Australia: State of the Environment Second Technical Paper Series (Human Settlements), Series 2
Dr Paul Memmott and Mark Moran
Department of the Environment and Heritage, 2001
ISBN 0 642 54790 4
Indigenous settlements usually display distinctive physical and cultural properties. Mention has already been made of some of these aspects including the occurrence of customary behaviour and cultural practices, the frequency of large and complex households, and the emergence of the outstation movement. The customary behavioural use of domiciliary space involved typical diurnal/nocturnal behaviour patterns for different seasonal periods, and culturally distinct behaviours in domiciliary environments, including forms of approach and departure behaviour, external orientation and sensory communication between domiciles, sleeping behaviour, cooking behaviour and other hearth-oriented behaviours, and particular storage techniques for artefacts and resources. The persistence of these customary domiciliary behaviours in many contemporary settlements has resulted over the last 30 years in the development of a set of architectural design concepts and standards for Indigenous housing that are aimed at supporting such cultural processes rather than inhibiting such (eg Heppell and Wigley 1981, Memmott 1989, 1991A, Morel and Ross 1993.)
Although many housing projects in remote settlements have ignored this design philosophy, there has been a steady increase in their value and acceptance, as exemplified in the recommendations of the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody. One recommendation (No.73) was that the provision of housing and infrastructure in discrete Aboriginal settlements respond to "cultural perceptions of the use of living space" and include funding for town planning consultation. Particular mention was also made of appropriate technology and the work of the Centre for Appropriate Technology in Alice Springs and environmental health and housing infrastructure and the work of Nganampa Health Council (Recommendations 74,76). (Aust, RCIADIC 1991.)
Other common cultural characteristics of contemporary Indigenous households and their domiciliary lifestyles include a widespread sharing ethic in relation to food and household items within kin networks, external orientation of lifestyle, and the popular use of hearths in rural and remote locations. Some further culturally distinct aspects which are of significance to settlement analysis, are described more fully below, viz (i) high levels of residential mobility, (ii) the occurrence of cultural regions or blocs, (iii) socio-spatial patterns in settlements, and (iv) aspects of Indigenous economy.
(i) Population Mobility
There is a body of literature which reports a high level of population mobility between Indigenous settlements in many regions. The motives for travel stem from both traditional and acculturated factors. Writing on the mobility of Indigenous people in Central Australia, Young and Doohan (1989:220) noted that Indigenous people.
".move not at random but for specific reasons. These include the maintenance of their social networks; their continual reinforcement of their links to the land; and the use of the land's natural resources. They also include access to education and health services; obtaining a cash income either through working or welfare; and purchasing food and other commodities now essential for their survival."
Various 'push and pull' factors can be identified within a region, operating in both urban and rural areas to create a circular flow of movement. Factors which promote movement away from rural into urban centres include escaping social tensions, and the attraction to employment prospects, social services and access to alcohol. Factors which promote the return to rural areas include traditional obligations, need for family, and escaping alcohol-related problems. Unfortunately attempts to statistically enumerate Indigenous population flows over time are rare, unsystematic and confined to small and disparate groups. They are also often limited to remote discrete communities (Taylor 1989).
Altman (1987:22-27, 100-107) undertook a thorough longitudinal study in 1980 of a single outstation population in Arnhem Land. This revealed a dynamic and complex pattern of movement associated with the temporal changes in social and economic activity. It showed the significance of seasonal factors which affect (a) access and transportation, (b) the need for shelter, and (c), the availability of subsistence resources. Also evident was the 'pull' to a larger regional centre (Maningrida) and the fortnightly cycle of social security payments and shopping. Less predictable were the movements associated with ceremonies, dispute resolution, social activities and accessing specialised services.
Torres Strait Islanders have quite different mobility characteristics to Aboriginal people with a proportionally very large population living in diaspora in urban centres along the east coast of mainland as well as urban centres in other states (Taylor and Arthur 1993).
(ii) Sociospatial Patterns and Indigenous Lifestyles
Another characteristic aspect of Indigenous settlements is their socio-spatial patterning: their division into spatial zones each occupied by an aggregate of domiciliary groups and residences, and each possessing some common social identity and characteristic social structure. The spatial arrangements of shelters or houses are thus statements of social relationships between groups. Such contemporary socio-spatial patterns are usually derived from customary camp and village structures.
There is considerable research which shows that Indigenous people in remote settlements prefer to live within clusters, usually with considerable separation in distance between different groups (Memmott 1990, Moran 1999). These group clusters form along the line of extended family and other social divisions within communities, so the people within a cluster feel a sense of solidarity with each other and a social difference from others (Morel and Ross 1993:146).
Neighbourhoods based on traditional associations also form in remote discrete settlements. For example Memmott (1983) found that people from Mornington Island, Gulf of Carpentaria, continued to occupy houses with the same four tribal sub-group areas that existed prior to the establishment of the mission. These four zones spatially duplicated the location of each respective homeland, as if set by a compass.
In many communities these structures were broken down or disrupted during the assimilation era of the mid 20th century but despite this, many have persisted and/or been revitalized during recent decades in many settlements as Indigenous Councils have taken control of where their residents' houses are built. Even in the rental housing sectors of towns and cities, limited research (Gale and Wundersitz 1982, Memmott 1991A:262-269) indicates that many Indigenous residents make conscious decisions and wait their turn to seek homes that are in proximity to their kin, thus replicating the more obvious socio-spatial divisions that are often clearly evident in the discrete remote settlements. From Gale and Wundersitz's work in Adelaide, there was still considerable separation between houses, sometimes several kilometres, but a socio-spatial pattern was still evident at a large scale; ie it is not does necessarily follow that a socio-spatial pattern is clustered close together in urban areas.
Many Indigenous groups in discrete urban settlements have developed a distinct style of urban culture by maintaining control over their own settlement areas and by having the freedom to combine aspects of traditional culture with modern mainstream urban culture. On the one hand they have adopted a conservative urban fabric and chosen to use selected facilities and services of the mainstream society eg. conventional houses, sewerage or septic, town water and electricity supply, landscaping, cars, public telephones, etc. They may regularly travel to shopping centres in the neighbouring suburbs or to the central business area.
On the other hand they have often retained many important and distinctively Aboriginal aspects of lifestyle, drawn from the cultural institutions of language, religion and social organisation. Examples of such culturally distinct Aboriginal constructs are sociality, privacy and crowding. Norms relating to these concepts underlie a tendency for external orientation of domiciliary groups. Many Aboriginal people tend to spend much of their time outside their houses, maintaining communication with and the surveillance of their social environment. Consider the example of the Alice Springs Town Camps where one encounters traditional cultural beliefs and behaviours which may contrast with the suburban mainstream such as dietary preference for bush game, regular bush excursions (hunting, harvesting or bush plants, collecting firewood), hearth-centred social groupings, Indigenous art styles, public mourning behaviour and Indigenous birthing practices (Memmott 1994). In addition, Indigenous cultural institutions have evolved in Australian cities to provide a structural interface with the white system, for example the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander legal services, health services, media agencies and schools.
The presence of clustered Indigenous residences in urban environments whether it be arising from socio-spatial behaviour or the historical presence of a discrete enclave type of settlement, can thus lead to a form of spatial separatism for Indigenous residential groups. The important function of separatist settings for Indigenous people is to maintain many aspects of their culture and facilitate the freedom to combine aspects of traditional culture with modern mainstream urban culture. Integration occurs in many other settings, especially public ones. The existence of separatist settings does not necessarily prevent harmonious relations between non-indigenous and Indigenous people.
(iii) Cultural-Geographic Regions
Most of the Indigenous population particularly in the rural and remote areas can be categorized into regional groupings, in many cases consisting of a number of discrete settlements separated by areas with very small or negligible Indigenous populations. A number of Indigenous settlements in a sizeable region may be thus analysable as a type of contemporary cultural unit. Within such regions there is evident a pattern of regional travel generated by kinship networks. The distribution of an individual's kin generates for an individual a 'beat' - a set of places which he or she can visit and expect to obtain hospitality and economic support if necessary, and in which a person will most likely find their spouse (after Beckett 1965, Vallance 1970, Memmott 1991B). Young (1990) introduced the terminology of 'mobility regions' to for the purpose of mapping and defining contemporary cultural regions.
A boundary to a contemporary cultural region may have a number of co-incident properties where a mixture of social, economic, travel, and geographical boundaries tend to coincide. Phenomena that tend to create boundaries for a population in a region are (a) a large surrounding area with no Indigenous inhabitants (possibly due to dispersals, removals, and the impact of diseases); (b) isolation between adjacent areas due to poor transport systems; (c) lack of interaction between neighbouring Indigenous groups due to cultural dissimilarities; and (d) lack of accessible economic opportunities.
Further phenomena that tend to reinforce the sense of region are:- (a) the presence of a highly resourced regional centre catalysing the regular visitation of Indigenous people; (b) the establishment of a set of social and residential spaces in such a regional centre, containing individuals with kinship links back to the smaller towns or settlements; and (c) similarities or continuities in the socio-economic environments of the towns in the region, so that there exist preferred dietary items, a capacity to arrange social benefit payments or credit, and freedom to maintain particular behavioural styles (e.g. camping, fighting, drinking, mourning). This does not mean that all of the towns or settlements in the region have a similar character in all regards; they may be quite diverse in some respects.
In some cases, cultural-geographic regions, if they exist, may overlap with one another forming more continuous networks or chains of interacting population centres, particularly on the east coast of Australia (Memmott 1991B).
Figure 12. Map of Indigenous cultural regions in Queensland in the late 1980s.
Source: Memmott 1991b
(iv) A note on Indigenous settlement in the Torres Strait Islands
The Torres Strait Islanders of Far North Queensland are a population of Melanesian origin and stand culturally apart from the mainland Aboriginal population. Torres Strait Islanders were living in dispersed sedentary coastal villages and hamlets before European contact, which is quite different from the traditional settlement characteristics of many Aboriginal groups. Discrete nucleated settlements built around church, school and store were introduced into the Torres Strait Islands by missionaries in the late 19th century. The occupation of 20 islands concurrently reduced to about 14 and a change in housing and architectural style took place. However there were not the displacements and forced removals typical of Aboriginal settlements (Beckett 1983,1997.) Remnant traditional socio-spatial characteristics of settlements would presumably be quite different to that found in Aboriginal settlements, although there is no known research which has explored this. Today there are 18 Torres Strait Islander settlements within the administrative area of the Torres Strait Regional Authority. These settlements are located on 15 different islands within the Torres Strait, with the exception of two settlements on the tip of Cape York Peninsula. There is also a discrete urban settlement on the outskirts of the town of Thursday Island. Together, these settlements make a cultural geographic region with Thursday Island as the regional centre.
Contemporary town plans and housing are identical to that found on the mainland, although there are unique challenges with providing infrastructure on small islands, especially for water supply and sewerage. There is a higher propensity for self-construction with owner-builder (Haar 1992) or Council construction teams. The tradition of individual land ownership (Beckett 1983) suggests a strong history for home ownership, and strong aspirations for such continue today (Memmott 1998). In addition to the discrete settlements of the Torres Strait region there are many urban populations of Torres Strait Islanders scattered throughout the towns and cities of Australia. In fact the majority (about 80%) of the Torres Strait Islander population live away from their homelands (Taylor and Arthur 1993).