Australia Day

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Today is January 26. Australia Day.

According to the Australia Day website, “Australia Day, 26 January, is the day to reflect on what it means to be Australian, to celebrate contemporary Australia and acknowledge our history.”

This National Day is also controversial. It marks the day, Jan 26, 1788, when the British arrived to colonise a land already occupied by Australia’s First Peoples for at least 60,000 years. So the celebration of Australia Day, on the date of the British arrival, is a painful reminder of what came next. Some call it Invasion Day. Others call it a Day of Mourning. There are mixed feelings about whether we should be celebrating, what it is that we are celebrating and whether we should change the date.

 In his book titled, Australia Day, Stan Grant explores what it means to be Australian, to be a nation and the questions surrounding the celebration of Australia Day. Grant argues that a nation is more than a flag or a set of laws, but instead is a process of becoming, “that whatever our differences there is a collective will to live together.”  

Being Australian means something to us. It gives us a sense of who we are and where we belong. Grant identifies five aspects that form the basis of identity: home, family, race, history and nation, but also cautions that “there is a darker side to identity, a stifling conformity; an us and them.”  

When I was at school we didn’t learn much about the Indigenous people of our nation at all. It is only in recent years that the truth of first contact is becoming more widely known. We have a dark history.  First Contact was bloody and violent, as Aboriginal people were hunted down, shot on sight, poisoned and herded off cliffs, rounded up and restricted on Aboriginal reserves, denied human and citizenship rights. It is a shameful period of our history and the consequences are still evident today.

It has led me to wonder whether it would be a good idea to change the date. After all, if Australia Day is meant to be a celebration for all Australians, how can we continue to celebrate a date which causes such pain to our Indigenous People. For the sake of others, could we not change the date?

However Grant suggests that there are other questions we need to consider too and fears that “moving the date would only hand it to those who would reclaim it as a day of white pride.”  As Grant points out, racism is deeply embedded in our society. We still have a long way to go to achieve reconciliation between black and white Australians. We have a long way to go to improve health, education and life expectancy for many Indigenous Australians. 

Perhaps Grant is right, that  prematurely changing the date might just sweep the past and our current issues under the carpet. Is it the date that needs to be changed or the nature of the celebration itself? Grant believes “a future Australia Day will still likely be a day of protest, a day of sadness, and a day of joy and thanks. We are all of those things.”

Perhaps one day we will change the date. In the mean time there is a lot of work to do in recognising and respecting Aboriginal culture, being honest in coming to terms with the past, and working together to create an Australia where all are included and valued and can share equally in our future. 

Australia Day is a book that I would highly recommend for all Australians to read.

 

#Book Snap on a Tuesday – That Deadman Dance

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Gumbi Gumbi Gardens, USQ, Toowoomba

I am running a little behind with this week’s Book Snap, but better late than never. That Deadman Dance by Kim Scott won the Miles Franklin Literary Award in 2011 and is pictured above in the Gumbi Gumbi Gardens at USQ in Toowoomba. Set in Western Australia, the book’s central focus is Bobby, a young aboriginal boy, during the early years of British colonisation. Bobby is encouraged by his family to develop close relationships with the white strangers so that he can learn things from them.

I was raised to be proud and to be friendly…My family thought we could be friends and share what we had.

Towards the end of his life, though, Bobby reflects on his earlier youthful optimism and the moment when he

…opened his eyes properly. There were no more of his people and no more kangaroo and emu and no more vegetable. After the white man’s big fires and guns and greed there was nothing.

Scott notes that some historians regard the Albany area as the “friendly frontier”, which raises all sorts of questions. What if friendly first contact had not escalated into a war of extermination? What if the British had recognised the sovereignty of Australia’s First People? What if they had been willing to share?

That Deadman Dance is the first book by Kim Scott that I have read and it won’t be the last. Highly recommended.

The Gumbi Gumbi Gardens were established at USQ to help  develop “a better understanding of local Indigenous heritage” (Gumbi Gumbi Gardens, USQ). They are open to the public and provide an excellent educational experience about the role of native plants in Indigenous life.

https://www.usq.edu.au/about-usq/locations/toowoomba/gumbi-gumbi-gardens

April Reading Update

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April turned out to be quite a busy month, with Easter, ANZAC Day, and an Australian history essay to get done somewhere in between.  So the reading was a little steady, however I did manage to read …

  • The Virgin Suicides by Jeffrey Eugenides
  • Magnus Chase and the Sword of Summer by Rick Riordan 
  • Eden by Candice Fox
  • Follow the Rabbit-Proof Fence by Doris Pilkington
  • People of the Book by Geraldine Brooks
  • Keep the Aspidistra Flying by George Orwell

… and ticked off two more boxes for Book Bingo.

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  • Novella (less than 150 pages) – Rabbit-Proof Fence by Doris Pilkington
  • Crime – Eden by Candice Fox

Follow the Rabbit-Proof Fence by Doris Pilkington was both a reread and part of an Australian history assignment. It tells the story of three young Aboriginal girls who are taken from their home in the Pilbara region of Western Australia to a settlement far away from their family. Molly, the oldest girl and Doris Pilkington’s mother, decides they’re not staying and so begins their long journey back home, following the rabbit-proof fence.

 It is 1931 and the child removal policy is in full swing. The child removal policy was at best misguided and at worst rooted in prejudiced and racist ideology. Indigenous children were separated from their families in an attempt to destroy the link with their culture and assimilate them into white society. They are the Stolen Generations. Sadly Doris was also separated from her mother Molly for many years. She says that writing the book helped her to reconnect with her family and culture, and heal the pain and trauma of the loss of her family, culture and identity. 

Follow the Rabbit-Proof Fence belongs to a genre of writing often known as Aboriginal Life Writing and I think it is helpful to understand a bit about Aboriginal Life Writing when reading Pilkington or any other texts from this genre. Aboriginal Life Writing is often different from the usual kind of memoirs or autobiographies that are written in the western tradition. Storytelling is a very important tradition in Indigenous culture and Aboriginal Life Writing continues that tradition. But it also serves as a mechanism for healing the pain and trauma of dispossession, for reconnecting Indigenous people with their history and culture, for teaching non-Indigenous readers about Aboriginal culture and their own history, and for promoting the necessity of reconciliation for all of us.

 In 1992, the then Prime Minister of Australia, Paul Keating, said….

[Reconciliation] begins, I think, with that act of recognition. Recognition that it was we who did the dispossessing. We took the traditional lands and smashed the traditional way of life. We brought the diseases. The alcohol. We committed the murders. We took the children from their mothers. We practised discrimination and exclusion. It was our ignorance and our prejudice. And our failure to imagine these things being done to us. (Attwood 2001, p. 201)

It is shocking to think that here we are almost 30 years later, and still little seems to have changed. Racism, inequity, poor health and shorter life expectancy plus numerous other social issues continue, but the capacity for Indigenous writers such as Pilkington to extend forgiveness and compassion is deeply humbling. In an interview with Anne Brewster, Doris explained how her involvement in the reconciliation process revealed her own need to forgive, saying

“…how can I expect them to say sorry to me, when I don’t have any forgiveness and compassion for them? ” (Brewster 2005, p. 145)

 Forgiveness. Compassion. Repentance. Respect. Dignity. Consideration. Equality. 

These are the building blocks of a kind, just and ethical society.

I live in hope. 

Happy Reading

 

Attwood, Bain 2001, ‘”Learning about the truth” The stolen generations narrative’ in B Attwood and F Magowan (eds) Telling Stories: Indigenous history and memory in Australia and New Zealand, Allen & Unwin: Crows Nest, NSW, pp. 183-212

Brewster, Anne 2005, ‘The Stolen Generations: Rites of Passage: Doris Pilkington interviewed by Anne Brewster’, Journal of Commonwealth Literature, Vol 41, No. 1, pp143-159