Once the Land Belonged to Indigenous Peoples, Now we have to Pay for it

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What does society truly know about capitalism and how does this relate to mental health? Furthermore, how is capitalism connected to the mental health of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people (ATSI)? The social determinants of health measured through income, employment, and educational levels surmise if these determinants can be elevated then health will improve. Poverty, institutional racism, and, more importantly, a history of dispossession and exclusion from family, culture, denial to land, and the end of traditional economic, political, and social life has been linked to the poor health of ATSI people. Marxist theories of class propose that social inequality occurred from the unequal access to economical resources and, as Marx theories extrapolates, two classes dominated the social arena; the bourgeoisie who own the means of production and the proletariat who only have their labour to sell (Carson, Dunbar, Chenhall and Bailie, 2007, p. 89).

Booth and Carrol (2005) cited in Carson et al (2007, p. 89) surmise socio-economic status (employment and income) and health are related and the authors imply ‘either that the controls for socio-economic status do not entirely capture access to economic and social resources, or that there are additional factors at work’. What are the ‘additional factors’? This question needs to be clarified.

This research report will identify and critically analyse how capitalism is not the Indigenous way and how it impacts the mental health of ATSI people given that the literature on the social determinants of health does not address this issue.

Framing the Question: Positioning Myself

The passion behind this research topic came from always having a knowing that something was not right, I could never articulate it or point a finger at it because it was not something that could be touched; it was like a ghost that was always tormenting me. Then, I watched a documentary called ‘Capitalism: A Love Story’ by Michael Moore; I thought how powerful this documentary was, it introduced into my awareness the ghost that always haunted me, capitalism. Knowing how capitalism causes so much suffering to people all over the world did not change how I felt because I knew the ghost was never going away as it was too big for me to exorcise on my own. I see people around me struggling to survive and the weirdest thing about this suffering is people accept it without question. However, I do believe most people in general know there is a ghost tormenting them and, just like me, are unable to articulate it. Instead these unaware people go about their lives trying to win more money in the lottery or pokies which causes even more suffering to themselves or they just drown these feelings out altogether through alcohol, drugs, anti-depressants, or suicide. Watching people around me destroy themselves, has been my reality.

There are no words to describe the feelings of deep anxiety and depression of ‘how do I pay the power bill?’ Or ‘will the power be cut off today?’ Or ‘how do I feed my children this week?’ Or when a mum must eat one meal a day so her children do not go hungry, or living on rice and cheap packet soup because you cannot afford a nutritious meal. Not even anti-depressant drugs can take those feelings away! This is a reality in a modern ‘free market’ society.

Academics and researchers can sit in their ivory towers and theorise all they like, but the reality is social determinants of Indigenous health are not improving. My sadness as an Aboriginal Murri person, runs much deeper in that I carry historical trauma and a contemporary, culturally-collective, compounded pain from living in a society run by white patriarchal slave masters whom I must give over most, if not all, my slave earnings for housing, food and utilities to stay alive and survive. It is in a backward system that favours power and money over human souls and nature.

Literature Review

One in five (20% or 3.2 million) Australians had a 12-month mental disorder’ (ABS 2007). 16 million Australians aged 16–85 years, almost half (45% or 7.3 million) have a lifetime mental disorder, i.e. a mental disorder at some point in their life. According the ABS (2011) 22.4 million mental health related prescriptions for antidepressant medications 13.7 million (61.1%), followed by 13.6% anxiolytics, 12.5% antipsychotics and 10.3% hypnotics and sedatives were filled.

The World Health Organisation (Commission on Social Determinants 2008, p. 63) claims 14% of the worlds illnesses are neuropsychiatric disorders such as depression and suggest, ‘the burden of major depression is expected to rise to the second leading cause of disability-adjusted life years in 2030 and will pose a major urban health challenge’ (Commission on Social Determinants of Health 2008, p. 62-63). Australian people have one of the highest use of antidepressants in the world, in 2011 this number stood at 1.7 million people, double the 2000 statistics. It is the most commonly used drug, taken by 10% of adult Australians each day. Depression, in ‘economically developed countries’ such as Australia, has broadened due to the publication of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, third edition (DSM-III) in 1980. This was then followed by the release of serotonin reuptake inhibitors resulting in the cultural wonder and the belief that people with depression were suffering low chemical imbalance that could be corrected with pharmaceutical drugs (Davey & Chanen 2016; Lacasse & Leo 2005). These national and global statistics give an alarming picture of mental ill health; however, it does not give explicit details about ATSI peoples use of antidepressant medication.

This paper, which will be part of a PhD research project, will examine how ATSI people have been forced to live someone else’s version of reality. Living in a Western capitalist system created by Europeans formed a society where people exploit each other to make a living. In other words, people pay to live on a planet that was once free for all Indigenous people. In 1844 Karl Marx (Nelson & Timmerman 2011, p. 26), wrote that humanity was one with nature:

‘Man lives on nature – means that nature is his body, with which he must remain in continuous interchange if he is not to die. That man’s physical and spiritual life is linked to nature means simply that nature is linked to itself, for man is a part of nature’.

Marx’s theory argues, capitalism is more concerned with production and trade for monetary power and has little regard for humans and nature although people are not separate from nature. This paper aims to explore how capitalism impacts the mental health of ATSI people given their historical claims of being one with the land and nature (Bourke, Bourke & Edwards 1994, p. 128).

Oxford Dictionary (n.d.) defines economics as more concerned with production, consumption and the transfer of wealth not for the well-being and for the greater good. Etymology Dictionary Online (n.d.) states capitalism is the modern form of organizing production and trade world-wide by private enterprises to make profits by the employment, of mass human labour. Kovel (2002, p. 51) states ‘capital originates with the exploitation of labour…and its nucleus is the abstraction of human transformative power into labour-power for sale on the market’.

Lenin (1916) argues;

“Capitalism has grown into a world system of colonial oppression and of the financial strangulation of the overwhelming majority of the population of the world by a handful of “advanced” countries. And this “booty” is shared between two or three powerful world plunderers armed to the teeth (America, Great Britain, Japan), who are drawing the whole world into their war over the of their booty”.

Mignolo (2009, p. 20) contends after the 2008 Wall Street financial disaster, the common topic of the day was ‘how to save capitalism’ but the de-colonial question is to ask: ‘why would you want to save capitalism and not save human beings?’ Mignolo further states, why must an ‘abstract entity and not human lives that capitalism is constantly destroying?’ Sweet (2011) postulates symbolic capital impacts the epidemiology of normal life due to the coming together of stressful cultural norms with political-economic conditions, money and power or lack of. Thus, symbolic capital and socioeconomic inequalities influences health and well-being.

Smith (2010) believed;

“Native studies should expand its intellectual repertoire of inquiry to “race, colonialism, capitalism, gender and sexuality” as a way out of our ethnographic entrapment. She further argues that Indigenous scholars work to explain our cultural differences in order to counter how we are “known” by outsiders; in doing so, we believe that if we can bring understanding to white subjects about cultures, then things will improve”. (Moreton-Robinson’s (2015, p. 94)

Hence, this paper will explore capitalism as a means out of our ethnographic entrapment and how education can bring meaning into society about Indigenous ways of being and doing in the hope of improving their mental health.

When society interprets Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people’s mental health in terms of symbolic capital and social position it often pathologize ATSI people as lazy, drunk and dumb (Bourke, Bourke & Edwards 1994, p. 8; Smith 2008, p. 54). But given the context of coloniality of power combined with imperial capitalism, society looks up to powerful successful people. The example given by Duvasula (2016) describes the familiar narrative of the wealthy business man posing with his yacht and revered for his wealth and hard work while looking down their noses at people on the opposite spectrum of this tale; the poor as, do not work hard enough to gain such status, prestige, and wealth. Duvasula (2016) quotes, ‘In a free market, the bottom line is simply, the bottom line. It is quantitative, cold, reductionist and does not reflect human capital — just financial profit.’ This suggests the world is run by authoritarian imperial capitalists for insane purposes, that loses sight of how inhumane the worlds system of things has become. This contrast with how Indigenous people once lived, a life far removed from what it is now. Before colonisation, it was a stress free, reciprocal, independent and self-sufficient life style.

Professor Geoffrey Blainey (1975: v-vi) wrote;

‘If an Aborigine in the 17th Century had been captured as a curiosity and taken in a Dutch ship to Europe, and if he had travelled all the way from Scotland to the Caucasus and had seen how the average European struggled to make a living, he might have said to himself that he had seen the third world and all its poverty and hardship’. (Bourke, Bourke & Edwards 1994, p. 180)

ATSI family and kinship systems are recognised from the concepts of family and reciprocal responsibility of sharing (Zubrick, Holland, Kelly, Calma & Walker 2014, pg. 75). In other words, sharing and being equal in all things was the Indigenous way of being and doing.

The Aboriginal kinship system was a source of strength and wellbeing and the identity by which Aboriginal people connected to other individuals was defined by ritual and spiritual relationships. These bonds formed the links to each person’s wellbeing for greater affection, caring and responsibilities and in simpler terms, strong community support (Zubrick, Shepherd, Dudgeon, Gee, Paradies, Scrine, & Walker R, 2014, pg. 105). Since imperial colonisation the rationale for the advancement of European land ownership has destroyed this strong community support network. The spirit in which Aboriginal people traditionally maintained their interconnectedness and their cultural ties of spiritual reciprocal systems was lost to the coloniality of power and imperial capitalism (Gee, Dudgeon, Schultz, Hart, & Kelly, 2014, p. 59; Bourke, Bourke & Edwards 1994, p. 49).

Before colonisation, Aboriginal people used a system of trade by barter or exchange, which connected them from one end of the continent to the other and was not carried out for profit. As recorded by Thomson (1949);

“Goods passed continually from person to person along trade routes. In this way, goods could end up hundreds of kilometres from their original location. The goods usually moved in one direction, thus ensuring they were never returned to the donors”. (Bourke, Bourke & Edwards 1994, p. 183)

However, colonisation forever changed the landscape of economic life for Aboriginal people and European concepts and values was vastly different in terms of ownership. European value of ownership and possession of land, animals, buying and selling for wealth and profit was incompatible with Indigenous culture, which was not materialistic due to their spiritual oneness with their environment and land (Bourke, Bourke & Edwards 1994, p. 185; Dudgeon, Wright, Paradies, Garvey & Walker 2014, p. 7).

Grosfoguel (2007, p. 218-219) quotes;

“To call ‘capitalist’ the present world-system is, to say the least, misleading. Given the hegemonic Eurocentric ‘common sense’, the moment we use the word ‘capitalism’ people immediately think that we are talking about the ‘economy’. However, ‘capitalism’ is only one of the multiple entangled constellations of colonial power matrix of the ‘European modern/colonial capitalist/patriarchal world-system’. It is an important one, but not the sole one. Given its entanglement with other power relations, destroying the capitalist aspects of the world-system would not be enough to destroy the present world-system. To transform this world-system it is crucial to destroy the historical-structural heterogenous totality called the ‘colonial power matrix’ of the ‘world-system”.

Indigenous Australians were forced into living the current ‘European modern/colonial capitalist/patriarchal world-system’. Thus, slowly but surely Indigenous people accepted that the current system they live under is the only system available to them and over time, forgetting their Ancestral past of freedom and sovereignty. Free from modern day stress, which can then be associated with the social determinants of ill-health and mental ill health.

Nature of Addiction

According to Alexander (2001, p. 13) found the precursor to addiction is ‘dislocation’ or dispossession and ‘the loss of psychological, social, and economic integration into family and culture; a sense of exclusion, isolation and powerlessness. Only chronically and severely dislocated people are vulnerable to addiction,’ Alexander (2001, p. 13) continues;

“The historical correlation between severe dislocation and addiction is strong. Although alcohol consumption and drunkenness on festive occasions was widespread in Europe during the Middle Ages, and although a few people became “inebriates” or “drunkards,” mass alcoholism was not a problem. However, alcoholism gradually spread with the beginnings of free markets after 1500, and eventually became a raging epidemic with the dominance of the free market society after 1800.”

Alexander’s research found laboratory animals, living in captivity and under stress or in an “unnatural” condition would self-administer drugs thus becoming addicted to help cope with living in this stressful environment. These are the conditions which promote neurobiology of addiction in human beings and Alexander and his colleagues went on to build a natural environment more suitable for the laboratory rats and the results indicated the rats had no interest in taking the drug (morphine). Alexander (2001) claims ‘by contrast, caged rats consumed up to twenty times more morphine than their relatively free-living relatives (Matè 2008, p. 145). Today, Indigenous Australians feel powerless, stressed, and are living in an unnatural environment called capitalism and dominantly run by patriarchal white men. 


The study began from a need to identify how capitalism can cause mental health in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. It was important to analyse the historical impact of colonisation and its effects on the conscious collective of the ATSI people today. The overall aim was to analyse depression rates particularly anti-depressant use among ATSI people; mainstream views on capitalism; traditional life before colonisation; and identify gaps in research into capitalism and Indigenous Australians and finally, scientific research to support the causes of mental ill health.

This research was informed by mental health research and cultural studies using the following methods:

  • Journal databases: American Journal of Public Health; Medical Journal of Australia; Cultural Studies from Taylor & Francis Online
  • University library catalogue
  • State and federal government websites, specifically Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander; Steering Committee for the Review of Government Service Provision; Australian Bureau of Statistics; Institute of Health and Welfare Mental Health Services in Australia.

Key words used included:

  • Indigenous people and capitalism
  • Indigenous people and mental health
  • Aboriginal and capitalism
  • Capitalism and mental health
  • Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander mental health statistics
  • Anti-depressant use among Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people


The study approach place ATSI people at the centre, to see through their cultural worldview, their way of doing and being, using decolonisation and postcolonial theories. The decolonisation process is placing the colonised ‘other’ at the centre of inquiry to understand the Indigenous self that has been marginalized to liberate the enslaved colonial mind. Decolonisation is giving a voice and contributing to the Indigenous ways of doing and being with no interference from the superiority of western knowledge in favour of cultural knowledge (Chilisa 2012, p. 13-14). Subsequently, postcolonial theory will question and critique the dominant Euro-Western research model as Chilisa (2012, p. 19) defines ‘critique’ in research as ‘a need to critique the imperial model of research, which continues to deny the colonized and historically marginalized other space to communicate from their own frames of reference.’


The literature suggests economic disadvantages causes social and emotional wellbeing and mental health problems (Zubrick, Holland, Kelly, Calma & Walker 2014, p. 73; Eckermann et al 2010, pp. 45-46). Trying to convey how colonisation and its system of things (the cause) has impacted the mental health of Indigenous people (effect), see figure 1 below to compare the systems, the Indigenous system situated at the top of the figure and imperial European at the bottom. Corresponding coloured boxes showing each systems way of doing and contrasts them. The red arrow is my hypothesis of why Indigenous people are suffering mental ill health.

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Once the Land Belonged to Indigenous Peoples, Now We Have to Pay For It. (2021, Oct 20). Retrieved from https://papersowl.com/examples/land-belonged-indigenous-peoples-now-we-have-pay/

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