A  More Personal Reconciliation

From Adelaide, where  the Kaurna, “the shadowy people” once lived.

I have read the histories and heard the stories. The histories serve us well, as they are the writings and recollections of a people in an earlier, and more honest time. They had no need to coat their words with  a modern ideology. They spoke and wrote as they saw it. They had their imperfections, their world view, as we all do. But they had less fear of being rebuked than we do to in today’s highly charged atmosphere.  So they said simple and honest things like…” there were very few contacts with those shadowy people, they seemed to have disappeared very quickly.”

The settlers said they shared food with them, as all were struggling to feed themselves. They paid them to do menial but handy jobs. They could see that they were fading away and felt some sense of loss. They knew their own presence was a contributor to this, but the guilt they felt was tempered by a sterner view of the world than we have today. Things happened: neighbouring tribes pushed against each other, we  all struggled to feed ourselves, our children died as infants, our lives were troubled by injury and disease, and were shorter.

There was violence. In some places it was minor, while other places saw tougher tribes fighting more determined settlers. Just as tribes had fought with each other before the first white settlers  arrived. The government had good intentions but had not developed the means to implement them. The lessons of frontier conflict may have helped in later places, like Papua and New Guinea, where limited access in uncontrolled areas, pacification, rule of law, medical aid, and eventually education and development held sway, at least until independence.

But we always saw you as ours. You were part of a country we came to love. We were saddened by your fate, largely at our own hands. But we also knew that there was no avoiding it. There had to be an impact, from somewhere, at some time. Your culture had evolved to survive in this timeless land, and not to accommodate waves of different, more modern cultures. At least you were spared the ravages of sterner European colonisers, as sterner than the British they all were.

We tried to bring you with us in those early days. We built schools for you. We recorded your languages, even though you could not. Our missionaries did what they saw as their best for you. The better parts of our colonial governance expressed ideals about your welfare, but they could not stand up to the avarice of some of the rougher early settlers, or  solve intractable problems of assimilation. Because your culture was a mysterious one. You hunted for food each day, and each day was a new day. You had a deep and mysterious attachment to a land you seemed to barely inhabit. Your family and clan ties were too complex for us to easily understand. Our culture said we prepared for tomorrow today, so we planned, we worked, we set things aside. Your culture said you only needed to provide for today.

We had extra food, and that was enough for you. We would give you blankets, and that made more sense to you than making a possum cloak. We had strong drink, and that made you feel good in the moment. That was all that mattered for many of you. We had tobacco, and flour, sugar, and tea. You loved all those things. You seemed to love them more than you loved your own things. But not every one of you. Some saw where it was heading and removed themselves from the headlong rush to an end.

We gave you our government, and eventually that became the most destructive force of all. No  more were there clean and well-dressed kids lined up outside the mission school. No more parents working their way through orderly vegetable gardens. No more farmhands cropping, shearing, milking, fencing. The end came for nannies, maids, cooks, helpers at missions and station homesteads.

We took away your ringers, drovers, and station workers. Got you off the horses you loved, on the land that still meant something to you. Gave you equal pay, which ended up meaning, no pay.

Our governments gave you everything, and nothing. We worried for your young girls, your children, and ours. We took some away, you gave some to us. We did it with their well-being in mind, and did it well, and not so well. Many of today’s Aboriginal leaders grew up with white parents or were whisked away to white city schools. That was a blessing for some, and an axe to grind, a lingering torment for some. We were rarely as bad as some of you, and your white supporters,  now want to believe.

We locked you up in our gaols, though less at first than later. You broke our foreign and perplexing laws, and so you were punished, usually mildly, as those judging you then had wisdom and forbearance.  We punished colonials who broke the laws, too, in the main with fairness. When you followed your own laws, we sometimes punished you for that too.  But many of those old laws could not stand up to examination in a modern world. Your old laws were harsh on your own, and they treated women very poorly. Too many of you still end up in our gaols. Too many under-educated, addicted, poor white people end up in gaol, too. No-one seems to have a short,  easy answer to any of that. The long answer is education, after which comes employment, good health, and good housing.

We gave you the dole, or community work for dole, or parent support, or all sorts of other “guvmint” money. You could then sit down, as too many did, and drink, play marbles in the sand, and gamble, and forget about your kids, some of whom were getting into trouble.

We tried to call this out, but the majority of us, voting for welfare governments, or shamed into progressive mindsets, thought that welfare was the right way. That salve was a poison, and still is. There should be a “sorry day” for the way our welfare has cruelled your chances.

Many of you didn’t want the easy welfare road.  You had good parents, many of them Christians. You married in among us, played football and netball with us, went to school with us, stood alongside us in the workplace, fought with us in overseas wars, and became us in part,  a nation now grounded in its mingling of many different peoples.

I don’t intend to downplay the difficulty in choosing the path towards a united nation, when your skin is dark, and your very presence arouses all sorts of prejudices in those around you. And abuse, and name calling, and teasing, and bullying. That’s all part of the process for anyone who is a bit different…. some get through it with varying degrees of pain and damage. Some can’t get past it. They burn with indignation, and vow to fight back, or get even, or hit out. Or they swallow their pride and hunch down, hide their face, and slink off, back to some place of safety.

For some of you, the past has become the future. You found the old books, written by the early teachers, and anthropologists, and learnt the old language again. Together with your progressive allies, you began to reclaim name places in our urban and rural landscapes.

You took up a new flag, (I’ve sat at the table where the flag was designed-it was in a Christian presbytery) new ceremonies, new ways of looking at us, often through the prism of overseas radicals. You called yourselves “nations”, but in numbers and ways of government you were always clans and tribes. Nothing wrong with that.

The Australian nation’s love for you is not concerned with these imported labels. We don’t think any more of you when you proclaim yourself as a member of the “proud Narrunga Nation.” We know why you do it, but we also know it falls short of real “truth telling.”

Just as damaging is blak identity politics, a graft from Afro-American politics. A pity, and about as attractive as the ugly gangster and ghetto cultural artifacts that poor white and black youth seem enamoured with. In the end it’s all just the politics of power, piggy-backing on despair, ignorance, and hate.

Many of you lived away from the cities, and still do, and amongst them will be found those still closest to their old ways, and yet at the same time still the most disadvantaged. Poorer health, lower education, more crime, more poverty. How is this possible, if the old ways before the colonials came are lamented as a perfect time, a time of harmony, in tune with nature, and at peace?  It’s possible because the old ways were not always good ways, and the new ways of welfare government, the modern politics of victimhood, and humbugging, have conspired together to put up barriers to overcoming the worst of the old ways, and the worst of the new ways.

When I look at your earnest attempts to grasp onto the way you thought things were, with costumes of red, black, and yellow, with modern takes of culture that are more show business than culture business, I just sigh with hopeless resignation. I know you need something to hold onto, to give your life some substance, like we all do. Like climate activists, and gender campaigners, and fantasy environmentalists do. I know that, but all I see is more heartbreak for you. I recall my generation of counter-culture hippies in the sixties. Cheesecloth blouses, long hair, sandals and other accoutrements. We changed the world, but as it turns out, it is not a better world. Now there is a case for a “Sorry Day.”

Your brothers and sisters have shown you the way. Make your own lives, earn your own money, buy your own house, stay healthy, keep your marriage whole if you can, educate and raise your kids. Be grateful. Just like we all should. Many of you won’t make it. The drink, smokes, gambling, disease, malaise, and despair will be too much. Just as it is among some poor white families. We’ll give you a hand, as we always have. And we’ll do our best for your kids and grandchildren if we get a chance. Some of you don’t want us to do that… victimhood appeals, and the emotional attachment of progressive supporters to sufferers, sucks them into the vortex. But not so much that their own material comfort is ever compromised. No white sympathiser has ever given their home back to you on their way to the airport.

We’ll do our best to present a more realistic view, but it is not easy.

So, we can help a bit, but we, the rest of the Australian nation, are not the only answer to your problem. We don’t want our nation to be the easy pickings in a modern day race war, with political power, a treaty, reparations, and rent as the prizes. These things might keep some of you engaged awhile. But then the unavoidable sombre truth will come back to haunt you.

…that this is not the path to a better life, and it will not reveal how to make a successful and satisfying life. It is a poor example to your kids. The indigenous political class, and their sentimental white supporters never had a path to promote your well-being, only theirs. That you will, in quiet moments, wonder about just how you made so little genuine progress, while seemingly engaged in a major struggle with your own fellow Australians.

That’s some of you, and a minority is my guess. Most of you will be friends to us, marry us, share parenthood, and a gentle gratefulness for being able to manage blending the good things in all our backgrounds as one people.

Paul Mabarrack lives in Adelaide

14 thoughts on “A  More Personal Reconciliation

  • Simon Mundy says:

    Well said, Paul. Tough love, indeed.

  • Tricone says:

    The mere act of setting up a nearby settlement with a more reliable food supply is enough to destroy a hunter gatherer culture.

    • Paul W says:

      I recently saw a discussion online about why British colonialism in Australia was a cultural genocide. He said that Australians don’t understand that teaching kids to read can be bad. If you are trying to preserve a pre-literate culture then the mere knowledge of the existence of writing would be destructive of that culture.
      The bar is being set very low.

      • Blair says:

        “British colonialism in Australia was a cultural genocide.” All cultures had to adapt to changing circumstances eg new technologies, science, knowledge, weapons etc for the people to to survive.

  • Michael Mundy says:

    Excellent article. So many don’t realise, acknowledge or accept that the quantification of disadvantage through The Gap Reports is directly linked to the remoteness you refer to. Encouraging these unserviceable remote locations in the name of an anachronistic and mutated culture does no one any favours, especially the children.

    • Jessie says:

      Drill a little deeper Michael. There are enormous gaps in economic wealth between families and between
      individuals in remote communities.
      The bias includes ABS not publishing lower than ‘unit households’, aggregating small area data and influenced by the fluidity in number p/household. Additionally much of the Indigenous ABS Indigenous
      data is based on ‘survey’ data.

      “Remote communities” has become a convenient term. Analysing finer detail on wealth [income] and assets – licit or illicit has been neglected. As has been analysis of benefits to h/holds or individuals via Medicare, PBS, ATO, Charitable institutions, Royalties, school meals and outings, 2nd properties in regional towns and capital cities (public housing), local employee fuel and vehicles, air travel and accommodation including for regional town medical appointments and so on.

  • Perpetua DC says:

    A moving and inspired piece. An example of true truth–telling.

  • Paul from Sydney says:

    Beautifully expressed and reflects many of my own sentiments. We want Aboriginal people to succeed, but not through mythologising and separation. The politics expressed in the Voice documents will not lead back to restored Aboriginal lives or a truly whole nation but the opposite.

  • joemiller252 says:

    Rarely is common sense dressed in such lyrical clothes.

  • David Isaac says:

    This is very seductive and largely true. Suggesting that education alone is a solution to integration is fanciful though. Exquisitely adapted to bush survival aborigines are not evolved for civilization and its intellectual demands. Part aborigines certainly may have the required attributes, but even they are less likely than Europeans or Asians to thrive in education. The sooner we acknowledge this fact and stop allowing ourselves to be blamed for “the gap” the sooner we might implement rational policies relating to our stone age peoples. Worshiping them, as we are doing at present, is not rational.

  • Paul Corcoran says:

    It is such a privilege to read an article expressed in simple, straightforward language that confidently speaks truthfully, no matter that some truths are bitter, some are sweet. Speaking or writing that way is a beacon, a gift, to all who will pay attention.

  • Garry Donnelly says:

    The comments of David Isaac and Paul Corcoran and worth reading twice. Very true and straight to the point.. Well written you two as is the article of Paul Mabarrack.

  • Sue Tooth says:

    Such a beautifully written, moving and truthful account of this country.
    Thank you Paul

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