At Garnsey Assembly this week I spoke to the students about Reconciliation Week. I urged them to think beyond the colourful football jumpers and vibrant ceremonies to try to develop a deeper understanding of what Reconciliation Week is about. At Chapel, Reverend Rich Lanham urged the students to think about their actions during the week and what they can do as individuals to generate understanding and empathy for others who may feel excluded.
To help me develop a better understanding of Reconciliation Week and what it means to be an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander in Australia, I read the book written by Stan Grant, ‘Talking to My Country’. At Assembly I read extracts from the introduction to this amazing book. Stan Grant is a well-known and accomplished journalist; an Aboriginal man who has written this book to help us better understand our history. Here’s a brief excerpt:
My country: Australia
These are the things I want to say to you. These things I have held inside or even worse run from. It is not easy, what I have to say, and it should not be easy. These are the things that tear at who we are. These are the things that kill, that spread disease and madness. These are the things that put us in prisons and steal our sight.
I have started this so many times and stopped. I have tried to find the right words. It is so tempting to turn to rage and blame. I am angry: I know that. It flares suddenly and with the slightest provocation; it takes my breath away sometimes. I know where that comes from. I have seen it in my father and he inherited it from his father. It comes from the weight of history.
I am afraid too. And that comes from the same place. I have known fear all my life. When I was young it used to make me feel sick, physically, in the pit of my stomach. It was a fear of what could touch us—the sense of powerlessness, of being at the mercy of the intrusion of the police or the welfare officers who enforced laws that enshrined our exclusion and condemned us to poverty. It was a heavy hand that made people tremble. I see it still in my father. I see it as he tenses up just at the sight of a police car. He has done nothing wrong. But when he is pulled over for something as routine as a random breath test his heart beats faster and he fumbles his keys. We fear the state and we have every reason to. The state was designed to scare us.
I want to tell you about blood and bone and how mine is buried deep in this land. I want to tell you of a name that should be mine, a Wiradjuri name that passed down from thousands of years of kinship—taken from us along with our language and our land.
Australia still can’t decide whether we were settled or invaded. We have no doubt. Our people died defending their land and they have no doubt. The result though was the same for us whatever you call it. Within a generation the civilisations of the eastern seaboard—older than the Pharaohs—were ravaged.
Across Australia nations that had not seen a white man—Bandjalang, Kamilaroi, Ngarrindjeri, Arabana, Darumbal, Gurindji, Yawuru, Watjarri, Barkindji and all of the other hundreds of distinct peoples, each with their law and song and dance, all of them separate with their own boundaries defined by kinship and trade—in the eyes of the British they simply never existed.
Soon we would lose our names; names unique, inherited from our forefathers. Then our languages silenced, soon children would be gone, this is how we disappear. Now Australians pay their respects to the elders of nations of which they have no idea.
So, my country, these things are important. Faces and names and language and land are important. Without land we have no inheritance. People with no land are poor. It isn’t just here: we share this with indigenous people throughout the world. Together we are just five percent of the global population and fifteen percent of total poverty. But these are numbers, and faces and names are far too often forgotten.
Australians know so little about us. They know so little about what has happened here in their name. Perhaps they can talk about the American west: Sitting Bull and Custer and Little Big Horn. They may know of Caesar and Napoleon and Tutankhamen. But Pemulway? Windradyne? and Jandamurra? What of these warriors and leaders who fought and died here for their land? What about the massacres of Myall Creek, Coniston or Risdon Cove?
All of this is our story. These are events and faces and memories all set against the drama of this land. Our lives are pages of a history still unwritten, a story of a place and its people; the sins and triumphs and how all of it has formed us.
The great American playwright Eugene O’Neill said: ‘There is no present or future, only the past happening over and over again.’ The past is alive in me now. Its wounds rest deep and uneasily in our soul. I am the sum of many things but I am all history. And we are trapped in this history, all of us, and if we don’t understand it we will remain chained to it.
We can all benefit from the greater understanding that comes from such a powerful and personal story. I encourage you to read it.