It is now 20 years since the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody marked the start of the formal reconciliation process, but Australia still faces widespread division between its Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal peoples.
Public reaction to recent incidents like the comments made by Collingwood football president Eddie McGuire about Aboriginal football star Adam Goodes emphasise that racism continues and the road toward reconciliation will be a long one.
Meanwhile, in Perth’s southeast, women from the Langford Aboriginal Association work quietly toward a sustainable and high-functioning Aboriginal community.
Raelee Cook, Jean Boladeras and Lennett Sandy are among the locals who meet weekly through the Moorditj Yoka Women’s Group.
The attitudes of the Langford women about reconciliation vary as much as their life experiences and family backgrounds, but the women are all working together to build better opportunities for future generations of Aboriginal people.
Many of the LAA women make time between work and family to contribute to their communities.
Sandy says that government programs aimed at unifying Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal communities are not enough to achieve reconciliation, but are valid.
“Its not about the government. It’s about people working together for the greater good,” she says.
“Reconciliation means we’ve got to come together. It’s about supporting and helping. It’s going to take non-Indigenous people to help Aboriginal people to get past that difference. And it’s got to be like that otherwise we’re not going to get anywhere.
“And it is happening, and it’s [happening] slowly, but it’s getting there.”
Pastor Keith Truscott is a grandfather, Aboriginal community member, and a PhD candidate in Indigenous education.
He says a “multilateral approach” is needed to drive out division between black and white.
“Reconciliation has to occur at all levels,” he says.
“Government approaches in reconciliation work best at the legal [and] educational level, which is the institutional level.
“But personal behaviour, values and world view must also be addressed. White folks … are prone to harbour a lot of misunderstanding and racism through ignorance and lack of relationship with Aboriginal people and families.
“I think better two-way education and on-going engagement between coloniser and colonised would assist understanding and acceptance of each other.”
Raelee Cook says division is not limited to that between the Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal communities.
“We need to reconcile within ourselves too,” she says.
“It’s not just about reconciling with white people, or white people reconciling with us. We need to reconcile within our own communities.
“It’s family. Family and feuding that filters through to the communities and filters through to organisations. Which it shouldn’t, but it does. One sort of family might be running an organisation so some others might not want to go there, and it’s absolutely ridiculous. But, as long as I can remember, this sort of thing is happening. And I know that’s an issue in lots of communities, not only Perth but everywhere.
“We need to all work for the one thing and that’s for the benefit of Aboriginal people in the community. Until we do that I don’t see how reconciliation can go ahead.”
Cook says Aboriginal people need to unify if they’re going to tackle the discrimination they face.
“Kevin Rudd might have got up and said sorry to everyone, but that’s just one little thing. There’s [still] so much hate and discrimination in the community. Don’t you worry about that,” she says.
“The thing is, our kids are still suffering, because you’ve had the grandparents that were taken away, then their kids were taken away, then you’ve got their kids having kids.
“You just expect them to be perfect parents, but they’re not going to be because they’ve never been taught.”
Cook says that, despite the history and the difficulties, Aboriginal people need to move on for their own health and well-being.
“We really do because all that hate and all that you have to deal with, that drags you down.
“And we need to work with our kids and move them on. Not forget it. But we need to all move on.
“Because it is, it’s dragging people down and its making life … unbearable for a lot of people too.”
Lennett Sandy says she does not often feel victimised because of her race, but that racism hits hard when you experience it through your loved ones.
“My daughter’s never felt it, but she’s felt it with her other family, her cousins and her friends that are darker. She felt the racism around them and she couldn’t believe it … You get older then you start seeing it for what it really is,” she says.
“I don’t think I experienced racism until I was about 18 and it was in a big way. I was living in the city and we were screen-printing and we were booked in to do a lunch and when we went they said, ‘Oh no, it’s a private party, no Aboriginals allowed’. And it wasn’t us that had booked us in, it was a local MP for that area.
“One of the ladies that organised it was really upset and she said, ‘I didn’t realise it was that blatant’.
“The local [MP] said, ‘Okay, I can take my business elsewhere, and none of our functions from our government agencies will book in this place again’.
“And so they sort of got a banning and a bad reputation and they’re not open now,” she says.
As well as the need for a stronger social movement against racism between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people, Jean Boladeras says there are more effective things governments could be doing.
“The most important thing that needs to be done right now is acknowledging Aboriginal people as the original inhabitants of the country,” Boladeras says.
“There needs to be a preamble to the [Federal] Constitution recognising that native title existed and what happened. And I think before anything else, before closing the gap, before anything, that’s what should happen.
“John Howard tried to do it, but he tried to do it on his own terms and it was never going to work like that.”
Boladeras says that a “proper recognition” would “go a long way to restoring pride and confidence”.
“Because there’s a lot of young people around here who are fifth generation welfare recipients. Where do they go? What have they got to be proud about?” she says.
Instilling pride in their children and grandchildren is something the Langford women say is vitally important.
“One of my Grandies [grandchildren] is white, white, white. So the assimilation does work in the long run,” Cook says.
“You have to tell them that they’re Aboriginal right from the start. They can’t go into the community and say, ‘I’m white’, when they come and see me and who I am.
“We talk about all that sort of stuff all the time. Where you come from and who all your relations are. [I tell them], ‘So don’t think that you just come from just a white community here, because there’s a big community somewhere else that you come from too’.
“A lot of people don’t know how to handle [discovering their Aboriginality] … If they know who they are, their life is going to be a lot easier because that’s one extra thing that they don’t have to deal with.”
Boladeras, who is fair-skinned, says despite their different upbringing, she can relate to the identity struggles her grandchildren and great-grandchildren face.
“I have childhood memories that they don’t have … That pride in ancestry and culture that I remember from my grandmother and mother is intense. It’s a core part of your being and it’s something that is your whole identity and it’s there forever. It’s a spiritual side of you I guess,” she says.
“And it’s very hard to explain, but this land, this country, means incredibly much to me, and I know that that’s where I came from and that’s where I’ll go when I die and that’s the way it is.
“It’s the circle of life.”
But growing up has been different for Boladeras’ grandchildren.
“One of my grandchildren, when he was about nine, he came to me and said, ‘Nanna, don’t tell me anymore Noongar stories’, and I said ‘why?’, and he said, ‘Because the kids at school laugh at me for being Noongar’. And that’s harsh,” she says.
“He wanted to be with the rest of the kids and he didn’t want to be different from them and so it’s quite difficult in that sense, especially if a child is fair-skinned.
“There’s so many more identity issues now too because of intermarriage. Huge numbers of Noongar young people have children of mixed race, and so eventually people have to choose for themselves anyway how much culture they keep up and how much they distance themselves from it. It’s your own path in life.
“One of my granddaughters had to do a family tree at school and I helped her with it, and put all her grandparents on it and so forth, and she took it to school and the teacher said, ‘This is fantastic, absolutely beautiful’, and she read it to the class.
“From that day on the boys in the class called her Mabo and she had a really bad time for the rest of the year.
“So you know, it’s those little things like that that can colour your whole life and colour your attitudes and make you think, ‘Well, I don’t want to get involved with this, it’s just too hard’.”
And it’s inter-generational.
“This is an awful thing to say, but I was ashamed of my mother when I was young because she looked obviously Aboriginal,” Boladeras says.
“When I was working I was having lunch with one of my fellow workers in a park and my mother came down the pavement, and she was a distance away and she sort of waved to me and I just turned away.
“The girl said, ‘Do you know that lady?’ and I said no.
“And to this day I feel so ashamed and so awful that I would say that, but it was on the spur of the moment and it was this thing of wanting to fit in with other people.
“I bitterly regret that but that’s why I guess I can understand it with my own grandchildren at times.”
Boladeras did not embrace her Aboriginality until she was in her 40s, but she says it meant a lot to her when she did.
“I suddenly realised, as I became a grandmother, I realised what my own grandmother had sacrificed for us and how difficult it was for her,” she says.
“I thought, ‘You know, these were good old people and they’ve all passed on now, and if we don’t hang on to what they taught us and bring it into the future then it will disappear’.
“And in lineages there’s going to be some breakages, but hopefully if enough people keep it strong and keep it going then we’re [al]right.”
If Aboriginal culture is going to endure racism, dominant attitudes and behaviour will need to change, though it seems there’s a big journey ahead.
“Long way to go, yeah,” Sandy says.
“But we’ve come a long way too.”
Photo: Jesse McCarthy-Price
Categories: Indigenous affairs