Why I Am Sorry.
Today marks the end of Reconciliation Week. A week dedicated to appreciating the need to reconcile with the original bearers of the Australian land. In honour of this week and the Aboriginal People I went on a quest to better understand the historical significance of Reconciliation Week and “I’m Sorry Day”. This is the story of why I am sorry.
Every morning my 4 year old attends daycare they acknowledge the Wangal People of the Darug Nation. These were the People who occupied the land we live on for 1000s of years before systematically being wiped out by white settlers. Today, just over 200 years since the first settlers arrived, there is little to no trace left of the Wangal People. Apart from a few street or park names cited in their honour there is no sign that the Wangal People lived here peacefully for over 20,000 years. When my daughter started reciting the acknowledgement at home it sparked an interest in our family which was followed by an array of questions. How can we have lived in this country for 5 years and were yet to be confronted by the genocide which occurred here? Why are there no monuments, observed holidays or other commemorations to honour the genocide of this nation? What happened to the Aboriginal People and why are we not confronted by their history when we occupy their land on a daily basis? The lack of ‘confrontation’ likely stems from a combination of guilt, shame and ignorance, and means that one has to go seeking out information regarding this.
I started my quest for more information by visiting the Hyde Park Barracks Museum to gather a better understanding of the impact of European Settlement to the Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander people as well as their loss of land and culture. I was quite surprised at how subtly the horrors of colonisation were portrayed at the Museum and much of the impact is sanitised. While the Barracks show the living conditions of settlers in great detail, the Aboriginal impact is honoured with a mention of a massacre and that’s it. No insight in to the actual people, their culture and how they lived. However lots of information about the rats occupying the Barracks.
As a European of mixed European heritage I am no stranger to what humans are capable of doing. Yet I am surprised by how little the long-standing Aboriginal suffering has been commemorated. Comparative to my culture, it seems inappropriate. If you go to Germany today you will find that every single city commemorates Jews and other ethnic groups who were violated during the most recent World War. Even Hungary has many ways of commemorating those lost in the Holocaust and the most recent ‘reign of terror’ executed by the Communists. You can find public symbols, such as gold plated tiles on the street which show victims’ names who were taken from their homes. Or you can visit the buildings where suffering was created such as the ‘House of Terror in Budapest’ which is now open to the public to help us remember those who were harmed. Yet while Australia’s history of abuse dates back to 1770, you really have to search long and hard to find much which alludes to its troubled past. There are no public holidays commemorating their suffering, no notable memorial sites or buildings one can visit and as a visitor you have little to no awareness of the plight of an entire race which was effectively subject to genocide.
I continued my quest for greater insight at the National Museum of Australia. I found that the first record of an Aboriginal warrior being shot dead dates back to 1788, which was followed by the Western introduction of smallpox. Smallpox had a deadly impact on the Aboriginal community and killed almost 70% of their population. Which means that within the first 20 years of their arrival, European settlers had effectively wiped out most of the Aboriginal people. By the late 18th century colonisers were executing massacres on the Aboriginal communities which continued in to the 20th century with the last massacre recorded in 1928. Yet the brutal genocide of the true First Australians seems to be underreported and sanitised. For instance in the 1860s the Museum describes that “South Sea Islanders were brought to Queensland to perform manual labour”. When you take a moment and think of what actually happened, that statement seems quite misleading. I very much doubt that South Sea Islanders woke up one morning and had a desire to travel to Queensland. They were forcibly taken from their homes or promised fairytales in aid of human and sex trafficking. The kidnapping and enslaving of more than 60,000 islanders should be identified as such. To add insult to injury, at the beginning of the 20th century these islanders were then deported when white settlers opposed the cheap/unpaid slave labour and Australia was moving towards a White Australia policy restricting labour rights and immigration to non-whites. Many of those deported had no connection to the Islands and the impact of these movements seems undocumented (National Museum of Australia).
By 1915 the Aboriginal Protection Board was awarded the right to rule completely over Aboriginal life, including forcibly removing children for any reason seen fit. Seeing as the Aboriginal race was identified as a ‘dying race’ by its white suppressors, thousands of Aboriginal children across the country were forcibly taken from their families on the basis of race alone. Racial outbreeding programs, forced marriages and domestic slavery were all elements this “Stolen Generation” of children had to endure. Children were living in homes designed as labor camps where they had to reject their heritage and language, and were forced to identify with the language and culture of the people oppressing them. The impact was detrimental to those of Aboriginal heritage. The Act was only repealed in 1969, meaning that children and families were abused by the Government for over 40 years. Activism by Aboriginals such as the Australian Aboriginal Associations were disbanded, suppressing those who tried to garner equal rights for themselves. The Aboriginal community was also excluded from any cultural advances like the women’s suffrage or the 1912 maternity allowance which gave money to new mothers.
The Aboriginals, like many native cultures, had a holistic and all-encompassing connection with their land. They respected the land and used only what was necessary to live. Their ceremonies and spiritual practices recognised the importance of the land itself and also the animals that they shared the land with. The way the land has been pillaged by the White Settlers caused immense trauma. Natural resources such as forests and rivers were cut down or altered by man-made structures such as dams, for human profiteering. Foreign pests such as rabbits and the cane toad were introduced and had a detrimental impact on the local wildlife. Poaching caused the extinction of species such as the rare Tasmanian Tiger. Holy land or burial sites were not recognised by white settlers and treated in ways that was sacrilegious to the Aboriginal community such as the climbing of Ayers Rock (Uluru). While some land was later returned, most Aboriginal people fail to benefit from this gesture.
The Bringing Them Home Report conducted in 1997 showed that as a result of the treatment the community members suffered from a lack of identity, were more likely to have been abused and were more likely to partake in criminal activities due to a lack of opportunities and the generational trauma they suffered. Yet the plight of the Aboriginal people does not seem to stop there. Athletes reported racial abuse even in more recent times, such as famously demonstrated by Nicky Winmar in 1993, who stood up to viewers shouting racial abuse at him while he was playing on the field.
In 2000, the Prime Minister failed to apologise to the Aboriginal people for what had happened to them, stating he did not feel it was the responsibility of the present generation to apologise for past practices. It took another 6 years for the true First Australians to receive a formal apology from the Government. If I were an Aboriginal person, who had lost not just their land, their family but their cultural heritage, I would feel that Australia deems me as worthless. Even today there are many elements of this culture where Aboriginal culture is not set right. For instance, it seems unconscionable that Australia Day is celebrated on January 26th which was originally the Aboriginal ‘Day of Mourning’, first held in 1938 by Aboriginals who stood to mourn the loss of their land and culture. 8 years later the Government decides to make this the day to celebrate Australia Day, not even honouring the Aboriginal community’s right to mourn their loss of country, identity and freedom. This tradition is upheld today, not recognising the symbolic meaning of such actions. On the basis of my research it would not surprise me if an Aboriginal person may not trust any foreigner, seeing as they have yet to be treated with respect. And as a result of this long-standing history any actions taken by Government agencies may also be viewed as violations. This was evidenced by the First Nation grandmothers marching to protest removal of Aboriginal children in the name of ‘child protection’ in 2014.
After confronting myself with painful and tragic history of the Aboriginal People I would like to say that I am sorry. I am sorry for the unimaginable suffering you and your ancestors had to endure so that we could live and prosper on your land. I am sorry we do not do more to right the wrongs, and I am sorry that as a community you are still at a great disadvantage in a country that is stable and wealthy. I am sorry it has taken me five years to acknowledge your suffering and I promise that I shall do better.