Ever since she could remember, actor and filmmaker Trisha Morton-Thomas had thought her birthday was on Australia Day and it was something she mourned each year.
She didn’t actually have a birth certificate. That had gone missing in the government system. Instead the Department of Aboriginal Affairs had given her parents a letter noting their daughter’s birth in 1970. There it was in black and white: January 26.
When she turned 18, Morton-Thomas finally managed to have her original birth certificate tracked down through the births, marriages and deaths registry. She just about turned cartwheels when she discovered her birthday was really February 1.
But there was something else about the document that also caught her eye. It was the description it gave of her mother’s occupation. And that’s putting aside the fact her mother’s name was recorded wrongly.
“It went ‘Occupation: Native’,” says Morton-Thomas, an Anmaterr woman born in the Northern Territory.
“I looked at my Mum and I went ‘Oh. Native. How do you get that kind of job, Mum? What do you have to do to be a native?’
“She said ‘Ah, you’ve just got to be sexy’.”
It was something that has stuck in Morton-Thomas mind and she’s used it this year as the title for her new documentary Occupation Native, which will air on NITV on Sunday August 13 as part of the station’s 10th anniversary celebrations.
The doco is the last in NITV’s four-part series, You Are Here, produced by top filmmakers.
Morton-Thomas looks at the lies and myths in Australia’s colonial history, the stuff Australian children aren’t – but should be – taught in schools.
“It became very important to me because I think a lot of the racism and bigotry that is out in the community comes from a lack of understanding of what Aboriginal people have been through in this country,” she says.
“But also the stupidity of having two histories in the one country. You have the Aboriginal history and then you have Australian history, as if they are two separate things, and they are not. They are the same history.
“It’s all great and well to go ‘Let’s blow our trumpet for Australia’ and say how wonderful we are and we built it on the back of the heap and all of that nonsense.
“But you need to be honest with yourself and look at Australian history in its entirety and go ‘Actually we were terrible. We treated our Indigenous people incredibly bad’. As bad as the Nazis treated the Jews.
“Australia is very quick to point at other countries and say ‘Look at what you are doing to your people’, but they rarely look themselves in the eye and say ‘Look what we have done and are continuing to do’.”
Morton-Thomas says Australian history is quite obviously biased to the European point of view. She says Aboriginal people didn’t start to get a voice until the last 40 years.
“Still today the contribution from Aboriginal writers and historians is sitting on the shelf, while the contribution from white Australia is being fed into our school systems,” she says.
“I think that’s a travesty and a tragedy. Our country needs to know its entire history, otherwise we’re not going to grow up.”
Morton-Thomas says some of the biggest lies include that Aboriginal people are lazy, drunks and violent.
“We’re constantly being painted as barbaric and backwards,” she says. “Actually when you are looking at our society it is a very complex thing and Aboriginal culture and kinship are very complex and they were built around sustainability.
“Now we have people say they would rather be in a world where people are progressive and moving forward, but you’re not.
“Yes, you have better cars to drive around, you can go here and there, but what’s happening is they are making our entire planet unsustainable. It’s getting to the point where there is hardly any clean water left anywhere in the world. The air we breathe is contaminated.
“We have these big pharmaceuticals we pay millions of dollars for medical expenses to fix up problems created by a progressive society.”
Morton-Thomas says Australia is also in denial that slavery took place in the so-called lucky country.
“There’s a part in the documentary that looks at the Stolen Generation and equal wages and stuff and people are still calling it Stolen Gen and equal wages; actually it was slavery,” she says.
“Aboriginal people were moved into concentration camps on these stations and farms and stuff where they were the property of a station owner and that person could treat them any which way they chose, in very much the way slavery happened in America where people were the property of those property owners.”
Morton-Thomas says holding Australia’s history to account is an important part of building a better country for the future. She says it should start with providing children with accurate information at school.
“I think we have to hit them in the nappy,” she says. “We have to start from the little people and teach them to respect all people, not just Aboriginal people, but all people.”
* Occupation Native airs on Sunday 13 August at 8.30pm on NITV and 9.30pm on SBS