Image credit: John Janson-Moore
IN WIRADJURI LANGUAGE, my native tongue, Gari Yala means ‘speak truth’. Speaking truth is a hard task when you live in a country that denies the truth of its past. If you listen to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples ‘from all points of the southern sky’,[i] Gari Yala talk is omnipresent.
So as 2020 strikes, marking 250 years since the invasion of Indigenous lands, is Australia ready to Gari Yala and reckon with its past?
Let’s be clear: Captain Cook did not ‘discover’ the continent known as Australia. This must be the starting point for any dialogue about the relationship between the Australian state and the many First Nations that have never ceded sovereignty. Being honest about our past means having this difficult conversation, and it raises the question: is Australia ready for reckoning, not reconciliation?
Get ready to show up for this.
A groundswell of everyday Australians is inexorably gathering in solidarity with First Nations Peoples to use 26 January to mark Invasion Day and the survival of the oldest living cultures on the planet. The consciousness of the Australian people is shifting, despite a lack of national leadership – the people are ahead of politicians when it comes to confronting the truth about our past and the ‘rightful place’ of First Nations in our national narrative. The resistance of First Nations in 2020 symbolises the power and presence of peoples who cannot be erased in a mere 250 years.
I WAS BORN and raised on my country: Wiradjuri country in western NSW. Like many blakfullas, I lived the struggle and grew up with stories passed down to me about my mob’s fight for truth and justice. What I was told at home was vastly different to the history that was preached to me in school. Walking through the school gates was like entering a foreign world. My mother would send me off each morning in my crisp, clean uniform and perfectly crafted pigtails and advise, ‘If they give you hell today, walk out!’
I wondered if the world I was forced to learn about at school would ever share the stories I was told at home. I was deceitfully taught that after Captain Cook arrived, Australia was peacefully settled I recall being shown images of the boats landing in Botany Bay and those on board shooting Aboriginal people as though I was expected to just get over seeing such things. I was told that only white ANZACs went to war to defend the land we live on. I was made to believe my people lived some fantasised notion of nomadic life that was no longer relevant to being a successful blak.
I refused to sing the Australian national anthem and honour a flag that showed the Union Jack, the symbol of another country. Searching for a sense of belonging in a system that routinely denied both my true identity and the history of my people was a constant battle of two worlds colliding. It is a perplexing experience to feel lost in your own country.
In western NSW, in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, my descendants were racially segregated and forcefully assimilated, and lived through the protection era. Some had to wear dog tags around their necks by virtue of being Aboriginal; others were offered the opportunity to sign an ‘exemption of Aboriginality’, or were hounded onto missions. The intergenerational impact of this history means I have been to many funerals and delivered more eulogies than any young person should have to. Losing my people before their time is the result of an oppressive system of laws and policies that continue to kill us.
But I have fond childhood memories of my nan in her garden and my pop perched like a king beside a tin barrel campfire. It didn’t matter what season it was – the fire would be burning, and my pop, known to others as ‘Uncle Toot’ (because he smoked like a steam train), would spin yarns into the early hours of the morning, warning us about spirits in the land.
Stories of the Min Min lights, willy wagtails, blooming wattle, Yowies and the Cleverman were rich lessons in understanding warning signs and boundaries, right from wrong, good versus evil, and how to trust instincts and follow intuition. Sitting by the campfire taught me more about the world than any classroom; it taught me the skill of listening, the art of hearing, and how to live and practise yindyamarra – the Wiradjuri term for respect.
When I wonder what my ancestors envisioned for our future, I imagine my pop’s campfire burning bright. It was a meeting place and a source of healing: everyone young and old would gather to hear his stories, and when people travelled through town they knew not to continue unless they stopped at my grandparents’ place. That was protocol.
On 23 January 2011, less than a year after I returned from New York as Australia’s Indigenous Female Youth Delegate to the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues, my pop passed away. His life began under a traditional birthing tree marked by carvings, a sacred women’s place that was a world away from the sterile white sheets of his hospital deathbed. As his frail body faded, his wrinkly hand squeezed mine in one last grasp of life, and he made me promise to never give up the ‘fight for land rights’. I will never forget that moment, when the family baton was bestowed upon me.
I am still trying to navigate this fight.
My pop was the kind of Aboriginal man who didn’t say much, so when he spoke, I knew to listen and do what I was told. With the memories of my pop’s jet-black skin, pure-white hair and big, shiny smile fuelling my inner fire, I decided to become a lawyer in the fight for truth and justice. Doing this and maintaining my connection to country was a long and difficult road. It is a privilege I do not take lightly. I bear the responsibility to give back to my people and the country I love.
US SOUTHERNERS, BLAKFULLAS from the places collectively called the south-eastern parts of Australia, have borne the brunt of a brutal invasion. The whitewashing forces of colonisation in the south are precisely why many folks insist on travelling north to witness the ‘real Aborigine experience’. Australia’s romanticising of the ‘real Aborigines’ in the outback denies southern blaks the dignity of existence and the truth of our history surviving the frontline.
Southern blaks are labelled ‘influencers’, ‘elites’ and ‘inner-city blaks’ who are apparently too ‘politically naive’ to understand how change works. Yet we have survived, and we are still here. Proud. On the one hand, we’re told to ‘go to school’ and ‘get a good job’. But when we do, we’re told, ‘don’t speak too loudly for your mob’ – and at the same time, we’re asked if we’re real blakfullas because we’re ‘too pretty to be Aboriginal’.
These toxic narratives are how politicians and powerful elites aim to divide and conquer our ambitions and hopes when we have never ceded our sovereignty to live self-determining lives. There is no time for complacency or compromise when we have already sacrificed so much of our land, our liberty and our lives in a system that still refuses to hear us.
And that’s why it’s time to show up.
Showing up means standing in solidarity with First Nations and knowing your place in blak spaces. It means using your privilege to hold the frontline at protests and calling out racism in your families, friendships and workplaces as well as online. Advocating for blak liberation is about having the courage to dismantle the legacy of oppression that colonisers profit from off the backs of blaks. It is hard, relentless work, not just words on paper.
First Nations Peoples have been showing up and demanding to be heard for decades – we do not have the luxury of switching off when we leave our day jobs. In 1938, from the steps of Australian Hall in the centre of Sydney, Aboriginal leaders declared 26 January a Day of Mourning. In 1963, the Yirrkala Bark petitions criticised the ‘Government in Canberra [for ignoring] the views and feelings of the Yirrkala Aboriginal people’. In 1965, the Freedom Rides exposed entrenched racism in western NSW. In 1972, the Larrakia petition was signed by Aboriginal activists across the mainland in response to the 1966 Wave Hill Walk-Off that called for equal pay, land rights and political representation. It took the Australian Government nine years to return the red soil back to the Gurindji, a moment captured in the iconic 1975 photo of the great Vincent Lingiari – who led the Wave Hill Walk-Off – and Prime Minister Gough Whitlam. The same year the Whitlam government came into power, 1972, the Aboriginal Tent Embassy was established.
In 1988, the Barunga Statement was gifted to the Australian Government when Prime Minister Bob Hawke promised a treaty – but it never came to pass, despite reports of a draft treaty that was to be negotiated. The Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission (ATSIC) existed from 1990 to 2005, until the Howard government abolished it.
In 2015, the Kirribilli Statement insisted that the path forward must be to give the First Nations of Australia enduring input into how we seek to be recognised in the Constitution. It created the catalyst for the 2017 Uluru Statement from the Heart, which asserts that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander sovereignty has never been ceded. This document is a statement of truth about our history, and articulates a sophisticated roadmap to reckoning with our past through a series of reforms unique to the Australian context that aim to disrupt the system as we know it, beginning with establishing a First Nations Voice.
Enshrining a First Nations Voice to Parliament in the Constitution requires a referendum process. The power and success of that Voice depends on its public status, and a referendum will provide the vehicle for public discussion that is necessary to validate the Voice within the democratic process and guarantee its sustainability beyond political cycles and the reach of hostile governments. This proposal does not call for ATSIC 2.0, but for an innovative Voice with the power and protection to evolve and adapt with Indigenous community interests.
A notch was made in the colonial armour when Prime Minister Scott Morrison appointed Ken Wyatt MP as the first Aboriginal Minister for Indigenous Australians. Minister Wyatt has reiterated the Coalition’s intention to simply legislate a Voice. As time ticks by and more tax-payer dollars are wasted on a co-design process that’s loaded with hand-picked leaders and that runs the risk of further entrenching the status quo, what mob don’t want is more bureaucratic red tape suffocating their communities through a ‘Voice to government’. This is not what the Uluru Statement from the Heart calls for.
If the Australian state was listening to First Nations, it would constitutionally entrench a First Nations Voice, not merely legislate it, to ensure that the multiplicity of First Nations’ interests is represented by mob, for mob. No current minister or parliamentarian represents the interests of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples; rather, they represent the interests of their constituents through political party ideology, first and foremost.
Appealing to all Australian people to support a First Nations Voice uses the same strategy deployed when people march the streets in protest each 26 January: the call to action to ‘walk with us’[ii] has been directed to the people for good reason. Australian institutions, such as its government and courts, have either refused to acknowledge our ancient sovereignty or stated that they are incapable of recognising it. An era of broken government promises and the uncertainty of judicial decisions has culminated in the urgent need for a constitutionally entrenched First Nations Voice.
In 2017, I was invited to become a working group leader on section 51(xxvi) of the Australian Constitution, the ‘race power’, at the Sydney constitutional dialogue. The ongoing injustices facing Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples were clear in those rooms. As I witnessed the plenary sessions, Uncle Sol Bellear – a proud Bundjalung warrior – took me under his wing. Elders and old people spoke about the brutal massacres on country, about surviving the stolen generations, about the rapidly rising rates of youth suicide in our communities; they spoke about rivers running dry, a despairing lack of housing, ongoing child removals and the traumatic reality that we are the most highly incarcerated people on the planet.
These are undeniable facts.
But the heartache and triumph of centuries of blak activism was captured through a cross-section of the First Nations community working towards a better future based on truth and justice and self-determination. The phrase ‘Our sovereignty has never been ceded’ echoed across the rooms, and the pulse of a people forever intertwined with this ancient land was palpable. It felt like our last chance to offer hope to a country that is simply not listening to the lore of the land.
These were difficult debates and challenging conversations; there were tears and walkouts. It was blak politik in action. It reminded me of the days when my pop would march me off to land council meetings, which he did from the moment I could walk. I understood that this struggle was not easy and that building consensus across the continent would be an enormous task. We are in the race for our lives.
I also felt the weight of responsibility placed upon my people. To attempt to change a system that operates on our historical exclusion, a system that has proven it will readily oppress us at the stroke of a pen, is a bold undertaking. The courageous leadership of the indominable Professor Megan Davis, a proud Cobble Cobble woman, illuminated the room as she declared that we must ‘suspend [our] cynicism’ to ‘imagine’ a better future for our people. We shouldn’t shy away from this responsibility; no breakthrough in Indigenous rights ever came from blakfullas’ fear of failure or doubt. Some will say, what if it fails – but what if it wins?
LIKE MANY ACTIVISTS, I have traversed the continent to the point of exhaustion, speaking and mobilising grassroots community activism and sharing the urgent need for radical change. There is irrefutable optimism at the heart of inviting Australians to hear us, to join us in calling upon the coloniser to act in good faith and to accept that Indigenous people can control our own affairs as we have done for over sixty millennia. It is a profound yet simple gesture.
But it will take a brave nation to walk and talk Gari Yala, to grapple with the truth of its history and enact the structural change necessary to elevate the ancient voices of First Nations. It will test the capacity of colonisers to question their own privilege and thus understand how the invisibility of Indigenous oppression has been systemically sustained and must therefore be revolutionised. This is why Australia needs to embark on a reckoning with the truth of its past.
In 1968, a year after the 1967 referendum that altered the ‘race power’ to authorise the federal parliament to legislate for both the ‘benefit and detriment’ of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, the anthropologist WEH Stanner delivered the Boyer Lectures. These were watershed speeches in which he spoke of the ‘great Australian silence’ that could not ‘be explained by absent-mindedness’:
It is a structural matter, a view from the window which has been carefully placed to exclude a whole quadrant of the landscape. What may well have begun as a simple forgetting of other possible views turned under habit and over time into something like a cult of forgetfulness practised on a national scale.
In 2019, Arrernte and Kalkadoon woman and filmmaker Rachel Perkins delivered the Boyer Lectures. Her response to Australia’s structural amnesia and culture of forgetting was to call for ‘the end of silence’. Being a ‘quiet Australian’ is not enough if we want to enact enduring positive change.
Australia is comfortable with the notion of reconciliation with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders because this assumes the nation is a settlement and protects the status quo; it is not radical. Its symbolic rituals enable the Australian state to look as though it respects First Nations. But a legacy of Sorry speeches, taxpayer reports, interventions, inquiries and commissions (producing endless recommendations that are rarely implemented) and ceremonious Acknowledgments of Country have become empty platitudes, an excuse to virtue signal without making structural change. As respected historian Professor Mark McKenna points out in his 2018 Quarterly Essay, Acknowledgments of Country, without recognising that the land was taken ‘without consent, without treaty or without compensation’, illustrate why these customs have become tokenistic for white Australia.
Reckoning requires everyday folks to bring about bold change, whereas reconciliation has developed a fraught application in the Australian context. Although reconciliation is continuing to shape the way in which businesses engage with Indigenous issues and has proven useful for corporate Australia, it has also shielded the Australian state from its responsibility to rectify past wrongs through accountability and action. Businesses and institutions can boast all they want about Reconciliation Action Plans creating pathways for blak jobs or degrees, but parliament still has no obligation to hear us when it comes to the issues affecting our communities, such as the lack of accountability for blak deaths in custody.
The legitimacy of the Australian state is inseparable from its relationship with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, the First Nations Peoples. Reckoning with this fact requires disrupting the status quo. Redressing the integral role of First Nations in the national narrative and in governance of our unceded lands means radically abolishing the colony as we know it and revolutionising a nation built on the ancient vision and voices of our ancestors.
Radical change is realised when people power movements. Our ability to influence systemic change depends on our capacity to mobilise in a unified way. It doesn’t mean we all agree, but it does demand that we stand in solidarity, despite our differences, to fight for a new vision. Tension is useful when it galvanises the strength in unity that is capable of disrupting the plans of the powerful. When it comes to activism, there is no room for small talk; we must have skin in the game both on and off the court, playing not only by Australia’s rules, but by our own. Radical change is not only achieved by radical means.
The struggle for a First Nations Voice has been 250 years coming, ever since Captain Cook landed uninvited in 1770. It is about the fight for land rights, water rights and the right to save our planet from the colonial structures that have attempted to destroy it. It is about the fight for peace and justice, compensation and reparations, the freedom to speak for country and control our own affairs. A constitutionally entrenched First Nations Voice is recognition that our sovereignty never was, never will be ceded.
Walk with us, as the call goes, not in pity but in solidarity, and with the imagination that this country can be better and do better. Now is not the time to be a quiet Australian. Now is the time to show up for the reckoning that I long ago promised my pop.
This is an advance online exclusive for Griffith Review 67: Matters of Trust, available in store and online from Tuesday 4 February 2020.