Marion’s Story: My Culture

Marion believes her culture is changing and she has learned to adapt when changes occur.

One of my pet hates, often stated by nursing colleagues, was, “We don’t consider you to be Aboriginal, as you’re so clean and you don’t smell. You’re the same as us.”

I hated such comments and would often respond with something like, “… That is so offensive and so insulting. I am Aboriginal and proud to be one. I don’t want to be white, just because I am clean and don’t smell doesn’t make me a non-Aboriginal.”

Throughout this thesis, ‘culture’ refers to Noongar culture or dynamic culture. The following two definitions of culture relate to Noongar culture.

Culture refers to the cumulative deposit of knowledge, experience, beliefs, values, attitudes, meanings, hierarchies, religion, notions of time, roles, spatial relations, concepts of the universe, and material objects and possessions acquired by a group of people in the course of generations through individual and group striving (Hofstede, 1997).

Culture is symbolic communication. Some of its symbols include a group’s skills, knowledge, attitudes, values and motives. The meanings of the symbols are learned and deliberately perpetuated in a society through its institutions (Liu, 2009). So each individual has a different relationship with their particular culture and is able to grow and develop their relationship with culture.

Resilience is about both knowing your culture and learning how to continue to live in that culture as circumstances change (e.g. colonisation changes the relationship with culture). Survival becomes a process of continually accommodating the new experience and is never good enough.

Thriving is about retaining individual control over how you may respond. While this may be different for each individual, it is about retaining your own personal humanity and sense of control of your life.

So the thriving person ‘keeps one foot in the past while walking into the future’. Such a person is able to live in two worlds – the western world and their own Aboriginal world – and move comfortably between the two whenever necessary.

The following definition of culture by is related more to an individual’s dynamic relationship with culture. So culture will not change but the person’s reaction to it is dynamic. ‘Culture is a dynamic interaction, ever changing and depends on communication between individuals within groups where meanings applied to symbols are shared and yet dynamically co constructed througthrough conversation’ (Liu, 2009).

Culture is a word misunderstood by many Aboriginal people. I have heard some Aboriginal people say that they have ‘lost their culture’ or ‘they have no culture’. I believe education is to blame for such misunderstandings. Some Aboriginal people do not know the true meaning of the word ‘culture’ and are thus unable to recognise cultural practices or beliefs.

On the other hand, I have also heard and experienced Aboriginal people stating that ‘their living conditions are a part of their culture’. As a child, we went to visit our grandparents living on another larger reserve. My sister and I needed to go to the toilet. We both were unable to use the toilets as they were filthy; excrement on the floors, smeared on the walls and the toilet seats, the smell sent us running and dry retching back to Mum.

I still remember the looks we received from different ones on the reserve and the sneers, “Flash little kids who think they are white”, “What’s wrong with you this is how blackfullas live” and “What are you two trying to prove?”

Mum had obviously had such an experience before and retaliated saying,  “My kids are not used to living in filth. Just because you live on a reserve doesn’t mean you have to live in filth and no, it is not the way all blackfullas live. It’s the lazy good-for-nothing people who have no pride in themselves who live like this.”

My sister and I were taken into the bush to go to the toilet by our mother. She then found out who held the cleaning equipment for the toilets, which was provided by Native Welfare. Together, we cleaned the toilets, my brother helping to clean the men’s. The toilets were inspected each day and if necessary, cleaned during our stay on the reserve.

Sadly, years later many people my own age use culture as an excuse to justify their living conditions. Many Aboriginal people have more or less stated that living in a dirty house is all part of being Aboriginal: “It’s our culture” they would say. If you lived in a clean house you were white or at least thought you were white. I always questioned how my own people could de-value our culture in such a way.

But then again, there were many non-Aboriginal people who believed Aboriginals to be dirty. It was, and still is, a stereotypical view. Perhaps, many Aboriginal people believed and accepted what they were told. As the saying goes, “If you are told something enough, you start to believe it.”

I have had a great deal said to me over the years. One of my pet hates, often stated by nursing colleagues, was, “We don’t consider you to be Aboriginal, as you’re so clean and you don’t smell. You’re the same as us.”

I hated such comments and would often respond with something like, “… That is so offensive and so insulting. I am Aboriginal and proud to be one. I don’t want to be white, just because I am clean and don’t smell doesn’t make me a non-Aboriginal.”

Those who got to know me well, started to change, accepting me for what I was: an Aboriginal.

Being a lecturer for many years, I have had the opportunity to teach many Aboriginal people of all ages, from diverse backgrounds and from all over the country. I remember co-teaching a class of 70 students with a non-Aboriginal lecturer who was presenting a session on culture and the meaning of culture.

During the session, she was challenged by many of the students about her culture. One student even stating, “White people don’t have a culture, they don’t even know what culture is.” I was horrified that many other students agreed. Although my colleague tried to defend herself, I had to come to her defense, explaining that she in fact did have a culture.

I have discussed the topic of culture with many Aboriginal people who have stated that culture to them is the ‘Aboriginal way of life’ or it is ‘our traditions and customs’. It’s ‘attending funerals and other ceremonies’, ‘how we do things’, also ‘how we communicate body language and sign language’. There are many views on such a topic of culture leading to many definitions.

After much discussion with these Aboriginal students, I understood why they came to these conclusions about my colleague and her culture. Some students related culture to conducting ceremonies and having traditions and customs. I believe at the time it was their personal anger with the dominant culture.

Some gave personal examples of how non-Aboriginal people never acknowledged Aboriginal culture. Others sadly explained how they had been ridiculed and told ‘they had no culture’. Eckermann et al. (2008) support such claims in their book Bridging Cultures in Aboriginal Health:

‘When we review Aboriginal affairs, both past and present, it becomes clear that although Australian society has grown to value some aspects of Aboriginal cultures, such as art, craft, dance and music, there is still little recognition of Aboriginal people as human beings with distinctive cultural strengths and legitimate aspirations’ (Eckerman et al., 2008, p 83)

I have strong views on what my Aboriginal/Noongar culture is. Firstly, my culture does not standstill, nor is it inactive. My culture is changing. Yes, culture is a way of life, but includes how I behave and think. Many of my decisions in life have been influenced by my culture.

Throughout my life, I have learned to adapt when changes occur. Some of the changes were not easy and there were times I did not want to change. However, whatever and whenever the change occurred, I carried my cultural beliefs and values with me.

Eckermann et al. (2008)’s definition of culture is one that closely matches my personal view on what culture means to me:

‘Culture, for us, then, is more than ‘a people’s way of life’. Culture tells us what is pretty and what is ugly, what is right and what is wrong. Culture influences our preferred way of thinking, behaving and making decisions. Most importantly, culture is living, breathing, changing – it is never static.’ (Eckermann et al., 2008, p 3)

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