The naked culture
"But he hasn't got anything on," a little child said.
"Did you ever hear such innocent prattle?" said its father.
And one person whispered to another what the child had said,
"He hasn't anything on. A child says he hasn't anything on."
"But he hasn't got anything on!" the whole town cried out at last.
The Emperor's New Clothes
Earlier this year Australia's Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull released the annual Closing the gap report  (from now on referred to as the Report), a summary of initiatives designed to align the country's indigenous population with a number of standards exhibited by the rest. It is the ninth of its kind (Report, p. 4).
Seven targets are given: child mortality, life expectancy, 95% of four-year-olds enrolled in early childhood education, school attendance, reading and numeracy, Year 12 attainment, and employment (R, p. 6).
Only one of seven targets has been met (employment) because its definition has been set at halving the gap by 2018, not eliminating it (R, p. 7); hence a projection in itself. An example of the evaluations employed appears below, in this case relating to child mortality:
"Child mortality rates by Indigenous status: NSW, Qld, WA, SA and the NT combined, 1998 to 2018"
(R, p. 24).
These markers, while ending up as specific numbers in statistical tables, nevertheless represent a series of contingencies that create their respective demographics. Human activity systems are interdependent systems, and their factors combine to produce a cumulative outcome given their particular influence across the whole.
For example, the Report notes that the leading causes for indigenous child death include birth trauma, foetal growth disorders, complications of pregnancy, respiratory and cardiovascular disorders, Sudden Infant Death Syndrome, general injury, and low birth weight rates (R, p. 24). There are also high rates of suicide (R, p. 4).
In the year 2011 only 14% of all indigenous men between the ages of 20-64 had left school at Year 8 or never attended in the first place, although in 1976 the rate was over half (R, p. 35). When it comes to reading and/or mathematical literacy indigenous 15 year-olds are about two-and-a-third years behind their non-indigenous peers on average (R, p. 38).
Community safety is also of concern: "the rates of family and domestic violence for Indigenous women far outweigh that of their non-Indigenous counterparts" (R, p. 8). The incarceration rate of indigenous men 35 years and over is reported as 21.8% (in 2014-15), with the rate being 31.0% in remote areas and 27.2% in very remote areas (R, p. 56). It affects their chances of employment; more jail time leads to less work. Overall, in the year 2016 27% of the total number of prisoners were Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islanders (R, p. 95), although at just under 670,000 they comprise only 3% of the entire population as per the 2011 estimate . Since 2006 the incarceration rate has increased by 42%.
Serious health issues starting at birth, violence, low levels of education, high rates of imprisonment - they all are indicative of a demographic that continuously falls short of expectations. Expectations, it must be said, determined by the societal standards of a Western-style industrialised nation. At the same time the Report also reflects the official attitude of this nation towards Aboriginals, seen as a rich and diverse culture to be celebrated and having taken care of the land for over 50,000 years. The initiatives created along the way seek to embed the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander culture within their administrative processes (eg, R, p. 18) since it is felt that without such an alignment any efforts would be futile.
The series of factors circumscribed by the statistically defined targets points to a general ambience, their fundamental nature suggesting a degree of situatedness which goes deeper than contemporary influences imposed by the continent's colonisation, although the latter would be significant in itself. Australia is not and has not been the only example of a foreign culture modifying a pre-existing way of life. The thus affected demographics did change to some extent (they could hardly do otherwise), yet underneath maintained their inherent nature. Japan may be Americanised yet it is still Japanese, today the peoples of the Indonesian archipelago may live under Islam yet are different from Muslims living in the Arabian peninsula.
Since the arrival of European settlers the indigenous people have been forced from their traditional way of life, and today even remote communities bear little resemblance to an existence which until that time had hardly changed for tens of thousands of years. Elsewhere civilisations have come and gone over the millennia. What has changed since then is a function of the values, priorities, and perceptions introduced in the process.
(Clockwise from l.) Imagined yet realistic image of
ancient Rome 2000 years ago by Giovanni Battista
Piranesi ; Australia 200 years ago ; more basic
There was no pastoral culture let alone agriculture, and hence no commensurate administrative organisation with its record keeping needing some form of literacy and numeracy; no weaving of cloth; the tools were of the simplest kind; one's identity was defined by tribal specifics applied directly to the body.
(L. to r.) Arunta tribesman of the central desert ;
Giants of Northwest Australia , first signs of
The supply of food was regulated by nature's whim. Scarcity or abundance had to be simply accepted since there was no fallback position provided elsewhere by agriculture or at least the keeping of animals. Sickness and its treatment were relegated to the realm of magic (with the help of the odd natural ingredient), and parasites flourished.
(L. to r.) Nanya and his daughters, already affected by the white man's diet ; a re-enactment of a traditional ceremony but otherwise influenced by today's way of life (R, p. 14).
When Melissa Lucashenko, of Aboriginal ancestry, held a talk on the concept of survival in indigenous and Western culture, she pointed out the harsh genetic selection practised by the former to ensure individuals were fit and healthy . A selection process that started at birth and continued through a number of initiations ensured those who failed had no chance of passing on their genes.
For today's citizen of an industrialised nation it would be just about impossible to grasp the full range of implications of what such a way life means day by day. Some appreciation can be gained by entering the wilderness for a period of time (a couple of days is not enough for the full sensation to be felt) and observe how the gradual adjustment sets in - if at all. No bed, no roof over the head, no shopping for food, no fridge, no tap water, no mobile phone, no social media to commiserate on; not to mention personal hygiene. Even a small scratch can develop into a full-blown emergency if one's body has not had the chance to generate the necessary set of antidotes; the experiment comes to a full stop there and then. As for the parasites, some unlucky adventurers carry their effects with them for years to come. One could say they were truly at one with nature.
Then there is the sheer psychology of it all. When night falls and one can only see as far as the dim light of a fire allows, with the dancing shadows casting everything into a mosaic of living shapes, some accompanied by dreadful sounds, the mind begins to develop a world of its own. Perhaps the notion of spirits is dismissed at first ("surely, this is just..."), but reason only works if it has something to cling to, borrowed from the outside. Now imagine there is no such template, no refuge in one's memory, yet there all around is the raw sensation of things unexplained.
In order to survive, to bring a however imagined sense of coherence to the members of a tribe, their minds need to be configured within a mental framework that is as commonly acceptable as it is inflexible. Whatever the perception, the interpretation of natural phenomena, in the end it must be an illusion which everyone can share while remaining functional enough to survive as a community. In the absence of rational analysis which requires a detailed understanding of the phenomena one encounters, the shared interpretation makes for a group mind since there is no room for individualistic variance. Because whatever nature presents day after day, only some of it would suit a human; most of it is hostile.
Thus even in more advanced demographics with agriculture already established life is unpredictable, harsh, and there is much to be feared. Even industrialised societies carry cultural remnants of the past and can be loath to give them up. Combine the need to be strong to survive with the demands of identity as commanded by the tribe, with the fundamentals of existence such as eating, sleeping and procreation to be taken care of, all this against the whimsicality of the human character, and it becomes obvious that the more precarious the situation the more rigid, the more unforgiving, the rules of daily life would have to be. Over generations certain customs emerge, and once established they are adhered to regardless. In the world of today there are nomads who have crossed the land for centuries, farmers who employ practices too old to remember anything else, and in Australia the first explorers met hunter-gatherers.
Clearly, today there are demographics which had evolved over time. For any behavioural change to be possible, some mind somewhere has to be able to ask, "what if...", have the means to follow up on this question with whatever mental and physical tools available, and, perhaps the most important criterion of them all, find a sufficient tolerance among the others. In the case of Australia's indigenous people, for over 50,000 years there had not been anyone who dared to ask, did something about it, and was still accepted by their tribe. (That particular aspect would be the most cruel of them all - see footnote)
The rigidity of customs pervades their entire range, from food to marriage, and is made immediately visible through physical markings such as scarification, the mutilation of teeth, male and female circumcision - all designed to establish an unmistakable identity which is a reflection of the brutality of nature. Hence all involve pain and there is no escape. In this environment the only alternative is to leave the tribe altogether, a state of non-identity virtually synonymous with death if there is no-one else to receive the recalcitrant.
In Australia circumcision is still practised by some indigenous people. In 1998 a federal health minister was a "proud witness" to such a procedure in far-north Arnhem Land, carried out without an anaesthetic but with a surgical knife, although a sharp stone or piece of wood would have been used in the past. "As Nathan's screaming rang out across the land [the boy involved, around seven years of age], the stormy sky opened up and teeming rain pounded the red earth on which the ceremony was conducted". We are informed it had been "one of the most emotional moments ever experienced by the minister". "It's a thing that we can't, that Nathan, can't escape from. It's part of the culture and tradition and he's got no choice", said then ATSIC*) chairman Gatjil Djerrkura, the father of the boy .
*) Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission, abolished in 2005.
(Clockwise from top) Ordeal by roasting during the initiation from boys to men ; knocking out a girl's tooth - Kaitish tribe (Central Australia), we are told the girls were keen on it ; looking less keen: a similar ceremony in Africa in the 60's .
The specificity of tribal customs, cemented by the rigid group mind, is equally reflected in the language. There is no overarching conceptualisation of shared experiences where words form the common ground of wider-ranging communication, giving rise to the broad extent of our major language groups. A map of Australian tribal languages demonstrates the variety across the land.
Areas of tribal languages in Australia , average annual rainfall superimposed .
Hovering over the average annual rainfall link superimposes the rainfall map. A wetter climate makes for a richer flora and fauna, which means any given population can be concentrated in a smaller area and still sustain itself; especially important if its members rely purely on nature to provide food. There is a significant overlap between the general size of a language area and the frequency of precipitation (ie, the lower the rainfall the greater the area needs to be), an indication that tribal languages and/or dialects kept their separate identities.
The total number of Aboriginal people before 1788 (the beginning of white settlement) is estimated to have been 750,000, with about 700 spoken languages . Bowern and Zhou compiled a database of over 750,000 words across 350-400 indigenous languages, which would make for an average word count of between 2,100 and 1,900 words per language . Obata and Lee quote a presentation by McHughes, Williams, Koolmatrie and Gale in which the currently used Ngarrindjeri language of the Lower Murray, Lakes and Coorong region is said to contain around 400 words .
By comparison, the Second Edition of the 20-volume Oxford English Dictionary contains 171,476 words as full entries, 47,156 obsolete words, and 9,500 derivative words . The point is made that words like 'dog' can mean the animal but also 'to follow persistently', medical and scientific terms can be borrowed from different languages as can other expressions, and slang has its own vernacular. All in all there would be close to three quarters of a million words used in English.
The importance of the conceptual scope a language confers upon its users should not be underestimated. Conceptualisations start as relatively ambiguous thought structures but are given a more formal structure by associating them with distinct words (ie, symbols) which through their consistency allow the user to create larger structures. These structures need to be coherent in order to form meta concepts, which in turn allow the latter to be communicated and end up as similes at the receiving end. Inconsistency breaks the links between the constituent parts, and different meanings attached to same symbols transform the concepts. The more words a language possesses, the greater the variety of conceptualisations and the higher the probability their cognitive frameworks can be deconstructed and form delineations. This very paragraph represents an assembly of associative concepts.
Without such formalisms the mind is prevented from developing more complex structures because the necessary buildings blocks do not exist. Larger complexes fail and a structure cannot be decomposed into its elements, a precondition for abstraction. Quite literally, the mind cannot 'think' the result which otherwise would be on offer. In the Werner Herzog documentary The White Diamond , a film about using an airship to explore the jungles of Guyana, mention is made of a similar expedition in Papua New Guinea. The tribesmen, never having seen a blimp before, interacted with the visitors but did not 'see' the airship. Cognitively speaking, human beings were known to them as such, but there was nothing they could associate with a big round thing hovering in the air.
Correct associations cease if the relevant framework is missing. Instead it is replaced with what is familiar, if possible. Gadigal elder Allen Madden recounts how the locals experienced the first ships sailing into what is now known as Sydney: "Even when they got here [the ships' crew], blackfellas thought they were possums running up and down the masts" . It is also worth noting that the holder of a framework will not be aware of anything missing if there are no links to it, however open-ended such links could have been.
Back to the Report.
It mentions a total of 147 entities created by federal, state and territory governments specifically designed to improve the living standards of the indigenous population. Not included in this number are initiatives which already exist for the general population in areas such as education, health and welfare and are thus available to anyone. The 147 items are listed in the spreadsheet  → Ind.Entities etc → Australian entities in the service of indigenous demographics.
The budget papers hint at the expenditure those measures require, although accurate figures are hard to come by since many items would be part of a section somewhere. The visible amounts are (all figures are rounded down), $1,410 million for the Federal Government, $50m for Queensland, $211m (New South Wales), $239m (Victoria), $11m (Tasmania), $64m (South Australia), $1,224m (Western Australia), and $732m (Northern Territory). There are no items directly referring to Aboriginals for the Australian Capital Territory, although the ACT is mentioned in the Report figures. The total comes to over $3,945m  (to put this into context, Australia's total federal budget for 2016-17 is $450 billion).
These extra initiatives range from health to education to housing, but some of them go out of their way to assist.
Additional programs prepare indigenous children for school (R, p. 30). The National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Higher Education Consortium searches for the most effective reform strategy in areas such as indigenous student participation and a whole-of-university approach to improve indigenous higher education outcomes (R, p. 46). Highest achieving students from Palm Island, Galiwin'ku, Woorabinda and Wurrumiyanga are rewarded for their school attendance with a week in Melbourne, Sydney or Canberra (R, p. 49). The Defence Indigenous Development Program for young indigenous adults who want to join the defence forces (R, p. 60). The Encounters Indigenous Cultural Workers Scholarships program enables six indigenous students to work at the National Museum of Australia and the Prince's School of Traditional Arts in London (R, p. 66). Under the Indigenous Procurement Policy a total of $284.2 million worth of Government contracts are awarded, a 45-fold increase compared to earlier years (R, p. 71). Low aromatic fuel (previously known as Opal) has been made available to indigenous communities to reduce the incidence of petrol sniffing (R, p. 88).
Any injection of $4 billion is bound to generate an industry of its own no matter who the participants are, and the public sector-indigenous demographic combination is no exception.
In the days when insular Anglo-Saxon Australia regarded even salami eaters with suspicion, Aboriginals benefited from being associated with Whites to smooth the way. Areas such as around West End in Brisbane, a couple of suburbs in Townsville and Fremantle next to Perth provided opportunities for both sides to come together. Since the arrival of the billion-dollar conglomerate the tables have turned.
Hence over the years those 147 current actions around the country and those before them produced a new version of indigenous demographics, provided their members were able to make use of them.
(Clockwise from top l.) The new additions: preschool children at Kalwun, Queensland (R, p. 22); High School students in North Queensland (R, p. 50); "Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull meets National Congress of Australia's First People Co-Chairs Jackie Huggins and Rod Little, and former Aboriginal and Torres Street Islander Social Justice Commissioner, Professor Tom Calma AO" (R, p. 11); Ashlen Foster-Britton, a Wiradjuri woman, a graduate from the Indigenous Apprenticeships Programme (R, p. 67).
Yet the almost $4 billion did not pull so many others out of the cultural nether region between the old ways and a modern nation.
The inability of tribal minds to form larger societal structures despite their own inflexible specifics undermines the cohesion so necessary for living side-by-side with people from different clans. In remote communities (a somewhat euphemistic label given to today's Aboriginal settlements) co-existence is precarious and violence can erupt at any time.
During May 2016 four extra police officers in addition to the 17 already there had to be flown to Aurukun in far-north Queensland to restore order amongst a community of 900 . Teenagers attacked others, vehicles were vandalised, and the school ceased to function because its principal was threatened with machetes and an axe . Yet Wik elder Phyllis Yunkaporta blamed the police for not enforcing the law . In the end the teachers' homes needed to be fortified and 25 of them had to be evacuated because they were attacked by the locals . Even medical personnel was not excluded; guards and indigenous liaison officers were assigned to protect them . As for education itself, 100 out of 200 children showing up at the school on any given day is deemed a success  in a township which is "home to five warring tribes". Still, Aurukun Mayor Dereck Walpo thinks "we've hit a turning point". The occasion was the opening of a $1 million upgrade of the Aurukun sports hall which now comes complete with a "state-of-the-art gym and basketball court". To entice the kids further the hall is turned into a big-screen picture theatre every Thursday.
On Groote Eylandt in the Northern Territory two indigenous men have been killed and another seriously injured by spears during a family feud . Police Commander Tony Fuller said at the time the situation "remained extremely volatile".
A cache of weapons found on Groote Eylandt. It can be assumed
they were not suddenly created for one occasion only .
For those having had some experience with tribal scenarios the idea of indigenous people living a life of peace and tranquility is a myth. An unforgiving nature demands obedience, towards its own vagaries as well as those coming from humans. Therefore young people need a stern education; the survival of the tribe depends on it. In traditional contexts punishment is readily applied and the tribe must move on. The resources for prisons and counselling services simply do not exist.
In an article about Thangedl elder Warwick "Chook" David from Cape York being the only survivor of his indigenous language, the man talks about how justice was dished out at the end of a fighting stick, scoffing at the national angst over racism. "If you stole, raped or murdered, you would be flogged to an inch of your life and banished into the outlands. It stopped people playing up. Not like today" .
When tradition and modernity clash and mix, the result can be the worst of both worlds. In the year 2008 stabbings had reached "epidemic proportions" in the Northern Territory town of Alice Springs, giving it the highest rate in the world (390 incidents per 100,000 people) . Almost 40% of the stabbings were thigh injuries from punishments meted out by Aboriginal elders. According to Dr Abraham Jacob at the Alice Springs Hospital there is a particular pattern: "Medial thigh injury to kill, posterior thigh to permanently disable and lateral thigh to punish." The suggested "multi-pronged approach" of "engaging Aboriginal leaders, social uplifting and economical support", while officially suggesting some action, would have its problems no matter which way it runs. The old-time strictness has obviously worked for thousands of years but is not condoned by current law; current law swallows resources across its whole range and is hardly respected in any case because it is seen as outside interference; and the practice itself has lost its significance ending up as just another means to an end for antisocials.
Meanwhile justice in the 21st century is at risk of running itself into the ground. Queensland's state prosecutors can't keep up with their workload since the number of criminals in general being charged has increased by 60% in three years . While the number of inmates has risen, prison cell numbers have decreased but those 8000+ prisoners cost the state over $520 million per year and the government needs to spend $265 million over six years "to expand and improve rehabilitation for prisoners and hire new staff" .
As in Alice Springs, the people of Mt. Isa and Cairns are equally concerned about the state of their own safety and what this means for tourism. Large groups of "indigenous itinerants" have come together there from more remote townships, and in this demographic larger assemblies make for fighting, drinking and swearing mobs in the city centre . Just by looking at the headline "Clans battle in wild north" tourists might indeed wonder what is in store for them. Going to Mt. Isa and watching the police station being burned down would give them some idea .
Tribalism makes it virtually impossible for different people to coexist side by side (a similar phenomenon found in the gang violence of urban slums, pointing to the same cognitive deficiency) and is not the only problem in such demographics. The violent destruction of the very things that are there to help them is another. Whether it is driving tourists away, a source of income used at least partly to provide facilities for indigenous people, or whether it is the killing of the grandson of a land rights leader by a drunken mob , these actions demonstrate an inability to appreciate the wider picture. Not only are existing resources rendered useless, even more money needs to be spent just to repair the new damage. As a consequence the actual burden is carried by the innocent citizen, including Aboriginals themselves.
Against such a background the constant attempts at conciliation appear rather puzzling. In his Christmas address Queensland Governor Paul de Jersey has been reported as saying, "We are most grateful, as we are in a central way for the indigenous contribution to our civilisation, our humanity; oh for full reconciliation, for the true equality of opportunity, for equal participation in the important services on which we all reasonably depend" . It seems his readership is somewhat sparse on the ground in places like Cairns, Mt. Isa, or Aurukun.
The constantly reiterated message about the importance of one's culture, of its - however imagined - richness, and therefore its allotted place in wider society, is bound to be taken up by its recipients.
Indigenous administrative assistant Cindy Prior at Queensland University of Technology (QUT) had no qualms about suing three students for racial vilification when they made some sarcastic remarks after she ordered them to leave a "culturally safe" computer room because they were not indigenous, and later claimed she was unable to "continue working face-to-face with white people following a series of Facebook posts" . Eventually her case was dismissed in court when the judge saw the humour in the students' remarks, yet the question remains as to what it is about QUT's computers based on the binary system, logic gates and such that indigenous students require their own Oodgeroo Lab - and someone like that assistant seriously defending it.
Humour of course, in all its forms including sarcasm, relies on abstraction to be understood. It is not known whether residents in Cairns and Mt. Isa have become unable to work face-to-face with black people.
Words themselves are pressed into that service. The Report is only one example of using 'custodianship' for its respect-inducing value, the idea being that Aboriginals have been the custodians of the land since time immemorial. Elsewhere a custodian is someone who possesses the knowledge and has the facilities to look after something, say a collection of things. To be a custodian of a tract of land there has to be some understanding of its ecosystem, some record keeping of its contents and the associated analysis, and there have to be the means to purposefully correct a problem. Merely living there and gather the food whenever and wherever it is on offer is a different matter altogether.
Along similar lines the opposition to mining projects based on native title with its allusions to the spiritual dimension of a particular terrain, and all interpreted according to the mythology of this or that tribe, presents a significant problem to the mining industry. A new ruling by a federal court means a mining company needs an agreement from all native title claimants . Being concerned about chemical substances interfering with a biosystem is one thing, but mythological illusion is quite another. Then again, the spirits have been known to become quite conciliatory once the right deal comes along.
The relatively compact social horizon established over the millennia not only engenders tribal conflict in its original setting, once in a modern environment with its complexity and interconnectedness it tends to direct the bearer away from the wider contingencies.
For example, in the current Queensland State Government the portfolio for innovation, science, the digital economy and small business has been given to Leeanne Enoch. In her inaugural address to Parliament she tells about her European mother, her indigenous father, and lists her various tribal relatives and former work colleagues; all in all 21 references to indigenous persons, 24 to non-indigenous others, yet not once in her entire speech is anything said about her portfolio . In a feature article about her as the first indigenous minister in the state's parliament, within the three full-length pages of text the subject of her actual purpose is dealt with in three paragraphs, the rest is devoted to her Aboriginality . Those three short sections quote several individuals praising her suitability for the portfolio, mention her Advance Queensland Navigator platform, but not much else. This is not to suggest the minister spends her days talking tribal lore, but in comparison with other, non-indigenous representatives (from wherever in the world they may have come from) the personal emphasis is noticeable. Furthermore, for all the objectivity science would demand, the Advance Queensland site is legally configured to give the minister the ultimate authority over what is and what is not considered worthwhile regardless of its scientific value . Personal impression takes precedence over reason.
Yet the subject of science and what politicians do about it should be of utmost importance to the public. On the federal level alone science fares rather poorly. While the figures tell of a budget increase in absolute numbers, proportionally spending on primary and secondary education has levelled off and for the tertiary sector it is in virtual decline:
"Government Expenditure on Education in Australia" .
In this era of global competitiveness a nation's scientific nous is arguably the most important determinant for success. It feeds directly into its placement on the world stage, it influences a country's ultimate financial strength when it comes to supporting a growing welfare and public service sector (eg, just consider the ageing of populations), and it most certainly configures the path towards a sustainable balance between automation and general employment prospects through its capacity for generating capital (for example, using robots as personal slaves comes to mind). Federal Health Minister Greg Hunt talks about genomics and how it will influence the running of his $90 billion portfolio by enabling doctors to treat many serious conditions at the genetic level, thereby reducing budget costs . Look at a video about Chinese mega structures and what a people can do when their intelligence and will come together.
The latest in robot technology:
Boston Dynamics' Handle .
Gene research is only the most recent area previously beset with mythology and superstition. Some ideologies have made use of such ignorance by justifying their brutality through reference to genetic dispositions, however poorly they may have been understood. Yet there is also an inescapable reality whose laws prescribe our existence, from physics to chemistry to biology, including the role our fundamental building blocs play in human activity systems. It requires logic and reason to understand them all, an approach which needs to be acquired. The system of mind is foremost a pattern-seeking system, responding to input in terms of its internal affinity relationships, and these are a function of the wider, mostly human-generated environment. Logic and reason is a type of environment that has to be created on purpose.
Stretching cultural constraints does not help. The study by Claire Bowern and Kevin Zhou of modern indigenous Australian languages (ie, those that still exist today)  has been mentioned above. Focusing on the "numeral system limits across the Pama-Nyungan family, which includes almost 70 per cent of Australian languages and covers 90 per cent of the nation's land mass", Bowern found that counting goes from 1, 2, 3, small amount, big amount, while some languages went past the number 10. It is similar to the way children elsewhere start counting (but then move on from there). In school the counting system was changed for indigenous pupils by using items familiar to them. For example, "the word for seven was the name of a type of boomerang where one arm was longer than the other", or "The number eight was also the word for a seed pod, while nine was the word for a cup or pannikin". She goes on to say, "That is something we forget for instance when we hear politicians ... saying we can't use Aboriginal languages in schools because they don't have the language to express things".
No doubt the children can use their own words to express '7' or '8'. What remains questionable is the conceptual usefulness or otherwise which results from such a direct one-to-one transposition. Numeracy is much more than knowing the literals standing for individual numbers; every language has its own. What matters from then on however is the conceptualisation enabled by the number symbol that allows the user to create the context of multiplication or division for example, or what the symbol when used as an exponent means within the visualisation of the result. It is a type of abstraction process, and the framework of mathematics only works if those abstractions form a consistent system overall. While any amount of seed pods and such had been available all the time, it took human evolution to enable such frameworks to develop; a development which is ongoing. How does one see a '3' in a pannikin? And how do those children fare once they get to High School?
Such pandering to convenient assumptions does not serve anyone in the longer term. Their creator is left with an a priori semantic prison stifling opportunities which otherwise would be available, and the target is caught up in a misconception about who they actually are. The resultant status of either is compromised.
It also applies to international relations since they take their cues from the general perception about a country, however subliminal those cues may be. To have a prominent representative enthusing about hunter-gatherer society contributing to civilisation on one occasion while on so many others trying to portray one's nation as innovative and ready for the future would be noticed here and there (although good manners would prevent them from saying so). Some would also question why a demographic stuck in the distant past is so admirable its characteristics are seen fit to be taught to school children, yet requires billions of dollars' worth of help at every turn; then those same youngsters are meant to carry the spirit of innovation into adulthood.
Just as in Hans Christian Andersen's tale  about an emperor whose self-delusion made him a victim of swindlers, a critical mind overcomes foolishness. The emperor was made to believe only stupid people were unable to see his imaginary clothes, and so everybody fell over themselves to applaud his attire. Yet the clothes did not exist, the emperor was naked, but nobody dared to say so out of fear being seen as foolish.
Footnote (added 21 November 2018):
One example of how shallow the understanding of indigenous culture has become is to be found in the current habit of paying tribute to the "traditional owners of the land", particularly at the beginning of an academic event.
Academia is about science - that space in which deep thought, commitment, but especially the courage to ask "what if..." are essential for it to be fruitful. Yet indigenous culture is the very antithesis of them all. Nor is it the only type of nemesis in human affairs.
Would a scientist pay explicit respect to the Inquisition, that body of zealous people who had consigned so many thinkers to the stake? Would an Einstein pay tribute to the Nazis, another manifestation of murderers and book burners?
Perhaps it has become virtually impossible for the average Westerner, grown up as they have in an atmosphere of relative pampered safety, to imagine what day-by-day actions would need to be in place to ensure no stray thought, no expression of above-average intelligence, no rattling of the status quo, would ever be allowed to unseat an ambience that ensured the society remained on a primitive level of ignorance and superstition for tens of thousands of years. From coercion to violence, from admonition to cruelty, from warnings to punishment by death, these would be the kind of actions perpetrated upon those who dared to challenge the limits. While at the same time there is also the naivite that allows a child to play happily in a pool of toxic water.
To forget what life can be like if so many safeguards are absent or purposefully rendered useless is to invite barbarism back into the fold.
(Back to text)
0. TheNakedCultureCalcs.zip, spreadsheet containing the calculations etc including references for this article.
1. Closing the Gap Prime Minister's Report 2017, Commonwealth of Australia, Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet.
2. Estimates of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians, June 2011, Australian Bureau of Statistics, Canberra, 30 August 2013, http://www.abs.gov.au/ausstats/abs@.nsf/mf/3238.0.55.001.
3. M Harvey, Piranesi - The Imaginary Views, Academy Editions, London, 1979, p. 12.
4. Old Photos of Australian Aborigines, blueswami.com, (search for image title).
5. E O Smith, Cold Hands and Warm Heart: It May Be in Your Genes, eosmith.com, from: C H Berndt & R M Berndt, Australian aborigines: Blending past and present, in: Vanishing Peoples of the Earth, National Geographic Society, 1968, Washington, DC, pp. 122-123.
6. The Secret Museum of Mankind, page_5.57.html, http://ian.macky.net/secretmuseum/.
7. Giants of Northwest Australia, blueswami.com, (search for image title).
8. Nanya and his daughters, blueswami.com, (search for image title).
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10. H McCabe, Pain, pride in a man's world, The Courier Mail, Brisbane, 23 January 1998.
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