Culture and Closing the Gap

Culture and Closing the Gap (PDF 2.2 MB)

As strong cultural identity is fundamental to Indigenous health and wellbeing, Australian Government initiatives that strengthen Indigenous culture and languages are essential for Closing the Gap

The rich cultural practices, knowledge systems and cultural expressions of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples are a source of great strength, resilience and pride.

Strong cultural identity is fundamental to Indigenous health and social and emotional wellbeing.

Initiatives that strengthen Indigenous culture are therefore essential to Closing the Gap, which is a commitment by all Australian governments to work together to improve the lives of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, and in particular, to provide a better future for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children.

The impact of interrupted culture

The interruption of culture as a cause of Indigenous disadvantage cannot be overstated. Grief and loss are intergenerational effects of colonisation and the forced removal of the Stolen Generations.

The Bringing them Home and Deaths in Custody reports demonstrated the devastating impact that fractured culture has had, and the importance of valuing culture in healing this damage.

Culture as a strategy to promote strength, resilience and positive futures

Culture is an important factor to consider in policies and programs to improve outcomes for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.

Efforts to Close the Gap in disadvantage must recognise and build on the strength of Indigenous cultures and identities.
2008 National Indigenous Reform Agreement

Moreover, the strengthening of Indigenous culture is a strategy to reduce disadvantage in itself, holding enormous potential for contributing to Closing the Gap outcomes. Keeping Indigenous culture strong is a necessary part of the solution to Indigenous disadvantage in Australia and of providing a positive future for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children.

Image: Young male dancers performing at the combined Annual General Meetings of the Kimberley Land Council, the Kimberley Language Resource Centre, and the Kimberley Aboriginal Law and Culture Centre (KALACC). © Kimberley Land Council
Image: Young male dancers performing at the combined Annual General Meetings of the Kimberley Land Council, the Kimberley Language Resource Centre, and the Kimberley Aboriginal Law and Culture Centre (KALACC). © Kimberley Land Council

A strong foundation for the 'building blocks'

The Council of Australian Governments (COAG) recognises that improving the lives of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples will require a sustained commitment from all levels of government, with major effort directed to seven action areas or 'building blocks':

  • early childhood
  • schooling
  • health
  • economic participation
  • healthy homes
  • safe communities
  • governance and leadership.

The fundamental role of culture in Indigenous health and wellbeing means that initiatives that support Indigenous arts, culture and languages act as a foundation stone enabling outcomes across the COAG building blocks.

Culture and Closing the Gap—what the research says

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and communities know and articulate the many benefits of keeping culture strong.

The evidence base lags behind community voices and experiences as the effect of culture is difficult to measure.* However, there is a growing body of research supporting the community view that positive outcomes stem from keeping culture strong.

Early childhood

  • Language, cultural participation and cultural identity are key protective factors essential to the development of strong and resilient Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children.1,2
  • Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children who often go to cultural events are more likely to participate in early childhood education.3
  • Early childhood services incorporating Indigenous cultural practices promote access for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children.4

Schooling

  • International research shows that childhood Aboriginal language and culture programs lead to improved self-esteem, school attendance, reading skills and academic performance; and reduced drop-out rates.5
  • Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander 13 to 17 year olds in urban and regional areas are more likely to attend school if they speak an Indigenous language.6
  • Strong Indigenous cultural identity and cultural participation are positively associated with secondary school completion.7
  • Participation in cultural activities and speaking an Indigenous language are positively associated with gaining a post-school qualification.8

Health

  • 'Aboriginal health' means not just the physical wellbeing of an individual but the social, emotional and cultural wellbeing of the whole community.9
  • Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people who speak Indigenous languages and participate in cultural activities have markedly better physical and mental health.8
  • The Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Health Performance Framework 2012 recognises that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples draw strength from a range of health determinants such as connectedness to family, land, culture and identity.10
  • Health benefits are associated with greater participation in caring for country11 and with accessing homelands. 12

Image: Production Stills from ‘Jack and Jones’ Warlpiri Media Association’s award winning ‘Animating Our Stories’ project, NT. © PAW Media
Image: Production Stills from ‘Jack and Jones’ Warlpiri Media Association’s award winning 'Animating Our Stories' project, NT. © PAW Media

Economic participation

  • Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people who participate in cultural activities and who speak Indigenous languages are more likely to be employed.7
  • Indigenous cultural industries provide economic opportunities, e.g. the Indigenous visual arts are a multi-million dollar industry. Despite the downturn of sales since 2007, paid employment in art centres has more than doubled.13
  • Significant improvements in the median gross income for Working on Country program participants has brought their income above the gross median income for all non-Indigenous Australians.14

Safe communities

  • Fostering a secure sense of cultural identity is a powerful protective factor against self-harm for young Aboriginal people in the Kimberley,15 in line with groundbreaking research about cultural continuity as a hedge against suicide for First Nations youth in Canada.16
  • Strengthening culture is a strategy to promote resilience in the face of racism. A positive cultural identity assists Aboriginal children and young people to navigate being a minority group in their own country.2
  • Locally led and developed programs with a strong focus on healing and culture help young people at risk of offending.17
  • An Indigenous art centre evaluation found that police attribute a decrease in community tension and conflict to the art centre, which increased community cohesion and alleviated family feuding.18

Indigenous Australians' participation in artistic and cultural activities helps to reinforce and preserve living culture, and... develops identity, sense of place and self esteem in the building of strong cultural foundations. These attributes can contribute to a decrease in abuse, neglect, prison numbers and overall displacement from Australian society.
2010 Indigenous Expenditure Report

Governance and leadership

  • Good governance in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities can be supported through decision making processes that are seen as culturally legitimate by the local community.19
  • Leadership includes strong vision and direction from Elders (both male and female). The 2008 National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Survey found that for one in five children in secondary school (22%), encouragement from Elders and Council was considered to be a type of assistance that would help them complete Year 12.20
  • Art centres play a pivotal role in community building and build the capacity of Aboriginal people to contribute to the governance of community organisations in the town.18 Women play the major role in the governance of art centres.13

Image: Young people involved in a circus workshop as part of an arts and culture based remote community leadership and mentoring program, Yalata and Oak Valley, SA. Source: Finton Mahony and Lee-Ann Buckskin, 2011. Carclew Youth Arts
Image: Young people involved in a circus workshop as part of an arts and culture based remote community leadership and mentoring program, Yalata and Oak Valley, SA. Source: Finton Mahony and Lee-Ann Buckskin, 2011. Carclew Youth Arts

 

The Office for the Arts (OFTA) administers five funding streams that help to strengthen Indigenous culture, contributing towards Closing the Gap:

  • Indigenous Culture Support (ICS)
  • Indigenous Languages Support (ILS)
  • Indigenous Visual Arts Industry Support (IVAIS)
  • Indigenous Repatriation Program (IRP)
  • Indigenous Employment Initiative (IEI) in the arts and cultural sectors.

Image of boy playing  the didgeridoo.
Image: Joshua Ganambarr, Milingimbi Art and Culture Centre. Source: Zanette Kahler

* Note on research cited

International research may not always be readily extrapolated to Australia. The effect of culture is difficult to measure and to isolate from the effects of other interrelated factors, such as differences between remote and non-remote locations. Analyses of cross-sectional data do not directly support arguments about causation, but identify positive associations between cultural attachment, cultural participation, language use and socio-economic outcomes after controlling for many other factors in the model. These findings should be interpreted with care and strengthened by more robust evidence on the direct effects of culture and the pathways through which these effects operate.

References

  1. Centre for Rural and Remote Mental Health, 2009, Key Directions for a Social, Emotional, Cultural and Spiritual Wellbeing Population Health Framework for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians in Queensland, Queensland.
  2. Department of Education and Early Childhood Development, 2010, The State of Victoria's Children 2009: Aboriginal Children and Young People in Victoria, State Government of Victoria, Melbourne.
  3. Biddle, N., 2011, An exploratory analysis of the Longitudinal Study of Indigenous Children, Centre for Aboriginal Economic Policy Research (CAEPR) Working paper 77/2011.
  4. Ware, V.A., 2012, Improving access to urban and regional early childhood services, Resource sheet no. 17 produced for the Closing the Gap Clearinghouse, AIHW.
  5. Bell, D., 2004, Sharing Our Success: Ten Case Studies in Aboriginal Schooling, Society for the Advancement of Excellence in Education, National Library of Canada Cataloguing in Publication.
  6. Hunter, B., 2007, 'Cumulative causation and the Productivity Commission's framework for overcoming Indigenous disadvantage,' Australian Journal of Labour Economics, 10(3), 185–202.
  7. Dockery, A.M., 2011, 'Traditional culture and the wellbeing of Indigenous Australians: An analysis of the 2008 NATSISS', in Social Science Perspectives on the 2008 National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Survey, CAEPR, ANU, Canberra.
  8. Biddle, N., 2011, 'Measuring and analysing Indigenous wellbeing', Measures of Indigenous Wellbeing and Their Determinants Across the Lifecourse, 2011 CAEPR Lecture Series (Lecture 2), ANU, Canberra.
  9. National Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Organisation, 2008, Definitions: Aboriginal Health. Available from: www.naccho.org.au.
  10. Australian Health Ministers' Advisory Council, 2012, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Health Performance Framework Report 2012, AHMAC, Canberra, (see p.8).
  11. Burgess, P., 'Beyond the mainstream: Health gains in remote Aboriginal communities', Australian Family Physician, 37(12) December 2008.
  12. Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, 2011, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Health Performance Framework 2010 Report: Detailed Analyses, Cat. No. IHW 53, Canberra.
  13. Office of the Registrar of Aboriginal Corporations, 2012, At the Heart of Art: A Snapshot of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Corporations in the Visual Arts Sector, Commonwealth of Australia.
  14. Allen Consulting Group, 2011, Assessment of the Economic and Employment Outcomes of the Working on Country Program, Report to the Department of Sustainability, Water, Population and Communities.
  15. Dudgeon, P., et al., 2012, Hear Our Voices: Community Consultations for the Development of an Empowerment, Healing and Leadership Program for Aboriginal people living in the Kimberley, Western Australia, Telethon Institute of Child Health Research, WA.
  16. Chandler, M. J. and C. E. Lalonde, 2008, 'Cultural continuity as a protective factor against suicide in First Nations youth,' Horizons—A Special Issue on Aboriginal Youth, Hope or Heartbreak: Aboriginal Youth and Canada's Future, 10(1), 68–72.
  17. House of Representatives Standing Committee on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Affairs, 2011, Doing Time—Time for Doing: Indigenous Youth in the Criminal Justice System, (see pp.105–107).
  18. Cooper, T., S. Bahn, and M. Giles, 2012, Investigating the Social Welfare Indicators of Aboriginal Regional Art Centres: A Pilot Study, Edith Cowan University.
  19. Dodson, M. and D.E. Smith, 2003, Governance for Sustainable Development: Strategic Issues and Principles for Indigenous Australian Communities, CAEPR, ANU, Canberra.
  20. Australian Health Ministers' Advisory Council, 2011, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Health Performance Framework Report 2010, AHMAC, Canberra, Community Functioning section, 1.14.

See also

Australian Bureau of Statistics, 2011, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Wellbeing: A Focus on Children and Youth (cat. no. 4725.0), Canberra.

Australian Council for Educational Research, 2012, Starting School: A Strengths-Based Approach Towards Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Children, FaHCSIA.

Department of Employment, Education and Training, 2005, Indigenous Languages and Culture in Northern Territory Schools Report 2004–2005, DEET, Northern Territory.

Fogarty, W. and I. Kral, 2011, Indigenous language education in remote communities, CAEPR Topical Issue No. 11/2011.

Kelly, K., et al., 2009, Living on the edge: Social and emotional wellbeing and risk and protective factors for serious psychological distress among Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, Discussion Paper No. 10, Cooperative Research Centre for Aboriginal Health, Darwin.

Kral, I. and R.G.J. Schwab, 2012, Learning Spaces : Youth, Literacy and New Media in Remote Indigenous Australia, CAEPR, ANU, E Press.

Krysinka, K., G. Martin, and N. Sheehan, 2009, Identity, Voice, Place: Suicide Prevention for Indigenous Australians—A Social and Emotional Wellbeing Approach, The University of Queensland.

McCoy, B., 2007, 'Suicide and desert men: The power and protection of kanyirninpa (holding)', Australasian Psychiatry, 15(Supplement), S63–S67.

Rowley, K.G., et al., 2008, 'Lower than expected morbidity and mortality for an Australian Aboriginal population: 10-year follow-up in a decentralised community,' The Medical Journal of Australia, 188(5) , 283–287.

Sarra, C., 2010, 'Stronger smarter approaches to Indigenous leadership in Australia', in Closing the Gap in Education?, I. Snyder and J. Nieuwenhuysen, Eds. Monash University Publishing, Melbourne.