Sources of First Nation Resilience in Australia

Paul Lane from the Kimberley Institute in Broome, Western Australia says Indigenous resilience is the capacity of people to sustain and develop their cultural integrity in the context of contemporary society. This means that Indigenous people will be able to sustain themselves as a people while at the same time accommodate the pressures of living in a totally colonised society. A resilient outcome is when children will be able to survive as Indigenous people in the same way they will be able to thrive and develop in a European context. 

Resilience is not something that is given to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples by government or the broader society in order to fix so-called problems or deficits in their communities. Resilience comes from within an individual and a community. For Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples it is anchored in their identity, cultural beliefs and knowledge, in the interconnectedness of Indigenous societies and in the connections with the natural landscape, and in their cultural responsibilities and obligations. Resilience, therefore is the power and strength of Indigenous people to deal with challenges and adversity in their lives, particularly the ongoing impacts of colonial domination.

The sources of this resilience are the cultural knowledge, values and practices plus other elements that assist Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples collectively and individually deal with challenges or adversity and which also assist with sustaining their identity, culture and way of life. Having access to opportunities and resources are important elements in maintaining resilience, however Indigenous knowledge, values and practices are important protective factors that fortify Indigenous people against hardship, trauma or deprivation. To strengthen and maintain resilience, Indigenous people use their knowledge, values and agency to take advantage of opportunities and resources in a culturally meaningful way.

This section outlines some of the sources of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander resilience as identified in the stories of resilience. The stories highlight some factors that contribute to Indigenous resilience. These include: (1) Cultural beliefs, values and practices (2) Connection, belonging and identity (3) Rights to land and natural resources, and (4) Cultural maintenance and economic development. This is only a small representation of the sources of Indigenous resilience. There are other factors or sources of resilience. such as a good education and improved health and wellbeing.

Cultural beliefs, values and practices

The strength of an Indigenous community or peoples is found in their belief system, their values and their cultural practices. A philosophy grounded in their own beliefs, practices and values is fundamental to defining the relationships, responsibilities and obligations Indigenous people have to their families, their community and their country. Such philosophy also provides a pathway for the future. A practical vision of the future is crucial to rebuilding social and cultural structures. Revitalising language, maintaining traditional laws, customs and practices and managing and protecting the land and its natural resources are necessary to counter the ongoing impacts of colonialism. Further uncovering history through the eyes of Indigenous people and telling stories of adversity, endurance and achievement can bring healing, pride and reconnection within the community and this in turn can create a sense of purpose and unified identity. Community cohesion is critical for collaboration and cooperation in order to achieve a common good. Unity of purpose enables an Indigenous community to make collective decisions and this in turn can build confidence and success within the community.

Connection, belonging and identity

The interconnectedness between a person’s sense of self, the community and with country enables a person and a community to feel good about themselves as peoples, imbues a sense of responsibility and obligation as well as define their place or belonging in society. These connections, responsibilities and obligations must be rebuilt, strengthened or maintained. A strong Indigenous spirit is necessary to protect and insulate Indigenous people from the ongoing impacts of colonialism. Healing from the traumatic experiences of the past and reconnecting with oneself, with community and country is important because it contributes towards a positive Indigenous spirit. Such spirit is forged through adversity, hope and survival. Stolen generation people have an underlying resilience forged through common experiences of hardship, friendships and social connections, learning new skills and building methods of resistance and survival.[1] Recovering memories and stories about the past plays an important role in building a positive spirit. Strengthening the heart and spirit of young people is vital to reinforcing a sense of identity as well as connecting young people to their community and culture. Important in the process of rebuilding or strengthening spirit is the wisdom and leadership of senior people because they can tell stories about the past, reconnect people to their country and cultural practices, and they can recover and teach language.

Rights to land and natural resources

Native title and land rights are crucial building blocks to rebuilding Indigenous social and cultural structures. It enables Indigenous people to support their families and their community, to look after country and create social and economic opportunities. Having secure land tenure protects Indigenous communities from outside exploitation of their land and its natural resources. Ownership and connection to country is important because it enables Indigenous communities to create their own social and economic opportunities. This is not about succumbing to a Western economic lifestyle but about applying traditional cultural strengths to a contemporary life. In that regard Indigenous beliefs, practices and customs underpin social and economic growth allowing Indigenous people to control their destiny. An improved social and economic capacity will also enable the Indigenous community to contribute to the well-being of the broader community. Ownership of country and being able to connect to country can also heal psychological and emotional damage inflicted by past government policies of separation, deprivation and oppression. Visiting traditional country and fulfilling cultural obligations can have a positive effect on an individual and a community.[2]  

Cultural maintenance and economic growth

Land ownership is the basis for creating social, cultural and economic opportunities for Indigenous communities. While economic development provides commercial opportunities for the community it can also provide the income to support social and cultural initiatives. Therefore commercial opportunities that align with Indigenous culture can improve social and economic outcomes and preserve and promote culture and tradition. The harvest of native fruits and plants on country for commercial purposes, for example can provide employment and training opportunities for the community. Importantly however it enables families to spend time on country practicing traditional forms of sustainability and teaching children about their country. Aligning commercial and employment outcomes with cultural outcomes can provide productive and sustainable activities for communities. For example, it can strengthen cultural connectedness and provide employment for young people at risk of incarceration.  

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[1] The term “stolen generations” refers to the separation and removal of thousands of Indigenous children of mixed descent from their families and communities and placed in missions, institutions and foster homes during the period 1910 to 1970.

[2] The word ‘country’ refers to Indigenous land and sea/water. ‘Country is a political and cultural entity that defines and determines law, culture, identity, kinships, relationships and obligations.