I want to tell you a story about a woman,
Born in the first quarter of the twentieth century in an indigenous community,
Who knew life on the land, a traditional Indigenous life;
When only a small child, she hid in the bush, one of a handful of survivors of a massacre in central New South Wales;
Her mind is fading today, her daughter is gone, her ways are but a shadow in time.
I want to tell you a story,
About a man born on an aboriginal mission;
A man who never understood why he was not good enough to be offered land in the Soldier Settlement Scheme, but had been allowed to fight alongside men of white heritage;
Who could not sit in the same bar as his military comrades and share a beer after his return to Australia.
I want to tell you about a little boy,
Taken from the arms of a loving aunt whilst his father was at work,
Placed with a family who had their own problems (white families do, you know);
A child confused by the denial of love and contact with his family;
He tried so hard to meet the stereotypical ideal of the time,
Only to realize that his heritage, his blakness, meant he could never expect to be accepted or treated with the same respect as the biological children of his foster parents.
One hundred years of denigration, of attack, of racism. One family, three generations, one nation’s shame. Do you think it stopped there? Then how about I tell you about a child, aged just twelve now, attacked because of his indigenous family, for being different.
This family is not unique in Australia. Fractured and denied since first settlement, the indigenous people of Australia have battled against all means of destruction. Is it any wonder they are defiant, that they are #IdleNoMore? I’ve seen the same defiance embedded deeply in Northern Ireland, where little boys skip down the road chanting IRA slogans, childhood victims of a centuries old war that brands the mind before any sense can be made of the issues.
Shaking off one’s childhood guilts – Catholic guilt, white guilt, black guilt, wealth guilt – is something we all contend with at some time. But being born to Indigenous parents is not an issue of guilt anymore than being born to those who are Palestinian or Chinese or Madeiran. We are so much more than our family history. The legacy of discrimination and abuse inherent in the indigenous life cannot be ignored; it is pervasive and unavoidable. Advancement of community is constrained by the laws that bind a people; it is also those laws may build them up.
When Denis Jensen, MP for Tangney in Western Australia tweeted his contempt for one indigenous woman about the effects of colonialism, he disregarded the 225 years of progressive, systematic and deliberate oppression of the Australian Aborigine. Just as wealth runs in families or select societal groups, so does poverty. There’s a lot of pride taken by those who come from “blue-blood” families, but their position in life is no less a product of the 225 years of advantage than that of the indigenous man in Redfern trying to find a job and stay out of the path of the cops.
We must take into account the starting point in life for each other … and we must never cease, as individuals, to take responsibility for our own actions. All bar the most intellectually disabled can differentiate between right and wrong. If I attack someone without provocation, that’s wrong. If I defend myself from attack, most people would argue that is not wrong. The problem comes when we hit the grey – how much I defend myself and what form it takes can be a point of disagreement and it is perhaps then that the ingrained heritage, those mechanisms we learn in our youth, come to the fore. Reflex is a hard thing to break … I’m not entirely sure if it’s impossible. Re-wiring the brain is harder once we are adults.
Recognizing the effects on European settlement and policies on Aboriginal Australians is imperative to Reconciliation. Our schools need to be teaching a more rounded history that includes information about the massacre of indigenous Australians, the removal of children from parents and loss of kinship ties, and the official and unofficial policies that allowed any person of colour to be treated as something less than human. The motivations and failure of understanding about the differences in ways of life should be explored so that children who make comments in public forums such as football matches, are not hurling derogatory statements reflecting generations of stereotype of which they do not comprehend the full history.
Reconciliation also requires that corporations and governments alike take responsibility for their own part in keeping the black community “under the thumb”. It is ironic that today’s launch of National Reconciliation Week in Federation Square will be overshadowed by a pair of towering pillars peering down into the public space. Emblazoned across the top is the logo of none other than Ernst & Young. I wondered how many of the indigenous in that square know how that one company facilitated the destruction of the career of the former Commissioner for ACT Revenue.
The stories continue, mother to child, father to son, brother to sister … only now, the tide is turning. It’s time this country accepted the painful parts of its past and dealt with the issues that fail children for no other reason than bigotry. We can break the cycle of indigenous disadvantage and we will. Now is the time.
The Launch of National Reconciliation Week will be held today, 27 May, 2013 in Federation Square in Melbourne between 12 midday and 2:00 pm. More events are listed can be found at Reconciliation Victoria.