Tuesday, May 29, 2007


Since the Federal Government continues to behave like a sullen and solipsistic small boy on the question of an apology to the Aboriginal people for the way this country has failed them over the last 219 years, and since it's unlikely to change its mind between now and the end of Reconciliation Week, individual apologies while we wait are, I hope, better than nothing. So here is mine.

My own passage along the road of sorriness steers perilously between the all-encompassing Mea Culpa on the one hand and the cry, on the other, of Bunty from Seven Little Australians -- 'I never, it wasn't me, it wasn't my fault!' -- both of which I reject.

From within the pro-apology camp, I don't buy 'We're white, therefore we should feel guilty', but I'm not having 'We have merely to express our sorrow that something bad happened, it's not really an apology', either.

A note on the so-called 'black armband view of history': the meaning of Geoffrey Blainey's phrase, like that of Donald Horne's 'lucky country', has been politically appropriated and badly mangled in its transition to popular rhetoric, and, in both cases, not by accident. But black armbands, as any student of history knows, actually have nothing to do with 'guilt': they are about mourning and remembrance. Happy to wear one, on both scores.

For me at least, there are some fairly direct implications. The Narungga man in the photo a couple of posts back was probably -- nobody knows for sure -- my great-great-grandfather's son. From what I can make out, he stayed with the family because he wanted to, part of one of those loose and shifting constellations of single men that move seasonally round any farm. The patriarch in question, himself a penniless young Cornish immigrant who had worked eight years on the waterfront to qualify for a colonial land allocation, was one of the white men who took advantage of the colony's land policies to displace the Narungga people from Yorke Peninsula in South Australia.

I have benefited directly from that, in ways too numerous to count.

Last winter I stood in the foyer of the Adelaide Festival Centre looking in horror at a huge, brilliant, angry painting by a Narungga artist of dead bodies in the ocean being nibbled and chewed at by sea-creatures, with a little exposition alongside about the old stories of Aboriginal people on Yorke Peninsula being murdered and thrown into the sea, washed by the tide into rocky places where crayfish and crabs lay in wait to gobble them up and dispose of the evidence.

I don't know whether this story is true or not, but I hope to God it isn't. If it is, 'sorry' doesn't even touch the sides.

At that family level, I am sorry for the land-taking, which definitely happened; for the sexual exploitation of Aborginal women, which might have happened; for the murders that I want to believe did not happen -- or not, at least, at the hands of my family, 'not at all' being too much to hope for.

For whatever happened in that place, which for better or worse is also my place, that was exploitative, destructive or cruel; for whatever such activities my ancestors may have taken part in or done nothing to prevent; and for all the histories, all around the country, that are similar or worse: for all those things, on my own behalf and on behalf of my family and my country, I am truly and deeply sorry.


Mummy/Crit said...

Fascinating post PC. It's an interesting topic that I don't think enough people address yet. There is a book called Slaves in the Family by a man called Edward Ball, about the American experience. You might find it interesting.

tigtog said...

PC, this is a profoundly moving post. Thank you for writing it and considering these issues that are so easy to gloss over in our daily lives. I'm learning to be more aware of simply not getting distracted from the important issue of indigenous social justice.

Mindy said...

I think you encapsulated nicely the difficult path between 'it wasn't me' and 'yeah, sorry that happened mate'. I think a better understanding of what actually happened during the displacement of Aboriginal peoples, stolen generation etc. would help people articulate what they were saying sorry for.

Kirsty said...

This post brought a tear to my eye.

I can't help but think of that moment in White Earth where the young boy is scrambling down in the water hole for the bones of the aboriginal people his family murdered, only to place them in sacks, at his grandfather's order, for further disposal.

Pavlov's Cat said...

Fortunately I'm reasonably sure my lot didn't murder anyone, and George seems to have been a happy sort of bloke and was looked after by the (by no means rich -- my peasant pioneer lot lived very modestly and worked their butts off) family in his old age, which suggests to me a comparatively positive attitude on their part, particularly since the blood tie is only speculation. There was plenty of unthinking exploitation there along classic British Empire lines, but there's no evidence or suggestion of open conflict or violence (not that that rules it out, as we know from the Windschuttle Wars). The awful sea stories come from quite a way south of where my family was.

But that's not really the point, anyway. I got a bit sidetracked concentrating on family, when part of what I wanted to argue was that it's not a literal-minded thing, and the country as an entity owes the Aboriginal people an apology. My family stories are small individual examples of why, but it goes beyond the sort of literal-minded tit for tat stuff that the opponents of an apology offer as a reason not to make one.

Anonymous said...

Enemy Combatant sez...

"PC, this is a profoundly moving post. Thank you for writing it and considering these issues that are so easy to gloss over in our daily lives."

Pav,I'm with tigtog.

Howard's time is nigh. Rudd's just another slick polly, but he will at least say what needs to be said as PM, and mean it. He's not mean-spirited, as Howard is, about fair-dinkum reconciliation.

the dreaming

australia's international indigenous festival

Woodford, Qld. June 8-11


Tickets are worth their weight in goanna fat. Wouldn't miss it for quids.

marie g said...

Several years ago my friend and I wrote a song which we called, 'It's Time' as in, It's time to say we're sorry. hough the song took first place in a competition, it was never taken up as we'd hoped it would be.

If anyone is interested in the song, which, as well as trying to spread the word, would assure the Aboriginal people of the fact that we're not all as heartless as our 'leader', please leave a message. We're not looking for fame and fortune; our aim is for a fair go for those who certainly haven't had that.
One verse goes like this ...
'We are not the guilty ones
we are not to blame
but if we don't say 'sorry' now
we share our father's shame.'


Bwca said...

I think that the Traditional Occupants of Terra Australis Have A Case against ENGLAND.
All Aboriginal organisations should unite and bring a charge against The Crown for RESTITUTION.
We have to bypass our PM who says "I didn't do anything to them and I am not apologising for nothing.
He has a point there.
But England is the guilty party.
The payout could break them.

Our Aborigines could of course, simply invade England in a tit-for-tat action.
I'd help them.

Belongum said...

I don't know where to start... firslt an apology - I feel this is going ot be a long reply.

I worry for a government that proposes to be our national leaders, but can't take the lead and deal - once and for all - with the notion of Sorry in this country of ours. Instead, it becomes yet another political football, and if it's kicked 'just right' - you know skipped off the ground in the old classical 'drop-kick' style - it just seems to come off the ground beautifully -and constantly cracking some poor soul in the goolies!

It can never be kicked about cleanly - not as a political topic - It's needs to be a social one.

I'm an Aboriginal man... I don't believe that any one with 'gadia'('gud-ee-ah' whitefella) skin draped over his or her bones is automatically guilty - nor needs to stand in line to issue his or her apology.

Nor does my mother, nor her mother - nor the majority of my people - more they want an understanding, and a countrywide acknowledgment that this country's history was built on some pretty shocking treatment - the brunt of which was (and sadly still is) leveled towards an Indigenous population that had no choice of the direction that was chosen for it, nor the legacy they've been issued.

I don't believe this was not your (or anyone else's) responsibility as such... not as an individual Australian living in today's society, but I do genuinely appreciate your kind words and gesture. The sins of the past belong in the past... but to not acknowledge them as being real and having such a devastating impact - STILL - is where our biggest problem lays. THAT I believe is the responsibility of a nations government, and it's leaders.

We already have a veritable swag of Australian community members who are breaking down barriers between cultures and communities - most without prompting and simply because they feel they need too. I've met many of them - great and wonderful people - leading the way, and absolute pleasures to see hard at it, enjoying life.

I don't believe the Australian people in general have problem's with the business of getting on with 'getting along' with one another as such - but our current government, led by Mr Howard sure as hell does!

I have had the pleasure of working with an amazingly varied bunch of people in my various 'roles' in life... most people ARE good (I believe), but not many people realise the damage done (in the past) and that this is still hugely relevant today. I think your post helps this business along...

Thank you!

Anonymous said...

marie g,
Please send your recording on CD or your lyrics to Jumpin' Jack Flash, "The Blues and Roots Show", ABC Coast FM, the Dolphin Centre, Aerodrome Rd, Maroochydore, 4556. Include an email address for easy communication. Cheers.

belongum, your words are most eloquent.

"We already have a veritable swag of Australian community members who are breaking down barriers between cultures and communities - most without prompting and simply because they feel they need too. I've met many of them - great and wonderful people - leading the way, and absolute pleasures to see hard at it, enjoying life."

For forty thousand years or more human beings have lived and loved, thrived and survived here. In five short months the ugly-souled zealot who stood in front of a 90% "browned out" map of Oz and ranted that Native Title would relieve "ordinary Australians" of their backyards, will no longer have power.

Maybe then, belongum, we can at last, “do the business” right.

Matthew da Silva said...

No conservative am I, indeed I'm as far left as you can plausibly go these days while staying away from the bloody unions.

Nevertheless, I admire Howard for his position. It's the only thing I admire about him.

Occupation of terra australis was always, as was the British hegemony in India, a combination of greed and the demands of the realpolitik of the time. (Believe me, the Aborigines would be much worse off under a French-speaking administration, or Portuguese.)

Apology is meaningless. It's the sort of knee-jerk reaction that minorities crave, like 'respect'. I'd rather have a job and private medical insurance than respect, any day.

It's also contrary to cultural imperatives that have delivered prosperity to the masses since the mid-nineteenth century. Life goes on, and you cannot improve anyone's lot by saying sorry.

Something more practical is required.

Bans set by Aboriginal elders on ingress by journalists are unwarranted and totally counter-productive. But because the Aboriginal community continues to irrationally blame everyone but themselves for their short lifespans and non-existent job prospects, they feel justified in such behaviour.

If Howard's administration is thought 'intransigent' by commenters on this post, the Aborigines are equally so. Two wrongs don't make a right.

Pavlov's Cat said...

'Apology is meaningless' -- really? Meaningless to whom?

As for 'something more practical is needed' -- it's not a case of either/or.