** I would like to acknowledge the First Nations peoples of Australia, their elders and their ancestors, custodians of the land that I have been travelling through.
Throughout my blog posts about Australia, I will refer to the original people of this land as ‘First Nations people’, ‘Aboriginal Australians’ or ‘Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders’. I asked a few people which term they prefer, and these were the preferences. The term ‘Indigenous’ was not liked. First Nations Australians often refer to themselves as ‘the mob’, too, and this term is often used by their friends and allies who are of European heritage.**
As a child of the 80s, I was in love with Kylie Minogue and Jason Donovan. I spent my dinner times transfixed by Neighbours and Home & Away and I cried my eyes out watching Charlene and Scott’s wedding. An impression of Australia was implanted into my brain: a vision of a blonde-haired, tanned, surf-loving nation.
At school in England, we learnt how the ‘hero’ Captain Cook sailed around the world and ‘discovered’ Australia. There was no mention of the most ancient continuous civilisation on Earth who had lived on the land for 65,000 years before the British came. And there was never any criticism of the ‘Great’ British Empire.
I didn’t think much more about Australia as I grew older. Why would I want to travel to a country that was just like England, only hotter?
But then I discovered the words of Australian journalist John Pilger, and the beautiful songs of Xavier Rudd. Between John’s articles and Xavier’s music, I gained a new understanding of Australia – a country with one of the bloodiest, falsely-told colonial histories of all time. A history where white Europeans committed genocide on a massive scale. A history of racism, land theft, concentration camps and apartheid. An attempt to completely wipe out the Aboriginal peoples of Australia.
And so I travel to Australia to inform myself more.
Chris and I hitchhike to Canberra, the soulless capital of Australia. We’re here to visit the Aboriginal Tent Embassy, a protest camp which has existed for forty-five years. We want to educate ourselves by talking to some of Australia’s Aboriginal activists.
We’re welcomed warmly and invited to stay the night.
We’re told about the hundreds of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander nations, with hundreds of different languages, most of which are in danger of being completely wiped out.
We quickly learn that Aboriginal Elders are referred to as Aunty or Uncle.
“Australia is one big cemetery,” Uncle tells us. “Our mob are buried everywhere. But they weren’t given proper funerals; they were just buried where they were slaughtered.”
When Britain colonised, horrific massacres were carried out throughout Australia, and the perpetrators went unpunished.
Chris and I hitchhike to Myall Lakes national park and come across one such massacre site. The murders that took place here are given just one sentence on the national park’s information board. This is one more sentence than usual in Australia, which commemorates white Australians’ First World War Anzac deaths in every single town.
“By the 1920s, there were perhaps 21,000 Aborigines [left] in the whole country and governments and the press waffled sanctimoniously of ‘smoothing the pillow of a dying race’,” says John Tully in Green Left Weekly.
In John Pilger’s book A Secret Country, he gives examples of how chemicals such as strychinine and arsenic were used to murder First Nations people:
” A Queensland Government report described the effect: ‘The niggers [were given]…something really startling to keep them quiet…the rations contained about as much strychinine as anything and not one of the mob escaped.'”
“White settlers often found no reason to spare Aboriginal men, boys and children. Aboriginal girls and women, however, were often kept for sexual pleasure. Research uncovered “stories of girls as young as eight who were kidnapped and raped and infected with syphilis. Teenage girls were kept for sex and chained up at night to stop them running away.”
Children were forcibly snatched from their families by white people supposedly ‘protecting them’. These girls and boys were often physically or sexually abused, forced to speak in English and raised to be of European heritage. These children are known as the Stolen Generations. Aboriginal children continue to be taken from their homes today.
Our travels take us up to far northern Queensland, to Laura Aboriginal Dance Festival. Over three days, different dance groups compete with each other to win the competition. The festival is not an event that’s staged for tourists. Rather, it’s a First Nations peoples’ event, and outsiders are privileged enough to be allowed to attend.
The festival is a sharing of cultures, dances, songs, stories and, most importantly, the passing down of knowledge to the next generations. Four year old children dance with Elders in their sixties. We watch the dance of the cassowary, the eagle, the willy wagtail.
Laura festival is also overtly political and Elders talk about the colonisation of their nations, the mining of their lands and their connection to country. Many of those speaking on stage talk about “culture survival.”
The group from Coen performs a dance called Shacklelands, where the performers dance with chains around them. A Coen Elder woman explains the significance of the dance:
“There was numerous genocides [on our land]. The people left behind were chained like dogs and held at gunpoint. With this performance we were looking for empathy, so we trained with real chains.”
Other dance groups, such as Mapoon, talk about being forced from their lands and into Christian Missions. A Mapoon Elder tells the audience:
“A lot of the countrymen here can relate to Mapoon. They might’ve had family that were processed there and then taken to other communities. It was one of the first Aboriginal Missions in Queensland…In the late 1800s the mission was formed in Mapoon.”
Other communities performing at Laura festival were also removed from their homes by the British and taken to areas where they had no connection to the land. In Queensland, aboriginal people could be forced to live in reserves right up until the early 1970s.
It’s not just the Elders who speak out at Laura festival. A young woman, Leilani, from an indigenous youth climate justice network called SEED, stands on stage:
“We’re trying to give our mob the capacity to maintain our connection to country…There are mining companies here right now. [Mining giant Rio Tinto sponsors the 2017 Laura festival]. They are still contributing to climate change. They are bringing in infrastructure that’s ruining our country.“
She then says something that resonates with me:
“Without our country we don’t have our culture. And without our culture, what are we?”
In much of Europe, capitalism has destroyed our connection to nature, to country, to our cultures. In England, our culture is consumerism. There is a sense of urgency within First Nations Peoples of Australia to revive their culture before it is lost forever. It’s a privilege to witness it.
To learn more:
Utopia, a 2013 documentary about Australia by John Pilger. You can stream it on Vimeo.
Rabbit Proof Fence, a 2002 film based on the true story of three Aboriginal children who were stolen from their families.
Magabala books, an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander publishing house
A Secret Country by John Pilger
Because A White Man’ll Never Do It by Kevin Gilbert
Follow The Rabbit Proof Fence by Doris Pilkington Garimara. The film of the same name is based on this book.