This is the first of a set of small essays about the place of Indigenous people in contemporary Australia, an issue that has interested me for at least fifty years. This one begins with little stories.
In early 1966, after having been overseas for the best part of two years, we drove from Sydney to Canberra, stopping for lunch in the Penrose state forest. I walked into the trees and stood on a large granite rock. Everything was still, birds called, the smell of the Australian bush filled my nose, I registered the clear Australian light filtering through the leaves. I was home. This was my place, my country. It was an immensely powerful moment in my life. You are at home here, the bush said to me. There is nothing to fear, here.
It is the early 1980s, and I am chatting with a friend, Peter Baume, who is the Minister for Aboriginal Affairs, and has a problem: how do you know whether or not someone is a ‘real’ Aboriginal? I think about it, and finally send him a letter: one way is to construct a 2 x 2 table that gives you four possible answers to two questions. First, does X claim to be an Aboriginal person? (Yes/No). Second, do Aboriginal people accept X as one of them? (Yes/No). Two Yes answers are needed. I don’t know what happened, but we seem to have something like that today.
My third story is more recent, and I am at an official gathering, about to have ‘the welcome to country’, a now obligatory ritual before any event conducted by our governments. A local elder is to officiate. He is breezy, good-humoured and effective. He looks about as Aboriginal as I do, and his constant references to his ‘ancestors’ makes me scratch my head.
Aboriginal people have come a long way since the 1950s, when I lived in Armidale, whose few Aboriginal residents seemed to live at the town dump. The success stories are many, but it is the shock/horror tales that make the news. In rather the same fashion as with the women’s movement, one could feel that nothing at all has changed, and that would be quite wrong. In a later essay in this series, I’ll document what seem to me to be the most significant changes in the situation of what we now call the ‘Indigenous’ people of Australia.
But now I want to reflect on my three stories. I feel that I am an indigenous Australian: I have been in most parts of it, and feel at home everywhere. But as far as I know I have no Aboriginal ancestors, and though it is a wise child who knows its father, my guess is that the Aboriginality of DA is nil.
So I have an incipient objection to the appropriation of ‘Indigenous’ to exclude those born here, who feel that this is their country, and who love it. But I also recognise that my Scottish and English ancestors moved into land that other people had occupied, and paid nothing for it – at least to those original occupiers. Relative to most of them, my ancestors and their descendants have a privileged position. I did not think that an Apology was necessary, but I did think, and do think, that I have a responsibility to do what I can to redress the balance. And especially in the world of higher education, where Aboriginal students, after a slow start, have done very well, I have been able to do something.
But who is an Aboriginal these days? On the face of it, the Aboriginal part of our population is growing very rapidly, but some of that increase is simply the result of people identifying with their Aboriginal ancestors, even if there were only one of them, and that a long time ago. Had the local elder in my third story not officiated in the welcome to country, he would have looked like everyone else.
And ultimately, it seems to me, that has to be the future in this increasingly diverse but still remarkably harmonious society of ours. To hang on to some imagined past, and not take part in building a better present and future, is the wrong way to go. That dictum applies to Indigenous people, not just to recent immigrants from seriously troubled parts of the world.
Marcia Langton has said that it is about time that welfare was provided on the basis of need, not on the basis of race. It is getting difficult to categorise most people on the ground of race anyway, unless they claim a special entitlement by doing so. I do not always agree with Professor Langton, but on this occasion I think she is on the right track.