In order to better understand the plight of Australia's Indigenous peoples, one only needs to reflect on the personal ownership we place on land and belongings important to us, writes Frances Letters.
IT’S 1947 and summer when I first recognise that someone is Indigenous.
I’ve just turned three. I’m ambling with my sisters down our dirt road at the edge of Armidale. All around is flat emptiness, dry and bare in the heat. Almost no trees.
That cleared country had once been part of the living, breathing bush: home and life to the Anaiwan people, whose unimaginably ancient roots penetrated deep into its soil. Now to my child’s eyes, it’s simply the world. A dry, empty place.
But down the road, a wall of cypress trees around our garden hides the emptiness left when they’d hacked down the bush. Our world is all abundance and excitement, because Christmas is only a few days off.
Half a block from home, we come upon a dark bundle lying in the spiky grass beside the road. We halt, uncertain. Silently we stand... watching.
The bundle shudders. Then from it creeps a black hand. It gropes through the grass after a brown bottle that, as we watch, rolls slowly and inexorably out of reach. The lid is off; a dark liquid is ebbing from its mouth, wobbling smooth and glossy in the sunlight.
The bundle is a man.
He is a shock to see. His clothes are rags and black with dirt. His face is black. Spit trickles down his chin, a string of bubbles lacing together the grey stubble that sprouts there. His mouth is open. I see his white teeth and pink tongue.
Because, incredibly, he is crying. His face has fallen in with grief; his eyes are squeezed into rubbery wet slits. Sobs wheeze and whistle up from the depths of his chest. He is struggling to hoist himself up onto one elbow, while with his other hand, he claws after the lost bottle.
As I watch, aghast, heart leaping with terror, he heaves himself up onto his knees in a wild lunge to save the last precious drops. His arms thresh the air; clutching, grabbing, his black fingers hook around the smooth glass. For a moment he holds it; then it slides gently through his hands and rolls away, dribbling its last erratic stream as it goes.
He falls heavily onto his back, weeping piteously, his legs sprawled open, one warped shoe off.
In blind, nameless horror, we swerve past and run, back to the safety of our slammed gate. Our father is seen through the window of his study, calm and bespectacled in his armchair, reading a book under the cheerily twirling Christmas streamers.
Those few minutes have been silently ticking away in me for a lifetime. They sowed a seed that lay silent, brooding, at the edge of my consciousness, till it put out frail shoots of adult awareness and understanding. And with them, deep shame and pain.
Now, so long afterwards, remembering that desperate man I stare fixedly out the window at my own garden. It used to be Anaiwan land, too. A ripple from his long-ago grief sweeps through me.
The road we fled down, a scene of his despair and humiliation, had once been sacred earth to his family. For untold thousands of years, the garden and home where we found sanctuary had been their home, their garden, their sanctuary.
We couldn’t see it, but we good, God-fearing people were usurpers. It's a shock to realise it. Unaware and unquestioning, we were calmly living our privileged lives on the proceeds of crime. Literally. We were thriving on the plunder from pillage, looting and murder.
So our placid well-being and that man’s frantic misery as his metho dribbled away were two strands cold-bloodedly knotted together.
Conquerors, conquered. Cause, effect.
That long-ago Christmas memory now stands as a milestone for measuring the distance we’ve all travelled. A mystifying dark bundle lies beside the road: a weeping Indigenous man. In heartbroken despair, he scrabbles after a fallen bottle, sobbing as it dribbles its last drops away. A shocked huddle of little girls stands gaping at his humiliation.
What wouldn’t I give to remember it differently? If only one of us had bent to rescue the bottle and handed it to him gently, with one human’s compassion for another! If only we’d been capable of helping him to his feet, murmuring a few consoling, cheering words! How different things would have been in Australia had friendliness, respect, grace, compassion and true mateship been part of Black-White interactions from the first.
Now in perplexity and shame, I rotate that old image in my mind, studying it from different angles in an effort to understand it — and perhaps, one day, to find some peace with it.
What would that man have been if our swaggering invader forefathers hadn’t robbed him of his land, his family, his religion and culture and history? Not a hero, surely, nor a saint, but a human being with as fair a chance as most of us of being fulfilled and content. Above all, he’d have fitted in. He’d never have had to suffer the despair of the outsider, shut out without hope. In a culture that valued old age, he’d have been a respected elder, entitled to partake of everything his world had to offer.
And what if, in asking his permission to buy or use the land, we’d compensated him correctly for it? Paid the going price or rent? It’s a surprise to discover now how widely accepted this idea was in British government circles at the time of colonisation — and how deep the disquiet when it failed. In North America, payment for land had been standard Empire policy, even when flouted.
When South Australia was settled in 1836, the Colonial Commissioner was ordered:
‘...take care that the Aborigines are not disturbed in the enjoyment of the lands over which they may possess proprietary rights, and of which they are not disposed to make a voluntary transfer.’
Of course, the legalese of ‘proprietary rights’ was quickly twisted till it meant nothing at all.
‘In assuming their Territory, the Settlers in Australia have incurred a moral obligation of the most sacred kind.’
Had such fair and normal practice applied, that desperate, weeping man would have been wealthy, and regarded with respect by society. Even the tiny few White aristocrats who might have felt entitled to sniff “nouveau riche!” wouldn’t have been able to keep it up for more than a generation or two. In the end, money always creates a silken path to respectability — for how were lords and ladies created in the first place?
And had that man, in spite of his comfortable lifestyle, fallen for the lure of the grog, he’d never have had to claw through the dry grass for an illegal spilt bottle, sobbing for his loss. He’d simply have taken his pleasure in an armchair at his club or home, a frosted glass beside him, like so many others.
It was many years before I could replay that scene of humiliation in my mind and see it for what it was: the Indigenous experience of White rule in a nutshell. The ugly, bloody trail left draggling behind terra nullius.
These days, I sometimes sit in my rather unkempt garden and think of the Anaiwan people from whom it was taken. I paid for this bit of land; so did the previous owners and the ones before that. In this way, my ordinary little quarter-acre block has produced a fair amount of capital over the years, money that went towards somebody’s nice car, warm clothing for the kids, education and holidays at the beach.
Its eventual sale should produce a bit of capital for my extended family for generations, enabling someone’s uni study, or Cordon Bleu course, or visit to Antarctica. This, in turn, will trigger countless other life-enriching effects — a ripple fanning out far into the future, benefiting innumerable lives.
But at some moment in the not-so-distant past, someone just eyed this scrap of land critically, decided he fancied it, and grabbed it. There was no long generational chain of enrichment for the disinherited families. Any trickle-down effect trickled all the way down to the dump, where Indigenous families lived. Some, or many – there’s no way of knowing – were hunted over the nearby gorge to their death by whooping sporting shooters on horseback, still comfortably digesting the Sunday lunchtime roast. It was their grandchildren I used to see living in squalor at the dump.
His passionate voice still rings out to all of us who are “owners” of land:
‘We have dispossessed the Aboriginals of the soil... In natural justice, then, we are held to compensation. The Fathers of this Council... desire solemnly to lay upon the conscience of all who have property in these colonies the thought that there is blood upon their land.’
Clearly, the desperate sobs and tears that shocked me so long ago now demand heartfelt atonement.
Ties to land are sacred bedrock for Indigenous people the world over — even if they were forcibly removed from their country long ago. We can all get at least a glimmer of insight into this tie by imagining our homes and gardens as our own sacred sites. For good or ill, the places in which we grew up are embedded deep in our consciousness. Everything that happened there is woven into the setting like a web, its strands connecting us with the soil, the plants, the buildings. Even places we’ve stayed in quite briefly can live on in our minds and hearts if we experienced deep emotions there.
I’m looking at photos of the little old house in an overgrown garden where I brought up my dear son, Francisco. Every detail reverberates with some echo of those years.
Over there, under the boxelder maple, is the spot where he fell and broke his arm that New Year’s Eve when he was six. Here he is, kneeling by the old veggie patch, grinning from ear to ear, arms full of the monster zucchinis we grew that summer. There, by the garage, he used to play loud cricket with a gang of little boys, all now tall men. All, that is, except bright-eyed Gareth, who didn’t even see the turn of the millennium, but died in a car crash when he was 19.
All these memories of life are embedded here; and appropriately for a sacred site, there are places for death, too. There, beside the fence, our pets are buried: the white mice, the rabbit, our beloved dog Diddums, our poor strange cat Lampquiz — there, just where Mrs Burke’s buddleia tree droops over the fence.
And this one: the centre of my sacred place, the wooden kitchen table that Di gave me long ago. Here, over the years, much-loved friends have drunk tea, laughed and wept as we talked of the ravelling and unravelling of our lives, of births and struggles and love affairs and deaths.
If you think about it, you, too, will uncover innumerable ties, clear or shadowy, with this or that little piece of land you’ve lived on. If so many echoes from our short lives on this continent sound in our ears, how much more clearly must Indigenous people hear ancient reverberations? Thousands of years of religion, culture and history, as well as their personal life stories, are embedded in their land.
So imagine how deeply I’d be bound to my garden if not only my family and friends had sat here in the sun-dappled shade, but great figures from our cultural mythology as well. Shakespeare, perhaps, and Socrates; maybe Mozart and Einstein, Francis of Assisi and Robin Hood. Imagine if Jesus’ feet had walked here in ancient times; if Adam and Eve themselves had strolled through my garden in the cool of the evening. The land would be unimaginably sacred to me and to all of us who share a culture.
Could we bear to see it fenced off from us? A tree under which Socrates taught cut down for woodchips? Jesus’ pathway dug up for a mine?
That must be, in some measure at least, how Indigenous people the world over feel about their land. Those, at any rate, who haven’t been robbed of all connection with family and country.
We could, of course, deny them this level of feeling. You know the argument: Indigenous Australians, native Americans and third-world people don’t feel pain and joy like we do. They’re used to suffering. Everyone knows that in third-world countries, life is held cheap. Someone told me so only the other day.
It takes imagination to see the world through another’s eyes — and perhaps just as importantly, education. If we don’t feel the sacredness of Indigenous myths it’s because they aren’t burned deep into our psyche. What Chinese or Ethiopian villager could begin to grasp the significance of a tree under which Socrates or Robin Hood had sat? Yet in their own sacred places, they’d doubtless feel a reverence we Australians would completely miss.
With time, study and experience we can learn deep respect and appreciation for the cultures of others. But a brief, instant glimpse is much easier to get. A simple trick does it: the old clichéd one of imagining yourself in another’s shoes.
I was stolidly unmoved when a Hindu friend took me to Mathura, in northern India — the birthplace of Lord Krishna. I knew nothing much about Krishna at the time. The town was interesting, but nothing special. The intensity of my friend’s emotion there puzzled me — until I remembered Bethlehem. Then understanding came rushing over me like a breaking wave.
So unless we consciously alert ourselves, we value what we know and love, and don’t much value the rest. We assume the overwhelming superiority of Western civilisation and honestly can’t imagine that without wise action, its less intelligent, arrogant downside – climate change, pollution, modern warfare, nuclear weapons – may in the end prove to have been prodding us towards disaster.
Doubtless, Indigenous peoples throughout the world haven’t lived like saints; personal feuds and quarrels must have churned up their communities as much as anyone else’s. And customary law, like laws everywhere throughout history, could be rigid and brutal, often falling short of justice. But from early European witness accounts, over the millennia Indigenous Australians had developed useful, sane ways to defuse conflict. And their spiritual beliefs meant they lived more in harmony with nature than less.
So who knows? After the drought, fire and flood, the pandemic, the war and the desolation, some ancient insights into natural law that the world’s Indigenous peoples offer may yet be acknowledged as guidelines the rest of us should have listened to all along.
That saving grace, blended with timeless spirituality, new science and humane technology, may help save us all in the end.
Frances Letters is a writer, journalist, meditation teacher and activist.
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