I’m sitting waiting from a call from Auntie Carolyn Briggs. That’s not MY Auntie Carolyn, but the Boonwurrung elder whom I met last night in Footscray. I am cwtched on the sofa, succumbed at last to the niggly sore throat and runny nose which has been hovering around all week. I feel somewhat gratified. It is, after all, winter and this cold only adds to the authentic experience of it.
It’s the first week in July and that means that NAIDOC* week events are happening all over the country. I knew nothing of NAIDOC until last year, when, sitting peacefully in my apartment much as I am today, I heard a racket in the street outside. I am used to hearing traffic, and trams, because Nicholson is a busy street, but today I hear people. Lots of them. And they are shouting. My interest piqued, I grab my camera and rush outside. Past my front gate, the traffic has ceased and a river of faces passes. “Always was, always will be, Aboriginal land!“. They shout in that sing song way of protest marches.
I follow the throng of people all the way to the end of the street, where I realise I have not picked up enough batteries or data cards to go very far. “Where is the march headed?” I ask. “Federation Square” is the reply. I rush back home, collect enough camera gear for a long day, and dash out again.
I find them at the top of Bourke street. Another, different protest is staged on the steps to Parliament House. We march straight past and head down into the city. At the junction of Bourke and Swanston, the crowd pauses and forms a large circle. A man stands up and addresses the crowd.
“Our people have been walking this land for thousands of years”. Cheering erupts.
“This place used to be a waterhole, before they came from England, before the concrete.”
I imagine the land without the tall buildings, without the garish shop fronts, without the trams, the pedestrians, the buskers, the quirky sculpture of the three thin city men stopping to cross the road. It looks good.
That was last year, when I followed the march all the way to the edge of the Yarra River, or the Birrarung in the Boonwurrung language. I watched – and filmed – the ‘Welcome to Country‘ traditional dancing and tried to interview some people to find out what it was all about. I felt terribly white and terribly British. The very image of my invading ancestors. It was an uncomfortable feeling.
But I seem to enjoy uncomfortable, because this year, I’m back at a NAIDOC week event, this time in the western suburbs of Footscray. I’ve arranged to meet my friend Pippa at the Arts Centre to listen to some songs and see exhibitions by Aboriginal artists. Now Pippa has bailed on me and I’m left, too early and too white, sitting in the gallery with my camera kit feeling very bulky at my side. Rob Bundle, one of the musicians, greets me warmly. “Hello stranger!”.
I met with him months ago and we talked about him maybe taking part in my film, but to be honest, I’ve never followed up the interviews I was planning. It never felt quite right, or else I’m not sure what I want to ask them. Aboriginal culture is so fraught with opportunities to offend, it seems. I realise again, sitting here, how guilty I feel on behalf of my people. How incredibly sad and hand-wringingly humble I feel before the havoc we have wreaked here. I hate the concrete as much as they must do.
The exhibitions are thought-provoking. In the downstairs gallery, a large possum-skin cloak lies spread-eagled on a central plinth. The furry tails hang cutely over the sides and the markings on the inner smooth hide look familiar. In the traditional way, this cloak bears the markings of a family. Here a wavy river-line, here a spiral water-hole symbol. It strikes me that the practice of making a cloak from possum skins and branding it with family memorabilia is remarkably like making a patchwork quilt, although usually, no beings have to die for one of those. The possum-skin cloak has become one of those things which Aboriginal people regard part of their culture – like spirit dancing and didge -playing. In Australia, possums are now protected, so for pieces like this, they must get their skins from New Zealand, where it is still legal to hunt and kill possums. They are truly works of art and seen as such. Only the other day I saw one on display in a gallery in Echuca, which Sissy, a traditional dancer herself, said her aunts had worked on. Whereas didge-playing is something for men, it seems that creating a possum skin cloak is woman’s work. This one even has digital images of the family, giving it a thoroughly modern aspect.
On the wall in the gallery are a series of photographs of members of that same family wearing the cloak. The background is all white and the people look out from within the cloak. It curls around their heads like a hood, like a shelter, a cave. This part of living culture, this part of a once-living creature. The family wraps itself inside the cloak as if for protection and the culture of the cloak itself offers back something timeless.
It’s always good to read the notes accompanying artefacts in a gallery and in this way, this show is no different. One of the family members, whose face now adorns the inside of the super-soft possum skin, is known as Uncle Roy. He is, to all appearances, a portly, older man, with white hair and a loping gait. He wears shorts and socks and strangely, a possum tail wrapped around his head like a bandana. He looks like a typical Australian red-neck and I can imagine him out on his bush-block sluggin’ back a beer at the end of the day with his cronies. But the story tells me that he is an Aboriginal man. A black fella stolen from his mother during the 1950’s and brought up on a mission. He didn’t know he was Aboriginal until he was 62. A film showing as part of the exhibition re-creates his scattered memories of his mother, whom he only dimly remembers.
In the black and white film, we follow a faceless woman through trees and grassland toward a river. From time to time, she beckons with one expressive brown hand and we almost catch a glimpse of who she is before she turns away again. For Uncle Roy, this is how it must have been. The one thing which seems to stand to alleviate what must be immense pain is that Uncle Roy is clearly now a family man and has embraced his heritage wholeheartedly. In welcome speeches, he is named as a pillar of his community and throughout the evening, he wanders confidently through the crowd in a way I can only envy from my hiding place in the corner.
If you’ve never watched the starkly beautiful film “Rabbit Proof Fence“, you should. Apart from being a testament to the stupidity of the British guy who, it is said, introduced twenty-four rabbits to Australia for sport and caused an epidemic -sized rabbit population, it is the story of the British attempt at genocide. A carefully thought out and followed through plan to exterminate what was left of the Aboriginal race by physically removing children from their families and eradicating all language and culture. These are the actions of a country at war and yet it is never, even today acknowledged that the conflict between the First People of Australia and the invaders was (is?) actually a war. In a country littered with monuments – to war dead, to explorers (however unsuccessful), to politicians and generally dodgy land-grabber types, there remains to monument to a single one of the Aboriginal people who died trying the save their land, their people and their culture.
Always was, always will be, Aboriginal land.
* National Aborigines and Islanders Day Observance Committee