Sawyer’s story: Guidance and control of adolescents in a remote Aboriginal community

Sawyer’s story: Guidance and control of adolescents in a remote Aboriginal community Book Section

Indigenous Australian Youth Futures: Living the Social Determinants of Health

  • Author(s): Burbank, Victoria
  • Secondary Author(s): Senior, Kate, Chenhall, Richard, Burbank, Victoria
  • Published: 2021
  • Publisher: ANU Press
  • ISBN: 9781760464448

Abstract: Remote Aboriginal communities in Australia have not been exempt from the rapid and radical changes that have characterised recent human history (e.g. Rowse 2017). While much of this change has resulted in improved health and wellbeing for many world populations, for others the consequences have been mixed. Drawing primarily on autobiographical material from a senior Numburindi man, this chapter looks at the effect that one of these changes has brought for Aboriginal youth over a span of 30 years in the south-east Arnhem Land community of Numbulwar. Somewhat ironically, it is the continuity of these changes—the control over Aboriginal people by an outside polity—that disables what may be a necessary and helpful control over young people. How and why some individuals respond more constructively to their current circumstances than others are questions that point to the complexity inherent in the control and guidance of youth in the intercultural spaces of remote Aboriginal Australia. The south-east Arnhem Land community of Numbulwar was originally established by the Anglican Church Missionary Society (CMS) as the Rose River Mission. Its first Aboriginal residents were Wubuy-speaking people, known as the Nunggubuyu, or Numburindi, many of whom had previously lived at CMS missions on the Roper River and at Groote Eylandt. I have visited this community, located at the confluence of the Rose River and the Gulf of Carpentaria, on a number of occasions, first in 1977 and most recently in 2007.1 Between these years, Numbulwar grew from a community of roughly 400 to 800 relatively permanent residents. In the early mission years, Aboriginal people were ‘Wards of the State’ and their activities were largely under mission control. At this time, a great many changes to their lives and livelihoods were made, changes that continued throughout the years. While the people of Numbulwar were still hunting, fishing and gathering in 2007, provisions of Western-type foodstuff, once as mission rations, later to be purchased in the ‘shop’, provided a major part of the diet. Marriage-related practices such as mother-in-law bestowal,2 polygyny and a pre-menarcheal marriage age for females had all but disappeared. Senior men could no longer punish, as they once did, those who violated the ‘Law’—that is, the imperatives of life established in the Dreaming, which had been challenged, if not supplanted, by Christianity and other Western beliefs. Wubuy and other languages of Numbulwar’s population, such as Wandarang and Anindilaguwa, had largely been replaced with Roper/Ngukurr Kriol and, for a number of residents, Aboriginal English. Most people were supported by some form of welfare and, increasingly, Western material objects had made their way into the community. Although surrounded by Western things, social arrangements and institutions, such as vehicles, houses, a school, governing councils, town clerks and Western schedules, the people of Numbulwar identified themselves in terms of Aboriginal categories and continued to attend to some of their older laws and customs. For at least some, this would include mother-in-law/son-in-law avoidance, the custom of mirriri that prescribes distance and respectful behaviours between mature brothers and sisters, the use of an Aranda-type system of kin classification, circumcision of boys and attendance at various Indigenous ceremonies (see also Biernoff 1979; Cole 1982; Heath 1980). While many discussions of the difficulties faced by Aboriginal people focus, appropriately, I think, on changes that have taken place in their lives, I want to frame this discussion, inspired and illustrated by segments of one man’s autobiography, in terms of what I have mentioned as a significant continuity—the control over Aboriginal people by an external power. This control changed in some details, from the assimilation polices of the mission period through the integration, self-determination and intervention policies of the Commonwealth and Territory entities that have been in power over the years (Rowley 1977; Austin-Broos 2011). In effect, however, or so I argue, Aboriginal lives have been governed to a large extent by the policies and institutions of an encompassing polity that is largely ignorant of, and, usually, indifferent to, Aboriginal values and goals. As the circumstances created by this continuity have affected every part of Aboriginal being, it is no surprise that they have affected the experience of Aboriginal youth, and have long done so. I focus on just one aspect of this experience, the intergenerational guidance and control of adolescents.

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Suggested Citation
Burbank, Victoria, 2021, Sawyer’s story: Guidance and control of adolescents in a remote Aboriginal community, Book Section, viewed 22 October 2021,

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