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


UBUNTU – a way of life

In a world driven by greed (I’m talking at you, Gina Reinhart), where competition is everywhere and Darwinism (survival of the fittest) is rife, I am both reassured and deeply unsettled by this blog post.

I spend half my week watching my fellow human beings push each other out of the way for something as simple as a seat on a train or the last discounted chocolate bar on the store shelf. We Westerners are grown up on a cultural diet of selfishness. We are taught entitlement from the moment we are able to talk. We know we must learn to be strong, to look after our own interests because (and how many times have you heard this in your life) ‘no one else will’.

The attitude of these African children is similar to the traditional attitudes of our Aboriginal people. Sharing and caring for community and culture are the core values that form the foundation of Aboriginal life.
As a culture, Australia has missed so many opportunities to become a unique culture. We’ve not only allowed our Westernism to dominate Aboriginal culture, tradition and knowledge, we’ve failed to recognise and integrate it’s strengths. We could have deveoped a completely unique Western culture in Australia. The opportunity was always there, may still be there, if we could stop competing with each other long enough to see it.

Comtemporary Australia has grown up alongside the oldest living race – and instead of listening, instead of discovering what we might learn from the wisdom that is right under our noses, we arrogantly keep trying to tell them our way of life is better.
How? No, really, I want to know.

There are some things that we do well. We build, we research, we do medicine and invent amazing things that help the unwell or the disable to have more free and comfortable lives. But we do so many of these things at a terrible cost – our humanity for each other.

What these African kids (kids, mind you) and our Aboriginal people teach us is that there is enough for all of us. We don’t need to be afraid of missing out. We don’t need more, we just need some, and so does everyone else. It isn’t about me. It’s about all of us, together. If all Australian’s could think like that, if we were less fearful and more generous, imagine what an amazing culture we could be.

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