I felt genuinely sorry for him. I knew he
wasnt a bad man. Id sat on the edge of his group at morning tea, eavesdropping
on the white men with the big brains.
Its Kevin Rudds Twenty Twenty
ideas summit in the heady first days of his government which people were comparing to
Whitlam. There are giant brains everywhere.
Im in awe of the scientists and
medical researchers but most particularly the physicists whose contemplation of the far
reaches of understanding are closer to deep spirituality than science.
I care nothing for God. Hes not very
good at his job and it amazes me that supremely intelligent men and women feel the need to
believe in a being who registers the fall of every sparrow but ignores his disciples whose
quest for wealth and tyranny is conducted beneath his standard. But thats neither
here nor there because it doesnt matter what men believe as long as they leave women
and children out of it. Sexist? No, just the quickest way to end any dispute as none have
been won without the profound shock and awe generated by the witness to slaughter and harm
to women and children. Men are stupid, they deserve war.
sitting there drinking the Prime
Ministers tea I struggled with the massive theories of these men and women who
debated the generation of matter within the universe and the parallel galaxies within our
bodies. And they managed all this while dabbing at crumbs of a particularly awful muffin
which cascaded like shooting stars into their cerebral lap.
wasnt the arcane terminology invented to describe the almost indescribable but the
concepts themselves, the giant antagonisms and chaotic confederacies of matter. These
incredible inventions of science which were
just capable of making us sick or well or extinguishing stars.
of the participants had the wicked mirthful eyes of scrub wrens, constantly on the alert
for puns and the joke, irreverent humour, football scores. There were several there who
youd just love to listen to several times a week. Including him. He was genuinely
humble, his face was a declaration of his modesty, he was attentive, polite and I noticed
his eyes lift to thank a waiter. His Mum and dad had taught him that if I wasnt very
much mistaken. I glanced at my notes to register the state of his birth and then, did the
novelist thing, guessed the suburb where he lived when his Dad cautioned him at his first
restaurant meal to thank anyone who served. No-ones your slave, son. Thats
also the novelist thing because I just transposed my dad onto his. Because I liked this
man and wanted him to have a good father. I believed in him.
then he said the word that dropped like a stone in a well. In trying to explain the
advances of science he said that Australia had inherited a savage land. Black hearts sank.
A palpable breath of despair was expelled by all the Indigenous representatives. His
education, as sophisticated as any in Australia can receive was warped by unconscious
prejudice. Even our intellectuals fall for the thimble and pea.
Australians consider the Rorschach blot of our history whites see a sheaf of wheat and a
merinos horns, while blacks see a severed hand.
see the same history so we cant see eye to eye. This crevasse was apparent at the
20/20 Summit. All participants were trying to fix urgent problems, but most Aboriginal and
Torres Strait Islanders were trying to get non-indigenous participants to look at the
Rorschach blot from a different perspective.
None were bad
people, all wanted resolution of dangerous threats to the health and welfare of Indigenous
people but when you approach it from such opposing views of history the results can only
be superficial and temporary. We may improve the health and safety of Aboriginal and
Torres Strait Islander children in some communities but the conflicting views of the past
condemn us to gulfs of incomprehension in the national relationship.
We must close
the gap on health but also on how we see the ink blot of our history because otherwise
most Australians believe they are doling out charity to a blighted minority and Indigenous
Australians feel shut out of the national story.
If we assume
explorers and anthropologists like Sir Thomas Mitchell, Charles Sturt, Edward Eyre, Ernest
Giles, Alfred Howitt, George Robinson, Augustus Gregory, John McKinlay, Peter Warburton
and others were not committing porkies in their diaries then let us look at the blot from
If you saw
people excavating earth to build a dam, tamping clay and ant bed into the base to make it
waterproof, if you saw them plant seed saved from last years harvest and irrigate
that planting from the dam or stream diversion or blocking off an entire stream to cause
it to flood across the grain field, if you saw that grain field harvested and stooked, if
you saw the green crop bundled behind brush fences and burnt so that dried grain fell into
storage vessels, if you saw the grain ground on large mills, if you saw the excess stored
in stone silos, skin bladders or mud and straw rendered vessels, if you saw people herding
young waterfowl into a stockyard for fattening, if you saw engineers constructing
thousands of kilometres of water races, tunnelling through rock, gauging the hydrology to
within millimetres, if you saw permanent fishing weirs built so that the fences flattened
with the incoming tide and could be erected on the outgoing
to trap fish in storage ponds, if you saw a stone house with vegetables
growing on the turf roof, if the door of that house had a message telling neighbours where
the occupants had gone that day, if that house overlooked the landscape of weirs and tuber
fields, if the oven outside that house had been swept in readiness for that nights
meal, if you saw that baskets inside the house were full of fruit or wrapped parcels of
smoked fish and preserved plums, if you saw those things what would you call those people?
rode through miles of stooked grain, Sturt, Giles and Ashwin reported on the tons of
stored seed, Winnecke, Smith, Gregory and others saw the irrigation, Robinson, Griffith
and numerous squatters saw the stone houses, and many observed fish traps in operation
right across the continent and its islands. That some of these people couldnt
believe their eyes and promptly forgot their witness to these things is exactly the kind
of imperial blindness many resort to as a default vocabulary so that the words primitive
and savage replace the evidence of agriculture.
Oh, I know many
of you will hate that word applied to the activities reported by the explorers, I know
most Australians are more relaxed about the term hunter gatherer or nomad but you can only
maintain that belief if you think that Mitchell, Sturt, Giles and fellows lied.
Australian National University professor, says that many of his fellows are nervous about
using agricultural terms to describe Aboriginal plant husbandry. Even
when a cultivators word might be apt, most non-Aborigines are squeamish about using
The fact that
weve edited first hand accounts of Aboriginal food harvests in our minds and
declared them to be accidental collections or the work of hunter gatherers might be a
necessary feint in the minds of Christians when they kill people to take their land or it
might be a simple misreading of the blot because you werent expecting to see any
other image than your own crops and stock, the smoke from your own civilised chimney.
really matter which is the case because the fact that we have excised whole fields of
knowledge from the consideration of our children means that black and white Australia now
stand looking at each other in anxious bemusement across a canyon of incomprehension.
We can't even
use English in the same way. To try and describe the invasion of the Australian continent
is more perfectly described as colonialism than imperialism but today the word colonial
has been rendered as a description of rustics driving bullock wagons and stoic women
lighting kerosene lamps. The menace of colonialism has been leached from the word as
memory of how the land was conquered dribbles from our memory.
You say potatoe,
I say yam daisy, you say wheat, I say panara, or microlaena stipoides. We might go our
separate ways and survive, struggle on in our suspicion of each other, except that it
would be useful to know that most grains harvested by Aborigines were gluten free and many
were drought resistant and flourished in sand. Norman Tindales map of the Indigenous
grain belt surrounds the central deserts of Australia and is three to four times as large
as the current Australian wheat growing area. This knowledge might be as important to
Australias balance of trade as coal and iron ore
but it would mean an
uncomfortable reflection on Indigenous agricultural activities. Can we afford to look away
for the sake of national pride?
One of the
transformative acts of humankind is to produce more food than is required for the next
meal. The stores of various grains that so astounded Giles and the smoking chambers and
aquaculture systems of Western Victoria and elsewhere indicate Aboriginal and Torres
Strait Island people had transcended the food acquisition of the accidental collectors.
That people in cooler climates also produced houses of stone and turf and wore tailored
fur cloaks is another story not often told to Australians.
omissions pale in comparison to our failure to consider the political, social and
spiritual governance of the country. We know that there were over 250 language boundaries
in Australia and we know that they have existed within those lands for many thousands of
years because the vocabulary of particular languages is distinguished by reference to
geological and climatic events peculiar to their area. Particular languages refer to the
rise and fall of sea levels, desertification, volanic eruptions and changes in river
combined with the description of events encrypted in dance and story tell us that most
languages have been in place for aeons. The number of the languages alone suggests that
waves of imperial assault were either uncommon or unknown.
Three of the
preconditions for imperial invasion are surplus food, weapons and the ability to organise
raids. We know people entered each others lands to exact punishment for social and
spiritual transgressions and we know these could be violent attacks. We also know that few
were killed in any one event. Large scale killings appear to have resulted in the colonial
era when clans were hunted into their neighbours territory.
occasions, however, raids were swift and the warriors returned to their own land, their
country, the country to which they had pledged their duty of care and observance of
pre-conditions of imperial war existed why were they not used, especially during times
when the relative resource and climatic fortunes favoured some groups over others?
Was the imperial
impulse absent or managed?
If we believe
primary colonial accounts it seems that the ability to conduct territorial war existed but
was somehow restrained. Try and imagine the intensity of the diplomatic process necessary
to gain a pan-national territorial consensus over 250 nations. The delicacy, the tolerance
must have been orchestrated by people steeped in a spiritual ambition. The song lines were
cultural, social, economic and spiritual conduits which allowed clans to interact and
negotiate political behaviour. I believe I witnessed this at Yirrkala during the 2003
Garma festival where non-Yolgnu participants were excluded from some aspects of the
ceremony while strategies were organised across Yolgnu dialects. Such strategies are still
being mapped out at regional events across the country today.
year all the peoples surrounding Mt Kosiusko met on the mountain to strike a negotiating
position before meeting with various parks management and other government authorities.
was something going on in Australia pre-invasion, and it continues today, and it defies
the default position of 20/20 Summiteers who refer to this as a savage land.
have to believe that this was some Arcadia of the soul, in fact it would be dangerous to
do so because Indigenous Australians constantly exhibit their humanity to hate, love,
quarrel, honour, cheat, harass, trust, manipulate and collude in exactly the same
proportion as any group of humans. It is the management of human qualities which should
arouse our interest, for where else on earth have such long lived civilizations existed?
This is the
discussion Australia should be having because within that discussion will be found all the
elements of how we conduct ourselves as a nation into the future.
There is hardly
an Australian who doesnt want violence and harm contained in the Aboriginal
communities where it exists, as we hope it can be eliminated in any Australian community.
Most Australians believe the self destructive behaviours can be managed by good health,
good education and employment opportunities. No-one at the 2020 Summit seriously argued
against the need for action in this area but when the subject of a national discourse
between white and black Australia was raised the consensus evaporated, some quibbling
about its necessity, some that it interfered in welfare delivery.
Australians resort to words like savage to describe the land they conquered it is obvious
there is a conscious or unconscious belief that they are doling out welfare to a
spiritually inferior race. If this is the myopia necessary for Christians to justify
invasion it is a crippling injury, if it is the result of a nations failure to
review its past then its a failure of scholarship.
The ability to
negotiate relatively peaceful civilization over millennia is a trait unique in the world.
The refusal to countenance its existence is petulance.
embraces our entire history we are doomed to a dwarfed understanding of our land and
ourselves. No republic, no anthem, no flag can hide us from our past.
Gardens Without Fences? landscapes in Aboriginal Australia, Australian
Humanities Review, #36, July 2005.