Australians live high on the proceeds of stolen land, but we have ways to atone

Jan 26, 2022
Australian Aboriginal flag
(Image: AP/Mark Baker)

We’ve been offered a real path towards healing. The Makarrata holds out to us all a chance for truth-telling, understanding and reconciliation.

A slightly uncomfortable question. How are you feeling about Australia Day? Are you preparing to whoop it up on 26 January … or do the queasy implications of our national day have you wincing a bit?

Most white Australians have grown up cheerfully protected from the ugly truths of history that Aboriginal people have lived with since birth. Disinherited, their families viciously robbed of land, culture, language, they’re clearly still at the bottom of the heap.

But anyone can see they are prouder, more vocal and stronger by the day. Consequently, white Australia, too, is being moved to change — increasingly with relief. Government apologies have cheered millions. And who now takes seriously those few shrill commentators who used to deny that massacres ever happened?

One white truth, though, most of us still flinch from facing. We’re not personally to blame for those old pioneer wrongs: but they have enriched us stupendously. The houses where we grew up; the classrooms we studied in; the farms, factories, churches, sportsgrounds, shops, beaches that are so utterly a part of our lives … all existed, and in 2022 still do, on stolen land. Blind, unaware, and unwilling to probe too keenly, the brutal fact is we’ve all lived high on the proceeds of crime.

So unless we consciously alert ourselves to our lifelong conditioning, we value what we know, and don’t much value the rest. Quite apart from questions of justice, one implication of this complacency is only now coming home to roost. We assume the overwhelming superiority of  ‘Western civilisation’, and honestly can’t imagine that its arrogant, less intelligent downside — climate change, pollution, modern warfare, nuclear weapons — may have been prodding us towards disaster all along.

Doubtless indigenous peoples throughout the world haven’t all lived like saints; personal quarrels must have churned up their communities as much as anyone else’s. And customary law could be as rigid and brutal as laws anywhere throughout history. But early European witnesses described how Aboriginal Australians had developed sane, effective ways to defuse conflict. And their expertise in land management, plus their spiritual beliefs, meant they lived more in harmony with nature than less.

So who knows? After the drought, fire and flood, the pandemic and the desolation, ancient insights into natural law that the world’s Aboriginal peoples offer may yet be acknowledged as guidelines the rest of us should have listened to all along. That saving grace, blended with timeless spirituality, new science and humane technology, may in the end help save us all.

So there truly is hope. Increasingly, a treaty seems a no-brainer. And we’ve been offered a real path towards healing: a truth-and-reconciliation Makarrata. Despite the haughty coldness of our government’s rejection of it, the Uluru Statement from the Heart is just as it sounds: profoundly wise and open-hearted. It’s bewildering that in blindness and ignorance our elected leaders refused to embrace it. Oh, but of course! Who could doubt that a sweeping tide of white votes would follow that decision?

But Aboriginal people are resilient — and generous. The Makarrata holds out to us all a supremely noble human gift: the chance for truth-telling, understanding and reconciliation. And who knows? Maybe even forgiveness.

So imagine some future January 26 — or perhaps a less painful, contentious date. A beaming elder rises, arms stretched out, reaching to embrace the waiting crowd. By then no hint of irony overshadows the gracious words: ‘Welcome to Country!’

The crowd, far wiser now, and humbler, applauds joyfully. Truly grateful at last …

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