2020 has been a year for reflection and delays, and in due style last week we celebrated a delayed NAIDOC Week. This is a time for delving deep, recognising and reflecting on the culture and peoples who have shaped this land through centuries of change.
Always was, always will be…
That was the theme for this years’ NAIDOC week, which pays homage to this land and the peoples that shaped it before it had the name ‘Australia’. It refutes the doctrine of ‘terra nullius’ that led to mass-scale dispossession and often violent conflicts between Indigenous people and colonial settlers.
The idea that you are standing, sitting, sleeping or reading this post while on stolen land is a disconcerting one, especially for those who are the descendants of colonial settlers or new migrants since. How do we sit in this discomfort and what action can we take to reconcile this past?
A good start is to acknowledge the past and understand the impact of past injustices. Though criticised for its lack of action, the Rudd apology in 2008 was a turning point in the discourse at the national level – at least now we had stopped denying the truth.
We are the stories we tell ourselves.
The quote has been repeated so many times in various ways, it’s hard to know who is first to have said it. The stories we tell ourselves become the reality we live. We too can help change our own internal discourse by learning more about the history of this country, its peoples and their culture, as well as our place in it.
Whose land are you on?
One of the biggest misconceptions about Aboriginal Australia is its expected uniformity. Prior to European settlement, there were 300-500 Indigenous nations, each with their own languages and customs. Sadly, many of these languages are becoming or are already extinct – something you might not think possible given our current ability to document everything online.
These language groups and their geographical bounds are often what we refer to when we think of Indigenous Country. Connection to Country and Caring for Country are phrases you might have heard, but not stopped to think about what they meant, or been able to consider the reality that there are actually many Countries.
Imagine the stories you tell about the places you have been. I was born here, I grew up there, this is where I met my future partner. In Australia we use a mix of place names, original or derived indigenous names like Wagga Wagga and Mallacoota, as well as those that came long after the first peoples already had named them.
We at ICONScience live and work across Melbourne and its outskirts, Perth, and regional Victoria. Said differently, we live and work on lands of the Dja Dja Wurung, Woiwurung, and Boonwurrung language groups of the Kulin Nations, Wajuk country in WA, and Jaitmatang country in regional Victoria.
Can you imagine how your story would change if you mapped your life according to the Indigenous Country you stood on? There are many tools out there to help you, like this map from AIATSIS that covers all of Australia, or the Welcome to Country App (on Apple phones only) that gives you location specific information.
Paying the rent
It is both politically unpalatable and personally unsettling to talk about Australia as being unceded land. What do we do with that knowledge? How do we reconcile it with our current lifestyle?
It is difficult for the average Australian, who right now might be jobless or struggling to pay rent, to imagine providing restitution for the misgivings of their ancestors, or those they live with. It is hard to feel how privileged we are.
And yet, acknowledging the past does not remove its ongoing effects. Indigenous people are half as likely to own their own home, more likely to be unemployed or incarcerated, and have a lower life expectancy (for more information see Australia’s Welfare 2017 report or the Closing the Gap campaign). Never again, we said in 2008, but in 2020 more children than ever are being taken from their families under controversial child protection policies.
A movement that acknowledges the political complexity of restitution is the notion of “Paying the Rent“. First born out of NAIHO (now NACCHO) and a team of dedicated activists in Victoria, the movement urges for governments to pay a percentage of the Country’s income to Aboriginal peoples while allowing for self-determination and governance on how that money is spent for repatriation.
But you don’t have to wait for the government to act. You can pay the rent yourselves through this Victorian website.
This is a good point to acknowledge that money cannot fix everything. There are other things that are needed in the process towards reconciliation with First Nations people.
High on the list are calls to allow Indigenous voices to be heard in parliament (e.g. the Statement from the Heart) and other governance processes; an official treaty that gives Indigenous Australians the power for self-determination; and integration of the true history and understanding of Indigenous cultures into our education system.
If respect for indigenous culture was embedded into the fabric of the Australian way of life, we wouldn’t need this moment to reflect during NAIDOC week, we would see it reflected in our everyday.
If you want to explore beyond simply acknowledging Country, there are a range of resources designed to teach you and help you connect to Indigenous culture, history, music and language – check out this list here.
There are also many great books to read including Dark Emu by Bruce Pasco, who uses settler colonial accounts to dispute the idea that Aboriginal peoples were simply hunter-gatherer societies.
Claire Land’s book Decolonising Solidarity is also a great book club read with lots of associated resources to help you to have those difficult conversations about how to act as a non-Indigenous ally.
For those interested in conservation and engaging with Indigenous Peoples and Indigenous Knowledge, have a look at CSIRO’s Our Knowledge Our Way guidelines, and the Three Category Approach Workbook by the Clean Air and Urban Landscapes Hub