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Who is Civilized?

By Cally Jetta

Sometimes non-Aboriginal people struggle to view Aboriginal society from a non-ethnocentric perspective. The only way they can relate to Aboriginal culture (or any other culture) is by measuring it against their own, often unfavourably.

Many times we have encountered the statements:

  • ‘You were all still living in the Stone Age.’
  • ‘All you managed to invent was a stick.’
  • ‘You should be grateful that we brought civilisation here.’

Firstly, what constitutes civilisation? Having laws, kinship and marriage structures, territories, and spirituality? Is it having clear family roles and responsibilities and living in a way that promotes and nurtures wisdom, kindness, sharing and integrity?

If so, Aboriginal culture is quite possibly one of the most civilised cultures on Earth.

We have some of the most complex marriage and kinship systems in the world. Our spirituality was practised and known unanimously without division or argument. Our diet was incredibly nutritious and our health was good and life spans generally wrong. We had a very strict Lore system that had maintained order, integrity, prosperity and settled disputes effectively for countless centuries. We had dancers, artists, storytellers, doctors, teachers and Lore men. Our territories were so well known and respected that fences were not needed. Our agricultural practices were in tune with the land and far more subtle than those of the invaders. So the newcomers completely failed to see them at all. Or they pretended not to so it was easier to de-humanise us and justify our mistreatment. It is disturbing that still today, with all the information available out there that people make such statements. That they actually believe any cultural elements that differ to what they personally know are inferior. Still they use reasoning that we were and are a primitive race deserving of invasion to minimise an abhorrent past and their harsh criticism of Aboriginal people.

We didn’t invent things we had no need for or that desecrated the land beyond repair. Why would we rape and pillage a land that provided every thing we needed for a happy and healthy life? It’s not a matter of intelligence but a matter of choice and cultural obligation. If intelligence were the key factor our people wouldn’t have successfully sustained themselves and this harsh land for tens of thousands of years. They wouldn’t have been able to speak several native languages.

They definitely would not have adapted so quickly to the newcomers ways, learnt English with ease and developed some of the best horsemanship and stockmen skills this country has ever seen. Nor would we have been able to adapt and survive such rapid change.


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  1. steve laing 🐔

    The denial of the richness and depth of culture pre-invasion is truly shocking, but is not only prevalent but appears to have a committed set of trolls. Read any of the highly insightful articles by Paul Daley in the Guardian, and the comments always have the same negative commentators spreading the same misinformation. Truly shameful.

  2. New England Cocky

    I recommend reading Bruce Pascoe, “Dark Emu”,2014, Magabala Books, Broome WA, 175pp, pb. ISBN978922142436, to discover how white Australia has distorted and misrepresented the historical record of the early European explorers to justify their position over the generations.

  3. Ann

    Thanks for your insights again Jetta. In regard to claims that Australia is a civilised country, that is believable as long as one avoids the mainstream media and its clutch of hang-ups and fixations.

    Great poem by the way. You might also enjoy the work of native American Hoksila Lokata who runs season workshops and retreats in NZ and Utah.

  4. Kyran

    Alan Tudge tweeted at 4.36 pm today;
    “Cashless debit card bill has passed the parliament. Allows us to expand to new sites. A critical measure to address welfare-fuelled alcohol, drug and gambling abuse.”

    “We have some of the most complex marriage and kinship systems in the world.”

    It’s such a pity ‘we’ don’t recognize them.


    Or there’s this;


    When will our ‘leaders’ catch up with us?
    Thank you Ms Jetta and commenters. Take care

  5. paul walter

    Kyran, not doubt you spotted in the Guardian yesterday Keenan announcing they would obdurately continue their pogrom on Centrelink victims…”no beneficiary might think they can rort the taxpayers without facing the consequences” he thundered (not verbatim, but close enough for the sense).

  6. diannaart

    Apart from acknowledgement via treaty, another way to empower people is to support instead of control. The welfare card is a heinous piece of paternalism. If it achieved anything at all, it could only be a short term fix. Problems of alcoholism, domestic violence, unemployment require real programs to assist people, each according to need – concepts too difficult for authoritarians to begin to grasp.

    Turnbull didn’t even turn up for Sorry Day Breakfast.

    RWNJ’s not civilised just bullies.

  7. Andy P

    Well said Cally; I couldn’t agree more. I once had similar but less severe views of Indigenous Australians; mainly through being taught a fictional history of white settlement whilst at primary school. Since that time I have made the effort to study Indigenous culture, learn of a world view different from my own and gain an in depth understanding of the importance of the Dreaming, it’s elliptical nature and the relevance that art, stories, reciprocity etc that underpins this way of life and belief system. I now have full appreciation of the struggles, anger, helplessness and shame that many Aboriginal people feel. As a result, I feel this knowledge has taught me to think differently about many things in life. The one thing that saddens me however, is that I firmly believe that the coalition (for all their platitudes and promises) is never going to willing give any power or redress to Indigenous Australians. I just wish more people could see that and therefore not have to be continually disappointed by promises that never come to fruition. It is well and truly past time for a treaty, constitutional recognition, compensation and a concerted effort to right past wrongs.

  8. paul walter

    Agree with diannaart. It is heartbreaking to watch the thug mentality at play with this government.

    Just at FB with someone putting up a comment on Peter Dutton abusing a miner locked out by XStrata who turned up to Parliament and the derisive sneers from the cattle on the back bench toward this poor bloke who no way to fight back.

    It is a horrible government driven and consumed by arrogance, prejudice and hate to a type of barking unreflexive madness.

  9. Matters Not


    people struggle to view … from a non-ethnocentric perspective. The only way they can relate to … any culture is by measuring it against their own

    Yep! And it’s a real dilemma because we all, consciously or unconsciously, must use some basis for evaluation. Being aware of ethnocentrism and its likely effects and affects is a necessary, but not sufficient, starting point.

    As for the Cashless Welfare Card, while I deplore its universal usage, I see some value in targeted application.

    What is truly disgraceful is the number of Aboriginal children who are in care. Away from their families. And it’s accelerating at a rapid rate.. Perhaps the answer is to sit back and tut, tut about the Welfare Card and do nothing at a practical, tactical, micro level while we theorise about the infringement how it ought to be. The evidence suggests that the Cashless Welfare Card is welcomed in some families. And I can see why.

    Let’s not throw the baby …

    Re Dutton, let’s not forget he walked out when Rudd was delivering the apology. Perhaps the Parliament might remind him of that? Again and again …

  10. diannaart


    The Welfare Card could be by request? Rather than just applied across communities?

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