My fascination with the Aborigines of Australia began when I was a child growing up in a small town in Colorado. I can still remember some of the images that called to me from the pages of an old National Geographic Magazine- a group of naked children playing by a stream, a solitary Aborigine walking across the desert, the eyes of an old man mysterious and calm in his dark face. These people seemed closer to nature that I, free and untroubled. Years later, after moving to Alaska, I came across a sobering account of the Australian Aborigines. Written by an Aboriginal man named J.T. Patton, the article burst my childhood fantasies about a simple, carefree life.
“Our self-respect has been taken away from us, and we have been driven towards extermination,” wrote Patton in an early issue of the Abo Call, the first Aboriginal newspaper, which he founded in 1938. “We have been called a ‘dying race’ but we do not intend to die. We intend to live, and to take our place in the Australian community as citizens with full equality. The white community must be made to realize that we are human beings, the same as themselves. We do not wish to go back to the Stone Age. We don’t want charity from the white people, we want justice. We intend to work steadily for this aim, no matter how many years it may take.”
J.T. Patton, I learned, was founding father of the Aboriginal rights movement. Like Ghandi in India and Martin Luther King, Jr., in the United States, he had been arrested many times for encouraging his people to stand up for their rights. For most of my life, I’ve lived about as far from Australia as anyone could, but in December 1991 a chance encounter brought Patton’s world much closer to me. At a gathering of grass-roots leaders in Paris, someone introduced me to an Aboriginal woman named Pauline Gordon. She was J.T. Patton’s daughter.
“I’m just an ordinary person who goes around talking to people,” she said. “I pop up here and I pop up there. I’m a member of the Bunjalung tribe on the coast of New South Wales. That’s where I come from. My mother’s totem is the possum, my father’s was the goanna lizard. My husband is the dingo. He says I talk too much.”
And Pauline is quite a talker. When we sat down to visit over lunch, she held forth in her warm voice a lively accent on everything from Aborigine Dreamtime to her own grandchildren. Her brother Cecil, she told me, helps run the Aboriginal Legal Services in Sydney. Her sons, Kenny and Shane, play the digeridoo (a musical instrument made from a hollow tree limb that makes a haunting sound) and they are going through their tribe’s tradition of initiation and manhood. I began to sense that, in one way or another, Pauline’s who family was carrying on the work begun by J.T. Patton sixty years before. Our lunch lasted seven and a half hours, a record for me. And by the time we said good bye, Pauline was insisting that I come down to Australia to visit her family.
And so I did. The following March, I flew to Sydney and then caught a flight to the coast of Grafton. On this last leg of my journey, a well-dressed young white woman sat next to me, and before long she asked me where I was going in Australia. To visit a friend in a little place called Baryulgil, I said. “What’s it like out there?”
“But nothings out there,” she stammered, unable to comprehend why anyone would come to Australia just to visit an Aboriginal community. “You have to be careful around those places. I grew up thirty-five miles from Baryugil and I’ve never been there once.”
“So how do people around here feel about these Aborigines?” I asked.
“Oh, some want to get rid of them,” she said. “Some want them to just disappear. And others like me just want to avoid them.”
The drive out to Baryulgil took me into some of the most beautiful country I’d ever seen. Here, close to the east coast, the land was many shades of green. There were broad meadows of green and golden grass and gum trees with their leaves shimmering green and silver in the breeze. Dark pines dotted the hills; creeks wandered through the valleys. Now and then a pair of brightly colored parrots would sip by in a hurry to get somewhere. As soon as I got to the little settlement of Baryulgil, Pauline, her husband, Linc, and their songs took me out to a large stream that tumbles over well-worn rocks. The boys, now in their mid-twenties, leap barefoot from boulder to boulder. When Shane reached a large rock ledge in the middle of the stream, he started playing his digiridoo. Its haunting tones turned into a deep humming sort of growl that seemed to come out of the earth itself. The rock, I realized, had become an extension of Shane’s instrument, of his music, and himself.
“There’s an old Aboriginal Saying that ‘we don’t own the land, the land owns us,’” said Pauline. “We think of ourselves as custodians of the land, and the land’s not just soil and rock to us. It’s the whole of creation-all the land, water, and air, and the life everywhere, people, too. All these things are related and linked together in the Dreamtime. So you see, Aboriginals are part of the land and it is part of them. When we lose our land, we lose a part of ourselves.”
Europeans sailed into Sidney Cove on January 26, 1788. The first settlers, many of them convicts exiled form the British Isles, viewed the spacious reaches of Australia as Terra Nullis, and empty land. Unlike the volatile Maoris, the Aborigines were gentle and offered little resistance. As a consequence, the British settled Australia without bothering to make any pacts or treaties. As J.T. Patton told it, “From the time of that first settlement in 1788, the Crown has blatantly taken our heritage.” These dehumanizing acts still haunt the Aboriginal people.
“They called our land Terra Nullis because they wanted to take it from us,” said Pauline. “Now, what chance did the old Abo have against all their bloody guns? The settlers just slaughtered our people. We were classified as animals, like kangaroos or dingos. That’s what my father fought against all his life. They’d take a mob of black folks and shoot them, or take them down to a creek and drown the, or give them blankets infected with smallpox. In the early days, there were no white women in the country, so to satisfy their lusts the settlers raped black women. The black man couldn’t do anything about it, he just had to sit there and watch his wife be raped. It was just another way of dragging him down.”
In contrast to the rough and rapacious liaisons of the Australian frontier, the Aborigines had strict codes of sexual conduct. They believe that babies are conceived not only from the union of a man and a woman, but out of a dreaming place on the land. Pauline told me, “One day, I asked my mother, ‘Mom, where’s my dreaming place?” And she took me up in the hills and showed me a waterfall. ‘That’s your dreaming place,’ she told me. ‘When you die you’ll go back in there forever. You’ll be a waterfall, watching the seasons come and go like your spiritual ancestors. In that spot, you will be part of the land.’ That is why we teach you not to harm of even mark the land. That would be like getting a knife and cutting yourself.”
The aboriginal relationship with the land began with the creation ancestors. They moved over the land, forming mountain ranges, deserts, rivers, trees, and creeks. When all the creating was done, said Pauline, as if she’d just seen it with her own eyes, ‘those creation beings went back into those trees, logs, and creeks. So the land isn’t empty to us, it’s alive with our people.
“When white people see black fellows around a campfire, they think, ‘Oh, look at those lazy people just sittin’ around.’ But, hey, that campfire is playing a very important part in Aboriginal life. In the old days, the elders and fully initiated men sat over to one side. Each child had a particular position around the campfire. And when the men came back from hunting, they’d do a dance about what happened that day. All the people in camp would sit back and enjoy themselves. Then someone else would jump up and start dancing or telling a legend.”
“They learned that you take only what you need. You didn’t kill six kangaroos and hang’em up to dry. You hunt for food for the day and share it amongst the tribe. Selfishness was a cardinal sin. Everything had to be shared.”
“Now even though we wear clothes, we still do a lot of these tribal things. Lie swapping tucker. We might be camping at the riverside in the spring, and we’ll say, ‘Hey, let’s take some meat to the people who live down river and swap them for pippies and shells and mussels.’”
Many young Aborigines were pulled from tribal life by the government’s policy of assimilation, which included the practice of taking small children from their parents and sending them off to boarding schools. “They grabbed us kids, along with thousands of others all around Australia. This was kept from the public mind you,” said Pauline, talking faster as she became more emotional. “I’ll never forget the day I went away on the steam train with my sisters. I was only eight, and I asked, ‘What’s wrong with us, Mom? Why is it everyone is down in Abos? Why’s it a sin to be an Aborigine?”
It was a story I had heard many times in my interviews for this book. From the United States to Indonesia and Africa to here in Australia, the governments in power seemed to tactically agree that the way to dismantle an indigenous culture was through its children.
Pauline was sent to a girl’s home, where she lived until she was eighteen. “I think there are two ways to see it,” she said. “I got a good education out of it. But then, what’s this white man’s education all about? Education for what? To destroy my people? To destroy the land? Our education, Aboriginal education, was for survival, for getting along with each other and all the creatures. Theirs was to try to make us be like them.
“I know it’s a white man’s world now. I know that. I know we can’t turn the bloody clock back. But we can still fight to retain our identity, our language, and our pride in who we are. The government creates programs to help us now, but they never work. And the reason is, the government broke the cycle. The whites in power broke our cultural cycle. But you can’t get them to understand. So we’ve sort of drifted along. Among ourselves, we call this last generation.”
Sometimes, I went with Linc and the boys up in into the rain forest, where the light shimmered through the leaves and vines, and tiny bell birds, too small and wary to be seen, announced our arrival with high ringing calls. Once, wading in a clear cool stream, I came face to face with a huge eel that rose from the shadows to guard its pool. And one night, Kenny and Shane took me out to a secluded clearing by a river. There, under the stars they shared with me some of the things their people have been doing around campfires for thousands of years. “ Australians have no idea that we still do these things,” said Shane. In keeping with tradition, what we shared and experienced around that fire and under the immensity of stars remains there with the night.
“You can hardly practice these traditions when you’re living in a white man’s world,” Pauline said later. “They tried to destroy our culture. They are still, trying to assimilate us, to make us disappear into their world.”
Then Pauline voiced a sentiment that I’d first heard long ago on the shores of the Bering Sea. “Please try to fathom our great desire to live in a way somewhat different from yours,” the Yup’ik elders of Nightmute had said, and I’ve heard these words echoed by indigenous people everywhere. Why is it so difficult for people from dominant cultures, including my own, simply to accept others as they are? I’ve heard many native people call the whites resistance to other ways arrogance, pure and simple. But beneath the arrogance there seems to be a fear. This fear amongst the whites is that if we allow others to be themselves, it will somehow diminish the white culture. I asked Pauline if she and her family ever feel bitter.
“That’s the funny part about it. Aboriginal people haven’t got any hate. We haven’t got that emotion. The only thing that I can’t forgive is them stealing all those years I could have had with my father. He died right after I got out of the boarding school. But I still can remember him saying, ‘Okay, kids, come here and have a look at your ancestors who live in the stars.’ I now see his star up there.”
“We may not be bitter, but we know sorrow. Look how this crazy mainstreaming has got our kids drinking and punching needles into their veins. Down in the slummy areas of Sydney they’re on drugs and poppin’ pills. It makes me real sad. My boys take those kids out to the bush and teach them to hunt, show them how to dive for turtles. Those young urban blacks are losing touch with their cultural roots. They sort of know who they are; they need more of that Aboriginal spirit in then. We need to feed that Aboriginality.”
For perhaps the thousandth time, I thought of the Eskimo youth of the far north drinking and drugging themselves to death. I thought of the frustrated, angry youth of South Africa striking out with violence at one another. I thought of the young blacks of the U.S. inner cities, walking the streets at high risk to their lives.
My travels and the conversations I have with people like Pauline reveal, time and time again, how a government’s institutionalized disrespect can become a powerful destructive force.
I visited Pauline’s brother Cecil in his office at the Aboriginal Legal Services in Sydney. We spoke about the government’s proposal to foster a ‘reconciliation’ intended to resolve the “Aboriginal problem.”
“Oh, yeah, sure. They’re talkin’ reconciliation,” he said, in a warm voice similar to Pauline’s. Cecil’s hair was turning silver, but he looked youthful. He said, “To us reconciliation implies that at one stage there was a union between us settlers, a friendship or relationship that’s broken down. But we’ve made no deals, no treaties, no agreements. We want a treaty, but without the governments recognition of us as a sovereign nation of people there can be no treaty. That’s the guts and bone of the matter right there. Without our sovereign rights as human beings, there can be not talk of ‘reconciliation.’”
There can, of course, be no reconciliation for those who have disappeared, for the people whose songs and ways of looking at the universe have already vanished. When the Europeans arrived in Australia, two hundred and fifty aboriginal cultures with their own languages lived there. Today, only a hundred languages are still spoken, and 90 percent of these are close to extinction. Two hundred years of Terra Nullis have nearly made Australia’s extreme form of racism a self-fulfilling prophecy.
And yet, just before I returned to Alaska, Pauline pulled me aside and said, “Art, I want to tell you what I tell my kids, ‘Our culture hasn’t disappeared. Hey, we never lost it. It’s still here.’ The land and the laws are still in existence and rotation. They’re alive. You feel it in the bush. Oh, my God! Sometimes, you feel like you want to cry. It’s a very powerful spiritual feeling that makes you feel humble.”
“Now, every Abo who walks the land pricks the white man’s conscience. They did their utmost to wipe us clean off the land, but they did not succeed. We are still here, and for all their trouble to ‘educate’ and ‘assimilate’ us, we are still Aborigines.”