An Indigenous understanding of Reciprocity

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Reciprocity is an underlying principle expressed throughout Aboriginal societies. Outline and illustrate the importance of this fundamental concept in the economic, social, spiritual and political spheres of Aboriginal life (refer to reciprocity in the index to Edwards 2005).
The word ‘reciprocity’1 conjures up a feel good image of ‘caring and sharing’ (Schwab 1995: 8). However according to Peterson (1993: 861) there is a darker more sinister side to this word when applied to Indigenous Australians. He defines it as ‘demand sharing’ rather than reciprocity and he states that Blurton Jones (1987: 38) labels it tolerated theft2. Peterson (1993: 860) goes on to assert that little ‘giving’ is purely altruistic because the giver might simply
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2005: 70). In more recent times, colonial interference with its autocratic removal and relocation of key individuals and whole groups resulted in virtually a complete collapse of the traditional Aboriginal economy. As hunting and gathering is no longer possible for city dwellers, the concept of reciprocity becomes even more important, from an economic point of view, due to the nature of extended families all co-habiting in one small dwelling because of mutual obligation or reciprocity. According to Smith (1991) household structure has to stretch to encompass the extra-household fiscal networks it now accommodates. One must consider the concept of reciprocity or mutual benefit to obtain an understanding of domestic expenditure patterns.
To better understand the impact of reciprocity on a single family, here is an example from the Lajamanu community (Walpiri people), which is currently representative of many Aboriginal communities (Saethre, E 2005: 151). This anecdote illustrates how (poor) Aboriginal health is indisputably linked to their economic situation and that reduced eating patterns (feast or famine Schwab 2004: 5) are encouraged by the government welfare system. Elizabeth and David are out shopping for their extended family,4 when Emily approaches and asks for food explaining her welfare money has run out, she is given quite a large amount of food. Elizabeth explains ‘I like to shop just before it closes, because there are
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