This is Australia! Australia is a land of plenty. Australia is a land of the fair go. Australia is sunny beaches and open spaces. Australia is sunshine and Koalas. It’s not all good though. Watch out for those spiders and the snakes because they cop a bit of a nasty bite. Apart from that Australia is a land of plenty and opportunity. Most of all it is the land of a fair go. Or is it?
In this rich land of opportunity did you know that, “Aboriginal infant mortality is one of the highest in the world. Forty percent of Aboriginal children end up in hospital with acute respiratory illness with admissions for pneumonia 80 times higher than for non-aboriginal children.” Or that, “The life expectancy for Aborigines is 15 years less than for the rest of the Australian community with Aborigines in their 30s and 40s dying at a rate 12 times higher than other Australians of the same age.” Or that, “In places like Redfern and La Perouse in Sydney, Inala in Brisbane and many other city areas, unemployment has forced Aborigines into overcrowded and substandard housing which breeds serious health problems.” Or that, “… the jobless rate is as much as 90 percent in some areas. In country towns of NSW and throughout Australia the social conditions which flow from this can only be described as a disaster.” The catalogue of social inequality and unfairness confronted by Aboriginal people goes on and and on. It makes a mockery of any claim that Australia is the land of a fair go.
I was horrified recently that a visitor to this country had been told that Aboriginal people needed to get over it. He was told that what happened years ago was not good but that Aboriginal people are holding a grudge and that they needed to move on. Basically he was saying that he had been told that the social woes of Aboriginal people are their own fault and are related to the fact that they are still living in the past. I was gobsmacked.
This is the country that stole children from Aboriginal parents. They did so under the misguided and elitist apprehension that White and European culture was superior. Stealing children from Aboriginal parents happened because White Australia wanted Aboriginals to be like them. It was done because White Elitist thought Aboriginal children would be better off in ”civilised” society. More than 100 000 Aboriginal children were forcibly removed from their parents and this was still occurring as recently as the 1970’s, less than 50 years ago.
The horror of this period in Australia’s history is unimaginable. Suffice to say the damage done to the stolen generations is being felt savagely even today. Individually it is well documented that Aboriginal children who were stolen suffered from low self-esteem and mistrust of people. They often felt guilt and shame because they were told stories that they were taken from their parents because the parents did not love or care for them. They suffered anguish because they were often told that their parents were dead only to discover later that this was a lie. Mostly they lost their identity and culture as their communities were torn apart. They were forced to grow up WHITE and later when they discovered their true culture and identity the anger and grief was immense. The consequence of all of this and more is still being felt today. It beggars belief that White Australians of today could believe and state openly that Aboriginal people need to “move on.”
In 2002 I moved to Alice Springs for a year. My wife had been struggling to establish her teaching career in Adelaide and an opportunity arose to become a Visiting Teacher for the Deaf in Alice Springs. We sold our house and took off to Alice Springs. It was a real eye opener. The first thing that strikes you is not the heat but the dogs.
The dogs are everywhere running around the streets. In the major cities it is a rarity to see dogs running about. But it was common to see two or three dogs trotting along the footpath. Often one would be a female that had recently given birth. You knew this because the teats of the dog were enlarged and swayed under her as she ran. The dogs are your first indicator that the social structure of Alice Springs is very different.
At first glance Alice Springs, apart from the beautiful Macdonell Ranges, is nothing but a nondescript suburb. When you live in Alice Springs you very soon realise there is White Alice Springs and there is Black Alice Springs. The Whites typically live in modern well kept houses. This is particularly apparent around the Alice Springs Golf Club which is surrounded by what are best described as POSH houses.
If you walk a little down the road from the Golf Club you will find some Aboriginal houses. After the pristine houses surrounding the Golf Club the Aboriginal houses are a reminder of the social inequality that exists in Alice Springs. The Aboriginal houses will have rubbish and debris scattered in the front yard. Many of them have grating covering the windows to prevent them being broken. There is the almost mandatory broken down Holden or Ford in the drive way or yard. Graffiti covering the houses is common. Over-crowding in the houses is apparent.
I really hated it. I could not rid myself of the feeling that I was an intruder on their land. I felt a deep sense of shame that my race could live and exploit a land and reduce the real owners of the land to poverty. During the day many would gather to drink their flagon of wine in the middle of the dry Todd River. At night the paddy wagons would drive down the river to pick up those Aboriginal men who were so drunk that they were a danger to themselves and others. It was just an awful thing to witness.
I was fortunate in some ways to have been able to work with three Aboriginals who were deaf in my short time in Alice Springs. One of them was a beautiful, tall and regal young Aboriginal woman. Whenever I walked in she would beam me the most brilliant smile. She often would bring me food that her family had cooked the night before. Goanna is very tasty and kangaroo tail very tough.
Another was a young boy from a distant community. He was flown in from his community for school where he was a boarder. At 14 he could neither read nor write. My job was to help him with his homework. It was an impossible task because he had sat through class the whole day and not understood a word that had been said. The homework to him was just squiggles on a piece of paper. Both of us just ignored the homework and concentrated on developing our own communication. He would tell me tales of his home. He delighted in showing me the home signs for various animals. He would tell me excitedly how he drove a car and would mime how fast he went and how he would drag the back wheels into a skid. His would show me through mime and gesture the plumes of dust that the skid created behind the car.
There was another young woman from a remote mining town, a few hundred km South East of Darwin. They discovered that she was deaf very late in life. She had been befriended by one of the senior mining managers who paid for her to be flown to Alice Springs for her schooling. She hated it there and just wanted to return to her community. Her literacy was rudimentary. It was the same for all the Aboriginals in Alice Springs who were deaf that I worked with. She was a volatile but intelligent young woman and she knew where she wanted to be.
She wanted to go home and she made that clear for everyone. “School Finish” she would sign, “home home home” This was in 2003. Unrelated to the woman’s wish to return home my wife applied for a grant for her and another Aboriginal student who was deaf to attend the 2003 Sydney Australian Deaf Games. I was employed with another white woman to support them at the Games.
When we arrived in Sydney the young woman delighted in telling me that she was finished in Alice Springs. She would tell me that when the Deaf Games were over she was going back home for good. The problem was that she wasn’t. You see the authorities and her mining benefactor did not respect her wishes. She believed that she was going home but they had booked her to go back to school in Alice Springs. I suspect that they could not communicate with her and could not fully comprehend how much she wanted to return home to her community. She was 18 years of age by this time and although she was illiterate she was intelligent and knew her own mind.
One day during the Deaf Games we were talking about what was to happen at the end of the Games. She insisted that she was going home to her community. It was my unfortunate task to explain to her that this was not the case and that her ticket had her to return to Alice Springs. She tried to slap me. She let out a blood curdling scream. “NO NO NO!” she signed. She ran around the room gesticulating and verbalising loudly. Eventually I managed to calm her down. She sat in the corner of the room and sobbed for a very long time.
It was my job to get her on the plane back to Alice Springs. At the airport she continued to plead with me to let her go home to her community. I only managed to get her on the plane by promising to help her go home when I arrived back in Alice Springs. I was going back to Alice Springs the next day. For a while she stayed with us at our home in Alice Springs. She carried around with her some scissors for protection. Her mistrust of people by this time was immense.
As I had promised her in Sydney, I set about helping her to return to her community. A meeting was organised by my wife. At this meeting both my wife and I argued strongly for her to be allowed to return home. The lead visiting teacher insisted that the girl should stay. After a long and tense meeting the young woman got her wish. The whole situation demonstrated that, even to this day, that many White Professionals still have a superior and paternalistic attitude towards Aboriginal people. The situation remains one of the most harrowing that I have ever experienced.
This is the Australia that we live. What White Australia have contributed to the appalling situation experienced by the First Australians is something to be truly ashamed of. My admiration and respect goes out to all those Aboriginal people out there fighting the good fight for their people – I end this with a poem from an Aboriginal person from The Stolen Generation.
They had taken away my family!
The child within me cried,
The stolen life, the agony
Of many a year gone by.
The cover up; the pretence.
The falsehood: All those lies.
Didn’t they know I’d find out the truth one day,
And now I just ask WHY?
All their words and all their kindness
Can never fill the pain.
Can I ever trust the people,
That I believed in, once again?
The stole me from a lifetime,
My heritage. My home.
My family. My identity.
My spirit all alone.
But to let them win, would be a sin.
To give up would be a crime.
I must search on. I must fight on.
To find what is rightfully mine.
To find my heritage; my family.
My home and identity.
To find the person who was lost to me.
Me… the Aborigine!
Poem by Pauline McLeod .
This article is dedicated to my friend Jody – Keep up the good fight!