NAIDOC? Wha’ the?

English: aboriginal site, australia

English: aboriginal site, australia (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Australia has some great festivals and days of celebration. ANZAC Day, the Woodford Folk Festival (Qld), Moomba (Vic), Melbourne Cup (everywhere) – (NB I’m deliberately avoiding Australia Day for reasons I’ll explain in a minute – bear with me). There’s nothing we Aussies like more than an excuse for a long weekend and a barbie. NAIDOC week should be one of those great festivals. For what it represents it should be celebrated widely on a national scale, but unfortunately it isn’t mainly because not enough of the general population know about it.

National Aborigines and Islanders Day Observance Committee (NAIDOC) has a long history. It started as a ‘Day of Mourning’ in 1935, but dates back as far as the 1920’s & 30’s when groups of Aboriginal people organized formal boycotts of Australia Day, and with good reason. Let me explain.

Imagine how you’d feel if Australia was invaded tomorrow by a swarm of people who saw us as little better than pigs and killed most of us, pushing us out of our homes and off the land we believe we have a right to live on. These people then changed everything about the way we lived. They now control where we go, who we hang out with, who we marry, what happens to our children, where we live, what we eat. We are no longer allowed to speak English or sing Ke Shan or dance like idiots to Midnight Oil. All the festivals we look forward to every year are banned. No more barbies or long weekends. These people, after murdering and separating us from our families, and putting us to slave labour without payment, then announce a national day of celebration – on the very day they first landed here and took everything away from us. Not happy, right? Do they care? Nope.

Just imagine that then goes on for decades and decades, so all the generations that follow us, knowing what has happened to our ancestors as a result of the invasion, must face this national outburst of pride by the invaders, without any apology or acknowledgement of what it means for us as a race, every punishing year. As a day of celebration of all that is Australian, it kind of loses its appeal, doesn’t it?

NAIDOC week (always held in early July) has its roots in the political, in the celebration of survival of Aboriginal culture – that doesn’t mean just a handful of songs, stories, and rituals. Culture defines who you are. Think about it. What nationality do you and your family identify with? What does it mean for you, as a person, to identify with that nationality? It means language – how you express yourself and your feeling and ideas. How do you communicate if you’re not allowed to speak your language? It means rituals and holidays you take for granted – like Easter and Christmas – even if you are not a practicing Christian, growing up in a Western culture means these holidays are part of your family life. It means ways of being and behaving that you simply don’t think about until you are immersed in a different culture and your uniquely Australian cultural characteristics become obvious.

Given Australian Aboriginal people are part of the oldest (that’s 60,000 years compared to the measly 220 years the non-Aboriginal ancestors have been here) living culture in the world – you’d think the entire nation would enthusiastically celebrate its survival wouldn’t you? I mean, that’s really something worthy of a big celebration, don’t you think? But do we embrace it as our own? Nope. It’s a fringe festival, celebrated by those who’ve made personal or professional connections with our Aboriginal community. And yet, there’s a lively and ever-growing calendar of events organized each year by Aboriginal organizations (and lots of other public and private organizations) that anyone can attend. So why don’t many of us go?

Simple. Most of us don’t know about it, and many that do think of it as an Aboriginal festival, not a national one, and I think that’s a shame. As Australian’s we should be so proud of the original culture, and the complex and fascinating history of the land we walk on every day. Our Aboriginal people have survived a terrible and dark history, but the culture born in this country is being preserved and passed on to younger generations. This history, this story of survival, is something worth celebrating – vigorously and on a national scale.

NAIDOC hasn’t reached the mainstream yet – but it’s getting there. Each year it gets a little bigger. This week, all over Australia, Aboriginal people are celebrating their strengths in all kinds of ways. Art exhibitions, musical performances, elders breakfasts and lunches, the NAIDOC ball, flag raising ceremonies, speeches. Everyone is welcome to join in. It’s a warm and welcoming atmosphere with community at its centre. It’s just the kind of festival Australian people love to love. So what are you waiting for? It’s not too late. Go celebrate.

NAIDOC Victorian calendar of events


Another Australia

“I want our people to have books, their own books, in their own communties, and written by our own people. I want the truth to be told, our truths, so, first and foremost, I hold my pen for the suffering in our communties. Let it not be mistaken: suffering is widespread in our communities.”  – Alexis Wright

There is a reason (other than school holidays) for my long absence of recent weeks. I’ve been reading a modern epic. I’ve been lugging it around on the train, to bed, to work, to cafe’s, pretty much anywhere I could find a few moments to get through a few more pages (a chapter would be too ambitious).

Carpentaria is the fourth novel I’ve read for the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2012 (if you want to join it’s not too late!). I’ve been wanting to read it for years – because it’s a Miles Franklin winner (2007), because it’s by an Aboriginal author(many of whom deserve to be more widely read), and because it was an underdog.

The manuscript was rejected by every major Australian publisher before being picked up by small publisher Giramondo. At the time of publication it got caught up in the controversial Angus & Robertson decision to play hardball with small press publishers by refusing to stock their books unless the publishers paid a fee. The big book giant was aiming to clear shelf space by getting rid of those pesky lesser known Aussie authors with small print runs to make way for the block buster international authors with high sales volumes. It caused one hell of a ruckus and had the effect of significantly lifting Carpentaria‘s sales figures.

Carpentaria is everything its shout lines promise it to be – part epic, part scripture and brimming with vivid characters that dominate its equally vivid landscape. It is an Australian literary triumph, the likes of which I’ve not read for a very long time.

However, at 518 glittering pages it is a big – no enormous – reading commitment to undertake, especially in these days where the quick fix read reigns supreme. It took me exactly 6 weeks (two library borrows) to finish it, but finish it I did and because I wanted to not because I felt I had to (although there was an element ‘I won’t let this thing beat me’ to it).

Alexis Wright is incapable of writing a boring sentence.

It was refreshing, and eye-opening, to read a story that has a contemporary Aboriginal world view at its heart. There are some challenges here for those who are unfamiliar with some of the core aspects of Aboriginal culture. The prose careens between the real and the unreal, integrating the ancient lore of a dreamtime landscape with modern Australian cultural life, and the divide between black and white that persists, particularly in the northern parts of this land.

Wright’s characters are complex and intensely imagined, like their names – Normal Phantom (seaman and fish embalmer), Angel Day (femme fatale and Queen of the rubbish dump), Bruiser (the bully-boy Mayor), Truthful (the failed policeman), Mozzie Fishman (the cultural Law Man).

‘This was the only man they knew who lived in the world of marine splendour, riding the troughs on God Almighty seas, surviving cyclones one after another, following a fish to where other fishing men had perished just for the sake of it, once in a while, returning to port to check on the family, before leaving the very next dawn. What a man! An asset to the town, an asset to his race, mind you.’ (re: Norm Phantom)

Entire communities become single characters in this novel, acting as one with various cultural voices combining to create a picture of a mob acting in its own best interests. Even the landscape, teeming with stories and spirits, is a character in this novel. Powerful beings from the Dreamtime move within and over the land, ghostly ancestors traverse the space between dreams and reality and interfere with the daily lives of human beings. There are pages devoted to the whims and rages of spirits of the sea and land and the violence of their jealousies, furies and kindnesses.

The story Carpentaria tells is enormous too. The prose is riddled with beauty and insights as Norm battles with his belligerent wife, Angel Day, and his disowned activist son, Will Phantom. The characters personal battles are fought within the larger landscape of the songlines of the land and sea and the clandestine activities of a vampire-like, morally bankrupt mining company. Sound familiar? Because it is. This is a tale that is fast becoming part of the Australian landscape – the mining company dominating political and social debate, drowning out the voice of the citizens of this country no matter what their colour.

“You know who we all hear about all the time now? International mining company. Look how we got to suit international mining people. Rich people.”

Wright has plenty of fun at the expense of the blundering, supercilious white inhabitants of the town of Desperance and her tongue in cheek moments are evenly and appropriately placed. She shows clearly how silly Australian mainstream culture can be, how ridiculous some of our social rules are and how smug are the generations of Australians who have grown up feeling entitled to their sanitised, abridged version of Australian history.

‘Remember! Who bloody knows what kind of traditions people have, who say they came from nowhere and don’t believe in their own God anymore.’

‘What could they do? It looked like defeat was imminent. And, that same old defeated look, two centuries full of it, began creeping back onto their faces.’

The rhythm of the prose required me to read differently. Perhaps it was the earthy vernacular, or the unfamiliar spirit beings and landscape, or just the lengthy chapters. There were two parts of the story I struggled with, both set in a cyclone, but that might have had more to do with not having the time to sit and consume it as a single chunk. Nonetheless, because the prose was such a pleasure and the story a challenge to read I never contemplated putting the book down.

If you can, make the time to ingest the world of Carpentaria. It won’t cease to surprise with its vast narrative and beautiful prose, and it will introduce you to a new way of looking at Australia and its people.

But for the grace of God…

2:3 Normal or de jure version of flag, or obve...

Image via Wikipedia

Too many tears by Heather Vicenti & Deborah Dickman

This book was a difficult read. This review was difficult to write.

Vicenti’s long life has been made unimaginably difficult by the impact of misguided white folk in government and welfare agencies, who acted sometimes with good intentions, usually with ignorance, and often with cruel disregard. People are often a helpless product of their time, society and culture – but it’s hard not judge their actions when you see life through the eyes of a woman who had the misfortune of being born Aboriginal in a time when Aboriginal people were seen to be equivalent to flora and fauna in this country. As a child her mother had no rights to claim her, nor did she have the right to be raised in the place she was born by the people who loved her.

What is most painful though, is that her story is not an isolated case. Her story is repeated by thousands, across every state in Australia. That people in our land carry this much pain, and that the pain has been so misunderstood and denied by mainstream society for so long, is tough to comprehend.

Heather Vicenti is old enough to be my mum. This could be my family’s story. I try to imagine it’s my mother who never knew her real name because the authorities kept changing it. I imagine my mother forced into slave labour throughout her childhood, watching the missionary’s children eat the fresh food from her toil and be educated so they could take their place in society. I wonder what effect that would have on a person’s sense of identity.

Vicenti was told many times her parents were dead, even when she received visits from a woman who claimed to be her mother. Vicenti didn’t marry, not because she didn’t want to, but because a Government bureaucrat wouldn’t permit her to.

I could have been born into a family forced to the poverty line: a childhood of food rations, second hand clothes and hand to mouth living because the Government of the day didn’t allow Aboriginal mother’s to receive welfare payments like white mothers did. I could have been the one that was taken, because in 1965, the year I was born, the Perth Children’s Court issued Care and Protection orders for all four of Vicenti’s children (Kim 9, Hans 6, Marcia 5 and Michael 18 months), committing them to the care of the Child Welfare Department until they were 18 years of age. A fifth child, Ricci, had already been adopted by then. She was 29 years old, alone, destitute and ‘white welfare’ had removed all five of her children.

I have a seven year old daughter and I can’t begin to imagine the depth of grief and pain she would suffer if she were separated from me. I can’t imagine how I would keep on living if I lost her.

Vicenti bravely goes on to have two more children and keeps trying to reclaim those she lost, but never succeeds. She’s behind the eight ball before she even begins, with no legal support, no clear information, no recourse for appeal and no understanding of a system structured to work against her.

She reconnects with her children again as adults, but the joy is short lived. Within a few years Vicenti begins losing them again, this time to the emotional impacts of their removal from their birth family. By the end of the story Vicenti has suffered the double loss of the early and unnecessary deaths (one in custody) of four of her children, as well as the removal of two grandchildren from her daughters. They are the third generation of children in her family to be removed.

As I read Heather Vicenti’s story I was reminded of a Black Arm Band performance by Kutcha Edwards. He stood on a darkened stage holding a sack filled with stones. Beside him, a beaten tin rubbish bin. He began by telling the story of his family, explaining that each stone represented a relative. He pulled stones from the bag, one by one, gave them names and ages, then tossed them into the bin. There were a lot of stones in that bag. Lost lives, broken ties, people who had died too young, often in tragic circumstances: suicide, chronic illness resulting from poverty, substance abuse, and heartbreak due to separation.

I can’t imagine how I would cope with this much loss. Yet Kutcha, Heather Vicenti, and many, many others in our communities, do cope with it, every day.

What sticks is how their lives and families have been thoroughly shaped by systemic racism, the kind that is embedded in our happy-go-lucky Australian life. All the things many Australian’s take for granted – security, opportunity, freedom to go, love, be whomever we want – simply didn’t exist for Vicenti. She was denied them by law because of her race. The effect of it is virulent, passing from generation to generation, dripping like poison through the lives of her children, severing ties, eroding self esteem, dissolving optimism.

Too Many Tears makes it clear that when it comes to Aboriginal issues Australian authorities often operate to protect themselves from the impacts of their own inherent racism, rather than admit to any wrongdoing or misjudgement. I’d like to believe that this behaviour has been relegated to our dark history, but after reading Chloe Hooper’s ‘The Tall Man’ I’m not so sure. The unified solidarity shown, particularly in parts of government and the police force, is evidence of the dominant social group desperately trying to maintain the moral high ground – and failing in the eyes of those they claim to protect.

Too Many Tears is no literary sensation, but it absolutely achieves what it sets out to do. It tells a complicated, difficult, heart wrenching story with simplicity and honesty. To read it is to gain insight into decades of Aboriginal lives lived silently, painfully and courageously all around us. Vicenti could be your mother, your grandmother, your sister, your aunt and the echoes of what she has suffered could be reverberating in your life and the lives of your children. Read this book and know that there, but for the grace of God, go the rest of us.

The Apology

Kindness and humanity

People need to each other’s humanity. They need to reach out to each other and offer some kindness.

It’s a simple rule, often forgotten in the hurly burly of
our modern lives. I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately as a result of
watching the way people interact on the public stage.

Andrew Bolt. A man, an issue I’ve been wanting to write
about, seems to me to be a prime example of a human being who has lost his way
when it comes to being considerate of others. The bafflement on his face when handed
his verdict, his inability to understand the subsequent dressing down delivered
by the judge, smacked of someone who has forgotten how to recognise another
person’s humanity.

There’s too much of it around these days – this lack of
acknowledging another’s humanity. I keep wondering if it’s a result of the ever
growing population inuring us to each other. Or if it’s because of the rise of
electronic technology and the arms length distance it lends to our
communication. Or perhaps it’s globalisation – fear on a pandemic scale – fear of
losing what we have, of not having enough, perhaps even fear of not deserving
what we do have. Or maybe we are just losing our manners.

Whatever it is, I despair of it. The vitriol that was dished
out in the wake of the Andrew
Bolt Decision
, from both sides of the coin, was unnecessarily unkind and
only served to reveal the latent insecurities and loathing in Australian

The fact that the HWT said they thought that section 18 of
the Racial Discrimination Act “overly
detracts from free speech and should be revisited by the legislature” tells us that
the good folk of the HWT, the executives, the staff, the loyal readers, don’t
understand what the Racial Discrimination Act is. They clearly don’t respect
the humanity the Act is trying to protect. Their responses only reinforced the dire
need for Australia to retain, if not strengthen, the Act.

A quick scan of the blogs – and there were many – discussing
the Bolt Decision reveals a disturbing level of ignorance in the ‘mainstream’
population. Many felt that Bolt’s
was lost in translation and to some degree they were right. Bolt
believed that people who were not genuinely entitled to the support made available
to Aboriginal Australians should be prevented from receiving it, which in
itself is a fair statement. The mistake he made was to link the statement to
his own judgement of who he believed is entitled, and that was based on his misguided
idea that colour constitutes race.

Culture is not about colour. Sometimes colour can be
synonymous with culture, but they are not the same thing. There are plenty of
blonde Italians, fair Asians, light Africans, dark Germans – the colour of
their skin does not preclude them from identifying with the race and culture
into which they were born. That Bolt received so much support for this idea of culture
based on colour was disturbing enough. But then to witness the righteous
outrage of Bolt’s supporters as they vented their spleens on his behalf, well,
it was downright embarrassing.

While lamenting the ignorance of my fellow whitefella
brothers and sisters with an Aboriginal friend of mine he said ‘We have a
saying for what’s going on – white is right.’ Hearing this was like a punch to
the guts. Because I understood that the core what he was saying was right. In
our country whitefella views and values dominate every debateable topic, even
if we have zero knowledge, understanding or experience of the matter. Debates are
an essential ingredient to a vibrant democracy – but there is no place for fear
mongering and misinformation in a sound debate. And the debate that followed
Bolt’s well deserved loss in our courts was filled with both of these things.

‘I want Australia back’ ranted one blogger.

Fine. Let’s hand Parliament over to the Aboriginal leaders of
this country. Let’s see Aboriginal people dominate the discussion for a change,
set the policy, lead the country – because they are the ones most entitled to
claim Australia as it was in the past.

Somehow I don’t think that’s what the lady meant.

[sic] makes perfect sense. And I’m NOT sorry if I offend anyone. – KennyMcCormick

Not much humanity here for any one. I wonder how Kenny feels
when someone pushes in front of him in a queue? Or when someone steals his car park?
Or when his boss ignores him in the morning? I wonder how Kenny will feel when
he’s refused a job opportunity because he’s over 50? I’m sure Kenny doesn’t
like it much when his humanity is ignored – yet he, and many others, feel they
are perfectly entitled to ignore the humanity of Aboriginal people. Because,
after all, they’re only Blackfella’s – aren’t they Kenny?