A few days ago I posted about Australia Day and the challenges created by governmental policies of assimilation. In response, Tree Girl wrote a profoundly moving comment about Australia Day and assimilation, drawing from her experience as an Australian of Aboriginal heritage. I then asked her whether she would share more with us and she graciously agreed. I am grateful to her. All photos are Tree Girl’s. Her essay follows:
Disclosure – All of what I write here is based on my observations within the community I work in. I can’t talk about what is happening within other communities. It may be completely different for other communities. Aboriginal people have not been a homogenous group for many thousands of years. I have worked with Aboriginal people for the past eighteen years. I have Aboriginal heritage on both sides of my family, but I can’t speak as an Aboriginal person because I have never lived as one. I am not regarded as an Aboriginal person in the Aboriginal community, as there is a process involved in being ‘identified’ and it is not what I wish to do. I pass as a white person. My parents and grandparents passed as white people. Therefore, I have white power and privilege. An Aboriginal colleague said to me a few years ago “you live and breathe Aboriginal social justice”. It was a lovely compliment but it gives me no power to speak on behalf of anyone. I can only make comments based on my observations and skewed vision of the world based on my membership, values, and experiences.
Aboriginal – the first people inhabiting the continent of Australia.
Indigenous – includes the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people of Australia.
non-Aboriginal – those people who are citizens of the Australian nation who don’t identify as Aboriginal or Indigenous
whitefella – a colloquial term (Aboriginal English)used within the Aboriginal community to describe non-Aboriginal people.
blackfella – a colloquial term used within the Aboriginal community to describe Aboriginal people. It is probably not a good idea for non-Aboriginal people to use this term.
A few weeks ago we had our annual celebration of Australia Day.
It always causes vigorous debate. Australia Day celebrates the landing of the British on Australian soil in 1788, to claim the land as their own because no-one but a few natives had previously called it ‘home’. Some Aboriginal people call it ‘Invasion Day’.
This year, a young, strong Aboriginal man, Adam Goodes, has been named Australian of the Year. Adam Goodes is an Andyamathanha man from South Australia, and an Australian Rules football player, who through his profile in the media has communicated his pride in his Aboriginality and spoken out against racism. Unlike some football players, he has never been in trouble for drinking to excess, taking drugs, assaulting women, or being involved drunken brawls in bars. He has been called out for some biffo on the footy field.
Some Aboriginal people have claimed that this award is an artifice of the dominant white culture, and should be rejected. Apart from a general low-level grumbling that a football player may not be the best choice for the award, it appears that the majority of non-Aboriginal Australians think the award was justified.
Do you see the juxtaposition in this scenario? Some Aboriginal people are angry about the award. Most non-Aboriginal people agree with it or are ambivalent, but are not angry. The anger undermines the goodwill. Adam Goodes is not the first Aboriginal person to be awarded Australian of the Year, and hopefully he won’t be the last. Australian of the Year is an honorary acknowledgement that doesn’t have any political weight. Every year it is awarded on Australia Day, there is a lot of discussion in the media and community about it for up to a week after, and then it is largely forgotten about. It is forgotten about regardless of who you are, how well educated you are, and how honourable you are. Regardless of whether you are white or black.
Michael raised the issue of ‘resistance’ in his “In a Sacred Manner” post recently. I think resistance is futile, and I only think that way because of the changes I have observed within the Aboriginal community and how I feel about those changes.
Our Elders used to talk up ‘resistance’ and it just got everyone angry, whitefellas and blackfellas. I remember sitting at a smoking ceremony and Welcome to Country about five years ago, where all peoples were invited, and feeling ashamed of my white heritage even though I have Aboriginal heritage on both sides of my family, because the Elder speaking was so resistant. He reeled off all of the injustices wrought upon his people by whitefellas. It was a Welcome to Country but it didn’t feel very welcoming to me. I have no idea how the whitefellas attending the ceremony felt.
In these ceremonies, the Elders used to talk about the violence and hardship that they have suffered, and every word of it is true. The things that were done to Aboriginal people were just plain wrong and none of us should dismiss it or forget it. A lunchtime discussion with my Aboriginal colleagues at work leaves me with no doubt that racism is alive and well in modern day Australia, from the top down. A young Aboriginal male minding his own business is more likely to attract attention from police than a bunch of rowdy whitefellas. However, what is happening within Aboriginal communities is just as worrisome.
Family violence within Aboriginal families is sky-high, fuelled by alcohol and drug abuse, poverty, poor conflict resolution skills, and poor child-rearing skills. Years ago, an Aboriginal colleague mentioned to me that Aboriginal women prefer to marry non-Aboriginal men. I asked why, and she replied “less trouble”. Anyone working with Aboriginal communities is aware of the challenges – the fighting amongst families and communities; serious child abuse and neglect; interpersonal violence both physical and verbal; and the misappropriation of funds in Aboriginal managed services. Bryan Butler’s website “Lateral Love” has a series ”What is Lateral Violence” which explains the difficulties very well.
“Lateral violence is more than behaviours such as gossip, jealousy, putdowns and blaming, resentment, spite, envy, suspicion, distrust, protectiveness, bitterness, hatred, antipathy, racial superiority, taking on of another cultural expression – the Americanisation of Aboriginal youth – because of self shame, offence, umbrage, anger, acrimony, animosity, hostility, enmity, and other negative expressions is the fact that these expressions often have their basis in oral histories, those negative stories of our past that are handed down to us and that are projected into our present living. The strategies that are making a difference with regards to ‘domestic violence; personal violence; community violence and corporate violence have very little if any impact upon ‘lateral violence’. Often, the symptoms are or can be considered to be expressed as one of the above. But the motivators for lateral violence are embedded deeper in the psyche of Aboriginal and Islander peoples than behaviour or cognition. What is missed is the spiritual scars that motivate the cognitive systems to the connection that is demonstrated in the behavioral outcome.”
Cheri Yavu Kama Harathunian (Kabi Kabi, Gurang Gurang, Terabalang Bunda Elder) quoted by Bryan Butler, http://lateralloveaustralia.com/2012/11/21/what-is-lateral-violence-part-1/
I know that all of the problems were caused by the disease, dispossession, and disadvantage created by the policies and politics of the past. It was devastating. But I also know that Aboriginal people are strong. They are strong because they are still here. Australian Aboriginal culture is the oldest living culture in the world – 50,000 years strong. No other group of people in the whole world can make that claim, yet only three per cent of the Australian population are Indigenous.
About eight years ago I raised the issue of teaching all of our children (Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal) Aboriginal culture and Language within schools with some Aboriginal people. There was resistance from them. The sharing of culture, knowledge and Language was seen as stepping into sacred territory. I totally understand that sentiment, but how can there be understanding and reconciliation if a cultural group shut themselves off from the mainstream? Change is hard but it has to come from within the community. Change can only come from a reconciliation standpoint. Since that Welcome to Country ceremony I described above, I have been to many other ceremonies, and these days it’s all about ‘reconciliation’. What a difference it has made, moving from resistance to reconciliation. The talk is much more inclusive and kind. The Elders talk about wanting to share the culture with all peoples. They talk about a positive future rather than a desolate past. Instead of putting the onus on non-Aboriginal people to create an environment for reconciliation as they did in previous years, the Elders are pushing it forward and talking it up. I don’t know who has brought about the changes within the Aboriginal community but s/he is a visionary and it is working.
I think that assimilation, to a certain extent, is inevitable. It has already happened. There are very few Aboriginal people living a traditional life in Australia today. Most Aboriginal people wear clothes, live in houses, and gather their food from supermarkets, just like everyone else. Many non-Aboriginal children in Australia today think that all Aboriginal people live a traditional life. If I asked the average bunch of third-graders what they think it means to be Aboriginal, they would say that they have dark skin, hunt for their own food, paint their skin with ochre, and live in bark huts. Do we really want to perpetuate the stereotypes?
Aboriginal people want to be seen as modern people. They have the right to decide how they want to live their lives. They are choosing non-Aboriginal partners and having children with fair skin (the Aboriginal characteristics are not dominant). It’s just that I’m hoping that in the future, further assimilation will be a reciprocal exchange. It doesn’t have to be all one way. I firmly believe that some of the problems created by modern society can be resolved by Indigenous values, so why not give non-Indigenous people the benefit of an Aboriginal education? Aboriginal people have lived in this environment for 50,000 years, and they did change the landscape, but they didn’t wreck it. I hope that non-Aboriginal people in the future will understand Aboriginal culture and knowledge, just as children in New Zealand are raised in Maori awareness because culture and Language is taught in the public schools (don’t worry, I know they have their own unique set of challenges). This year, a pilot programme is being run in our local public schools to teach Aboriginal culture and Language to all of the children. This is the way to move forward.
I use collaboration and the exchange of ideas and knowledge in my own work. I work in a community organisation where half the staff are Indigenous. Our Indigenous staff have the heart, and want things to change, but they don’t always have the know-how. They haven’t had the opportunity to be educated. I have had the good fortune to fund my own education and have acquired a few degrees. I work alongside the Indigenous workers supporting them to increase their knowledge and then they go out into the community and do the hard yards. Although I have Aboriginal heritage I do not claim to know more about Aboriginal people than they do. I know that they will go about doing the work that needs to be done, in their own way, and when it needs to be done. We learn from and respect each other. I can hear the cynic in you saying “how can you fix blackfella’s problems with whitefella’s knowledge?” In my area of practice – psychology and community development – a lot of the research has brought us full-circle into a more primal perspective. There is an emerging emphasis on belonging, connection, and community. Much of the work I do these days is communicating the science of being human, which looks a lot like the values that traditional people lived.
I am so pleased to see these changes in my lifetime. I am seeing Aboriginal people becoming stronger and prouder. The young people now have more confidence and pride in their heritage and more kids are identifying as Aboriginal instead of feeling ashamed and hiding it. From what I’ve observed, the ‘otherness’ is changing, and that is a good thing. When there is a rare quality to something, people either reject it or try to capture it. I have grave concerns about non-Aboriginal people ‘going native’ and acting and speaking as Aboriginal people do, because it frequently involves those same people making some claim to being able to speak for Aboriginal people. This is a terrible abuse of power and does nothing for reconciliation. Enabling Aboriginal people to be involved in creating cultural awareness and to speak up for themselves is much healthier and restores some balance. All of us derive from some Indigenous culture and I believe it is each person’s responsibility to draw power from their own ancestral lines and share that knowledge in the spirit of reconciliation and understanding.
You may read more of Tree Girl’s writing on her blog, Under the Tea Tree.