Tag Archives: series: my country your country

My country, your country: Hard hitting thoughts

A few weeks ago, Matt and I went to Canberra to visit our friend Tim. It was early afternoon when we got in, and we were waiting around for Tim to finish work. To fill the time we visited some of the more obscure museums and monuments of Canberra. As the afternoon wound on, we found ourself outside the National Library. We went straight to their bookshop (it was excellent) and while I was there I read a book about making of the ABC TV adaptation of one of my favourite children’s books, My Place by Nadia Wheatley.

As I flipped through the pages showing each character’s story and the background to the filming, I was struck by photographs of the Aboriginal girl who tells her story in 2008. In the pictures, she was sitting under the big fig tree with her grandmother, listening to stories about the land, their history and their culture.

This, I thought, is a typical Aboriginal scene, of elders passing on stories and meaning to younger generations. But I had another thought, which was this:

I used to sit with my grandmother just like that.

My Grandma and Grandad used to live on a lovely rural property out at Ebeneezer, north-west of Sydney, and as kids we loved going out there to visit. We would go on long walks together, and sometimes just Grandma and I would go on our own. We would visit the big rock pile, or the dam, or the big waterhole. I remember distinctly sitting by the big water hole one day while Grandma taught me how to sign the alphabet (she is deaf, so it is actually a very useful communication tool!). It was such a key moment for me, learning how to be able to spell may way through clunky words so that we could actually converse. It was the moment I felt that I was valuable to my grandmother as a person in my own right, an interesting person to talk to, like the adults.

My grandparents don’t live there anymore, but as an extended family, we all hold this ramshackle piece of bush very dear in our hearts. All the special places there had meanings for us – the big water hole, the little water holes, the flat rocks, the good climbing trees. This place holds important memories, especially of my Grandad, who has passed away. I desperately wish I could go back there and see this place again that was such a key prt of my childhood, but someone else owns the property now. I just have to remember the places through photos.

Some of my earliest pictures on my very first camera:

My cousins Daniel and Drew at the small water holes (out of frame)
IMAGE0005

My cousin Kate, myself, Georgia, Daniel and Drew. My brother took this one.
IMAGE0004

Drew, Daniel and Georgia
IMAGE0003

—————-

Back in Canberra, it was 5pm and the library was closing. We still haddn’t heard from Tim, so Matt and I wandered back slowly to the distant place where we had parked the car. We walked past the Reconciliation Place monument, a collection of inscriptions – names, quotes, legislation and art work – memorialising the experiences of the stolen generations.

The stories written up along the displays were horrific. Families torn apart, mothers paralysed with grief and removed children abused in every imaginable way. Although there were a few positive stories up there of understanding white people, or of eventual family reunification, most of the stories were sickening pictures of desparation. It was awful to sit and take it all in like that, knowing that this whole chapter of history was so avaoidable!

One quote made me stop in my tracks. It was a woman talking about how she had never really understood who she was because she had never been able to be with her own family in their own place. I wanted to be sick on the spot. Only fifteen minutes beforehand, I had been lost in my own memories of family, and the place that my family felt it belonged to. At what cost were these memories created!? Which Aborignal people were removed from Ebeneezer so that white people could farm? Which indigenous families were torn apart so that I could grow up safely with my own?

Under John Howard, people said that the stolen generation was not this generation’s fault. Maybe that is true. I personally can’t take any direct responsiblity for destoying countless Aborignal families.

But I was blind to the way that I personally have benefitted from the pain that many many others have suffered. That afternoon at Reconciliation Place, I realised. I am truly sorry.

Advertisements

My country, your country: Thought 2

Indigenous Australians as a community have not been treated well since other people started settling here.

Another way that some people have tried to rectify this is by “acknowledging country” in public addresses or public gatherings. Typically this is done where people from the following types of organisations are meeting together:
– some public servants and politicians
– community organisations
– some universities
– some churches, including only two Sydney Anglican churches that I know of (see Leichhardt’s response to the apology to the stolen generation here.

I have never heard of it being done where people from the following types of organisations are meeting together:
– private companies and corporations

Acknowledgement of country is, more often than not, a very token action. It involves a non-Indigenous person saying a sentence at the beginning of their presentation that goes something like:
“Before I begin, I’d like to acknowledge the traditional owners of the land that we meet on, both past and present.”
Then they continue on with their presentation.

Like all other words, these words have no inherent power. It is a very bad thing that as I child I used to apologise to my sister after I hit her, to appease my parents, and then turn around and do it again as soon as they left the room. It is a very bad thing when people make promises with no intention of keeping them. And it is a very bad thing when people acknowledge the fact almost all indigenous people in Australia have been dispossessed for the last couple of years and then go on with your presentation like nothing needs to change.

Some people say these words because it is the socially acceptable thing to do in the circles they move in.
Some people refuse to say these words because it is not a socially acceptable thing to do in the circles they move in.

Some people say these words because they feel that indigenous people as a community have been mistreated since 1788, and they want to communicate their regret and desire to see things change.

The best acknowledgement of country I have heard was at the Lesvian book launch last month. Vasilis Vaslilas, the recently arrived Lesvian migrant who authored the book, opened his speech with words that went something like:

“Before I say anything else, I’d like to acknowledge the traditional owners of this land, the Dharug people, and their elders, past and present. We Greeks know the importance of topos*, the place we belong to, and the place where we live”

A giant room full of first generation migrants murmured in agreement. I wished that there were some indigenous people in the room to hear it.

———-

Thought 2: I have heard many people back away from acknowledging country, saying it is a token gesture. Heck yes it will be a token gesture if you do it with an attitude like that!

*Topos (Τόπος): Place

My country, your country: Thought 1

Indigenous Australians as a community have not been treated well since other people started settling here.

One of the ways that some people have tried to rectify this is by inviting indigenous elders to welcome them to country. Typically this is done where people from the following types of organisations are meeting together:
– some public servants and politicians
– community organisations
– some universities
– some churches

I have never heard of it being done where people from the following types of organisations are meeting together:
– private companies and corporations
– Sydney Anglican churches (or any evangalical churches for that matter).

Welcome to country is not a token action. It involves an indigenous elder, native to the area in which you are meeting, welcoming you in a way that is meaningful to them. Sometimes a welcome to country can feel token, if it is staged. But usually these welcomes are heartfelt and very meaningful moments.

I have been welcomed to country twice, both times in the context of an NGO conference. One was a very subtle, normal kind of welcome. The elder got up, greeted us, welcomed us and told us how she hoped that our conference would be a good and useful process. It was a very hope-filled welcome to country.

The other one was weird and wonderful. We were in the Blacktown Town Hall, and the elder who welcomed us did the normal kind of talking, welcoming us to the country around Blacktown. But she wasn’t finished there. She went to get her guitar and then came back and played us a song that she had written about being an Aboriginal woman in Blacktown. Lyrically and musically I think it was the worst song I have ever heard performed. But it came from her heart and it spoke about the experiences of her and other women in the area who struggle with their indigenous identity and the way they are treated. It was definitely not a token action. We all definitely felt welcomed, not just to the place we were meeting, but also to its indigenous community.

———-

Thought 1: I have heard many people back away from being welcomed to country, saying it is a token gesture. I don’t think that is the problem. I think the problem is that deep down we know that if we, the migrants and children of migrants, encourage indigenous people to welcome us to country, then we are opening up room to question western assumptions about land and land ownership.