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After Bill Shorten hinted at Indigenous recognition on Monday night’s Q&A, I thought I should voice the realities I have witnessed since moving to Darwin.
As I write this, I do so in Darwin. One of the reasons that powered my relocation was my resolve to learn about Indigenous culture, as I have recently discovered that the blood of those who own this land also runs through my veins.
My mother recently revealed that her grandfather was part of the Yuin people, traditional owners of the land south of my birthplace, in Moruya, NSW.
Flash forward to my post-midnight arrival, the terminal was dressed in traditional garb, the carpet guided my exit with regimented dots, the signage acknowledged who owned the land, but the custodians themselves were absent. As the hours grew into days, and my contact with the Indigenous population increased, I realised that my preconceptions had been hopelessly limp. I had expected either an awkward co-existence, outright hostility and/or an arm-in-arm skip down the Stuart Highway in the merry land of Oz.
What I’ve experienced, is none of the above. What exists are two separate entities, pretending the other does not exist. The ghosts of Australia past walk alongside the ghosts of the future. But while they float in twain, they make no contact with the other.
Even a returning of the land to its traditional owners would not suffice. Land is important, but the wounded culture won’t be healed at the end of a governmental ceremony. Two hundred years of co-existence has done nothing more than shift a people away from who they were…
Now, I’m certain great progress is being fought and won by great people, but as far as that progress filtering down to the mornings and evenings of black and white normality?
I wouldn’t call it fear, anger, or even racism – although I’m not discounting that exists – rather, there seems to be a tacit understanding to ignore each other. Eye contact avoided, paths collectively changed to eschew confrontation. What I saw and felt, staggered me. Tidal waves of white guilt battered my psyche, compounded by the splitting emotional earthquake I felt as an Indigenous person what had happened to the cousins of my ancestors. As both sides of history swim inside me, it upset me that it had come to this, both hands steering the path of least resistance to an undefined goal.
Prior to my leaving Sydney, I had the utmost respect for those who recognised the traditional owners of the land, and chose to say so in unrelated conversation. It seemed like steps toward a greater education. Be it a television station, or those who added that recognition to the tail of inter-office emails. Adam Goodes proudly stood up to racism, and we applauded him. Stan Grant eloquently voiced his concerns, and we agreed. Positive change was upon us. But that assumption of growing progress is one made in error.
Being here, where lasting change should have taken its first steps long ago, I don’t see it. I see the cousins of my ancestors reduced to obstacles to avoid on the road, or problems to be quietly escorted out of drinking establishments, as the clientele sup lager and look at their feet. The skeletons of a proud culture are plain to see, and with virgin eyes, it sickened me to see it, but shamefully, somehow, I’ve almost accepted it as “the ways things work”, the silent Darwinian mantra of “well they’re leaving me alone”. Vicious irony aside, considering the man the city was named after, both sides seem to be playing for time. The non-indigenous population that make up Darwin are a ramshackle Gypsy blanket stitched together from all corners of elsewhere. The one person I know who was born in Darwin, is half-French. It is one displaced culture living alongside another. Two parties separate from their land, and themselves.
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A local recently confided to me, “It’s better than it used to be”. This may be true, but the verdant suburb in which I live hints at the problem having been merely shifted to the background. The problem which stands mute. Not addressed, though the addresses yell it. To reach the end of my street, you run a gauntlet of high chain link fences, with green mesh obscuring the property and the dogs that lay in wait. One bark serves as the commencement of a canine symphony, as the concert of defensive protest fills the street. The Indigenous population that inhabit the lush mangroves beyond, are shaded by the greys of the power station, and the unthreatening beige of the nearby hospital.
There are thousandfold monuments to honour tradition, but the postcard images do not fit the reality. While recognition, if enacted, would be a grand step to make on paper, the table that it sits on is unstable.
Sadly, I fear that the know-how to fix it is lacking. For even a returning of the land to its traditional owners would not suffice. Land is important, but the wounded culture won’t be healed at the end of a governmental ceremony. Two hundred years of co-existence has done nothing more than shift a people away from who they were, and even with continued well-meaning governmental band-aids (recognition, HSC courses to study indigenous languages) slapped upon the wound, it remains the deepest of cuts, with the lifeblood of those who grew here earnestly spilling upon the pristine sand, far beyond the corner of the eyes of those who flew here.