Apr. 16, 2013
by Lynn Schoch, Office of the Vice President for International Affairs
Ian McIntosh is IUPUI’s liaison to universities and organizations around the world that have formal affiliations with the Indianapolis campus. His international interests began 30 years ago with a purely national interest: He wanted to learn more about his country’s Aboriginal peoples. In 1981, he took a position as a liaison and welfare office in Mount Isa, a rich mining community in Northeast Australia.
Abundant mineral resources made Mount Isa a pocket of wealth in Queensland, but McIntosh found hundreds of people living in poverty along a dry river bed that divides the city between “mineside” and “townside.”
In one section, they lived in huts without electricity or water, all sharing a single water tap. All of the residents were indigenous Australians.
Some had been dispossessed of their land by the mining operations.
Some had run away from a harsh Christian Brethren mission, or were part of the “Stolen Generation” of Aboriginal children whom the government deemed better off taken away from their families.
Some had been starved off their land in the neighboring state by the barbed-wire enclosure of water sources by large American ranch owners who did not want them around.
All of these “Long Grass People” needed help from the state welfare system that McIntosh, as a welfare office, represented.
McIntosh quickly learned that from the state government’s point of view, his mission had no social justice dimension. It was apparently not to improve the conditions of those in his charge, but to provide a public image of concern. Little money was forthcoming for improved living conditions, education or jobs; about all that was funded was his own job.
He was frustrated on the one hand that he could offer only a listening post or a hand in friendship to those in need of practical help, and on the other by their reasonable assertion that the money he was making really belonged to them.
Wards of the state
The urge for reconciliation between the Aborigines and the non-Aboriginal peoples was not strong in the Australia of 1981. Only 14 years before had the Australian government acknowledged them as persons to be counted as Australians. Previously, they had been considered as “wards of the state.”
Although government and industry knew they wanted to develop the resources under the regions where Aborigines lived, the political and economic forces were not hampered in their efforts by pangs of conscience, or a need for reparations, apologies or participation.
Things have improved by fits and starts since then.
In 1989, conscious that the interests of some Aborigines and non-Aborigines were beginning to merge, the government established the National Agenda for a Multicultural Australia and a Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation. It included explicit commitment to the acknowledgement of cultural identity, to social justice, and to economic efficiency and amelioration. But legislators quickly backed off many of these provisions or supported specious implementation.
“In 1993, Native Title legislation mandated that private companies that wanted access to Aboriginal land for mining and the like had to negotiate with the Aborigines who lived there or had historical or cultural ties,” McIntosh explained. “Aboriginal power ended there, however. If the negotiations did not go well, companies could proceed. Only in one area of Australia, the Northern Territory, did the Aborigines have actual veto power over private development of resources.”
National Sorry Day
The first decade of the new millennium saw increasing participation in National Sorry Day, a day committed to recognizing what had been done to Australia’s original populations and what needed to be done in reparation. In 2008, a new government issued a formal apology for the disruption caused to the Stolen Generation forced from their families. In 2013, Australian citizens will vote on a referendum to recognize Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in the Australian Constitution.
His early experiences in Queensland led McIntosh’s research in two different, but related, directions. He met individuals who were willing to share some of the beliefs and traditions of one of the oldest continuous cultures on Earth. One in particular was the late David Burrumarra, whose own education was steeped in the Dreaming, the sacred code underlying the Aborigines’ cultural, legal and social behavior. McIntosh has written about this code and the history of its unfolding to Westerners. His biography of Burrumarra, “The Whale and the Cross,” is read by schoolchildren across northern Australia.
The other direction of McIntosh’s research grew out of the bureaucratic frustration of working in a world that was not ready or willing to confront its history.
“The problems in Australia are hardly unique; everywhere in the world you can find groups in various stages of conflict and reconciliation with one another,” McIntosh said. “Reconciliation Studies is just now beginning to take hold in universities around the world. It is based on the recognition that while details might be different, the problems to be resolved and methods of resolution have much in common. Those working in this field try to apply the lessons of successes in one part of the world to similar conflicts in other areas.”
For the past 20 years, McIntosh has been committed to the academic and practical applications and the teaching of Reconciliation Studies.
“We use the word in two ways: as a goal and as a process. I can’t point to any place in the world that has fully accomplished the goal of reconciliation, but there are many, many places where we can find successes in the process, case studies in atonement that can take your breath away.”
Although it is simplistic to think that the transfer of a successful strategy in one area in the world to a conflict in another will always provide positive results, there are common elements. “Groups who have been in conflict for a long time cannot begin to reconcile their differences until they have mutually acknowledged the truth,” McIntosh said.
As described in South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission report, truth comes in many shapes and sizes. It can be the history of the conflict between the two groups in a rendition that both sides would agree upon. With events like the Bridge Walk across Sydney Harbor Bridge in 2000, when 250,000 people marched to acknowledge the historical mistreatment of Aboriginal people, Australia has begun to acknowledge its common negotiated historical truth.
Another element essential to the reconciliation process is the recognition of mutual interest. This has been a sticking point in Australia for decades.
“The non-Aborigines see reconciliation in terms of economic parity; Aborigines should have the same responsibilities, rights, opportunities and benefits as other Australians. The Aborigines see the essence of reconciliation in the national recognition of their identity and culture, and also their land rights. From this perspective, formal apologies, explicit recognition in the constitution and a treaty or treaties are essential.”
“Reconciliation is hard. It’s messy. Peace is offensive,” said David Porter, director of Reconciliation for the Archbishop of Canterbury. “Becoming friends feels awful. Looks awful. But is the right thing to do. Reconciliation is a bastard — because it grabs you by the throat and says, ‘You need to live with this person who spent the last 40 years trying to kill your people.’ And that is the hardest thing on God’s earth to do.”
McIntosh is tracking the reconciliation process in more than 100 countries. His major projects have been in Mali, Kenya, Armenia and Australia and with the Rwandan diaspora. He has organized or participated in reconciliation events related to Zimbabwe, Guinea, South Africa, Native Americans in Canada and the U.S., Guatemala, Tibet and Israel/Palestine, to name a few.
He regularly teaches courses at IUPUI on truth and reconciliation. In spring 2012, he offered a class focusing on the Gaza Strip. The class enrolled students at IUPUI and at a private university in Gaza.
Students “met” in IUPUI’s Global Crossroads videoconferencing classroom.
“We advertised the course as a virtual study abroad program,” McIntosh said. Early on, students were asked to prepare six-minute videos introducing themselves, their families and their communities. Afterwards, students were paired. They learned about life in the Gaza Strip from being part of these virtual host families and from panels of Palestinian and Israeli speakers. Despite the 6,000 miles separating them, students were intimately in touch with the lives of their counterparts in the Gaza Strip, just as if they were taking part in an actual study abroad opportunity.
It is difficult to deny the value of reconciliation. When it works, there is less violence and fewer deaths. The study of reconciliation can have equally positive results, as reported by a student in the virtual study abroad class: “The interaction with our Gaza partners was most beneficial because I was able to gain an inside perspective of the situation, which is invaluable for learning how things really are on the ground. I was interested in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict prior to this class. However, now it has become a passion of mine, and I hope to pursue a career in peace, conflict and reconciliation studies, so that I may have an impact in the future.”