Even though I am only flying over the outback on the brief flight from Alice Springs to Uluru, forbidding is the word that springs to mind. The soil and rocks are orange and rusty-red although there is a surprising amount of a pale greyish green where stubborn desert plants and wispy trees are growing. River beds are dry. We pass over desiccated salt lakes. The ancient land undulates and buckles but most of the contours are flattened by the view from far above.
I conjure up images of the deadly snakes and deadly spiders that abound in Australia although I guess if you’re stranded down there, especially if it were the summer months when the temperature hits forty-five or fifty degrees (120F), a few creatures would be the least of your worries.
I am in Australia for a two-week speaking tour, first in Adelaide, Alice Springs and Mandurah (which is south of Perth on the west coast) hosted by local organizations and the White Ribbon Campaign, and then to Sydney for an international conference of the Australian White Ribbon Campaign, and finally to Brisbane, hosted by CEO Challenge.
Looking down at the vast, barren expanses I can only marvel at the resiliency of the aboriginal peoples who have lived on this land for the past fifty or sixty thousand years. History, of course, would show that their greatest challenge would not be the snakes or human-eating salt-water crocodiles along the northern coast. It would, of course, be the European invaders.
The 19th century is a story of murder for sport (literally), enslavement of aboriginal girls and boys, horrific slaughters and individual cruelty, and death by European-wrought diseases. And even if not as murderous, one of the most cruel and certainly lasting was the 20th century policy of forced assimilation. Between 1909 and 1969, tens of thousands of mixed-race children were stolen from their aboriginal parents, never to see them again. Even without the added physical and sexual abuse within the institutions where they were placed, this would have been enough to cause a lasting and devastating impact for children (and of course their parents) who were deprived not only of their cultures and families, but the greatest things children need, which are security and love. The United Nations refers to such organized stealing of children as a form of genocide.
Some of the results of two centuries of horror and dislocation can be seen when I visit Alice Springs, smack dab in the middle of the county. There, more than one in four aboriginal women each year suffers physical assault (usually at the hands of a man). I can think of only Papua New Guinea with a higher rate of men’s violence against women. The numbers for aboriginal men are also high: one in fourteen, compared to 1 in 100 non-indigenous women and 2 in 100 non-indigenous men.
And so I was both inspired and moved to have a chance to hear about the work going on amidst such a difficult situation. I led a workshop attended by men from the aboriginal congress, women from the local shelter for abused women, counselors, police, and community members both aboriginal and non-indigenous.
Always, as an outsider, some of the most amazing things are lost to me. For example, a group of aboriginal men and women drove in from a tiny community 120 kilometers away. At the end of the workshop, we developed action plans and this group said they were planning a men’s and women’s BBQ with a White Ribbon Campaign theme.
I thought this was terrific, but it was only afterwards that I discovered exactly how terrific it was: many aboriginal communities make a strong distinction between “men’s business” and “women’s business” and would frown on a joint activity like this, especially to air problems in the community. And so, their decision represented an audacious move to challenge violence against women in their community and to talk about healthier models of masculinity. I say audacious because it isn’t easy for a people who are struggling to celebrate and perpetuate their culture (after two hundred years of colonization) to also challenge harmful things within their communities, even if it means taking on some traditions about how things get done. And don’t forget, when I say traditions, this is a continuous culture that goes back fifty thousand years before the great civilizations of the Middle East and Mediterranean.
In such a harsh landscape, sheer survival alone might confer greatness. But in my books, for any culture, aboriginal or non-indigenous here in Australia or, for that matter, my own in Canada, to be able to embrace change in dysfunctional and destructive gender ideals and relationships, is where true greatness lies.