My grandparents were missionaries who spent a few decades of their lives trying to convert aboriginal people to Christianity. They went into remote communities and preached the gospel in the way Jesus commanded his disciples to a couple of thousand years ago. They didn’t have a wage and relied on donations from churches to get by. I grew up hearing stories about how they had to eat choko for dinner most nights because they were so poor. You could grill it with cheese and it became a main course, or if you boiled it with honey, it was a dessert. As a 10-year-old and I found this horrifying. As would anyone who has ever eaten choko. It’s unflavoursome.
As an educated, 33-year-old, agnostic-leaning human living in 2014, I now find the notion of trying to Westernise a 40,000-year-old culture unflavoursome. But that’s what they did back then. Before the First Fleet arrived there were probably more than 500,000 Indigenous people living in Australia and in the Torres Strait. 226 years later, the number is about the same. There are, very roughly, the same number of people of Greek descent living in Australia as there are people of Indigenous descent. Something went wrong there. Nobody can deny.
We can’t turn back time. And, as much as The Great Gatsby wished, we can’t repeat the past. We live in a delicious stew. Australia is an awesome place. What’s happened has happened. Nobody alive had anything to do with injustices of the past. Nobody alive is to blame. My grandparents aren’t to blame. Captain Cook isn’t to blame. Shit happened.
Should we just get over it? Not quite. I gravitate to a black armband view of this nation’s history. But there’s also no use beating anyone up over anything that happened between 1778 and 2013. So, as the question inevitably raises itself every Australia Day, if you, like me, are one of the 97.5% of Australians who don’t identify as Indigenous, do we take in Instagram selfie with the elephant in the room, or do we just pretend it’s not there? I, for one, advocate the selfie.
On Australia Day 2011 I wrote an article for The Drum about the disparity between indigenous and non-indigenous Australians. There’s a pile of facts in there which you can pay attention to if you like, but the bottom line is, if you’re Aboriginal, or a Torres Straight Islander, you’re more likely to have a shorter, less healthy life than everyone else. That’s pretty shit. Can you, I, or the 97.5% of others do much about it? Maybe. We can at least try. Here are five ways to try.
The five things you should do as a non-Indigenous Australian this Australia Day
1. Start hanging out with Indigenous people more often. Same goes for Greek people. And Italian people. And Inuit people from Canada. And people who collect stamps. And Jehovah’s Witnesses. Broaden your horizons and friendship circle. Make new friends and ask their opinions on things. You can’t gain perspective if you keep looking at life through the same lenses all the time.
2. Make plans to visit Uluru and/or Kakadu. At the very least. If you’ve been to London or Bali, but have never been to Uluru, you should be ashamed to call yourself an Australian. The most amazing natural beauty in the world is right here in your own backyard, and I dare you to walk around Uluru, or visit an Aboriginal rock art site in the top end without discovering a piece of your soul you never even knew existed. You’ll start to get a hint of what Indigenous people mean when they talk about a connection with the land.
3. Do some research. How much do you know about Indigenous history? If it’s less than you know about the American Civil War, or if you can name more Simpsons characters than Indigenous people, you’re in trouble. Fill some knowledge gaps and you’ll have a whole lot more context on where this country has come from, and where it’s going.
4. Discovery the Indigenous history of your local area. You don’t have to go all the way to Uluru to find a special place. There will be a midden, or a rock art site, or at the very least, some stone axe grooves in a creek bed somewhere near you. Go there, be respectful, and reflect on those who came before you.
5. Invest in the Aboriginal economy. You don’t have to be Andrew Forrest, but you can do more than you’re doing now. Travel to places that support Indigenous employment. Buy some Indigenous art. Donate to a worthy cause. It’s not hard. Even if you do it once a year, you’ll still be making a difference. If not on Australia Day, then when?