I have been attempting to order my thoughts about the interactions with Indigenous Australians since I have been here. It is such a vast and complex subject I am struggling to make sense of it and then write about it without sounding stupid. I came here without realising – no without even thinking about – the constant presence of the Indigenous Australians and the very visible discussions, apologies, notices and admissions to the first residents on this massive island. I have worked with them in the prisons, the teachers and indigenous liaison officers, I have been to amazing art gallery exhibitions and museum exhibits about their story. I have been impressed and entranced by their art and culture. I have been troubled by the incongruous nature of the settlers life style, saddened by the statistics and the horrors of the past, while also obviously enjoying the urban delights of Melbourne.
In the prison in Canberra indigenous Australians made up about 40% of the population which is very low – this goes up to as high as 90% in some places in Northern and Western Australia. With the national emphasis on tolerance and apology – there has to be a lot of provision for the Indigenous Australians – to respect their culture and traditions (the term Aborigine went out of fashion in the late 80’s although they still identify themselves as Aborigine).
Each area has their own native tribe, and there are literally hundreds of tribes. There are 120 living languages across Australia, each tribe with distinct customs, artworks, culture and practices. This is hard for Australian citizens to navigate through and even harder for my little mind to comprehend – I was very moved in the prison by the Indigenous Art room. This a place they can come and chat and hang out away from the general population – this is normal provision. They had a wonderful table that got repainted in section as new people came and went, a continuously evolving rainbow serpent. They made didgeridoos and message sticks. Apparently in bigger prisons they have spaces for ceremonies and intrenched cultural provision. They had recently had an interesting project for ‘NAIDOC’ week, there are festivals and projects and inclusive activities. One of the lads I did story telling is a 32 year old ‘Aborigine male’ – typically, in and out of prison all his life from ‘juve’ centres to adult prison, he drank and took drugs and got into petty street crime again and again. You’ll be able to hear his story soon. He is an artist and I bought one of his paintings, I support prisoner art at home and thought it would be a great souvenir – turns out it is quite common for them to sell their artworks. It is a female crocodile protecting her three eggs from hunters – quite apt as I have three children.
The traditional Indigenous Australians interaction with the land is so different to our own. They find it hard to deal with the western ‘luxuries’ of alcohol and drugs. They traditionally find it hard to comply with our timetables and routines – and why should they – they were here first! And of course there is anger and resentment, why should they be in a white mans prison for breaking white mans rules?
Talking to a good friend who lectures in art a Melbourne University the issues became even more complicated. Now seemingly ‘white’ people identify as Aboriginal even if they are one sixteenth or less, but aligning themselves with that culture. This is is of course open to all sorts of pitfalls and problems. Indigenous Australians can be given special dispensation for ‘walkabout’ or ‘grieving ceremonies’ which might mean they do not hand in their assignments or attend class. The teacher is not allowed to ask or question identification. In the prison I interviewed one of the ‘Indigenous Australian’ prisoners and he did not look or seem how I expected. In some ways it may seem like a fabulous culture to identify with, so earthy and mystical – one of the oldest cultures in the world. A history of painting and walking and storytelling and song. A culture where time has little meaning, where the moon, fire, water and the earth are the rulers. I think I might like to identify as part of that if I had the opportunity.