Non-fiction

When the heart speaks

Learning the language of listening in Australia

WHEN I TOLD my six-year-old son I was writing a book that would be titled Finding the Heart of the Nation, he asked me, ‘Where is the heart of the nation?’ I pulled him close, put my hand on his heart and told him, ‘The heart of the nation is here’. From the way his smile met his cheeks and his cheeks touched his eyes, I could see he was proud to hear my answer. He understood that the book was for him.

Not for him individually, a Torres Strait Islander boy born on Larrakia country in Darwin. No. It was written for all the children of Australia who, with the innocence of youth, imagine they will inherit a nation no longer trapped in its colonial past. Our children imagine Australia as it should be.

I had in mind what Australia should be as I wrote the book, a gift to the peoples’ movement for legal, political and structural change in this country – the movement to establish a constitutionally enshrined First Nations Voice to Parliament, as proposed in the Uluru Statement from the Heart.

There are powerful words in the Uluru Statement. They bear repeating and remembering here:

We, gathered at the 2017 National Constitutional Convention, coming from all points of the southern sky, make this statement from the heart:

Our Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander tribes were the first sovereign Nations of the Australian continent and its adjacent islands, and possessed it under our own laws and customs. This our ancestors did, according to the reckoning of our culture, from the Creation, according to the common law from ‘time immemorial’, and according to science more than 60,000 years ago.

This sovereignty is a spiritual notion: the ancestral tie between the land, or ‘mother nature’, and the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples who were born therefrom, remain attached thereto, and must one day return thither to be united with our ancestors. This link is the basis of the ownership of the soil, or better, of sovereignty. It has never been ceded or extinguished, and co-exists with the sovereignty of the Crown.

How could it be otherwise? That peoples possessed a land for sixty millennia and this sacred link disappears from world history in merely the last two hundred years?

With substantive constitutional change and structural reform, we believe this ancient sovereignty can shine through as a fuller expression of Australia’s nationhood.

Proportionally, we are the most incarcerated people on the planet. We are not an innately criminal people. Our children are aliened from their families at unprecedented rates. This cannot be because we have no love for them. And our youth languish in detention in obscene numbers. They should be our hope for the future.

These dimensions of our crisis tell plainly the structural nature of our problem. This is the torment of our powerlessness.

We seek constitutional reforms to empower our people and take a rightful place in our own country. When we have power over our destiny our children will flourish. They will walk in two worlds and their culture will be a gift to their country.

We call for the establishment of a First Nations Voice enshrined in the Constitution.

Makarrata is the culmination of our agenda: the coming together after a struggle. It captures our aspirations for a fair and truthful relationship with the people of Australia and a better future for our children based on justice and self-determination.

We seek a Makarrata Commission to supervise a process of agreement-making between governments and First Nations and truth-telling about our history.

In 1967 we were counted, in 2017 we seek to be heard. We leave base camp and start our trek across this vast country. We invite you to walk with us in a movement of the Australian people for a better future.

Finding the Heart of the Nation is literally a gift to the movement that sits behind those words. Every cent of its royalties helps fund that campaign. But it also holds the gift of many voices within its pages: twenty Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people who I met on my travels, who were generous enough to share their experiences, the good and the bad, and their various perspectives – from all points of the southern sky – to inform the Australian people as to why they should walk with us.

Before I made my way across the continent to interview these generous Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander contributors, my editor had suggested I should be happy to complete nine interviews. I wanted to do thirty. But my editor’s advice made sense: I had never conducted an interview before, let alone written more than a small union branch newsletter. And my deadline was only six months away.

When I completed the twenty interviews we agreed on between late August 2018 and February 2019, I began to fear that each individual’s story would be too similar. However, as I made my way through a pile of transcripts, shaping each into a coherent narrative, I found that although the stories did indeed share similarities – especially in several important aspects I’ll discuss later – in many ways they were entirely unique.

I’d already planned to include a variety of perspectives through a balance of genders, the inclusion of the voices of both youth and Elders, and at least one representative from each of the thirteen regional dialogues that had fed into Uluru. The rest would be left to chance – or so I thought.

But perhaps, in the end, it wasn’t just luck.

 

TAKE NOLAN HUNTER, for example, a Baardi Jawi Yaruwu man I first met at the Uluru National Constitutional Convention. When I interviewed him, Nolan was in Broome and the tide was almost right to go spear fishing – his favourite pastime.

After a good yarn about our favourite fishing spots (spots I’d enjoyed long ago with my first three children and their mother, who are also Baardi people) and his unexpected meetings with crocodiles beneath the Broome jetty, he began to tell me about his life, starting with his first encounter with white Australia.

Like far too many Aboriginal people from Nolan’s generation, his first encounter with white authorities was a tragedy. When he was very young, Nolan’s mother was taken from him. She was incarcerated in Bungarun, a leprosarium in Derby, north-east of Broome, originally built in 1936. Fortunately for her, unlike many other Aboriginal people incarcerated in such institutions, she was soon released. But not long after she was reunited with her son, they were separated again. This time it was Nolan and his brother who were taken to the leprosarium. Nolan has never had leprosy.

Nolan wasn’t bitter about his childhood; rather he told me fondly about the Elders who cared for him. The ‘old people’, he said, had doted on him and the few other children at the facility – he was loved abundantly by them, partly because that is the way of our culture, but also because their own children had been taken away.

Nolan’s manner is characteristically calm and sensible (with the exception of when he dives with crocodiles), but he was shaken with sorrow as he described how lost these Elders were when the leprosarium finally closed in 1986. ‘Them old people were like, “I’ve been here since I’ve been a little girl”, like that. Now they’re an old woman. It was really sad because that’s the only home they knew.’

As a young man, Nolan had witnessed his people’s resurgence. He recalled with admiration how his Elders had led the fight to protect a sacred site from a mining company in the 1978 Noonkanbah dispute. The Western Australian Government took the mining company’s side, while the union movement supported the Aboriginal cause.

Nolan learned about building power from such struggles. From the Noonkanbah dispute, the Elders built the Kimberley Land Council (KLC), which Nolan would eventually lead. Since the establishment of the KLC, his people have gained native title to swathes of their land; they have employed land and sea rangers and they’ve negotiated outcomes his Elders could only have dreamed of. But Nolan is aware that all the hard work can be undone thousands of kilometres away by indifferent non-Indigenous politicians in the cold halls of Canberra. Hence his people’s support for a First Nations Voice.

‘When you think about how the KLC started,’ he explained, ‘we started out of a protest. That old guard fought for our rights in the Noonkanbah dispute… Everybody marched and protested, and that’s how the organisation was born. [Now] we need that mechanism in the constitution that the governments must properly engage with. A Voice for us is a win – a win for all.’

 

ANOTHER WHO SHARED her story with me is Kaytetye, Arrernte, Warlpiri and Warumungu woman Barb Shaw, who is the third generation of her family to live at Mount Nancy Town Camp in Alice Springs. Town camps are small Aboriginal communities on the outskirts of historical settler centres, generally where Aboriginal workers were forced to live while providing labour to white masters.

Barb proudly told me about her father, Geoffrey Shaw, who served in the Australian military on two tours in Vietnam, one in Borneo and another in Malaysia. When Geoffrey began his service in 1965, he was not yet counted as an Australian citizen. By the time he returned and retired from the military, the 1967 referendum had changed his citizenship status – a constitutional amendment that guaranteed Aboriginal people would be counted in the national census. But while Geoffrey was now an Australian citizen, he was still an Aboriginal man in a prejudiced white system, and one which wanted to forget him. Geoffrey Shaw spent seven more years fighting white ­authorities to receive his military pension.

While Geoffrey Shaw was fighting for his pension and struggling to live with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), he was – remarkably – also developing some of the first Aboriginal organisations in Central Australia. One was the Tangentyere Council Aboriginal Corporation (TCAC), formed by a collective of town camp residents to support efforts to access land, housing, water, electricity, municipal services and community services – services they were otherwise excluded from. However, for all the community’s efforts and great gains, in one swift political and military manoeuvre – yes, military: the army rolled into tiny Aboriginal communities with unnecessary force – all progress towards self-determination was undone by the Howard government’s 2007 Northern Territory Emergency Response: the Intervention. Barb led the fight against the Intervention: she predicted it would cause more damage than it would do good.

History shows she was right.

When I interviewed Barb at the TCAC office her father helped to build, I listened as she reflected on the Northern Territory Intervention with frustration. ‘The Intervention may have cost [the federal government] billions of dollars, yet it knocked many communities to their knees. Elements of the Intervention continue. But who’s listening? Not the politicians.’

With characteristic vigour, in the next breath Barb went on to say: ‘When I went to the Uluru First Nations Constitutional Convention, I wanted to do something that could make sure nothing like the Northern Territory Intervention could ever happen again… I got a lot of good-willed people who [are] ready to drop everything and just come walk with us [to win a First Nations Voice referendum].’

 

ACROSS ALL THESE interviews, as in each of the regional dialogues and at the National Constitutional Convention at Uluru, experiences of racism were the first and clearest commonality among us. This was predictable. However, the variety of methods used to disempower Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people has been truly mind-blowing. And so I did not need to purposely seek out twenty different experiences of systemic racism through my interviews: I didn’t need any luck to find such variety for my book. The Australian program of First Nations disempowerment was so tactically applied by so many various white perpetrators, it’s a wonder that we’ve survived to tell our stories at all.

Take a moment to listen to the voices of First Nations people, and we will tell you the truth about Australia’s recent Black history: people put into leprosariums without leprosy; forgotten soldiers; stolen children; women raped by white masters with impunity; workers paid merely in rations – slavery; and so much more. You will hear our anger about deaths in custody and the treatment of Indigenous children, still being stolen from their families and denied their culture. The truth of our past is the truth of our present. Yet none of the heinous acts of the past, nor the negligent failures of policy in the present, have ever been challenged by our democracy. No politician has ever been held accountable for any of them. It was this flaw in our democracy that I wrote about in ‘A dream that cannot be denied’, published online by Griffith Review in October 2020. It was for this reason that Teela Reid, a strong young Wailwan Wiradjuri lawyer, called her Griffith Review essay, published last January, ‘2020: A year of reckoning, not reconciliation’.

Now, take a moment longer, and listen carefully, and you will hear those other commonalities that I want to tell you about: remarkable resilience, generosity and hope.

In the Kimberley, Nolan Hunter has continued the work of his fore­fathers. He has assessed the successes and failures in our struggle and proposed a way forward from the platform his Elders built, the KLC. In Central Australia, Barb Shaw, in one of the most marginalised communities in the country, watched her father claw back dignity for her community despite incredible adversity. When the federal government turned Australia’s own army against these people, Barb did not give up. She is now the deputy chair of the Central Land Council and has extended her hand – as we all have in the Uluru Statement – to invite the Australian people to walk with us. We have done this many times before: from the Yirrkala bark petitions in 1963 to the Larrakia petition in 1972; from the Barunga Statement in 1988 to the invitation you are reading about today – First Nations people are always generous, always hopeful.

Barb, Nolan, a majority of our people: our advocacy for Australia as it should be is not shaped by our anger. Anger is the emotion of war: war is not who we are. We are our ancestors’ children, skilled in the ways of dispute resolution: the process of Makarrata. We understand that truth and generosity are vital ingredients for making peace, and peace has been our way for millennia. How else, as experts agree, could hundreds of unique languages evolve, for hundreds of First Nations, in one common land?

In First Nations culture and systems of law all things have a moiety – a rich and complex series of intersections and interdependences – including the features of the land, the waters and all the living creatures they sustain. We all have our place and are all connected. We share not just among each other, but with foresight: we share with the coming generations. We offer our voices to the centre of Australian decision-making as a gift. Are non-Indigenous Australians capable of reciprocating our generosity?

We believe the answer is yes. Research for the From the Heart campaign, recently completed by CIT Group, shows 56 per cent of Australians would vote yes to enshrine a First Nations Voice in the Australian Constitution. Earlier research from the CIT Group indicates that this support strongly correlates with the numbers of Australians who are aware of the constitutional moment at Uluru on 26 May 2017. We know that when people receive the invitation made in the Uluru Statement from the Heart, they accept it. We have also learnt that the most compelling reason people support the campaign is a desire to give First Nations people a ‘fair go’. Most Australians agree: it’s time.

It was one of the most touching moments during my travels with the Uluru Statement when a fifteen-year-old non-Indigenous boy, in a most profoundly generous act, demonstrated how the tides of change are with us.

I was at a high school in Perth, where a teacher friend had arranged several assemblies for me to teach the entire school about the Uluru Statement from the Heart. This was one of the first schools where I presented the Uluru Statement and I was amazed at how knowledgeable the students were about Aboriginal culture and the constitution.

The first assembly complete, as I waited in the lunch break for the next to start, this fifteen-year-old boy hung around, tentative, as other more unabashed students asked me their questions.

Finally, when they walked away, the shyer boy came to me. He said, ‘That was really interesting, what you had to say.’ He looked at his hands and paused. Then he reached into his heart, and with his words he gave me a gift I will always treasure. He said with certainty, an unwavering resolve: ‘Some of the people in my family say racist things. I just wanted to tell you that I won’t do the same. I am going to be different.’

Children see the world as it should be. We should be generous to our children, and make it so.

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