Hands of friendship from Indigenous Australia

Something really interesting is happening to the perennial public discussion about how the continent’s original people and those who came from other places relate to each other.

“We are not the problem, we are the solution,” Siena Stubbs, a 17-year-old student from Yirrkala, East Arnhem Land, told a Garma Festival audience in August 2019.

Siena’s message came in the form of the “Imagination Declaration”, written as a follow-up to the 2017 Uluru Statement from the Heart and addressed to the prime minister and state and territory education ministers.

The Uluru Statement is a cry from the heart of First Nations people to all of us who call ourselves Australian: that we simply listen, take in what they are saying and accept their unique gift to us – wisdom built on millennia of experience of these lands.

Fully equal to Uluru in its freshness, eloquence and passion, the Imagination Declaration is made all the more powerful by the youthfulness of the 65 Indigenous and non-Indigenous school students who put it together. It urges Australian leaders, when they think of Indigenous children, or any children, to “imagine what’s possible”. 

“Don’t define us through the lens of disadvantage or label us as limited,” it says. “Test us. Expect the best of us. Expect the unexpected. Expect us to continue carrying the custodianship of imagination, entrepreneurial spirit and genius. Expect us to be complex. And then let us spread our wings, and soar higher than ever before.”

The Imagination Declaration soared in the national education conversation for month or two before a cascade of disasters saw it set aside while official Australia dealt with more “pressing” issues. We could be forgiven for thinking the officials wanted it shelved, like the Uluru Statement. But like Uluru, its proud authors will not let it lie forgotten.

Something really interesting is happening to the perennial public discussion about how this continent’s original people can achieve a voice and a place in our 21st century government, and how prominent that place should be. We know the discussion will never be fully resolved because such things never are, but it is moving forward.

Tasmania has a unique place in this national conversation as the one state – or colony as it then was – whose effort to “cleanse” itself of its Aboriginal people had official sanction. That failed; the first inhabitants of this island continued to live amongst us, their cultural identity kept alive over generations by an irrepressible oral transition.

One outcome of that oral tradition is now on display for all to see in Macquarie Street, Hobart. A stone’s throw from the site of the colony’s first government house, the bronze form of a colonial gentleman-scientist, William Crowther, has been augmented with a powerful new statement about truth-telling by the Indigenous artist Allan Mansell.

It is both surprising and gratifying that Mansell’s art has remained unvandalised; that it has been accepted by a public that not so long ago would have been outraged at “desecration” of the memory of figures from colonial history represented in time-honoured bronze statues.

The whole debate about Crowther and his own, actual desecration of the corpse of Aboriginal leader King Billy, or William Lanne, in 1869 could have become nasty. The fact that it hasn’t is due in no small part to Indigenous efforts to focus not on the past for its own sake, but on how knowledge of the lives of Indigenous people can benefit all Australians.

A new University of Tasmania course devised and run by Aboriginal people seeks to help participants, regardless of ethnic and racial origin, better understand what it is to carry the torch for a culture that survived and thrived on this island for tens of thousands of years.

Indigenous Lifeworlds, a course put together by Maggie Walter, University of Tasmania distinguished professor of sociology, invites students to experience the stories and physical world of First Tasmanians, including the dispossession and shocking trauma they experienced from 1803. It won’t be easy, but it will surely be immensely rewarding. 

A monument at piyura kitina, the Indigenous name for the site of that 1803 British landing, was built to honour the leader of those interlopers, naval lieutenant John Bowen. The land he named Risdon Cove, along with the Bowen memorial, is now back in Indigenous hands. Like the Crowther statue, the fate of that memorial is a very open question.

The quest to understand what it is to be Australian is moving in a radically new direction, away from Europe and toward our part of the world, including the ancient cultures that colonists sought to displace and, unsuccessfully, to destroy. And the journey is getting more intriguing by the day.

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