It’s time First Peoples’ voices were heard

 

The gap between First and Second Peoples remains wide, but is closing, albeit slowly. Peter Aldenhoven and Campbell Opie are two men from opposite sides of this cultural divide who are trying to affect real change at a grassroots level. Both are members of the Willlum Warrain Aboriginal Association.

Peter Aldenhoven, 63

I was a foundation member of Willlum Warrain, when we started in 2014. I am now the Executive Officer (Men’s Business).

Willlum Warrain, which means “home by the sea” in the local language, is a space on the Mornington Peninsula where people can come together and connect.

We regard ourselves as a place of welcoming so if someone comes through our front gate and they say, “I’m Aboriginal”, we just say, “welcome sister”, “welcome brother”, we don’t discriminate.

Whatever the drivers, there is a yearning for a better Australia, more reconciled and equitable Australia. You can despair waiting for federal government leadership, but, at a grassroots level you can build relationships and friendships and move towards the light.

My background is as an educator and I often say education’s failed generations of Australians – Indigenous and non-Indigenous – but there’s a real yearning for engagement.

For “settler Australia”, there’s always this sort of pervasive, not always acknowledged, sense of guilt about occupation and colonisation, but for young people, there’s a great opportunity to bring about inter-generational change.

I am heartened by younger people, but there’s still a profound ignorance and lack of awareness. I still hear stories about racism, and the vitriolic nature of it, so there’s still a lot of “spade work” to be done before you can bring about substantial change.

I am a descendant of the peoples of Quandamooka – the Nughi clan from Moorgumpin, Moreton Island, Queensland.

I was adopted into a non-Indigenous family. My mother, Edina, came from Stradbroke Island and got on a bus and travelled all the way down to Abbotsford in Melbourne and gave me up for adoption to the Sisters of Mercy.

At the age of 34, I reconnected with her after a bit of a search and discovered that she was a primary school teacher, teaching in science. She was Aboriginal and she told me the circumstances that led to her giving me up for adoption. But I also learned I had a brother, Chris. So I met my mother and I met my brother, which was a very profound experience.

My mother was alive for another eight years but unfortunately she passed away prematurely. I met her sister and all my cousins at the funeral. Afterwards, I went to Stradbroke Island and began the long journey home.

I became a secondary school teacher – I was originally an English teacher – and for the last 15 years of my career, I was director of Indigenous education at a local private school across three campuses. I’ve had a longstanding interest in education and particularly Indigenous education.

Aboriginal invisibility is very common. It speaks to sort of a lack of knowledge about what’s happened to Aboriginal people. I don’t like to use that old terminology, but the last “full blood” Aborigine passed away in the 1920s or thereabouts, so you’re not likely to see people with really black skin here. If you do, they’re probably people from the north. But irrespective of skin colour, it’s about how you identify in your cultural connections.

It’s painful to have your identity constantly questioned. And tedious. If people want to prove – or have to prove – they are Aboriginal, that can be difficult sometimes because in the past the only way Aboriginal people could get off reservations or missions and get a job to support their family was to sign documents stating that they weren’t Aboriginal. And that has consequences down the track. That’s not a majority experience, but it is a real component to the complex history of the politics of identity.

We have a lot of people who engage with Willlum Warrain who may or may not “look Aboriginal” – which is an offensive term. There’s a saying in Aboriginal culture: “too black to be white, too white to be black”. Then there’s that joke, “it doesn’t matter how much milk you put in a cup of coffee, it’s still a cup of coffee”.

The Uluru Statement From The Heart was such a tragic missed opportunity four years ago. To have something that took two years of dialogue between Aboriginal leaders from all around the country, to have that summarily dismissed in three days and, not mischievously, but perniciously characterised as wanting to set up a third house of parliament was really disappointing.

I thought the Statement was only asking for modest things. It was seeking an Aboriginal advisory group to comment on policy affecting First Australians and the Makarrata was about engaging in a process working towards treaty. There was no particular timeline, it was just saying we’re going to have to do more “hard talking’, to use your language, to reach an outcome we can all live with.

That seemed to be an eminently sensible process. These issues are part of every post-colonial country in the world. It’s a serious by-product of post-colonialism and invader grand theft.

January 26 is a painful day for First Australians. It’s an inescapable fact that the longest continuous living cultures on earth were completely up-ended from that day in 1788.

From my viewpoint, it’s a fundamentally unacceptable date to have a day of national celebration. At its core, it will be always non-inclusive of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. So that’s the first thing. Secondly, I particularly dislike the bogan element associated with this toxic patriotism.

Being an Aboriginal person on that day, it’s the day you least feel part of “Team Australia”. In fact, it’s a very intimidating day. If you’re wearing anything that’s Aboriginal, you’re likely to be accosted or threatened. A lot of our mob on the peninsula don’t leave their house on Australia Day, they just stay inside. We just feel like we’re outsiders in our own country on that day.

It’s always instructive to flip things like this around. Imagine on Anzac Day, a day of mourning and loss, imagine if Aboriginal people were raucously drinking and celebrating and having parties and street fiestas. There would be outrage right around the country at us disrespecting the dead.

It gets back to ignorance. A lot of people just blindly celebrate Australia Day with a sense of pride in settler achievements in the last 200 years and I’m not meaning to deride that story, but Aboriginal people in Australia have been excluded from any of that storytelling.

My best suggestion for an alternative is get rid of the monarchy and on the day the republic is proclaimed, that’s the day to celebrate Australia Day. We could become a country at ease with our conscience and proud of our shared history.

The reality is, at a federal level, both Labor and Liberal won’t touch changing Australia Day. It’ll just be a political suicide. So it’s about how you change that dynamic and get to a space where an alternative day will be considered. I’m not arguing for killing the Queen, but when she eventually dies there will be a renewed impetus for a republic. But we’re still probably 3-10 years away from having really strident discussions.

This discourse about changing the date is not going to go away – it’s just going to become more and more amplified year in, year out. I despair at what lies ahead for at least the next five years or so. We’ll just keep replaying Australia Day as it is and it’ll get more corrosive and people will bunker down on either side.

I’m not a supporter of making January 26 more inclusive of First Australians because it’s an inescapable fact that it isn’t a day of celebration. People think a lot of the issues that Aboriginal people have raised came up recently, but they’ve been going on for decades, if not centuries.

 

Campbell Opie, 69

I am an associate member of Willum Warrain and a member of the Village Uniting Church, Mt Eliza. I joined Willum Warrain in 2018.

Many years ago, in Adelaide I did studies in recreation and social planning and have had various senior jobs managing the fields of community and cultural and economic development, and strategic planning. Examples involved working with other cultures, such as Aboriginal communities, through Walking on Country, workshops and education materials aiming to create opportunities for conciliation and respect and understanding of culture,  and history from the perspective of First People, which many people, including me, had not been taught in schools.

About 15 years ago, when I was living in Adelaide, I met Kunyi, an Aboriginal artist, with whom, as it turned out, I went to primary school. She was called June Anne McInerney back then and I had no idea she or her siblings were Aboriginal. Having the privilege to meet again, I learnt Kunyi had been one of the Stolen Generation taken from her family to the Oodnadatta Mission Home during the 50s and subsequently adopted in Adelaide. In her words, her separation “took away my family, my culture, and who I could have been. These are not fairy tales, they are true, and I want people to understand”. Now a recognised and amazing artist, she said “my paintings speak for me” in exploring the experiences of cultural loss, separation from family and finding happiness in hardship.

Eventually as an adult, Kunyi investigated and reconnected with her cultural roots and family and describes her art as a means of helping her deal with her difficult and long personal journey.

Reconnecting with Kunyi and listening to hers and other very moving and uplifting personal stories was a great privilege and, for me, was my real eye opener, which led me to more deeply engage with the work of Uniting Church Covenant with Aboriginal and Islanders Christian Congress in SA.

It was exciting for me when I moved to Mt Martha, Victoria in 2018, and soon found out  about Willum Warrain (“The Gathering Place”) and met Peter and his team, who welcomed us so warmly to the thriving community at Hastings. We have encouraged and had many members of our church offering support to Willum Warrain in many ways, visiting, listening, learning about Treaty, Truth Telling, and Statement of the Heart, bush tucker and, above all, the challenges and achievements of our First People.

Willum Warrain and Peter and his team have been teaching us so generously and enabling us to join many activities open to supporters and members. It’s been a real eye opener for our community and we have loved it.

Peter has both encouraged and resourced us as we have explored ways for our church  community to listen and learn about treaty and sovereignty and experience culture. As a founding member of Willum Warrain, he has been instrumental in generating a Gathering Place which has grown so much in recent years, and a culture which offers so much to both Aboriginal members who come to the Peninsula, and those who wish to learn and stand with them. I count him as a friend and mentor and look forward to the future for Willum Warrain and helping to grow the role of our Church.

Peter Aldenhoven (right) and Campbell Opie are working hard to bring about change and improve the outlook for Aboriginal Australians.

I’ve had a big change of heart about January 26. I used to work for state government and local government and Australia Day was often largely “put the prawns on the barbecue and celebrate the heck out of it”.  That being said, in many councils I have worked with, there were efforts to negotiate respectful engagement with Aboriginal communities. And that was just what happened for many years of my working life and which I rarely questioned significantly.

My father-in-law was a Uniting Church minister and he was one of the people standing alongside Aboriginal people who were fighting for land rights in Adelaide in the 70s. I learned a lot from him as he questioned everything all the time. I went to several Invasion Day and Sorry Day celebrations. They were big and meaningful events for the time.

So, in later years, I’ve found the whole Australia Day thing difficult. It became very clear to me that any celebration that hinges itself on a flag-raising ceremony which was the first official place of announcing Terra Nullius to a people with a profound and spiritual connection to land for thousands of years – how can we expect this to be a day that’s a celebration for everybody and particularly First People?

And our national anthem is meaningless to many Aboriginal people because of the words that are used. One of the first things we could do is to change the words to be more respectful and inclusive. A few years ago, Judith Durham with Kutcha Edwards (and others) rewrote the current anthem, which I believe is a great example of a respectful alternative for discussion.

People say “get over it, it’s just a day, it’s just a celebration, we’ve had it forever, so don’t try to change it”. I think that’s an insensitive and disrespectful view and we have not had the celebration or the date forever.

The key thing for me is we need to listen and continue to listen and debate respectfully, because there’s no one answer. There’s no one view in the Aboriginal community or the non-Aboriginal community about what to do on January 26.

We need to work out what Australia Day really can be, rather than just change the date, because no day is going to be perfect. If some want a day to celebrate the coming of the fleet, that’s fine, but I don’t believe it should be an official celebration of the nation. I think it’s a total anachronism, given the range of significant and profound gaps in relationship and living that need attention.

Some councils around the country are rethinking the nature of their engagement in Australia Day events with First People. Church groups are running alternative days of recognition that focus on the struggles of, and respect for, First Peoples. The call to change the date seems to be growing  louder. But the reality is it will not happen overnight.

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