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Australia Day - is it worth celebrating?

There are people who see an overwhelming division in Australian society and who want to squabble over the one day in the year when we can all celebrate - celebrate the idea, the lived reality and the deep love of what we know as Australia.

Most Australians just love a holiday, a chance to be with family and friends and many also reflect on what Australia means to them.

I used to want to change the date but now I realise that the date is not important. What is important is the understanding of what the founding of Australia means. It's also important that this be communicated in the best possible way to all of us. We need to change the narrative.

Truthfully, Australia has been first of all, an idea, that became a vague place on a map almost by accident, that even came by its name through expediency. Those people who had been here for some tens of thousands of years knew of the whole continent through links some call songlines, that are also called "the gift highway" by my good friend Wanta Jampijimpa Patrick of Lajamanu in the Tanami Desert.

These lines that exist in peoples' minds rather than by defacing the landscape, are the maps of connections between people. Information, songs, dances, theatre and ceremony are shared along the gift highway in the spiritual understanding that it is always better to give than to receive. As far as we know there was no one name for this continent by the people who were always here, but the Walpiri call it ngatilyka.

In the understanding of the people already here, the whole continent can be represented in the shape of the kangaroo - the different body parts are the differences in the landscape and these explain the different people that come out of that country. Difference is important because in one great moveable feast of language and the arts, in the landscape, people preserve and demonstrate who they are. Wanta tells me that out of difference comes innovation.

It's true that the people who were here, that we now gloss as "Aboriginal" did not ask for visitors, did not invite them and had no idea at first of what they were up against. They came to understand the enormity of these events over time.

There was no resisting the subsequent colonial project of the takeover of land, the encroachment on food sources, the attacks on and appropriation of women - what has come to be called "a gendered conquest". Resistance was to no avail. The takeover, the juggernaut was not defeatable.

The whole of the British empire was behind the fledgling settlements at Port Jackson, Risdon Cove and then spreading inland. Later through other ports.

This is why the old men tried to pull the young ones back. Bennelong had seen the extent of the power when Phillip took him to England, and he brought the stories back. This colonising force was immense. There had to be another way to assert themselves, to retain culture, rather than taking them on, head on. Many Aboriginal people reading this will know ways in which the old fellas talked of this, the methodology if you like, of resistance for survival.

Wanta tells me the Walpiri have a prophecy about these times. That the people will be assailed by an irresistible force, like a storm. In the prophecy they are told to hold to culture because eventually the force subsides and their Law is active and important again.

Aboriginal philosophy and spirituality, the basis of the Law, is all about ethics, values, responsibility and accountability. When the Law men and women cannot hold the people accountable, then the society ceases to be effective.

Many colonized peoples have seen the taking up of arms as the only way to resist when in fact it can only lead to death and defeat. There are other ways to resist. The people, my people, worked and still work towards strategies of survival through following culture. This is all about relationships; building amicable, respectful, productive relationships. No matter what the circumstances.

When we think of colonisation we tend to think of the pull factors - that is, "They wanted Australia so they came here and took it". That is true. What is also true is that there were push factors. The world as it existed then in Britain and Europe was fast becoming overpopulated. It is also true that wiser minds in Britain were concerned about "the massive population losses inflicted upon Native nations as a result of 'the national necessity of finding some outlet for the superabundant population of Great Britain and Ireland. The need to find a soil to which our surplus population might retreat.'"

In 1836 the British House of Commons appointed a Select Committee to examine relationships with the Natives "where British settlements are made in order to secure to them the due observance of Justice and the protection of their rights".

The British had been depositing people in the new colonies of Canada and what is now the USA with devastating consequences to the native peoples. The American Revolution closed off the US option, various other options close to Britain proved to be not viable and so they decided on "Botany Bay". The 24,000 kilometre journey took over 250 days in a fleet of eleven ships containing more than 1400 people of whom approximately 48 died enroute.

Many of the early convicts had been pushed to the brink, they were starved, beaten, whipped and brutalised. Some sought refuge with Aboriginal people. Truth is the British struggled to control the convicts and could not, later, control the free settlers at all. Many illegally pushed beyond the limits of location.

When people are brutalised, they become brutes. We have a chance to change the narrative of blame, punishment and judgement, the pathology of colonialism that somehow infects us all, and chart a new course for the nation.

We cannot ignore the beautiful, powerful, sacred mystery that remains. It underpins all of what we truly know of this continent. We need to stay true to this.

The old fellas who are well versed in spiritual matters say that the country grabs you, it can hold you. The only way you can describe the relationship between country and those people who truly come to know it is love. It's what we all have an opportunity to hold in common.

I'm of the generation where it's easy to remember the Dorothea Mackellar poem: "I love a sunburnt country a land of sweeping plains/ of rugged mountain ranges of droughts and flooding rains/ I love her far horizons, I love her jewelled sea/ her beauty and her terror, the wide brown land for me."

We were called upon to chant that in school just as we were saluting the British and Australian flags on Empire Day, 24 May.

But that does not mean that we have to hate it. Just think about these words - "Core of my heart, my country" - that applies to me, that is my heartland. Does it apply to you?

Whatever happened to Empire Day? It was rebadged as Commonwealth Day in 1966 and we don't, if ever, hear of it now. Everything changes. Change comes. We need to be alert to shape it in the right way - guided by truth, empathy, compassion and love. However, we should not underestimate the shift that it took to divest ourselves of the British colonial inheritance to the extent we have.

Significant in this was the 1967 Commonwealth referendum when Australians overwhelmingly voted for Aboriginal people to be no longer segregated from the mainstream. It did not happen overnight, there are still issues, but man have we come a long way since then!

Participation in all facets of society, the economy, politics, the arts, sport, the military is now far above what might be expected for such a minority. Overall, we punch above our weight. We have so much talent and if it counts, quite a few multimillionaires amongst us. I think we are irrepressible; we survive, we strive. When things get broken, we fix them. The children come back. We are deadly.

So, we have moved way past the Empire Day celebrations and eventually, finally have our own. Our own Australia Day. We now need to invite all Australians to share this gift with us.

Professor Victoria Grieves Williams is Warraimaay, and an historian who has published on Aboriginal family history, slavery, activism, and the history wars in Australia. She now works to develop healing histories through Ngarrang Marrambu Media Ltd.


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