Tag Archives: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander

Lesley & Tammy Williams, Not Just Black and White

Lesley and Tammy Williams, Not Just Black and White: A Conversation Between a Mother and Daughter (UQP 2015)

njb&w.jpgThis is a superb memoir. If the title sounds a bit preachy, don’t be misled. It’s a page turner, a romance, a tale of multi-faceted heroism with plenty of grief, rage and laughing out loud, and some totally – I do mean totally! – unexpected plot twists.

The two authors are mother and daughter. Lesley Williams was born in the mid 1940s and grew up in Cherbourg Aboriginal Settlement in Queensland, 170 kilometres north-west of Brisbane, where the Aboriginal people were referred to as ‘inmates’ and every aspect of their lives was regulated by the authorities. Hers is the last generation to have grown up ‘under the Act’ – that is The Aboriginals Protection and the Restriction of the Sale of Opium Act of 1897 and its successors: people couldn’t travel or marry without formal permission, and any money they earned was held ‘in safe keeping’ by the government. When she was fifteen, Lesley was assigned to work as a domestic servant in distant homes; she wasn’t informed of the conditions of her employment and received only ‘pocket money’ directly. A timid girl who lives in fear of any white authorities, she grows up, with help from Aboriginal and white friends and allies, to spearhead a campaign  for justice for Aboriginal workers that eventually led to payment of a compensation package of $55.4 million dollars.

Meanwhile, she had three children whom she was determined would have better lives than hers. Tammy, the youngest, started out ghost writing this book, but became its second authorial voice when they realised how their lives were intertwined. Tammy’s story doesn’t have quite the same extraordinary journey from one era to another, but it’s full of surprises of its own. Spoiler alert: Michael Jackson plays a significant role and José Ayala Lasso, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, has a walk-on part.

Both women are great story-tellers. The success of the campaign to recover the stolen wages is almost an afterthought to these two wonderful yarns.

I was about a third of the way into this book when ABC’s 4 Corners aired those heart-stopping scenes of the mistreatment of Aboriginal boys in custody in the Northern Territory. And you know, grim though those scenes were, the government’s treatment of Aboriginal people in Queensland into the 1960s, which Lesley Williams recounts with extraordinary calm and clarity, was just as violent and demeaning in its own way. As with current events in Nauru and Manus, there was no shocking footage, and for most Australians out of sight was out of mind. This book, and other like it, make a huge contribution to our understanding of Australia’s history

AWW2016Not Just Black and White is the eighth book I’ve read as part of the 2016 Australian Women Writers Challenge. It won the 2014 David Unaipon Award for Unpublished Indigenous Writing. I’ll be surprised if it doesn’t get more gongs now that it’s published.

Stan Grant’s Talking to My Country

Stan Grant, Talking to My Country (HarperCollinsAustralia 2016)

talking-to-my-country.jpg

The cover of this book is great. The image on the left here may not look like much, just some bold type with a couple of gumleaves. But the actual cover held in your hands is scattered with (images of) tiny grains of sand as if the book has been out in the bush, exposed to the elements, suggesting that Stan Grant may be a journalist with an impressive international CV but you can never brush the Wiradjuri country from him.

Stan Grant appeared on Julia Zemiro’s Home Delivery this week. That’s a TV show where celebrities take us to visit places from their childhood usually with awkwardness and embarrassment. Stan Grant’s episode was an exception in not being awkward at all, because he had something to say about growing up and working as an Aboriginal person in Australia. That TV show provides an excellent easy-listening introduction to this book.

The cover tells us that this is ‘the book that every Australian should read’. I don’t know about that ‘should’, but if every Australian did read it we’d be living in a much wiser and possibly kinder world. Part memoir, part essay, inspired by James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time and perhaps Ta Nehisi Coates’s Between the World and Me, it’s a personal account of the effects of dispossession, colonisation and racism on individual lives into the 21st century. It includes the most powerful account of a ‘mental breakdown’ I have ever read, not as a medicalised episode of ‘depression’, but as generations of pain inflicted by colonisation finally breaking through to the surface.

And it’s all told with a sense, not of complaint, but of wonder. The journalist Grant, who wants to understand the world and communicate what he learns, here turns his attention to his own story with the same curiosity and – not detachment, but concern to get it right.It’s a marvellous book.

 

Bathurst Regional Art Gallery and Rhyme #5

On Saturday we drove to Bathurst to see an exhibition John McDonald had reviewed in the previous weekend’s Sydney Morning Herald. The exhibition’s full name is guwiinyguliya yirgabiyi ngay yuwin.gu gulbalangidyal ngunhi (they made a solitude and called it peace) by Jonathan Jones, in collaboration with the Bathurst Wiradyuri and Aboriginal Community Elders, commissioned  as part of the Bathurst Bicentenary.

Musket_and_spearIt’s  not a vast exhibition, but its powerful. There are stunning video works – a giant screen on which the camera glides endlessly through beautiful bush, and a room with six portraits of Wiradyuri elders looking out at us from significant locations in the Bathurst area. The main room has a musket and a spear on the wall (though the image above, lifted from the BRAG website, is missing the musket’s lethal bayonet), and in front of them on the floor a circular arrangement of flint fragments and grevillea flowers: the catalogue explains that the stone is waste from a Wiradyuri and Aboriginal community stone-tool making workshop. In a second room an elegant shape on the floor, made up of mussel shells cast in bronze mixed with lead musket balls, points at a pile of dusty potatoes – again, the catalogue adds to what’s already a strong image by telling us that the Bathurst wars of the 1820s began when a Wiradyuri family was massacred over some potatoes. There’s a room with surveyors’ maps and traditional parrying shields around the wall, and another with the cadavers of six small trees painted gold. All of it is very beautiful, and all invites the viewer to find out more about the history of the Wiradyuri wars, and to meditate on that history.

If you’re interested you can download a PDF of the catalogue from the Bathurst Regional Art Gallery web site, but I recommend taking the trip to walk through the six small rooms of the exhibition in person. Apart from anything else, it’s a stunning example of work created by a very fine artist collaborating humbly with a community. In the catalogue, the Bathurst Wiradyuri and Aboriginal Community Elders say they have been working with Jonathan, ‘directing him, teaching him and supporting him’. The drive from Sydney isn’t so long. We stayed overnight because the weather was threatening, but we could have done it as a day trip.

There is one room we didn’t see. It features two possumskin cloaks, made by members of the local community and evoking a moment when Windradyne, the great warrior leader, presented a similar cloak to Governor Macquarie. It was our good fortune to visit the gallery while a weaving workshop was happening in that room, so we stayed out. (We did see the gorgeous cloaks in a room that isn’t part of the exhibition but which, on Saturday, was temporarily home to them and an array of objects woven by local people.) This was good fortune for two reasons: first because during our visit the gallery was filled with the sounds of Aboriginal people enjoying each other’s company, in effect proclaiming their resilience; and second because two elders generously absented themselves from the workshop to chat to us whitefellas about the cloaks and the woven objects, about the Wiradyuri dictionary app, about the uses of some woven objects (‘Good for carrying babies, but not much good for water. That’s why we have bottles for beer.’).

And it’s November, so here’s an attempt to say in verse what I can’t figure out how to say in prose:

Rhyme #5: An exhibition in Bathurst, November 2015
Steel v hardwood, stone and blossom,
mussel shells v musket balls,
prim English maps, cloaks of possum.
Unsmiling elders on the walls
Look out from Country. Devastation
here finds mute  commemoration.
The Romans made their solitudes
and called them peace. Such platitudes
prevail now too, the past obscuring.
But lively voices here resound,
Wiradyuri are still around. 
They greet us, chat with us, ensuring
that we whitefellas will own
that solitude, but not alone.

Vivien Johnson’s Streets of Papunya

Vivien Johnson, Streets of Papunya ( 2015)

9781742232430This is a gorgeous book full of dazzling images from Australia’s Central Desert. Its publication coincides with an exhibition of the same name at UNSW Galleries, which is showing until 7 November. If you can’t get to see the paintings the book is the next best thing.

The book is more than its images. It is also a story of Papunya the place and the artists who live there.

The word Papunya has entered the general Australian and perhaps world vocabulary as synonymous with the rise of contemporary Australian Aboriginal art in the 1970s. It was in the small, artificially created settlement of Papunya that Aboriginal men, under the tutelage and encouragement of Geoffrey Bardon, began to use acrylic paints to depict traditional designs for non-Indigenous viewers. The company Papunya Tula must be the most recognisable name associated with Aboriginal art.

But Papunya was there before Geoffrey Bardon arrived. And so was Aboriginal art. Albert Namatjira painted his last watercolours while living there, and many of the local men could imitate his style (but chose not to because he was from a different country). And there was art in Papunya after Papunya Tula relocated in the 1980s and many of those original artists moved to other settlements. The town remained, as beset by disfunction as many other Aboriginal settlements in the Northern Territory, its artists left to pursue their talent without an art centre or any substantial support.

The history of Papunya has been told many times, possibly most beautifully in The Papunya School Book of Country and History, created by Nadia Wheatley and the children and adults of Papunya in 2002. That’s nominally a children’s book, but like that other great ‘children’s book’, Maralinga: The Anangu Story (by the Yalata, Oak Valley Communities with Christobel Mattingley), it tells an important story from an Aboriginal perspective. Without glossing over the terrible realities the consequences of colonial policies, these books convey a sense of Aboriginal agency and  intelligence.

Streets of Papunya is not a children’s book, and at times it can be hard going because it assumes prior knowledge, or else a high degree of interpretive skill on the part of the reader. But Vivien Johnson tells a story that has grown from her relationship with artists who have remained in Papunya. They may have been sidelined by the departure of Papunya Tula, but they continued to paint, and now, with the establishment of Papunya Tjupi, they once again have infrastructure to support their creative work.

There’s a lot of nitty-gritty in the book: the details of how the artists have been supported with supplies of canvas and paints over the decades; the legal wrangling over ownership of the 14 paintings from the 1970s known as  Papunya Community School Art Collection; the role of white managers in helping artists break out of narrowly conceived commercial imperatives; the arduous four years it took to get a new Art Centre up and running after two decades of false starts.

There’s also some splendid revision of received history. For example, you may have thought, as I did, that those early Papunya painters didn’t include women because of cultural considerations. But no, it was because the white managers couldn’t see their way to stretching the genuinely limited resources to a whole new population of potential painters. The impetus to include women in the ranks of the painters came, often enough, from the old men. You may have thought, as I did, that it was the lawmen, men of high cultural influence, who began the contemporary art movement.  But no, the first Papunya painters were risk-takers, cultural innovators, whose showing of painted stories to non-Indigenous people won the approval of the serious lawmen only after it was seen to succeed.

There are many stories on this book of frustration and defiance and hard work and triumph. Vivien Johnson sums things up nicely at the end (the lines of verse at the end are from Billy Marshall Stoneking’s ‘Passage‘):

These artists of Papunya live their lives amid the residue of successive government policy and planning failures over the half-century of Papunya’s existence. … Art centres are for them a kind of oasis from that devastation, places where through tirelessly painting the stories in which their ancestors’ deeds are recounted for the delight and edification of whitefellas, the painters symbolically invoke the power of those ancestors, just as Papunya’s street signs now invoke its cultural and artistic heroes. Surveying the ruins of their colonisers’ attempts to bring them into the mainstream of Australian life, for which places like Papunya were originally created, they are a reminder of another force at work here, underpinning all endeavours in its various names:

… the Dreaming does not end; it is not like the whiteman’s way.
what happened once happens again and again.
This is the Law. This is the Power of the Song.

‘Through the singing,’ the old men say, 
‘we keep everything alive; through the Songs,’
they say, ‘the spirits keep us alive.’

aww-badge-2015 Streets of Papunya is the nineteenth book I’ve read for the 2015 Australian Women Writers Challenge.

Ali Cobby Eckermann’s Inside My Mother

Ali Cobby Eckermann, Inside My Mother (Giramondo 2015)

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If you haven’t read anything by Ali Cobby Eckermann, you’re not keeping up. In the last five years or so, in three books of poetry, two verse novels and a memoir, she has made a huge contribution to our general understanding of what Australia is. She was taken from her Aboriginal family when she was a small child, and brought up by a white, German heritage family. Her writing is largely animated by the charge from her reunion as an adult with her mother and with  her Yankunytjatjara and Kokatha relatives and heritage.

The memoir, Too Afraid to Cry, tells her story and is on my reading list. The poetry in Inside My Mother touches on it in many ways – on her relationship with her mother, and the pain of her death soon after renewing contact; and also on her rediscovery of Aboriginal culture, as in the first poem in the book:

Bird Song
our birds fly
–––––on elongated wings
––––––––––they fly forever
–––––––––––––––they are our Spirit

–––––––––––––––our bird song
––––––––––is so ancient
–––––we gifted it
to the church

This kind of assertion of the power of Aboriginal culture is hard to pull off without coming across as defensive or preachy, but Cobby Eckermann manages it here, and throughout the book, with grace and a faint satirical edge.

The poetry here is wonderfully varied: love lyrics, fables, autobiographical narrative, polemic, surrealism and some silly humour.

As I’ve been ruminating about this book over the last couple of weeks, my mind keeps returning to ‘Hindmarsh Island’, not because it stands out as excellent, but because it cries out to be read alongside Les Murray’s ‘Inspecting the Rivermouth’ in his most recent book, Waiting for the Past.

Les Murray’s fine poem can be read online here. It celebrates the renewal of the mouth of the Murray River, in particular the prosperity and vitality that has come to Hindmarsh Island thanks to the bridge that has recently joined it to the mainland. It has Murray’s characteristic joy in linguistic display, the wonderful image of the bridge throwing houses onto the island, and the joyful underlying pun on ‘Murray mouth’.

Then along comes Ali Cobby Eckermann’s ‘Hindmarsh Island’:

hindmarsh Island Cars drive over the babies!

And we realise that for all his emphasis on the importance of the past, Les Murray as a non-Indigenous poet can glide over some elements of our history. The Signal Point café is part of the thriving scene celebrated in ‘Inspecting the Rivermouth’, but from an Aboriginal perspective, we don’t have the luxury of forgetting that the bridge was built over the prolonged protests of a group of women who asserted that it meant the destruction of a significant cultural site. It’s possible that Cobby Eckermann had read the Murray poem (which was first published in Quadrant in September 2010), but I doubt if it’s a deliberate response: this is just a different take on the same phenomenon, one that demonstrates how important Aboriginal voices are if our national conversation is to have integrity.

Ali Cobby Eckermann’s previous books of poetry are Kami (a Vagabond Press Rare Objects chapbook, 2010) and little bit long time (Australian Poetry Centre’s New Poets Series, also 2010) and love dreaming and other poems (Vagabond 2012). Her two verse novels are His Father’s Eyes (OUP 2011) and Ruby Moonlight (Magabala Books 2012). Her memoir, Too Afraid to Cry, was published by Ilura Press in 2013.

aww-badge-2015

Inside My Mother is the eleventh book I’ve read for the 2015 Australian Women Writers Challenge.

Noel Pearson’s Rightful Place (and Andrew Charlton’s correspondence)

Noel Pearson, A Rightful Place: Race, recognition and a more complete commonwealth (Quarterly Essay 55)

qe55 ‘In this essay,’ Noel Pearson writes, ‘I seek to make a case for constitutional reform recognising indigenous [sic] Australians.’

In case some of my readers need it (as I did), let me start with a couple of paragraphs of background.

Beginning of background. A referendum will happen in the next couple of years on recognising Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples in the Australian Constitution. In June last year, the responsible parliamentary committee published a Progress Report, which is well worth reading. There have been animated public meetings around the country. There’s a T-shirt, a well resourced people’s movement and a decorated Qantas plane. There have been bizarre arguments against change from the likes of Andrew Bolt and – less bizarrely and with much less media prominence – from some Indigenous people. Celeste Liddle’s recent article in the Guardian, ‘Indigenous Recognition’ is a good place to go for some of the latter.

In brief, it looks as if we will be voting on whether to repeal two references to race, and on some form of explicit recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. The race references are in sections 25 and 51 (xxvi):

25. … if by the law of any State all persons of any race are disqualified from voting at elections for the more numerous House of the Parliament of the State, then, in reckoning the number of the people of the State or of the Commonwealth, persons of the race resident in that State shall not be counted.

And

51.The Parliament shall … have power to make laws … with respect to: – … (xxvi.) The people of any race, for whom it is deemed necessary to make special laws

It’s hard to imagine a reasonable argument against repealing those clauses, given how direly anachronistic they are. The real debate comes with the committee’s other recommendations, which include adding sections recognising the special status of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, empowering Parliament to make laws for the ‘peace, order and good government of the Commonwealth with respect to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples’, prohibiting discrimination ‘on the grounds of race, colour or ethnic or national origin’, and recognising that the ‘Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander languages are the original Australian languages, a part of our national heritage’.

End of background

The reason I needed the background, even if you didn’t, is that Noel Pearson isn’t concerned here with those details, but his essay needs at least some of it to be understood. His concern, as I understand it, is to lay out general principles that will appeal to a broad audience of thoughtful Australians, including crucially those who identify as conservative. He brings his lawyerly training and extraordinarily wide reading to the task.

The goal of appealing to conservatives has some unfortunate by-products. Readers of delicate constitution might skip a rhapsodic paean to Rupert Murdoch and Chris Mitchell’s Australian on pages 53–54 without missing much, and likewise page 57 where he sprays someone he calls ‘the left’ with intemperate sarcasm (elsewhere the sarcasm is more muted, but ‘the left’ remains mostly unspecified and beneath argument). It would be a shame if these moments were taken to represent the essay as a whole.

I won’t try to summarise his arguments, except to say that he makes a case for calling what has happened in Australia genocide; he points out that contrary to Captain Cook’s orders, this continent was not taken possession of ‘with the Consent of the Natives’ – there was no consent – which leaves the question of sovereignty politically if not legally unresolved; he explores the implications of parliamentary democracy for a group that is an ‘extreme minority’; he lays out a nuanced concept of multiple, layered identities; he makes some broad brush stroke structural proposals for how Indigenous voices can be heard in political decisions made about Indigenous people; he lays out ‘an agenda for the classical culture of ancient Australia’. The essay is passionate, questing and challenging, and transcends any political stoushes that may surround it.

Pearson begins with an invocation of Yolngu Petition submitted to Kevin Rudd in 2008, and goes on to quote Galarrwuy Yunupingu’s Monthly article from the end of that year, which he describes as ‘an existential prayer’. He then lists a number of Aboriginal people who have, like Yunupingu, agitated for inclusion in the Australian Commonwealth over many decades. It’s a profoundly respectful acknowledgement of those who have gone before him.

Curiously, from that point on the essay barely refers to other Indigenous Australian contributions to the current discussion. Exceptions are a one line quote from Michael Mansell – ‘the British had more impact on Aborigines than the Holocaust had on the Jews’ – and the description of a cultural preservation project being taken on by Rachel Perkins. He mentions his colleagues on the Expert Panel on Constitutional cognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders Peoples, but doesn’t name them.

Instead, the essay engages primarily with European and settler viewpoints, at times drawing on their insights at others differing sharply. Pearson quotes H G Wells (whose War of the Worlds was inspired by the invasion of Tasmania), Trollope, Darwin and Dickens consigning Australian Aboriginal peoples to inevitable extinction. He quotes WEH Stanner’s famous passage about Australia’s ‘cult of forgetfulness’. He differs from Inga Clendinnen, Henry Reynolds, Bain Attwood on whether there has been genocide in Australia, basing his argument on English historian Tom Lawson’s The Last Man. German philosopher Johann Herder (1744–1803), Indian economist Amartya Sen, British contrarian conservative Roger Scruton (recently a guest of the  Institute of Public Affairs), and anthropologist Peter Ucko get guernseys. Keith Windschuttle and Andrew Bolt are accorded something approaching respect, and a ‘felicitous phrase’ is quoted from George W Bush.

I don’t know how convincing the hard-line conservative echelons will find Pearson’s arguments. Very, I hope. I also hope that his slanting the argument towards that readership won’t deter readers not committed to the culture wars, or at least not to the ‘conservative’ side, from reading and engaging with this essay.
—–
And then there’s the correspondence on the previous Quarterly Essay, Andrew Charlton’s The Dragon’s Tail, which was given extra bite by recent consumer activity in my house. Just before the September issue arrived, the Art Student and I had finally been persuaded to ditch our seven year old 27 inch LCD television set and buy a bigger, smarter, more environment-friendly LED TV. As it happened, we gave the old set and its four year old set top box away on Freecycle, so they will still be consuming energy, just not in our house. As I was throwing out the receipts for the old gear, I saw that its combined cost was nearly three times that of the new. Which brought to mind Andrew Charlton:

ten years ago, a shipload of iron ore exported to China was worth about the same as 2200 flat-screen televisions imported from China. Today the same shipment of ore is worth 22 000 flat-screen televisions!

A striking enough illustration of his point in June had become personal by September. None of the 30 odd pages of correspondence this quarter is personal in quite that way, though it seems that many of these people know each other from working together as advisers to Labor politicians, or as ALP parliamentarians themselves. The main take-home I got from the correspondence is that John Edwards’s Beyond the Boom, published at about the same time as Charlton’s essay, challenges of the received wisdom about the boom that preceded the global financial crisis of 2008, arguing that while – as is generally acknowledged – the Howard government frittered away the benefits on tax cuts, people in general were smarter than the government so that domestic savings increased with healthy results for the economy. There’s quite a bit of argie-bargie among economists, who find fault with each other’s charts and sampling methods so that in the end one is confirmed in one’s suspicion that economics is largely about obfuscation.

Among the correspondence there’s a curious moment in a piece from former banker Satyajit Das. The ‘reply’, which barely mentions Charlton’s essay and is in effect its own lecture on the state of the Australian economy, cites the comparison of iron ore and TV sets, but attributes it differently:

On 29 November 2010 … the governor of the Reserve Bank, Glenn Stevens [said]: ‘[In 2005], a shipload of iron ore was worth about the same as about 2,200 flat-screen television sets. [In 2010] it is worth around 22,000 flat-screen TV sets.’ In a Freudian slip, the governor had identified the fundamental issue with Australia’s economic model. Australia may have substantially wasted the proceeds of its mineral boom, with the proceeds channelled into consumption.

Is Das tacitly accusing Charlton of plagiarism, or quietly reproaching him for not naming his sources? Has Charlton repeated Stevens’s ‘Freudian slip’? (The invocation of Freud makes no sense to me, and after a quick look at the Glenn Stevens speech, it makes it even less sense.) Perhaps Charlton’s failure to mention Das in his ‘Response to Correspondence’ was a bit of tit for tat.

Russell McGregor’s Indifferent Inclusion

Russell McGregor, Indifferent Inclusion: Aboriginal people and the Australian nation (Aboriginal Studies Press 2011)

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On a recent edition of the ABC’s Q&A, Senator Nova Peris was discussing the proposed acknowledgement of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples in the Australian Constitution. ‘As Aboriginal Australians,’ she said, ‘we are excluded. For such a long time we were regarded as flora and fauna. It’s about making a wrong right.’

Paradoxically, the 1967 removal of the Constitution’s two mentions of Aboriginal people (and, by implication, Torres Strait Islanders) was a significant step towards inclusion.

According to Russell McGregor, those two references resulted from indifference. He argues that the first, which prevented the federal government from making laws with respect to ‘the aboriginal race’, dates from the 1891 draft where it was inserted in order to protect the rights of Maori if, as then expected, New Zealand joined the new nation; when New Zealand withdrew, nobody cared enough to take the clause out. The other mention – ‘In reckoning the numbers of the people of the Commonwealth, or of a State or other part of the Commonwealth, aboriginal [sic] natives shall not be counted’ – rested on the assumption, he argues, that Aboriginal people counted for little. ‘Neither section,’ he continues, ‘formally excluded [Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples] from the legal rights and entitlements of Australian citizenship, but both implied that Aboriginal people were outside the community of the Australian nation.’

Indifferent Inclusion charts the decades of debate and changing attitudes among settler Australians, and activism and argument on the part of Indigenous Australians, that led up to the 1967 Referendum, in which an unprecedented 90 per cent of the electorate voted for change. It hardly needs saying that the Referendum was not the end of exclusion. Four years later, in what might have provided an epigraph for this book, a FCAATSI report described racism in Australia as mainly ‘cold, callous indifference to Aborigines, rather than intemperate hatred’. Punctuated by momentary expressions of good will such as the Walk Across the Bridge, the Sea of Hands and the Apology for the Stolen Generations, that indifference has persisted and non-Indigenous Australians have been largely silent in response to Aboriginal Deaths in Custody, the Northern Territory Intervention, and straws in the wind such as our Prime Minister’s recent description of the continent as ‘unsettled or, um, scarcely settled’ before 1788.

All the same, the story told here is one of progress. On one hand the voices of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander activists gain progressively more effective platforms, and the narrative introduces any number of passionate and eloquent individuals who ought to be household names: William Cooper, Jack Patten, Bill Ferguson, Stan Davey (author of a pamphlet on assimilation titled Genesis or Genocide?), Faith Bandler and more. On the other, settler Australia’s self image grows and develops, and with it the image it projects onto Indigenous Australians.

McGregor begins with the policy of ‘absorption’ which, though never official government policy, dominated the thinking of government departments charged with Aboriginal affairs in the 1930s, underpinned by what now looks like a bizarrely irrational emphasis on the importance of white skin to the Australian identity. This policy was a cold-blooded plan to control the relationships of people of part-Aboriginal heritage so that they had children only with white partners. This was called ‘breeding out the colour’: within a few generations, Australians would all have white complexions, and the treasured myth of ethnic homogeneity would prevail. ‘Full-blooded’ Aboriginal people would either die out or be kept cordoned off in the Western Desert, on tracts of lands to which the only non-Aboriginal people with access would be scientists. Most alarmingly, the dominant public opposition came from people who objected that the plan would corrupt the purity of the white race.

However, the self image of settler Australians did change, ‘blood’ (aka skin colour) giving way to ‘way of life’ as the main defining factor (as the White Australia Policy came to feel more anachronistic). In a number of ways, non-Indigenous people began to appreciate something of Indigenous culture: the Jindyworobaks had their doomed idea of finding a true Australian national identity by appropriating Aboriginal culture, but even kitsch tea-towels and wallpaper with ‘Aboriginal’ motifs reflected this growing appreciation. The voices of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander activists began to be more widely heard – the 1938 Day of Mourning was a landmark event; men served in World War 2 (though their enlisting had been resisted by conservatives who feared rightly that if they fought for Australia their claim to inclusion in the national community would be strengthened); Albert Namatjira and others demonstrated that artistic creativity wasn’t the sole preserve of non-Indigenous people; perhaps more influentially, Lionel Rose, Evonne Goolagong and others demonstrated that Aboriginal people could excel in sport.

‘Assimilation’ became the key policy word, which, although it has a bad odour these days, was supported in the 1940s and 50s by leading Aboriginal activists. According to McGregor, the assimilationist policies didn’t always, or even most of the time, entail the loss of Aboriginal identity and community: the distinction which came later, between assimilation and integration, was really an attempt to differentiate between two tendencies within the assimilationist movement. On the one side, for example, Paul Hasluck, who was Commonwealth Minister for Territories from 1951, proposed a version of assimilation in which

the Aboriginal cultural heritage would not disappear, but rather would dissipate into folkloric remnants, and Aboriginal identity would not be erased but privatised, contracting to little more than an individual’s sense of personal ancestry.

On the other side, anthropologist A P Elkin wrote:

The Aborigines are racially different from us, and recognizably so. In spite of the economic, religious, social and political assimilation at which we aim, they will be a distinct group, or series of groups, for generations to come. Indeed, they will develop pride in their own cultural background and distinctness while at the same time being loyal and useful citizens.

Elkin’s language was to change, but when he wrote this, he was using the language of assimilation. By 1961, most supporters of assimilation policies were towards Elkin’s end of the spectrum. It was generally understood that assimilation (or integration) did not mean the end to distinctive Aboriginal identity, culture and language. It was a question whether something was being done to Indigenous people, or with and by them.

I had vaguely supposed before this eminently readable book put me right that the 1967 Referendum gave Indigenous Australians the vote. But it turns out that the reading of the Constitution that led to their disenfranchisement had been successfully challenged before then. In spite of the rhetoric of the Yes campaign – ‘Right Wrongs, Vote YES for Aborigines on May 27’ – the Referendum didn’t change very much at all, and the federal government of the day under Harold Holt chose not to use their new powers, not to rock the boat. In the domain, its as if every change, seen to be huge as it approaches, turns out to be tiny.

These pages are full of odd and admirable characters, and any number of curious incidents. One truly odd moment was a piece of legislation ushered in by Paul Hasluck, the Northern Territory Welfare Ordinance 1953, subtitled An ordinance to provide for the care and assistance of certain persons. The striking thing about this legislation was that, while its concern was entirely with Aboriginal people, it never once used any version of the term ‘Aboriginal’, because Hasluck believed that no distinction should be made on the basis of race in legislation: it was easy enough to work out what distinct group was being declared wards of the state, of course, but somehow not using the name was meant to make it less discriminatory.

Many of the debates and attitudes covered here feel weirdly alien now but, as Nova Peris’s choice of language illustrates, the issue hasn’t gone away, and it’s sobering to reflect that what was once believed and spoken out loud is still lurking somewhere in our minds, unacknowledged even to ourselves. One one hand, The past is another country. They do things differently there. On the other: The past is never dead. It’s not even past.

The Aboriginal Story of Burke and Wills from CSIRO

Ian D. Clark & Fred Cahir (editors), The Aboriginal Story of Burke and Wills: Forgotten Narratives (CSIRO Publishing 2013)

0643108084History, as Winston Churchill famously said, is written by the victors. As someone else has surely said, it’s also passed on by word of mouth among the conquered, and – if we’re lucky – revised by the descendants of both. Although only one of the essays in this collection is written by an Aboriginal author, the book is a happy example of that kind of revisionism.

Every schoolchild of my generation and earlier knew the Burke and Wills story: the successful crossing of Australia from south to north, the terrible coincidence of arriving at the Cooper’s Creek depot hours after their supply party had given up waiting for them, the Beckettishly symbolic ‘Dig Tree’, the wretched death of most of the party in the ‘wilderness’, the survival of King among an Aboriginal community, the retrieval of the bodies. As one of the essays in this book comments, the story is a key example of ‘the mythology of victimhood that, ironically, secures a settler claim to cultural legitimacy by marginalising the actual victims of colonisation – namely, Aboriginal people’ (Leigh Boucher, ‘Alfred Howitt and the Erasure of Aboriginal History’, p 255).

The myth-making impulse was so strong that no official account of the Victorian Exploring Expedition of 1860–61, to give it its full title, was attempted at the time, and it wasn’t until 2011, when CSIRO published Burke and Wills: The Scientific Legacy of the Victorian Exploring Expedition, that the expedition’s scientific achievements were explored in any systematic way.

The Aboriginal Story, edited by two Bathurst University academics, explores the other major area that has been largely neglected by the scores of journalists, novelists, filmmakers, painters, poets, sculptors and yarners who have dealt with the expedition, namely ‘the interaction between Indigenous people and the expeditioners and their potential and actual contribution to the expedition’ (p. v).

Not everything here is news. As a postgraduate student 40 years ago, I read the selections from Wills’s diary and letters published by his father, and was left in no doubt that Burke’s arrogant dismissal of Aboriginal hospitality and ABoriginal knowledge played a major part in his disastrous end. My abiding memory from that reading is the image of the bearded Irish policeman, close to death from starvation, knocking to the ground an armful of freshly caught fish being offered to him by a group of Aboriginal men.

That perception and that image occur in a number of the essays here, but there is much more. The book opens with an introduction by Aaron Paterson, a Yandruwandha man, descendant of the community in whose land Burke and Wills died, the people who cared for John King, the expedition’s only survivor. His lyrical description of his country demolishes in a couple of pages the whole edifice underpinning the tragic explorer myth: Burke and Wills weren’t crossing an implacable wilderness, but stumbling ineptly through other people’s home.

And it goes on from there. This is a collection of scholarly essays, each meant to stand alone if need be, with the result that there is a lot of repetition: the reader is introduced to characters such as the expedition artist Ludwig Becker many times over, and there is no single account of the expedition. I skipped a little, but only a little: most of it is fascinating reading – we learn about the languages of the people encountered by the expedition; there are Becker’s wonderful drawings of landscape and people, including the images on the cover; encounters with Aboriginal people quoted from the journals of members of the expedition and the follow-up expeditions; portraits of a number of the minor figures in the expeditions, including the Aboriginal men who worked as guides at various times; some scuttlebuck about Burke’s death and the daughter King may have fathered with an Aboriginal woman; an essay on Aboriginal people as messengers on the Australian frontier (a role which, unlike their role as trackers and as ‘native police’, has generally faded from the collective memory).

For me the most surprising essay was Peta Jeffries’ ‘The influence of Aboriginal country on artist and naturalist Ludwig Becker of the Victorian Exploring Expedition: Mootwingee, 1860–61’ (and yes, the essay titles generally aren’t too snappy), in which she explores one of Becker’s paintings, arguing that it prefigured an understanding of Aboriginal connection to country, that in it ‘the narrative of colonial occupation has subsided’. The most telling essay was the one by Leigh Boucher that I quoted from above, which demonstrates that Howitt’s early writing acknowledged the important role Aboriginal people played in the success of his expedition, but as time passed they disappeared from the story, their knowledge and help being replaced by Howitt’s own bushcraft. Genocide comes in many forms, and one of them is forgetting.

The ‘narrative of colonial occupation’ has dominated accounts of the Burke and Wills expedition and much else from Australian history until now. This book is a mostly very readable corrective. It’s worth noting that it doesn’t present a single ‘Aboriginal story’, as its title suggests, but many stories: there was a wide range of Aboriginal responses to the original expedition and to the follow-up expeditions, from active participation in a number of capacities, through benign oversight to outright hostility. As I read it, I could feel unexamined assumptions being dragged out from under rocks in my head, and the over-arching narrative of my early education being delivered another blow of the wrecker’s hammer.

Noel Beddoe’s Yalda Crossing

Noel Beddoe, The Yalda Crossing (UQP 2012)

0702249394 As Noel Beddoe says in an Author’s Note, this book is fiction, but adheres closely to the history of white settlement near what is now the township of Narrandera, including the Second Wiradjuri War and the massacre on Murdering Island. That’s the same massacre that lies in the background of our short film Ngurrumbang and Andy Kissane’s poem ‘The Station Owner’s Daughter, Narrandera’ that inspired us. It’s my great good fortune that the book wasn’t published until the screenplay was complete and pre-production was well under way – the first I heard of it was a comment from Jim Kable on my blog entry inviting people to donate via pozible. If I’d known of the book any sooner,  I would probably have been scared right off.

It’s a formidable achievement. Told from the point of view of Young James Beckett, as a teenager in the 1830s and as an old man in Sydney decades later, it is deeply embedded in its historical moments, and has a powerful sense of place. We care about the characters and come to appreciate their secrets and mysteries, not all of which are revealed, and some not until the last pages. The unfolding narrative gives us neither the ‘dun-dreary naturalism’ that Patrick White hated in Australian fiction, nor the black armband breastbeating that John w Howard claimed to discern and despise among Australian literati, nor again a ripping yarn of the frontier (though unless I’m very confused, Young James mentions reading some James Fenimore Cooper, whose novels must have been hot off the press). The tensions of the colonial society are there – English vs Irish, convicts vs free,  authority vs opportunism, women as a tiny, vulnerable minority – but they are embodied in recognisable individuals, facing particular dilemmas. I started this blog entry with the massacre, and most of the publicity for the book has centred around it, but the social, economic and moral world of the settlers is thoroughly fleshed out in its own right well before the prospect of massacre appears on the horizon.

Unlike other fictional treatments of atrocities against Aboriginal people, The Yalda Crossing lays the ground so that we understand how good people can deliberately commit abominable acts, not without reluctance, revulsion and remorse, but with a terrible sense of necessity. The good people who set the tone of the community aren’t drawn into the vortex of violence created by people less grammatically correct than they: when push comes to shove, they are the ones who orchestrate the terrible acts. Launching the book at the Sydney Institute last July, Linda Burney said that as a Wiradjuri woman, descendant of the victims, she had to skip the chapter where the massacre happens and come back to it later. Noel Beddoe, descendant of the perpetrators, doesn’t blink, and invites us, his semblables, to face our heritage with similarly unflinching gaze.

Linda Burney quoted a moment just before the massacre when a white man refuses to take part because he would lose his soul, which is more important to him than gaining the land. (Incidentally, it’s a gauge of the strength of Noel Beddoe’s writing that only when I typed it like that did I recognise the Biblical reference there.) For me, one of the devastatingly true things in the book is how that man, in spite of his genuine refusal to take part, is nonetheless in the end completely implicated.

Every bit as good, I think as Thea Astley’s A Kindness Cup or Kate Grenville’s The Secret River. (Links are to my blog entries, though the one on Kate Grenville’s book is very brief.)

Heather Goodall’s Invasion to Embassy

Heather Goodall, Invasion to Embassy: Land in Aboriginal Politics in New South Wales, 1770–1972 (Allen & Unwin in association with Black Books 1996)

I recently heard a distinguished novelist claim that she grew up believing New South Wales was mostly settled peacefully and that damage to the original inhabitants was largely unintended, caused by infectious diseases and the like. Despite having been correctly described on my auxiliary blog as not knowing shit about Aboriginal matters, I was slightly better informed than that in my childhood: I knew there was a lot of frontier violence. But I think I’m like most non-Indigenous Australians in having assumed, complacently enough, that Aboriginal people, at least in this state, were irrevocably dispossessed and driven from their land in the early years of settlement. In other words, all the really bad things were done long long ago, probably by people who were just acting according to the morality of their times. Um, well, mea culpa.

The dispossession of Aboriginal people in Australia has been a long, painful process. It has played out very differently in different states and territories and different regions within states, and been resisted at every phase by Aboriginal people and their allies, using means ranging from armed resistance to eloquent letters to the press. Invasion to Embassy tells the New South Wales history, and although the stories it tells are grim, often heartbreaking, I found it exhilarating: in these dying days of what W H Stanner called the ‘great Australian silence’ – the relegation of Aboriginal experience to footnotes in our history – books like this, where Aboriginal points of view are front and centre, are like doors opening onto the real world. I wish this one could be absorbed into the bloodstream of every non-Indigenous Australian.

Heather Goodall maintains that land has been a key issue in Aboriginal politics from the beginning. ‘There are strong grounds for arguing,’ she writes in the first chapter,

that for Aboriginal people in south-eastern Australia before the invasion, land was the physical and symbolic base for almost every aspect of life. Social relations were expressed, managed and negotiated through relations to land; political standing was legitimated and authority grounded in landholding. Knowledge was structured by its relation to place, and it was taught, held in memory and performed according to this organisational framework. New experiences were analysed by and incorporated into that oral tradition and so they too became organised within it by place.

In the first decades of the colony at Port Jackson and surrounds, then:

Land was seen by its Aboriginal owners as a central factor in their experience of colonialism. Their sense of invasion, of loss and deprivation of land was expressed clearly and unarguably. It was expressed to whites alongside Aboriginal pain at the deaths of their loved ones and offence at the transgression of their laws.

It’s a book that makes you want to read bits out loud to the nearest available listener, and maybe I should have done the blogging equivalent of that by uploading regular progress reports. But that’s an idea for another time, another book. Until you read the book, here’s a string of dot points, which might be familiar to you but were mostly news to me:

  • Before 1850, owners of the large pastoral properties described Aboriginal men as virtually useless as employees, but after that date, when almost all non-Indigenous workers headed for the Victorian goldfields, those same Aboriginal men, being now necessary, were suddenly transformed into brilliant horsemen, unsurpassed as shepherds and stockmen.
  • In the second half of the 19th century, reserves were established all over the state where Aboriginal people were promised security of tenure, and where many of them cleared land and worked small farms for decades, only to have their tenancies summarily revoked by the government, with no justification that would make sense in the absence of deeply racist, genocidal assumptions.
  • The legal doctrine that Australia was terra nullius, land owned by no one, when the first European settlers arrived, was not proclaimed in law until 1889. Goodall comments that such a judgement could not have been made in 1840 ‘when there was such wide acknowledgement of Aboriginal relations to land’.
  • 154 Aboriginal men from New South Wales volunteered and fought overseas in the First World War. Although there were no discriminatory regulations or laws, it turned out in practice that the Soldier Settler scheme was only for white soldiers – just one Aboriginal man was given any land under the scheme.
  • This kind of thing happened during the Depression (page 185):

By 1933 there was a large camp of Aboriginal people just outside Cumeragunja, refused the dole in Victoria because they were New South Wales residents, but refused the dole in New South Wales because they were ‘too black’, and told they must go to the [Aborigines Protection Board] station for relief. But at Cumeragunja they were met by a manager clinging to the old APB rules, who told them that they were ‘too white’ to receive Aboriginal rations because they were not ‘predominantly of Aboriginal blood’.

The story of the first half of the 20th century is gruelling. When government agencies wanted to move Aboriginal communities from their land, the threat to remove the children was often used to force compliance. Aboriginal children were excluded from public schools in many places because white parents complained and the government gave them what they wanted – and families were again forced to move to places where some form of education, sometimes of a quality that beggars belief, was available. The ‘Dog Act’ – the 1936 amended version of the Aborigines Protection Act – created conditions in which Aboriginal people felt the government could pen them up and shift them around like animals: the reserves, which had been refuges and places where some vestige of traditional connection to land could be maintained, became virtual prisons. Even as benign a project as the creation of National Parks was the occasion of further dispossession and removal – I was shocked to reflect that to speak of wilderness in Australia is to give voice to a genocidal worldview, that is, it denies the existence of the people who lived in that part of the world for millennia.

Here are some more dot points, people and events that in any sane world would be as much part of general Australian lore as Ned Kelly, Phar Lap and the Eureka Stockade:

  • Pemulwye and Windradyne,  the two most famous leaders of armed resistance to colonisation, around Port Jackson and Bathurst respectively
  • William Cooper – if you haven’t heard of him, and even if you have, read his Wikipedia entry. He was an extraordinary leader, who wrote to his local parliamentarian in his 20s, calling on the government to secure a ‘small portion of a vast territory which is ours by Divine Right’, and in his 70s organised the Day of Mourning on the sesquicentennial Australia Day. He is honoured in the Yad VaShem Holocaust Museum in Israel as the only person in the world to have organised a private protest in response to Kristallnacht. As Goodall says, he ‘had personally experienced the whole process of demanding land and winning it, farming it in relative independence, and then facing the bitter years of dispossession and violet repression on the station [of Cumeragunja]’
  • The Cumeragunja Walk-Off, in which 200 Aboriginal men, women and children crossed the Murray River into Victoria in protest against conditions at the New South Wales station. Among other things, this is the subject of Deborah Cheetham’s opera Pecan Summer
  • The Australian Aboriginal Progressive Association – the first Aboriginal political organisation to create formal links between different communities, whose chief spokesperson was Fred Maynard, a Hunter River Koori. It took shape in the early 1920s and found allies in the right-wing nationalists of the day.
  • The Australian Aboriginal League, formed in the 1930s with a close focus on Cumeragunja (can you tell the Cumeragunja story made a deep impression on me?), but also asserting broader Aboriginal unity: ‘We should nail our colours to the mast, … making our slogan “Full equality for the dark race with the white race, and no differentiation between the full-blood and those of mixed blood”‘
  • Political alliances between Aboriginal and other organisations – ranging from the Communist Party of Australia, which saw the unjust treatment of Aboriginal people as an extension of class struggle, to PR Stephenson’s right-wing nationalists, for whom Aboriginal issues were emblematic of White Australia’s need for independence from England and English cultural domination. When different Aboriginal groups accepted help from such disparate sources, it caused serious rifts.

I could go on. Read the book! You won’t regret it.

Invasion to Embassy was published in 1996, four years after the Mabo decision had laid to rest the legal fiction of terra nullius, and the same year as John w Howard said, disingenuously, ‘Injustices were done in Australia and no one should obscure or minimise them.’ The book would have to be an example of what Geoffrey Blainey and John Howard labelled black armband history. I’m sure Keith Windschuttle could find, perhaps has found, any number of errors. But those critics miss the point. Telling these stories doesn’t deny or diminish anyone else’s story. And it’s not about handwringing, collective guilt and shame – rage, perhaps, and a profound respect for those who held out for justice and dignity through it all.

awwbadge_2013 This is the third book I’ve read as part of the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2013.