I’ve recently been in Central Australia investigating the impact of Aboriginal people losing their identity and it’s got me thinking about the value of identity to our health and what happens if we lose it…The basis of our identity is what many tribal people called ‘Land’. ‘Land’ is more than just a physical concept like a field or a house but embodies history, language, beliefs and food. And the loss of land is the departure gate for the destruction of identity.
In Alice Springs I found thousands of Aboriginal people forced from their land, and now living in town camps, separate from the rest of the white majority town.
In one town camp called Hidden Valley I met 21-year-old Clint. His arms were heavily scared, a sign of an Aboriginal tradition of ‘Sorry Business’, cutting yourself when you lose a loved one. He told me how he’d lost a lot of friends and family from grog (alcohol), aged from 20 to 50. Alice Springs, a town of 30,000 now has the largest specialist dialysis unit in the whole of the Southern hemisphere, just one of countless indicators of a people facing destruction.
Grog rots the camps. It causes death and breaks down the social fabric of families and the communities. Disconnected from their land and language, law and lore, food and belief, traditional social and cultural behaviour is no longer being transferred from one generation to the next.
The Town Camps are some of the most socially dysfunctional places I have ever witnessed – alcoholism, disease, domestic violence, drink driving, fights and robbery are rife.
Australia may be second in the United Nation’s Development Index, but Aboriginal people now have one of the lowest life expectancies of any tribal people on the planet. Those still living on the land, live an average of 10years longer than those living in town camps.
I asked Clint who he was. He said he didn’t know.
Spending time with Clint and others, it’s painfully easy to see what happens when you lose your identity. It’s a platitude to say we take our identity for granted, but do you really know who you are?
Our identities are part nature, part nurture.
Throughout our cultural evolution our collective identity has been crucial for our physical survival and our development. As individuals we wouldn’t have survived predator attacks, combat situations or threats to the lives of our children. We have evolved both the abilities not to feel fear and pain and a willingness to sacrifice ourselves for more important goals. Have you ever wondered why you feel happy when you help someone? Hard-wired altruism.
We are group animals and we share a collective identity. Human culture is collective expression of our identity. How can you strengthen your identity? I’m not talking about becoming a nationalist nutcase, subscribing to the English Defence League, but ask yourself, ‘Who Am I?’ and see what you come up with.
Cultural identity is important to our sense of self and how we relate to others. It can help give us a sense of security, access to social networks that provide support, shared values that foster aspirations, and can help break down barriers and built up trust. Applied in the wrong direction – we can too easily end up a paranoid psychopath, possibly with paid-up membership to a fundamentalist nationalist cause.
Do you have a cultural identity? I’m not talking about being ‘British’ or ‘French’. In our increasingly interconnected and globalised world, we often identify with more than one culture. We contain more multitudes than ever before, and the DNA of our identity is ridden with more complexities and contradictions than our forefathers. From cradle to grave, we are constantly developing our identities. They are built on an endless array of inputs from relationships to relatives, from belief to humour, from geography to language, from failure to success, and from the truth of experience to misunderstanding of perception. The output of our identity is our culture, our expression of who we are.
But we forget the wisdom and evolved hardwiring of our ancestors at our peril. Lose the basis of our identity and we lose ourselves. The suffering of Aboriginal people and other tribal peoples around the world painfully reveal that identity is the basis of our wellbeing. Look after it.
(Australia’s Hidden Valley: Unreported World, Channel 4, 19:30, Fri 9th Dec)