Indigenous Australia

'No longer': Recognising Aboriginal heritage and identity

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Australia still has much soul-searching to do (image by Legoktm via Wikimedia Commons).

Reflecting on Invasion Day’s proffering of national citizenship ceremonies,  a seminal question arises: does citizenship make us true Australians?

We aren't true Australians until we respect First Australians and respect their 60,000-year custodianship of our Great Southern Land.

This respect alone can bequeath to me, a non-Indigenous person, my true Australian identity.

Identity and history are symbiotic and so we have to root out truth buried in the silence of denial.

The denial of the First Nations’ history, which is pre-colonial and wondrously pre-prehistoric, is a downright act of enterprising racism. It strategically rendered First Nations peoples void of history, that is, homo nullius sans identity, so as to render terra nullius; a land ripe for the colonial grabbing.

Since 1788, successive governments have also suppressed the black history of the Frontier Wars, of colonial killing fields, past and present.

In effect, we are all victims of history abuse. We have all been cheated of the privilege of and pride in 60,000 years of First Nations’ culture and traditions.

Hence, the common view that “Australia doesn’t actually have much of a history” exists because Australians have been groomed as children to believe that the dawn of Australian history began in Britain. We have been groomed to believe white is superior and thus groomed to be compliant with centuries of systematic racist abuse, not unlike good German bystanders of Nazi crimes.

In primary school, my favourite pencil was black and when I licked it, it became wet black "paint" and the vivid memory of my drawing of an Aboriginal man with a spear on the ready remains. It is a remnant of my fake "British" school education on Aborigines as primitives. Sunday prayers for Christian missions completed the lie of holy beneficence that in fact shamed and tamed the "savage".

By contrast in the 1950’s, my mother, then in her 30s, had a Namatjira print on the wall between two imposter "aboriginal" ceramic wall plaques; one a kangaroo and the other a fish. I never asked why, and it’s too late now, why she, a wog, a political refugee from Czechoslovakia, was drawn to Aboriginal culture.

I assume, it was partly the attraction to a unique art lying far beyond her familiar consciousness of planet Europe; lying curiously beyond her scarred familiarity with Nazi and Russian occupations. Perhaps, in part to an affinity with her oppressed Australian compatriots. Perhaps, as she was an actress, she had a gravitational pull towards the edgy frontiers of art; to a Western mind, Aboriginal art was the first frontier of the imaginative human spirit.

Trending Aboriginal art appreciation was not the only crystal ball she juggled; her uncle with whom she wove the Ariadne thread to her beloved homeland was in a lifetime gay relationship. My mother and her uncle had 300 years of theatre in their blood. Gay, in the theatre world, was à la normalité and so was the attitude of our family. We didn’t understand Australian society’s homophobic cringe and cruelty.

Over the years, in her need to assimilate, she became more conservative as her Bohemian (actually she was born in Moravia, I in Bohemia) soul was bowed by the snarls and slurs of outrageous Anglo-elitism. We copped the usual offensives: "wog", "bloody new Australian", "go back to where you came from", "foreign bastards" and much more.

Each new ethnic wave of immigrants pushed us, rung by rung, up the "not quite good enough ladder". We climbed, however the entrenched racism, hailing from "Rule Britannia" imperialism, continued and continues to shackle Indigenous Australians to the bottom rung.

Ever ascending, my parents remained rooted to their Mother Country while bound to their new through gratitude. They voted Liberal, because they viewed Labor as communist, until my father met East Timor patron, Tom Uren. Unyieldingly political, they determined not to return "home" while it was under occupation. They visited after the 1989 Velvet Revolution.

Prior to my first visit to the Czech Republic, I was excitedly expecting to kiss Czech earth in a prodigal rapture of return. Nothing happened.

I’d always wanted to experience wall-to-wall Czechs, but, to my surprise, the mono-carpet lacking multicultural flair made me feel as alien as I had in Australia. On the plane back, I had an epiphany: I realised that the multicultural faces returning to Sydney were my people and Australia was my home. I was born-again and keen to unlearn the lies.

Ironically, it was my human rights activism for peoples beyond Australian shores, for the East Timorese, Achehnese and Palestinian struggles against brutal colonial occupations that mirrored the oppression of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and opened my eyes to the ongoing stolen land, stolen lives, stolen identity, stolen culture, stolen languages, stolen children, stolen wages and stolen dignity of Indigenous Australians.

Australia is an unresolved crime scene.

NITV gems, books such as Bruce Pascoe’s Dark Emu, Minmia’s Under the Quandong Tree, Scott and Heiss’ The Intervention and Chloe Hooper’s The Tall Man began filling the fact gaps with wonder and horror.

What really fired a blow torch to my brain were the obscene colonial images of Indigenous men, shackled as slaves, as criminals, to each other by iron neck chains; images that damn white violence against human dignity. For us, born to a western cage-mentality, we cannot comprehend the split-second-forevermore trauma of captivity to these men who were freemen on their country, self-governing men with millennia of hard-wired free-range freedom spiritually bound in sacred kinship with the flora, fauna, winds, rivers, seas, desert, sky, stars and mountains.

The scourge of captivity trauma endures.

Today, the blight of the penal colony mindset lords over the descendants of Australia’s ancient sovereign peoples. Rates of Indigenous incarceration soar beyond reason. Most are incarcerated for trifling crimes as were the early convicts. Father of five, Eric Whittaker’s death in custody while shackled to a Sydney hospital bed in 2017 and Veronica Nelson Walker’s prison death on January 2, 2020, are the tip of Australia’s apartheid system of injustice.

According to a 2018 Guardian report:

"More than 400 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people have died in custody since the end of the royal commission into Aboriginal deaths in custody in 1991.”

Since before and after the 1838 Myall Creek Massacre trial, no police officer or prison staff have been found guilty for the ongoing prison massacre.

This impunity is given licence by Australia’s widespread "casual" racism. We’ve seen it howled by huge crowds that booed Australian of the Year, Adam Goodes for umpteen AFL games, and spruiked by unmuzzled bullies like Eddie McGuire, Sam Newman, Alan Jones, Tony Abbott, Pauline Hanson, Kerri-Anne Kennerley triggering tsunamis of racism on social media.

This impunity is reinforced by the white supremacism of modern "Aboriginal Chief Protectors": by Howard’s refusal to apologise to the Stolen Generations and his campaign of lies against the Wik Native Title action, by Rudd’s limp apology backed by Labor’s intensification of the racist NT intervention and by Turnbull and Morrison’s blunt dismissal of the Uluru Statement from the Heart’s Voice to Parliament as a third chamber to Parliament; a deliberate lie.

The dismissal of the Voice in the Australian Constitution furthermore has demoted Ken Wyatt’s Ministership to a mere mouthpiece for the "Chief Protector’s" agenda. Neither of whom attended in October 2019, the historic reclamation of the sacredness of Uluru.

Co-host of ABC Minefield, Scott Stevens, astutely summed up the generosity inherent in the Uluru Statement from the Heart:

Given the fact that it bases its appeal to the nation, its invitation for an ongoing process of dialogue and listening. The fact that it grounds itself on the metaphysical basis of a spiritual notion of sovereignty. I mean, it can have every reason then to then say that this spiritual notion of sovereignty, a notion of sovereignty that was never ceded, that was never extinguished, this is something then that undercuts the legitimacy of Commonwealth sovereignty, instead of doing that which would have been, I think, morally defensible.

Hospitality and generosity are instinctive and lore in First Nations’ culture. This becomes extraordinary, even super-extraordinary when juxtaposed to the meanness and moral deficit of the Government; consider the Indigenous issuance of the Aboriginal passport to refugees and to the asylum-seeker hostages on Manus Island. Australia’s reputation as the "land of the fair go" is on life-support; the gift of the Aboriginal passport sets the true moral response to the plight of asylum-seekers.

These are the words of Minmia, a Wirradjirri Elder:

What’s really important for all Australians to know is that, believe it or not, if you are born of this land, you are of this land, you have a responsibility to this land and you have a right to know; colour never has anything to do with it. Why learn about other cultures before you learn about your own spiritual heritage, history and traditions of 60,000 years?

Speaking of the insignificance of colour, anti-racist educator Jane Elliott asserts that: 

'Racism is a mental illness … that you judge other people by the colour of their skin, by the amount of a chemical [melanin] in their skin, you have a mental problem.'

The cruelty inflicted because of a pigment is sick and sickening.

Denial, too, is a mental disorder and the denial that Australia is racist as well as the denial of climate change, both of which threaten human life, border on sociopathic impairment. Paradoxically, respecting the longest living culture on earth and learning from the grit and genius of Indigenous guardianship would go a long way to heal the land and the Australian soul.

When traversing Australia by plane across the vestiges of mega forests, over the remote coastlines and far-flung islands, above the rugged grandeur of the Kimberley wilderness, the spectacular terrain of the Ikara-Flinders Ranges and the vast ochre mars-scape of the Central Desert, it is remarkable that the First Australians’ survival that left no carbon footprint over millennia.

Not so for 232 years of rapacious European settlement. It not only failed to turn Aboriginals white, but the industrious turning of Australia’s unparalleled unique beauty into an "antipodean version" of Olde England has rammed the boot of climate change on our throats; the wild colonial boys cleared millions of hectares of the earth’s leafy lungs and native habitats attuned to ecological balance for cattle and sheep. Now, once living rivers are sold, siphoned off and de-hydrated for unsustainable cotton farms, non-native feral animal infestations add to Australia’s highest rate of wildlife extinction.

Fracking is toxifying aquifers and food farms. Opening the Adani coal mine will inflict death throes on the stunning Great Barrier Reef. Mining has contaminated 150,000 sites and is revving up the pestilence of the climate crisis: record-breaking heatwaves, apocalyptic bushfires and storms on steroids, crazed cyclones, flooding, merciless drought. All the aforesaid are making Australia a necropolis of the extinct and humans are next in the queue.

Progress is important and a tribute to human innovation and ingenuity. Progress in Australia alongside Indigenous environmental science is intelligent. But rapacious "carpe diem" capitalism indifferent to the environment is foreclosing on our children’s future.

To non-Indigenous eyes, Uluru sits in the centre of perilous emptiness sans supermarkets and pharmacies in which non-Indigenous folks could not survive a week; but men, women and children survived there for sixty plus Millenia! And here’s the rub: these are the people who have copped the brunt of bog-white arrogance, racism, vilification and humiliation.

The instinctive skill of Indigenous survival recalls the astonishing scenes in the documentary, Putuparri and the Rainmakers, when after a six-day journey by car across the vast Kimberley desert, Wangkajunka Elder, Spider Snell and his old mates, who’d been taken away from country for 40 years, stop the convoy the middle of nowhere. They walk for a while, greet the Spirits then begin digging in the hard ground and behold dry sand, becomes damp, then a trickle, then a pool of water!

This was not magic, this was knowledge and self-knowledge at that. Country and identity for Spider is One. The One is Sacred. It is knowing that the forces of life are in everything. Everything is alive with Spirit. Everything informs survival. It is an alien consciousness for Christians, the settler religion, where the sacred has been locked up in churches and relegated to somewhere in the sky and the earth is man’s dominion. Indigenous peoples belong to, not own, Country.

We are many who are on the journey to truth-telling and respect. There is so much hope for coming together, for healing, for non-Indigenous spiritual empowerment and for Indigenous empowerment for rights fixed in justice.

Take a moment to imagine what would be Australia’s spirit and Australian identity today, if early settlement had been founded on respect for the First Nations, respect for their spiritual belonging to and care for their land and culture and that respect was followed through to this present day?

At the very least, the choice of our national anthem would be different: it would reflect and advance respect and inclusivity as does the rousing, "I am Australian", by Bruce Woodley and Dobe Newton. 

(Lyrics edited for length)

I am Australian

I came from the Dreamtime

From green and red soil plains

I am the ancient heart

The keeper of the flame

I stood upon the rocky shore

I watched the tall ships come

For sixty thousand years

I am the First Australian


I came upon the prison ship

Bound down by iron chains

I am the sweat of migrants

and builders of the land

I'm the champion of the fair-go

The children growing free

I'm a bushy, I'm a battler

I am Australian


We are one

But we are many

And from all the lands on earth we come

We share a dream

And sing with one voice

I am, you are, we are Australian

Dr Vacy Vlazna is Coordinator of Justice for Palestine Matters.

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