60,000 years worth of stories

I’ve been thinking about something for a while. Something that bugs me about our history and our stories.

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I’ve been thinking for a while about the history of our Indigenous people, and why this isn’t really taught or embraced as ‘our’ history. The reason I’ve been thinking about this may be partly due to recently teaching at a primary school with a relatively high number (for Melbourne) of Aboriginal students, or indulging in the wonderful ‘Black Comedy’ on ABC. Then I started reading “7 Stages of Grieving” by Wesley Enoch and Deborah Mailman, and I was struck again by this idea. Wesley Enoch even talks about how Aboriginal culture isn’t relegated to the past, it’s not a “museum piece” that is dead and gone, but the culture and stories are still thriving. Why isn’t it seen as Australian culture - something that we all have a responsibility to protect and allow to develop?

A week ago, I marched in the city with 5000 others, protesting the closure of Aboriginal communities in WA. At the end of the march, as we all sat in an enormous circle in the middle of the street, Aboriginal speakers - loud, articulate and furious - reminded us that these closures of communities were not isolated events. They were another example of the attempted destruction of the oldest living culture on earth. There was so much pain and frustration that felt like it should be exorcised with screaming and violence, but instead was translated into passionate speeches.

But the march wasn’t just about tragedy. Among the pain and yelling were reminders that this is about a connection to land and country. It was about ancestry and spirituality, and it actually made my skin tingle. I don’t know how to describe the feeling that the speakers were evoking, because they were sharing this enormous pride in being part of a 60,000 year old culture. There was pride in being responsible for this land; of having that responsibility passed down from generations. There was pride in having a culture rich in stories that have lasted and lasted. And while this made me pretty emotional, it also made me angry that we don’t embrace it. ‘We’ being all Australians. This is Australia’s history and culture.

Like most Australians, I spent many years at school learning about the first fleet and the convicts and all those early explorers. This is taught as Australian History. Like Australians born after about 1980, I also learned about Aboriginal Dreamtime stories and boomerangs and bush tucker. This is taught as Aboriginal History. Something separate. Yes, it appears that some very specific parts of Aboriginal culture are included in the curriculum, but they always appear to be framed as someone else’s history. Not ‘ours’.  Considering that the modern classroom includes many children who are only first, second or third generation Australian, as well as kids from a mix of backgrounds, including Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander, I think if we’re going to teach Australian history (and culture) then we need to teach the history and culture of this land. And that goes back at least 60,000 years.

I want to know more about the different Indigenous groups across Australia, and how their cultures differ. I want a better understanding of the stories and how they are passed down. Why is it that I can speak a few words of French, Italian, Mandarin, Japanese, Spanish and German but not a single word of even one of the hundreds of Indigenous languages from my own country?

I recognise that there are many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander groups, and the stories and cultures belong to the members of each group. I’m not advocating some kind of ignorant, offensive appropriation where white people get to own and take over Aboriginal cultures. I’m saying that Australia has thousands of living experts who should be viewed as the holders of rich and rare stories. Perhaps if non-black Australians had a greater understanding of the history and culture of their own country, we wouldn’t even consider such a heartless act as removing people from their own homes. 

We, the rest of Australia, need to start learning.