You do not easily adapt to change. It took years before you settled into Torquay. You hated the suburban life preferring the holiday feel of the coastal village down the road. It is surrounded by a national park, heathland , and the uninterrupted expanse of the Southern Ocean. It is a true – Gods Waiting Room. It is filled with old folk. Most of the people living there only need to know three telephone numbers; the doctor, the ambulance, and the undertaker. As for the rest they spend a few weeks each year escaping the madness of the city in their holiday house that sits alone in the scrub week – in – week out. It too hates change.
You know deep down it has changed in the twenty years of your retirement. The old fibro homes, ( the homes made of asbestos fibre sheets), have almost all been demolished. The sharp architecturally designed buildings replacing them have bought a cardre of youthful tradies, builders, plumbers, electricians, plasterers, glaziers, and concreters to town. It has all happened in a mere heartbeat since the town was cut out of the tea tree. Before then the former visitors left little evidence they too came and went for centuries.
They were the Wadawurrung. The first people of this country. If your roam along the cliff top walk above the ocean you will find evidence they found the land plentiful. The middens they left are the feasting spots of old. In these places hundreds of generations of people sat and celebrated the generosity of the sea. They ate their fill of shell fish and discarded the shells and formed mounds of shells where they ate. Their presence today is all we need to be reminded of them.
Concurrently in the twenty years of my retirement our civic leaders have recognised our indigenous past. Civic functions commonly commence with a Welcome to Country celebration. I have thought it tokenism until now because it is new. Twenty years is no time at all. Even things that happened fifty years ago are new to me. To accept new things I find hard, almost impossible immediately. And here is notice: I, me, you, do not embrace change – so spend a moment and accept sometimes others have good reasons to rebel when change is foisted on them.
Your lifetime is but a blip in universal time. Double the length of your life and the Wadawurrung lived on this land uninterrupted as they had for thousands of years. Your predecessors were granted leasehold or ownership of the land without consultation with any of the tribe. This tribe, the dozens across the state, and the hundreds of different tribal groups all over this land never gave sovereignty to the people who day by day, year on year, took ownership from them.
It is well documented at hundreds of sites across the country people were massacred. The wells they drank water from were poisoned. The man who killed the sheep, a timid beast unrecognised as a native animal and was easily slain, that man was hunted by the squatter and he and his family were shot. The warrior that stood his ground and threw a spear to defend himself was driven off a cliff. These things were often sanctioned by the state. A state that listed its native people as Flora and Fauna until 1967.
This happened despite these people generously enlisting as soldiers in foreign wars to fight for the country. Their reward was to be ignored when they returned from conflict. Despite this Australia has throughout the years acknowledged hundreds of our original inhabitants as great countrymen and women. If the person : boxed, ran, swam, or played football, we acknowledged them. We did/do the same for artists. We honoured former footballer and preacher Doug Nichols as a state governor. These stories we absorbed in the media and in lessons without question.
Our lessons never included an accurate history of the people. It has taken until the publication of Bruce Pascoe’s Dark Emu for our first peoples to receive any sort of acknowledgement they lived quite sophisticated lives lightly in the environment. Our lessons spoke of simple tools and weapons. It never acknowledged the hundreds of aboriginal languages the people lost. It never told how they were massacred.
My reading of literature included Catherine Susannah Prichard’s book Coonadoo. It was written in 1929. The language Prichard used to describe the aborigines is dated, however she did message in her book a respect for indigenous customs and rites. The book carried themes including social justice but the book was very much written from the perspective of the white settlers of the country. One character Hughie did acknowledge his temper led him to behave as a white slaver, an attribute he detested. Another white writer was Xavier Herbert. I read his novel Capricornia at school. He wrote with a deal of empathy and understanding of the life of the downtrodden living in the north of Australia. My reading never really ever embraced the reality of native life which I admit I remain profoundly ignorant of to this day.
In my lifetime the last of these free people emerged from the desert. In the beat of a single heart beat we live or die – they chose to live among us. The people of the desert came to be displaced as all others had. Some were relocated in unnatural groupings in aboriginal reserves. Others clung to the edges of their homelands in broken mobs until the High Court of Australia awarded them native title to their homeland. The notion of Native Title still causes unease because all manner of people, motivated by self interest, want to mine, frack, or destroy the ancient heritage. They pervert its meaning, if the cause suits, to say our homes are at risk of being taken from us.
It is in thinking about the circuitous route of my understanding of aboriginal life I come to examine more thoroughly my thoughts about the Welcome to Country message now in common usage. At first I thought it was tokenism. It is not.
Just over 45 years ago people with hippie aspirations (University students) were celebrating life at the Aquarius Festival in Nimbin. (An Australian Woodstock type event). Activist Gary Foley challenged the organisers to get permission to hold the festival on their land. This was not called by it’s common name then but it seems it was the first occasion a group of non indigenous people entered aboriginal land with permission. In the years since, more local council areas have come to acknowledge as they did, although aborigines no longer own the land the land, it was once was theirs.
When we recognise the prior ownership of our nation was once owned by many different indigenous mobs (as they commonly call themselves) a great injustice will be partly corrected. In 2017 after many years of debate their leaders produced the Uluru Statement From the Heart asking the government to acknowledge aboriginal and Torres Strait peoples were the original owners of the country. In one sentence former Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull dismissed their request without debate.
Belatedly I have reached the decision the debate must be held. Just as it is a lot more than tokenism to accept the right of aboriginal people to expect we acknowledge them in a Welcome to Country speech. As a nation we have a terrible record in the manner our first people have been treated. It is time to acknowledge Black Lives Matter and theft of property did occur.
I welcome your comments for I know I make errors in my writing. You will help me write more accurately if you tell me where I have erred.