Saturday, February 16, 2008

Kevin Rudd's apology and a few tales of Aboriginal society

It's unlikely that I'd be writing this post if it wasn't for Couchsurfing and in particular the Couchsurfer who is currently staying with me. My Couchsurfer, Jada, is an Australian girl of Aboriginal descent who was brought up an Aboriginal community in Northern Australia. For her this week has been extremely important, historically, and I feel privileged to have spent so much time talking with her and finding out about the significance of this week's events in the grand scheme of the last century and more.

For those who didn't know, this week Kevin Rudd, Australia's Prime Minister made an official apology on behalf of the Australian government to the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders for the stolen generations. The taking of children, mostly from mixed white and indigenous backgrounds, took place from the 1870s all the way up to the 1970s. The reasoning was that those with some white blood needed saving from the barbarous non-Christian influences (of the oldest continuous civilization on earth!). They were taken by law from their families and placed in the care of good Christians. The communities were ripped apart by this policy over a period of about a century. This was on top of the culture being already invaded by Western influences and the lack of rights to the indigenous peoples (they were not fully represented in the census until 1967, despite being sent to fight in the second world war - and not being counted back).

Jada, my Couchsurfer, has been directly affected by the policies of the last century. Jada's aunt and great grandmother were taken from their families, in the 1920s and 70s respectively and so this has had a direct influence on her life.

The apology has been met with mixed feeling, though I understand that in general it is seen very positively. Some people don't believe that such an apology was necessary and some believe that because it wasn't this government which implemented the policies, that it shouldn't be them that says sorry. The sincerity with which the apology was delivered was moving and frankly if it helps to mend the ruptures which have been caused, then claiming responsibility for being part of the system which has caused the last centuries tragedies seems valid. The similarities with the Truth and Reconciliation commission in South Africa are not great but the idea of admissions of guilt and in particular the stories being told in the Australian media now appear to be engendering similar feelings of amity.

Having chatted with Jada over the last few days I've learnt many interesting things but clearly in such a short time I've heard just a fragment of what there is to know about this millenniums old culture. I'd love to be able to write down all the details which I've learnt but sadly I feel it's rather rude to have a guest around and then record them in an interview :-)

Since the British settlers arrived in Australia towards the end of the 18th century, more and more of the indigenous populations have been forced out of their natural way of living. I wondered how many people still live in the completely original way.

The answer is that of the 400 thousand or so Aborginal people, none lives as they would have done a couple of hundred years ago. Not a single one still lives off the land in the original nomadic lifestyle. The last nine literally walked out of the outback onto the streets of Alice Springs in 1984!...and that was it. No more! In fact Jada looked after one of the nine who walked out, a guy whose Western name is Thomas, . He didn't speak English then and he still doesn't today, though apparently he likes to take a Country and Western book around with him which he likes to look at from time to time. He's now an extremely well-renowned painter of Aboriginal art.

There's simply no incentive for the current generations to get back to the original way of life, which is not surprising. Not to say that life is easy for the communities.

One of the reasons that there has been mixed reaction in Australia to the apology is because there is some considerable resentment towards the Aboriginal people. In some occasions the social benefits they get are greater than non-Aboriginals and a large percentage of the Aboriginals that others see live in squalor and spend their days drinking.

(In some places there are laws about how much alcohol can be bought by Aboriginal people in a single day. On one occasion Jada went with a cousin into a shop to buy a bottle of wine. They left to get a bag and when they tried to come back in, her cousin was unable to reenter. Her cousin's skin was much darker than hers and so the rules dictated that she wasn't allowed back into the store until the next day. This isn't a story from 50 years ago - this is happening today, by law!)

Anyway, the resentment on one level is understandable. People say that the Aboriginal people should be helping themselves more and that if they sit around all day drinking, why should anyone else care? Well, a large factor is that if your culture has been disrupted after some 5000 years of continuity, your children are taken away, you're treated as a second class citizens, or worse, that it's not really surprising that things fall apart. For instance, for people who were born into a nomadic lifestyle the concept of money is simply not ingrained and when such communities have money, the idea of saving, rather than spending it on readily available alcohol just doesn't register.

The positive note seems to be that in the grand scheme of things the last 200 years is a blink and the last 50, though very serious, may not be irreparable. The deep pride which the Aboriginal people have for their culture should, in time be enough to get over the mess which has been caused by the muddled intrusion of one society on another.

We spoke a little about the religion. Jada is an actor by training as well as a musician and artist and paints the Aboriginal art (This has been coined the Dreamtime stories by European settlers) - the spoken and painted forms which allow the folklore to pass down through the generations - the culture has no written language. The lore dictates that Jada is not allowed to draw anything other than her Dreaming. Her particular Dreaming is called Caterpillar Dreaming and is related to a mountain range not far from Alice Springs, called the Macdonnal Ranges. She paints and repaints this Dreaming through her own interpretations and it's a vital part of the culture that these tales do not get lost.

The Dreamtime stories are a vital way in which the culture continues from generation to generation and if these are lost it would truly be a tragedy. The languages are already disappearing and even in cities with large Aboriginal communities, the options to learn the native languages are few and far between.

I've learned much more from Jada, about the superstitions, the funerals, the current and past situations and I certainly feel like I would like to find out more. It's a fascinating culture which has gone through serious upheavals in our lifetime. The future is looking brighter, but by no means easy and I hope that the extra attention which is being drawn to the current situation of the culture helps things to improve.

I don't wish to gush, but I am extremely grateful that Couchsurfing has helped me to meet so many fascinating people since I joined two years ago, and on this particular occasion to meet and talk with Jada over the last few days. If you are open minded and don't mind letting a stranger come into your house to share your city then I would highly advise joining up and meeting a lot of wonderful people!

1 comment:

Mike said...
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