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Ernie Dingo talks culture, racism and the Voice referendum result - "It hurt alot"

Jess Whaler -

National Indigenous Times sat down with Yamatji actor Ernie Dingo, a familiar face to generations of Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians alike. He revealed a deep sadness at the outcome of the Voice to Parliament referendum and spoke about racism and the strength of culture.

A pioneer in his field, he first created space for himself in the entertainment industry breaking down barriers and paving the way for other First Nations actors with roles in 1980s films such as The Blue Lightening, The Fringe Dwellers, Tudawali and Crocodile Dundee II, having graced the nation's television screens for nearly fourty years.

His recent film roles have included starring alongside Brian Brown in Australia Day and as Uncle Tadpole in the award-winning 2009 musical Bran Nue Day.

In July this year, a fifth season of travel show Going Places premiered on SBS and NITV. The program features prominent Indigenous media identities Aaron Fa'Aoso, Network 10's Narelda Jacobs, Rae Johnston and Bianca Hunt. The show will return in 2024.

Previous programs and community work have seen Mr Dingo working hard to advocate for men's mental health and Indigenous culture. However for the moment, Mr Dingo has slowed down, spending time with his children (four daughters and twin sons), painting, and working with NITV.

When asked what drove him to a career in entertainment and media he said: "I just thought I could do it better than them."

Expressing sadness and disappointment with the outcome of the Voice referendum, Mr Dingo said "I just look at three people walking down the street and I think two out of those three people voted no."

"It took me a while to come to terms with the fact that the referendum had gone into a no vote. It was our only opportunity in my lifetime to actually see a togetherness," he said.

Ernie Dingo yarning with Jess Whaler of NIT (Video: Jess Whaler)

Recalling the mistreatment of First Nations persons throughout history Mr Dingo said: "I remember my family going through exemption rights, called natives, called wards. So this was a chance to become on the same parallel."

"'Oh them poor black fellas we got to look after them'. We know how to look after ourselves and we have been doing that. In order to get an opportunity for our own betterment, a Yes Vote would have been really positive".

He said it would have given First Nations people the feeling of what it's like to be an Australian.

"Australians are people who come here on boats, there were people here before that, who are not Australians.

"I mean you could be European Australian, Dutch Australian or whatever Irish Australian, but you were always in Australian-Aborigine, and that didn't sit too well with me at all.

"I think of all them old people that have gone before us who fought hard in order for recognition. Freedom Rides, the Jandamaras, the Vincent Lingaris, Barambahs, and I think of all those cultural backgrounds."

He listed the strong leaders and freedom fighters who came before him and those who have fought for change through their art, storytelling, song and culture.

"These are people who've saw and wanted a change and they've passed. Without seeing any change," Mr Dingo said.

"So they fought for us… but we had to ask, as a three percent of the population, we had to rely on white fellas… to accept us.

"When you hear that two thirds of those that voters said no. It took me a while to accept it. And it's not so much sour grapes its just the fact that I see three people walking down the street and my warped sense of humor will say two of those three on an average voted no.

"I don't know… but in my mind I know that two thirds of Australians don't accept blackfellas, don't want to accept blackfellas, and that's a big number that to chew, that is a big number to chew. And yeah it did hurt. It hurt a lot."

Mr Dingo said it was important to remember, going forward, that First Nations people have already faced a lot of adversity before the referendum.

"Something bad happens it can always be wrapped up and fixed up. But if you've got other people on the outside of that circle, that's bigger in numbers and bigger in pressure… you have to start micro and burst out from there," he said.

"So that's why the referendum was important to me. It made me want to feel proud that I could share my stuff, I'll freely share it. But since that if I'm gonna share it, it's going to cost em.

"I've lost again. I've lost before, I know how to lose… but I still come back swinging."

National Indigenous Times asked Mr Dingo how he navigated the entertainment industry and managed to overcome the many obstacles he encountered throughout his career.

He said not to show anyone how you heal and take time out as people tell you too, after seeing what his family has been through and the generations before him: "It's not pretty, but they survived by channelling their energy in a different direction."

Mr Dingo said that it is his community and the resilience that has been demonstrated through maintaining language, lore and culture, that inspires him.

"We can still speak it and its still strong, we still do lore meetings every year and if we, we have a connection with Pilbara mob, Kimberley mob, Desert mob, we still have that connection. Old ways. Ways white fellas don't know about. We still have our skin system, ties us together. We still keep it and we still acknowledge it," he said.

"We still have our lore and language. We still practice it. White fellas don't know about the stuff we do and that's sacred stuff. Keep it well away from them. Because if they can try and assimilate us to be like them and we accept the fact that we want to be like them and then they say 'no, you're too Black to come here."

NIT asked Mr Dingo if he had a message for young mob who are walking in two worlds, a common phrase which refers to living with traditional language and culture whilst embracing a western society and white world.

He said that the term walking in two worlds is incorrect, Blackfellas in towns or cities don't walk in two worlds, they have four, five or six that they deal with on a daily basis.

"You're not just a Blackfella living in a whitefella's world, because that's just two separate colours. You've got to think also, your family connections that where you come from is different from the family connections you're living with.

"You might be a deadly bloke out bush, but when you go into town you feel not worthy. Because they make you feel that way and none of them will go out there if the situation was reversed.

"We don't have enough money to teach white fellas about black fellas and the money they giving us is tokenistic, because they don't teach Aboriginal studies at school cause they'll be embarrassed to what they… truth come out. Truth telling won't happen because it will be one sided".

Mr Dingo said that the true history of this nation has been documented but the majority of Australian society is not ready to learn the truth.

In the video below, Mr Dingo shares his pride in his twin sons who have stood up for their culture whilst at school, his concerns with anthropology, and the importance of Aboriginal Language Interpreters, a service that the Northern Territory Government have been running and expanding over the years.

Ernie Dingo yarning with Jess Whaler of NIT (Video: Jess Whaler)

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