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RIGHTS-AUSTRALIA: Challenging Indigenous Alcohol Myths

Stephen de Tarczynski

MELBOURNE, Oct 13 2008 (IPS) - While it may be a relic from the past, a common assumption in Australia is that indigenous people are particularly susceptible to alcohol and its effects. But a Canberra-based anthropologist is aiming to dispel such myths.

“From what I know there is no research evidence to back up that very commonly held view,” says Dr Maggie Brady from the Australian National University’s Centre for Aboriginal Economic Policy Research, referring to the idea that biological factors can explain alcohol abuse among Australia’s indigenous population.

“And even if there was, I think the whole issue has been greatly overstated and overemphasised to the exclusion of the other very influential factors that shape drinking patterns for all of us, not just for indigenous people,” she says.

Brady is the author of ‘First Taste’, a recently-released set of six resource books which aims to debunk popular myths surrounding Aboriginal Australians’ relationship with alcohol.

Among the ideas which Brady challenges is that Aboriginal people only came into contact with alcohol after Europeans began to settle in Australia in 1788, and that Aborigines were only passive recipients of liquor.

But it is the idea that alcohol abuse among Aborigines is due to a perceived difference in biological make-up rather than social and cultural determinants that has garnered the most attention.

Brady told IPS that this popularly held view “is just a leftover” from the past.

“This is part of a colonial view that was very prevalent in the eighteenth century,” she says.

“It was commonly believed that native peoples in various parts of the world, including Africa, North America, the Pacific, as well as Australia, couldn’t handle their liquor,” says Brady.

According to the academic, reinforcing this view were notions related to colonisers’ fears of indigenous backlashes spurned on by alcohol, that only “civilised” people were capable of self control, as well as the strong temperance movements in Australia and elsewhere.

But while these ideas have their roots in the past, alcohol abuse among Indigenous Australians remains a present-day problem.

A report by the National Drug Research Institute (NDRI) released in Feb.2007 found that between 2000 and 2004, the ratio of alcohol-attributable deaths amongst the indigenous population – which numbers about 500,000 in a nation of some 21 million – was more than double that of non-Indigenous Australians.

Alcohol was responsible for 4.85 deaths for every 10,000 Indigenous Australians while 2.4 deaths per 10,000 of the non-Indigenous population were attributable to liquor. According to the NDRI, the deaths of 1145 indigenous people were caused by alcohol over this four-year period, equating to one death every 38 hours.

These differences apparent in alcohol abuse between Indigenous and non-indigenous Australians are indicative of health indicators overall. Life expectancy for indigenous people remains 17 years less than for their non-Indigenous compatriots.

Judy McKay, acting chief executive officer of the Council for Aboriginal Alcohol Program Services (CAAPS) – based in Darwin, the capital of the Northern Territory – says that cases of alcohol abuse among Indigenous Australians are not due to a predisposed weakness for liquor.

“I think that the biggest contributing factors that we see with our client group are the social and environmental factors,” she says.

McKay told IPS that she has witnessed great resilience among Aborigines. “They’re very tough. How they manage to live and to continue to get out of bed every morning and contribute or go about business in a community with all the things that are happening around them is quite amazing,” she says.

Indigenous communities, particularly those in the Northern Territory, have been in the spotlight of late. Following a 2007 report into child abuse in communities in the Northern Territory – known as the ‘Little Children are Sacred’ report – the former Howard government introduced a controversial series of reforms, since continued by the present Rudd government.

Among these were restrictions and bans on alcohol sales and consumption in communities in the Northern Territory, restrictions which have also been applied in other parts of Australia.

McKay says that given the hardships faced by many people living in the communities, drinking as a means to escape is an understandable response. She identifies some of the main social and environmental issues facing people who approach CAAPS as inadequate housing, unemployment, family violence, and marriage or relationship breakdowns.

“If you put any population group of any ethnic background into a community and into the same situations of what a lot of our community people experience, they would also be looking to alcohol to support them, to escape, to find some solace with,” she argues.

It is a view endorsed by associate professor Ted Wilkes, a Nyungar man from the state of Western Australia and chair of the National Indigenous Drug and Alcohol Committee.

Wilkes says that people in poorer parts of society look for “escape mechanisms”.

“Alcohol and drugs are a means for people to blot out some of the poverty and some of the oppression that comes with being indigenous and comes with being, perhaps, even poor,” he told IPS.

Wilkes argues that debunking the myths associated with indigenous Australians’ relationship is important. “This is simply about a people who have been decimated,” he says.

But Brady says that the ideas remain “surprisingly embedded in people’s understandings of indigenous drinking.”

She hopes that ‘First Taste’ will not only educate Australians about each other – and in doing so contribute to the ongoing reconciliation process – but will also empower indigenous people.

Working at the frontline of Indigenous alcohol abuse, Judy McKay from CAAPS says that exposing the anachronisms as myths can lead to a sense of empowerment for Aborigines.

“While those views are around it keeps them pigeon-holed, it keeps them stuck in those same stereotypes,” she says.

“It’s important to [challenge the ideas] because then it helps them to be able to move on and to be able to say ‘it’s not right’,” argues McKay.

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