“White Australia has a Black history!”

These undeviating and unpretentious words written on the Aborigin/Indigenous people’s flag-logo on the T-shirt of Dominic WY Kanak, Waverley Council Greens Councillor and an Indigenous (Aborigin in the Australian parlance) leader in Australia, were self-expressive and self-explanatory with deep meaning, as deep as the oceans around Australia! These words did not require historians or sociologists to dig out the anthropological past, as we all know that the present White Australia has a Black past!

Dominic WY Kanak and another Green Councillor with Indian delegates Suresh Nautiyal and Anita Nautiyal.

The Aborigin/Indigenous flag, which was flown for the first time on 12th of July 1971 in Victoria Square, Adelaide on National Aborigins Day, is reminiscent of the black past and till date remains a sign of activism and celebration for the Indigenous people. In fact, the flag has become a prolific symbol of all Indigenous people! The colours of the flag — red, yellow and black – represent the ochre colour of the earth (focusing on the spiritual relationship that the Indigenous people have with their land), the sun (the giver of life and protector) and the Indigenous people of Australia respectively. The flag became an official Australian flag under the Keating Government in 1995 along with the Torres Strait Islander flag.

The Aborigin/Indigenous Flag of Australia.

But still, there is something that can feed the thought-process! During my visit to Australia in May 2016, as a participant of the Election Study Tour conducted by the Australian Greens for the Green activists of the Asia-Pacific Region in New South Wales or NSW, the unswerving slogan on Dominic’s T-shirt gave me the best quality fuel enabling me traverse the most rugged terrains of the Aborgin, sorry Indigenous people’s history to excavate their pain and pangs of colonisation by the Whites!

In my one-to-one conversation with Dominic, I was not able to gauge the animated but measured words that the White Australia has a Black history! “Westminster model of governance was an imposed system that never recognised the traditional systems of governance,” all Dominic could acknowledge. In short, the churning continued in my mind and heart! The more I looked at Dominic’s T-shirt, the more thoughtful I would become! In fact, the straight slogan kept me haunting till the time I, along with other Study Tour participants, happened to be in the company of Delta Kay, an Arakwal Indigenous woman, whom we met in Byron Bay, NSW, Australia on 23rd of May 2016! Delta is a senior Arakwal spokesperson, who also works for the National Parks Wildlife Service in Byron Bay.

Delta Kay with the author and another Indian delegate Anita Nautiyal.

When we met Delta, I was quick to notice the real meaning of the slogan on Dominic’s T-shirt! The subtext came out of the heart of Delta, who punctuated her narrative of her ancestors’ history with anguish, anger and deep woundedness!  “We still have that anguish, that hurt, that pain in the core of our hearts,” she told us – the Greens from several countries of the Asia-Pacific region! Naturally, this led me to know more about the “Black history” of the “White Australia”.

Browsing through the Google and what I got from Dominic and Delta is enough to make me believe that the exact timing of the arrival of the ancestors of the Indigenous people in Australia remains a matter of dispute till today. It is calculated that their history in Australia spanned more than sixty thousand years before the European Settlement; however, the Indigenous people believe that they have been there since the Country was created, from Creation, so the time span of sixty thousand years is just meaningless! What is for sure is the fact that these people entirely depended on their surroundings — land, forest, water and fish! Therefore, hunting, fishing and gathering were their main occupations! In brief, food was abundant, as was fresh water and shelter. Everything needed for a fruitful, healthy and spiritual life was readily available. In brief, the Indigenous culture in Australia is believed to be the oldest continuous culture still living in the world!

It was not to remain so, however! The British arrival brought armed conflict and a lack of understanding, which resulted in downfall of the Northern Sydney Indigenous clans along with other people. Food shortages soon became a problem. The large White population depleted the fish by netting huge catches, reduced the Kangaroo population with unsustainable hunting, and cleared the land. As a result, the Indigenous people throughout the Sydney Basin were soon close to starvation. In short, since the European invasion of Australia in 1788, the Indigenous people were oppressed into a world unnatural to their existence.

There is a view that the arrival of Captain James Cook in Australia in 1770 actually marked the beginning of the end for the Indigenous people’s ancient way of life. History says that Captain Cook’s voyage of exploration had sailed under instructions to take possession of the Southern Continent if it was uninhabited, or with the consent of the natives if it was occupied. Either way, it was to be taken! Upon his arrival, Cook declared the land as New South Wales, to be the property of Britain’s King George-III, and ignored the fact that the land was already well populated. It is estimated that over 7-million Indigenous people inhabited Australia in 1788 when the invasion took place under the command of Captain Arthur Phillip, whose mission was to establish a penal colony and take control of ‘Terra’ Australia for settlement.

The colonists believed that the land was ‘no one’s land’, which James Cook declared Australia to-be in 1770 during his voyage around the coast of Australia. Historians point out that the Indigenous people, to most of the settlers, were akin to Kangaroos, Dingoes and Emus. And these “civilised” people even had the idea to kill them like Kangaroos! The majority of clans living in the Sydney Basin were eliminated as a result of the 1788 invasion.

And what was not achieved by the “Trespassers”, was achieved by the diseases originated from Europe. These diseases struck a fatal and extensive blow to the Indigenous people, who until that point had been isolated for thousands of years from the diseases that had raged through Europe and Asia. They had no resistance to the deadly viruses carried by the sailors and convicts such as smallpox, syphilis and influenza. In less than a year, over half the Indigenous population living in the Sydney Basin had died from smallpox.

Nature’s creativity is in abundance in the forests of Australia.

Going back to Delta Kay, we need to acknowledge her narrative that the lives of their ancestors were destroyed when the Europeans came to the land. “They destroyed our culture, languages, traditions, et al!  There were several Indigenous tribes, who spoke more than 500 languages. It is pity that only 200 languages have survived today, but they too are threatened,” lamented Delta Kay in her conversation with us.

Dominic agreed that the Indigenous people were colonised and pushed to other areas. In fact, the historians believe that killing of the Indigenous people had been quite easy with the weapons. Dispossessed of the land in several places that had nourished them for so long, the Indigenous people became dependent, to some extent, on Whites for food and clothing. However, many exceptions existed of resistance to invasion by the Indigenous communities staying on their land. And the fact is that even today they are there!

For thousands of years prior to the arrival of Europeans, the self-sufficient and harmonious Indigenous people had no need to travel far from their lands, since the resources about them were so abundant, and trade with other tribal groups was well established. Over the years, these people developed a rich and complex ritual life – languages, customs, spirituality and the law – the heart of which was connection to the land! Unfortunately, the early Europeans took a dim view of the Indigenous way of life when they encountered it for the first time. It is said that these colonists destroyed, within a short period, a way of life that had outlasted British history by thousands of years.

 The virgin land has been converted into the tourist destinations.

“They destroyed our ancestors’ culture, laws, ceremonies, and connection to land and the sea, which were strong and enduring. They destroyed the land which was home to hundreds of precious species. In this Rockwall National Park (NSW), the legacy of several Indigenous families still lives. The sand-miners came and destroyed so many things. They destroyed the beaches and changed the wildlife,” regretted Delta. Not only this, they eradicated the ‘strange fauna’ to make way for the so-called development — farming and grazing!

The Indigenous people soon realised that the “Trespassers” were committed to nothing less than total occupation of the land. They were displaced from their ways of life, were forced to submit to European rule, and even forced to assimilate into Western culture. What the early colonists never understood, and perhaps what many Australians are only now beginning to grasp, was that the Indigenous lifestyle was based on total kinship with the natural environment. Wisdom and skills obtained over the millennia enabled them to use their environment to the maximum. For these people, acts such as killing animals for food or building a shelter were steeped in ritual and spirituality, and carried out in perfect balance with their surroundings.

“There was a Midden here in this forest that was built over thousands of year but the Europeans removed it and built the Cape Byron Lighthouse here. I wish to point out that before this lighthouse came into existence here in 1901, there was a ring like place here called Walgun meaning the shoulder! This place, which belonged to our ancestors, was the place for conducting ceremonies. This was Cavambah or the meeting place for us,” reminisced Delta.

The Walgun, where the Byron Bay Lighthouse was built in 1901, was a place for Indigenous ceremonies.

“The soil of this place is sacred for us. In a nutshell, Walgun was converted into Byron Bay! Captain Cook after all changed the whole thing! In our culture, we don’t touch certain species in certain seasons. But, the Europeans were quick to destroy the connection between the human and other beings,” grumbled Delta.

According to Delta, there was harmony in the Indigenous people’s culture where the elders would get the most respect. The elders used to have recognition in the family and community. Everybody would approach them for advice. “Our ancestors used to practice the maternal system — husbands would come to the women and live with them in their houses. Now, the Indigenous people’s world, like others, is changing,” Delta pointed out regretfully.

Young men were initiated into manhood at this place. The boys were imparted knowledge and had to pass through tough physical endurance test. Pointing her finger to the Nguthungully Rock Cave right on the sea and a few hundred metres  away, Delta said, “They would swim up to the Nguthungully Rock Cave in the midst of the sea and come back unscathed. The legend has it that the Grand Father or Creator lived in the Nguthungully Rock Cave. There are other stories as well attached to this Rock Cave in the sea. Marriages were also arranged at this place, Walgun. In short, olanmbun or peace persisted,” elaborated the spokesperson for the Arakwal Indigenous people.

According to Delta Kay, rich culture, history, languages, land, forests, wildlife, marine-life, everything belonged to the Indigenous people. “This place, which is known as Cape Byron today, was a place of plenty and vitality. Environment was the first priority for the Indigenous people. Their families fed on the fresh fish and the fresh forest produce on a daily basis,” told Delta with the leaves of Indigenous history rolling in her eyes like a fireball, adding that their ancestors passed through very bad times. “The government officials would barge into the houses of our ancestors and take away their children,” she added with a heavy heart. “And if they did not take away the children, they would threaten our people saying, if you do not take your children further south, we will take them away.”

Though Dominic believed that the Indigenous people have survived and they still have their ancient customs, which are being practised in contemporary times, the larger fact is that the Indigenous people have, by and large, minimised their traditional ceremonies and have started speaking English. “That is the end of it. Our people also learnt about the ‘God’. This was an absolute intrusion in the culture of the Indigenous people. All the Indigenous communities have been impacted due to this,” regretted Delta with lot of complaints.

On the other hand, Dominic is of the view that they have survived and have their stories! “The Indigenous people still make ‘noise and songs’ based on the ancient meanings,” further elaborated Dominic. Yes, the sites located in Lane Cove, North Sydney, Willoughby, Ku-ring-gai, Warringah, Manly, Pittwater and City of Ryde Council areas are still in reasonable conditions and hold an important part in history! Besides, the Middens, shelters, engravings and art remnants of the Indigenous life are the untold stories, dances, myths and legends, et al! A wounded history with the ancient mountains, hills, valleys, seas and waterways in the background!

The scenic beauty of Byron Bay remains unparalleled.

The Indigenous people knew that the land belonged to them and they have a sacred duty to protect that land and the animals inhabited on that land with which they have an affiliation through their totem system. “Today, we are proud to take care of our Country. That is our duty to take care of whatever has been left by the ancestors. We are growing up that vision only! As environment is the first priority for the Indigenous people, we try to do our duty towards the environment even today. We tell the visitors about the flora and fauna, about the wildlife, about the marine life,” added Delta. Therefore, she told us, the Indigenous people were asking for the management of their countryside. “We want to have rights over the sea like we have on the land,” explained Delta.

“We are are not happy; rather, we are anguished even after the Australian PM tendered apology to us – the Indigenous people. The hurt, the resentment, the anguish and the pain is still in our hearts. We still feel heavy at heart because the Europeans destroyed our culture, our important places like Walgun and hundreds of our languages,” groaned Delta.

Similar view was expressed by Dominic, who said, “We believe that the common people must have a right to protest some of the development activities by virtue of the fundamental tenet of having the grassroots democracy. I think, only the Australian Greens are committed to have a grassroots democracy in the country. Being an Indigenous person myself, I can say that only the Greens recognise the sovereignty of the Indigenous people and the demand that the Indigenous people be part of the government,” added Dominic.

In view of the above-mentioned observations, let us envisage that all political parties in Australia make conditions for the Indigenous people to have a real future like the White Australians have. No doubt that a lot of White Australians, including the Greens, have a feeling of gratitude towards the Indigenous people! Despite this feeling, there are very few Indigenous people in the system as on today and this has to be corrected, updated and upgraded!

Apart from this, the Australian intelligentsia need to listen to the Indigenous people’s demand that the government stop celebrating 26th of January as Australia Day as the Indigenous people see it as Invasion Day. Delta is of the view that a shift in this will be vital for the real reconciliation. “We, the Indigenous people, are opposed to the Australia Day on 26th of January as it is, in reality, the Invasion Day! Let us change the date to celebrate the Australia Day,” further expounded Delta, adding that the landmark apology may also be celebrated as Apology or Landmark Day in order to assuage the deeply hurt feelings of the Indigenous people in Australia!

The Greens recognise these demands already; but, will the mainstream political class and the intelligentsia listen to the Indigenous people in Australia?