Panel 2: These are modern dreamtime stories!
Chaired by Peter Read with panellists Gordon Syron, Jen Herd and Sam Wagan Watson, Who you callin’ urban forum, National Museum of Australia, 6 July 2007
MARGO NEALE: The second panel will be chaired by Peter Reid, and the topic is called ‘These are modern dreamtime stories’, which you will now be able to relate to the expression as coming from the mouth of Richard Bell in the film you saw just before lunch. It is really looking at how culture and identity is expressed again in Indigenous environments. Whilst we are talking labels in one way we are really talking about different modes of expressing your experience as Indigenous peoples. And then what significance the art movement has had on urban dwellers and how it can be better read as documentary tools. So it is beyond art into forms of documentation or in fact as Wesley said writing on the public record. I am not going to say any more.
Just to let you know that unfortunately Jennifer Herd had a bit of a family crisis and up until midnight last night she was still going to try to make it this morning, but things have conspired against her. She sends her apologies. Jennifer Herd is one of the Proper Now group with Richard, Vernon, Tony Albert et al. We are going to pop Stephen into that slot. We are starting off with Gordon and then there will be Stephen and then Samuel.
PETER READ: Thanks Margo. What a great session this morning. We were really getting into it. A very nice feeling and doing some serious talking as well. It was terrific. Do you remember that painting that used to be in all the legal services a few years ago? You saw it everywhere in the calendar, Judgment by his Peers with the white fella and black judge, black jury, black ushers, black everybodies. Wasn’t it powerful? Do you remember that? Uncle Gordon is the author of that. He has three paintings down there for us as well. In this session we are still talking about cultural expression but in particular talking about novels and artistic expression, films and place.
Our first speaker is Gordon Syron. He has made many significant contributions to his community as co-founder of the Eora College with Bobby Merritt, and [he was] the first art teacher there. President of the Deaths in Custody Watch Committee in the late 1990s. From 1997 to 2007 his gallery Blackfella’s Dreaming supported and encouraged new young and struggling artists. Uncle Gordon is known for his political and historical paintings. He is a self-taught artist who has carved a remarkable career which has influenced his peers in the artistic political and cultural arenas. Darren Cooper states that ‘he dreams for all of us’. The extent of Gordon Syron’s work was seen in two retrospectives, the first in 1998, and another in 2004 at the Australian Museum in Sydney. He has been invited to exhibit paintings in Paris in September and Dubai in October 2007. Being a real artist he is not using any new-fangled stuff on the board. We are looking at the real paintings down the front. Thanks uncle Gordon. Welcome to the podium.
GORDON SYRON: My name is Gordon Syron. I don’t do welcome to Country or anything like that because I guess I’m too civilised or too much of an urban Aboriginal. But I wish to talk about living with the invaders and I wish to discuss why Aboriginal people are angry. The Australian people have taken so much culture from us Aboriginal people that soon there will be none left to take. [Prime Minister] Howard refuses to say sorry because he is not genuinely sorry. He and his government have been sitting on 12 long years of reports. All Howard cares about is getting control over Aboriginal land. Do you think that Bennelong was angry? Yes, he was angry and they didn’t even tell him that they were going to take all the land. And then in the year of 1967 the Australian people voted to make him a citizen in his own land. Aboriginal people get shifted to the bottom of the deck all the time. Why can’t there be an Aboriginal statue by an Aboriginal sculptor near Bennelong Point, say in Elizabeth Bay Park which is being redeveloped right now?
I saw books for sale at auctions that tell a different history to the one taught to me at school. Why can’t these early books be in a whole library in every school? They tell about the way the land was taken and the severe and horrible way that the Aboriginal people were treated. Unless people know the truth about terra nullius and settlement of this continent by modern man, they will never change their stereotype views. This early history needs to be available to Aboriginals and Australians so that we can fit into this urban society and feel good about our history.
I had a dream that I did not have to sell my paintings so cheap to collectors, to gallery owners or to the white boss. Judgment by his Peers is the real Australian story. I painted this in 1978 while serving a life sentence in prison. I believe I would not have been sentenced at all had I been judged by an Aboriginal jury. In British law each man is judged by his peers. When I asked to have one or more Aboriginal people on the jury, one lawyer said I wasn’t white enough to be white and the other lawyer said I wasn’t black enough to be black. This was so disrespectful to my family, especially to my two Aboriginal grandmothers. So now when someone says to me ‘you don’t look white’ or ‘you don’t look black,’ I just say, ‘Are you calling me a wog?’ Judgment by his Peers is an oil on canvas painted in 1978. It is for sale now on my website. I have a dream to keep my best paintings then somehow I couldn’t stand to sell other blackfellas’ paintings cheaply in my gallery and I try to keep the best of their work. It turned into Blackfellas Dreaming Museum. The name is Blackfellas’ Dreaming, one blackfella’s dream. It’s my dream.
My gallery and my museum were a financial failure. So now I am selling the most precious artwork of my museum Judgment by his Peers. In 1995 the Minister for Aboriginal Affairs Robert Tickner called Judgment by his Peers a national icon. I have this in writing. I need a studio, a place to paint. I need to pass on my dreams to the next generation to fight for our basic rights to have our true history told to have a free standing museum with real history books and art works that has a lot of Aboriginal curators, Aboriginal story tellers, Aboriginal dancers and Aboriginal security guards and a whole lot of trainees coming through, graduating from our programs, a job for every Aboriginal that wants a job. If the Iraqi war never happened, well think how much money could have been put into supporting the arts in this country.
If I am successful and sell Judgment by his Peers, then I will create an artists’ and writers’ retreat out of my home and large shed on ten acres of land at Magnetic Island, Queensland. Artists and writers need support. It will not just be for Aboriginal people. It will be multicultural. I hope it will be a place where Aboriginal people can have a lot of jobs and be able to exchange ideas and techniques, where we can have a bush boxing ring and families are welcome. Magnetic Island is the next island to Palm Island.
Some of my paintings are about Redfern and a link from the country to the city. Redfern is a stepping stone for the dreaming man. The dreaming man is one of my paintings which I do. The dreaming man is about an Aboriginal man that comes to Redfern, the big smoke. He comes from the bush to look for a job. He is surprised that Redfern is not as nice a place as [where] he is from and there are no jobs, no money to get back home. His chances of being stranded on alcohol, drugs or the police is great. He dreams of London or New York but most of all he dreams of home. He is stuck and cannot get anywhere. Well that is me. A self-portrait except now I have been invited to exhibit my paintings in Paris in September and Dubai in October this year 2007.
I paint about Aboriginal history and the black/white relationship. What causes Aboriginal deaths in custody? Why are the jails full of Aboriginal men and women? Why are Aboriginal people so angry? Some jails are more than 50 per cent Aboriginal yet Aboriginals are only one to two per cent of the population. Through my paintbrush I can tell stories. Titles like The Poisoning of the Waterholes of Australia, Living Conditions, it’s a White Man’s World, Every Street One, Two and Three, The Gender of God, The Death of Nita Blackett, Protest at Old Parliament House, The Black Bastards are Coming, A Toast to the Federation 2000, The Successful Taking of the Land by Queen Elizabeth and Prime Minister John Howard, Where the Wild Flowers Once Grew, Here Comes a Judge. Aboriginal Fairies for Aboriginal Kids and Umma Dreaming.
The two paintings of mine at the Beijing Olympics are titled Terra Nullius and Invasion Day. I paint portraits of the emu. The emu is very special to Aboriginal people. I found Bill Harney, an Aboriginal author and story teller in Katherine, Northern Territory, and he told me about other names Aboriginal people call emus. One was feather foot and I also remember my grandmother’s stories about the feather foot. It was about an emu that could change and was very clever like a clever foot. These emus carried messages and warnings. Kadaitcha men are very wise and cover their tracks. They wear emu feathers on their feet. The male emu sits on the eggs and raises the young while the female goes off to breed again. In times of drought they drop their eggs and do not hatch them. The emu has been pushed away from where the urban cities are, just like the Aboriginal people. The emu has had to live and survive with the invader.
I just don’t paint dots and I don’t feel comfortable with it. My paintings are urban or contemporary as they tell the true stories what is happening and what I remember about the past. As an Aboriginal artist, I feel a responsibility to paint the truth and these paintings reflect the society in which I live. Living with the invader is an urban problem that Aboriginal people have to deal with and cope with. Living with the invader is now living with turning on the news and listening to our Prime Minister invading our Aboriginal communities. Every time I listen to the news I feel like rewriting his speech. Living with the invader is something that all Australians need to come to grips with. We still have a long way to go. Urban Aboriginal artists are at the forefront to expose the continuing plan to usurp our culture, to take our land. So hopefully through our art and our stories, our voices will be heard. Thank you for listening to me.
PETER READ: Sam Wagon Watson is next. His talk is entitled ‘Insertion: re seeding the landscape with Indigenous identity’. Sam or Samuel Watson was the winner of the 1999 David Unaipon award for emerging Indigenous writers for first collection of poetry called Of Muse, Meandering and Midnight. Since then he’s written three more collections; Itinerant Blues, Hotel Bone, and Smoke Encrypted Whispers, which won the 2005 Premier’s Book of the Year and the Kenneth Slessor poetry prize. Samuel’s opera The Dark Earth premiered in Brisbane in 2004 and was performed again in 2005 for the Brisbane music festival. Welcome Sam.
SAM WAGAN WATSON: Thank you very much. [Shows image] I am bringing up a slide of some of my poetry as it looks on the handrails. It’s just one word but if any of you do visit Brisbane and get the chance to walk over Green Bridge in Dutton Park, you will find my poetry in the handrails and in various other places in Brisbane. Once again, thank you to Peter. It’s a real pleasure to be down here with the National Gallery and be in once again the back yard of the boss of the enemy, Canberra. My mind is a bit blown from the session this morning. It was a very good session. It is upsetting there is not more local people here from Canberra. In fact I was saying at lunch, last week when the decision came down in Townsville about what happened on Palm Island and the man, as Uncle Gordon was saying, he [Senior Sargent Chris Hurley who was charged with Manslaughter over the 2004 death of Mulrinji Doomagee] was tried by his peers and once again the Indigenous community and the family had to pay for what he did. We could only get 100 blackfellas and people knew for a week that we were going to march on Parliament House yet every Christmas in Brisbane there’s a black public servants Christmas party drinks. You find out about 1,500 young blackfellas that work in the city of Brisbane in identified positions yet we could only get just under 100 people to march on parliament.
I suppose that’s a thing about the complacency of some of our people who live in the cities. Living in the city it is always said to me we are at the coalface of our enemy. I say enemy with the full intent of its purpose.
Growing up I learnt very iconic things about being an urban Indigenous person. The land rights flag, the red, yellow and black. Terms like, is it justice or is it just us, we want land rights when do we want it, now. I suppose those things all came as part of the day-to-day weekly political expression of our people.
I am going off track here. I have been sitting down and working on this paper. I have been doing more work on this paper in the last two weeks than my own writing. It explodes into late night polemic and blaming the CIA for Kennedy’s assassination and stuff like that. I will try to stick to the points at hand.
[Shows image] As you can see from the photo, as a poet now I am finding more ways to get my language out, my voice out there. This one thing of inserting poetry into the landscape for me it’s putting, placing back an Indigenous presence in a landscape that has up until not long ago been ethnically cleansed of our people. If you come up and visit South Brisbane, I can remember when South Bank, which is now one of the richest parts of Brisbane, and a tourist Mecca, it was a whole riverbank of corrugated iron sheds. My father’s mother was in fact an oyster shucker there in the 1970s. Basically our people are being taken away removed from this landscape. Poetry like this and projects I have been working on with Brisbane City Council, I am finding they are giving me free rein to place these things into the environment.
As far as the significance of the art movement, definitely artists I see are definitely some of the people who are at the forefront of our political movement at the moment. I had a whole talk organised here. I am losing my place.
I can’t speak as eloquently as Richard Bell.
One thing I can say about the art movement and especially in Queensland, or one anecdote is when I was doing some consultancy for Arts Queensland. I was given the responsibility of creating an arts and cultural reconciliation strategy. I thought this is great. I am finally getting to do something which may in fact be helpful to Indigenous people. One day I just happened to be Arts Queensland’s archival banks and I found there were seven authors before me who had also written an arts and cultural reconciliation strategy that had never been printed or put before the parliament. Thus my statement arts and cultural statement reconciliation strategy has never gone before a Queensland parliament.
One of the things I wanted to put in my strategy was that the government would at least crack down on the trafficking of Indigenous art. Not long ago and I have written widely about this, my mother who is constantly fretting about my situation, my financial situation as a writer, she found in the Courier Mail classifieds an advertisement that said Aboriginal artists wanted, no experience necessary, which is just a ridiculous statement. Basically the Queensland government was offering employment subsidies for certain galleries on the Gold Coast if they could prove they had Indigenous people working on the floor. They could get these subsidies for the Indigenous people. Basically up until then it was backpackers. They were getting Western Desert art and turning them into doilies and all sorts of things. That was one of the things I want to attack when I worked at Arts Queensland. I was basically told don’t bite the hand that feeds you. The first incident, who would have come up with something like that? I said you guys have been doing it. It’s been the Queensland government. It’s been actually propping up these galleries.
As far as the significance of the art movement, the artists have said they will always be on the front line when we are facing getting our message out. As far as how can Indigenous cultural material be better read as documentary text, I have thought about this and thought about it. I don’t really have any answers on that one, although I do believe it would be a great employment opportunity if academics were serious about collecting stories especially the people on communities who are story tellers, I forgot to bring the poetry that is on those poles but the good thing about what the Brisbane City Council has done with the bridge is they conducted a cultural audit. They not only interviewed Indigenous people and traditional owners of the area, they also found people who had lived where the bridge had been built, generations of people. Basically the poetry signifies the river. [Shows image] One important thing about that area, you will see on the left-hand side of the screen there is part of the word Kurilpa point. Kurilpa point on the Brisbane water. Kurilpa is both a word used by the Turrbal and Jagera nations. The Kurilpa was the water rat that was thought to be extinct from the area. It wasn’t until the new Gallery of Modern Art was opened later this year that pest controllers were called in and they were asked to catch these weird looking rats that they had been finding in the new museum. It turns out they are these water rats so they are coming back to the area. Part of the poem talks about the ghosts of the Kurilpa and how they are coming back.
Once again I am sorry, I have written all these notes and none of them seem to make sense. Basically as a writer and a poet, I first started out by not wanting to be, I didn’t want the responsibility of being a political poet, I just wanted to basically entertain. The work I have done now, I am finding more and more younger people picking up my work. They are coming on a weekly basis I am conducting workshops in writing poetry. There is a younger generation of writer especially in Brisbane and I am meeting more and more kids who read my books on the HSC in New South Wales that are more open to the idea of acknowledging Indigenous people as the traditional owners of this country. That does give me hope.
As I said the other day at the AusLit conference [The Resource for Australian Literature], if the powers to be aren’t going to give us justice in the courts then I will steal the conscience of their children with my writing. A bit like the Pied Piper and come through and take them all. That is what I want to do with my poetry.
I will probably leave it for question time. I am really sorry. I must seem ill-prepared but I do have all these notes. I have been sitting up late at night with my two brothers who are both on holidays at the moment. Once again we start off with this talk about Aboriginal culture and identity and somehow we end up late at night after three bottles of wine blaming the CIA, what they are doing in the Middle East with the oil companies. I will probably be better with question and answer at the end. Thank you.
PETER READ: Those points that Sam didn’t manage to make, when we come to have a yarn later on at the end is time to do it. Stephen Hagan, his talk is ‘An international perspective on urban migration of Indigenous peoples’. He is the 2006 NAIDOC person of the year, internationally renowned author, academic, filmmaker, commentator of race relations. He writes for the Koori Mail and works as part of the Kumbari/Ngurpai Lag Higher education Centre at the University of Southern Queensland. Welcome Stephen and the podium is all yours.
STEPHEN HAGAN: In 2005 I went to the Sydney Writers Festival, in fact I had my first book launched at the Sydney Writers Festival. Anita was present at that. As I walking out Senator Aden Ridgeway, I got him a couple of months before he finished his term so I was quite lucky, I walked into my particular session that day with my family, I heard this voice, a familiar voice. There on this boat was young Sam Watson. I am an accidental author, mind you I have written three books and I’ve got two coming out in the next six months so I’m past the accidental stage. There was Sam speaking and he was the most eloquent speaker I have ever heard. I was quite surprised to see my brother here today. That is another story. I would suggest in future for Sam because on this particular day, Sam was sitting on a floating barge. It was rocking and Sam was entertaining a crowd sitting on the barge and those sitting back on the pier. It was so good. I think maybe if we had some rocking with the boat Sam, but anyhow. I was most impressed with Sam then and I continue to be a very good admirer of Sam. In fact I spoke with his father Sam Senior at the Woodford festival a couple of years ago. You have to be careful when you say Sam Watson because there are in fact five Sam Watsons. You need to have a qualifier [for] those who are listening.
I would like to start by acknowledging the traditional owners of this land the Ngunnawal people. I spent 15 years of my formative years, straight out of year 12 into university in Canberra. I got very fond memories of my time in Canberra. It was where I learnt to drink seriously, during liquid lunches. No longer drink. It was where I learnt to gamble seriously during lunch break. I no longer gamble. My wife was saying to me I have to stay on for another conference on Tuesday. Peter has a conference at ANU I am also speaking at. She said, ‘you should have fun in Canberra with all your old friends’. I said that was about 20 years ago. They are all probably in the same category as me now. We are rather boring if we got together and tried to reminisce about the past. Although on your paper you have me down as speaking about international urban migration, I am going to divert a little although I will touch on the issue of international migration. I guess Barbara, I thank Barbara and Margo for inviting me. Barbara read one of my pieces in the Koori Mail. I had just come back from Santiago, Chile where I addressed the UN habitat on urban migration. It is quite a complex story because there is not a lot of data around about the flow of urban migration.
What I would like to do today is a personal perspective of what I consider to be urban migration. However, my talk is more about - I call it the migration of racism. I think, to understand where Indigenous people are today you really need to understand the dynamics of their environment, which is basically, reiterating the words from my colleagues this morning, one filled with racism.
Before colonisation Indigenous people living on country co-existed peacefully with their 300 neighbouring tribes on a vast land mass comprising over seven million 500 thousand square kilometres. Just to put that into proper perspective, to drive from Melbourne to Darwin would be the equivalent of traversing a myriad of sovereign countries between London and Moscow. Although there are numerous stories of successes and failures of marauding tribesmen in pursuit of conquests, it would appear in the main that the 300 divergent traditional boundaries had minimalist impact of such actions over 100,000 years of Indigenous occupation on this continent. This utopian lifestyle had no magical formula that one acquired through consumption of abundant flora and fauna presented from a pristine smorgasbord or from breathing purified air, but rather simple formula that governments of all persuasion ought to heed hastily in order to correct the present social anomalies. That was a good old-fashioned word of respect. Respect for neighbours’ rights to their land, their culture, their languages and, importantly, respect for their most vulnerable members - women and children.
Sadly, this ideal lifestyle came to an abrupt end when on 25 January 1788 Captain Arthur Phillip sailed into Botany Bay from Portsmouth, England with the First Fleet. It consisted of 11 ships, 290 marines, women and children, 717 convicts, supplies of pork and rum, equipment and livestock. Sadly, the traditional owners, the Gadigal people of the Eora nation, were not afforded any respect of their land and customs from the white people who set foot on their country at that time, but rather endured the extreme opposite - contempt and savagery of attacks on their people, the likes of which they had never countenanced before.
Fast forward 100 years from that first violent conflict and what do we have? The end product of experiencing the might of a foreign race of people saw Indigenous Australians in most parts of the country living in parlous dysfunctional and powerless state of mind. Traditional owners were forcefully relocated from their country to make way for pastoralists in search of prime land for their expanding sheep and cattle interests. There was resistance on all traditional lands: some that lasted weeks whilst others required the intervention of the military who spent a significant sum of their war budget engaging in strategic manoeuvres for decades. Notable names of Indigenous resistance fighters include Pemulwuy, Windradyne, Yagan, Dundalli, Jundamurra and Mosquito. With the absence of law and order in the frontier, Indigenous people had little protection of their traditional rights and repeatedly fell victim to foul play, especially their women folk who were exploited in the worst possible manner.
The growing number of children from these forced liaisons caused discontent within the broader white community and in an effort to remove the evidence of rapes that occurred at will and the occasional consensual unions, hastily introduced government policy of separation of non-full blood children, half-castes, from their mothers came into effect across the nation between 1915 and 1969.
Other policies conveniently legislated prior to and after the stolen generation era were introduced principally for the purpose of removing Indigenous people from their traditional lands to pave the way for a smoother transition of white interests on their land. Those not sent to mission reserves, like my father and mother, lived the life the best they could on the fringes of towns in humpies. Their only form of income was from the minimum wage earned by working cattle and sheep on the land that was once owned by their forebears or toiling as domestic servants scrubbing dirty floors, pots and pans in the sprawling homesteads of white landlords, who grew fatter in wealth and girth by the hour.
By the time of the 1967 Referendum the electronic media was able to venture into the rural and remote parts of the country to film the contrasting lifestyles of the first Australians and the recent British arrivals and for many the images that beamed at them in their lounge-rooms from their small black and white television sets were disturbing to say the least. Many black and white leaders grabbed this window of opportunity. Perceived interests from discontented white Australians to the plight of Indigenous Australians, and through their concerted efforts won a landslide victory of almost 91 per cent in a referendum vote called by the Federal Government to hand them controlling power over the states on the welfare of the most marginalised sector of society.
As with most oppressed Indigenous groups around the globe, Indigenous leaders in Australia including my father, sought and won hard-fought battles for basic services for their respective communities. These were political efforts of exceptionally visionary leaders who risked their own safety to challenge the status quo of racism that permeated every facet of their daily lives and that which was fiercely enforced by civic leaders since colonisation.
Dad was a hard worker and, like all new leaders of his era, sought to provide a better lifestyle for his family than the one afforded him when he was growing up. Around the time of the 1967 referendum he borrowed money from his boss on the cattle station as a deposit and successfully applied to the bank for additional finance to purchase land and build a house in the white township of Cunnamulla. Dad was the first Aboriginal man to relocate from the fringe camp of 300 residents with his family to the exclusive white township. But at what cost to traditional roots? A decade after successfully watching his house take shape from pouring of the concrete foundation to the nailing down of the floor boards and enjoying running water and in-house septic system and electricity for the first time, my father had to move to the city to further his career and provide better education opportunities for his children.
It was also around this time when motorisation depleted work in the pastoral industry for loyal Indigenous work forces. Motor bikes and helicopters replaced stockmen. Dishwashers and vacuum cleaners saved on a wage that crept up to the award level for Indigenous domestic workers over time. Australia suddenly saw a significant migration of its Indigenous population to urban centres for work and to be closer to better essential services that weren’t readily on offer in rural and remote areas - health, legal, education, housing services as well as a variety and cheaper groceries and white goods.
Thirty years on and, like father like son, I sought to provide a better life for my family than the life I recall as naive but impressionable teenager. Even though I own a four bedroom house on acreage land, drive the latest SUV and send my children to private schools, there is one constant in my life that continues to stand as an identifier and a major hurdle for many, and that is my colour. In Australia colour often equates to racism for most Indigenous Australians irrespective of profession or status.
If Indigenous people move from rural areas to urban areas in the hope of escaping the palpable bigotry they experience on a daily basis, then sadly their respite was momentary, if that at all. Most of humanity will soon live in cities and the trend of global urbanisation is irreversible. Cities in general are seen as the engines of economic and social development creating jobs as well as generating creative civic cultures. Cities today, however, can also generate and intensify social exclusion limiting the benefits of urban life to the poor, to women, to youth, to other marginalised groups including Indigenous people. The majority of Indigenous peoples globally still live in rural areas. But the limited available data shows that more and more of them are voluntarily or involuntarily migrating to urban areas. This migration can be temporary or permanent, thus the global urbanisation process is increasingly affecting Indigenous peoples in many countries, both in developed and developing countries with diverse impacts.
The lack of full respect for human rights for Indigenous people continues to be one of the most serious obstacles to the improvement of their living conditions, forcing them into escalating levels of migration. Their rights are often times violated when in transit and arrive in an often new and foreign environment. In many instances Indigenous people are subject to pressure that results in the migration of the general population, placing them in more vulnerable conditions due to the daily situations of poverty, segregation and discrimination.
For those Indigenous people who wish to escape the rat race and return to their traditional land to re-energise spiritually, again, bad luck, as the government has also made it extremely difficult to make connection with one’s land as new and enshrined rights favour pastoralists and mining interests over those who had sovereignty on their traditional lands for eons. What of those people who choose to remain in urban areas in the hope that circumstances will change for the better in the future? Well they may see some education and financial improvements but in the main they will encounter insurmountable challenges to the authority for their children from competing interests such as the iPod, PSP3, Xbox 2, etc.
Try asking impressionable teenagers to go for a drive in the country to make connection with the land in preference to a school dance where all their buddies are decking themselves out in the latest African American rap subculture attire to wait the pulsating sound of gangster rap from blaring speakers inside schools gymnasiums. But at least you can save on the petrol, as you have next to no chance of winning over Indigenous urban youth with such competition.
Indigenous people who enter into the migration circuit for the reasons mentioned face important challenges that while not different from that faced by immigrants in general do have specific peculiarities related to their ties to the land; the lack of opportunities of their cultural and language development in urban areas or changes in their health due to changes in their customary diet. But they remain small challenges against a myriad of issues that confront them daily on urban streets, especially those pertaining to racism.
So should we just throw our hands in the air as parents or should we fight like our parents before us to take control of our families and our community? We need to organise ourselves into a cohesive unit, stay resolute and united and do like our people did pre-1967 and gain support from our white brothers and sisters who share our dreams and aspirations and utilise the media, when and wherever possible, to sell our dreams.
As Lewis Menin once said, ‘The evil of modern society isn’t that it creates racism but that it creates conditions in which people who don’t suffer from injustice seem incapable of caring very much about people who do’. Whether we remain [in] the country or choose to move to the city we should continue to hold our heads high and fight the scourge of racism in order to provide a better lifestyle for our children. After all, our children, whether they are rural or urban, are our next generation and that makes the fight even more important. Thank you.
MARGO NEALE: Would you mind explaining a couple of slides. Were they real?
STEPHEN HAGAN: Everything is real. I shouldn’t be saying this but my wife and I - my wife is an Innisfail lady from where Burnum comes from, Mamu lady. We just completed a documentary. There has been a documentary done on my campaign, as some of you may be aware, with the ‘nigger’ grandstand. We got an opportunity through the Australian Film Commission, the ABC [Australian Broadcasting Corporation] and Australian Film Finance Corporation to do our own take on my campaign. So we did. I didn’t want to do one like the famous Aboriginal producer and director, Judy Nimmo did. We did a documentary on my campaign. We gave the sign. The sign is called the ‘ES Nigger [Brown] grandstand’. It’s a sign on a wooden stand in Toowoomba. We did a documentary on a talking sign but it is not the talking sign that has the personality, we gave a personality to the word ‘nigger’ in the sign.
We initially had John Howard from Sea Change who was going to do the narration for this word ‘nigger’ and give it the personality. The documentary title is Nigger Lovers and it was going to be ‘Nigger Lovers narrated by John Howard’. We thought that would be a good marketing tool. But John Howard had to go off to Fiji and film something else so we got another guy in. As they say we got lucky because the narrator of this new documentary is John Jarret from Wolf Creek fame. He is far more racist and old and evil. Anyhow, this Tuesday I have been asked, they are doing a screening at the sound and film archive up here. It’s a 26-minute documentary. If any of you locals are here, ring up Liz McNiven and come along and watch it. We have been invited. It has already been premiered at the Opera House.
We are going to the Melbourne International Film Festival at the end of July and Brisbane film festival and we will do Sundance and Cannes and several other international film festivals. We would like it to be, it’s an ambition of course to be a signature film on racism. You think you are worried about these images? We actually had a coup in that my fellow producer, a non-Indigenous guy, he interviewed the first interview done by this guy, the imperial wizard of the Ku Klux Klan who lives in Sydney. He actually talks about how to bash up blackfellas. He tells you exactly how to do it. The preferred one is to hang them or drag them behind the car. The other one is to get a bit of PVC pipe and put a red thing around the end. Make sure you wear gloves so you don’t leave any prints, etc. This is all articulated in that documentary because he thought he was sharing this information with another redneck fellow but he was a bloke getting information for our documentary. That is all there. In fact it is so controversial. I am very worried. They are talking a lot about it because the police have already heard about the documentary. They have already asked for our DVD because they want to get this guy under the new legislation about inciting violence. I hope they don’t take this part out of the documentary because it’s quite a dynamic documentary. I think it is anyway. It is going on the ABC nationally if you miss it next Tuesday - it’s going to be on next Tuesday at the Sound and Film Archive for all the Australian Film Commission staff. Just tell Elizabeth McNiven that you are coming as a guest of Steve Hagan. I don’t know how big the hall is. If you keep saying that, I am sure she is going to be shocked when everyone turns up.
PETER READ: Since we are getting into general discussion maybe we could invite the other speakers to come along the front please. We hadn’t quite finished this morning’s discussion so if you want to pick up points from this morning and discuss it with our speakers here or what they were saying or whatever, including those words in front of us at the moment [shows image]. Keep the discussion general.
ANITA HEISS: I just wondered if that letter was cc’d to the mayor and I wondered whether or not the mayor publicly distanced himself from that letter.
STEPHEN HAGAN: This is where it is very frustrating. I am sure a lot of Indigenous people have had this experience. I first took this issue to the mayor because she had me working on some street kids’ campaign in Toowoomba. I said look I am very offended by this nigger on the sign I would like it taken down. She said, ‘Stephen when I became the first female member of the Toowoomba sports ground trust, I also raised this issue because it concerned me. Why don’t you write a letter in to me and I will put it to the board and get it taken down’. Just so you understand the power of the civic leadership in this country, she took it to the board and the board pulled her into line and said you will obey by our laws or you can go. She moved the resolution for the maintenance of the sign. It almost broke my heart. She then took me to court. I have been to the Federal Court. I have appealed to the full bench of the Federal Court. I sought leave to appeal to the High Court of Australia and if you think the High Court judges are pretty cluey, well Justice Mary Gaudron, the only female justice at the time, she dismissed that case in 20 minutes. She used the analogy of, if I was a pink person should I be offended by a ‘pinky porky’ cement truck to dismiss the offence of the word nigger on a sign.
From that I then took it, because I have exhausted all my legal avenues in the domestic courts, I then appealed to the Committee for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, CERD, at the United Nations. In 2003 I was successful at the United Nations, they ruled that the word was indeed offensive and for the state, which is Australia, to take the appropriate action to remove the offending word. Guess what - Daryl Williams, the then Attorney-General, and John Howard said, ‘No, we are satisfied with our domestic courts. We are just going to stay.’ That is why this campaign has been so long. But surprising enough, for those who come along on Tuesday, they said it wasn’t offensive to them.
So the sign stays and this time around I am being bankrupted. They have now taken an application against me to bankrupt me. I have several businesses. I have businesses overseas. If I become a bankrupt and the ruling is pending - it should be coming out soon - I will lose my passport; I lose my right to control my finances. My family and I will lose our house, our latest jeep Cherokee land cruiser - we will lose all those things because I dared to fight the establishment over the racist word.
I was also the fellow who challenged the dairy farmers over Coon cheese. I had done a lot of research. It was going to be one of my PhD subjects but I have changed it. I am doing another topic. Dairy farmers soon after sold their shares, to the Kraft side of the interest to dairy farmers because I have exposed their fraudulent activities particularly in relation to their patent laws.
PETER READ: I suppose there is nothing our conference can do in the way of resolutions. It is probably a bit useless.
STEPHEN HAGAN: This thing has been ongoing. In fact the government - the stand is coming down now because they reckon there is white ants eating the thing. Not black ants or red ants, it is white ants. But that is only because the government is embarrassed by me. They are offering them $2.5 million to build another stand. It is pathetic really because they don’t acknowledge the effort I have done. The sign will come down but now they are going on about, oh we will build a statue and we may call it ‘Edward Nigger grandstand’. I said you will see me in court for another eight years if you put nigger on that statue. This is institutional racism. It is something we won’t shake out of them. I mentioned in my speech the importance of working with our good white brothers and sisters, unlike my brother up here before who had some other contrary views on white people, I think, our success will only come about by engaging non-Indigenous people in our battle, because you guys know the system a lot better than us. You know how to network with these guys. People kept saying that Hagan is using all the taxpayers’ money. I had two lawyers and I fought these guys for eight years. The first lawyer I got is a Greek guy. His name now is Peter Black. He had to change his name because his father had trouble in the war years when he was victimised for being Greek so he changed his name. He knew what discrimination was. But to get into the defence cases I really needed a barrister, a Queen’s counsel or senior counsel. I got a very prominent barrister from Canberra. His name was Ernest Willine. He came on board because he is Jewish and his father experienced concentration camps in Germany and he came out here. So he knew what it was like. Both those guys worked free of charge for me. It was just a campaign of engaging good white people to fight.
PETER READ: Where do we go next after that? Who would either like to add to this discussion or ask our panellists a question or whatever?
BRONWYN BANCROFT: I suppose that is an interesting thing Stephen in relation to growing up in a small country town because when we talk about urbanisation and people moving to the city and stuff like that, when you do have the thin edge of the wedge in a country town like when my Dad got married to my Mum or he actually got my Mum pregnant, her uncles threatened to horse whip Dad out of town. He was not allowed to, one, be with a white woman, and two, the family wouldn’t accept him. Even today in Tenterfield, it is an extremely racist town because people are allowed to continue to be that way. That is one of the reasons why I moved to the city because I go back to my country with my cousins and I have Aboriginal, continuous handed down Aboriginal, we have actually got Native title which is continuously land handed down in our family because we have always kept our land. But there is that thing of moving away from the intolerance of being in those smaller country towns. I admire you because I know Toowoomba really well. I can’t imagine how you can be there.
STEPHEN HAGAN: The other thing too, Bronwyn, it’s a bit like Sam and all the speakers up here, we are all success stories. But I don’t want us to be success stories, I want us to be the norm. People say why do you fight so long and hard? My grandfather, when we were forced off our traditional lands and we moved into the fringes of society, the white people said the blacks were incapable of learning, they can’t control their finances, and they’re ignorant, subhuman and all these sorts of nasty things. My grandfather ran a grocery store on a fringe camp, those humpies. We had no running water, nothing. The dead in Cunnamulla were cared for better then than the Aborigines. In the cemetery in Dad’s time they had four taps. The white people used to drive in on a Sunday, fill up their little vases and put the flowers in, go and get another bit of water from the taps and water their little grass plots. They had a security guard at the cemetery to stop Aborigines jumping the fence and stealing the white fella’s water for their dead. There were no taps for the Aboriginal people, 300 Aboriginal people living on the fringes of society. So if you can understand those appalling circumstances, then you have my old grandfather, Albert Hagan, who had the audacity to set up a grocery store, no running water, no electricity and the white businessmen can only go there and sell him the non-perishables of the rice and tin meat during daytime because there is no electricity and all that sort of stuff. He almost forced the white businesses in town out of money because he was getting the money off the so-called blacks. Then you go fast forward to Dad and he went into town but then my Dad, he became chairman of the National Aboriginal Conference. He was the first Aboriginal to address the United Nations in Geneva. That was over Nulkaba [NSW], when Charles Court wanted to mine Nulkaba in 1980. I later became a diplomat myself and went overseas. So we are talking about generational changes here and all these people here, we are talking about real changes that is happening. But even though we have had three generations of working tirelessly to change attitudes, this country is so hard to change their attitudes. It is just so hard to change people’s attitudes. This room should be packed with the array of talented speakers and listening to all these wonderful stories. That is the way it is.
PETER READ: Before we go to another question, maybe our two panellists would you like to add anything to the conversation at the moment?
GORDON SYRON: No I am happy.
SAM WAGAN WATSON: Only anecdotal stuff that is all.
JULIEANNE O’CONNOR: My name is Julianne and I am actually a host here at the museum so I am pretty honoured to be sitting in on in this afternoon. Going back to Samuel sitting here being at the coal front here in Canberra and I am definitely a white fella with black on the inside let me say, guys from your perspective from an Aboriginal point of view growing up in a really racist country town and now sitting inside a city having lived in Third World countries as well and lived up in Kakadu for some time, from you guys how do we, other than the way I be, by being human continually keep trying to change the attitudes of what you were just saying, because to me that is how I live my life. We need to make it generational. It can’t be just rhetoric and it can’t be - it needs to be from how we live it with our children. Any other suggestions, guys?
GORDON SYRON: You are saying how do you make changes and you grew up in a country town. I grew up in a country town.
JULIEANNE O’CONNOR: I am, I live here in the city.
GORDON SYRON: But you are talking about making changes and the changes are happening in the big cities.
JULIEANNE O’CONNOR: I changed. Where I come from the folks haven’t changed, and people here in Canberra don’t change that much either.
GORDON SYRON: You really want to know how to make change? Educate your primary school children, make sure they look at all the history books. Don’t let Professor So and So have a book worth $1000 or $2000 and that rich man has that book. He puts it up for auction, another rich man buys it, puts it away in his cupboard and sells it off and looks at my valuable book. Why don’t they get the books and reprint them and put them in all the primary schools so the little children can learn all about the true history, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. Until we face that, people are not going to respect each other. They don’t give a damn.
SAM WAGAN WATSON: I have a 10-year-old and an eight-year-old who have blond hair, blue eyes and they are also Islamic. They are constantly challenged about their aboriginality. Whenever we have marches they also carry the Sinn Fein flag to acknowledge Mum’s mob who are Irish German. Now and then they turn the German flag upside down so it is more like the Murri flag. But it is educational. One thing I really love doing as a writer is engaging with the little ones. My partner is a documentary maker. She did a very short documentary on Boundary Street in Brisbane. If you look at the UBD of Brisbane there is a seclusion line. There is a number of fractured boundary streets. In the old days, up until 1965 we actually have records of black American servicemen on leave from Vietnam who were caught crossing the boundary and Bjelke Petersen’s police pulling them up and saying hey get over the line.
FEMALE: They changed that role?
SAM WAGAN WATSON: They changed it in 1967. When I show that documentary, and it’s amazing, from the last group of schoolkids, it’s the private schools in Brisbane who are inviting me in. The sons and daughters of all the cattle cockies who watch it and go, man it must suck being a blackfella. Do you feel like going down Boundary Street with a baseball bat? I say it’s not the point of going down Boundary Street with a baseball bat because who am I going to avenge. It’s not a point of revenge or avenging anything. It gives me a lot of hope when I do walk out of those sessions where the kids, the teachers are trying to herd them out and the kids just want to sit there. They really take it in.
STEPHEN HAGAN: In answer to that question my dream is to hopefully one day, because if you recall your history, the white people opposed the Greek and Italian migration even during the Second World War they were rounded up. There are records on all these Greeks and Italians but they were soon assimilated. They got their economic base going so they allowed them to come in and be assimilated. Then the refugees and boat people, the Vietnamese came into Australia. They were opposed and their rights were violated. But a generation passed and now they are accepted. They are the doctors, lawyers and all those other people. At the bottom rung of the ladder all the time and one of the previous speakers spoke about it, poor Murri still stays down there at the bottom of the rung. Why can’t white society give us a bit of a break? Let us be the Greeks of the 1940s or the Vietnamese of the 1960s, let us get into the society. I don’t like the word assimilation. I don’t believe in assimilation but let us have the same respect as they afforded the new arrivals.
AURIEL (visitor): My concern is for our kids. It is for two reasons. It is about how they are going to deal with their identity, how they go forward, how census statistics show that more and more mixed marriages. We have more and more children identifying as Indigenous. The numbers are certainly being boosted not just by people choosing to identify but because we are expanding through mixed marriages. The government is then using this terminology of urban and looking to direct funding away from urban. I think it was an interesting point made this morning that the term urban is a substitute term for talking about half-caste and quarter-castes. It is a way of defining us. It’s a way of dividing us. If they are using that as a term to divide us, how do our kids go forward with that?
The government is saying the Commonwealth Grants Commission found a few years ago that money must be directed at those most in need. Those most in need are defined as those in rural and remote communities. So in excess of 50 per cent of the money goes to those in 30 per cent of the country or in 30 per cent of the population. We heard this morning at least a fifth of the population lives in Sydney. The biggest Aboriginal population in Australia is living in the Mt Druitt region, yet under current government policy defining them as urban means that mainstream services are left to deliver to them. That is all of those things put together this is an identity crisis, an issue facing our kids, and about how we take forward the services. To me that is a really crucial thing that we need to grapple with. I like everybody else am very disappointed at the numbers that are here today. I think this issue needs a lot more airing and I think we need to have a lot more people and a lot more people as was mentioned this morning, I think you said it Sam sitting in identified positions in government. I am one of those people. I have been 35 years in government, most of those in identified positions since they created them. I moved into one in 1979. I am one of those Kooris who can stay in government. I come and go. But it won’t stop me fighting. I have a sign on my wall that says beware the death of ideals. At the moment I am continuing to still fight for those ideals. I think it is something we have to keep on about. Yes, I know the focus is about there is a need to educate non-Indigenous Australia but we have to deal with this new terminology of urban and focus on it for our kids. Thanks.
PETER READ: Any comments from the panel on that?
STEPHEN HAGAN: Just myself in fact or Auriel’s husband Patrick was one of the first blokes in Cunnamulla when he was out there as government official from Brisbane or Cherbourg to Cunnamulla. We went in and fought the segregation laws. He asked to buy a ticket and sit where the white people sat because in Cunnamulla like all cinemas there was a roped-off area up the front where blacks sat and after that roped-off area there were just reserved slips. You couldn’t sit on them anywhere even if the cinema was empty you couldn’t sit past there. That was our only form of entertainment in the early days, we didn’t want to rock the boat. We had nothing else to do except go and watch the cowboy movies and war movies.
Also just addressing Auriel’s comment, I think we all have a responsibility to our own families. You have seen my two young children here. They both go to private school. My wife she is also an academic at university. We are both Indigenous. We have no problem with our kids going and staying with their rich white friends and the white parents of the kids don’t have a problem with them coming to our house. Our house is full of Aboriginal painting, the possum paintings and whole lot, they are all there. Not as many as Margo’s lovely big house in an outer suburb of Canberra. But what we want to do is we want our kids to grow up having aspirations of living a better life than that of my father or that of myself. If they want to espouse middle-class upper-class views we will encourage that. But we will also take them to the dreaming festival. We take them to NAIDOC awards. We take them to the Message Stick things. We take them wherever we go. I get invited to go to a lot of conferences and I say to a lot of them, look I want my kids to come too and my wife. You pay for them. They say we don’t have the budget. I say fine I won’t go. Or on the marches. We take them on the marches. So our kids see the struggle but they are not losing sight of where we want them to go. I don’t have any regrets about them doing that. I think if we can all take care of our own back garden and try to get our kids the best education possible and exposure to a wider range of views, not only will they go forward but they will bring their school friends and classes forward with them.
PETER READ: That brings up Anita’s point about socialisation as well. The same sort of thing.
ELAINE SYRON: My name is Elaine Syron. This is a question for Sam Watson. I believe you won the New South Wales Premier’s award. Can you tell us about that because you are from Queensland. You’re Aboriginal and you actually won it.
SAM WAGAN WATSON: I still think it was rigged. It was quite funny that night because I beat Tim Winton who is one of my heroes. The funny thing was the next morning I ran down to Sydney Quay to get the newspapers because the media had jumped all over me. Basically there was a photo on the front page of Tim Winton’s big night in Sydney and right at the bottom of the article on the second page was ‘and Sam Watson won the book of the year and Ruby Lang Ford was given an honorary award.’ Who are these people? There was no real explanation. It was also when Alexis Wright won the Miles Franklin last week there was hardly anything basically, only Alexis had to generate her own publicity as such. Once again it is just getting our voices out there, winning a book of the year gets me into schools. It gets me to talk to kids. I don’t want to brainwash anyone’s children but just give them an understanding that it’s okay to come up and ask me if you need help. I am not a threat. My father is not a threat. My children aren’t a threat to your way of life.
One of the craziest things that - and I actually wrote this down in my notes - the day the Mabo decision happened and people like John Lawson and Stan Zemanek got on talkback radio and said your Hills Hoist is under threat, your yard is under threat. Now it has really moved on. We have moved on since Mabo. Has anyone had their backyards taken? Are the Mabo family any better off? I don’t know anyone in the Mabo family that has a million dollar yacht or a flash resort built on Murray Island. Mabo really hasn’t put us anywhere forward. I think the fact, being a person from the city and not having any connection to traditional country I am quite sceptical about Native Title anything to do with Native Title. The fact there were no Indigenous people on the High Court bench when Native Title came down, the fact that Native Title wasn’t a system that we had in place since the dawn of time. Once again I went off on a tangent there. Once again education I think.
PETER READ: Sam is a classic example. Sam’s Dad would be one of the most visible Indigenous activists and advocates in Australia. Whenever you see the Murungi case or anything Sam’s dad, Sam Watson is to the forefront. You will see Sam and his young boy, and his wife is non-Indigenous, Sam’s sister, they march in the marches. She is a prominent academic, barrister and academic in Sydney. This new generation of Indigenous people coming through, we can mix it in any circle as well as walk the streets and still be proud of our own people. But I understand what Auriel and others are saying but there’s a lot of our people who would much rather identify with the Americanised culture than the Aboriginal culture. There are a lot of people who are ashamed to be black and they would much rather pass off as Indians or Maoris or others. We are trying to say look you can still be black and proud of it. You can still aspire to all the big things as well without being ashamed of your own culture.
SAM WAGAN WATSON: What gets it for me is they call my Dad an activist. He is just an Australian that is questioning the system. My Dad doesn’t sit in dark rooms with other guys wearing berets going, we will meet here, we are going to park there and bang. Dad really doesn’t do that. He comes home after his day out working in the community comes home and puts on the plasma TV and watches the footy and gets up in the morning and has his Weetbix. He is not into taking the government down but challenging it. I can see Dad’s frustration because all the people he came up with in the Labor movement, the union movement, are now in charge in Queensland. Peter Beattie, Dad was there the night he was beaten up by Bjelke Petersen’s thugs and Beattie goes and gives the guy who licensed his police to put him in hospital a state funeral. Jeez, I would have gone to make sure the old bugger was dead.
PETER READ: We have a question from Barb.
BARBARA: Just quickly Sam, I wanted to ask because both you and I are Mununtjali and we come from Brisbane. As kids we did all the marches throughout Brisbane. This is regarding your comment that you made in your talk, the fact that now especially since 1999 and 2004 most of the marches that are happening in Brisbane are very small. You are getting about 100 to 200 people whereas Brisbane, especially during the 1970s and 1980s, were the most notorious rallies and marches that went through. You and I were both kids. We marched there. We were little kids waving signs as well. It is strange now as adults when we went back to Brisbane from South Australia in the 1990s and when we had our NAIDOC marches I was really amazed to see, hello we fit quite comfortably in the street. How did that happen, whereas before we were bursting at the seams as a rally group of people marching through. The voice, just sort of, it was still there and strong and resonated but it didn’t have that same, as many people doing that just coming out. Then having, like you said, you have all these people who are working up in jobs, public service jobs or private sector jobs, they are there and come out for Christmas drinks but they are not coming out to do the marches.
SAM WAGAN WATSON: Also, to a lot of the younger people whose parents may have not been politically active, to an observer we are hitting our heads against the wall. I sat through three royal commissions now. Those coppers they just get off and they get elevated to other positions. They get taken out of uniform so we don’t recognise them on the street. You just wonder what it is all for. I can see a young Indigenous person who has never really been interested in the political process, I can see how they could view people like Dad and people like Uncle Steve hitting their heads against a wall and not getting anywhere. As long as they’re in there with the fight.
STEPHEN HAGAN: There also comes the element of comfort. I think a lot of blackfellas now in the public service in particular are comfortable. Richard was saying to me before I think all the hard-fought battles have been won in terms of us getting jobs. Whilst we have lost ATSIC and a lot of other things, the public service has a large population of Indigenous workers and I think a lot of them are comfortable. I don’t think they feel the urgency to get out and protest on the street like their forebears did and a lot of the people do now. It concerns me the high level of complacency. You go to some meetings with some people now and you don’t recognise them. You say, who are you, brother, sister, I never seen you before. How come you are in charge of all this money now? They have no understanding, no empathy. They don’t understand what the person on the other side of the table really wants to do with the money. They are there because they either come through the university systems and they avoided the political struggle and got there. No matter how they got there they got there and they are in charge. They are also Indigenous. I just want those people in that position to start understanding, how did they get the opportunity to get where they are. It was the street marches. It was the people who did all that in the early days. I don’t mind wearing Pierre Cardin clothing. I don’t care about that, but I will still marching in the early days and I am still where I am now. Why can’t they also have pride in their people and compassion for their fellow Indigenous people who are not as comfortable?
BRONWYN BANCROFT: I am going back to your comment about urban and regional remote just in relation to arts centres. I don’t know Boomali which I have been involved with just had the 20 years. It’s been struggling for 20 years. We tried to get it reclassified as a regional gallery because under the arts industry, and you would be all be aware of this, I have participated and been involved in probably eight or nine reviews of the Aboriginal arts industry which mind you has remained static at $200 million a year for the last 20 years which I think is really interesting in terms of auditing. You know how you say how do they back this stuff up? No-one actually did an audit about how much the Aboriginal art industry is worth. But we have never been able to get Boomali classified as a regional, therefore 42 art centres throughout the Northern Territory and Queensland get funding and Boomali, which is probably the only Aboriginal-run gallery in New South Wales for regional people, can’t change its classification under government rules. So they miss out on funding continuously. They can’t get enough money to actually support their artists properly and they don’t have enough money to pay for the fluency of the people that they employ. This conversation that you are saying we should be having, we have been trying to have it. But I think if we have it more amongst each other, then we can push for greater change because we do have people that are going to go into government and make some inroads, have influence.
PETER READ: You are saying that is with the Aboriginal Arts Board and not Indigenous?
BRONWYN BANCROFT: No I actually stay away from all government bodies and never affiliated myself with anything, pretty well. I am just really a stand-alone person grass roots, but I do see that governments need to change their attitudes in terms of the arts boards and in terms of the way they organise things because at the end of the day as we say 70 per cent of people don’t live in regional and remote areas. With that social and cultural relevance, what are you doing? You can’t go in and have a look at your art work at the New South Wales art gallery because I am a New South Wales artist and I don’t get my work up there. They hang Cliff, you know, Yuendemu, Papunya. It is against the strict structure of what is actually in place, but it is also a conversation that needs to be had because, hey I am never going to get collected by the New South Wales Art Gallery. That doesn’t phase me. I will still be a critic because at the end of the day I am a New South Wales Aboriginal woman, come from my Djanbun clan and I am proud of my cultural heritage and I want my other countrymen to see what I have done, to be proud of the fact that my Dad wasn’t even allowed to be educated and I have just finished my third degree and I ain’t anal. I am just a person who really wants to push the boundaries of education to just see a how far we can perform. It is these conversations not again personalities but about general representation in our communities and in the mainstream that needs to be addressed because too many people are scared of criticising other Aboriginal people and I’m not.
Joseph (visitor): I want to build on two points. One was made by Sam and that is the fact that a lot of our younger ones - and I want to relate this back to the identity between the discussion about rural remote and all that stuff - a lot of our young people when they see what is happening etc and they see all the negatives they ask themselves who wants to be black? I don’t want to be black. That’s a phenomenon that is not only being felt by our people. It is being felt by a lot of Africans who are coming at the moment or the Vietnamese. The kids are saying I just want to be an ordinary Australian. Because if I am an ordinary Australian hopefully people won’t see me and I can move through the system and I won’t cop the crap that is happening to my family.
The other part is that there are a number of things that need to happen. Wesley talked about it this morning when he challenged - I was really surprised it is the first time I have heard this in a joint forum of both males and females and no-one really picked up on it - the issue of the debate when it comes about identity and who we really are. Us mob haven’t had that debate yet. Us blackfellas, and that is what one of our major problems. That is the cause for a lot of the crap that you guys are getting. It is because us mob as Aboriginal people haven’t really come to terms about, well who are we really. For a long time some of us, when I was in higher education, we tried to start the debate by talking about heritage blacks and genetic blacks. Who are you? That got squashed on the head. No-one wanted to talk about I am black because it is my blood and cultural black. What do you mean cultural? What is Aboriginal culture? We tried to start the debate and it was stifled. That is one of the reasons why we are where we are at moment. None of the black people in this country really want to talk about other black people. They leave it to the white fellows to shovel us down the pit. And then we can say back, it’s the white fella’s fault, rather than what has been said here today is there are opportunities for us now to make the rules and say to the people no, I’m not Indigenous I’m not Aboriginal, I’m this. Okay, then they will have to accept that rather than say ‘Oh no you have to be one or the other’. The same with this rural remote and whatever, does this mean you are less an Aboriginal? Rubbish. Until they hear it from us, it’s really difficult. There was a comment made earlier about academia as well. Until we push those boundaries, the academics will stay with the common ground crap. They will still say, the name of the game is thus, therefore you must do it this way. Unless we challenge them as Aboriginal people and support these challenges, we’re still going to be sitting here in 30 years time saying exactly the same things.
STEPHEN HAGAN: But the most important thing we must always remember and that is, he who owns the gold makes the power. If the government is the person or the group of people who can impact significantly on the social well-being of a community through financial, injection of finance, if they are not listening to us or to the grass roots Murris nothing will ever get done. Look what happened after ATSIC. I was the first person to come out publicly, that I am aware of, who advocated the demise of ATSIC. I advocated the demise of ATSIC but I asked for it to be replaced by another representative body. So what did they do? They got their own hand-picked body and they rubber stamped it. The same with what they are going into the Northern Territory with. They have two Aboriginal people on that. I think they are both connected with the NIC [National Indigenous Council]. So no matter how much we have this debate, I can’t see 1,000 blackfellas around Australia going and camping at Old Parliament House like they did in the early days of the tent embassy. The comfort zone is there with a lot of us now and also the realisation that the governments, particularly this ultra-conservative government, they are not going to waver, Brother. They will not waver to cries from outside the system. That is the most frustrating thing to me. I write every fortnight for the Koori Mail. I made a lot of comments even when I criticised an old bloke for interfering with his 15-year-old bride I said it was a manifestly short term for his sentence, I was attacked by an Aboriginal head of the legal service in Brisbane saying butt out of customary law as if she supports a minimum sentence for a man who violated a 15-year-old bride. This is the problem we are having everywhere. I agree we must talk but it is very, very frustrating for people who can’t get the ear of the government. It is very frustrating. It is like young Sam said, you would have thought a 1,000 people would have walked in Brisbane last week after hearing the Hurley case. Less than 100 people turned up. It is very frustrating.
CHRISTINE HANSEN: I want to come back to something that Stephen said, actually a couple of things, about getting comfortable. Where have all the protesters gone that Barbie was saying 100 people turned up? They have been subsumed by mainstream. They are comfortable. They don’t want us to be head up above the parapet. Why would they? They are comfortable where they are. I think that might be the same mechanism as what happened with the lady mayor. You said a Labor local government?
STEPHEN HAGAN: She was supported by the unions and got in.
CHRISTINE HANSEN: Right exactly.
STEPHEN HAGAN: My biggest hassle back on that case, the reason why I lost all those court cases and they lasted so long was black people came out and supported those white people, the white civic leaders who said the word nigger wasn’t offensive to them. The word nigger is offensive to them but, guess what, conveniently a month before I started my campaign on Nigger Brown, I asked for accountability and transparency in all the organisations in Toowoomba. Since then everyone was closed down because of million dollar rorts. I asked for accountability and transparency. They then sided with the white people to attack me on my legal campaign. They were my biggest obstacle. You will see in the documentary if you come. Sam’s father saw the documentary and his lovely sister who is a barrister saw the documentary. They [other blackfellas] were my biggest obstacles. My brother talking over here, you will come up with the most beautiful and practical solutions to Indigenous issues but you will have the blackfellas on the other side attacking that proposal because it is not their proposal, or because they had a fallout with someone years ago. It is an opportune time to get back at them. It is that level of sensitivity we are dealing with.
CHRISTINE HANSEN: What I am heading to is there is a mechanism operating where people, they want to go into the mainstream or they want to not put themselves up to be victimised. I imagine a woman working in a political context that is run by the unions would be in a position where she would be not wanting to stand out or to toe the line. The point I am making is there is a moral authority that needs to be held by people other than those with agendas about power because they are going to be swayed by other interests. The moral authority I think is held by the artists. It is held culturally so, Sam and Vernon have a very important role to play in politics not just in culture by holding the moral authority that we can aspire to. What happens when that falls apart? What are the ideals as the lady down here was saying?
PETER READ: A quick response.
STEPHEN HAGAN: A quick response. I have a writing on my wall that says knowledge is power and another one underneath that says a home without books is like a body without a soul. I think the only way we can have this change, this generational change, is through education. That is why people like Anita and Sam, we are into the writing game. I left all the organisations. I don’t belong to no organisation any more. I write and I make movies. I am achieving more by writing children’s books, fictions and non-fictions. The fiction is on its way but non-fictions, and more people are reading our work and the conference next week is about autobiographies and biographies, it is about telling the stories. Whilst we have a small crowd here, if the publication comes out from Barbara and Margo it can be disseminated and people who turn up can read about it. We need to get our message to a broader group of people. I think it is through education that we will bring about change.
GORDON SYRON: The trouble is what I see happening with a lot of Aboriginal people it’s all about taking the power away from Aboriginal people. I suppose I might seem like a racist when I say this but the white fellas have too much power in Aboriginal affairs. He makes the rules and Aboriginals have to skip the rope sort of thing. I think that Aboriginal people have to start to take over their own culture and be in charge of their own affairs and make their own decisions. The trouble is you see, even if Aboriginal people could practice their own culture there would be a job for every man, woman and child, but there is not. I see so many people who are working in Aboriginal areas and saying they are Aboriginal and they are not Aboriginal and things like that. I don’t care who you say you are, but as long as you are who you say you are. They take positions of power away from Aboriginal people. That takes a long time to get rid of it. They say educate the people. I have been hearing Peter saying educate them, but us natives are so stupid it must take a long time to educate us because this country has been settled for over 200 years. Surely there are some educated Aboriginals around who can teach other Aboriginal people. You go to see where the Aboriginal people are getting educated and you see the white fella who’s in charge straight away. He’s the boss, white boss. It’s the old mission mentality. It is still there. It just won’t go away.
SAM WAGAN WATSON: I had to laugh the other week. My 10-year-old came home and he had failed his social studies exam. I said what was your exam on? He said Aboriginal culture. I had a look at all the answers, and he had all the answers which sort of applied to our family but didn’t apply to the curriculum on the Queensland SOSE. I said why didn’t you study for this? He said I know everything about being a blackfella, how can I fail this exam? Once again culture. I was going to bring it up earlier the funniest thing that has ever happened in my life is when we found out half way through high school that we were entitled to Abstudy and we got sent this form proof of aboriginality. I just looked at this form and what do I have to do, go in there and ‘shake a leg’ or something. Rub some sticks together in the social security office. It’s little things like that that we are still facing with, but definitely education. I thoroughly enjoy working with kids, teaching them about the wonderful simplicity of writing and being writers they do have the power. I still believe we are far away in this country from a real proper solid identity. It is what I try to encourage kids to do.
GORDON SYRON: I don’t know about identity. I think it is just, if they just got to respect people’s rights. Everybody has to have rights but Aboriginal, you shove him under the deck and bring him last, just do as you are told of course and that’s about it.
PETER READ: I think we have kept up the high standard of this morning. We are on a real roll here. Thank you panel.
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Date published: 3 March 2009