So Australia Day has been and gone. There were the predictable protests. So there should be because if you are one of Australia’s First Nation People it would be extremely offensive. For it was on this day that Australia was settled by white people.
On this day the culture of our First Nation People was attacked and in many cases destroyed. Some of the culture remains but how much of this rich and diverse culture spread across many Aboriginal Nations has been lost forever. Australia’s First Nation People were systematically abused, killed and some communities wiped out altogether.
I spent the Australia Day in the Riverlands last week. I was on traditional land of the Merv People. I was at Lake Bonney and I saw not one Aboriginal person. Just lots of white people with Australia Flags tatooed on their cheeks. The Whiteys were having a grand old time and that is ok. Later for reasons I will not elaborate I found myself supporting a family member in hospital. It was there I saw a young Aboriginal girl receiving treatment. I found that sort of ironic.
I’m all for celebrating Australia Day. But it has to be on a day that is not so offensive to our First Nation People. It also has to come with it an acknowledgement of the harm white people have done to this magnificent group of people and cultures. It also needs to come with it a real desire to fairly repartiate and reimburse our First Nation People for the harm and plundering they have suffered at the hands of white people. I fear this will not happen in my lifetime. To me SORRY just does not cut it!
I am no expert in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander groups. In my work I always use a cultural broker. The broker introduces me to the communities and arranges permission for me to work with the communities through the community elders. It is not much but it is just a little thing that I can do to show my respect and provide the communities with some control over the support that I may have to offer. I have worked directly with a number of young Aboriginal people. I was shocked recently to discover that one had been in jail. She is a kind and gentle soul. It is to her that this article is dedicated.
Let’s go back almost 20 years ago now. My wife obtained a job as a visiting teacher for the Deaf in the Northern Territory. Part of her role was to support deaf kids in towns and also in remote Aboriginal communities. I took a career break of sorts. I became a house-husband. It was not for long, however, because I was asked to support some young deaf Aboriginal people at school. I was basically their school support person. Or should have been.
I supported two deaf Aboriginal students at the local high school and one at the primary school. I basically became their teacher and interpreter. Yeah I know! Me interpreting? Talk about the blind leading the blind. But resources were short, funding was short and skilled people even more so.
Each morning when I arrived at the school the teachers would basically give me the students lessons, send me into a break out room and I then taught them. I was supposed to be supporting them in the classroom. It did not work out that way. I became their teacher. I have half a teaching degree so I am not without skills but it is still not right. During the week I went to sport and other events with the students and became their interpreter of sorts.
One day I supported a very young boy at reading. He became quite animated about the story that was being read. It had pictures of unusual animals. When he saw the pictures he would jump up and down and screech with joy. He lacked the language to ask questions and it was his way of asking, “What’s that?”
It was a brilliant opportunity to build his language. Talk about the fluffy nature of the fur, the over large nose, the enormous fangs and bulging eyes. Size, shape, verbs and adjectives could have all been taught. Instead the teacher removed the child from the room because she felt he was distracting the class.
Another day I was working hard with a student to teach her the basic concept of fractions. She was 17 years old and had no idea. I later found out that for many years, because there was no proper support, that she had been given a colouring in book and sent to the back of the class on most days. She was basically left to her own devices. She didn’t like being pushed to learn but I stuck with it.
While I was teaching the boss visiting teacher of the deaf came into the room. The student was close to tears and throwing a minor tantrum. I explained to the teacher that she was making great progress but was frustrated. What happened? The visiting teacher sat the student on her lap, cuddled her and wiped away her tears. This is a 17 year old. She then admonished me. Told me to stop wasting my time because, and I quote, ” …she will never need to use this stuff, she will just get married and be based at home and in the kitchen.”
I also assisted a young teenage Aboriginal man at the local boarding college. He was deaf and from a remote community. I went out to the college once a week to help him with his homework. The college was established to educate young people from Aboriginal communities. It is of no surprise that it was run almost solely by white people. Each evening I would arrive to find the students marching, I kid you not. They marched from dinner to what I assumed was some kind of roll call.
My job was to assist this 13 year old deaf Aboriginal lad to do his homework. The problem was he was functionally illiterate. He could not read his homework, let alone complete it. He was also severely language deprived. I don’t know what happened during the day in class. I assume he probably just sat there. Doing what is anyone’s guess. My observation was that no-one could communicate with him.
He was really bright. After a few sessions I realised that the homework was really a waste of time. What we did was talk. With his rudimentary home signs he managed to tell me bit about his family. I can’t remember fully now but I recall he had younger siblings.
He would tell me how when he went home he would drive cars on his community land. He would mime and gesture to me how he would drive them fast, do donuts and skid. Through these conversations I taught him some basic Auslan signs. I taught him signs for his family like mum dad, brother and sister. Interestingly he had his own home signs for his family. I taught him signs relevant to driving like slow, fast, brake, turn. skid and so on. I only worked with him for a few weeks before I got a job in Ballarat and left. I do not know what became of him.
There were four young deaf Aboriginals that I worked with. It is true to say that they were all language deprived. The last time I saw one of them was in 2005.
Then a few weeks ago, out of the blue, I got a Skype call. An Aboriginal colleague had met one of the young women I worked with. My colleague reminded the young deaf woman of my wife and I and called us on Skype. The young deaf Aboriginal woman is a beautiful soul. Tall and regal with a stunning smile. When I supported her she would bring me food from her community to try. Things like goanna and kangaroo tail. She would giggle uncontrollably as I tried to eat the kangaroo tail. It’s tough.
Imagine how shocked I was when on my screen there she was. Still tall and still regal. Her smile still beaming. Perhaps little more rotund and I noticed a hint off grey in her hair. Her reaction to seeing Marnie and I on screen was a joy to behold. I couldn’t talk long as we were in the car at the time and I was driving. Marnie later told me that the young deaf Aboriginal woman had been in jail.
I got a hold of my colleague who was working with her. It seems that the young deaf woman had been living in fear somewhat. She had been startled by someone. I do not know who. She had reacted aggressively and assaulted the person who had startled her. Somehow this led to the police being involved. Courts became involved and the young deaf woman ended up in jail.
The problem was that when the young deaf Aboriginal woman was tried in the courts there were no interpreters. I am not sure how helpful a straight Auslan interpreter would have been. She probably would have benefitted from having my colleague present. My colleague knows community signs and Auslan. Either way she needed communication assistance. She received nothing.
She did not know what was going on and was not given an opportunity to explain what had happened. If she had been given an opportunity she would not have been able. She was not able to adequately defend herself. Nevertheless, she was made to endure the court process and ended up in jail. It must have been terrifying for her. Make of that what you will.
” …..Indigenous incarceration rates sometimes go up to as high as 100% in individual prisons, even though we represent 3% of the population .. “
Imagine that? There are some jails in this country where every single prisoner is an Aboriginal person. Pearson notes that these Aboriginal people are,
” ..often dealing with issues of FASD, severe hearing loss, intergenerational trauma, or abuse at the hands of the state….”
For those that do not know, FASD is Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders. We know from statistics that up to 85 % of some Aboriginal populations have a hearing loss due to poor health care. We know that systemic abuse and breakdown of Aboriginal communities has resulted from abuse and dispossession at the hands of white people. If the Stolen generation was not enough we are now jailing Aboriginal people with disabilities and putting them through courts without any support or means for them to defend themselves.
This is happening today in our country. It is all indirectly related to that fateful day when Britain settled Australia with convicts in 1788. And we celebrate it!
Well done us. Well done indeed!