Essay

Where truths collide

Challenging Australia’s shaky foundations

Ngai gar kulai upasian, ngai kuiku mabaigal matha muiya muingu, nga ka thanumun ya i kulai mulie kie. Ngai gar lak upasian kowa kuiku mabiag einabie lugngu thana ka ngulpun wakai waiyak. Ngai mina kaima eso, Awa Waubin.

(Before I speak, I pay my respects in silence, speaking with my ancestors, acknowledging them. I pay my respects to the Rightful Owners of this land who will give us guidance. I express gratitude to Uncle Waubin for teaching me.)

 

I AM SITTING forward, in nautical terms, looking astern at my awa, who is guiding us through reefs and straits on a moonless night. Above him are stars like phosphorescence in the squid-ink sky. Around his silhouette I see phosphorescence like stars in our small dinghy’s wake. I’m a young man excited to be going night-spearing for kaiyar, the painted crayfish.

The fourteen-foot aluminium dinghy is tiller-steer. No frills: no centre consoles, steering wheels or rod-holding rigs. No fancy depth sounder or GPS. Like most small boats in the Torres Strait Islands, my awa’s boat is set up for hunting, fishing and transport.

My awa, my uncle, is a quiet man. When he speaks, you must listen. Concentrate. Not only because the effort will yield lustrous pearls of wisdom but also because of the way he speaks – quiet, humble, without sparkle but valuable nonetheless. In my culture, the uncle–nephew relationship is vital to the boy becoming a good and capable man. An uncle is obligated to teach the nephew the ways of the world and is respected for this like a father.

Before we launched the boat at Bach Beach on Waiben, Awa explained the journey ahead. We discussed the tides and the moon phase, and he described the path through the channel between Ngarupai and Muralag. We would be navigating through Karaureg lands and waters, where we can trace our ancestry back well before English names – Thursday Island, Horn Island, Prince of Wales Island – were imposed over our Country.

After travelling for almost an hour, the roar of the two-stroke motor hushes to a drone and the wind falls away from my back. An orange glow outlines Awa’s silhouette as he draws on a cigarette. He waves with his free arm towards the outline of nearby islands, blacker than the night. I understand that he is teaching me, checking that I have noticed a waypoint he spoke of, marked by the shape of the land beneath the Southern Cross. The waypoint indicates that we are nearing the passage to our destination. A place only recently named Possession Island.

 

POSSESSION ISLAND, THE place I went hunting for kaiyar as a young man twenty years ago, was named by the then Lieutenant James Cook in August 1770. The act of naming the island ‘Possession’ demonstrates the attitude Australia’s white forefathers had towards land ownership, devoid of connection to the life force of Country – the generations of people, plants and animals; their spirits and stories sustained from that. It is an attitude that continues in modern Australia and contributes to widening inequality and the worsening global climate crisis.

For my people, ownership of the land is as much about the land’s ownership of us. The land and sea are not possessions to be used, unsustainably. The land and sea are for us to care for, collectively, for the generations of our children to come. For without our lands and seas – without the waru (turtles) and dhangal (dugong) eating the sea-grass and in turn feeding us; without the baizam (sharks) patrolling the reefs and maintaining balance; without the rugoebaw (sweet potato) planted as the winds-and-stars guide; without honouring our totems and heeding their lessons about the circle of life – we know, from more than sixty millennia of experience, that we would be doomed.

For the Gudang Yadhaykenu Aboriginal First Nation on the mainland closest to the Torres Strait Islands, this island is not Possession Island: it is Thunada. For my people of the Kaurareg Nation, the same island is named Bedanug during the north-west winds we call kuki, and Thuined during sager, the south-east trade winds. The multiple names and the multiple peoples associated with the island are the opposite of the Western concept of possession. They reflect a sharing and generous culture. They reflect collective custodianship and sustainability versus singular exploitation.

Cook’s ship, HMS Endeavour, and his crew were observed by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples as they sailed up the east coast of Australia. Both the peoples of the mainland and the islands believed the white sailors were the spirits of the dead returned; they were markai in Kalaw Lagaw Ya, the language of the Kaurareg. First Nations warned each other about these strange ghosts blown in on low-flying clouds. We used message sticks and smoke signals, as effective as Royal Mail. Cook and his crew were largely ignored in the earliest interactions: we had no interest in trade or diplomacy with the intruders. We had everything we needed – we had and we maintained an abundance of life. Aboriginal people went about peaceful lives as we had for millennia, as the British explorer went about his business, foolishly believing he was discovering our lands, as though we were not there.

Don’t take my word for it, this statement about the abundant and peaceful life First Nations peoples lived before the British came, before White Australia tried to destroy us. You have already felt it, no doubt. You would have felt it in the moment you laid eyes on that special place: the green valley vista with a cool breeze caressing fields of purple and yellow wildflowers; the deep blue seas fringed by white surf and silver fish playing by broad golden sands; the waterhole tucked into the folds of an omnipresent red rock in a desert like an ocean of ochre; or the wetlands reflecting a deep orange dusk as flocks of magpie geese forage at the foot of an ancient escarpment. You would have felt it in that moment where your breath catches at the beauty and abundance of this Country.

Surely in these moments you have considered what a wonderful life my people lived before Cook and the subsequent British colonists tore the most successful social fabric on the planet to pieces. Now, as perhaps it crosses your mind for the first time, you should wonder how Cook and Australia’s white founders could ever ignore that we are here with our societies, spiritualities, cultures, laws and systems of governance.

It is bewildering. It is a crying shame.

I can only imagine my people thought the white ghosts on the Endeavour were the type who had been doomed by mistakes in the past – the type of apparition from whom you learn what not to do; the epitome of ignorance. When the Guugu Yimithirr people observed Cook and his crew loading the decks of the Endeavour with turtles – more turtles than the reef would sustain giving – they tried to show him that to take such excess was against the laws of Country, a practice that is always to humankind’s peril. Cook and his crew took more than their fill of turtle anyway and absconded, showing what we could only perceive as greed.

 

ACCORDING TO OFFICIAL Australian history, on 22 August 1770, one of Cook’s final acts before sailing away from our great continent through Kaurareg lands was to hold a brief ceremony on Thuined to proclaim possession of the entire east coast for Britain. Well, at least this is Cook’s account, written in his journal and reported to his masters back in England.

We learnt early that white ghosts can lie.

Like any sovereign peoples, the visitation of such strangers – ghosts, intruders or otherwise – was recorded and maintained as a significant event in our historical archives. No other culture on Earth has recorded significant geological events from ice ages ago and carried them accurately from generation to generation to this very day. Similarly, First Nations peoples passed on historical events and lessons orally through songs and stories, and through art. Our historical archives, written or not, should be respected and valued. My ancestors met their obligations to teach my Elders, who are meeting their obligation to teach the following generation as my awa met his obligation to teach me. And we have a different story to Cook’s.

I believe my ancestors’ spoken word over Cook’s written journal entry.

One carrier of this knowledge is respected Kaurareg Elder Awa Waubin Richard Aken. Awa Waubin is named after a Kaurareg legend and cultural hero, Waubin. The Waubin songline begins in Arrente Country, in central Australia, where the giant warrior originated. Waubin first went west to Yarawu Country, then to Yolngu Country and across the Gulf of Carpentaria – eventually reaching Muralag, where he battled with other legendary warriors and finally became the stone that guards an important maritime passage on Kaurareg Country. Waubin’s story is one of many songlines that connects First Nations across the enormity of our continent.

I spoke with this legend’s namesake for this essay. We talked about the shaky foundations on which Australia was built, beginning with Cook. Awa Waubin, a big man with a cheeky glint in his eye and a jovial nature, said of the explorer: ‘Our internet was working back in 1770 when Cook was coming up the coast – the fire and smoke signals and the message sticks. By the time Cook reached our Country, we knew these bad markai were coming. We were prepared. Our ancestors made the big bonfire there at the eastern side of Muralag, a place named Yheti, and had the sacred fire dance ceremony to ready for war. When Cook reached Thuined, we already had many warriors and canoes camouflaged on nearby islands ready to strike if Cook came ashore. Cook wrote in his journal that he saw ten warriors, and a weapon he hadn’t seen anywhere along the coast. That weapon he saw was the bow and arrow. It was enough to worry him, but he didn’t see the full picture. There were more than ten warriors waiting for the chief’s signal.’

Awa Waubin said: ‘There was no British ceremony on Kaurareg land, because our chief never gave the signal to attack. We know that Cook didn’t even step on our land; he survived to sail on and tell his version of claiming British sovereignty in Kie Daudai (Australia). If he had landed, we would have killed him, roasted his head, eaten it, and put the head on an ant nest to make the skull pure and white. Then we would have painted it black and red, our Kaurareg colours – black for our people and red for our blood. The skull would have been traded for canoe and feathers and various commodities in Migi Daudai (Papua New Guinea).’

Awa Waubin said: ‘The other reason we know Cook didn’t step on Kaurareg land is from his own people. There are two paintings of Cook planting the flag: they say the painting is of him taking possession of our land in a ceremony on Thuined. But you look at them rocks and trees. They’re not like anything on our islands.

‘The white people call our ancestors who did great things myths, as though Waubin is some made-up story. But when you think about it, they are being hypocrites – Cook founding this country is the myth. It wasn’t until 1788 that colonisation actually came to this Country. And anyway, if Cook never did that ceremony on our land, how can he claim sovereignty over us? He was out in the middle of the water.’

Awa Waubin laughed, and I laughed with him. The British forefathers of Australia were such savages.

From the words of our Elders, as told by the Kaurareg warriors who witnessed the markai – Cook, briefly floating offshore, never planting a British flag on Thuiden because our warriors may well have killed him – the foundations of Australia remain contested. This Kaurareg understanding of Australia’s shaky foundations is just one of many stories known to First Nations that differ from the British version. After all, we know that Cook had secret orders from the King to gain our consent before claiming possession, but he declared our land for the King without negotiation. We are a nation that continues to be without a Treaty, and in the late nineteenth century First Nations representatives weren’t included in the constitutional conventions that founded the Australian Federation. We are yet to be constitutionally recognised and empowered as distinct peoples – as distinct as and certainly more legitimate than the colonies that became the Australian states. These are just a few examples that challenge Australia’s foundations. Worse are the crimes against our humanity – the genocide and slavery committed by Australia’s governments right up to the latter half of the twentieth century and to this day through mass incarceration, harmful policies and prejudice.

 

THE TRUTHS THAT challenge the foundations of this nation do not make me deny Australians their identity because, in part, I would be denying my own. I am as Australian as I am Kaurareg, Kalkalgal and Erubumle. Nor do I deny that the sovereignty of the Crown, the authority of the Australian Government, is real. The point that I am bringing us to is where truths collide and where truths can possibly come together. As Wiradjuri and Wailwan lawyer and writer Teela Reid wrote in 2020 for Griffith Review: It is time to show up for the reckoning.

In many ways, Australian people have been demonstrating a willingness to show up for the reckoning. As I carried the sacred Uluru Statement from the Heart canvas across the nation soon after its creation in May 2017, mobilising the peoples’ movement in support of its proposal for a Voice to Parliament, I saw the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander flags flying alongside the Australian flag in schools, offices and government buildings – as can be expected today – but also in the most unlikely of places, including in the front yards of homes in small rural towns where I rarely saw another Blackfulla. It’s no myth that most Australians accept that each of these flags tells a story of our collective identity.

The Aboriginal flag, designed by Luritja man Harold Thomas in 1970, celebrates a proud Black identity and connection to Country. It is more than a symbol of protest; it is a symbol of continuing Aboriginal sovereignty. In the middle of the black and red halves of the Aboriginal flag, the large yellow circle represents the sun – the giver of life and protector. The black upper half of the flag represents the people, for we were all Black for millennia before the markai came. The red lower half of the flag represents sacred ochre, the heart of this continent and the land itself – all of it Aboriginal.

The Aboriginal flag was joined by the Torres Strait Islands flag in 1992. This flag was designed by a Waiben man, the late Bernard Namok Snr. The flag features a white headdress that we call a Dhari, and the five island groups are represented by the white five-pointed star placed within it. The thin black lines represent the people – again, like our ancestors, proudly Black. The thick blue bar through the middle of the flag represents malu (the sea). The green bars across the top and bottom of the flag represents Migi Daudai, the Papua New Guinean lands to the north, and Kie Daudai, the Aboriginal lands on the mainland to the south. Our connection to our Aboriginal and Papuan cousins – the trade routes, common legends, songlines and interconnected families from well before colonisation – are part of who we are.

Each of these flags represents our country. Each represents perspectives that, when brought together, can strengthen our identity and our ability to deal with the global challenges before us. Though most Australians accept the importance of our Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander identities, only one flag, the flag with the British Union Jack on it, is truly represented in parliament. Changing this structural inequity so that First Nations sovereignty is recognised and truly heard is where I believe the reckoning begins.

 

COOK FAILED TO reckon with the reality of First Nations sovereignty. The governors of the former colonies and their masters in their British homelands failed too. The forefathers of the Federation of Australia had the opportunity to right these wrongs, but they chose to smooth the dying pillow of a dying race, as they described us, going further by enacting the White Australia policy in one of the first acts of the Australian Parliament. Yet as each subsequent Australian Government tried to kill us off, either blatantly or through gross negligence, we recovered and modernised First Nations identities. And here we are, flying our colours, still calling for dignity, respect and recognition.

The Uluru Statement provides a roadmap to the reckoning. It is a First Nations consensus that invites Australians to prioritise the call for a referendum to enshrine our Voice – our flags, our identities, our rightful place – in the centre of all levels of decision-making, and I strongly believe we can succeed.

Numerous polls and reports to government indicate the willingness of the Australian people to show up for a reckoning of our past at a Voice referendum. The Reconciliation Barometer in 2021 indicated that 95 per cent of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and 91 per cent of Australians in the general community believe that the relationship between Australia and First Nations is important. Reconciliation Australia also found that around 70 per cent of Australians would support enshrining a First Nations Voice in the constitution, which is similar to the amount of Australians who believe in the possibility of national unity. The From the Heart campaign, the campaign dedicated to the pursuit of a referendum to enshrine a First Nations Voice, found similar numbers would be in support of a yes vote at a Voice referendum. Further, their research found that the numbers of Australians who would vote yes had grown during the pandemic, when it would be reasonable to expect matters of the nation’s physical health would see the desire for our national identity’s health diminish.

While the sentiment of the Australian people is with us, governments have obfuscated. The federal government has reports from the Referendum Council from 2017, the 2018 Joint Select Committee on Constitutional Recognition Relating to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples, and the 2021 Indigenous Voice Co-design Final Report, and they all recommend constitutional enshrinement of a First Nations Voice.

One does not need to look far to see that in the real world, outside the Canberra bubble, the truths of the foundations of Australia have already collided, and the truth of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples’ place in this country – both symbolically and constitutionally – is bursting through as the strongest and most desired reform to the Australian identity.

Where once there was only one flag flying, we now see three.

The challenges ahead of us – climate change, an ongoing pandemic, growing inequality and the failure of neoliberal economics – are like a storm on the horizon. We must pull our ship together, prepare the vessel and the crew, and look to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Elders to guide us to peaceful waters. Australia can gain much from the wisdom and accountability we will bring to parliament.

I asked Kaurareg Elder Awa Waubin to provide the final words for this essay. I asked if he would share some of the political wisdom that ensured a thriving Kaurareg Nation on small rocky islands in the brilliantly turquoise strait between two giant lands. His words demonstrate the distance we must close – the difference in ideals about the possession of land and respect for all living things, including Country, that must face reckoning.

Awa Waubin said, ‘My bala, it is always important for us to remember that what matters in cultural diplomacy is not the borderlines that colonisation imposed on us. What matters is the respect for our bloodlines and connections to Country.’

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