Saturday, 27 May 2017

My Fifty Year 'Journey of the Mind' Concerning Aborigines

Sketch by Julia Woodhouse, the author's mother
Growing up in Sydney’s Northern Beaches area as one of the first ‘Babyboomers’, the closest I came to an awareness of Aborigines was at my old secondary school, located at Narrabeen. The suburb's name has aboriginal origins, more than we realised as we were all ignorant, then, about 'Narrabeen man'. He is the oldest aboriginal skeleton yet found in Sydney, forensically diagnosed as a 4,000-yr-old murder victim, his story now forming a history module for schools. 

Narrabeen Girls High School no longer exists. It has morphed into a school with a different name, look and role, but our surprisingly inclusive school song with its 'call to arms' school motto in the last line, lives on in my memory:
Out amid the flannel flowers
Bare plains swept by sea winds clean
Newest, happiest of our high schools
Proudly rises Narrabeen
Where our native people gathered
Where they danced corroborees
Young Australians climb Parnassus
On the plains of Narrabeen
New Australians, old Australians
Proudly loyal to one queen
Work together, strive together
Facta Non Verba, Narrabeen
Without realising it, as kids we absorbed the ethos of our environment, the same environment which 'speaks' to our first peoples: the lake we crossed each day on our way to school, the creek behind our school which sometimes flooded us out, the craggy bushland behind our house where we played, the rhythmic sounds of the surf, the grit of the sand between our toes, the twittering, carolling and squawking of the birds, the ear-drum piercing locusts, the snakes we feared, goannas too, and the annoying ticks we dealt with. Not to mention the power of the sun (sunburn) and those brilliant, mind-blowing star-filled southern hemisphere skies on clear nights. We gradually absorbed the sense of ‘place’, of belonging to this land and its landscape, that indigenous citizens are born with.

We grew up taking for granted the cadence of the aboriginal language. Narrabeen and Bennelong rolled off our tongues. My parents lived for some years in Wallumatta Rd, Newport. In the 1970s I was co-founder of the Cameragal Montessori School at North Sydney – a deliberate choice of name by our committee. I quickly adapted to the renaming of Ayers Rock as Uluru. With my then-husband Bill we developed a paddock at Yea into a farm and we called it "Billalooa Farm". I've never been called 'Lou' in my life but we loved the sound of that name.

Aged 19, I graduated from the University of Sydney on the same day in May 1966 that Charlie Perkins graduated as one of the first indigenous Australians to obtain a university degree. I distinctly remember the huge applause for him. I also remember the claim, on the day itself, that he was ‘the first’ - not ‘one of the first’.

Dubbo Revisited, Jan 1987
The University of Sydney is a big place and I didn't know Charlie personally. I had my first direct contact with Aborigines the following year, teaching mathematics at South Dubbo High School in 1967. (Dubbo is yet another of the countless place names in Australia with aboriginal origins.) At that time a child's IQ was recorded after their name on each teacher’s class roll and beside the name of an aboriginal girl in 1A was the rare high score of 135+. (As was my own, I discovered later.) I wish I hadn’t been so young (twenty) and inexperienced, both as a teacher and a human being. At the time I did pay extra attention to her, somehow recognising her vulnerability but, looking back, I see that she was completely stranded, expected to perform well intellectually in 1A while all of her social life as a young teenager was with her aboriginal friends in 1D. By the start of her second year of high school she’d stopped trying and was coasting along down in the D stream with her friends. She’d chosen emotional comfort over intellectual challenge and the possibilities of a bright future because she had no-one to help her take the leap out of her comfort zone. I left Dubbo at the end of 1968 and have always wondered what happened to that bright young girl.

Voting Poster, 1967
The three year electoral cycle meant that my voting life began during that first year in Dubbo, on this day back in 1967. Like so many others, I can remember being shocked, once it was drawn to our attention, that Aborigines were not counted as people in the census and that Federal Parliament was required to treat them differently and had to make special laws about them. These were the issues prompting the Referendum. One of the leading aboriginal activists for reform was Faith Bandler, who lived in a suburb not far from my childhood home. Regretfully, I never met her.

It was exhilarating to see the vote passed so resoundingly with just over 90% support, astounding to see that it didn’t have 100% support. We felt so proud of ourselves, overcoming that long-held prejudice. I think the most significant, and heartening, comment made on Stan Grant's ABC program ‘Counted’ last night came from Millie Ingram who said “and the 90% are still there”. That's true. We are.

Kainantu, PNG, c 1969
Subsequently I spent five years living at close quarters with a different indigenous population in Papua New Guinea, and I lived in England and Hong Kong for lengthy periods as well as Melbourne and several country towns in Victoria. These varied experiences have definitely pushed me out of my own comfort zone on a regular basis and I think the notion of ‘comfort zone’ is very relevant to progressing the aboriginal cause. Changes in your thinking and your habits come upon you gradually, as you make connections and the pieces start to slot together. Radical change is harder to accept.

Paul Bushell & David Brown Grave Restoration Event,
Wilberforce Cemetery, 22 Nov 2015
Somehow the significance of the land rights movement passed me by, as the Wave Hill walk-off in 1966 and Whitlam's iconic actions in 1975 all happened when I was preoccupied with other major matters in my personal life. In the 1990s I became involved with Swinburne University and was exposed for the first time to the custom, at official functions, of paying respect to the elders of the land on which we stood. It seemed very strange at first, but now I’ve said similar words myself at a public function. My words meant something to me and my audience too, as we were standing on land at Wilberforce, NSW, site of many interactions between the incoming settlers and the indigenous population in the 1790s. The custom of acknowledging the original landholders has become well-entrenched and well-accepted in our society: two weeks ago my nephew was married at The Spit in Sydney and the celebrant paid our respects before the outdoor ceremony began.

Book published Jan 2009
The 1992 Mabo decision about native title preceded my astounding discovery that I was the descendant of a First Fleeter. Robert Forrester was one of the earliest recipients of a land grant at Windsor on the Hawkesbury River.

In the frontier war which followed, his experiences with the indigenous population are well-documented in my own book about him, and in other books. I had to think long and hard about his trial for the murder of an aboriginal boy in 1794. The discovery of this unpleasant historical fact had a profound effect on me. As my book concludes:
This was indeed a serious matter. He was the first person tried in Australia for the murder of an aborigine. When he shot and killed that aboriginal boy at the Hawkesbury in October 1794, his fear of the physical threat posed by aborigines to the lives of himself, his pregnant wife and his daughter would have been paramount during a frontier war. Generations of Americans have grown up on stories of ‘how the west was won’, replayed in countless ‘cowboys and Indians’ movies, and this was Australia’s version of the same sad tale.
Hopefully Robert’s testimony was correct and he played no part in the boy’s torture. There is no further evidence that he was personally involved in any of the mistreatment endured by aborigines. In the context of cruelties and injustices suffered by the local aborigines, much of his ‘poor press’ was apparently guilt by association.
His descendants no doubt feel a range of emotions at their direct links to the aboriginal land rights issue, and the continuing slaughter of aborigines set in train by the arrival of the British, and may be more than willing to say ‘Sorry’, but there is little that can be done today to reverse what happened back then.
Despite my own connections to what some call 'Invasion Day', I don’t harbour guilt and I don't agree with the notion that we should change the day we celebrate Australia Day. The large number of Australians descended from First Fleeters under the governorship of Arthur Phillip have a lot to be proud of too. I applaud the stance of young Jacinta Nampijinpa Price, who believes the future is more important than the past. She’s looking for practical measures to improve the lot of her disadvantaged kinsmen, not symbolism. I’ve written about this elsewhere so I won’t labour the point here. 

This week’s gathering at Uluru, a place I’d love to visit, has prompted me to focus again on the position of our First Peoples. Like everyone else I know, I’ve been dismayed for years at their situation, as reported in the media, and aboriginal politics are as fraught with unedifying division as every other kind of politics in this country. We don’t hear enough about the programmes which are working to improve the quality of aboriginal lives. In this, and so many other aspects of Australian life, we chop and change too much and don’t stick to anything long enough to make it work. Sometimes we need to persevere with a course of action for ten or twenty years to achieve noticeable results, but that timeframe far exceeds the political and funding cycle in this country.

Clearly some programmes are working well, as there is an obvious and growing middle class of educated Aborigines, many in positions of responsibility and effective community leadership. Education has unlocked the doors to opportunity. Aborigines are taken seriously in many fields of endeavour, as state governorpoliticians and public servantsdoctorslawyerswriters and journalists, and sporting stars, for example, and have carved a much more visible place in our society. Who could forget Cathy Freeman at the 2000 Olympic Games? Once heard, how could you ever forget the sound of the didgeridoo reverberating around Westminster Abbey in London?  Artfashionmusic, the performing arts and Landcare schemes now have distinctive themes in Australia because of the creative input of people with indigenous heritage.

For their kinsmen who are still at the margins of modern Australian society, I believe it’s a mistake to have special departments responsible for aboriginal affairs. Doesn't it just perpetuate the original divide in the Australian constitution? If mainstream departments of health, education, housing, social welfare and justice had to be held fully accountable for the welfare of everyone, regardless of their background, we could possibly make more progress in allocating better resources to isolated and disadvantaged indigenous groups. As it is, it seems to be too easy to palm off their problems onto someone else, some other agency.

I have to say that I share what's reported to be 'white' Australia's general agreement with Noel Pearson, who's been saying for years that Aborigines need to take personal responsibility for their lives. ‘Woe is me’ is not the answer. As a woman growing up and surviving in chauvinistic Australia, I’m very familiar with that feeling of disadvantage and unfairness, but it doesn’t get you anywhere. Nor does whingeing about it. You just have to take practical steps, when and where you can, to overcome it.

Reconciliation Walk
The Reconciliation Walk by 250,000 people across the Sydney Harbour Bridge in May 2000 proved that people care about the indigenous population of this nation.

Prime Minister Rudd’s ‘Sorry’ speech of 2008 was long overdue and smoothed a balm over many troubled spirits.

Our history is being re-written. Amazing books like The Biggest Estate on Earth: How Aborigines Made Australia by Bill Gammage, and Dark Emu by Bruce Pascoe, are changing our thinking on the true history of this country. Films like the ABC's screening of The Secret River have made me angry at the careless distortions of our history since 1788 which keep old wounds festering. Broad-ranging scholarship is re-examining other aspects of our colonial history and I'll be incorporating the correct name for the aboriginal tribes of the Hawkesbury, the Darkiñung, when my Forrester book is next reprinted.

As I look back over fifty years of my own 'journey of the mind', I see that our First Peoples have made giant strides forward in gaining both community acceptance and community recognition of, and pride in, their impressive achievements. Australians generally have embraced the aboriginal 'story'. But for further progress to be made with closing various socio-economic gaps in life outcomes experienced by sections of our indigenous population, the old motto from my Narrabeen days continues to apply – Facta non verba. Deeds, not words.