Australia must wake up to the impact of its attempts to destroy the identity of Indigenous people, writes Francis Ventura, 23, a Commonwealth Correspondent from Australia. He says without reconciliation, Australia will continue to be a broken nation built upon injustice.
I’ll never forget the first time I met the kids I’d be working with over the next month in Kununurra, Western Australia. Like children everywhere, they were energetic, playful, had radiant smiles and of course, they had a good dose of cheekiness.
I’ll never forget when they got their little hands on packets of salt water from a first aid kit and started squirting me with it. I’ll never forget their laughs when I used to make the car bounce when driving them home.
I’ll never forget playing football and basketball with them, or even having to chase them for the ball when it was time to pack up but they didn’t want to finish. I’ll never forget when we caught a fresh barramundi in the same river where my brother Peter welcomed me to Miriuwung Gajerrong country.
I’ll never forget the woman in the middle of the road who pleaded for me to stop. When I did, I saw that she had blood pouring down her face. She pointed to a man walking away with a pram, saying that he had bashed her and taken her baby. She begged for help, so I called the police. This was particularly confronting for me, since I’ve witnessed my own mum getting bashed up repeatedly by one of her former boyfriends when I was about 13 years old.
This trip was the result of a desire to spend some time with Indigenous young people my own age so that I could learn about their culture and hear their stories. Perhaps it was due to frustration that my school years had never seriously considered Indigenous history, language or culture – a continued widespread deficiency with the Australian education system. These memories of my trip have been searing me ever since, and it is only recently that I’ve worked up the courage to write about it.
Identity is central to who we are. Indeed, it IS who we are. It forms our heart and soul. It should be a source of pride. Perhaps most heartbreaking is the sense that these children have had their identity – the main vestige of our existence as human beings – ripped away from them. They are torn between their cultural roots – for which they continue to suffer evils such as racism, on top of the many years of injustice – and a desire to fit in to the ‘mainstream’. I found myself constantly telling them to be proud of who they are and to cherish it. Their identity belongs to them and them only. Australians should rightly be proud of the contributions that Aboriginal people have made to this great land for over 40,000 years, particularly in recent times through sports, the Arts and community service.
However their situation is very much unlike that for most other children. Beneath the smiles were lives that would even put hell to shame. In some areas of the Kimberleys, almost two-thirds of girls have been sexually abused before they turn 12, with instances of pack rape highly prevalent.
I’m not usually lost for words; rather, I generally find it hard to stop talking. However, no words can describe how amazing it is that a group of people that has suffered dispossession and discrimination for many years can still remain strong and proud to this day.
An Australian Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission report in 1997, Bringing them Home, suggests that the treatment of indigenous Australian children by both State and Church agencies throughout 20th century falls within the terms of the United Nations definition of genocide. The definition in the 1948 UN Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide includes ‘forcibly transferring children of the group to another group’ committed ‘with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such’. (http://www-personal.usyd.edu.au/~robertvk/papers/gen2.htm#N_2_)
From the moment I stepped onto the plane to return to my seemingly perfect life in cosmopolitan Melbourne until this very moment, I haven’t been sure what to feel about my experience. Angry? Anger has never solved anything. Ashamed? Perhaps, but there’s no point being ashamed if something doesn’t lead to action to rectify it. Determined? You bet.
Until Australia wakes up to its own reality and looks outside the bubble that many of us live in, then we will continue to remain a broken nation that’s built upon injustice. It is not a history that can really be celebrated, but rather than ignore it, we should recognise it and continue on the path of healing. This isn’t starting a ‘history war’, this isn’t ‘Left vs Right politics’; this is healing through recognition, which in turn leads to respect.
As former Prime Minister Paul Keating said of the British Colonialists in his legendary Redfern Speech: ‘their failure to bring much more than devastation and demoralisation to Aboriginal Australia continues to be our failure’. He then went on to say ‘Imagine if ours was the oldest culture in the world and we were told that it was worthless.” Given the way star footballer Adam Goodes was treated recently, it’s evident that racism and prejudice still exist in society today.
For many of us, we will rightly wake up tomorrow surrounded by family and friends, beautiful cafes and safe streets. For the children in Kununurra, tomorrow will be yet another day in the vicious cycle of destruction that is fast spiralling out of control. And another generation will be lost. The foundations of social cohesion and peaceful coexistence are understanding and respect. Australia’s heart and soul will remain torn until we heal the injustices of the past. While we can’t change the past, we can certainly shape the future for the better. With young people central to the cause, Australia can and must achieve true Reconciliation with our Indigenous brothers and sisters.
I’ll conclude by contradicting the title of this piece. When any Kimberley kid – or indeed any kid – loses their chance for a life of peace and happiness, and instead every day becomes a horrid struggle for survival, then it is not just Australia’s loss, it is a loss to all of humanity.
*I would like to thank Nicolas Rothwell for his eye-opening article http://www.theaustralian.com.au/national-affairs/living-hard-dying-young-in-the-kimberley/story-fn59niix-1226046773687 on the social issues faced by young people in the Kimberleys.
G’day! My name is Francis Ventura. I am currently an Assistant Editor of yourcommonwealth.org. and the Victorian representative on the Australian Youth Forum Steering Committee.
As Melbourne is the sporting capital of the nation, I have a keen interest in cricket and Australian Rules football. I also love exploring Australia’s beautiful environment. After my studies I would like to dedicate my life to human rights, with a focus on protecting civilians living in war zones or under totalitarian regimes.
Opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the Commonwealth Youth Programme. Articles are published in a spirit of dialogue, respect and understanding. If you disagree, why not submit a response?
To learn more about becoming a Commonwealth Correspondent please visit: http://www.yourcommonwealth.org/submit-articles/commonwealthcorrespondents/
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