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Taking Stock: Aboriginal autonomy through enterprise

Wells, Samantha Jane


The Arnhem Land Progress Association (ALPA) has operated stores for up to twenty years in many Arnhem Land communities. It started by buying ration stores formerly operated by the Methodist Overseas Mission. These were mainly small, poorly stocked counter stores, generally operated on an intermittent basis by the mission staff and their families. The organisation at both the local level and at the central administrative level has gone through many changes during its twenty years in operation...[Show more]

dc.contributor.authorWells, Samantha Jane
dc.identifier.citationWells, S. J. (1993) Taking Stock: Aboriginal autonomy through enterprise. Darwin: Australian National University, North Australia Research Unit (NARU)
dc.description.abstractThe Arnhem Land Progress Association (ALPA) has operated stores for up to twenty years in many Arnhem Land communities. It started by buying ration stores formerly operated by the Methodist Overseas Mission. These were mainly small, poorly stocked counter stores, generally operated on an intermittent basis by the mission staff and their families. The organisation at both the local level and at the central administrative level has gone through many changes during its twenty years in operation including its formal separation from the Church, the building up and expansion of the retail store infrastructure in each ALPA member community, and various changes in direction and philosophy under the leadership of the different ALPA Group Managers (now called Executive Directors). In an era when the operation of retail stores in remote communities has proved extremely risky (see Young 1984), ALPA has succeeded in providing the communities with efficient, well stocked, modem retail stores with many ancillary services. Since its inception ALPA has seen itself as an alternative development agency catering for Aboriginal communities both in Arnhem Land and in the Kimberley region of Western Australia. Not content with providing an essential retail service, ALPA has viewed the stores and the profits generated by the stores as a means of providing training, scholarships and other educational opportunities for Aboriginal people, allocating starter loans for family and clan businesses, and underwriting community projects in the settlements in which it operates. ALPA has provided store training services to other organisations such as Anangu Winkiku Stores (AWS) in Alice Springs and non-ALPA Aboriginal communities across the north of Australia. Throughout its history the Association has remained fiercely proud of its economic independence of government. Although ALPA has successfully operated stores in Aboriginal communities for over twenty years, there are many unresolved issues facing the organisation today. Many of these issues are not directly concerned with ALPA the organisation, although there are some which pertain directly to the nature and style of operation of this particular organisation. Problems have arisen because of the difficulties associated with service delivery to remote Aboriginal communities and the conflict between the 'money side' as opposed to the 'community side' of the organisation providing these services. Sometimes the problems are really part of the politics in settlements or the typical grumblings made by most store customers in any community, Aboriginal or non­ Aboriginal. And sometimes the problems are part of the wider questions about the national and Territory economy, the politics of Aboriginal autonomy, Aboriginal land rights, the apparent patemalisms which dominate many non-Aboriginal dealings with Aboriginal people and so on. As well as being proud of what the organisation has achieved and wanting this documented as a celebration of its twenty years in operation, ALPA was concerned about resolving the issues and questions affecting the stores and the Association today. For this reason the Association sought an evaluation of its work hoping that the exercise would give some pointers on how best to deal with these issues while simultaneously achieving its constitutional objective of 'the social and economic development of Aboriginal people'. After negotiations with NARU, ALPA agreed to fund a large part of a research project with the following objectives: • to produce a well documented history of ALPA, its activities and achievements over the last twenty years; • to evaluate the objectives, goals and aspirations of ALPA, the relevance of those objectives, and how they have changed over time; • to evaluate the effectiveness, efficiency and impacts of ALPA programs; • to make comparisons with similar associations both in northern Australia and overseas; • to make recommendations and suggest strategies for change. These objectives were to be met by writing a history and a general historical evaluation of ALPA, preparing a draft evaluation of the Association for the Directors of ALPA, and preparing a comparative report of similar organisations. The research team assembled to work on the project comprised David Lea (Executive Director, NARU), Samantha Wells (Research Assistant, NARU), Greg Crough (Senior Research Fellow, NARU), Christine Christophersen (Research Assistant, NARU), Elspeth Young (Associate Professor, Australian Defence Force Academy, Canberra) and Ritchie Howitt (Lecturer, Macquarie University). Data for the project were collected from eclectic sources. Some, especially in the early stages, were obtained from background reading on outback stores, indigenous enterprises and culture contact in general, particularly those readings concerned with reconciling western thought and business practice with Aboriginal thought and modes of production. This was followed by an in-depth study of the files of ALPA, archival material and of other organisations both in Australia and North America. Much of the information collected for the project was derived from structured and unstructured inteiViews with individuals and groups in homes, offices and communities; formal and informal discussions; meetings with communities, organisations and groups; and observation of events. For reasons of confidentiality, many names of people spoken to, especially in the communities, have been withheld. Rough drafts of confidential reports were presented to ALPA's Board of Directors in July 1992. ALPA subsequently withdrew from the project leaving NARU to complete it. It is likely that NARU will publish Young's Support Organisations/or Aboriginal Stores: the Arnhem Land Progress Association and its counterparts in Central Australia and the North American Arctic, and Crough and Christophersen's Some Perspectives on the Arnhem Land Progress Association in the near future. This historical account of the Amhem Land Progress Association reflects the organisation's pride in its survival, operations and growth over the last twenty years. It also reflects ALPA's concern about where it is going and where it should go. It is to the credit of the Association that it was eager to learn from the past and to share its experiences in what is a difficult and sensitive field. It is therefore appropriate that I should first thank the Directors, management and staff of ALPA who supported this project and assisted me in many ways, in particular Stuart McMillan, George Rawnsley, Henry Harper, Lori Katarski, Donald Nulupani and David Djalangi. I would also like to thank the various ALPA representatives who read the final draft of the history manuscript and submitted comments in order to prevent or reconcile any discrepancies before publishing the work. The store managers and their spouses in various Aboriginal communities provided me with much time, hospitality and knowledge. This was greatly appreciated as was the tolerance of the storeworlcers as I nosed in and out of aisles or interrupted tea breaks for a chat. It is impossible to mention all the people who shared insights with me about their communities, lives, the stores and the Association but I would like to acknowledge this and for being given permission to experience first hand a remarlcable land, people and culture. Other people (see Appendix 2) in towns around Australia also deserve mention for agreeing to be interviewed and making these interviews as pleasant and rewarding as possible. Stephen Evans was able to provide much insight and infonnation into the worlcings of ALPA for which I am exceedingly grateful. The North Australia Research Unit provided a congenial 'home' while I was working on this book. I am extremely appreciative of the research team's support, criticisms and discussions throughout the project. Especially David Lea who read and reread drafts providing constructive criticism, helpful suggestions and fmding resting places for many wandering apostrophes. Other NARU staff and visitors to the Unit provided much assistance throughout the project, in particular Ann Webb (copy editing and production), Sally Roberts and Colleen Pyne (library research), Meriel Weir (computing), Nicki Hanssen, Janet Sincock, Jann King and Toni Bauman. NARU provided not just institutional help but financial assistance, technical help and hours of stimulating debate. The Northern Territory Archives Service, the State Library and the Uniting Church provided much assistance and made the research task a little easier. My family, friends, housemates and associates all deserve mention for coping with the stress of what, at times, became a particularly difficult project. Thanks also to 'Green Ant' who designed the cover. Finally my special thanks to Adrian Deville who served as editor, inspirationalist and friend the whole way through. Note: NARU observes a number of publishing conventions in its publications. These are set out in a style booklet which is readily available. However, because many quotations are used throughout this book, it should be pointed out that material in quotations is never changed unless a series of full-stops indicates that something is omitted or square brackets indicate something has been inserted within them. Thus, within the quotations, there are frequent infelicities of style, grammar and spellings. Abbreviations are often different from those used in the text for example there are various spellings of 'Yolngu' and Amhem Land is sometimes presented as one word. These quotations are used because they are relevant or important to the text I feel that the context will make any conflicts or ambiguities between text and quotations clear.
dc.format.extent220 pages
dc.publisherBrinkin, NT : The Australian National University, North Australia Research Unit (NARU)
dc.subjectArnhem land progress association
dc.subjectuniting church in Australia-Northern territory- Arnhem Land-missions
dc.subjectAborigines Australian-Northern Territory-Arnhem Land-economic conditions
dc.subjectAborigines, Australian-Northenrn Territory-Arnhem Land-business enterprises
dc.titleTaking Stock: Aboriginal autonomy through enterprise
local.description.notesThe Arnhem Land Prigress Association 1972-92
local.type.statusPublished Version
dcterms.accessRightsOpen Access
CollectionsANU North Australia Research Unit (NARU)


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