Many Australians believe that January 26 fails in its purpose. While it aims to unite, it actually divides us. Instead, the customary Indigenous theme ‘Always was, always will be Aboriginal land’ has the potential to unify.
A year ago a news bulletin caused me to cry out ‘Oh no!’ Aboriginal activist and author Sam Watson had died. At a conference long ago, Sam inscribed my copy of his Kadaitcha Sung ‘Keep the faith, brother’. I did my best to follow his encouragement. Sam worked tirelessly for Aboriginal advancement but also for human rights generally and tackled broader issues of injustice and inequality. I will remember the inspiring Uncle Sam on Survival Day 2021.
I will also spare a thought for another Indigenous author, Bruce Pascoe. I found his Salt compelling. Pascoe addresses the issue of identity in both short stories and non-fiction pieces. He talks about his own identity and also about the ways doubters attempt to obliterate Aboriginal identity, which they regard as a threat to the colonial ideology from which they profit.
One Indigenous woman accused Pascoe of fraudulently claiming Aboriginal identity but her links with a notorious News Ltd ‘white blindfold’ journalist suggested a negative agenda. I am glad Pascoe has expressed his identity so well.
I will also be thinking of the people of Cobargo, who suffered so dreadfully during last year’s fires. In February they usually host a folk festival, one highlight of which is the local Yuin culture. The festival always foregrounds Indigenous music, dance and culture and begins with a moving welcome to country. Perhaps the festival will return in 2022.
Many Indigenous people see Australia Day as primarily a celebration of English invasion. Many non-Indigenous Australians agree. It is not just that the day itself offers offence. In the context of the policy neglect and prejudice that has created the terrible gaps in the lives of Indigenous peoples (life expectancy, infant mortality, chronic disease, unemployment and incarceration), celebrating the origins of dispossession rubs salt into very open wounds.
Indigenous people have shown us how to use the land appropriately and there are many more ways we should heed their advice. As the bushfires created such devastation last summer, wise heads called for us to learn from the knowledge and practices of generations of Indigenous occupancy. Whether it is coping with fires, maintaining healthy rivers or conserving native flora and fauna, Indigenous peoples can teach us how to prosper.
So it is that the theme of survival should be emulated by all Australians. Any stress I felt during the bushfires paled in comparison with that experienced by friends close to the fires. Their endurance has encouraged me to take one day at a time and to appreciate my good fortune. Most of us should also celebrate survival during the Covid pandemic. Aboriginal people endured these crises as well as coping with ongoing disadvantage.
Sadly, it is a fact of Aboriginal life that many do not live to see the changes they know would improve their lives. Leaders at the 2017 handing over of the Uluru Statement From the Heart expressed this fear. The claims of Treaty, Truth and Voice were doomed from the beginning. Despite the rhetoric, the Coalition Government had no intention of accepting recommendations made by Indigenous people.
Deborah Cheetham and Kutcha Edwards with Judith Durham have campaigned long and hard to amend the lyrics of the national anthem. The government’s response has been to change the word ‘young’ to ‘one’. As we mumble our way through Advance Australia (and less of the fair) I wonder how many people will notice the difference in these similar-sounding words, let alone ponder the significance.
The one-word change is yet another example of the patronising and paternalistic attitude of the gubbas who refuse to acknowledge meaningful suggestions made by Indigenous people and refuse to share power.
Perhaps on January 26, we should try harder to acknowledge our Indigenous peoples. There is much to admire in their amazing resilience, their philosophical attachment to the land, their patience and their generous, forgiving spirits. Having recently experienced survival of some kinds, we should appreciate Survival Day 2021 all the better. We should realise the appropriateness of the theme ‘Always was, always will be Aboriginal land’.
Tony Smith feels privileged to live in Wiradjuri country.