THE ANGLICAN MOBILE NATIVE MISSION
AT WORK AMONG FRINGE-DWELLERS OF W.A.*
BY THE REV. E.C. KING.
Throughout the Commonwealth of Australia today there exists, what most people call “The Native Problem”. It has, of course, existed since the time of the first settlers but has only come into the fore-front of the average Australian’s thinking during the last few years. The upsurge of Asian nationalism and events in Africa have made it obvious that we must face the problem realistically and now, if any solution is to be found.
There are two kinds of natives, the full bloods and the mixed bloods. The full bloods still live in primitive conditions and according to tribal laws and customs; the mixed bloods are mostly detribalized and live in fairly close contact with western civilisation.
There are three alternative solutions to the problem. We can either exterminate them or segregate them; or habilitate them for life in our white communities. Obviously the first is untenable and so we are left with segregation or habilitation.
My experience of the problem has been only with the mixed bloods, and it is possible that, for the full bloods, segregation may be the only answer, although I very much doubt that it is. Of one thing however, I am firmly convinced, and that is that only by habilitating the mixed bloods, can we solve their problem.
In theory, this has been the policy of church authorities and state officials for at least one hundred years. But the conditions under which these people are living on reserves and camping grounds demonstrate quite plainly that in actual fact the chief concern has been “to contain” the problem rather than solve it.
The institutional missions for natives are excellent in many ways, for they give the children a first class religious and secular education, besides teaching the elements of western civilisation. But such education is useless if at the end of it there is only a humpy on a reserve and casual employment to look forward to, as is mostly the case in Western Australia.
Governmental housing schemes to improve the living conditions of the natives are excellent too, but become partial, if not complete failures, unless the natives are guided and encouraged by white people in their efforts to attain western standards.
In June 1960 I accepted the position as Director of the Mobile Native Mission in W.A. The mission has a clear cut policy – to habilitate the mixed bloods for our mode of life. It has a simple method – by the use of welfare teams (consisting of a man and wife living in a caravan near the reserve) to raise the standard of housing, hygiene, employment, education and morale, to a point when the natives, family by family, will be acceptable and accepted into the way of life of the white community.
At that time in Western Australia most of the mixed blood natives were living in appalling conditions. Humpies of rusted corrugated iron or bags sewn together, with earth floors and little or no furniture, were dotted about dusty reserves cluttered with broken down cars and other rubbish. Water supplies were inadequate, confined usually to one tap to serve all the natives on the reserve. Sanitary arrangements and toilet facilities were equally inadequate and all kinds of sickness prevailed.
The natives themselves were in consequence mostly irresponsible, drunken and immoral, frustrated and depressed. Few, if any, had regular employment; the educational standard was low and even illiterate owing to the absenteeism and lack of incentive to strive for higher grades.
The Native Welfare Department had improved conditions on some reserves, especially in regard to housing, but because of lack of finance its efforts lagged far behind the need.
At the beginning of November 1960 we put three teams into the field equipped with caravan and Land Drover, first aid supplies and a few tools. Each team was stationed near a reserve, the intention being that they should stay there for two months and then move on. However, the impact of their presence was such that within two weeks I received one letter from the Native Welfare District Officer in one area and from a local doctor interested in Native welfare, asking if the team in their area could stay longer because they were making such an improvement to the conditions on the reserve.
Our concern in the first months of work was to improve the living conditions of the natives. Simple one roomed huts were built, with the help of the natives themselves, to replace tents and the worst of the humpies. Unsanitary drains were attended to, more water taps provided, and the natives encouraged to keep their homes and surroundings clean. At the same time basic elements of hygiene were taught, and minor sores cuts etc. doctored. The school children were encouraged to go to school clean and regularly. Cases of sickness obviously needing medical treatment were taken to hospital and much serious illness thus obviated.
The presence of a team living near a reserve was seen to have two immediate effects. First of all it gave the natives encouragement and incentive to improve their living conditions themselves. The fact that a man and his wife were prepared to live in a caravan and be with them all the time gave them a sense of being wanted, and at once engendered self-respect. It is obvious that you cannot change bad conditions and bad habits immediately, but a beginning was made immediately and we have been able to go on from there.
Seccondly it gave the interested white people a focal centre for their desire to help the under privileged natives. The teams turned their goodwill into good works. In every town where a team has been stationed, if there has not already been a Native Welfare Committee of local people in existence, one has been formed. It might be invidious to single out one team as an example because this has happened with every team, but Northam is perhaps the most exciting. There, a local Welfare Committee had been in existence for some time, but had become frustrated and inactive for want of guidance and the knowledge how best to tackle the problem. Three groups of mixed blood natives lived in hovels on three different camping grounds, only one on the edge of the reserve itself.
We placed a team there in January 1961 and the effect was instantaneous. Materials poured in for house building and in twelve months a transformation had been made. Our missioner, with the help of natives and some white labour has built two three roomed houses, a first aid room, a single man’s quarters and an ablution block complete with two bathrooms, two sets of coppers, troughs and wringers. The Native Welfare Department has built four native houses, water has been laid on to every house, playground equipment provided for the children and a new atmosphere engendered. An active Women’s Auxiliary consisting of representatives of all the religious denominations and secular women’s organisations, conducts a kindergarten, sewing and cooking classes and other welfare activities. Clinic and hospital sisters visit the reserve regularly.
Of course there are still disappointments and frustrations. Drunkenness brawls, wife-beatings still occur. But where there was nothing, and no hope of anything, there is now a training ground for citizenship and social and economic stability – all this in twelve months. And this is the pattern of our work for each team.
Coinciding with an increased Housing programme by the Welfare Department in the middle of 1961, we placed three more teams in the field and their main task, besides the normal routine of first aid, hygiene, cleanliness of reserves etc., was to settle the natives into the new houses. We collected furniture, crockery, and bedding which was sold to the natives for their new houses. (I must emphasis that we don’t give the natives anything. Even if it is only a nominal sum, they must pay for clothing furniture etc.) The natives have been told to keep their new houses clean, and encouraged to start gardens. On one reserve we had a garden competition. These new houses will be the stepping stone from the reserves to houses in the white communities, but without the guidance, encouragement and assistance of our teams they could become as slummy as the original reserves.
Our teams, as I have indicated, have started kindergartens for the pre-school native children. Our endeavour in regard to education is to encourage school attendance, homework, study etc., so that the native boy and girl leaves school at the same educational standard as the white, and therefore has an equal opportunity for employment. We are convinced that unless the right start is made at the very beginning of the child’s education, the solving of the problem will only be prolonged.
Employment is, of course, the key to economic and social stability. Our teams are unofficial employment bureaux for the natives but for the older ones there is only casual and seasonal labour available. We have a hostel in Perth in which 14 and 15 year old lads are housed and for whom apprenticeships in the building and kindred trades are found. We have put forward to the Native Welfare department a scheme for the training of the older boys and young men. It is obvious that until a realistic view is taken in this regard the problem will remain. To be importing migrant tradesmen into the Commonwealth, without also absorbing the many thousand potential employees in our own country, seems an absurd anomaly, particularly when in training them we will be eliminating a suppurating sore in the body of our western civilization.
I have made no mention of spiritual activities, not because there are none, but because our endeavours in this regard are to draw the natives within the orbit of local church priests and ministers.
Acceptance into the white community, if it is to be complete, must be on the spiritual as well as social and economic levels. Our teams arrange baptisms and weddings for the natives with the local churches, take children to Sunday School and grown ups to Church, they visit in the hospital and give what advice they can on moral problems, but in the main they seek and obtain the assistance of those qualified.
The experience and achievements of the past eighteen months have convinced many that this is the best if not only way to solve the problem of the mixed blood natives.
But the problem is an immediate one, for the aboriginal population is increasing rapidly. Mr. Kim Beasley, M.H.R. has estimated that at the present rate of increase the numbers will rise from 80000 in 1961 to between 200,000 and 250,000 by the turn of the century! Such a group of people living in under-privileged conditions, could easily become, in a very few years, a vociferous and troublesome minority, and a scandal within the Commonwealth of Nations.
“in the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs” (I quote from a December 1961 issue of the Current Affairs Bulletin) “a trained welfare officer is thought to be necessary for every four or five Indian families still in need of assistance.” To some people this might seem out of all proportion to normal welfare work, but to those who know the problem intimately, it is obvious that now is the time for a worth while effort to be made and adequate finance provided, if the aboriginal population is not to become an increasingly heavy financial burden for future generations.
I am quite certain that with twelve of fourteen welfare teams working in Western Australia the problem would be largely eliminated in this State within ten to fifteen years, and the annual cost would only be 20.000 to 25,000 (pounds). The same number of teams would probably be equally effective in New South Wales with proportionately less in the States where the fringe dwellers are fewer.
When the State and commonwealth Governments are prepared to accept the responsibility for the housing and training of the natives and subsidise church organisations to provide and control the welfare teams; and when the church as a whole acknowledges a moral and material obligation for the task; a great step forward can be made; and the presence of under-privileged, degraded, outcast natives on the fringes of our towns and cities cease to be a blot on our civilisation.