Invasion, Survival or Celebration: A Native Australian’s Day


Ngaala kaaditj Noogar moort keyen kaadak midja boodja

We acknowledge Noongar people as the original custodians of this land. In particular, on this Australia Day in this place, Busselton, I acknowledge the Wardan people, the Noongar sea people, who have walked this part of Noongar boodja for tens of thousands of years.

Reconciliation Australia puts before Australians three options for marking January 26: for many Indigenous Australians, this date can only be remembered as the anniversary of the British invasion, with the arrival of the First Fleet at Sydney. For others, they celebrate the survival of their culture despite every hostile attempt to destroy it. For others, it is a day of celebrating the rich culture brought to this country by Europeans and shaped as well by indigenous and later migrant influences.

As a wedullah man, I tread carefully in this conversation. I am a native, but not indigenous. I have held positions of authority, and as a white man with a privileged education, I can make no claims to share the lot of the powerless.

January 26 also happens to be the anniversary of my baptism in 1949, so today is also coloured by being claimed by Christ. My formation in Christ leads me to seek confrontation only if it will lead to reconciliation, and to rejoice in human culture only if it reflects in some way divine creativity.

Noongars had a different experience of white settlement than Aborigines in the Eastern States. Firstly, contact with individual ships of explorers and lost traders was earlier than on the East coast and it seems that Noongar elders developed some strategies for welcoming wedulahs into their midst. While they didn’t count on the level of violence the wedulahs would bring, it seems they were not so much on the back foot as were the Sydney mob. The Noongars lost land – and that was and is a calamity – but they did not entirely lose the initiative. They can be proud of Yagan and others who resisted the newcomers.

Because Western Australia was not founded as a convict settlement, ownership of land was open to all classes of people. In the 19th century, some aborigines owned farms. It was only in the early 20th that discriminatory laws deprived most Noongar farmers of those properties.

Those who see today as Invasion Day, whether Aboriginal or whitefella, tend to have an Eastern States-centric view of history. The predominant emotion of their history-telling is anger. This anger provides energy in the search for social justice, in the genuine attempts to close the gap, in the attempts to empower Aboriginal and Islander people to take a prime role in Australian society. Australia needs to feel the fire of that anger and to be moved by it to make a more equal community.

Those who want to mark today as Survival Day are conscious of the extraordinary achievements of Aboriginal culture. I am constantly thrilled by new (to me) rock paintings and dance that are dazzling, complex, ancient and contemporary. Some proponents of Survival Day are upbeat and invite people to celebrate the glories of Aboriginal culture and its resilience against the odds. Others mark Survival Day with a grudging pride, a sense of “You have to admit it: Aboriginal culture has something special. How sad that it was nearly lost.”

Others want to celebrate the possibilities of Western culture and the tempering influence Aboriginal culture can have on it. It took courage for Jessica Mauboy to sing “Advance Australia Fair” at the Award Ceremonies last night. I am sure some will bring out choice epithets to describe her acceptance of the invitation to sing as a betrayal. But I’m sure Mauboy saw it the other way around: people would be impressed the quality of her singing regardless of her race, but, even so, she brought to her rendering of the Anthem resonances from her background.

Jessica Mauboy sings the national anthem – a brave gig? Photo courtesy Crikey.com.au

It’s true that whitefellas in particular can celebrate today in a spirit of forgetfulness as if the first inhabitants don’t exist. They mark Australia with the ongoing tag of terra nullius. They should be called out for their hypocrisy.

But as an Australian native, I want to celebrate much about this country: its natural attributes, and its people, some of whom have fled from fear and oppression in 2013, some whose great-great-grandparents made the dangerous boat trip from Britain 200 years ago, and others who ancestors crossed the land-bridge from Indonesia 60,000 years ago. It’s a rich mix and a beautiful blend.

I respect people who choose to mark today as one or other – Invasion Day, Survival Day or Celebration of a Nation. But personally I want the three together – the anger, the pride and the joy all make sense, and I hope extend my hand to Noongars and Aboriginal people around Australia.

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Author: Ted Witham

Husband and father, Grandfather.Franciscan, writer and Anglican priest.

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