I have a friend who has an autistic brother, actually autistic, not alt-right autistic. He is mentally five years old but has the muscular body of a 29 year old man. He lives on a non-profit farm in inland California with about fifteen other autistic men. They work on the farm, feeding the animals, picking crops and performing basic manual labour under heavy supervision. These young men in their twenties and thirties celebrate each other's birthdays with Disney themed parties, live as a community and pay for their upkeep through the proceeds of the farm produce. This system offers their often exhausted parents substantial peace of mind and reduced financial burdens. The autistic men enjoy a healthy lifestyle, a comfortingly rigid routine and daily interaction with their peers.
Something very much like this model was how Aboriginal communities were operated in Australia in the nineteenth century. Some of them were as successful in their own way as the model farm my friend's brother lives on. The Coranderrk Aboriginal Station, near Healesville in Victoria tied for the first prize for the best hops at the Melbourne International Exhibition in 1881 out of a field of at least twenty growers, beating out several German entries. The station was managed under strict Christian principles of hard work and sobriety by a Presbyterian minister named John Green. He gained the trust of his charges over many years, learned the Woiwurrung language and allowed traditional practices that did not conflict with Christianity. Agriculture flourished and the station was self-sufficient. Disputes were resolved internally between the elders and Green without government oversight. In 1874 when the Victorian government replaced Green with an Anglican the residents of Coranderrk led a long struggle for nearly a decade to reinstate him. Although the Aborigines of Coranderrk continued to be governed well the Anglican authorities had trouble keeping them away from Reverend Green's sermons on Sundays.
Other examples of successful missions from the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries abound. Hermannsburg in the Northern Territory and Aurukun in Far North Queensland are two prominent examples. The model that was most effective involved a strong white Christian patriarch of unimpeachable character enforcing a productive routine on Aboriginal people, while making allowances for their particular abilities and customs. Like John Green, Karl Strehlow of Hermannsburg, was betrayed by his urbanite colleagues and suffering from dropsy, was forced to travel by horse-drawn coach hundreds of kilometres through the desert to the nearest medical facilities. A motorcar was available to meet him but considered an unnecessary extravagance by the Methodist hierarchy, and Strehlow died en route. His death was mourned by the Aborigines of Hermannsburg and the site quickly fell into dysfunction. This story is documented in the excellent book Journey to Horseshoe Bend by Karl's son Ted Strehlow.
Aurukun is one of the most violent, alcohol dependent and dysfunctional Aboriginal communities in Australia. It has security cameras monitored remotely from Cairns twenty-four hours a day. School attendance is an afterthought. In 2016 teachers at the school were threatened with rocks and some children attempted to steal one of their cars. All teachers were evacuated from the community. It wasn't always this way. In the early twentieth century Aurukun was run by Presbyterian missionaries on behalf of the state government. The settlement boasted a sawmill, a butcher and other amenities. Now there is only one shop, selling pre-packaged goods. William McKenzie had a reputation for strict discipline, but it is difficult to imagine that the current lawlessness is an improvement.
Perhaps the most striking example of successful missionary guidance of an indigenous community is in the Torres Strait. Even in these heady PC times, the natives celebrate the anniversary of the “Coming of the Light” of Christianity on July 1, 1871, going so far as to re-enact the landing of the Reverend Samuel MacFarlane's ship on Darnley Island. As the Museum of Queensland website rather shamefacedly reports, “the acceptance of the missionaries and Christianity into the Torres Strait Islands is often credited with ending conflict between different island groups.” The missionaries also protected the natives in their dealings with rapacious capitalists in the fishing industries.
I once went hiking to the top of a minor Fijian island with a local guide to see an abandoned stone village that had been partially reclaimed by the jungle. When we came upon sunken fortifications with long pointed stones jutting from the side of earth ramparts, my guide explained that these were to repel invaders from the nearby islands. He further explained that villages in this area of Fiji were usually built at the highest point of an island for just this purpose and that going down to the water was a risk. Only after the missionaries brought peace could the Fijians abandon their stone villages for an easier lifestyle on the beaches and lagoons.
There is nothing except ideology stopping us bringing peace by reintroducing successful colonial era practices to Aboriginal communities today, but the pathological denial of human differences that pervades all our institutions and bureaucracies makes dignified living for Aboriginal people and the lower classes generally much harder. Pretending that such people can become successful professionals or self-directed tradies, is cruel and harmful. Expecting them to govern themselves well under a modern framework is categorically insane. We would never demand that my friend's autistic brother fend for himself in the labour market or participate in meaningful decision-making outside of which Lion King characters he wants at his birthday party. There is dignity in doing a job you are suited to, no matter how lowly. There is no shame in being supervised by someone higher than you. There was dignity and productivity for the Aborigines of Coranderrk, Hermannsburg and Aurukun. Now there is violence, disease, alcohol dependency and child abuse. The cost to the taxpayer is enormous, in the form of direct subsidy and the Aboriginal industry, but the cost in life is immeasurable. As with so much in clown world, the old fixes were better.