The interaction between Australian Indigenous people and alcohol has been a source of tension in the relationships between white people and Indigenous people since colonization. From early in Australia’s history, alcohol was used to barter for the sexual services of Indigenous women and as payment for Indigenous labor. The question of how to respond to the devastating impact of alcohol on Australian Indigenous communities remains challenging. In 2007 governments attempted to address the problem in part by increasing restrictions on the way alcohol is sold and consumed by Indigenous people in the Northern Territory. In many communities in Australia Indigenous people are prevented from spending welfare money on the purchase of alcohol. Alcohol has consistently been linked to high levels of road accident death and trauma, crime and violence, loss of cultural identity and significant health problems in Indigenous communities. More recently the irreversible effect of fetal alcohol spectrum disorder (FASD) in Indigenous communities has become an issue of grave concern. According to Marcia Langton, in some communities the prevalence of FASD has been estimated to be as high as 1 in every 40 people. The effect of this devastating brain injury has implications for the next generation of community leaders and the provision of services to remote Indigenous communities. Important grassroots initiatives led by local Indigenous women in remote areas like the Fitzroy and Ord Valleys in Western Australia that are focused on a mixture of control of alcohol and community education and support offer some hope for change.
Heather Douglas is an Associate Professor at the University of Queensland, Australia. Her research interests include criminal law and legal history. She is particularly interested in the relationship between Indigenous people and the criminal law and the way criminal law impacts on and constructs women.
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