How do I approach Australia Day as an indigenous Australian, a day having particular meaning and ramifications for my people? Bill Haywood is indeed a brave Australian asking me here, for this could go to custard quickly. I could denounce Australia Day and all it stands for and do so with a sense of legitimacy and right. Or I could take the position of reconciliation and reach out a hand in friendship, crossing the barriers of violence, ignorance and racism.
The first is the easy option. Railing against injustice is loud, aggressive and belligerent and gains the recognition of others who appear to feel as deeply about the issue as you. This option is the one we find on the front page of our newspapers and to which those who wish to continue the racism use as proof of a divided nation.
It would be the easiest for me to take and justifiably so.
I grew up in a town known for its violence against local tribes. Visiting the library, reading newspaper cuttings and letters from the mid 1880’s to the early 1920’s, I realised the steps taken by my family to hide my grandmothers’ heritage was a strategy deemed necessary for survival.
My grandfather made my Uncle promise to keep my grandmothers indigenous heritage hidden. No one in my family speaks of it; her background is shrouded in mystery. There is only a mother who registered the birth some time later in a different town. No father is mentioned. She had the name of the family she was left with when the small aboriginal community from which Jimmy and Joey Governor, part-aboriginal men who killed 9 people during a fourteen week rampage in 1900, the year prior to Federation, and who inspired the book and movie “The Chant of Jimmy Blacksmith” came, were forcibly moved out west at the request of the white community.
While it was our family secret, it wasn’t a secret to the locals. I grew up known as ‘Young Darkie’ or ‘Young Blackfella’; my friend, when angry, called me the son of a drunken bush black; another friends’ father told a group of classmates they could be friends with me but to remember where I came from. Bullying at school was never-ending.
My father lived in exile, caught between a world he knew and a world he never knew, growing more bitter and angry as the years went on. He acted out his violence through alcohol, directing it at anyone nearby, particularly his family and I as his eldest son. He was never able to reconcile within himself these two worlds even when he stopped drinking. It was bigger than him and his family. It was the internalised oppression of a people and country from which he was exiled.
A few months ago, I returned home as a 61 year old man to conduct a funeral for my mother’s best friend. After the funeral I was standing outside dressed in my Anglican clerical garb and a man who had known me since I was a child came over and looked at me and said; “You’re blackfellas young fella, you’re young blackfella.” In the next 10 minutes he never referred to me by name. A teacher I had respected also came over and the conversation went the same way. Nowhere in this conversation was my first name used. I was still the anonymous blackfella.
These and many other experiences have challenged my identity and my place in the Great Australian Dream. For many years I was unaware of why I was angry and self-destructive and it has only been in recent years as I have explored my indigenous story that I began to find a way to accept my place as indigenous and Australian. They are not mutually exclusive but they are also not one and the same. One comes from your ancestral connections to country, language and culture, and the other from where you reside. The difficult task one has, is to find a way to live as both in a society still grappling with what both means.
An important moment for me was in recognising why I sought to become an Anglican priest. Now one would normally say this because such a calling is seen to come from God. In one sense this is true, but for me there is more to it and I am now grappling with what it means. You see, growing up I understood early on that to be white was to not only to be acceptable to society but also inherently good. My father would refer to someone he respected as a white man. “That Bill Haywood, he’s a white man. He’s a good bloke.” Being black was not good or being good.
Somewhere this stuck in my mind and I suspect I became an Anglican priest because it is the whitest thing I can do. Being a priest in the Church of England connects me not only to the ‘old country’ but also directly to the Queen. You cannot get any whiter than that.
But has this made me an Australian? Am I an Australian because of the colour of my skin or my connection to the faith foundation of our country? I am I not an Australian because I am indigenous and therefore have claim to both a physical and spiritual presence older than anything else I know? What does being an Australian mean for me? May I suggest the following:
· Being Australian is the smell of summer, the feel of sand whether red or white between your toes, the rush of fire, the surge of water and the capacity to come together as one to further the well being of all.
· Being Australian asks all who reside here to engage in deep dialogue and listening so we break down stereotypes, fears, ill informed prejudices and racism we hold about each other.
· Being Australian is celebrating the success of all regardless of the culture, faith or language; celebrating the amazing success of indigenous Australians across this country in sport, education, medicine, law, self-government and more.
· Being Australian is opening our borders and welcoming others and giving them the same opportunities our colonial forebears had. And it is extending such opportunities to the first residents of this country.
· Being Australian is being honest about the treatment of the most vulnerable in our society, children and women in particular and to begin to tackle the domestic, gender and sexual violence that has occurred and continues to occur.
· Being Australian is being brave enough to recognise indigenous sovereignty and beginning the deliberate process toward reconciliation and treaty without getting side-tracked by government and pressure groups particular agendas’.
· Being Australian is recognising the damage we are doing to the environment and restrict the destruction caused by mining in all its forms, particularly coal mining.
These are the values I hope describe an Australian and I hope, describe me. I have come to this place through a torturous journey and know there are many such journeys ahead for those who are serious about being an Australian.
Coming home to myself as both an indigenous person and an Australian was made possible by my art. In the booklets on your table (which are for sale) you will see my self-portrait. Not having grown up with an explicit culture, language or a personal connection to country it was important for me to make that connection if I was going to move on. Unfortunately the country I grew up on is now populated by three large open cut coal mines and all but three sacred sites have been destroyed along with my grandmothers home, the home my father grew up in and the church that served as the centre of our community life. As country is your identity I sat and painted the country from memory, only later getting an aerial photograph of the mines and realising just how accurate my memory was of a place I left in 1972.
In doing so I discovered a solid foundation for my identity, one which allows me to journey across the barriers my family had constructed and had been constructed by white and black society alike. I on record as saying indigenous identity is very different in the 21st century than the preconceived understanding of most Australians. There are more people like me, aboriginal but not traditional (ABNT’s), and we are finding ways to cross over and back through education, success and sheer commitment to a better society. These are people who have had successful national and international roles and are now beginning to talk about the unspeakable, that they are indigenous and are seeking a way to affirm both this and their Australian identities as compatible and real.
Australia needs us and we need Australia.
So in conclusion, where does that leave us on this Australia Day? On the cusp of great possibilities as we take seriously what it means being an Australian. The danger is that we get side-tracked by prejudices and fear and fail to see the possibilities for our country and our cultures if we fail to take the time to listen to one another. THANKYOU