ECONOMIC LIFE OF MIXED-BLOOD COMMUNITIES IN NORTHERN NEW SOUTH WALES
By Malcolm Calley Reference 26
The Aboriginal population of the extreme north-eastern corner of New South Wales consists almost entirely of mixed-bloods most of whom approximate to half-caste. Aboriginal and white contact began about one hundred years ago.
The Aboriginal communities in this region are like others in much of New South Wales and Southern Queensland. To claim general validity for the results set out in this paper would be premature, but it seems likely that similar mechanisms are operative in other areas. The significant factors which cause the economic orientation of the mixed-blood groups to differ from that of European society are the general features of pre-contact Aboriginal culture, rather than regional peculiarities. However, in many ways, the process of culture contact has not proceeded so far on the extreme North Coast of New South Wales as in many other parts of the State, and social mechanisms can be readily recognised, which might not be so clearly defined elsewhere.
The mixed-blood population is centred in three Aboriginal Stations and four official reserves under the control of the Aborigines' Welfare Board. Many people of mixed descent are also resident in the towns and cities of the area. This paper is concerned chiefly with the station and reserve populations, but much of the following would be equally applicable to urban mixed-bloods.
Dairy farming, raising beef cattle, growing sugar cane, bananas, and corn, mining precious and other minerals, and timber milling constitute the chief economic activities of the area. Aborigines are employed in all these industries with the exception of dairying, though only mining, timber milling and to a lesser extent cattle raising, provide more than seasonal work.
On the large pastoral properties, labour is required for droving, mustering, branding and inoculating of herds, for clearing new land, erecting new fences and repairing existing ones. " Scrub falling ", ring-barking, and fencing are year round activities, but they do not constitute permanent employment. The " scrub faller" or fencer must constantly seek a new job as the one on hand is completed. Mustering requires few employees over relatively short periods, and corn growing, usually in conjunction with cattle raising, requires " corn pullers " for only a few weeks during the winter months. There are few permanent jobs in this industry.
Cane growing which is the chief industry of the southern part of the region, provides employment for " cane cutters " over only a few months each year. Banana growing which takes place on country otherwise too steep for agricultural purposes, provides employment for a limited number of " chippers ".
Only mining at C, the Government Railways, and the saw-mills at X. and V. offer continuous, year-round employment. The C. mine draws about sixty per cent of its labour force from the adjoining Aboriginal reserve, while the X. timber mills employ about fifty per cent Aboriginal labour from the X. station. Few mixed- bloods seek employment on the Railways.
Although there is some variety in the type of job held by mixed-bloods in the area, almost all are " unskilled " ; only a very few are " semi " skilled, and perhaps half a dozen (none resident on stations or reserves) could be called " skilled " workers.. Mining, timber and railway work pay fixed award rates, employees belong to the appropriate industrial trades union. Wages in the pastoral industry vary from district to district. During 1954, rates of pay for Aboriginal workers in the U. area were about half those demanded and received by white employees doing the same work. Whereas a white man received from 2 pound to 2/10/- per day, a mixed-blood was lucky to receive 1 pound to 1/10/- per day. Up to 10/- per day per person was often deducted from this wage for transport to and from the job, this even when five or six workers were transported together.
Frequently Aboriginal employees were persuaded to take cheap wine (sweet sherry or muscat) in lieu of part of the wage due to them. This was bought for about 4/6 per bottle by the employer, but in determining the amount due to the employee, its value was reckoned at about 8/-. As the sale of liquor to Aborigines is prohibited under the Aborigines Protection Act, they are unable to obtain it from the local hotel at the correct price. Until quite recently, it was customary to pay Aboriginal labour in goods, chiefly beef and flour.
In early 1955, an enquiry was held by the Department of Labour and Industry into working conditions and wages in the U. area. As a result, local pastoralists are now required to pay their Aboriginal employees full award wages. Whether this change will have any lasting effect on economic conditions in the U. district, it is too early to say. A tendency to employ only the best Aboriginal workers and for the rest to have even less work than before, is already discernible. Many pastoralists favour contract work in fencing, scrub clearing, ring barking and corn pulling ; the contract price offered to the mixed-blood is usually much less than would be acceptable to a white man. In contract cane cutting, sleeper cutting for the railways and timber felling for the saw mills, Aborigines are in competition with white workers, and receive the same rates.
Among pastoralist employers, economic discrimination is justified by arguing that the mixed-blood is not worth as much as a white employee, that he does not work as hard and is unpunctual. Infrequently it is also argued that he has not as high a standard of living as a white man, and that anything beyond a bare subsistence wage will be spent on drink and gambling.
The mixed-blood argues that until he is paid wages comparable to those of white employees, he will not work as hard ; why should he do as much for less money? and how can one work on an empty belly ? Though this is merely one aspect of a wider question of race relations in general, the statements of the employers in support of the system are not altogehter rationalisations. Other members of the white community who are not economically interested in the pastoral industries express similar opinions. A Railway superintendent and his chief clerk, responsible for the employment of Aborigines (and whites) on the maintenance of rolling stock in the workshops at D., the manager of a mine and the owner of a timber mill all agreed with the stereotype, though insisting that there were many exceptions. The mine manager considered about fifty per cent of his Aboriginal employees " satisfactory ", and that these were the " equal of white workers ". The Railway superintendent praised two individuals highly, but found the rest most " unsatisfactory ". All his Aboriginal employees were members of an all- Aboriginal football team, and he complained that training for matches took priority over regular attendance at work. The men concerned were all urban mixed bloods.
The Station or Reserve as an Economic Group
The Aboriginal Station consists of a series of related families. Most of these families have branches reckoned either patrilineally or matrilineally on other stations and reserves within the tribal area, and less intensive connections with families in other tribal territories. The Station itself forms the largest consumption group, and the mother and her children the smallest.
Those families headed by a man able to work depend almost entirely on what he earns for their support, though this is supplemented slightly by child endowment. Families which are not headed by a man (e.g. a series of children born by one woman to different fathers) and those whose male head is either too old or too unhealthy to work, depend on rations issued by the Aborigines Welfare Board, on child endowment, on the few shillings a week that a woman can earn as a casual domestic, or sometimes on age or invalid pensions.
The second type of family comprises about 33% on the U. Station. Each family averages just over two children under the age of fifteen, and the average age of the mother is about 34 years. Just over half of these women have never had permanent spouses (legal or de facto) and the remainder have been deserted by their husbands. Very few of these women can hope for a permanent union in the future, and many families which now fall into the first family type will ultimately belong to the second. The proportion of the two family types in this community is fairly constant, and the legality of a union does not seem to be a significant factor in its stability.
The first type of family, in which there is a male bread-winner, would at U. average under 5 pound per week income over the year. Very few men can earn more than 7/10/- per week, and there are always long periods of unemployment, voluntary and enforced. Probably longer periods of unemployment will cancel out the economic benefit to be expected from the recent increase in wages. Work, for which a pastoralist would have once employed an Aborigine, he will now do himself, or else lie will give preference to a white employee
The income is something the same at D.U. and D., but considerably higher at X. and C, where timber or mine work yield wages of between 12 pound and 18 pound per week. In the last two areas, the average income (taking periods of unemployment into consideration) would be about 8 to 9 pound per week. It is significant that at U the Station handy-man (employed by the Welfare Board at 10 pound per week) was the subject of envy, whereas at X., he was not even mentioned as having a good job.
On these wages, a wife and an average of three children live. Nor is a child economically independent immediately upon leaving school. Few males and considerably fewer females can find employment under the age of eighteen. As one father expressed it, " I don't expect them to make more than picture money/* He was keeping three adolescent sons, and his half-brother was supporting two.
Adolescent children are not the only economic liability of the mixed-blood wage earner. Relatives, unemployed, unemployable, or temporarily without money are constantly seeking financial help or are inviting themselves to meals. He may be asked to feed two or three children during the absence of parents, or these might be sent along to be fed when the parents have insufficient food for them. Only in a minority of cases do people realize that this is going on, and fewer still complain about it. It is noticeable that even those who do complain, continue to play their part in the pattern.
Borrowing and counter-borrowing are modern reflections of the native kinship system. Reciprocity is no longer determined strictly by the particular relationship between two people, but rather by the proximity of the relationship, and the strength of the bond differs from family to family. Generally the basic principle of the equivalence of siblings of the same sex is the determinant in contemporary behaviour. This means, in practice, that one borrows from or expects one's children to be fed by one's brothers or one's wife's sisters. Certainly, a similar bond exists between siblings of the opposite sex, and among the younger people at least, there is a tendency for the children of these to be called " son and daughter ". This is an interesting aspect of the breakdown of geographic exogamy ; people who once could not have belonged to the same local group, now do, and the kin system is being modified to suit the new conditions.
In the North Coast area, probably more so than anywhere else in the State, the indigenous kinship system is still very much alive, and because the old patterns of ritual obligation, avoidance and authority have largely broken down, it tends, to be interpreted predominantly in economic terms. It is no longer feasible ta avoid one's sister, but the bond of blood can still be expressed by a willingness to lend her money.
From the foregoing, it will be clear that in these mixed-blood communities the biological family is far from being a discrete self-supporting unit, nor is it necessarily the same as the economic family. An important corollary of the kinship system is the frequency with which children are " adopted ". The form of adoption practiced is rather different from its European equivalent, for the child, it may only mean going to live next door, no real severance of relations with the actual parents occurring. Besides expressing kin solidarity, adoption also plays an important part in strengthening it. It is significant that it is not necessarily the families who are most prosperous who have adopted children. Very frequently old age pensioners in their sixties and seventies, with grown and married families, will adopt young children of relations.
This brings us to what is perhaps the most important aspect of the problem, the approach to the birth and rearing of children. In very few families are children considered as an economic asset or liability. They are not something one can " afford " or " not afford " ; their more or less regular arrival is taken for granted, and the rearing of a large family is very nearly a condition of existence like eating and sleeping. For this reason, no interest is shown in methods of birth control. The only technique used at all is coitus interruptus, and this in casual liasons rather than among married couples. The bearing and rearing of children continues until the menopause ; pregnancy is of more or less regular occurrence, not something experienced once or twice in a lifetime. The infant mortality rate is very high, hardly a woman on X station has not lost one or more children. In one family of fifteen, only three reached maturity. In another family, only three children remain of a family of eight. Such instances are even more usual at U. and C. Miscarriages, also are frequent, and sometimes, induced.
If a mixed-blood is prosperous, he will often rear his own and someone else's children as well ; if he is so destitute as to be unable to feed all his children, he may pass some of them on to a relative, either " lending " or " giving " them to him. Generally, one rears as many children as possible.