Time to befriend an indigenous person


Musician Kevin Bennett

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander viewers are advised that this blog may contain references to deceased persons.

Reading an online ABC story about Ash Barty and her newly-born baby, I was struck by two things. The first was that the story had clearly been assembled with no direct input from Barty. Since retiring from championship tennis last year, Ash has made it fairly clear she values her private life. All the same, she’s famous enough that a declaration (to friends) on social media was appropriated by deadline-hungry online media. The story was compiled from what old journalists used to call ‘the cuts’, meaning file stories, social media comment (and responses) and a photo of Ash on her wedding day (supplied).

The second thing about this shallow news story was that nowhere in the text was Ash identified as an indigenous person. You’d think that in NAIDOC week, that would be a given.

NAIDOC stands for National Aboriginals and Islanders Day Observance Committee (originally dubbed National Aborigines Day Observance Committee).

The ABC could at least have tried to contact Ash, perhaps in the guise of preparing a NAIDOC week story. The time-honoured protocols of mainstream journalism should at least contain the disclaimer – the ABC made attempts to contact Ash Barty for comment but was unsuccessful.

The most interesting thing about the newly-born son (Hayden) of Ash Barty and husband Garry Kissick is that he is now part of the Barty extended family.

Through her great-grandmother, Ash Barty is a member of the Ngarigo people, the Aboriginal people of southern New South Wales and north-eastern Victoria. Despite being declared Australia’s Person of the Year in 2022, Ashleigh Barty is entitled to her private life, so I will now move on to NAIDOC.

This is a week of observance during which indigenous people can feel free to celebrate their origins. White fellas can use the time to reflect on their attitudes to indigenous folk, hopefully in a positive way. It is probably fair to say (and feel free to let me know if you think this is a generalisation), most white people who are not in some way inter-married, know few indigenous people and fewer still can actually say they have an Aboriginal friend.

She Who Is Going to Canada Soon has been making attempts to meet First Nations people in our home town, with limited success. Her attempts to make eye contact and say Hi will on occasion elicit a shy smile or a nod. (Of course, it’s just possible we already have Indigenous acquaintances, as not everyone chooses to mention their ethnicity. Ed)

It’s probably no wonder that so many Indigenous people are reluctant to engage with ‘white’ Australians If I was an Aboriginal person living in this country I’d probably not want to make eye contact with white people either.Ed

This is a reference to the shocking periods in this country’s history when European settlers squatted on land once used by Aboriginal tribes for hunting, food-gathering and sacred ceremonies. From this arose seldom-mentioned Frontier Wars and the gradual marginalisation of indigenous Australians

We got chatting to a young person in Brisbane recently who we discovered has Aboriginal ancestry, though it was not obvious to us. We found this out because she was visibly upset by an overtly racist comment made in her workplace by a customer.

The comment was not addressed to the young person, but it was gratuitous enough to make her angry and upset.

The young person revealed that her grandmother was one of the Stolen Generation. This refers to a shameful period in Australia’s history (mid-1800s to 1969), when Aboriginal children were removed from their parents and adopted by (usually) well-intentioned white people. This tawdry period in Australia’s colonial past was best summed up by the late songwriter, Archie Roach:

Taught us to read, to write and pray
Then they took the children away
Took the children away
The children away
Snatched from their mother’s breast
Said this is for the best
Took them away.

Even today, people in their 50s and 60s are discovering or tracing back their ancestry and those who have the opportunity to spread the story do just that. Alt-country songwriter Kevin Bennett not so recently traced his family and now writes songs depicting or satirising that era. Check out his song Spaghetti Western and its reference to a ‘stolen land’. Bennett also referred to intermarriage in Goulburn Valley Woman.

“She said she was a Goulburn Valley woman, she felt connected to the land; Her mother was a flame-haired Irish lass, her father was a Yorta Yorta man.”

The ABC this week interviewed songwriters Paul Kelly and Kev Carmody, who did more to raise awareness than most with their seminal song ‘From Little Things Big Things Grow’. I first met Kev at a folk club in Toowoomba and was also aware that he was (like me) one of the mature age students studying at the university. Kev played guitar in a local bush band and on occasions would sing one of his own songs. I had no idea he was indigenous until the night he sang a song about someone being ‘zipped up in black skin’.

“This is a song about my Uncle,” he said, launching into Jack Deelin. Carmody released his debut album in 1988, the Bicentennial year. Along with indigenous bands Yothu Yindi and compadres including Gurrumul, Tiddas, Kutcha Edwards and others, Kev Carmody was at the forefront of raising awareness of indigenous culture and the injustices of the past.

The injustices and inequalities (which still exist) include a mortality rate 1.6 times greater than non-indigenous, chronic health problems, inadequate housing and over-representation among jail populations.

Over time, this led to the Apology by Prime Minister Kevin Rudd in 2007 and the emergence of some now ubiquitous traditions. One is the warning at the start of this blog. This accords with the Aboriginal custom of not referring to the departed by name, unless special permission has been given. Then there is the acknowledgment of country which has become universal.

My attempts at befriending Aboriginal people stall on innate shyness and I suspect it is a two-way street. A fellow sometimes busks outside the IGA in town. He sings, plays guitar and harmonica and is not half-bad. I was tempted to sidle up and join in on the harmony to “Down on the corner, out on the street, Willie and the Poor boys etc.” Opportunity lost.

I remember visiting Derby in Western Australia and seeing the ancient Boab ‘Prison’ tree and reading the bleak history of the region. While the story of that hollow tree used as a temporary prison is said to be a myth, the Boab was a staging post and Aboriginal prisoners were chained to nearby trees. These are stark images which remind us of how European settlers mistreated the original inhabitants. But as is often the case, the historic records are often disputed, many because they were never written down.

It’s not that much different to the Highland Clearances, where my descendants were pushed off their land so the English aristocracy could run their sheep and lay claim to whisky production. The same applies to other colonial conquests around the world, although the mistreatment of Aborigines and Native Americans stand out as egregious examples.

The way I see it on this particular Friday is that come the referendum, we should all be saying ‘yes’.nawa.


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