…why is this such a dirty word in Oz?
I try not to tip into my everyday business too much in this world, but the ongoing debate about this “Sorry Business”, just does my head in. I’m going to drop the following article into your lap’s folks – as I’d like to hear your take on it.
I’m in the business of going between worlds here – between blackfellas and whitefellas – and all the ‘shades of Grey’ you can imagine, coming along for the ride. I know from personal experience, the nature of racism and silly business (on BOTH sides of the fence) that occurs here in Oz. That we (Australia) had the hide to Judge South Africa in the 70’s, 80’s and 90’s for the way in which they’re government shaped their policies (and hence their populations ‘general’ behaviours), belies belief:
Pot, Pot… this is Kettle – Over!
Having said that – it does no bloody good at all attacking a people, and stabbing hard fingers of absolution into their chests. Nailing guilt – or guilt by association – into a person wins you no friends at all. I’ve conducted “cultural awareness” training on all sides of this debate, throughout many different professional (and community) spheres, and most times – people are happy to discuss this topic properly if they’re free to speak their minds, free of blame, free of ‘shame’ and free of malice. Your opinion after all – remains your opinion… how you support this afterwards in relation to actual facts – is up to you.
I can tell you, that most times I’ve discussed with individuals the absolute messy myriad of topics concerning blackfellas and whitefellas in this country (in more places then you could possibly begin to imagine), we’ve reached a common consensus – and usually it’s the one that supports the strategy above. However, this has ONLY happened when people – from both sides of the fence – are allowed to speak free of fear and have their OWN say – from their OWN point of view. My own personal feel on this topic is that most people want it over and done with: Make a decision, commit to it – and MOVE ON! Most Aussies I deal with simply want to get on with living, and life. Surprise, surprise – most simply want to be able to do this together, without the political bulldust attached to it.
I’m opening the floodgates here – because I’d like to hear your opinion. So read on – and give me your feedback – “No names – No court martial’s”.
A friendly warning: If you’re new here, I’m more than happy to yarn with you on this topic. However, if you’re silly enough to drop a comment here without much thought attached to it, it’ll find a new home in the silly bugger pile, because I’ll delete it. So read on – and tell me what you think.
My apologies to Dr Sean Gorman if I’ve taken this out of context – I’m simply using this as a discussion piece:
(Please note that the use of the word “Koori” in this article lends itself to other Australian Indigenous Peoples as well.)
What’s a Koori word for hello? Sorry, why don’t we know?
February 4, 2008
IN 2005 I heard a speech by Brendan Nelson, now the Federal Opposition Leader who sees no reason to apologise to the stolen generations. The occasion was the opening of the Indigenous Studies Centre at Edith Cowan University.
About two hours before the event, protesters and riot police, some on horseback, began to assemble on the university grounds. When Nelson arrived, the din from the jostling could be heard and flashes of horse rump and people’s bodies could be seen through the windows.
The interface between state-sanctioned force meeting free speech made an impression. As Nelson schmoozed his way into the building, all eyes turned towards him. With a traditional welcome to country and the official welcome by the vice-chancellor out of the way, the then education minister made his way to the microphone.
Reaching the dais, he grasped each side of it and began to speak. At the heart of his speech was a story about an Aboriginal stockman. It had had a great impact on him, he said.
One day the stocky came to a waterhole, got off his horse, filled his water-bag and took a deep swig. Within minutes he was dead. The water hole was poisoned. A sign had been erected warning passers-by that the water was unsafe to drink. But the stockman could not read.
This incident, Nelson said, was a great shame and a great loss to all concerned; but at its heart it indicated the need to give indigenous people, especially children, basic literacy and numeracy skills. The facility that he was opening that day would go some way to dealing with those issues.
Much applause could be heard, enough to muffle the horses’ hooves on the bitumen.
Missing from this anecdote – and one that many seemed to miss – was the central issue: if the stockman had come to this waterhole, it would have been part of his country. He would have known that it was safe as his ancestors had probably drunk from it for thousands of years.
There was perhaps another reason why the water was bad: someone had put poison in it.
This is symptomatic of how we view history and the questions we ask of it. For Nelson the story contained fundamental issues of education – but for me the story was about land and the struggle to survive.
If the story of an unknown indigenous stockman can resonate with need to educate indigenous kids today, why can’t the past injustices be acknowledged with a simple word now?
Nelson is also fond of telling people that his office wall in Canberra is adorned with a portrait of Neville Bonner that is twice the size of a standard door. He says this matter-of-factly, for the record, as an indication of his commitment to indigenous Australians.
Many Australians would accept this. After all, why else would one have a super-sized Bonner on their office wall?
Again, it depends where we are located in relation to this story to make another reading of it. All I think it means is that Nelson likes what the picture of Bonner represents symbolically, to him and his political party.
Which brings us to the apology. Once again the Liberals are getting themselves tied up in semantics. Julie Bishop wants to see what the document says for “all” Australians.
What we need to realise is that for many non-indigenous Australians the indigenous question is something that hardly comes into our consciousness. A great many non-indigenous Australians do not know, do not speak to or do not engage in any way with indigenous people or issues.
This basically comes from a position of privilege: I can be pretty sure that when I move into a house that my skin will not be an issue for the real estate company. I can be pretty sure that when I go to a supermarket or mall I will not be followed by security. I can be pretty sure that when I turn on my TV or radio that a non-indigenous voice or face will speak to me. If I want to open a bank account or apply for a home loan I know my skin colour will not hinder the selection process.
I would argue that Australians spend more time considering what they will eat at a restaurant than the history of indigenous people in this country and how they fit into it.
If you disagree, perhaps ask yourself what does the acronym NAIDOC stand for? Could you name three indigenous language groups in Australia? What is a Koori word for hello? If you can’t answer, ask yourself why?
One thing I have found in 16 years of study and work in this field is that the one thing that non-indigenous Australians have a great capacity for is to negatively view and comment on blackfellas. Sadly a lot of this negativity is based on popular opinion and the media and not much else. The reason an apology is important is that it will finally enable a national recognition to be made.
Fundamentally the wrongs of the past cannot be fully owned by us; we did not actually commit them. But just as the sweat of our forebears created the towns that became the cities and the tracks became the freeways that link them, the actions of the ghosts have created a spiritual malaise that is not as easy to observe or handle.
Politicians can sweep them aside easily. And just as the ghost of the indigenous stockman who could not read stands alongside that other famous bushman who drowned himself in a billabong, we need to ask ourselves whether we start to deal with the past or just parts of it, or whether we, through our indifference and inaction, perpetuate the violence of the past.
Dr Sean Gorman is a lecturer in the Australian indigenous studies program at the University of Melbourne.