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Category Archives: Indigenous Australians

My favourites from 2009: 13 – Aunty Beryl

“Aunty” is a term of respect for an Aboriginal elder. I interviewed Aunty Beryl in October for the South Sydney Herald. Hers is an inspiring story.

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Thursday recommended site of the week: 1

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Yes, a new feature for this blog! (And easy to do too…) But really, do look. The screen shot is linked to this excellent site where you will find much more than just the bad news or the sensation of the day.

 

My right arm

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Why? See All hands on deck to bridge the indigenous reading gap.

 

Australian Indigenous film

Such a big and interesting topic! You can see an outline history here.

I am of course prompted by ABC screening Samson and Delilah (2009) last night.

Almost unprecedented was the unanimous five stars from Margaret and David on The Movie Show earlier this year! I can see what they meant, but in many ways it isn’t an easy movie to watch. I suspect it also needs to be watched more than once, but I think I do get where the Biblical allusion fits in. Pretty savage about the commercialisation of Indigenous art too.

The “behind the movie” documentary screens on Thursday night.

By coincidence I had borrowed a 1954 documentary from Surry Hills Library: The Back of Beyond. It is impressive in its way, but there is a bit much fakery for my taste, though it was part of the documentary style of the time, and it is relentless in the “hearts of gold” department to the point of propaganda rather than revelation. Still, it is well worth watching. Poets Douglas Stewart and Roland Robinson had a hand in the script, which rhymes from time to time.

…Shell’s [the oil company] interest in the story of the Birdsville Track is linked to the importance of the postal and telecommunications industry and the development of infrastructure. In this way it shares similarities with the British documentary Night Mail (1936) directed twenty years earlier for the British GPO Film Unit by the ‘father of the documentary movement’ in Britain, John Grierson. Night Mail, like The Back of Beyond, used symbolic imagery, a poetic ‘voice-of-God’ narration, and a mail route to project its message of nation building. But also, like Night Mail, The Back of Beyond has outgrown its beginnings as a product of corporate or private enterprise and continues to resonate today.

The Back of Beyond won the prestigious Grand Prix Assoluto at the Venice Film Festival, the overall prize for the best film across all catagories. It won awards at five international film festivals. Locally it was a hit as well. Some 750,000 people saw the film within the first two years of its release…

The “dying race” view of the Aboriginal was alive and well in 1954.

 

Aunty Beryl story – South Sydney Herald

Yes, the South Sydney Herald is out, so I can share the Aunty Beryl story now.

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Aunty Beryl’s three word dictionary

“My dictionary has just three words,” Aunty Beryl Van-Oploo says. “Communication, Education, Respect. That’s what I tell those students in there all the time.”

Not a bad dictionary that, and there’s a story and a half behind it.

Three years ago, following an initiative by the Redfern Waterloo Authority, Aunty Beryl co-founded the Yaama Dhiyaan Hospitality and Function Centre with chef Mathew Cribb. The Centre is in Wilson Street Darlington just by Carriage Works. Those three years have seen quite a few personal transformations – young students made confident enough by their success at Certificate II Hospitality to go back and do the HSC; families now well fed with good slow food and a real knowledge of nutrition; people finding jobs in the hospitality sector.

Of the 106 graduates who have now completed the nine week hospitality training course with Yaama Dhiyaan, 66% have gained employment or moved on to further education.

Things like Yaama Dhiyaan don’t come from nowhere, and in this case it is a long-held dream that holds the key. As a young girl in Walgett with no formal education Aunty Beryl dared to dream. She knew education was the key and dreamed of one day bringing back to the community whatever skills she might learn. At sixteen she was in Sydney working as a nanny in an upper middle-class Eastern Suburbs family.

“Yeah, I had to learn to read then, what with the kids going to Sydney Grammar.” So she did, and that was just a beginning. She remained close to that family and still does.

Her real formal education began at age thirty-one while she was working as a cook at the Murraweena preschool, then in Surry Hills. She worked days and at night studied nutrition and budget cooking at East Sydney TAFE. This was something she felt she could take back to the community.

Then she met a challenge: an invitation to become a trainee teacher for TAFE. “But I have no formal education,” she countered. That, she was told, would look after itself as she had the life skills and knowledge and an ability to communicate.

It didn’t quite look after itself as she found herself working as before, going to TAFE, and undergoing teacher training. When I asked her when she slept she just smiled. 

Graduating in 1988 she went ahead in her new career. When retirement loomed the Redfern-Waterloo Authority made their offer. Here was at last the greatest chance to bring all that knowledge and experience right back into the heart of the community and make a real difference. She decided to give it a go for twelve months – and now it’s three years.

Aunty Beryl has been part of the Redfern community for fifty years now, but her beginnings are with the Gamillaroi people. The Centre’s web site says: “Yaama means ‘welcome’ and Dhiyaan means ‘family and friends’ in Aunty Beryl’s Yuwaalaraay language of the Gamillaroi people of north west New South Wales.”

“A great life,” I read somewhere years ago, “is a dream formed in childhood made real in maturity.” Aunty Beryl would probably reject that applying to herself, but it’s hard to deny.

She wanted to know if this would be a positive story as we had talked a bit about the dark side and the way Aboriginal issues are represented so often in politics and the mainstream media. How could it not be positive? Seeing the college, the students, and meeting Aunty Beryl have been inspiring. Anyone who dropped in would be inspired too – and well fed, if you happen by when food is on offer. As Aunty Beryl told SBS’s Living Black: “We specialise in bush tucker. We might have crocodile – we’ll do that with a lemon myrtle sauce, we might have kangaroo and we’ll just do that with skewers, and make a bush tomato sauce for that, vegetables in some of our herbs and spices.”

But it is the transformation of lives that is the real work at Yaama Dhiyaan. “You can’t forget the past because that is who you are. It’s in your heart,” Aunty Beryl told me. “But we have to move on for the sake of the future generation. Some come here needing their self-esteem building up and we show them they can have confidence, and they do have choices.”

See SSHNOV09.

 

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Communication, Education, Respect

“Those are the only three words in my dictionary,” Aunty Beryl Van-Oploo, an Aboriginal Elder originally from Walgett told me today when I interviewed her for next month’s South Sydney Herald.

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Arriving in Sydney in 1958-9 to be a nanny to an Eastern Suburbs family she pursued her dream to achieve all three and to return her education to her community. She still has good relations with that family. “I had to learn to read, being a nanny and the kids going to Sydney Grammar…”

You’ll have to wait for the South Sydney Herald article for the rest.

Now her dream is a reality as she cofounded, through a training and employment initiative of the Redfern Waterloo Authority, Yaama Dhiyaan Hospitality Training College.

Our Name
Yaama means ‘welcome’ and Dhiyaan means ‘family and friends’ in Aunty Beryl’s Yuwaalaraay language of the Gamillaroi people of north west New South Wales.

Our Logo
The emu design was chosen as it is the totem of the Gamillaroi people. The emu design was based on an Aunty Elaine Russell design and developed by the artist Marian Aboud.

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“We can’t forget our past,” she said, reflecting on some of the hard things, “but you’ve got to move on for the sake of future generations.”

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What an inspiration she is!

 

Respect, yes; fetishism, no.

One of the great weaknesses of otherwise laudable desires to avoid racism or promote inclusivism – both desires are mine too – is that in action it tends to become a kind of puritanism, a set of shibboleths which do nothing to promote the true spirit of consideration and compassion that ought to be at the heart of what its detractors label “political correctness”. For example, the pursuit of non-sexist inclusive language by those who are, in my view, tone deaf or linguistically challenged leads to absurdities like rejecting “kingdom” in the traditional version of the Lord’s Prayer but not objecting to “realm” or “reign”, apparently not realising the ultimate root of those words is the Latin “rex/regis” which of course means “king”. Similarly, such folk object to “mastery” but not “domain”, which comes from Latin “dominus” meaning “master”. The most curious one to me is “women” which, believe it or not, has nothing to do with “men”.

Now we have Michael Mansell and others sounding off on the apparent racism of these two busts.

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They depict Tasmanian Woureddy and his wife Truganini. I have seen them and to me they are both haunting and beautiful and a reminder of a great Australian tragedy. They are far more impressive than any other depictions I have seen. While it is true that Woureddy and Truganini  used to be referred to as the “last Tasmanian Aborigines” and while it is also true this is not strictly so, as descendants of the Tasmanian Aborigines are alive and well today, they do represent an irrevocable loss, both for Tasmanian Aborigines and for all Australians.

But here ideology takes over – scoring, in my view, an own goal.

Two women from the Tasmanian Aboriginal Centre allege they were verbally abused and threatened at the museum yesterday when they demanded the removal of the copies from public display.

The centre’s legal director Michael Mansell says such images convey the extermination of Aboriginal people.

"These images are held up to perpetuate the racist myth that unless you were so called full-blood, untainted by marrying with white people, you weren’t a real aborigine," he said. "The fact that the museum has been displaying a bust of Truganini, along with the busts of other people, is perpetuating the myth. Everybody knows that the image of Truganini conveys to the racist people of the world that she was the last something or other…either the last full blood or last aboriginal. That is a racist perpetuation of a myth and her image is being used to try to exterminate the aboriginal people in Tasmania. For that reason her bust should not be sold just so people can make money out of it. These busts shoud be returned to the aboriginal community in Tasmania without any conditions so that aborigianl people are no longer hurt by the use of the images of a dead woman who can’t protect herself and who, if is she had known about this, would have objected very strongly," Mr Mansell said.

OK, I may share the argument about making money out of them, but the fact is they are also art works and as such may change hands.  But instead of worrying about what the busts convey to the “racist people of the world” we should reflect on what they convey to anyone with an ounce of brains – but I have already noted what they convey to me. What do you think?

 

Framing discussion of Indigenous issues in Australia

Some have a problem with the word “indigenous” – I don’t. To me it is clear that a rabbit, though the current rabbits are “native”, is not indigenous; a kangaroo is. Similarly except for a small part of my DNA inheritance I am a native of Australia but not indigenous. The word “native” derives from Latin “natus” = “born [in]”.

Another framing issue for me is this. In the Gospel of John there is a very theological statement attributed to Jesus: “before Abraham was, I Am.” Now consider our Australian Aboriginal people: before Abraham was, they were – and had been for some 35,000 years. Reflect on that. This is not to deny that there is a complex story behind these first settlers, when they came, whether there were several waves of incomers, and so on. Anthropologists and archaeologists are still working on that.

The ever forthright Patrick Dodson has an opinion piece in today’s Sydney Morning Herald. Patrick Dodson is himself a substantial figure in the story of Indigenous policy and politics in the past twenty or thirty years. Referring to framing theory himself, Dodson writes:

…Progress was made in this endeavour during the early years of the decade of reconciliation but at the final hurdle the nation turned its back on reconciling its past.

Instead, a new Australian story has been forged. The persistent inequity and deprivation of the colonised exist in a historical vacuum.

Community dysfunction is now understood as the fault of the colonised and their persistent cultural practices, rather than as a result of violent dispossession, brutal colonisation and authoritarian state intervention.

The nation has been told that indigenous disadvantage is also the result of four decades of failed government policies designed and perpetrated by progressive liberalism and romantics who believe in the integrity of indigenous culture and its place in modern Australia.

And those who have dared to tell the story of dispossession, exclusion and injustice – now apparently dated and short-lived in the manufacture of Australian history with its accompanying policy prescriptions for restitution and national reconciliation – are condemned for entrenching victimhood and dependence.

The relationship between indigenous people and the nation state is framed by two opposing forces. On the one hand there is an aggressive polemic, often masquerading as scholarship, which portrays traditional culture and the structures that protect and support Aboriginal society as reasons for chronic disadvantage and impediments to closing the gap.

On the other hand, there is the reality of contemporary indigenous nations throughout Australia whose people want liberation from material deprivation, sickness and social disorder, but at the same time to defend what is most important to them – their culture and identity.

Our inability to reconcile or mediate these two opposing views reduces debate in indigenous affairs to a scramble for the moral high ground, leaving most of the population confused and disengaged. As a result, we are a nation trapped by our history and paralysed by our failure to imagine any relationship with first peoples other than assimilation, whatever its guise…

Look, I do go along with this up to a point – and that point is that Dodson is also being driven by an urge to dichotomise. I suspect – and I offer the thought tentatively – that we need to see these stories as aspects of current and past reality, not as opposing forces, even if admitting the tension between them. I can’t help feeling that driving a wedge between so they are seen as in conflict rather than in tension is likely to lead to some unfortunate decisions affecting the desired outcome – a better position over-all for Indigenous Australians.

Dodson goes on to commend Australian Dialogue and his own work as founding director of the Indigenous Policy and Dialogue Research Unit at the University of NSW. I am sure both are and will be valuable to us all.

 

Two rather different experiences: book and dvd review

star30 star30star30star30star30  The Tracker (Rolf De Heer 2002)

This truly magnificent movie — so resonant, so beautifully made and acted — came out when Australia was lost in Howard’s Great Stony Desert. As Margaret Pomerantz said at the time:

The film opens with a painted landscape – and this is signficant because paintings by Adelaide artist Peter Coad are integrated into the action of the film to historify events and to move the violence from realistic representation. Into this landscape come four men – four archetypal characters. They are the Fanatic, Gary Sweet, a government trooper who is heading an expedition to find an Aboriginal man accused of murdering a white woman. Others in the expedition are the Follower, Damon Gameau, a greenhorn trooper, the Veteran, Grant Page and the Tracker, David Gulpilil. Like a tapestry unfolding the film charts the attitudes, the shifts and balances of power within the group as if it were the history of white settlement here. Along the way are confronting scenes of violence. But at the heart of every scene is the Tracker. Graham Tardif composed and Archie Roach sings on the soundtrack and it was one of the most emotional film experiences of my life to see The Tracker with Roach performing live at the opening of the Adelaide Festival. De Heer’s use of Coad’s paintings adds an uncanny power to the film, strangely making the violence more meaningful, more tragic, taking away any notion that’s it’s only a movie. David Gulpilil brings important heart to the film. De Heer’s screenplay and direction has extraordinary compassion despite the violence. It’s actually a film that’s important not to miss.

It still is important not to miss. For more reviews and a synopsis see Rolf De Heer’s The Tracker.

star30star30star30star30star30 Alexander McCall Smith, The Unbearable Lightness of Scones (Edinburgh, Polygon 2008)

This is the sixth in the 44 Scotland Street series; I reviewed the fifth here. Again I was delighted. What was true of the fifth is true of the sixth:

The thrust is gently conservative, with a folk wisdom that has much to commend it. I see that captured in a quotation I planned to use myself, but fortunately Kerryn Goldsworthy has used it in a review in the Sydney Morning Herald, thus saving me some typing:

For the most part, we treat others in a matter-of-fact way; we have to, in order to get on with our lives. But every so often, in a moment of insight that can be very nearly mystical in its intensity, we see others in their real humanity, in a way that makes us want to cherish them as joint pilgrims, almost, on a perilous journey.

Po-faced indeed would be any reader who is not drawn in and delighted, even if at the expense of an odd cringe or two — the latter probably being therapeutic.

One issue that runs through the novel is the discomfort some (perhaps many) Scots experience about social change, particularly relating to immigration, though it would be silly to accuse McCall Smith of racism. I can understand the discomfort, as Scotland has been until recently an exporter rather than an importer of migrants: I am part Scot myself! Even if quite a lot of what passes for Scottish tradition was invented by or after Sir Walter Scott in the early 19th century, I do sympathise with the sense of loss. At the same time McCall Smith skewers ultra-romanticism with his very funny Pretender travelling across Scotland in a motorcycle sidecar attempting to replicate the saga of Bonnie Prince Charlie.

A lovely book, with much wisdom to offer.

 

Sunday is music day 21: The Warumpi Band 1988

Update

I’ve been thinking about this, and I’d have to check with Kristina Nehm, but – though it is now a long time ago – I am sure the “Anglo” guitarist in this group was at Kristina’s memorable party during the Australia Day period in 1988. I seem to recall talking to him, but I met so many people that night!

 

July 09 South Sydney Herald

I have a particular interest in this, but the really big news in this issue is the front page story on the approval of the Pemulwuy Project in Redfern.

So here’s your copy of the paper: SSH_JULY_09 pdf

There’s a lot to read in the South Sydney Herald, and it isn’t all parochial; for example Laura Bannister & Robert Morrison give a fuller account of a story published in the May SSH on “abducted” protesters on behalf of Ugandan child soldiers.

And there’s a story by me too, on the book trade.

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You can read it in big writing over the break. Read the rest of this entry »

 

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Sunday Floating Life photo 25: Gordon Syron at South Sydney Uniting Church

There is currently an exhibition of Indigenous artist Gordon Syron at South Sydney Uniting Church.

Gordon does not paint dots. "My strength in painting is political", says Syron. "I use satire and raw imagery to send a message that Australian History has left out the Aboriginal people and their stories. Art is a way to convey and tell these stories. By turning around the picture – for instance to dress Aboriginal people in Redcoats and black boots and have white people standing naked holding spears on the shore when the first fleet arrived, as in my painting The Black Bastards Are Coming, it makes people understand and comprehend history in a different way."…

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Some serious reading for all Australians

The Productivity Commission has released a substantial report called Overcoming Indigenous Disadvantage: Key Indicators 2009. It is important to step away from whatever ideological frames one is accustomed to applying and read the report with great care. Though we must always remember there has been progress in some areas — and for me the February 2008 Apology was a necessary and healthy step — the overall picture brings little joy.

Last night on the 7.30 Report anthropologist and linguist Peter Sutton, who “has worked and lived with Aboriginal communities since the ’60s and has assisted with more than 50 land rights cases”, had some sobering words.

…KERRY O’BRIEN: When you say pragmatist and practical, does that include Aboriginal communities themselves, Aboriginal leadership accepting that they can’t really expect to kind of enshrine Aboriginal tradition, Aboriginal culture for future generations of Aborigines and lock Indigenous Australians into living in those communities and living that cultural life.

PETER SUTTON: Well I think people are voting with their feet, and there is much more mobility out of those more remote, more ghetto-like communities than there was. There are also many more outside people coming in, so they’re changing in that sense.

But to be honest, I mean, if you want a modern 20th Century health profile of the sort that you find in an advanced country, a first world country or a modern country, you’ve gotta have modern health practices, not just the instruments and the chemicals and the staff on the hospital. You’ve also got to have a settled urban or town-based kind of approach to things like getting rid of waste, dealing with personal hygiene, giving a certain modified and low role to violence in the way you settle disputes – that sort of thing…

KERRY O’BRIEN: How have you changed your views in 40 years? How dramatically have you changed your views in 40 years?

PETER SUTTON: Quite dramatically because I was of that generation of people living in remote communities who aided and promoted and took part in things like decentralisation back to outstations in the bush, who promoted cultural traditionalism and supported it where they saw it, took on interest in it, recorded it, filmed it or whatever. And there was a sort of an army of baby boomers, really, who spread out across the outback from the late ’60s onwards who I think played a fairly significant role, among other people of course, and I was one of those, that cadre of people who were involved in that. For us, culture was absolutely central, cultural preservation and preservation of knowledge of the bush and of places was absolutely central.

Now, I really think we have to start with three-year-old children, what’s essential for them. If it works for them, that’s the way to go. If it doesn’t work for them, no matter how much it might be about keeping some cultural practice going, the practice needs to be questioned and people need to work out whether they’re going to drop it or not.

KERRY O’BRIEN: Peter Sutton, it’s a very complex issue and we could go on, but we’re stuck for time. Thanks very much for talking with us.

Read the report: Overcoming Indigenous Disadvantage: Key Indicators 2009.

There is a central fact we all must recognise. Most of us are the beneficiaries of a dispossession that has occurred and in many respects is ongoing. It cannot be reversed, and we would be hypocrites to think it could be. I speak as a fairly typical old Australian, a hybrid myself of Dharawal and settler. Our historians have to confront that dispossession squarely; it is a complex story and often not a pretty story, but it is the only story on offer. The point is the present and the future. What are the best ways to both cherish the often neglected wisdom our Indigenous Australians do have to offer and guarantee that this really is a country of fairness, justice and equity for all? These are not easy matters.

 
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Posted by on July 3, 2009 in Australia, Australia and Australian, challenge, Indigenous Australians

 

June review catch-up 2

Some quickies.

star30 star30star30  1. Ed Gaffney, Enemy Combatant (2008)

A good courtroom drama with a strong post 9/11 twist. It may be improbable, but not so improbable as to not make you wonder “What if?” See also Thoughts On "Enemy Combatant" by Ed Gaffney.

star30star30star30star30  2. Susanna Gregory, To Kill or Cure (2007)

I haven’t read many in the Medieval Whodunnit genre. This one is sufficiently entertaining and informative. See also Euro Crime.

star30star30star30star30star30 3. 1945: The Year That Changed the World (DVD 2008)

This series (2 DVDs) is excellent. There are contributions from first-rate historians, one of whom, Ian Nish, taught me Japanese and Chinese history in 1962! Yes he is rather older now. If you check YouTube you will find it well represented.

star30star30star30star30 4. Frontier: Worse than Slavery Itself (DVD 1997)

Famous so-called “Black Armband” presentation of Indigenous Australia and European settlement 1830 – 1860, based on the work of Henry Reynolds. I was particularly struck, of course, by the NSW material which focussed on the Dangar family of the Hunter/New England areas, and on some of the better documented massacres of those years. The series still stands up well despite the reaction to aspects of it from the likes of Keith Windschuttle. It really is good on the role of evangelical thought as a conscience of the times.

It is interesting to compare the more recent SBS series First Australians (2008). Its episode dealing with NSW in the early to mid 19th century drew attention to another settler family, the Suttors of Brucedale, whose relations with the Aboriginal people were comparatively enlightened.

 
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Posted by on June 23, 2009 in best viewing 2009, book reviews, Crime and/or crime fiction, dvd, Fiction, film and dvd, History, Indigenous Australians, reading, Thriller