By Anthony Andrews
We can’t seem to grasp the fact that our Indigenous brothers and sisters think differently to mainstream Australia. We assume knowledge of them and their beliefs according to our way of thinking.
We judge them by our own experiences of communal living and existence, but by doing this we will never be able to address any of the reasons that full assimilation is almost impossible, although there are always exceptions to the rule.
Aboriginal culture is something we are proud of as a nation. We adopt the concept of them as the First Australians and admire their art, culture and heritage, but only if they act obediently and recognise the fact that without white Australia they would be living in the dark ages.
We want them to be grateful and resent it when they don’t appear to agree. We love Cathy Freeman, but were outraged when she proudly held the Aboriginal flag after winning Commonwealth gold. We admire and respect Tony Mundine, but hate his uppity, outspoken son.
It seems that we can only accept Aboriginal people on our own terms and as long as they don’t step out of line and act just like us, we like them, but they aren’t just like us, they are wired differently, and until we recognise that fact we are doomed to repeat, over and over, the mistakes of the past.
When I say that they aren’t like us, I don’t mean that they are less than any other human, less capable of emotion or feeling than anyone else. That they are not as intelligent as everyone else or that they are not controlled by the same desires as anyone else.
Unfortunately, over the last two hundred or so years we have trained our part of society to believe this to be true.
This is not a coincidence, by the way. It has been a deliberate tactic that freed colonial Australia from assuming any guilt over our hostile takeover of their country.
The Australian Aboriginal has a culture way older than any other Western country, at least sixty thousand years and its arguable that, in many ways, it was superior to ours. I say “was” because in just over two hundred years we have virtually destroyed it.
Bill Bryson illustrates an important point regarding the Indigenous Australian’s long, continuous, cultural heritage. That, if you were to visit the Lascaux caves in France, the ones with the famous cave paintings that were created by prehistoric man, and asked a modern Frenchman what they meant, he wouldn’t have any more insight or understanding than anyone else, but the Aboriginal Australian, fortunate enough to still be connected to their culture, can interpret rock art that is much older, and can provide meaning to the scene presented as easily as a modern art critic can describe the motivations of Monet or Warhol.
No other people in the world have this ability, this connection with the past that even without written language has survived for longer than “civilisation”.
This culture though, was not national in the way we see Australia as one nation. It varied in custom and language, and, just as it would be impossible to consider all Europeans as being from the same background, so it is with the Australian Aboriginal.
A native of the east coast of Australia would be just as lost if placed on the west as we would be if suddenly dropped into the jungles of Peru.
This is why the idea of missions and resettlement based on skin colour has always failed.
We are momentarily outraged about Aboriginal deaths in custody, about the incarceration of Aboriginal youth for petty crimes, about the high rates of suicide and the large gap between the average life expectancy of Aboriginals and the rest of Australia. The outrage however, is always tempered with a “yeah, but”, then we start talking about alcohol and spousal abuse, incest and pedeophila, we call them lazy bludgers and welfare abusers, we ease our discomfort for their plight with the view that it’s just how it is and, though it’s sad, there’s nothing we can do about it, it’s just the way they are …
Why can’t they be more like us?
The truth is, there’s a lot we can do.
We can stop watching them so closely when they enter our stores, afraid they may steal something. Do we think they don’t notice, that it doesn’t have any emotional impact on them or affect their sense of society’s acceptance of them?
We can stop telling ourselves that the injustice of the ‘stolen generation’ were well-intentioned, but poorly executed attempts at social integration because equality and a level footing with white Australia was never part of the plan.
We can stop being outraged about Aboriginal people receiving government support and stop viewing remote communities as needing to be self sustaining, we can choose to embrace their difference and acknowledge that almost ninety per cent of Aboriginal people died within the first few years of European settlement.
We can teach our children real Australian history because, just like ‘the convict stain’ that until fairly recently we didn’t want to admit was in our blood, the atrocities committed against the Aboriginal people of Australia was a very real thing. We hunted them like they were foxes from old England, pests and sexual playthings in a country where white women were few and far between and destroyed them for acting in ways we could not understand.
Wholesale slaughter of the Aboriginal people was common and rarely punished. Poisoned flour and tea was given to them freely and generously, as deaths from sickness in the Indigenous population was something never investigated by the government.
Should Aboriginal people just forget about it? Forget that until fifty years ago they were considered more akin to livestock than humans according to governmental policy, their existence legislated under the Flora and Fauna Act, instead of the Constitution like the rest of us.
We have forgotten or never accepted the fact that we have created the world they now live in and, though we want them to accept responsibility and fix the problems that exist in their division of society, we refuse to allow them the tools and mechanisms to make this possible.
This won’t fix the problem, but it might help all Australians to look at the social divide a bit more carefully.
We need a new public holiday.
January 26, Australia Day or Invasion day, as its referred to by the earlier arrivals to this continent, does not need its date changed, except perhaps to ‘float’ the day to the nearest weekend, as it was before 1994. It seems like it would be a meaningless gesture that would always remain controversial and drive an even bigger wedge between the two opposing sides of the issue. Ignoring or dismissing the drastic change caused by the arrival of the British is not much help either, but changing the date is not, in my opinion, the solution.
Instead, we need a day that both recognises the original inhabitants and provides a genuine reason for celebration.
A day that we can all be proud of and that, with an understanding of its significance, can contribute in a meaningful way to the improvement of relations between our distinctly seperate cultures.
August 16th or Wave Hill Day.
The end result of the Wave Hill walk-out was the first real stepping stone to equality with white Australia for the Aboriginal people after almost two hundred years of British settlement.
The original inhabitants had only been officially recognised as human beings for eight years – this was itself a victorious event – but as any tangible benefit was inconclusive, recognition of their right to possession of their ancestral lands was a very big deal.
It didn’t come without a struggle though.
Countless attempts were made by government and the wealthy stakeholders to end the sit-in at Wattie Creek, trying to tempt the mob with increased wages (still nowhere near the level of a white man) and housing. These tokens of appeasement failed to move Vincent Langiari and the rest of the Gurindji people. With help from the trade union movement and others, the stand off continued for almost a decade.
It’s worth noting that the big landholders fought against equal wages for Aboriginal people with the same excuse as we still hear today regarding wages for agricultural workers, that it would ruin the economic competitiveness of the industry.
No industry should survive if its business model is reliant on exploitation of the workforce in order to make a profit, and I can already hear the uproar from these same vested interest groups at the thought of another public holiday being added to the calendar.
From 26 August 1966, until they were granted the right to lease their traditional land, nine years later, the passive resistance to the exploitation of their labour and land went on.
This is a reason for celebration.
Although the Land Rights Act was passed by the Fraser government in 1976, the groundwork was laid by Whitlam’s Labor government, so it is fitting that the day of celebration should be on the anniversary of his visit to the Gurindji people and the formal recognition of their rightful claim to be owners of their traditional lands: August 16, 1975.
This date is not intended to applaud or praise any political party or politician, it is appropriate because our First Nation People were given formal commitments by government with all Australians bearing witness.
We need to do more, much more, than just recognise the wrongs done to them by our occupation of ‘terra nullis‘, but giving the people a day on our calendar that is of equal worth to our other days of celebration or remembrance is not unreasonable.
Allowing them more than a token say in government would be better but, you’ve got to start somewhere, and this is a day worth remembering … for all Australians.