Alook At Them Blokes! Got No Bloody Control See@: Alcohol Consumption and the Australian Aborigine

ABSTRACT - In Australia, alcohol has been central to Aboriginal-European relations since occupation. It signifies more than simply another commodity. Its use by Aborigines symbolically represents acceptance and inclusion within mainstream Australian society. To non-Aborigines, however, Aboriginal alcohol consumption more often symbolises lack of control, violent behaviour and Aboriginal untrustworthiness. It is also having a disastrous impact on remote Aboriginal communities of the Kimberley and is the major cause of their contemporary health problems. This study attempts to identify the reasons for alcohol abuse in these communities and the attempts to cope with the problem from an Aboriginal perspective.


Ronald Groves and Russell W. Belk (2001) ,"Alook At Them Blokes! Got No Bloody Control See@: Alcohol Consumption and the Australian Aborigine", in AP - Asia Pacific Advances in Consumer Research Volume 4, eds. Paula M. Tidwell and Thomas E. Muller, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 310-317.

Asia Pacific Advances in Consumer Research Volume 4, 2001      Pages 310-317


Ronald Groves, Edith Cowan University, Australia

Russell W. Belk, University of Utah, U.S.A.

[This quotation is by a 50-year-old reformed Aboriginal alcoholic who is now active in alcohol rehabilitation programs in his community.]


In Australia, alcohol has been central to Aboriginal-European relations since occupation. It signifies more than simply another commodity. Its use by Aborigines symbolically represents acceptance and inclusion within mainstream Australian society. To non-Aborigines, however, Aboriginal alcohol consumption more often symbolises lack of control, violent behaviour and Aboriginal untrustworthiness. It is also having a disastrous impact on remote Aboriginal communities of the Kimberley and is the major cause of their contemporary health problems. This study attempts to identify the reasons for alcohol abuse in these communities and the attempts to cope with the problem from an Aboriginal perspective.


During the first two thirds of the Twentieth Century, when colonial governments prohibited the sale of alcohol to Aborigines on the grounds of 'protecting their interests,’ it became the central issue in Aboriginal-police relations. This remains the case today. Police arrest Aborigines at forty times the rate of non-Aborigines and detain them at twenty times the rate, while almost half the Aboriginal males in the Kimberley have been in prison; most can anticipate incarceration at some time in their life, especially for an alcohol-related incident (Hunter 1993). Alcohol abuse is also having a disastrous impact on family and community structure and health in remote Aboriginal communities. It is the most significant single cause of contemporary Aboriginal health problems in the Kimberley. This study attempts to identify the reasons for alcohol abuse among Aborigines and their attempts to cope with the problem from an Aboriginal perspective.

Cultural change and the sharing ethos

The history of the Australian Aborigine only began with European settlement and what is commonly termed 'traditional’ Aboriginal lifestyle is in reality a European interpretation. More careful accounts suggest that traditional Aboriginal societies and cultures were complex with well defined strategies for location, group size and food distribution as well as sophisticated rules of exchange, sharing and reciprocity (Berndt and Berndt 1992). To European settlers, who had developed an urbanised, sedentary agrarian lifestyle the nomadic Aboriginal economic lifestyle seemed incomprehensible (Dingle 1988). The Australian Aborigine could hardly have been subjugated by people more different than themselves.

Following European occupation of the western half of the Australian continent, the appropriation of land by settlers resulted in intense confrontation from pearlers, pastoralists, miners, and Christian missions. In each case Aboriginal material culture was intentionally altered and consumer goods used, sometimes in combination with physical force, to achieve compliance with European wishes. When the pearling industry developed during the 1870s, European and Asian crewmen sought Aboriginal women for sexual gratification. These women were either abducted or willingly exchanged by Aboriginal males in return for European consumer goods, particularly tobacco, gin and rations (Elkin 1964).

From 1884, the Kimberley was settled by pastoralists crossing the continent from the east. In order to induce Aborigines in the Kimberley to become stockmen and housekeepers and stop them from spearing station beef for food, pastoralists offered rations of clothing and boots, tobacco, alcohol, flour, sugar and tea (Rowse 1987). Frontier mining towns provided another opportunity for the introduction and diffusion of consumer goods among Aborigines. Women were taken forcibly or sold into prostitution in return for goods, particularly flour, sugar, tea and tobacco (Reynolds 1982). Stanner (1960, p.78) recounted the resulting breakdown of traditional Aboriginal society:

Many of the preconditions of traditional culture were goneBa self-sufficient population, a self-sustaining economy, discipline by elders, and confident dependency on nature were largely lost within a generation.

Nevertheless, Aboriginal world-views and traditional values were partly maintained in a relatively secure and stable environment.

Missionaries represented the most complex and enduring of all influences on Aboriginal culture (Hunter 1993). The Aborigines soon recognised that the missions provided a sanctuary from the deprivations inflicted by pastoralists, pearlers and miners and provided another source of European commodities, such as tools, flour, sugar and especially tobacco, which could be exchanged for work and attendance at payer meetings (Huffer 1983). Stanner (1979) claimed that Aborigines, who had gone to the missions as children, showed that the Aboriginal desire for tobacco and tea was so intense that none could bear to go without. Addiction to these stimulants resulted, he argues, in cravings and uncommon displays of jealousy, ill will and even violence over the division of small quantities. Yet whole tribes continued to move to where these avidly desired things could be obtained. The effects of this paternalistic generosity also generated feelings of dependency and inferiority together with a structured inequality of superficial obedience and gratitude (Willis 1988). At the end of a career focused on the Wadeye community, Stanner wrote:

I know of no Aborigines who appear to want to live in a style of life in which there will be no element of Europeanism... I know many individual persons- and not only the elderly- who passionately want to keep to old ways and old things, but I do not recall one who wanted to shut out all European ways and things... Everywhere I have been in recent years there has been an expressed want for at least pieces of our instrumental cultureCgoods, money, transportCto be used in a combination of their own choice within their own life purposes. We know that this response has in a broad sense been continuous and universal since the earliest days of contact. But widely the expressed wants are now more elaborate and far-reaching (1979, p368).

By the start of the twentieth century most Aborigines lived on reserves and depended on Europeans for scarce employment. The ban on alcohol, firearms, voting, and miscegenation was only lifted in 1967 (Biskup 1973). Starting at this time, Federal government policy encouraged the preservation of remaining Aboriginal culture and focused on 'Self Determination,’ with the ultimate goal being Aboriginal economic self-sufficiency and control of their own destiny.

There is still far to go before this is achieved. Over half of Australia’s Aborigines remain unemployed, which is more than six times the national average (McDonald 1987). In the remote outback areas where our data were collected, the majority of Aborigines survive on various types of government welfare. Ninety percent live below the poverty line (Evans 1989). The Aboriginal communities of the Kimberley region depend almost totally on welfare (Yu 1994). A large proportion of this welfare is returned to the Government through the medium of taxes, especially on alcohol sales. Nearly half of the Aborigines in the Kimberley live in over-crowded government housing, often without sewage. Life expectancy at birth is 20 years less than the national average and only seventeen percent of Aborigines finish high school (McDonald 1987). In an effort not to seem paternalistic, government welfare programs for Aborigines lack controls on how money is spent.

The sharing ethos

Traditional Aboriginal society had a deep-seated sharing ethos, needed for survival. This involved a network of commitments, duties and debts, based upon reciprocity with sanctions for non-reciprocity (Thompson 1949), although the act of giving was considered more important than the gift itself (Stanner 1979).

The rules for sharing material goods were different to those for food, especially where survival was not a major issue. When weapons, or land, were shared for hunting an obligation to share whatever resulted from their use was expected (Altman 1987). Following settlement, problems arose because of the dichotomy between European and Aboriginal ways of controlling the distribution of food and material goods, particularly cash and market goods that had not existed in traditional Aboriginal society. While the sharing of bush food in traditional society overcame problems of perishability, most contemporary market foods are not subject to this problem. However, kinship obligations and a desire for social harmony have resulted in a strong sharing ethos continuing. In cotemporary Aboriginal society there is a strong expectation that durable goods, such as rifles, video recorders, and motor vehicles, will be shared communally. Cash is shared even more than market foods, being readily asked for and given, especially with the arrival of food supplies in remote areas. Although no records are kept, a balanced reciprocity prevails over time and those who continually request without reciprocating are avoided. Communal gambling and alcohol drinking are also major occasions for sharing cash (Altman 1987). While gambling and drinking are considered occasions for leisure, excitement and social cohesion, they also often result in dissension, conflict and dispersion. Alcohol continues to wreak havoc among communities and suicides continue at well above the rate of non-indigenous Australians. Alcohol occasions neglect and abuse within the family and exacerbates already severe health problems.


The data for this study were collected from 1992 to 1995 within three remote Aboriginal communities in the north-western region of Australia. The first two (Lombadina and Kalumburu) are in the Kimberley region. The third (Wadeye) is across the state border between the Kimberley and Arnhemland. All three are coastal communities where tribal groups have been combined through external pressure. While Lombadina and Kalumburu are small (less than 70 and 300 residents respectively), Wadeye is one of the largest remote Aboriginal communities in Australia (more than 1,500 residents). All are isolated for some months each year by monsoonal weather conditions and Kalumburu and Wadeye are also 400 Kilometres from major towns. Lombadina is within a two-hour drive of two major towns. Each is remote, self- contained and Aboriginal controlled. Each community has been strongly influenced by mission contact. At Wadeye the mission maintains a strong social and economic presence, operating the school and church services as well as craft shops and stores. Although this community has been officially self-governing for almost twenty years, the mission continues to wield significant control over the daily activities of many residents. At Lombadina the mission has also lost official control but maintains power through continued social and economic activities. In Kalumburu the mission has physically vacated the community. The initial data were collected as part of a large group project, while five subsequent visits comprised smaller teams of researchers. The data collection comprised observations of daily consumption activities, which were recorded into field notes, as well as unstructured interviews with Aborigines and non-Aboriginal store managers, health workers, school teachers, general workers, police officers and mission personnel. Both participant observation and semi-structured interviews were conducted. Most of the interviews were either audio or video recorded and transcribed, along with the authors’ field notes. These materials were analysed with the aid of a computer software program for qualitative data retrieval (ZyIndex). While the real names of the communities are used, pseudonyms have been used to protect the anonymity of informants.


Contrary to the common stereotype of "the drunken Aboriginal man" within Australian society (Fiske, Hodge, and Turner 1987; Langton 1993), figures show that the Kimberley Aborigines have a higher percentage of non-drinkers (24 percent among males and 54 percent among females) than the general Australian population and have a significantly higher proportion of reformed drinkers than the non-Aboriginal population of the Kimberleys (Hunter, Hall and Spargo 1992). Part of the explanation for this 'drunken man’ stereotype is the greater visibility of Aboriginal drinking in public open spaces compared to non-Aborigines who indulge withi the privacy of houses or the sanctity of the 'pub.’ This explanation is supported by Terry, a fifty-year-old Aboriginal male who was educated at the Lombadina mission, joined a cattle station and learnt the skills needed to become a ringer. After several periods in prison for alcohol related crimes, he reformed and now leads the anti-alcohol program in Kununurra. He speaks of the difference between 'whitefellas’ and Aborigines and the unfortunate reputation that his people have earned:

The main fact is for the gudija people, or non-Aboriginals, they’re hidin’. Yeah they hide and drink. The whitefellas are just as bad with drinkin’ but you don’t see them, they drink at home and in the pubs. Our mob drink in the open. So everyone says, "Look at them blokes! Got no bloody control see."

He went on to explain how this 'drunken’ stereotype developed:

We got tourists comin’ in, pull up for one day and see two or three Aborigine people fall arse over head and they’re drunk. And they go to the next town and they say Aborigines is a bunch of drunks.

Terry denounces this drinking behaviour, however, and relates how it degrades his people and gives a poor impression to others,

Everybody don’t like to see the rubbish outside the hotel there, left in the morning after a night drinking. They don’t like to see the rubbish at White Gum Park there. They don’t like to see some drunken person walking in the shop and making a fool of themselves. So they don’t like these problems happening but no one don’t want to do anything about it. So this is what we’re trying to do- something about it.

Figures also indicate that an estimated 85 percent of the Aborigines who drink have an alcohol problem (Hunter, Hall, and Spargo 1992), with one survey showing the median consumption rate per drinking day for young males being 169 grams (equivalent to eleven cans of full strength beer) and 88 grams for young women (Hunter 1993, p.104).

Prior studies have suggested that alcohol abuse by Aborigines is a colonial legacy (Berndt and Berndt 1992). Alcohol was a prominent part of frontier life, with its isolation and social pressure to consume, and indeed it continues to be excessive in contemporary outback Australia. Langton (1993) argued that alcohol was intentionally used to "tame" the Aborigine, while Howard (1982) proposed that Aboriginal drinking habits, especially the loss of inhibitions and alcohol associated violence, were learned from observing colonials.

The government imposed prohibition period encouraged secretive binge drinking. Further social disruption occurred as 'card carrying’ [Aborigines could apply for citizenship that was identified by the carrying of a card. However, this citizenship was subject to meeting prohibitive conditions. These included supplying; two references from reputable citizens certifying industrious habits; evidence that citizenship would be conducive to the applicant=s welfare; and that the applicant was fluent in English, was of good reputation and not suffering from disease. Citizenship could be revoked for any offence including drunkenness.] mixed descent Aborigines, who were not subject to these restrictions, attained higher status in their communities because of their ability to drink in the 'whitefella’s pubs,’ as well as provide illegal supplies to other Aborigines. Terry describes how this system operated when he was a ringer:

So he had the citizen rights but he used to buy grog for all his ringers, you know, all his working men and they sort of drink in the quiet. And they were frightened to drink out in public because they didn’t want to get caught probably the bloke who bought the grog he would have been in more serious trouble, you know. Probably the whole lot would have got locked up. All I can say is I think the citizen rights really buggered every body up all the Aboriginal people. You see alcohol was never a problem before citizen rights came out.

Following the granting of citizenship rights in 1967, the situation changed dramatically and social disruption increased further. Terry explains the difference in contemporary thinking between the younger and older Aborigines:

The old people usually say to the young fella, "You fella no good. When I was young we never used to do them sort of things." But when they was young there was no bloody drinking then see. So they never had no access to alcohol and all this sort of thing. So the young fellas could be doing the same thing if living in the country back then, you know. I suppose myself as well. But we were born in the citizens rights days and everything changed now.

The problems associated with the upsurge in Aboriginal alcohol consumption since 1967 have been attributed to a diversity of causes including; (1) the breakdown of traditional social control mechanisms and expressive outlets; (2) a lack of means for establishing and ritually enacting group identity; (3) non-observance of indigenous rules of behaviour for alcohol consumption, combined with a culturally infused sharing ethos; (4) resistance expressed through non-compliance with the work ethic and the imposed order of the non-Aboriginal world; and (5) a lack of processes for reducing tensions and frustrations occurring as a result of poverty, unemployment, discrimination, boredom and dislocation (Altman 1987; Huffer 1983; Langton 1993; Sackett 1988). This last reason, in particular, could explain the greater incidence of alcohol abuse among males who have lost more status in the change from a tradition-oriented to welfare culture. Informants claim that alcohol offered an opportunity for the release and expression of emotions that are otherwise culturally inappropriate. This is illustrated by comments about drunken bragging, spousal abuse, belligerent talk, and other violence. Kenny, a reforming forty year old Aboriginal male alcoholic recently incarcerated for car theft, explains the tendency of his people toward abusiveness while drinking:

Drinking more or less gives them courage to say things they won’t say when they’re sober or do things that they won’t do when they’re sober. I mean now when you are sober, you ask your wife to do something, and she don’t do it, then you think "Okay". But if you are drunk, and you ask your wife to do it and she doesn’t, then you just give her your hand. And then if you’re the sort of bloke who gets courage out of grog you know, you probably take it out on somebody else in the pub or something.

With regard to identity, the ringer is the most alluring and enduring role model for Aboriginal males in outback Australia. For many, the initial attraction to drinking is related to this glamorous lifestyle in which alcohol is perceived to be an integral part. Once they begin drinking, peer pressure or 'mateship’ often reinforces their alcohol consumption behaviours. Terry reflected on the original reasons for his own drinking problem:

Well in the ringing days there is some sort of word out that everyone felt that all the ringers were the tough men. All the tough people. So every time they come in town they all got on the booze and everyone in town, the people used to work in town, they was all the weak mob. The ringers were all the tough mob. So to be one of them I had to drink with them as well because well otherwise they kept saying that if you don’t drink with us your not one of us. You know. So I thought to myself "Why not". So I joined the party. So I drank and I carried on I think the way everyone else did. Like boozing up and fighting and so on. I felt really good the first time I got into a fight and I knocked someone down and I thought I was a big man. Then I thought, the next day, when I got sobered up, I got a lot of booming up from my mates and everyone else said, "You done a good job, you beat that lug." So I felt good inside for some reason, I can’t explain to this day aswell, you know. Yeah, well, I think it was peer pressure from this mob I think which made me drink. They never actually grabbed the can of beer or whatever and poured it down my throat. But I wanted to drink too I think.

And it is not only the role model of ringers that is used as a form of identity. At Wadeye, in particular, there is a strong network of males who associate through drinking, often driving to nearby communities where alcohol restrictions have not been implemented. There is also a strong community division between 'the drinkers’ and those who refrain. The lack of rules relating to inebriation in subgroups within Aboriginal culture, combined with the culturally infused sharing ethos, exacerbate the problem of alcohol consumption. A police officer in a town in close proximity to one of the communities studied, and often frequented by community members, describes the scenario of daily events prior to the introduction of an alcohol containment policy in the town:

Half past eight in the morning they would open and the people or the drinkers that we’re talking about, drank casks of Coolabah Moselle wine. It’s cheap for the volume you get and its 12 per cent alcohol and it does the job more or less. People up here, you have to perhaps understand, that they don’t come home at the end of a day after a hard day’s work and have a couple of beers. Most of these people don’t work or they can’t work, there’s just no employment for them and its not having a social drink with friends. Its a situation where you buy your grog, you then drink it as quick as you can or someone else will drink it on you. And once you’ve drunk yours you go and look for someone else who’s got some grog if you have no money. And again the problem extends from the cultural situation of the Aboriginal people where whoever had got the meat for the day is obliged to share it with other people who weren’t so fortunate. Those days have changed but the culture is still there that if you’ve got money you’re obliged to share it with people. If you’ve got alcohol you’re obliged to share it with everybody, so perhaps you can expect from the personal thing that you know, this is my money I worked for it if you like, I’ve bought my grog so I know I’ve got to share it but I’m gonna get my fair go out of it first. At the end of the day people were drunk to the state of just about unconsciousness, by about ten o’clock in the morning.

The proposal that drinking to excess is a form of resistance, expressed through non-compliance with the work ethic and order imposed by the non-Aboriginal world, is supported by our field observations of the conspicuous litter of beer cans and wine cartons, plus the increased aggressiveness toward non-Aborigines following consumption of alcohol. It is most conspicuous in the adjoining communities of Lombadina, which controls alcohol usage, and Djarindjin that lacks control over the consumption of alcohol. A number of the Lombadina residents comment on the lack of work ethic and self-control of Djarindjin residents. Bruce, a non-Aboriginal male married to an Aboriginal woman from Lombadina has worked in both communities. He explains what he believes are the differences:

Certainly the difference is there and it is not just in their houses, it is the pride in their work, pride in their community in the general sense, and I suppose pride in themselves, in looking after themselves as well. Because the health and well being of the people on this side far exceeds those on the other side. And it’s the alcohol you know.

Albert, a fifty-year-old Aboriginal man working in Lombadina, confirms how his people take a pride in their community:

They keep everything tidy. You’ve got the community centre. You’ve got this church, very clean and everything. Another sports entre they just done up, you know restored. They’re more active. Lots of workshops where they do all sorts of things. And they control the alcohol.

Views of the causes of, and solutions to, the Aboriginal alcohol problem fit within three general groupings according to non-Aboriginal writers: (1) 'lack of self control’ and inaction; (2) 'deviant’ behaviour requiring incarceration; and (3) poverty and disadvantage with decriminalisation of public intoxication and provision of assistance programs. Overall, the field observations and informant comments regarding contemporary alcohol abuse suggest five causes: (1) resistance to imposed social norms, (2) a rationale for emotional release, (3) emulation of ringer drinking behaviour, (4) peer pressure and (5) the culturally infused sharing ethos. Excessive drinking does not harm only the drinker, however, and the major problem facing the three communities is not so much the treatment of alcohol abuse as its impact upon the community as a whole.

Social impacts of alcohol consumption

Berndt and Berndt (1992) suggest that alcohol consumption is a patterned behaviour linked to positive Aboriginal values, such as social dependency and reciprocity and, as such, is regarded as a desirable and expected way of life. However, few researchers of Aboriginal alcohol consumption would dispute that alcohol has had a damaging impact on tradition-oriented lifestyle, family and community structure, and health. A director of nursing at one of the community health clinics distinguishes between the direct and indirect effects of alcohol:

The side of the alcohol problems that we see is normally the effect rather than the causes of the alcoholism and all the rest, most of our work revolves around violence-related trauma, trauma-related violence that comes in. Then there’s skin diseases, failing to thrive, small babies. Rather than just the direct effects of alcohol a lot of the problems that we have with the people that come into the hospital are sick from the effects of it, so [it] disrupts your social life. Money that’s spent on alcohol is diverted from looking after children, from giving them good food, good shelter, clothing. We get the direct effects as well as the number of alcohol-related diseases that come in here. People come in with alcohol-related diseases or alcohol-related trauma or domestic violence as a result of having drunk lots of alcohol, fightingCthings like that. The secondary effects mostly centre [on] the secondary related diseases like epilepsy related to alcoholism, or epilepsy as a result of trauma being sparked off by the alcoholic being injured over possessions. A lot of the fights seem to be over small things, such as stealing food.

Aboriginal death rates in the Kimberley are still more than double those of the wider Australian population. Even more significant however, the incidence of Aboriginal deaths from external causes has increased significantly since the lifting of restrictions on the sale of alcohol to Aborigines in the Kimberley (Hunter 1993). A study, conducted nearly twenty years after alcohol prohibition ended, showed that twenty percent of Aboriginal male deaths and thirteen percent of Aboriginal female deaths in the Kimberley were from external causes, rising to eighty percent among the 15-24 year old age group. Motor vehicle accidents and suicide accounted for more than half of all external deaths, with alcohol being involved in sixty percent of them (Hunter 1993, p. 154). Reported Aboriginal suicides in the Kimberley increased from one during the 1960s to twenty one during the 1980s. The cause of death is uniformly violent (almost three quarters by hanging) with three quarters of the victims having a history of alcohol abuse and none having any form of earned income at the time of death (Hunter 1993, p. 135). Almost all incidents of family violence observed or described, were ale initiated and contained within the community. A ninth grade child in one of the community schools wrote in an essay: "Alcohol makes them go silly and then they go and break into buildings and they flog their wives." This is supported by research in other Aboriginal communities indicating that the major causal factor for alcoholism is the diminution of male power, both economic and sacred (Swain 1993).

Initially, the imposition of European control caused massive disruption to existing male-female power relationships. This was further disrupted by mission policies banning ritual practices and traditional partner choice, both domains of male power (Burbank 1988). However, the major impact followed the shift to welfare dependency as women gained control of expenditure, and consequently power. The reversal of power roles further undermined male self-esteem leading to their adopting alcohol as a perceived means of empowerment (Altman 1987).

It is also alcohol that provides the excuse for 'uncontrolled’ increases in retaliatory violence against women. This relationship between alcohol and violence is supported by a review of twenty Aboriginal women admitted to the hospital in Broome following domestic violence. In all but one case, the assailant was the woman’s partner and alcohol was involved in eighteen of the cases (Hunter 1983). He goes on to argue that: "Aboriginal male violence toward women, thus, represents a displacement of rage from the perceived oppression of a dominant and excluding culture, to the perceived beneficiaries intra-culturally, encouraged and enabled by alcohol’s brief, illusory empowerment (1983, p. 193)". Dietary induced health problems are exacerbated through behaviours associated with alcohol abuse. Excessive transport costs and high government taxes result in a significant premium on beer, the alcoholic beverage of first choice in those communities that allow drinking. This increases health problems when limited funds are appropriated from food. There are numerous complaints about children attempting to steal food from stores, while others treat themselves to diets of sweets and soft drink using money received from parents involved in alcoholic consumption. Terry, spoke of these problems:

We can see that it has a big effect on our communities. Some problems are like, kids going to school with no lunch money and some of them go to school a bit dirty, no clean clothes, and kids going to different families looking for food and maybe the dependent member spending a lot of money on booze and not buying any tucker, and all this sort of thing.

Community controls

All three communities recognise the problems associated with alcoholism and attempt, with varying degrees of success, to control them. Mechanisms adopted to resist alcohol abuse range from complete bans on consumption within the community, to the banishment of drunks. Hours of alcohol sales and the amount of alcohol that may be purchased each day are restricted and reduced alcohol beer (3.5 percent) is encouraged. The Aboriginal council at Kalumburu imposed a complete ban on the consumption of alcohol within the community with banishment for any person who breaks this by-law. Although outwardly successful, many informants speak of males, especially those winning substantial amounts in gambling games, chartering flights to Darwin to consume alcohol. This drains money from the community and also removes males. This community does have a disproportionate number of single women and children. It seems that the alcohol problem has been exported while its ramifications remain. The Wadeye Aboriginal council has also banned the consumption of alcohol within the community but operates a social club that opens for two hours every day except Sunday and limits sales to four cans per day. All alcohol must be consumed within the confines of the club and control is maintained by selling tickets to eligible drinkers. These tickets are exchanged for cans. While reasonably successful, three associated problems have arisen. Firstly, females give their allocated cans to their males, thus encouraging rapid consumption within the time limit. Secondly, drinkers often drive to neighbouring communities where restrictions do not apply. This has resulted in alcohol related road accidents and even deaths among returning drinkers. Thirdly, the club closes for the three weeks of 'bush week’ ["Bush Week" involves families leaving the communities and spending up to three weeks living on their tribal lands. Whilst bush foods are consumed the families also take large provisions of store bought foods.] to support traditional hunting and gathering practices. Although there are a large number of problem drinkers, informants say that the draw of bush week is greater than that of alcohol. Colin, a thirty year old non-drinking Aboriginal artist, confirms this:

Some of them go across to Peperminatti. The community is not too far from here and they can get alcohol there. Or Daly River or some of them will just go the whole way down to Darwin for a couple of weeks. I don’t think many of them go there instead of bush. The only reason is for the alcohol.

Despite the controls, drunkenness and violence still occur. In 1978, and again ten years later, the non-drinkers of Wadeye destroyed the social club by driving a bulldozer through the building. While this was reported in local and national news as a riot, it is viewed very differently in Wadeye, as Colin explains:

If you read in the papers, riots and things, we say "What riot?" Someone’s been making up stories. It’s not true. When they broke into the club, they didn’t hurt any white people. They pushed back the manager and they said "Look mate, we don’t want to hurt you, we just want to stop this club from opening till we can sort out community problems because the alcoholics and the leaders couldn’t make a strong decision about the young."

The two Bardi communities have different controls. By-laws banning alcohol from the Djarindjin community are not enforced and, consequently, drunkenness and violence is experienced. Grace, a previous Djarindjin chairperson, speaks of these problems:

It’s brought in. Anyone that’s got a vehicle comes back loaded. Some people bring it in and sell it. They actually barred one bloke from the community for selling drugs and alcohol, but it hasn’t cut it out. So if they’ve got one person, somebody else’s still going. In fact it’s got to the kids now.

Ben, the Chairman of Lombadina, believes that the problems faced by his Djarindjin neighbours are due to the lack of enforced controls. The council discourages alcohol but does not enforce the bylaws. He explains:

They’re not doing it. I don’t know what the thing is. They started with a carton a week. Each person. Well, imagine a whole group with cartons. They got to sort it out. I think their bylaws are being put into place now. Once they say it. I mean a thousand times you say "no grog here", you’ll never stop it.

The most successful controls are in Lombadina, where those who work thirty five hours per week on the local CDEP program [In CDEP projects the community decides what work residents must do to qualify for their payments. Because there is little work to be done and increased hardship will be created if payments are not made, the work is often low level with little distinction between workers and non-workers (Rowse 1993).] are allowed up to five cans of reduced alcohol beer each weeknight. All alcohol must be consumed within the confines of the social club and control is strictly enforced. Ben describes the rationale behind this decision:

We decided to have a few cans of Gold like every night instead of bringing in the other stuff. A few bottles of wine and everybody would go crazy. Too sick to go to work. We can have five cans every night, even a bit more, and next day there’s nothing wrong.

Another control mechanism gaining poularity is the outstation movement where extended family groups move to tribal lands to escape the alcohol and gambling abuses. Outstations also enable the power structure to be restored and older males to teach traditional practices to children. They are not without their cost, however, as children are denied formal education skills and modern services are severely restricted. Ben gives his views on these shortcomings:

People don’t realise it. Fair enough they want their place, I reckon they go back to their place fair enough, but to live there, what they going to do? They might as well stay here where you’ve got the power, you’ve got the hospital here, you’ve got the school there, you’ve got shops here, everything.

In all but one of the communities, the abuses of alcohol are wreaking havoc on social structures, health and child nutrition. Unless strict controls are enforced, these communities face an uncertain future. While it appears that the outstation movement is providing temporary relief from the worst of community life, some evidence suggests that they may be destined to become victim to the lures of modern consumer goods.

Aboriginal self development

A final factor implicated in Aboriginal drinking involves the welfare state. Despite the ongoing impact of Europeans on Aboriginal society during the last two hundred years, the welfare system implemented during the 1970s has arguably had greater impact. The chairman of Lombadina outlines what he believes is the problem:

If you look at the other side now, that was going to all be run by Aboriginal people, but it’s all Europeans still there. Administrators, mechanics, project officers, shop keepers and whatever. It’s still the same. It’s no different. Whether the Church had it or outside people. But if you want to sit back and the money’s still going to come in, who wants to work?

Father Leary agrees that the cash inflow from the welfare results in more non-Aboriginal administrators who tell Aborigines how to live, placing further pressure on the community. He recounts the Aboriginal reaction to the introduction of the cash economy at Wadeye:

I remember the first pay packet that came into the place. And I remember Harry Pulada, the bush carpenter, he called a meeting. I think he must have had a speaker system because I can remember his voice as clear as can be. He was a good talker and he said, "This is something very new. It’s a new way of living". And they were all nodding, and he said, "It’s not my way of living. My old way is to take my kids and teach them how to hunt and live in the country. But this is something new. From Monday to Friday no work and I get my tucker from this!" And he said, "I’m worried about all that. What if I leave my old way, where I know how to hunt and teach my kids to live in the bush? I’m going to end up a non person, a nobody." Well I say three cheers for Harry!

The social welfare system was designed to ensure cultural sensitivity, fairness and functionality. It was premised upon affiliation and consensual decision making administered through an elected Aboriginal community council with non-Aboriginal administrative assistance. The system was designed to enable community self development and self sufficiency but has failed to achieve these aims and has resulted in the introduction of new problems. Affiliation and consensual decision-making are not forthcoming because the communities are created entities rather than natural groupings. Kalumburu began as a combination of distinct tribal groups, with different languages and cultures and family rivalries continue to manifest themselves. At Wadeye, there are eleven interacting tribal groups. Father eary, who arrived some forty years before, recounts concerns expressed by Stanner:

When I first came the two main groups never get on. I think it probably went back centuries with the Marringarr physically dictating the Murrinh-patha. I think raiding across the river here and taking their women. There was a real hatred and Professor Stanner told me once that he thought there’d be wholesale bloodshed between the two groups one day, especially when alcohol came.

At Lombadina and Djarindjin, the situation is better because the groups, by and large, have a single culture. However, sufficient division and disagreement exists within the community to result in a physical border between the groups.

Under the welfare system operating in all three communities, almost every person relies solely on government payments. However, poverty, unemployment and boredom are prevalent. Eric, a non-Aboriginal electrician who has worked in Wadeye for seventeen years, speaks about the helplessness that has resulted from this lack of employment:

I feel sorry for these young blokes because I work in their houses, and I’ve got to wake them up and get them out of bed at ten in the morning so I can fix the light on their fan and then, I was thinking about it, because some of them are good blokes. As kids they went out bush with me, and I look at their kids and I think to myself. What are they going to tell their kids when they grow up and say, "What did you do when you were a young bloke daddy?" "Oh, I watched TV, watched videos, slept all day, went to the club in the afternoon and once a fortnight I walked down the office and collected my money."

At Lombadina, however, the CDEP is accepted as a means of learning new skills and relearning old traditional skills, establishing pride in community and individual achievements and raising hopes for a better future.

Overall, the welfare system has replaced the missions and community development has been constrained. While ensuring the politically and socially requisite safety net, it also retains the status quo by removing any desire for change. This inherently disguises its own failures. The CDEP program, while successful in one community, is not the answer. It is either too early, too divisive, too discriminatory, too restrictive, too difficult to administer, or too late. This endemic welfare dependency in remote Australia is of concern to Aboriginal spokesman Charles Perkins, who wrote:

We must throw of this yoke of welfare and the soul-destroying concept of welfare and the state of dependency which results from it. It is destroying us and will eventually do so completely (1991, p. 20).


While non-Aboriginal administrators and mission workers described the Aborigines in the three communities studied as unable to budget money in even the most rudimentary way, they do manage to do so when it comes to budgeting for alcohol consumption. Sharing practices can also be described as a basic form of budgeting and a powerful form of generalised reciprocity.

Alcohol has caused immense problems for Aboriginal people since restrictions on its sale were lifted, yet there is a positive side. Ironically, alcohol consumption practices provide social cohesiveness, particularly among males who have been marginalised and have lost self-esteem through the re-alignment of social power. Alcohol has eroded tradition-oriented cultural practices and alienated people yet has also enhanced the sharing ethos and suppressed the envy provocation central to many other consumer cultures.

The welfare system, that was established to alleviat Aboriginal disadvantage, has resulted in new asymmetries that are further distorted by the limited resources available in remote communities. Aborigines in these communities are entrenched within this system and do not appear to have benefited economically. Real employment is virtually non-existent and discrimination, alcoholism, malnutrition, poverty, feelings of helplessness, and low self-esteem are common. While factors related to European occupation are partly responsible for alcohol abuse and gambling, those associated with adverse social environments within the communities remain the major cause.

In these economies of scarcity and deprivation, those involved with alcohol consumption require more than their share of available money. The resultant appropriation of resources from sustenance and housing imposes additional social and economic burdens on others, in accordance with cultural expectations, to provide for neglected children. Health problems, nutritional deficiencies, as well as child and spousal abuse, are unfortunate consequences.

This situation is not unique to these remote communities. It is representative of many indigenous populations suffering poverty and marginalisation because of economic and cultural domination by an occupying society. Levels of poverty and marginalisation are arguably as bad in the communities studied as in any contemporary developing societies. The history of contact between European and Aboriginal cultures has ignored the Aboriginal viewpoint until very recently, although the impact of imposed European consumer goods, especially alcohol, on Aboriginal health is well researched. It is hoped that this study, by enabling the Aboriginal voice to be heard, has provided a fuller understanding of the Aboriginal response to alcohol abuse and their views on controlling the problem.


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Ronald Groves, Edith Cowan University, Australia
Russell W. Belk, University of Utah, U.S.A.


AP - Asia Pacific Advances in Consumer Research Volume 4 | 2001

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