My friend, Eskandra, suffers from paranoid schizophrenia. I met her about 15 years ago, when I was an anchor for ABC News and she was working at a New Zealand radio station. We shared an interest in the Aboriginal stories and identities my colleague Rod Prosser and I covered for ABC, and Eskandra was struck by how much she knew about my fellow Aboriginal people. As she grew older, she became fascinated by her Aboriginal brothers and sisters and watched new documentaries on Indigenous Australians. And as she became increasingly happier and less impatient to take her medication, she began to take herself more seriously and experience true compassion and understanding.
I got a PhD on Aboriginal Australia in the late 1990s. And though the scope of my research was huge, I always remembered one word that summed up the agony of one Aboriginal woman’s life that I interviewed – “systems.” Her health issues and subsequent suicide stemmed from a form of anger and psychosis that Indigenous Australians have long been violent toward one another in a seemingly unquenchable, dangerous cycle.
The gaps between Indigenous and non-Indigenous life expectancy and school outcomes are also a result of the belief that it is bad for all of us if we’re kind and loving to one another, so we have to treat each other harshly, be violent and swear. Violence, stereotypes and this mindset make it so that we’re not only friends with each other, but we’re enemies. And those intimate relationships are what erode our community resilience.
It’s really only in recent years that the default explanation for these problems has become treatment. And this is the time frame where authorities have been most interested in talking to the community, making sure all of our children have proper and adequate access to health care.
Vietnam veterans, MPs and those with white privilege who see only Indigenous Australia did not launch their current campaign for the school curriculum to be taught in Aboriginal and Torres Strait languages. What is it that Aboriginal women, men and children have to suffer and die for the nation’s institutions to act? Does the nation have the heart to ask them to do so? Or is it better to just allow them to keep dying?
Vietnam veterans, MPs and those with white privilege who see only Indigenous Australia did not launch their current campaign for the school curriculum to be taught in Aboriginal and Torres Strait languages
When Eskandra was taken from her parents and put into a children’s home, the case for Indigenous children being adopted and part of Australia’s “melting pot” culture became overwhelmingly clear. Then we learn that the older they get, the less they will continue to love and respect their own people and their elders. As one of my companions told me about her own family, her father loved her like a daughter and her mother tried to stop him from divorcing her. What was going on with them? What was happening with the young girls at the aged-care home? Why would a baby-sitter have kicked her? How had she learnt to abuse her baby-sitter? Eskandra and others tell us that their violence began from the time they were five. And there are many other explanations for why this young nation of 15 million people cannot build a safe and supportive society.
They start young, too. Why did a 13-year-old Aboriginal girl kill her mother and two sisters in New South Wales on 23 August 2013, when she was enrolled in a separate program to integrate into mainstream education? Why did her boyfriend know what she was planning but not think to try to stop her? After the crime was committed and the two bodies were found in a drain, social workers removed her from her mother’s home to a specialist children’s facility. Three years later her mother was back with her and Eskandra had been legally returned to her family. The main difference was that this time the mother had been institutionalised for a serious mental illness. The family members involved in the case were afraid that she might hurt someone else, but they were also afraid of the mother who had been pushing these decisions.
Many more teenagers are behind bars – and the system lets them rot – for the same reasons. It is time for the nation to move beyond “perpetuating racism” and into understanding and working with Indigenous Australia to break down the link between violence and the trauma caused by all the injustices.