Reconciliation is not assimilation

IMG_20150528_195854502National Reconciliation Week concludes on Wednesday, but does that mean we don’t think about the meaning of reconciliation for another year?

Indigenous activist and elder Rosalie Kunoth-Monks OAM reminded us to continue the conversation when she spoke last Thursday night at the Highway Gallery, Mount Waverley in an event organised by ‘concerned Australians’ and Monash Reconciliation Group.

Ms Kunoth-Monks is from Utopia in Central Australia and shared her thoughts on the ‘whitewashing’ of Indigenous Australian culture through assimilationist state policies.

“On the tribal lands, we do not speak English and make no apologies for that,” Ms Kunoth-Monks said.

She reminded the audience that at the time of European settlement, around 250 Indigenous languages were spoken throughout Australia yet less than 20 are estimated to be widely spoken today.

Ms Kunoth-Monks observed that Maori is taught in New Zealand schools, while the majority of Indigenous children learn English only in Australian schools.

There are also few opportunities for non-Indigenous Australians to gain exposure to Indigenous languages with only 0.3% of students currently involved in an Indigenous language program.

Ms Kunoth-Monks said that keeping Indigenous languages alive is an essential process in preserving the oldest living culture in the world.

“My people are reclaiming not only our language but our identity,” said Ms Kunoth-Monks.

“There is no one way of education…we have two cultures here. We should have access to both.”

The recent controversy over Adam Goodes’ war cry celebration reflects the discomfort many Australians have with Indigenous culture. Goodes’ celebration sparked mixed reactions in the football community, with some commentators labelling it aggressive and antagonistic, while others commended him for showing pride in his heritage. In contrast, the Maori haka is performed by the New Zealand All Blacks before every rugby match without attracting backlash.

Ms Kunoth-Monks said that when the white settlers arrived in Australia, they tried to make Indigenous Australians ‘carbon copies’ of themselves. She believes a similar process of assimilation is occurring today.

A study conducted by Beyond Blue found that almost one-third of Australians believe Indigenous Australians should behave like ‘other Australians’.

Ms Kunoth-Monks believes that Australians should embrace the differences of each cultural group rather than trying to force them to assimilate into the ‘mainstream’ culture.

Reconciliation Australia has presented ideas for how churches can incorporate Indigenous traditions into their faith celebrations. Some of their suggestions include saying an Acknowledgement of Country before a service and contributing to a National Book of Prayer.

The first step towards genuine reconciliation is for Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians to build strong and meaningful relationships. Ms Kunoth-Monks invited attendees to go out and meet Indigenous Australians and get to know their culture, language and traditions.

“We have not got much time left to rescue and keep safe a wonderful culture,” she said.

“Let’s reconcile, let’s love, let’s respect. Let’s accept the beautiful differences between people in Australia.”

The above image was part of the Highway Gallery Reconciliation Week Expo, which ran from 22-29 May. The expo featured exhibits and displays put together by local organisations and schools promoting reconciliation.

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