Talk to Randwick Rotary 1 March 2016
As Australia once more fails to “Close the Gap” and opposition remains to Recognition, what can a local community such as Randwick do to help end the war against Black people with a just, lasting and positive peace? Why might we talk of this as a War? If we want peace, what do we the nonIndigenous people of this country need to do? Remembering the past and commemorating history, re-embedding the Indigenous stories of this place into our landscape and perceptions, and working for a proper Peace Treaty could be part of the way forward. This talk is deliberately provocative but also hopeful and open, inviting non-Indigenous people to own our history of this place and our treatment of the invaded peoples, through looking for dialogue and resolution.
My parents arrived in Australia as refugees from Poland through China in 1946. From my earliest days in Bondi I can remember thinking about the Indigenous people who had lived where we lived, whose lives had ended as finally as that of my grandparents in Poland under the Nazis. Like most White Australians I knew few if any Indigenous people as I grew up. My father owned a drycleaning business in Taylor’s Square where a couple of his pressers were Aboriginal men. He’d tell me as the dry came on in the north, that they’d soon be on the road and he’d see them next year when they returned.
As I grew up through the 1950s and 1960s my knowledge of Indigenous Australia was sprinkled with stories of the Never Never and spare paintings of the Centre. Yet I really learned almost nothing about their struggle for survival, the resistance and the terrible toll the European invasion had taken of the original owners. Every story we heard was wrapped in a cloak of inevitability that what had occurred was the way things needed to be. Yet one thing was so self-evident to us, that the violence of the past was over, and that there was no longer any question that Australia was White. We had no sense of the stolen generations, yet even less of the earlier generations who had died of disease, of violence, or of heart break. Later at university I was a photographer with the Redfern All Blacks at the Casino Knockout in country NSW, and researched issues of racism especially in the media.
Some years ago when I started thinking about why Australia seemed unable to resolve its Black history I had recently returned from one of my visits to Poland. Poland was for my family its particular killing field. My grandfather had died of disease and hunger in the Litmanstadt ghetto. My grandmother had been poisoned in a gas truck at Chelmno, my great grandmother shot in the head in the Warsaw ghetto. Even though the Polish army was defeated in a few short weeks by the Nazis and Soviets in 1939, the war against the Poles continued for many years. Their intellectuals were rounded up and executed, their culture was banned, their children were stolen. For Polish Jews the future was to be inevitably the end of their race, accelerated in places like Treblinka and Auschwitz by industrial extermination. In Prague Hitler turned the synagogue into an anthropological museum for the artefacts of a disappeared race. I could feel resonances with the fate of indigenous Australia.
So what does a post-war war look like? Much I fear like the experience of many Indigenous Australians. The recent Closing the Gap report and the discussion of it, help plot the landscape of our War against the Blacks.
Young black men are far more likely to be gaoled than to go to university, usually for offences of resistance or as a consequence of chemical warfare injuries (alcohol and drugs). Indigenous people will die ten or more years younger than non-Indigenous. Indigenous languages are under attack everywhere and culture is disappearing. Chronic diseases will attack Indigenous people in far greater proportions. Young women will bear many more children, who will often sicken. Children will drop out of school in far greater proportions. Youth suicide is by far the highest in Australia if not the world; killing yourself before the enemy gets you?
This is a picture of a people under sustained and continuing attack. In the past the biological warfare of disease and the chemical warfare of alcohol and refined sugar had torn Indigenous communities apart, leaving piles of bodies around campsites all over the Sydney basin. The billabong at Coogee (the rugby oval), which was a meeting place for tribes and a great place for hunting and ceremony, would have seen tragic scenes as diseases ravaged the local people. I wonder what the first White people might have found as they hacked their way through the bush and waded over the sand hills.
Yet resilience and survival are also everywhere – no Indigenous peoples have ever surrendered, despite the belief of many White people that the war is over. As you can tell, I think the war continues, low intensity (for White people), high impact (for Indigenous people).
So the challenge for non-Indigenous Australians is, what do we want to do about this war? We have broadly, three options.
We can just put up with it because the cost isn’t impossible and the outcomes are manageable (for the moment); we can keep the pressure on, more interventions, more attempts to privatise Indigenous lands, more seizure of children, more young men in gaol, more beaten women, more drug dependence. Destroy language, erode culture, fragment and decimate tribes. Oh and every year declaim our wonderment at the long heritage of Indigenous peoples. Meanwhile keep looking in Indigenous communities for potential contributors to the national economy, educate them, build them up into successful Indigenous people. Rescue them from war zones.
We can try to win the war, by forcing the Indigenous population to capitulate everywhere, because the war has to stop. That would be costly and difficult to achieve, given over 200 years of war has not achieved that outcome. It’s also not clear what “capitulate” would mean – probably the annihilation of communities by widespread seizure of children, dispersal of family groups, and the redevelopment of homelands and land rights areas. Push assimilation to the hilt, and reprogram Indigenous people as nuclear family consumers. Mainly though force Indigenous people to concede that indigeneity means nothing and colour is not an issue worth worrying about.
Currently the main protagonist of the “get over it” perspective is Melbourne commentator Andrew Bolt. His attack on Adam Goodes whose war dance infuriated him, comes from a place where it’s the Black insistence on difference that’s the problem. For Bolt Indigenous should just fade away, the war is a war by Blacks on Whites, and they should just stop it. He does not see any of this as a resistance to the White control of Black lives. Rather he frames it as resentment, dependency and failure. That’s why he and his mates hate the idea of reconciliation and are appalled by the movement for Constitutional Recognition. Some Indigenous activists are also unconvinced that the Recognition outcomes proposed mean very much other than a symbolic capitulation by Indigenous Australia to the invasion and their consequent dis-enfranchisement, a soft variant of the second option.
The Third option is/are peace treaties, declaring an end to hostilities. This is the most difficult, because it requires White recognition of indigenous suppression, and the political desire to change the conditions that produce the disadvantage. Moreover it requires all Australians to surrender some of their booty to the common good, never an easy ask of our property ravenous society. Think only of the savaging that Bob Hawke received when he first tried to bring in national land rights legislation in the 1980s (to which he succumbed) , or John Howard saying that he was on the side of the pastoralists against the Indigenous people in the debate over the Wik amendments in the 1990s. Reflect on the huge hostility to any recognition of Indigenous people in the constitution, yet their continuing marginalisation for over a century in that same founding document.
I believe that such hostilities are best resolved by local communities declaring peace, until every community across the country has made its local and individual peace. This would provide a bedrock foundation for a national resolution. We know how hard peace negotiations are, but with all such things there is a need for trust building.
Last year I approached Randwick Council to suggest it might take an initiative to recognise the local Indigenous people through a memorial on or near Coogee Beach. I noticed that there was a memorial for a mayor and local member (Hyman Goldstein whom it should be recognised was probably murdered at suicide point), three memorials to Coogee residents murdered in Bali, and a memorial to a digger and lifesaver as part of the Great War commemorations. The beachfront is a narrative of memory. Yet no narratives exist there of the residents of previous millennia, the Indigenous folk whose home this was.
I met with the then mayor Ted Seng and Development officer Gary Ella; they referred to a war memorial for Indigenous diggers to be built at Maroubra. As our conversation developed we spoke about the possibility of a speaking memorial, digital points created along the coastal walking path from Watsons Bay to La Perouse, that could tell stories of the Indigenous people of the area that walkers could encounter on their smartphones as they followed the route (a real possibility with amalgamation). We talked of how important it would be to open a dialogue with Indigenous residents, to research the history accurately, and to involve Indigenous people in the design and ceremonies associated with a memorial at Coogee. I thought one could be erected near the former billabong or along the creek that drained it out into Coogee Bay, nearby to and paid for by the Pavilion. Regularly we could perhaps hold an annual story telling and smoking ceremony as important as the Bali memorial ceremony or even Anzac Day.
Recognition and reconciliation as pathways to building trust and securing peace require strong community input and support. This is the point that I am thinking that Rotary and other community groups could start to own our local track, putting into place small steps that might build recognition into our daily lives, signifying the permanent place Indigenous people have in the life of our locality. There is not a good Indigenous history of Randwick. One should be commissioned. There are few signs of the Indigenous people – they should be recovered and named and celebrated. We cannot remake the people whom were destroyed so that we could all live here. But we can recover their spirits and their resilience and resistance to the fate into which some of our forebears had hoped to consign them. And in doing so, we may help to end the war.