Chaired by Michael Aird with panellists Richard Bell, Vernon Ah Kee, Bronwyn Bancroft, Anita Heiss and Wesley Enoch, Who you callin' urban forum, National Museum of Australia, 6 July 2007
Strong language warning: this transcript contains some strong language.
MARGO NEALE: I would like to acknowledge the Ngunnawal and Ngambri peoples that are here. Unfortunately we couldn’t get an elder here today, but they have passed on their best wishes and welcome to Canberra.
Today’s forum is about: is urban an appropriate term of reference to Indigenous people living in urban environs? How is the culture and identity expressed by Indigenous people living in urban environs? And in what ways are Indigenous cultures represented in museums and keeping places.
One might say ‘what’s in a name?’ But this use of the word ‘urban’ has generated a lot of discussion because it is much more than a name. It carries a whole lot of history. In the 1980s it was associated with activism; and then in the 1990s there was a bit of identity politics thrown in and there was then a sense that it meant lesser. We know all those kinds of things. Then there are others who will say, ‘Hang on, that’s where we’re at. We have our own culture. We have developed differently in different parts of Australia. It’s a reality. That’s who I am.’ Others will repel it with great dismissiveness. So some claim; some celebrate it; some dispel it; and some couldn’t give a stuff.
Everybody is using the word differently for different reasons. It’s like suits of clothes: you wear different clothes for different situations. You can choose not to be defined and skip across a whole lot of different areas for different reasons. I am sure you guys have lots more to say about it.
That is the reason I did that 70% Urban exhibition. Whilst it’s not the most fabulous exhibition in the universe because we didn’t want to borrow anything, I wanted to make a point that museums are an outcome of collecting practices of the past. Unlike galleries, museums do have the deposits from anthropologists, ethnographers and so on which we are grateful for, but of course it is basically northern biased. The National Museum of Australia has only been open since 2001, and I am very mindful of the fact that it doesn’t represent the more contemporary cultures.
One of the ways to make this focus - fortunately in the right climate with the right man and so on - was to look at what we did have in our collections that you could describe as urban, and for the purposes of this exhibition I have said that urbanisation started from the moment of colonisation. I am not saying it is just the last 30 years; it started when people started settling. Therefore we could draw on stuff going right back to sketchbooks, Barrack, Wheras’ boab nuts and so on. With the exception of two pieces, the exhibition is all just what is in our collection. It’s very interesting, very eclectic, very diverse but very small. That has enabled us to draw attention to the fact that we need to collect more in this area, and we have already started on that. It was also to make the point that we are very interested in the urban culture - all the cultural product that comes out of it, whether you call it art or whatever you choose to call it.
Michael Aird is the chair of this first panel. Michael was born at Southport and has spent most of his life living in that region, the traditional country of his ancestors. In 1990 he graduated with a bachelor of arts in anthropology from the University of Queensland. His main interest is urban Aboriginal photographic history. He has worked in the area of Aboriginal cultural heritage for over 20 years and in that time he has curated many exhibitions as well as having books and articles published. For five years Michael was the curator of Aboriginal studies at the Queensland Museum, which is where we first met and had common interests and bridged the gulf between museums and galleries, which is one of my highest priorities. He is currently the director of the Aboriginal owned publishing house Keeaira Press. Welcome Michael. He will introduce the others.
MICHAEL AIRD: I will start by acknowledging the traditional owners. They play such an important role. In any community you go to, it is the traditional owners who have been there for a long time. They are established. Often when people are travelling, it is the traditional families that look after the new people to an area and worry about them. The same here in Canberra. I wish I could say the same about some of the government people that we have to deal with in my country on the Gold Coast where development is more important than anything else. We still get the tokenistic words that they acknowledge and respect us, but dealing with them is not the same.
I would particularly like to thank Barbara and Margo for inviting me down. As Margo said, I have worked in the Aboriginal cultural heritage area for over 20 years, and being invited to conferences like this for networking and professional development is really important. Being in the game for that long, you struggle doing what you do, scratching to earn a living. It is times like this where you actually think it is all worth while. It is good to be here with such a very strong, confident panel who all have plenty to say.
One thing you will be hearing a lot today when discussing urban Aboriginal culture is just the stories that urban Aboriginal people have had to live through. There are a lot of stories where people have had to do it pretty tough in the past, and even now I think there are still a lot of things that aren’t that good now with people doing it pretty tough and putting up with all types of government policies.
I will start by telling one little story. A friend of mine, a non-Aboriginal guy who grew up in Sydney, told me this story. For a guy that is not Aboriginal and who doesn’t have much to do with Aboriginal people, he told a story that brought in so many little elements of what urban Aboriginal people have had to live through.
The story was about his father-in-law, a non-Aboriginal family. His wife was growing up in Sydney in the 1950s or 1960s, and next to their family lived an Aboriginal couple and they had a few sons. This guy apparently was the first Aboriginal guy in New South Wales to have a semi-trailer licence and he was really proud of that. Looking back to all my old people and what they achieved, how hard they had to work, how they had prove to the government that we’re as good as everybody else and can achieve things like that. Becoming a doctor or lawyer back then wasn’t much of an option for Aboriginal people but becoming a truck driver - I know my grandfather owned a truck and he contracted that out. That is something that people were proud of.
These boys that this Aboriginal couple had - they weren’t allowed to go to the shop to buy a loaf of bread unless they pulled their socks up and buttoned up every button on their shirt and dressed perfectly. That reminds me of my childhood. I remember that my mother, being ashamed of being Aboriginal and growing up in an urban environment, she made sure that us three boys, and then later on a younger sister in my family, we had to be better dressed than everybody. My mother was just so conscious and didn’t want anybody to think that we might be poor or less than everybody else. If I ever ripped a pair of pants, I would say, ‘Mum, can you fix up my pants?’ and she’d say, ‘No, I’ll buy you a new pair.’ My father had to work pretty hard so that we had those things, but that is what it was. They had to work hard just to survive.
The story with this guy, my friend’s father-in-law is that he thought the world of this Aboriginal guy. A big black international act come to Sydney - it was either Shirley Bassey or Sammy Davis Junior - and were playing at one of the big RSL clubs or football clubs at the time. This guy thought the world of his neighbours and thought, ‘I’m going to shout him and his wife a ticket to see this concert.’ They walk in the door, really looking forward to a good night and the whole room went quiet - how dare these two Aboriginal people come to our night out. They got over that and they sit down but they couldn’t get served. They were sitting at the table waiting for someone to serve them. This guy really wanted his mate to have a good night out. Instead of causing a fuss and ruining the night, he says, ‘I’m just going to the toilet. I’ll be back in a minute,’ and he went in search for the waiter that he thought wasn’t coming to their table. He leaned in his ear and said, ‘If I don’t get a jug of beer on my table in the next two minutes I’m going to f---g punch your head in.’ Back they went and tried to enjoy their night.
It’s not a horrible story compared to others of horrible racism or anything. It is just an example of how at every level even when people are doing everything they can to survive to fit in the urban culture, they still come across these little things that just make their life different from everybody else’s. That’s it from me.
First I will introduce Richard Bell. I don’t have a bio for Richard Bell [Brisbane-based artist who won the 20th Telstra National Aboriginal Arts Award in August 2003 with his entry ‘Bell’s Theorem - Aboriginal Art, It’s a White Thing’.] I don’t think Richard needs an intro. He is someone that I have been working with for about 15 years now. He has always been entertaining. He always has plenty to say. He’s a bit quieter by himself but, when there are people around, he always puts on a good performance.
RICHARD BELL: I would like to acknowledge the Ngunnawal people. I would like to thank Margo for inviting me down here and insisting that I turn up. There’s been so much said about this urban thing, but nothing has been articulated by ourselves. I am hoping at the end of this a lot of the issues are looked at.
We are in the early part of the 21st century and we have a lot of things in front of us as Aboriginal people. How do we move forward in the 21st century and maintain our aboriginality? What is the aboriginality? What is non-negotiable? What is negotiable from the old times? I think we need to be looking at some of those things.
We hope that we get into the nitty-gritty with the other people here because I am sure they all prepared for this, whereas I tend to fly by the seat of my pants. It was a big mistake to put me on first. If there was a big crowd here there would be a threat of some of them leaving, because I tend to get quite creative with the Queen’s English at times. That seems to get people a little bit dodgy as well.
Looking at my experience growing up as an urban blackfella, I have to admit I am a recovering racist; I used to hate all white people. I haven’t forgiven you; I just don’t hate you any more. Also because of the nature of my upbringing I am a recovering homophobe. That is how all males were brought up in Australia in the 1950s and 1960s when I did my schooling, and that has obviously continued into the 1970s and 1980s. I hold up as proof of that the behaviour of the Canterbury Rugby League football team, various AFL footballers and soccer players as this football culture which is demeaning to both homosexual people and to women. I am on the path to recovery to all those things.
Being kind of opinionated I get a forum to say lots of different things. I have heard there was going to be a big mob of people here but they heard there were some radicals coming here. Vernon Ah Kee said that I was the only radical here. Yes, I am a radical. I am from the radical centre. I am well to the left of John Howard and Kevin Rudd. I think there is a contest at the moment to see who can go further to the right.
I think John Howard threw down a big challenge to Kevin Rudd recently when he sent the troops in to Aboriginal communities. While we are talking about child abuse, I think a lot of the white people have some abuse. On the plane coming down I saw this kid who was crying and the parent wouldn’t give the little kid what they wanted. I think, ‘Damn that is child abuse.’ When I came down to breakfast this morning there was this little goldfish and it was freezing cold. Those goldfish are supposed to be up in Brisbane where I come from, so there is animal abuse here. They should send the troops in. I could tell them where to go too. It is over in a little pond at the ANU.
Getting back to the urban experience, I was born in Charleville a long time ago - not quite 40,000 years but quite a while ago now. Back in those days I was living in Yumbah, which is what us blackfellas out in south-western Queensland call an Aboriginal camp. It was on the sandhill across from the hospital. At that stage there wasn’t enough tin shacks so I spent the first two years of life living in a tent.
But we were lucky in our childhood because we had running water. We had one tap. When the Americans built the hospital across the railway track from us, one of the American soldiers sent one line over for a tap, so we had one tap for some 24 families. We shared one tap. We were quite happy with that, because it meant we didn’t have to carry the water two kilometres up from the river.
I lived in lots of other little country towns, always on the outskirts of town. We weren’t allowed to live in the towns; we weren’t allowed to shop in the towns. The Chinese didn’t have any problem. They thought our money was just as good as the white people, so we could buy fruit and veg from them. Then there were the Greeks when they started to move into the towns. The Greeks, Italians and Lebanese didn’t give a f---, they just took our money. That helped to break down the barrier there.
There are lots of things that happened in that period which form the basis of my work. I am using the stories from my life experience and trying to make sense of this particular part of the world. I don’t hate all you white people; I just don’t like you. That’s all. You are really thoughtless and it is your fault that we are treated so badly, that we don’t have treaties. I was shocked to find out that we can’t even participate in carbon trading on Aboriginal lands because we don’t own the trees. You think, ‘OK maybe not everybody owns trees’, but yes, you do. You own the trees in your backyard - we don’t. We were barred from owning land for many years. It’s only been recently in Queensland that the legislation was changed to enable Aboriginal people to be able to own land.
The most common and popular method of wealth creation in this country is housing and real estate. When you consider that Aboriginal people haven’t been able to own land, there’s been so much disadvantage built into our circumstances. For us to catch up is going to take generations - perhaps 100 years - to catch up to the rest of society if we so choose.
I don’t have any inclination to buy a home for myself, beside the fact that I have six kids and they would all be fighting over it - that is not the thing. I have always aspired to live in a house, to be given a house by a black housing company that I could call my own and give to any one of my kids. But I wouldn’t mind buying a warehouse so I could have an artist studio.
One of my friends’ brothers made a comment in the press about private ownership on Aboriginal reserves. Who’s going to buy your house in Doomadgee? Who is going to buy your house in one of these reserves? It is just absurd to consider it. And what are the traditional owners going to say? You have excised a piece of their land. That is creating mischief I think. I think John Howard is very clever: he is creating mischief by dividing our people. It is easy to control Aboriginal people - you just cause a row.
I worked with the government for a little while back in the 1970s and I have worked with Aboriginal community organisations as well. I don’t know how many times I have seen white fellas come to our Aboriginal community, look around and go, ‘This is terrible’, because it looks like a war zone. The houses are really untidy. There are smashed windows, walls and cars in the yard - all this sort of s---. They say, ‘This is horrible. How many people live in that house?’ Oh 22. How many in that house? 25. How many in that one? 28. How many in this one here? Only 15 there. They are 1, 2 and 3 bedroom houses on the missions and reserves. They say, ‘This is horrible. We’re going to have to get you all new houses.’ The blackfellas get all excited, ‘We’re going to get a new house.’ Then the white fellas go back down to the DAA office, the ADC office or whatever it is talking about these blackfellas needing these houses. Then they get the message that you can’t give them all new houses, you can give them four. They need 30 or 40 new houses on the reserve and they give them four. Who knows what is going to happen next? Yes, those houses get burnt down and in some places there may be even bullets flying past people. These are the sorts of tactics being used.
The largest Aboriginal community in the Northern Territory has a population of about 2,800 people, and would be over 3,000 people. They have 700 primary school students but no high school. If the children in that town want to go to high school, they have to go to Tennant Creek, Alice Springs or Darwin. I lived in Charleville with a population pretty similar. We had two primary schools and a high school that went all the way to year 12. They don’t have a copper in that place there. Can you imagine a town of 2,800 people or 3,000 people with no copper? There is a mine 30 kilometres down the road with 130 white guys and that has three coppers there. If there is a bit of domestic violence happening in that community, they have to ring the coppers from 30 kilometres away. By the time they come that poor woman is bashed right up. There is no library in that place, no high school, no Internet access for the children and that sort of thing - these people have been ignored.
This is basic infrastructure that I thought our people were entitled to as citizens of this country. It would appear to me that we Aboriginal people have a discounted form of citizenship in this country. We may as well be walking down the street with targets on our f---ing backs and on our fronts because that is how I feel. When I walk down the street, I feel like I am a target for your hatred. Why do you hate us? It is not our fault that you stole our land from us. It’s not our fault that you killed our people and that sort of thing. We didn’t do that. You want to turn your guilt onto us? F--- you. You keep that to yourself. That’s not my problem. You are digging all these problems onto me and my people.
We have young people who are struggling to come to terms with modernity, with those changes in lifestyle that are happening. Then they have this problem that they run into - primary school is all right but as soon as they hit high school it’s a different game altogether and these young people start struggling. We have tremendous problems. Our children are under tremendous stress because of the hatred that you people are inflicting upon us.
Have a look at yourselves. You are supposed to be Christians, ain’t you? ‘Thou shalt not steal. Thou shalt not kill.’ I don’t blame any of you for doing any of that. You didn’t steal my land. You didn’t kill my people. But you have lived off the benefits of those crimes so that makes you a criminal.
How many white people here? Not many. You are all criminals, because you are living off the proceeds of crime. In every state that is a crime. How much time do I have left?
MARGO NEALE: I think you are out of time.
RICHARD BELL: B---y hell, I was just firing up.
MARGO NEALE: You can come in again later. You are finishing on a high note.
RICHARD BELL: High!
MICHAEL AIRD: Richard is a good artist and I think he is a performance artist in himself - he is the art.
The next speaker is Vernon Ah Kee. Vernon was born in Innisfail and went to school in Cairns. He has been living in Brisbane for over 12 years. He joins the long list of young Aboriginal people that decided to go to university to get qualifications and to secure careers in the Aboriginal arts area. Unlike Richard, Richard has had to do it tough. He struggled and he survived, but without the degree.
Vernon was a lecturer at QCA in Brisbane for five years. He has been involved in a long list of exhibitions that I won’t read out. Vernon is also talking about some of the things Richard has been talking about in challenging everybody to think about their role in representation of Aboriginal history and culture in an urban environment.
VERNON AH KEE: [Didn’t Richard Bell say that he was a recovering racist? Yes.] I just want to acknowledge the Ngunnawal people and related clans of this country. It’s important as ever because it is all our land. As an urban Aboriginal, to put it into context why we acknowledge the land, it is because we do own it completely and we suffer under an occupying presence in this country. People say, ‘What will satisfy you?’ And I always say that I won’t be satisfied until the fact that we own all the land is realised so that we are reaping most of the benefits of this country financially, politically and economically. Until that is realised then how can we be satisfied? We should hold the highest positions in this country, because it’s our country.
By way of introduction about me, I grew up in North Queensland. This is a common story: I didn’t grow up speaking language or anything, because my grandmother and grandfather were sent to Palm Island. They met on Palm Island and they didn’t teach their children language to protect them. That is a common experience with Aboriginal families, particularly urban ones.
I am just talking about a few things that I think define what it means to be this thing called ‘urban’. Even though you have to keep in mind that if most of the Aboriginal population in this country, as is demonstrated by the title of the 70% Urban exhibition, are in fact urban, then that doesn’t make us urban, that makes us Aboriginal. My experience is Aboriginal. And if most of the Aboriginal people live in an urban context, then the people who live in remote communities aren’t as Aboriginal as we are.
Whitefellas and most blackfellas have been tricked into thinking that according to geography and the art you make there is an authenticity that is attached to where you live, how you talk, your level of education and your financial position. That determines how Aboriginal you are. As we know, a lot of us blackfellas get asked, ‘Are you Aboriginal?’ and a lot of us say ‘very’ or ‘completely’ or ‘all the time’. It’s a big thing. I always say the hardest thing to be in this country is Aboriginal; and the second hardest is to say you are all the time.
But getting back to this whole 70 per cent thing, if we are Aboriginal but we have white people, government policy and particularly the arts industry telling us that we’re not, then that’s the kind of thing that renders us invisible. We are talking about Aboriginal people in an urban context. There is a process, a conditioning and an engineering that happens in this country all the time, which is to render us voiceless, benign, invisible and dumb as in we don’t speak - it’s to make us mostly ineffectual and to keep us as an underclass of people.
We exist outside of the mainstream structure. You have different levels in any society and on the bottom of that rung in Australian society is poor white people. People of colour don’t even make it on to that structure. Then you have another structure that has all coloured people, and on the bottom of that is blackfellas. We know this is true because any other people of colour who migrate to this country, to fit in they have to denigrate blackfellas. Any blackfella who lives in an urban context in this country can tell you that’s true. You might find some fellas who don’t think so, but that’s been my experience.
My experience has also been at different times one of some pretty dire poverty. I grew up very poor. I grew up in the pockets of my uncles, aunties, cousins and we were all poor. I didn’t realise that I was really poor until I started going to school. I think in grade 7 there were a couple of white kids who had $5 for lunch one day, which just blew my mind. I still can’t believe that. Then when I went to high school, there was one kid who had $20 for lunch one day. So I grew up really poor but everybody I knew - and I mostly involved myself with blackfellas, my cousins and things - were all in the same boat. That was the Aboriginal experience.
There is this whole movement now amongst academics and young professional blackfellas who have a kind of middle-class upbringing and a middle-class existence. They say that is Aboriginal too, and it is. But the fact is most Aboriginal people are poor, and usually their positions are dire. So that is mostly what the Aboriginal experience is still and will be for a long time. That is another indicator of urban Aboriginal culture. If your whole experience is middle class, that doesn’t make you not Aboriginal but it certainly doesn’t say that you can speak for people who have a more common experience of being Aboriginal. And that’s growing up in that context with a whole lot of blackfellas and all poor, all going hungry, eating bread and milk for breakfast like I did a few times.
Another thing about me is that I am not a recovering racist; I am extremely racist - a big one. I am probably not as racist as the rest of Australia, but we are all very racist. If you are born into the social political structure that is called Australia, then you are racist because this is the most racist culture in the world. Nobody treats their native people like this country does, and that makes us all racist. While it happens, that makes all of us complicit - black people and white people. It is just there are large portions of society that are powerless to do anything about it. It’s a racist culture that we live in; it is absolutely extreme.
There is an image that Australia promotes to the rest of the world of being an open country and friendly to its natives, and then when you come here you see that the opposite is true - there is segregation in all levels of the society. When you live in an urban context you see it every day. You wake up in the morning, you walk out your front gate and you are hit in the face with it. And when you go sleep at night it still happens. That is the urban context that we live in. But it doesn’t make us urban Aboriginals, it makes us Aboriginal. That’s the Aboriginal experience.
I make art for a living - that’s all I do now - my art is about my life and about the things that inform my life. I don’t say that I am radical or necessarily political. My work is oppositional but that is because it’s my life. This is an artwork I chose for today [shows image] which says, ‘The Aborigine if he be well, he then we must make ill. And if ill the Aborigine we cannot make, he then we must make ill like.’ Those are the kinds of sentiments that we experience every minute of the day. We are very aware of the fact that we feel perfectly normal, like I don’t feel like a child molester or a woman basher. But if you go out into any Aboriginal community that is dry, that is what you are absolutely. You are completely that as a man, otherwise they wouldn’t restrict you from drinking alcohol. For me drinking alcohol makes me sing songs - I will not dance any more - and it doesn’t make me molest children. But apparently when I am out on Aboriginal communities or with Aboriginal groups, that’s what happens to me; that is what happens to Michael; that is what happens to Richard; and that is what happens to Wesley.
If I was in a community for a couple of weeks and some of my mates wanted to come up and see me, I would have to tell them, ‘We can’t drink here because you will turn into a child molester and a woman basher. There is a strong risk you may go home and bash your woman.’ That is what we have been made out to be. We have been made to seem ill when there is nothing wrong with us. It is all about how we can make these people see, and they do it by making reports on Aboriginal communities and they are very selective with it. There is nothing more wrong in Aboriginal communities than you will find in any other community. People always say, ‘How would you fix it?’ I just say, ‘The same as you would in non-Aboriginal communities. If people won’t go to school you give them better teachers. If there is apathy and boredom in that community, then you give them facilities. If there are no jobs you provide opportunities for employment.’ But in Aboriginal communities, as we know, whenever there are initiatives created that build some kind of sustainable economic base, it gets shut down and the funding gets withdrawn. That’s happened over and over again. The very first reserves where sustainable but when they competed with the non-Aboriginal interests they got shut down. This has been the story over and over again, because it is all about money. If it wasn’t all about money then you would give us more.
That is basically my story. I won’t go on too long. I won’t get angry either. I am racist, but we all are - that is the point. There are things about this society that I hate. But that is mostly because there are things about me that the society hates completely and I just hate it back. That will do for now.
MICHAEL AIRD: There will be questions after everybody has finished talking, but I’m lucky I’m the chair so I can pick up on some of the things that Richard and Vernon have said. Talking with Richard about in academic terms the ‘old money’, the non-Aboriginal people that did benefit from the land that their ancestors secured and whatever, that is how a lot of politicians today got into that position because they come from that old money. It was their ancestors that were right at the frontier 200 years ago.
Looking at my own family, my mum’s uncle who came from North Stradbroke Island married my grandmother’s sister from Southport, which is now the Gold Coast. In his traditional country on North Stradbroke Island around Amity he asked to lease 10 acres of land so that he could run horses and start an enterprise. When the application went to the government, the government people said, ‘We should reject his application because his mother lives on the mission,’ which I guess was a polite way of saying he’s black. So you imagine if he had secured 10 acres of land a long time ago on North Stradbroke Island he would have converted that to freehold and he would have chopped it up and sold it bit by bit, and all his grandchildren and great-grandchildren would be very wealthy today.
But regardless of that, particularly with the work that I have done with photographic history, I have spent a lot of time dragging out photos and having old people talk to me about what’s in those photos. So many of the photos in my family are of people working and of people building houses. Like my grandfather, he owned a bullock team in 1930, sold it and bought a truck in 1933 and then moved with my grandmother’s family into Southport and was contracted by the council. I just see these stories. In some regards my family was nowhere near as poor as other families, but in hearing those stories there are reasons why. It doesn’t make them less Aboriginal; it is just that they were committed to staying in their own traditional country and keeping their children together. They had to work harder than everybody just to achieve that.
[Moving on the next speaker is Bronwyn Bancroft. Bronwyn comes from the Bundjalung nation in New South Wales. She is an artist who has been painting primarily for her living over the last 17 years.] BRONWYN BANCROFT: I have written something. I was sitting at home the other night - I know we’ve had a long time to prepare for this but I am kind of busy - and I saw something on the tele which really bothered me. It always bothers me. We see these commercials on tele that say, ‘We have a very young country. You have to think about this as a young country,’ and I find that highly problematic. What I have in this paper today is a little bit about myself, a little bit about the philosophical things that I would like to see change and many commonalities with Vernon, Richard, Anita and Wesley in that the defining moment and the things that bring us together is our aboriginality.
I would like to acknowledge my elders and acknowledge the Ngunnawal people, the traditional people of this country. My name is Bronwyn Bancroft and I am the last of seven children to Bill, who is Djanbun clan from the Bundjalung nation, and Dot, who is Scottish and Polish. I grew up in the small country town of Tenterfield with a population of 3000 people. I left when I was 17 with my husband-to-be, Ned Menning, who also happened to be my teacher and mentor - or tormentor as some people say. I have never returned to live there.
I went to study here in Canberra in 1976 to do art. It was 500 miles away, a long way and I missed my family a lot, but I was really happy to get out of that town. My experience of that upbringing was not to remember the fun times like swimming in the creek and playing with friends but the bad memories. A policeman with a siren pulled me over on my pushbike when I was in year 12 and told me that he was going to get me. There were rumours around, and Aboriginal mates of mine had come and told me that this bloke was serious trouble. These events occurred regularly to young girls, but no-one was appalled. My mother went to the police station and reported the incident. There was a culture of silence, and everyone in my family who still lived in town got booked for everything and nothing. This was 33 years ago.
The travesty of this event is the fact that people are continually beleaguered by others who intentionally or otherwise make a point of using their lives to block growth, any growth. Challenging people over issues of injustice has always been plagued by inconsistency in this country. My Dad, Bill, was denied access to education because he was Aboriginal. It plagued him that he was not educated like white people, but he did end up being an engineer in World War II and managed the barges at Madang and Rabaul. There were a lot of non-Aboriginal people who owed my father their lives. So he experienced that.
I have two Aboriginal families, a first family and a second family, with sisters being the mothers and they all went to World War I and World War II. Because of Dad’s lack of education he became a sleeper cutter and he worked out of town. He just said to us you either get educated or get a trade - you leave home with something. In my lifetime I have seen a progression of Aboriginal graduates, doctors and nurses - things you wouldn’t have thought of 35 years ago. We have the expansion and acceptance of Aboriginal artists.
But have we seen the mental growth that will allow us to benefit? It is utopian in character what I prescribe but it could be a real world where we support each other as people to assist in survival. I have been reflecting about the issues that have been driving my family and friends. The one singular issue that binds us is the inequality of our people in this country. The injustices that prevail disgust me and turn me into a warrior woman for equal rights. The idea that you are better than someone else also breeds mediocrity because there is always someone bigger, smaller, crazier and scarier. Superiority is a misnomer and is the tenet of racism. The existence of such a notion allows racism to reign supreme. You only have to think you are better than somebody else to get into that club. My Dad used to say, ‘You are what you are and you could be nothing else, just that.’ I never appreciated the simplicity of this statement until I got older.
What we are facing now as Aboriginal nations existing within this nation is forced assimilation and denial of rights. A glean of newspaper headings, articles and editorials are demoralising and gut wrenching with titles such as ‘Terrified families flee in panic’, ‘welfare crusade seen as a land grab’ and ‘expert critical of plan for child abuse checks’. This one was a classic for me: ‘Minister did not act on abuse’ - Milton Orkopoulos, Aboriginal Affairs Minister in New South Wales, who is currently under 54 charges in the court system in Australia as a paedophile himself - he didn’t act upon it. Hello! Others include: ‘Dealing in hypocrisy: the act of doing violence whilst preaching against it’, ‘Human Rights Commission examines Commonwealth Indigenous packet for the Northern Territory’. Of course they are going to find that it is racist. Of course they are going to find that it is a breach of human rights. We know this.
What is it doing to our people? Divide and rule instituted in every colonial takeover throughout history has always worked as an ego can be fed and someone will think they are better than somebody else. This breaks any change for cohesion. You should not get sucked into this vortex. It is the moment you forget to remember who you are and why you are here. Social, spiritual and environmental relevance are the only things that we should be maintaining as cultural warriors.
As an artist it has been an interesting learning curve. This is from my first review in 1987 by a critic here in Canberra called Sasha Grishin who I will quote - I was doing a group show. It was my only second show, apart from my graduating show from Canberra School of Art in 1980 and I had this show in 1987 with a bunch of mates: Bronwyn Bancroft’s work involves a complex problem of the appropriation of Aboriginal motives to form fabric designs for fancy, rich, white man’s garments. While the artist herself is part Aborigine and there is a strong set design work and decorative charm in ‘Spiral and snake’, in my mind the moral dilemma remains. In her other work such as her anti-bicentenary screen print, her political stance is expressed bluntly and forcibly.
I don’t really know a lot about Sasha, but that review has inspired me for about 20 years to overcome his ignorance and his lack of education about me and my family. I might just take the opportunity to read you my response. I wrote back to the Canberra Times, of course not getting any response back: To the editor, I wish to comment on Sasha Grishin’s review of the acquiesce humour exhibition in which I was a participant. His comments on my aboriginality can only be construed as racist. There is no such thing as a part Aboriginal person any more than there is a part Australian. One’s aboriginality cannot be measured. It is not the colour of the skin that determines aboriginality but heritage. I am deeply offended that Sasha Grishin should challenge my heritage. He might like to travel to Lionsville, northern New South Wales, to meet members of my family whose blackness might satisfy his criteria.
As far as the appropriation of Aboriginal motifs for my work is concerned, the implication that I have somehow stolen my designs is bordering on libellous. My work comes from my heart and soul. The inspiration comes from my aboriginality. I have never used traditional motifs in my work as I am well aware of their sacred nature. His assertion that my fabric designs are being used for fancy rich white man’s garments is scurrilous.
I am dedicated to helping and encouraging Aboriginal artists to express themselves and to creating work for young, urban Aboriginal people. I have participated in a number of Aboriginal fashion parades, given workshops and I employ four Aboriginal women in my shop. If Mr Grishin would dare to visit my shop, Designer Aboriginals in Rozelle, and discuss my contribution to Aboriginal development with my co-workers and fellow artists who are all Aboriginal, he might be less sanctimonious and a little more sensitive.
That’s a fairly harsh thing. I was kind of young - I was 20. If I had been as physical as my brothers were, I would have gone out and dropped him really. But you can’t do that because it is abuse, isn’t it? I had three older brothers who really gave me a hard time, so that is probably why I am reasonably staunch. I am really confused: I am appropriating my own art; I am appropriating my own imagery.
I became involved in the Boomalli Aboriginal Artists Cooperative in 1986 as a founding member. This was really exciting. We were a good bunch of people and we learnt a lot about each other and about running a gallery. But the one thing I loved about the Boomalli’s conception was the feeling that you could do anything. It was an explosive growth moment for us in the wider community and mainstream communities.
One thing I want to touch on, as Vernon said, every time anything is successful they close it down. I have been involved with Boomalli as a chairperson, treasurer, secretary and member for 20 years, and we have been fighting closure in all those 20 years. The minute we start to get any run-up to becoming reasonably successful, they take away major shows, or curators leave, or people get embroiled in an individual moment where they become the leaders. They are the ones who originate it; they are the ones who did it. At the end of the day if we don’t work together - and none of us as individuals has made any great things, we have only ever done it as groups.
At the 20-year anniversary exhibition at Boomalli last week it was fantastic to see so many supporters there and to know how many Aboriginal people have developed their potential from being involved with this organisation. When I was being reviewed 20 years ago as a part Aborigine, we were putting art on walls. I did a piece that at the time I didn’t realise it was such an important piece. I had been given a really hard time when I went to the College of Fine Arts to do a lecture to 45 people which was rather a large group to talk to. There was one woman just sitting at the front and she was tapping her foot, and I always find that really annoying. So I kept going and gave my talk, talked about my family and exposed yourself, because when you get up and do these things you are exposing yourself. And you don’t have to. At the end of the day you don’t have to do any of this. In question time this woman’s hand goes straight up. I’m like… ‘oh no I don’t want to answer her question’. So, I go all right, I will get you over and done with first. She goes: ‘Why the bloody hell did you say you were a bloody Aborigine? It would only be because you get bloody money.’ I had been ill so I needed a glass of water. I just said to everyone, ‘We really need to work with this woman because it is very obvious that she is an extreme racist. We really need to work with her.’ So the other students all came down and took her aside, offered to give her books to read that they had read and wrote me an apology letter. By the end of the two hours she was never going to change, but at least I knew that the other 39 people in the group were really great people. So there is a sense of optimism.
What I consider to be a highlight of this life are the joys and learning that have come from my art. I am currently curating three or four small women artists’ shows and exhibiting, mentoring, workshopping and looking after immediate and extended family. I am a part and a part of something. I have my own relevance of this and, as a consequence, knowing that I acknowledge that we need to start rewarding each other because we are a family and if I have a problem I sort it out face to face.
A month ago we opened an exhibition in Balmain for a lot of my extended family members. When I spoke to open it I said that one of the members, Kim Healy, only wanted a water pump from the art sales - she’s living in the bush. A lot of people were humbled by that. We don’t know what people need until we ask them. We do not have enough time to subscribe to the framework of a foreign political structure. We should be building our own protective structures only known to our families and communities, and in general should not be letting the government repeal land rights. Human rights abuse, native title to be resumed, a treaty, a protection of culture, compensation for past abuses - these should be paramount in our crusade as people. In summary, I can only hope that you are all registered to vote as a change in this country is needed for the recognition of Aboriginal people. Thank you.
MICHAEL AIRD: Thanks, Bronwyn. With each speaker and each professional that has worked in this area, for us in each decade we have had a different outlook, especially when we started. I know when I started studying in 1987 there wasn’t a clear career path where I was going to go but I knew I had to get a degree so that that would hopefully secure me a dream of a career in the Aboriginal cultural heritage area. But then you have to give credit to people like Bronwyn, who were starting back in 1976. It was even more of an achievement, even more of a dream, to say we are going to survive in this industry and to be doing it all these years later. To be earning a living from art is an incredible achievement.
Moving on, the next speaker is Anita Heiss. Anita was born in Sydney and lives in Sydney. Her work embodies what documentation of urban Aboriginal culture is. As an author, poet, social commentator and cultural activist, Anita is the national coordinator of Black Words: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Writers and Storytellers Database. She is the deputy chair of the Australian Society of Authors and her most recent works are Not meeting Mr Right, I’m not racist but… and Yirra and her deadly dog Demon.
ANITA HEISS: Hello everybody. I am from the Wiradjuri nation of central New South Wales. My mob is from Cowra. I was born in Gadigal country. Most of you will know that as the city of Sydney and I have spent most of my life living on Dharawal land out at La Perouse. I pay my respects to the traditional owners of country and thank the organisers for having me here today. We learn something in every conversation we have.
Richard Bell said that we haven’t articulated well enough this urban identity issue. I have to disagree because I think if you turn on in Sydney 93.7FM Koori radio every day, it is articulating with every broadcaster, every song that is played, every interview it has had, every piece of art work and every artist. Well there’s also 4AAA but they play country and western. Everything we say today is really an articulation of being an Aboriginal person living in an urban setting.
I have just flown in from Brisbane where I was at an Australian literature conference and academics were still having the discussion of whether or not we were post-colonial. While white Australians might be post-colonial, but obviously anyone who is aware of what is happening in remote communities in Australia right now as we speak here at this very minute will know that black Australia is still being colonised.
How does that link to today? Often it is the urban populations with access to a range of services and facilities denied to those in more remote areas that means that we, as urbanites and suburbanites or whatever we want to call ourselves, are afforded the access, the platforms and the power, because we sit here in complete positions of privilege today because we have a platform and we have the power to have the discussions around defining who we are, particularly in the twenty-first century. It is this sense of enormous privilege that I have been given as an urban dweller, if that is what we want to say, that drives me to produce the material that I do.
Vernon Ah Kee made the point that, while there are people living in certain economic levels of privilege compared to the bulk of Indigenous Australia, it is neither more or less black. I say to my students when I travel across America, ‘Think of the top one per cent of this nation. What sort of jobs do they have; what sort of power do they have; where do they live; who are they?’ They say, ‘They’re senators, mining magnates, oil people’ and whatever. They go along the top one per cent and the bottom 2.5 per cent. So don’t look at me and think Indigenous Australia is doing all right.
I am just in a position of privilege because I have had all the benefits - sorry, all the human rights - that any child born anywhere should have had, and that is access to education, health, housing, and two parents who were allowed to raise me without fear of removal. In an Indigenous context I am completely privileged; in the white context I am just normal. So I am driven to produce material based on those sorts of things.
To demonstrate some examples of the urban voice today I wanted to talk about two books released this year which are both set in urban environs in Sydney, La Perouse and Coogee, and they are both about urban Aboriginal people. While having two distinctly different audiences - one is for young readers and the other is for adult female readers. Both had the same goals in mind to make the point that we are a diverse nation of peoples and that most of us live in urban centres, 70 per cent - one-fifth of the entire Indigenous population lives in greater Sydney - and we live there for many reasons, some of them through historical relocation but many have also moved to urban centres for the purpose of education, for employment and for relationships.
The books are also about making the point that, while the east coast of Australia may have been the hardest hit by the process of colonisation and our sacred sites may be covered in tar and concrete, there still is ongoing history and heritage in our cities. The Koori kids at La Perouse or the middle-class, educated, bourgeois black women in Coogee are no more or less Aboriginal than our country men or women in other parts of Australia. It is essentially our experiences as Aboriginal people that make us different from those living in other places.
In terms of the title of my paper which was ‘Concrete Kooris with Westfield dreamings,’ I wanted to point out that I was quoted by journalists in the Melbourne Age a few years ago saying, ‘I am a concrete Koori with Westfield dreaming.’ It was a throw-away line I made at the time as a joke, and it’s been used by many reviewers, interviewers and reporters since. A Spanish filmmaker read it online somewhere in preparation for an interview that they were doing with me and then mid interview asked me, ‘Can you tell me some Westfield dreaming stories?’ Humour translated is really difficult so you lose that - she didn’t get it as a joke because they don’t know what Westfield is obviously. But it inspired me to write a collection of short stories called The Westfield Dreaming Stories focussing on the elders like Colonel Saunders, Ronald McDonald, David Jones, and the meeting place which is the food court - clearly it is just a send-up.
In terms of being a concrete Koori, I have my most challenging and rewarding moments in the classroom and lecture theatres not only here in Australia but also each year when I tour the USA. On most occasions students and academics often enter the lecture theatres with preconceived notions of Aboriginal identity and what kind of person they expect to see in front of the class, similar to what Bronwyn had experienced in her lecture. Most of my American audiences when I was teaching at Macquarie in the US have seen Crocodile Dundee, which is 21 years old now. That is still the film they have all seen and watched. They see David Gulpilil’s role in that film and they have fairly clear visions of who they think we are.
Indeed, when I travelled to my father’s homeland in Austria in 1992 I was in his village of St Michael where the notion of Aboriginal Australia was based on what people had seen on documentaries or on the tea towels they had been sent from friends and relatives from Australia. Maybe this is a bit harsh but both forms I felt at the time were cashing in on particular kinds of Aboriginal experiences, largely those experiences outside of metropolitan or urban areas.
So the understanding of my audiences and people internationally of Aboriginal Australia was based on the blackfella living in the Western Desert, speaking language, carrying a spear and still living a nomadic form of existence - so many of my students are very disappointed when they see me take the microphone. I had a woman in the USA at the end of the lecture say, ‘I actually came here today to hear an Aborigine speak. I’m not quite sure why you are talking.’ I was speaking for the last hour. It’s the same sort of thing. People are only ignorant if they haven’t been told. It’s once they have been told and had the opportunity to know different they are only ignorant if they maintain those thoughts.
So I have to explain that I don’t wear ochre, I wear Revlon. I don’t go walkabout; I drive a sports car for the sheer reason that it is much faster. I don’t speak Creole or pidgin or my language, which was flogged out of the Wiradjuri people as was most nations; I speak the colonisers’ language - and there is something ironic about the I’m not racist but… book being published by Cambridge recently which is about colonisation, invasion and the ongoing survival in this country being published in the colonisers’ tongue to say that. I don’t tell time by the sun; I tell time by Dolce and Gabbana. But I do hunt kangaroo three times a week and I do so where most Aboriginal people get their food - at Coles or Woolworths. I make chili con kanga, kangaroo curry and I eat kanga bangers.
These are the facts and concepts that I take to many of my projects, including the fact that Aboriginal people generally do not exist on the national identity radar. My favourite example of this is when I overheard a conversation between an American tourist and a Melbourne man. The tourist said, ‘I’ve just been in Australia and I met a fourth generation Australian. That’s pretty good, isn’t it?’ Now I wasn’t listening to the conversation prior to that but then I started to really listen. The guy from Melbourne says, ‘Wow, fourth generation Australian, you just don’t get any more Australian than that.’ I looked to my colleague, also Wiradjuri, and we’re like ‘try 4,000th generation Australian’. We are not even on that identity radar, partly because we are expected to have a physical experience but we are not on the identity radar. So we have Chinese Australian, Greek Australian, Italian Australian, Lebanese Australian and Australian - and by that I mean Anglo Australian - but we’re not even on that radar. So clearly our long history, tens of thousands of years of existence doesn’t count. We are invisible on that radar.
With that in mind I was further encouraged to develop and write with the students of La Perouse Public School, Yirra and her deadly dog Demon. I wanted the kids from La Pa on that radar by having other Australian students around the country, black and white, and reading about them in their classrooms. The project was born out of the 2004 New South Wales Premier’s Art Award, which I was fortunate enough to win. The original plan was to do five children’s picture books. Once we got started the first draft story was about 6000 words and the first book ended being 8000 words. There are lots of gorgeous, beautiful hard-cover illustrated children’s books and I expected the kids to bring these books in the classroom. I asked them to bring in their favourite book. Everyone had to say what the book was about, why it was their favourite book, give it a score out of 10 and say who they think would like to read it. So they would do a little mini review. I said, ‘Every book that they said they read, I would read as my task to learn to write with them.’ They brought everything in from Duncan Bull, Selby the dog and Emily Eye-Finger to Jeannie Baker’s When the forest meets the sea to the complete encyclopaedia of fishing, which I refused to read.
But what I learnt was that all these Koori kids had a whole diverse reading range, pattern and interests as well. At the time there was a decline in picture book publishing, so it was easier for me as a publishing option I thought it would be okay to get this chapter book published. So working with the students the only guidance I gave them in terms of the character and story was that I went in and said, ‘The character’s name is Yirra’ - that is because I thought if I ever got married and had a baby girl I wanted to call Yirra, a Wiradjuri word meaning ‘sun’ - and she’s 10.
Basically they broke off into groups and I gave them butchers paper. One group worked out based on their life experiences what Yirra liked to eat, what she liked to do on the weekends, who her friends were, who the family tree was, which took about three weeks to do, details about her personality - what she looked like and so on. Somebody came up with the idea that there would be a Siberian husky named Demon. We had to vote on the name. It was a democratic process that took a very long time because we had to vote on everything. You don’t normally find Siberian huskies at La Perouse so that was a challenge in itself getting that into the book.
I went away and wrote drafts based on their ideas which were based on their lives. The final storyline is that Yirra is 10. She lives on the mission. She goes to La Pa Public School. She likes the beach, yoghurt, I-Pod, Casey Chambers. Her best friends are Judy and Mary, a boy at school called Matt and her Siberian husky Demon. But Yirra’s Mum is sick of vacuuming up fur balls; the neighbours are fed up with having their undies nicked from the clothes line; and her step-dad just wants his slippers back because the dog keeps burying everything. So if Yirra doesn’t find a dog trainer soon, she’ll have to give her beloved Demon to a new family, one who likes dogs who run and dig a lot.
We’ve recently launched the book, and I believe it’s a book that gives young readers a contemporary view of just one aspect of urban Indigenous life in Sydney. We had 12 principals from schools around Sydney at the launch that brought students with them as well. They were all delighted that they could now have some material relevant to populations in Sydney that they could use in their classroom. I hope That it goes into schools around Australia. While it is showing that Koori kids in La Pa in 2007 are just like other Australian kids in that they have I-Pods and eat yoghurt, cookies and things, I hope that it also puts La Perouse on the map for something other than the French landing there and Tom Cruise shooting scenes for Mission Impossible. We are already working on a second book called Yirra goes on a surfing safari. We have been down to Bondi with Clarence Slockee, who is the heritage and sites officer with the Royal Botanic Gardens, and with Adam Hill. We have some material to start drafting the next story.
I am just going to talk about the next title which is Not Meeting Mr Right. The work is set in and around Coogee in the eastern suburbs of Sydney, with some reference to Blacktown where the main character Alice just happens to wake up one morning following a block release graduation at UTS and has too much karaoke at the Covent Garden afterwards. The main character is a 28-year-old Koori woman by the name of Alice - it is not autobiographical. While her parents are Aboriginal and Austrian and she lives in the eastern suburbs, it is not autobiographical. The men that are mentioned in there may want to take me to court, but I don’t think they will because one of them was one that just touched his penis all the time and the other one knocked himself out in a break and enter. So I don’t think they are going to take me to court.
The main character is a 28-year-old woman Alice Aigner. She is of mixed heritage and she teaches history at the local catholic girls’ school - actually she runs the history department. She is sure the nuns gave her the job out of some sense of ‘we can save you’. Coogee is actually close to an Anglican school called St Catherine’s, and they have scholarships for Aboriginal girls that come from all over Australia. There are girls there from La Pa and there are girls from St Theresa up in the Northern Territory. I was actually interviewed by an Indigenous broadcaster who said to me, ‘Why did you have it set in a private school?’ We have even conditioned ourselves into thinking that our kids only go to public schools or they don’t go to school at all. I said, ‘We have kids in private schools. We should have teachers in private schools teaching our kids as well.’ Alice is happily single until her 10-year school reunion where she finds that everyone at the table at the reunion is married and mortgaged and can only talk about wedding planners and bridal registries, birthing techniques, sore nipples, stretch marks and breaking waters. Alice is not even sure how many waters there are to break. She is concerned if hers broke right then she would be breaking gin - Alice drinks a lot. It is not autobiographical.
Alice decides she is going to meet Mr Right and she’s going to get married by the time she is 30 - so she has set herself two years - and she can prove that she can be a married mother and still have a mind of her own. The story then follows Alice and her friends developing and implementing the strategy for meeting Mr Right. Her friends are Peta, who is a Murri woman working in Indigenous education; Lisa, who is a white fella who works for the Aboriginal Legal Service just to piss her parents off because her parents are really wealthy white solicitors who run their own firm, but they didn’t walk the Bridge in 2000 so Lisa hasn’t spoken to them since; and Danny who is Peta’s only married friend and has kids but she is studying media at uni and can still talk about what’s happening in the news like Palm Island.
I wrote this book for many reasons and one of them was to challenge the notions of what it means to be Aboriginal in the twenty-first century, particularly about us living in urban environments because blackfellas live along the coast all the way from La Perouse right up to the harbour. In every suburb I can name a blackfella who lives in Maroubra, Coogee, Clovelly, Bondi, Tamarama and Bronte right up until the harbour. I wanted to make the point that as Indigenous people those of us who are fortunate enough to be able to be literate - we have communities in the Northern Territory with 93 per cent illiteracy rates - we read commercial fiction so then why shouldn’t we write it. I read escape-type novels on the beach and I wanted to write one that other women could read as well. I had to purge myself of some disastrous dates as well but I also wanted to show the similarities between us as women in terms of relationships with men.
We live in a world that emphasises difference so much. Indigenous women like other women also fall in love; we fall out of love; we have dates from hell; we are disappointed; we dream about Mr Right, Miss Right or whatever your preference is and so on. We also live by the beach. We drink cosmopolitans. We exercise. We work in private schools. We talk politics. We drink gin and tonics - I mean, Alice drinks gin and tonics. We go on hens’ nights, although I don’t know many black women that have hens’ nights but we go on white women’s hens’ nights. We get waxed. Sorry gentlemen, but we actually have periods as well. We want roses on Valentine’s Day. We drink champagne. We take holidays. We have sex - some people have sex. That’s not about being black or white. It’s not about being remote or rural or urban. The point is we are women and, regardless of heritage or socio-economics, there are some things that are universal to women, and that is our experiences of utter disappointment with the male species - no, I am only joking.
But there are some differences. I do believe it is harder for Indigenous urban educated women to meet men because we do live in a culture where there is a stereotype of Aboriginal Australia that we are either in the desert on a rock with a spear or we’re in Redfern throwing things at cops. But we certainly don’t exist in Rozelle or at Coogee and we shouldn’t be anywhere else than where people perceive us to be.
I have had men want to buy me a drink and want to take me for dinner; I have given them my business card and then having seen something Aboriginal on there I have seen them literally have a physical reaction like my card said ‘Anita Heiss leper’. These are real things that have happened.
This is one experience that happened - not in this setting but it was in a pub in Bondi. Alice has mantras every day: ‘I am loved, I will be loved. I am thin’ - that’s my mantra. But this day her mantra is, ‘I will be kind and compassionate to all the white people I meet today.’ Richard, you should say that out loud. It’s a 12-step program. Step No. 12 is ‘My name is Richard and I’m a RR. I will be kind and compassionate to all the white people I meet today.’ That is your job.
This is what happens when Alice is going to a history association meeting:
Walking down the narrow hallway of the heritage listed building I try to seem confident even though I didn’t know a soul. I signed the visitors’ book, got my name tag and looked around. The room was already full of white fellas huddled in little groups chatting and being very civilised. There were no brown faces in sight. I found the self-serve bar, poured a generous glass of wine and strolled around the edges of the room looking at old framed black and white images of Bondi Beach from times gone by. No wonder history was boring to Aussie kids if this was the best a local history association could do to present it. I kept walking slowly hoping that someone might recognise me. But who would? I had never attended any of these gigs before. What was the likelihood of anyone knowing me? I would have to make conversation with a stranger. There was no other way. At least everyone here had one thing in common: a passion for history …
I attempted a sexy saunter, feigning interest in the black and white photos and soon found myself next to two greying men in suits laughing that deep belly laugh that old men do. I quietly mumbled my mantra, ‘I’m daunting and desirable and determined. I will be kind and compassionate to white people. I’m daunting. I will be kind.’ Before I knew it, I was being introduced to suit number one who described himself as a descendant of the first people of the area. I was fairly sure he didn’t mean he was Gadigal. He would have just said so if that were the case, but I asked him anyway giving him the benefit of the doubt. ‘So you’re Gadigal then?’ ‘No, don’t know that family. I’m a descendant of the Colllins’, you know, the Colllins family. That is Colllins with three Ls. There’s a park named after us.’
I refrained from commenting about the family with the misspelt name and got straight to the important details. ‘So you’re a descendant of the first family who were given a land grant after the local Aboriginal clan, the Gadigal, were dispossessed of their land then?’ Both men laughed that belly laugh again as though I were a child who had said something cute but meaningless. They were starting to piss me off. I tried not to raise my voice but continued seriously, ‘This is a history association. Surely you recognise all history and not just that which serves the coloniser.’ ‘Of course, you are right, Miss?’ ‘Aigner, Alice Aigner. I head up the history department at St Catherine’s.’ They both seemed a little surprised but impressed. They still hadn’t guessed I was Koori though, probably never even met one before - not knowingly anyway.
Suit number one continued, ‘We here at the Eastern Suburbs Local History Association recognise Australian history, Aboriginal history and prehistory as well.’ My blood started to boil. I could feel the colour move right up my neck. Was there steam coming out of my ears? The mantra about being nice to white people was gone. ‘What Aboriginal history? Everything that happened post invasion is Australian history. Aboriginal people didn’t dispossess themselves, they didn’t poison their own watering holes or place themselves on government-run reserves and church-run missions, the colonisers and settlers, the so-called Australians, did that. That is Australian history. And as for prehistory, what the hell does that mean?’ I knew what he meant but I wanted to hear him say it. ‘Well history before the British settled Sydney Cove, of course.’ He was unashamedly adamant. ‘You mean history before the British invaded Sydney Cove, don’t you, or is it regarded as prehistory because in your eyes nothing apparently happened here for tens of thousands of years before that?’ ‘Why do you keep saying invasion? It was colonisation. Someone would have colonised Australia eventually. Better the Brits than the frogs, don’t you think?’ This was suit number two’s intelligent contribution.
‘Invasion was what happened in 1788 when the boats arrived, mate, and colonisation is the process that followed. You should really get up to date with the terminology, and for the record at least if the French had colonised us, we would have better food and fashion.’ I threw back the last of my wine, mentally blaming white people for making blackfellas have to drink. They drive us to it. They make us need to escape their narrow-minded, in denial, racist, imperialistic bullshit. As I made my way out the door I spotted a lecturer I had had at university. A staunch lefty unionist, Ruby Timberton seemed to remember me too. We made eye contact, both shrugging our shoulders as if to say neither of us belonged. I was happy for her to stay but I was already tired of being the thorn in everyone’s side. Ruby’s stomach might have been stronger and her skin must have been thicker than mine, or maybe the discussions would never be as personal for her because she was white.
MICHAEL AIRD: Thanks, Anita. I agree with everything she had to say, almost everything, particularly the fact that we work in the Aboriginal arts and cultural heritage area; we do get platforms like this to talk; and we do get the opportunity to articulate what it’s like to be urban Aboriginal people - so we do lead very privileged lives for that reason. But something I do have to disagree with is her comment about Sydney having the best Aboriginal radio station in Australia. 4AAA or 98.9 as it is now known as in Brisbane - people accuse them of playing white music - they play country music, very proud of it, and their motto is that they are sneaking into the back doors of racist people’s houses all over Australia and they are riding on the back of country music. The best way to upset a racist is if you can get their children to listen to the message and hopefully getting some Aboriginal points of view across, because the best way to upset a racist is to get their children to like blackfellas. I think there are a few closet country fans out there. You just don’t know it yet.
The next speaker is Wesley Enoch from Stradbroke Island, so Enoch is one of the well-known family names up our area. As a playwright he has a long list of achievements. I’ll just read a few. In 2002 the Sydney Theatre Company mounted The 7 Stages of grieving, co-written with Deborah Mailman. In 2004 Wesley directed Riverland for the Windmill Performing Arts, which was presented at the Adelaide and Perth international festivals, and for Legs on the Wall he directed EORA Crossing, a spectacular free outdoor event for the Sydney festival. He directed The Sapphires for Melbourne Theatre Company and again for the 2005 Sydney Festival. In 2005 Wesley directed Rainbow’s End and Bitin’ Back for Kooemba Jdarra and Black Medea for Malthouse Theatre and company B. His latest play, The Story of the Miracles at Cooke’s Table, won the 2006 Patrick White Playwrights Award. Welcome, Wesley.
WESLEY ENOCH: Cool, cool. I am one of the people who disappointed Anita Heiss.
MARGO NEALE: Please explain.
WESLEY ENOCH: I have this story about my father. I grew up in Woodridge, which is an outer suburb of Brisbane, but the family come from Stradbroke Island. My father had this story about how he could light a fire in the pouring rain and cook a meal on it. Every Sunday my father would send us out into the spare allotment behind the suburban houses to pick up branches. I have this memory of dragging half a tree down the road. We would break it up and have this fire every Sunday night. The neighbours would sit outside or were behind their screen doors looking out at us in the back having this kind of bonfire basically. Then it started to rain and my father went ‘Oh no’ and the fire went out. We went, ‘Dad, you can cook a meal on a fire in the pouring rain. Why don’t you do it now for us?’ He went, ‘Oh yeah. Well you kids get out of the rain.’ He is out there for 20 minutes trying to light this fire again but no good, and then he just disappears for a second. We’re looking out going ‘what’s going on?’ The neighbours are looking out going ‘What’s going on now. What are these crazy blackfellas next door doing?’ He walks out of the shed with a f---g can of petrol and he lights the fire and yells ‘bring out the sausages’ like this. There is something about this sense of storytelling which has kind of informed my identity, what my father would say and how he would say it.
My grandfather’s people come from North Stradbroke, Minjerribah, and very early on my family were on Myora Mission there. You don’t get a name like Wesley James Enoch by accident. Enoch is a good missionary name - Enoch from Genesis 16, James after the apostle, and Wesley from the mission - the Uniting Church and before then the Methodist church. So we have good mission breed in us.
The whole idea that I see the act of creating missions as the first urbanising influence - the idea of urbanising Aboriginal people was to collect people together to modernise them, to provide them with services and to look after them - in some cases to soothe the dying pillow. But it was also in a sense to control: to look at how you could control language, you could control dance, you could rename and rebrand Aboriginal people through urbanisation. I think the mission influence is part of that.
So for me storytelling is an important part of all that: that you create stories to identify and make meaning in the world as you are. Traditional practice has always been about defining who you are and defining the landscape in which you are in. The traditional storytelling through dance, language, song and art has been about trying to make meaning of the world.
As we become more and more contemporary, there is pressure upon us to resemble what I am going to call a museum idea of Aboriginal culture. We must look like a particular type of person. We must speak like a particular type of person. We have in some respects replaced the language of ‘half-caste, quarter-caste and quadroon’ with the language of ‘urban, rural and remote’. I don’t even hear the term ‘rural and remote’ all that often; what we hear is: ‘there are urban and there are traditional’ - ‘urban’ being a moniker that we wear as a locator, where we are, but ‘traditional’ somehow being this thing that is out there away from us, whoever ‘us’ is. We have replaced one language in a search for a definition of what is aboriginality.
My dad worked in a quarry. When Dad left school - well, school, he left education when he was 10 and started working at Consolidated Rutile, the mining company on Stradbroke Island. Dad is the eldest of 13, and my grandfather died when Dad was 17 so he had the other younger kids to look after when he was 17. My youngest uncle just got married last weekend in Cairns. It’s a massive family. I am one of 42 first cousins on that side of the family. That is just first cousins and then you go boom - it’s huge.
Dad can pick up a rock anywhere in Brisbane and he can pretty tell you where it comes from. ‘That must come from Redcliffe because it is this kind of volcanic rock that - blah, blah...’ His knowledge of land comes from his ability to dissect it and pull it apart. He drives quarry rigs like loaders and works on smashing rocks down to the smallest pieces. He has this amazing ability to understand landscape. He can dissect a hill like that. That’s what I’ve been told. It provided him with an economic base. My father talked about the idea of economics in this urbanising process that as Aboriginal people we had an economic system which was based on subsistence, living on the land, creating an economic system which was maybe about bartering if you didn’t have things but about looking after yourself.
When colonisation happened, when invasion happened and that economic system was overturned, it was replaced with a welfare kind of controlling urbanisation - the missions et cetera. Then when we started to go ‘let’s have a bit more self-determination’ and we get off the DOGGIT [Deed of Government Grant in Title - i.e. reserves and mission townships] we can get on to the kind of ideas where we can control our own communities - it is not individual ownership; it is collective ownership. The government still has to legislate for us and all those kinds of things. Then that grows again and again. All the way through this - here is the story - is the whole idea of Aboriginal people working on cattle runs, droving and all of that stuff often just for tobacco, flour, sugar and tea. Everyone knows those kinds of stories. Then in 1971 when it was legal that you had to pay equal wage for equal day’s work no matter what cultural background you came from, suddenly all that employment was gone because you were paying white people for that.
The stolen wages cases, which I know are raging across the country at the moment, where government would keep if not the full wage then a good percentage of the wage and Aboriginal people were not allowed to access those kind of things. We have never been allowed to generate an economic base for ourselves. The whole idea now that Noel Pearson is talking about with individual ownership of land and homes and all that kind of stuff is interesting because it is saying, ‘Can we build our own economic base that we can then at least pass on through families?’ What are the pitfalls of that? Do you have individual ownership of land, of a house, but through whatever means you lose that and you end up again renting off a non-Aboriginal person. You have these Aboriginal communities owned by non-Aboriginal people, so you are again in the pocket of non-Aboriginal people.
This kind of economic system is always talked about, because there’s an idea of some kind of centralised decision making process that all Aboriginal people can agree to. If you think about the more than 250 language groups and all the clan groups within that, one of the great failures of ATSIC [Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission], which is another urbanising force about a central decision making body for a huge diverse - and I am going to use the word ‘anarchic’ to mean its original meaning to mean small, self-defined, self-deciding clans across the country - to have a big central decision-making process which is again democratic, meaning you can somehow have a majority rule in an Aboriginal community situation that this is the way forward, that democracy is an Aboriginal thing we should do.
I would say no, if you look at cultural analysis in terms of meaning, the great urban push in western societies for democratic structures is not actually an Aboriginal structure. We are inherently nepotistic. We are inherently about our family, our clan; we are inherently about elders - not necessarily about who can tick boxes and all this kind of stuff. So we fly in the face of a lot of Western philosophy in that way as well. This is not new discussion. This is age old. But governments, especially federal Governments, want to create one format, one response. And that obviously doesn’t work. So here we have at the moment with John Howard talking about the idea of -
RICHARD BELL: They want a single desk -
WESLEY ENOCH: Absolutely. Richard and I disagree about things. A system which is anarchic is almost antithetical to how government works. It is antithetical to the urbanising forces. As the country grows and becomes bigger and bigger, how do we as Aboriginal people create an alternate government structure where we are really about our own clan, our own elder structure and economically how we build together? If you think back to the whole Malcolm X economic strategies, which is how do we only look at our own - we go to Aboriginal shops and we create an economic cycle which is internal - how do we create that for ourselves, which is interesting because we have economic issues. This kind of sense that this urbanising force is antithetical to traditional or is the opposite to traditional is a point for me, too, because urbanisation has come to mean Western. If you live in a city, you are influenced by Western so you are not a pure Aborigine, you are not Aboriginal. You do not practice an Aboriginal culture because you are not like them - this museum image of what Aboriginal society should be.
That has created in some respects for Aboriginal people an identification of disadvantage as an identifier. If you are poor, if you are uneducated, if you don’t have a house or a car, if you don’t have shoes, if you drink lots of alcohol - one of these other kind of stereotypical things - if you don’t speak good English, if you are violent in your family - this is what aboriginality means because we can deal with disadvantage; we can’t deal with ideas of culture. Because ideas of cultural currency and the ones that we are all talking about today through anecdotal information actually means you have to go to pre-1788, pre-1770, pre-1750. You can go back pre Japanese, pre the Moccasins and pre all the other ongoing trading relationships that Aboriginal people have had for centuries and millennia. You have to go back and say, ‘There is a museum culture, a pure culture which existed at some stage and that is the identifier of what is Aboriginal’ - my point being that that has never existed. There has never been a fixed moment in time where Aboriginal culture was static. It has always been in a constant growth mode that we now - having access to education, to technologies and to other bits of information - have the right to change, to adapt.
We keep in our head a pre-1770 mentality which is about survival. We will use skills; we will use our cultural currency to create a different world. We are empowered to make choices about what Aboriginal culture looks like in the future. We should not be judged by people who want us and measure us against an image which is not true. It is a museum thing; it’s a snapshot in time; it is not a defining thing. The whole idea for me is trying to push beyond the sense of definition and look at the cultural currency: how do we continue our story telling? How do we continue our sense of survival in what we do now?
The other kind of big issue that has gone along with this economics thing for me is about the burden of proof, the idea that we must now prove ourselves as Aboriginal. How do we do that? Often we will talk about our disadvantage; often we will talk about our language, where we come from, our cultural structures; and we will identify to you as Aboriginal. I have specifically not done that today. I have not said anything about acknowledging owners of the traditional lands. What does it mean in this kind of a panel if you don’t say those things? Does that make me less Aboriginal? How does it make me less Aboriginal? How does that make me less Aboriginal? What are the questions you must put in your minds about what defines aboriginality along the way? If I tick all those boxes for you, am I Aboriginal or is it something that is innate and something I can continue to do in myself?
Those ideas - the economic stuff and the burden of proof - we see in the native title ideas at the moment where Aboriginal people must prove an unbroken line of connection with your land - like how do you do that? - through centuries to even start to argue about native title that you belong to this place. So if you haven’t hunted there for let’s say 50 years, your family got moved off and you have the stories but you haven’t been there, there are complications.
We have relied more and more on anthropologists over time - I know we are in a museum at the moment and there are arguments about is this the kind of way of the future that there is a burden of proof on Aboriginal people to tick boxes so that democratically non-Aboriginal Australia can deem us Aboriginal enough. I think that’s a common thread in what we have all been saying that the defining boxes that we are ticking are always defined for us by some kind of external feature, external body. You can say that that is democratic. You can say it is about non-Aboriginal people who have the purse strings at the moment.
But there are some ideas which are about the moral duty of this country to go back. I think we can re-imagine our economic system, as Germaine Greer talked about in an article some two years ago about how every person should wake up in the morning, look in the mirror and say, ‘I am Aboriginal’. What does she really mean by that? For me it was a sense of saying, ‘Okay, so every decision I make is informed by Aboriginal cultural issues.’ That means we would have a different system of looking after old people. We would have a different education system. We would have a different environmental policy. We would have a different way of working if we took that into account. It doesn’t mean that Aboriginal people will not mine; it doesn’t mean Aboriginal people would not build cities - it doesn’t mean any of that stuff - it would be informed by a decision making process which is kind of cultural.
I am going to throw a couple of more points at you. This whole debate on at the moment about alcohol abuse, sexual abuse of children and those kinds of things, it is something that we cannot hide from. I grew up in a world where domestic violence was part of all of that stuff. I think you would be hard pressed for any Aboriginal person in this room or beyond not to have known - if not personally or in their family then they know stories of - all of that kind of stuff.
The thing we have to battle against is when culture is used as a defence for these kinds of issues where we ourselves pull up this snapshot in time, this pre-1770 time, as a defence saying, ‘It is all right for me to have four wives because traditionally I am allowed to. It is all right for me to beat my wife because if she disagrees with me I am allowed to beat her. It is all right for me to sexually abuse this young boy because in fact that was part of our initiation processes traditionally.’ How do we make sure that we as Aboriginal people don’t trade on this idea of the snapshot in time, the pre-1770 snapshot? How do we make sure we can say, ‘No, it’s a dynamic culture Men’s business and women’s business is useful but only up to a point. When do we actually have to roll up our sleeves and work hard at it? When do we not take the easy road out and say, “We can’t deal with that because that is cultural information and we can’t deal with that.”’ No, we have to inform everyone of how we can debate these kinds of issues.
To encapsulate my big ideas I have been throwing at you, for me I think that the urbanising influences need to be acknowledged. Yes, they are there, but we need to analyse them and actually say, ‘What will we take on?’ In the same way we have to look at our traditional practices and ask the same question, ‘What will we take on? What will we release and treat as part of our heritage and our history but not something we want to practice any more?’ I don’t necessarily want to be scarred. Although that might be kind of hot in a nite club - that was joke! What do we want to release and what do we want to hold on to? That the choices are in fact Aboriginal choices and the urbanising pressures on us of some kind of democratic process that the majority rules, we should be allowed to release ourselves of those kinds of things. We should be able to discuss issues and look at cultural analysis in that way.
I have one more story. In the front of my house there’s an old stereo and underneath was this suitcase kind of. It is a wooden box with a handle on it. When people in my family die their photos are all gathered up and put in this wooden box. I asked my Dad, and Dad didn’t quite understand why we did that. I went, ‘Oh well I guess it must do something.’ Then I heard the idea when people die, traditionally you weren’t allowed to speak their name, and that has also transferred into not being able to see their image for a certain time and all this kind of stuff. I went, ‘That’s a process my family undertake but we don’t understand why any more.’ Culture is something we live and breathe, but we don’t often analyse it. These opportunities to speak it, to analyse it and to make choices are the way that Aboriginal issues in this country need to go forward with.
I look at that box and I see photos of my old aunties and uncles, my grandmother, cousins - people I don’t even know and whose names are now lost to time - and you think at least what they’re teaching me is that the cultural currency that is in my family with the dances, the language and the way we bond together is a continuation of practices that have gone on for years and years. We may not live on Minjerribah any more but we live in an urban setting and we can continue our cultural practices along the way. Thank you.
MICHAEL AIRD: It’s now time for questions.
CLAIRE MARLOW: Actually I am not going to ask a question, I am going to tell a story. I’m Claire Marlow, cultural development officer at Queanbeyan City Council. It’s a position that I do like but then I don’t also like it. Vernon, first of all I would like to challenge you: all whites living in Australia are not Christian, because what the Christians have done to our world is absolutely disgusting. I come from a Jewish family. One of the things I would like to say about the Aboriginal family - if I am being patronising I am terribly sorry but I don’t understand - you have all stood up there and said you’re from this family and from this family and from this region. I can’t do that because all my family were killed in 1938 so I am speaking from the heart here.
When we came to Australia in 1950 my mother was here and there was a lot of racism. I can’t say I am not a racist, because it’s been brought up within me in my upbringing to be racist. I spent 12 months at Papunya. I won’t say that was a privilege, I won’t say that was an honour because I was young, pregnant and I was not allowed to talk to the Aboriginal people because I might catch something. That again instilled into me the racist community that we live in. I have tried not to be racist; I have tried to be honest and I have tried to be caring. In the projects I have worked on with Aboriginal people I have found that the people there have been very helpful when I have asked questions. I haven’t gone in to do a report; I have tried to bring in programs to help. I have been patronising because I didn’t understand.
Now from what we have heard today has helped me a lot. I am working with Aboriginal people in Queanbeyan with their artwork. It’s a fantastic experience because they are teaching me so much. I would like to thank you very much for what you said today. Vernon, we’re not all racist to Aboriginal people - please accept that and don’t hate us all.
WESLEY ENOCH: Can I raise this issue about racism and reframe it as prejudice because often I think what we call racism is in fact an extension of a prejudice that you create opinions and actions not based on personal experience but on what you imagine things to happen, the pre-judgment of issues, that happens on lots of different issues. Richard is a recovering homophobe as well.
MICHAEL AIRD: There are people who don’t like country music.
WESLEY ENOCH: But the prejudgment is often based on a lack of experience and a lack of exposure, and often exposure and experiences will inform their decision making and shift it away from prejudice into somewhere else.
MALE SPEAKER: It’s been a question I have had for a long time and I’m glad we have this panel. What I have always tried to understand or tried to get other people to understand is how can we help the rest of Australia understand there are Aboriginal people south of the Cairns to Broome line. When you put a line from Cairns to Broome and some isolated desert communities but everywhere else in Australia there doesn’t seem to be any Aboriginal people. How do we educate Australia?
ANITA HEISS: Can I respond to that. It’s linked to the sort of things that Wesley was talking about, definitions and language. Language is really powerful. We are talking about collections and snapshots in time all meant to exist and look like a certain Aboriginal person. As Aboriginal people in this country we are not allowed to evolve as a community. There is a whole language created by Westerners that is used for us, including the terminology Aboriginal. There were just people here at the point of invasion, there were no Aborigines; they were people who were identified by clan groups, language groups, skin groups, moiety groups, etc. and then a language created a group of Aborigines and then we were created by caste.
There is a language that Westerners have where as societies they are allowed to become cosmopolitan when they have a mixture and everything, but we’re told cultural dilution and contamination. Westerners are allowed to evolve where our cultures are told they are eroded. Westerners have development while we are told that we are losing culture. Western society has become multicultural, but we’re told we’re straddling two worlds when we have intermarriage. It is linked to that. It is about the language that creates the language people think.
We have such a diverse group here. What I would normally do when I travel is say, ‘can people raise your hand if you identify as Australian when you travel abroad? Leave your hand up if your heritage includes something else.’ It is nearly everyone. I reply with this: ‘So what you are saying is you have one identity but many heritages. Well so do we.’ If I say I’m Aboriginal, my father was Austrian, they say ‘So you are part Aboriginal, you are half-caste Aboriginal.’ But it’s not a language. I don’t hear people saying they are half-caste Australian because they have a different heritage. There is this language that is used which actually locates us below that line that you are talking about. We live in multicultural societies in the major cities where there is lots of intermarriage and we are not allowed to evolve, we are meant to be that Aboriginal. Vernon raised a fantastic point today that there are more people - I can’t do it as articulately as well as you did -
VERNON AH KEE: If most of us live in an urban context then that must be the primary indicator of what Aboriginal is. And if most of us don’t speak language then that must also be a primary indicator. Anita and Wesley touched on this whole thing of the identity and living in culture and that we are not allowed to evolve. But when you come here you are talking about different societies mingling and different backgrounds mingling and becoming cosmopolitan, but it is all white. You come to this country as a white woman. You live here as a white woman. You can say you’re Jewish and you can say you’re not Christian, but this is a Christian country. You are still choosing to live here because it is comfortable for you, more comfortable than Indonesia or some other country that is dominated by black people.
People who come here come to this country because it’s a white country. You stay here because it’s a white country. But there is a critical decision that gets made to come here, and that is because it’s a white country. It is no accident that when governments and societies in Africa that were previously controlled and dominated by white people, when they collapsed. Those white people come here. They don’t go to Europe; they come here because this is the whitest culture you can get in the world here.
There is a critical decision that gets made. Black people come here because it’s a white culture. They just come here thinking it’s friendly. You can’t kid yourself. Surely that is the most base indicator of what this culture is. John Howard says, ‘We will decide who comes here. We will decide who stays.’ You can’t kid yourself about this country and that is racism. If you make a decision as a white person to stay in this country even though you don’t want to be racist, that’s racist. If you say you are not racist and still stay here, that’s a racist decision because of the way this country treats its black people.
RICHARD BELL: That’s too cruel brother. That’s stingray barb to the heart.
FEMALE SPEAKER: My name is Jo I have a question that is open to the whole panel about the terms ‘black and white’. I’m an academic so I am in the batch of people who are not looked too kindly on. I am struggling with these terms when I write because there is a lot of Indigenous and non-Indigenous people who use the terms ‘black and white’. I can see a lot of pluses but I can also see a lot of negatives about it. One of the negatives I see is that it is adding to that idea of what is an authentic Aboriginal person when there are plenty of Aboriginal people who don’t look black. I’m a black Australian who is not an Indigenous Australian. There is a lot of mixing of boundaries. I am wondering what you all thought about those two terms.
BRONWYN BANCROFT: I will say something. I’m an artist; I am confronted with a piece of white paper every day. I’d make a choice whether I use blue, pink or white. I’m really concerned about all the terminology s--- basically because at the end of the day Aboriginal people are Aboriginal people. We are not Indigenous. Someone said to me the other day that he was a five generation non-Aboriginal person and said ‘I am indigenous to this country so you people should stop saying that. You’re Aboriginal. You don’t be indigenous because I’m indigenous. I am five generations white and I’m indigenous. All indigenous is - I am born here.’ So for me Aboriginal people, that is where it is at. We are just Aboriginal people - end of story.
WESLEY ENOCH: I would go one step further and actually say again this is the whole idea to unify a huge range of people, we choose one title - be it black, white; Aboriginal or Indigenous; and all that kind of stuff. But if we are to go right back and go ‘I’m a Nunukul Noogi,’ ‘I am Murri,’ ‘I’m a Koori.’ If we are really to talk about the diversity in our communities and stuff like that, and identify by clan names. I think it would be an amazing thing to go back to our clan names. There is no such thing called Aboriginal any more, you have to identify where your family comes from, your land comes from and then even in that - my family split off into three or four different kind of Aboriginal clans - to have some kind of choice about where you want to identify would be so much more complex and interesting. Black and white is a shorthand and it’s useful.
MICHEAL AIRD: There is no answer. You cannot say that words are wrong or right. They are just in different contexts.
RICHARD BELL: Nigger, nigger, nigger.
MICHEAL AIRD: It is wrong to tell people they can’t use the word ‘black’ or can’t use the word ‘white’ or can’t use anything. You don’t have to accept all language but first you have to listen to it and try to sort out what is appropriate and what is not. But you can’t put rules.
ANITA HEISS: I can see the problems. When I say ‘black and white’, it means ‘us and them’ but it means white is everybody, which is inclusive of people of colour who aren’t Aboriginal. I personally would like to see a move away from using Aboriginal and Indigenous as terminology which was given to us and created different groups of people. I agree where it is possible, because tens of thousands of people who were removed can’t do country. I do know why we don’t use the terminology ‘first nations’ in this country because that would actually acknowledge that everybody else came second, and nobody celebrates coming second. They weren’t at Cronulla holding up banners saying, ‘We were here second’. All those racists with their placards were holding placards saying, ‘We were here first.’ The language thing is very powerful. If everybody started using the terminology ‘first nations’, I think we would have a much better grounding on which to work from. I don’t like using the term ‘Aboriginal’ any more because it is actually a Latin term for who we are; it is not our words for who we are. That is why even just saying ‘Koori’, ‘Murri’, ‘Nunga’ or whatever - but I can understand the difficulty for you. It is a segregationist sort of thing because it really does mean ‘us and them’.
RICHARD BELL: I don’t know about you but I reckon the most common way we identify ourselves is as blackfellas. We all agree with that. Almost all over the country that would be the most widely used terminology to describe ourselves - blackfella and white fella - and we shorten that to black and white.
ANITA HEISS: I had a non-Indigenous academic say to me in Queensland last week, ‘You use the term blackfella, white fella.’ I said, yes, it is not negative unless it is said with venom and then you know. She said, ‘How can I write that in an academic paper?’ I write it because the academy expects you to use certain terminology.
BRONWYN BANCROFT: What is academia anyway?
RICHARD BELL: It’s a group of people talking to each other.
ANITA HEISS: That is what we are doing.
BRONWYN BANCROFT: Just to reflect on what you said when you said that you didn’t have any family. I wanted to say something to you. I have spent a long time working in and amongst my family. We have really never understood why we were such an isolated family group and we come from northern New South Wales. There was a guy called Edward O’Gilvie who was given 138,000 acres of our country of which we were a part of, the Djanbun clan. They murdered every single one except my great, great, great grandmother Pemau and Pundoon. There was a boy left. I never even got the chance to meet those people and have an extended family. We have been fighting ever since then to reclaim spaces for each other as family members for just that - for the mere sense of survival. When we do get together once a year which we do as a family, hundreds of us all come together on the riverbank and we have a smoking ceremony and we wish each other the best and we know we are survivors. Maybe we should just call ourselves ‘the survivors’ because at the end of the day we are not a television commercial. It is all real; it all hurt; and it is all pretty bad stuff. I would like people to accept the fact that whether you use terminology like ‘Indigenous’, ‘Aboriginal’, ‘blackfella’, ‘white fella’ - it doesn’t matter what your colour as long as you’re a good fella. That was the Warrumpi band, and that was a long time ago. I was quoting from them but, I did a painting called that and donated it to my son’s school so that I didn’t have to pay fees because I refused to pay fees. I will give them paintings but I won’t pay fees because they didn’t let my father be educated so why am I going to give them any money. So you can do little squirmishes.
VERNON AHKEE: You are rougher than Richard.
BRONWYN BANCROFT: I am rough. Anyway that’s where I am at. I have compassion and I have all those things but at the end of the day there is a lot of personal stories intertwined in the weaving of this country which, as Anita has profoundly said, there is no such thing as first nations and it should be seen as that. When you go to Canada they think seven generations ahead. That is their philosophy.
MICHAEL AIRD: When I first came to Canberra for an academic conference, an Aboriginal academic got up - there was a large percentage of Aboriginal people at this conference - and really lectured every Aboriginal person in the theatre that we should all stop using the word ‘Aboriginal’ and all these other different words and he said ‘we are all Kooris and that’s what we are’. No matter where we come from in Australia we are all Kooris. That one didn’t go over well. We moved on from that one.
ANITA HEISS: Who was it? There must not have been any Murris in the room.
MICHAEL AIRD: She was from Queensland.
ANITA HEISS: I wanted to say they are the sorts of stories that you need to tell white fellas, but thank you for sharing it today. With my students and I have 215 students a semester at Macquarie, all I wanted to arm them with was one line when they’re at the barbecue or at the dinner party or in the uni bar and someone says in their gut they know it’s not right that they could actually have a response. I have people come up and tell me stories all the time about their positive work with Indigenous people whether it’s the arts, in health or whatever. Your stories would be great to share when you are in those spaces with white fellas who haven’t actually had those experiences. When you hear somebody saying, ‘Oh good. they are sending in the military,’ you need to say, ‘I was up in Papunya,’ and I think they’re the stories you need to tell each other. They really help when you are confronted by someone, because quite often the racism that you hear in many places is completely emotive. It is not based on any rationality; it is not based on any statistics. I used to say to my students, ‘Make the statistics up because they won’t have them.’ They say, ‘All blacks get free cars,’ but they don’t have anything to back it up. It is completely emotive. It is something they have heard seen in the Telegraph or something. Don’t make them up.
WESLEY ENOCH: The government makes them up all the time. You know when ATSIC was shutting down all those Aboriginal organisations because of misappropriation of funds. There is this fantastic figure that came out which was that about 10 per cent of Aboriginal organisations couldn’t account for moneys.
VERNON AHKEE: They did it the other day with land councils in North Queensland.
WESLEY ENOCH: They then look looked at the Department of Defence and 14 per cent of all moneys couldn’t be accounted for.
BRONWYN BANCROFT: That’s a national budget.
ALAN JUNGALA SAMBONO: I was going to make a point about how a number of us Aboriginal people view violence. My name is Alan Jungala Sambono, and I am a traditional land owner from central Northern Territory. One of the things that we learn from our grandfathers, and one of my blood uncles is a businessman but I don’t mean he wears a suit and carries a briefcase. We were at the Ellier pub one day when a couple of the new and old owners of the station came in. After the stories my uncles and grandfathers told me of the abuse of being hobble chained and belted with a bullock whip - and in my country most of the men are pretty big guys - 6’2’’ or 6’3 - and pretty lean because they have been chasing horses most of their life. One day we said to my old uncle, ‘Here come them fellas. Let’s go and sort it out. Let’s get some justice, some retribution.’ And immediately my uncle turned to us as if we were fools and said, ‘Poor bugger, he’s an old man now. We’ve got to look after him.’ I learnt a valuable lesson that many of us young ones, and I am going back 30 years now, were quite bitter about the memories of the abuse. Yet here is the man who was abused who was forgiving. This was before reconciliation came up as a headline.
So for me I have learnt over my last 30 years of existence that that kind of violence gets us nowhere. But at the same time I must add that some wise person said somewhere that extreme situations sometimes require extreme measures. But again getting back to my belief for us as Aboriginal people as a Jingalee man the worth of life is too much so we just didn’t take life. But maybe we should learn in the future to come pretty close to it. That’s being a little bit radical for me because I don’t believe in violence, but maybe we need to make a threat of some kind.
WESLEY ENOCH: Can I respond to that - not that necessarily but it made me think about the sense of what old uncle said. We spend a lot of our time talking about past because that’s where we get our moral authority from. In Aboriginal theatre, a lot of it is about reading on to the public record our history, about trying to document our history and our beliefs and all that kind of stuff so we don’t lose it. But at what point do we start to talk about the future that we want. What kind of future are we trying to build for ourselves? We are fascinated by the past and try to keep it all together. But the challenge is to actually say, ‘How do we build a world that we want? How do we look into the future and develop something that in seven generations will be the world that we want? We are still in a world where activism to change what we are now is often without goals. Activism to make change isn’t about achieving anything. It is about making change.
VERNON AHKEE: It is because people can’t agree with our position about where we are historically, socially and economically. We still can’t reconcile ourselves with the kind of life we live or that we should be living right now. I have a brother who asked me once, ‘You can go off talking about identifying problems but you don’t come up with solutions.’ I said, ‘You can’t until people acknowledge that the problems exist.’ It’s about where we live and our position in this society. We are up here talking. It sounds like this is good, it’s a good platform and we’re strong blackfellas. But we’re sitting in a building which emphatically demonstrates how powerful white people are in this country. This is one museum and it details white history in this country, even to the point where it acknowledges that Aboriginal history existed but gives it a small section of the building. The building is huge and blackfellas have this small section. Not only is it detailing white history but also it is very, very carefully segmenting the different kinds of non-white history and positioning it and telling us all how it fits in. We don’t get to choose. Whereas where I sit, if you are going to correct that imbalance, then as blackfellas whose histories existed before anybody else in this country we are the ones who should have the building and we are the ones who should be segmenting everybody else and putting them in and showing them how you fit into our history. That’s how long it is. It should be like, ‘We have been here 80,000 years so where the bloody hell are you?’ That’s how the line should go.
RICHARD BELL: Going back to these fellas and addressing this, we can’t agree what are the problems. We can’t agree on what we are fighting for. You ask 10 blackfellas what we are fighting for and you will get 10 different answers or maybe 11. You can’t have solutions to anything unless you imagine where it is you want to be and what it is that you want. How can you have victory, how can you plan for anything if you don’t know what it is that you want. I think we need to sort that out.
What is it that we want? Is it sovereignty? Without sovereignty we cannot establish an economic base. This is the twenty-first century. This is Australia. Capitalism is king and democracy is his queen. That is how the world is ruled. We have to have some sort of mechanism with which to go forward into the future. We can’t have that without sovereignty. We have to be able to own what’s underneath our land as well as on top. Like I have said before, on all Aboriginal land that is owned in this country the government still owns the trees. So we can’t even participate in carbon trading. All you white people even in your back yard you own that tree. We don’t. We need sovereignty. Perhaps we could have something to say about the immigration policy as well and things like that. We should be deciding what issues are really important to us. Instead of looking at bandaids, let’s start looking at what sovereignty means to us because we need that to get out of this hole.
MICHAEL AIRD: But even in our own profession as cultural heritage workers, if you move too far ahead there is somebody who is going to get jealous and try to pull you back down again and bully you out of an opportunity.
BRONWYN BANCROFT: I can remember Uncle Chicka Dixon when Garry Foley and he were the chairperson and director of the arts board, and I went in there, Tracey Moffatt went in there and Michael Riley went in there. Chicka Dixon has always maintained this that we should have at least five per cent of the gross national product and should have had that ever since the inception of economic bases in this country. That is a large amount of money and that comes unhindered. That at least gives you some economic base, but you do have to have a treaty. At the end of the day without a treaty we have no bargaining power. We have nothing at the table. We are marginalised; we are always marginalised.
RICHARD BELL: Everybody says, ‘What are you going to do with the money?’ It’s none of your business what we do with this money. Who asks what the top one per cent of Australia do with their money. The millionaires of this country what do you think they are doing? Do you think they are out working digging ditches? B--- they are sitting around drinking wine, sipping chardonnay. I don’t care what they do and they shouldn’t care what we do with our money.
VERNON AHKEE: I am going to build biological weapons.
PETER READ: Changing the subject a bit and coming back to identity again. I can appreciate Anita’s point about my identity is Aboriginal but I have heard young people, particularly those who come from a more exotic part of their family, say, ‘Okay Mum, sure you’re Aboriginal but I have an Italian Dad. I have been to Italy. I can talk Italian. I have been to mass and I know my Italian family as well as I know my Aboriginal family. Why can’t I be Aboriginal and Italian?’ Young people are saying that. I have heard them. We probably all have.
ANITA HEISS: They can be.
PETER READ: But the point is what do you say to them as a parent? Do you say, ‘If you go on like this, dear, there is not going to be any of us around in 100 years,’ or do you follow Wes’s argument and say, ‘No, the culture has to change’? Do we encourage young people to say that or do we say ‘make up your mind’ or you talk about the family tradition or what. What do you think, panel?
ANITA HEISS: Partly it ignores the fact that aboriginality is also a spiritual identity; it is not something you sit down and have a conversation about and think about every day. For me I have a father who is Austrian. When I was born the doctor didn’t slap me on the arse and say, ‘Congratulations Mr and Mrs Heiss, you have a bouncing baby Aborigine.’ Blackfellas make babies. They had a bouncing baby girl. When I was five I got called every name - abo, boon, chocolate drop and coco pop. White fellas told me who I was, so I was socialised as an Aboriginal person without even knowing at five what being Aboriginal meant. It is a very personal experience. I am not a parent but my parents didn’t sit me down and say, ‘This is what we are.’ We just got on with life. When I went to school white fellas made me black really and told me who I was and all that sort of thing. I would go home and say, ‘Mum, why am I this?’ In the best way she could she would explain what aboriginality meant. But I am not a parent. Maybe someone who is a parent can explain how they do that with children.
ALAN JUNGALA SAMBONO: I am an Aboriginal Jingalee man. My wife is white - Scottish, Irish and Jewish. When you talk to the rabbi on the Gold Coast he will tell you that my sons are Aboriginal Jews. That is the mixture of my family. My kids have been through the exact same experience where they have been forced because of their life experiences to make a choice very early in their life: what are you - are you black or are you white? When the kids are very brown, they have had no choice, they are the black so and so. The younger son, he can pass for a Jewish person quite easily because he has very fair curly hair, but unfortunately he looks very much like me so that makes him a little bit black as well.
The problem is that very early in life they get forced to make a decision even though their genetic structure is one where they can have a multitude of choices. I have had people come to me when I am fishing down the wharf thinking that I am Greek or Spanish or Maori, but in fact none of them actually say that you are actually Aboriginal. It is mainly the younger kids who if you have a bit of chocolate drop in you - you must be a coon. The point of raising it again is just confirming that youngsters really don’t get much of a choice. You either are or you’re not.
WESLEY ENOCH: It is interesting this search for a dominant narrative in your life. For me, I have Danish, Spanish, Irish, German, Filipino, South Sea Islander, three different Aboriginal clans and Spanish on that side as well. You end up defining a dominant narrative for yourself because to talk about that diversity every time you identify yourself is really interesting.
ANITA HEISS: I do think it is about socialisation. Maybe if I grew up in Austria and I had some sense it would be completely different but I didn’t - I grew up on the fringes of La Perouse. It is about being socialised. A lot of people don’t have that socialisation process and therefore they can make a choice.
WESLEY ENOCH: Somehow we have to create a dominant narrative. Some reason we have to do that. We are not happy with the diversity within ourselves as well perhaps. A maturation of this country will be where you can see the diversity of history and the diversity of narratives that is allowed to be embodied in one family.
RICHARD BELL: What you are talking about is where it was imposed upon you. Jack Davis called that ‘the white man’s curse’ where they attach a particular type of aboriginality to each of us. It is always of the violent drunk woman bashing, child molesting - ANITA HEISS: Man bashing in my case. You fellas need a flogging now and then.
TRISH ALBERT: I suppose this is a kind of question. My name is Trish and I work here and my cousin is Vernon there. Wesley, I am a little bit interested in some of the things that you have said about the past and the present when you were referring to the box of photographs and an Aboriginal man having four wives, that’s not right and we have to leave the past behind to create a new future and question these things, and all stand up and be willing to expose ourselves and talk about these things. I would say that our people have been doing that ever since European settlement. Our people have been fighting for a better future within the means that they have been able to do being the oppressed people. And that we today, however we identify ourselves, whatever term we choose to use, we know who we are, we know where our families are, where we come from and surely we don’t let go of the past - the past is what makes us the people who we are today and what our experiences have been. We hold on to that to create a stronger future and a strong future for our kids knowing where we come from.
I am a bit confused about your comments about dropping the past to create a better future, because I think the past is really what makes us. When we were talking about Aboriginal people today, yes we all come from really diverse backgrounds and a lot of us now have privileged positions, a lot of us here today have come from really poor backgrounds. I am not explaining myself really well, but the reality is that most of us do come from quite poor backgrounds - people my age and especially from our generation.
We were talking about defining aboriginality and what an Aboriginal person is today. I am not saying that people that have been able to have better opportunities in the last 20 years aren’t any less Aboriginal - I am certainly not saying that. But a lot of us have grown up with the circumstances that I have in very poor backgrounds. My question really is because you have touched on it quite a few times about the past and present and dropping one to move to the other. I would strongly disagree with that.
WESLEY ENOCH: I never actually said ‘drop’, my issue was about cultural analysis. Let’s use the idea of a man having four wives, my understanding of it traditionally is that if you could hunt enough and sustain a family of four wives and the children, yes, you could do that. That was part of what it was. It was also taking on a dead brother’s family and the whole responsibilities that came with it. The argument I am putting forward is about cultural analysis that often what we are all doing is just living and breathing it and under duress. I absolutely agree that, as a group of people in Australia, we as Aboriginal or in this case Murri people will go ‘okay how will we cope’ and we are in constant coping mode. We are not in a situation where we can get outside of it, look at it all and say, ‘What do we want to take us into the future?’ That is not to say that we will deny our history or deny our past, but some things outlive their usefulness. With some things you go ‘okay this isn’t useful into the future.’ I don’t know what they are off the top of my head, but we don’t have a framework to analyse that at this point.
I never said ‘dropping our past’ but we are so fixated on it, is my point. If this is the future and this is the past, are we constantly looking this way, backwards, and we are going to trip over every time something new comes up; or do we go ‘This is my past, I refer to it, I keep looking where I come from to keep going forward so I don’t get tripped up every time an obstacle is put in my way.’ I don’t think our debate is mature enough yet. I don’t think the cultural analysis and cultural debate, so we allow ATSIC to happen. Even though it goes against every kind of social structure that we have we allow it to happen. Why? Because we just trip over it because we are still looking back here. It is about the balance of that. It doesn’t mean every single person is, number one, empowered to do it and, number two, have the mental capacity to do it. Sometimes you have to tap people on the shoulder and say, ‘We need a leader, go out and argue for us about certain things.’ I remember going to a conference once - I am sorry to go anecdotal - and it was talking about sexual abuse. A man got up and said, ‘This is men’s business and women’s business and we should separate because we can’t talk about this together.’ You go ‘okay I totally understand that.’ Where we are in emotionally dangerous situations you might need a very clear format and structure. Fine, I am not saying get rid of that. But then some man gets up and says, ‘I am allowed to do this to this young man because that’s my cultural heritage. It is part of my initiation ceremony to get him to fellate me.’ Do we stand up and say, ‘Look that may have been and that was our history but now it is time to change,’ or do we actually say, ‘Okay that is your right. You are allowed to do that against this young boy’s consent.’ He is not consenting to do this. He has been told to do it by an older man. That kind of cultural analysis and debate is not happening, and we allow then the Prime Minister to use it as a wedge. If we control the debate then we can keep looking forward and create a world that we want to. I have not answered your question directly but I guess I am saying we might argue that in fact cultural initiation and the idea of a young boy fellating an older man is something we want to maintain, but we haven’t had that discussion. So let’s have it.
MARGO NEALE: I want to thank you all very much. That was one of the best discussions I have seen between each other and interacting with the audience. It was a fabulous array of opinions, and best of all it was a whole range of diverse opinions and no-one had any compulsion to agree with anyone else, which is exactly how it should be. That is the beginning of a very mature debate. If this mob could just stay together to move through the nation we might get something done.
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Date published: 03 March 2009