those us willing to do “white man’s work”.

AJ Mac
AJ Mac
19 days ago
Reply to  Arthur King

The history of the white man’s exploitation at the cruel, powerful hands of Indigenous people–who are not one identical mass any more than all of Europe is–is indeed a tragic sob story that has yet to be fully told. Perhaps you can write it and put your WASPy name to it.

Clare Knight
Clare Knight
15 days ago
Reply to  AJ Mac

Well said.

Ian_S
Ian_S
19 days ago

This essay is inconsequential because it has no conclusion. Or maybe the last page of the copy somehow got left off.

What he didn’t mention is that this malaise has arisen with the welfarisation of township Aborigines. In mission times, there was work and moral leadership, with little drug or alcohol abuse. Now there only indolence and a certainty that the government will provide, no matter how irresponsible you are to your own life, and that of your children and community. That’s it. That’s what this guy should have concluded. But he neglected an historical perspective, so completely missed it.

Ian_S
Ian_S
19 days ago

This essay is inconsequential because it has no conclusion. Or maybe the last page of the copy somehow got left off.

What he didn’t mention is that this malaise has arisen with the welfarisation of township Ab*rig*nes. In mission times, there was work and moral leadership, with little dr*g or alc*h*l ab*se. Now there only indolence and a certainty that the government will provide, no matter how irresponsible you are to your own life, and that of your children and community. That’s it. That’s what this guy should have concluded. But he neglected an historical perspective, so completely missed it.

(Edit: asterisks because UnHerd wets the bed over these words).

AJ Mac
AJ Mac
19 days ago
Reply to  Ian_S

I disagree. At a minimum it has occasioned a lively and sometimes fruitful discussion in the comments, though it was pre-emptively curtailed by sectioning them off.
And why should he be required to address every aspect of a complex problem in depth in a single article, or to come to your own very simple conclusion?

Janet G
Janet G
19 days ago
Reply to  Ian_S

The Community Development Employment Projects (CDEP) scheme gave people in Aboriginal communities work to do and payment for it. Then that scheme was scrapped and things went downhill. Now the federal government has introduced the Community Development Program that offers work and top up pay (that is on top of the dole). People working for that program are pleased to have meaningful work and enough money to support their families. https://www.abc.net.au/news/2023-06-27/cdp-trial-nt-indigenous-remote-communities-back-new-conditions/102523276

Bird
Bird
17 days ago

Adding to commentary:
I recently listened to another lecture by Aayan Hirsi Ali, speaking about the minority groups and the downstream problems this creates when they are not held to the same standard as everyone else. You inadvertently create a ‘second class citizen’ of them and perversely do the reverse of your original intention. You strip them of total agency. i had not properly considered the down-stream consequences of this. Sam Harris also gives an example where say in the US, if you give say ‘black Americans’ less standards or tests to get into a given course than everyone else, and lets say this is to be a surgeon, or GP, down stream, are you as a citizen of any ‘identity, want the best you can to consult with. Would you willingly go to a black American who had by virtue of his skin colour, able to get his credentials under a much less standard than everyone else? Eventually everyone would know that they are perhaps ‘not as good’ – was unable to reach the same standard as everyone else……
Its obvious what this creates. You are doing a disservice.
I am not saying that native peoples dont need assistance – everyone wants this – but you dont do this by stripping them of the very agency that they need to help.

Jack Robertson
Jack Robertson
12 days ago

I enjoyed the read but FFS can some sub-editor please change ‘Aboriginals’ to ‘Aborigines’ – or preferrably ‘Indigenous Australians’ – wherever it occurs. Especially in the heading. (Scotch/Scottish, etc, if the request needs amplifying.)
Thanks.

Dr. G Marzanna
Dr. G Marzanna
11 days ago

Interesting because to my knowledge Mexican people of indigenous heritage don’t have the same troubles with alcohol that Canadian and Australian Aboriginal peoples do
I’m not saying Mexico is perfect though I’ve spent time there and can only go by what I saw.