Author: Joel Liddle
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What is my identity? And, how do I learn more about it? As an Aboriginal person, what do I want to contribute? What do I want to be known as?
What makes me Aboriginal….?
I’d think about my identity and the struggles I have had accepting myself. I grew up belonging to the Arrernte desert people of central Australia while living in the urban sprawl of South East Melbourne. At School I was the only Aborigine and played sport as the only Aboriginal player on teams. I got a western education, learnt to speak and write like ‘Aussies’ do and lived in a concrete jungle city shaped by the bulldozer which has done little if anything to honour Aboriginal story and tradition.
My Father is Arrernte and my mum is non-Aboriginal and I fit somewhere in between, yet during my school years I was always singled out for my racial difference. I was never ‘just an Australian’, just one of the Aussie kids at school. I was always made fully aware I was different yet I didn’t have any knowledge of what this difference was. Usually on short notice, my family would be packed into a non-air conditioned car in the middle of summer for a ‘holiday’ to Alice Springs, to see my grandmother and family in the red centre. My Nanna Emily Liddle (nee Perkins) would often say things or talk to us kids in Arrernte. I would see Aboriginal people everywhere as opposed to almost never, walking down the streets of Melbourne. The variance in cultures stuck with me and shaped who I am and left me with many questions and a healthy obsession for learning about my Arrernte heritage.
Throughout my life, my identity has been a passion, I have owned it and as a result it has bought me a range of experiences, good and bad, along the way. Whether I look at my identity from the point of view of what I have inherited, or what I have been ridiculed for, it is something I take great pride in understanding and unpacking.
When I ask myself the questions that I posed at the start of this piece, I often follow it with ‘what can I do to know more, I need answers for these questions’. I also look around and see as many different experiences of Aboriginal people including trauma, loss, strength, weakness, connection and everything in between.
So how do we become stronger as individuals?
Well, this is nothing new, but I theorise that we have inherited incredible abilities for accumulating knowledge from the people who have walked this land before us. Somewhere along the line all of us have ancestors who could pick up the most discrete footprint or track of another person or animal and track it across country for hundreds of kilometres. Ancestors who had developed entire sign languages so that when someone was in a period of mourning they could still communicate for the year or more that they would not speak. Ancestors who in the middle of summer, could track from a small water soakage amongst sandhills during the night, using the stars and ancient songs to navigate their way through country to a soakage the size of a spare tyre. People who speak half a dozen or more Aboriginal language dialects, far exceeding the lone knowledge of English, the perplexing linguistic ‘norm’ in Australia. Stories and songs derived from the behaviours of flora and fauna or the actions of ancient individuals. Knowledge bases built over millennia. If you consider that it is likely that every species alive has (or had) a song and totemic association, you really start to gauge just how much thinking and studying our old people were doing; how incredibly mindful were they? Ancient Aboriginal people must have lived almost in a state of Zen, the masters of their minds, to acquire such deep and intricate knowledge.
Aboriginal people built intricate networks of fish traps, had knowledge of plant and animal species reproductive cycles, farmed food and species sustainably and dependant on seasons, traded trepan with the Maccasans and understood the aerodynamics of the returning boomerang. All well before the inventions of Europeans, yet the Australian public still accepts the simplistic, naked, noble savage tag.
Often we acknowledge that those who came before us had knowledge, but do we actually try to understand it? Are we doing our ancestors justice? What would they think of how we conduct ourselves today?
We romanticise the greatness of our forefathers, yet we don’t aspire to acquire the same knowledge. Olden time people were distinguished, not an ounce of fat, fit as the day is long. I then look around today and see our people, overweight, dieting on cool drink and fast food, rivers of grog, chugging on cigarettes, suffering from diabetes, heart disease, quietly suffering from mental illnesses our languages have no words for as they never existed – the list goes on. I speak from experience; I lived that lifestyle for over a decade, anxious, depressed and drinking, hyper focusing on all the ‘lack’ in my life. If this lifestyle is the norm, is it then any wonder our rock art is fading out and not getting repainted? Is it any wonder that our heritage sites are being destroyed? Or ancient languages are dying out? Is it really a surprise that we have such high rates of preventable dietary illnesses like Diabetes and Heart Disease and Obesity when the convenience of modern diets have taken the place our of traditional foods? We are on our way to making the noxious weed, buffel grass a monoculture here in central Australia; essentially wiping out our nutrient dense traditional foods that could be the key to the reduction of dietary illness and save millions (or billions) in health care costs. Our olden time people earned their food, exercising and working all day to secure anything of sustenance, yet today we do no exercise and we eat food products, not food. The environment we are living has lost the fragile balance that our old people created. We rarely burn, farm, weed, hunt or replant, except for in very small isolated pockets. What are we doing about all of this? And how do we expect to learn or practice our cultures when we spend all day and night on the couch watching TV or drinking grog and smoking grass?
‘What dreaming are we creating…’?
What dreaming are we creating today? Put yourself in the shoes of those who will follow our footsteps? What will they inherit from us? Will they even identify as Aboriginal? What will they say about ‘those old people’ of 2016 in 3-400 years’ time? I worry it’ll be something like “They became infatuated with the habits and cultural norms of the new world and forgot their culture, now we have inherited no dances, no songs, no language, no land and no paintings, nothing…”
I see the anguish on the faces of people who are involved with Land Councils and Native Title. It reminds me of what I should avoid at all costs. We’re at the whim of the modern day ‘Elders’, the land council anthropologists. Begging to be invited to a meeting or included in a Traditional Owner list. Hoping for a royalty payment, spending the short time we have on this earth fighting each other, questioning each other’s rights and knowledge despite descending from the same people. Anyone involved in the Native Title or Land Rights business knows of the struggles to be heard, be included, be elected, be invited or be confirmed as Aboriginal. The system facilitates re-traumatising victims or descendants of Stolen Generations who have been dispossessed of their traditions, languages, cultures and land and are trying to reconnect in an attempt to plug the identity holes and to heal pain. All by organisations whose catch cries are that they represent the interests of Aboriginal people.
We now place imaginary and real boundaries on our land when in fact; stories exist through land regardless of who owns it or what is built on it. Fences that are the road blocks for our stories. In the old days, if one estate had permanent water and their neighbours didn’t, my guess is they survived because of more open access than people impose and interpret today. We look at our traditional lands through western land governance glasses. Our hands are forced when we consider, is this system a necessary evil for us to have any rights at all? If we didn’t have it, would we have any access to country? What system would be better, what works for Indigenous people throughout the world? We have found ourselves in the unenviable position of being backed into the ‘self-implode corner’. Through the Native Title and Land Rights fog, individually we must be personally responsible; responsible for the way we talk about others, not engaging in traditional owner arguments, grandstanding, lateral violence and selfish bickering for monetary gain that sinks organisations and corporations. We must utilise land for the continuation of our cultures in practice, and not just so we can get a royalty cheque.
Our cultures are our religions, no different than the religions around the world. We need to start practising it. Aboriginality is not dependant on the colour of your skin, it’s dependant on your heritage which, for most of us now, is mixed. It’s what you do with it when you’ve got it that counts. I know and have met full descent Aboriginal people who speak traditional language and whom people would assume they are ‘authentic Aborigines’. Yet, some of these mob are so devoted to the teachings of the bible they believe their own traditions to be ‘heathen’. They’d much rather recall stories of the gospel than of the Dreaming despite our stories potentially being 30 times older. The reader would be shocked at how common this is in the Northern Territory and remote Australia. Alternatively, myself (and countless others) often have their heritage questioned or mistaken for being Italian or Lebanese yet, it seems the Aboriginal people who have knowledge of what they haven’t had seem to be the ones most motivated to learn to speak lingo, visit sites, make art and artefacts and be truly devoted to their culture.
So who is ‘more Aboriginal’? And what is Aboriginality? Why do we so often define it as a skin colour or shape of a nose? Why are we always proving our identity to others, instead of living it?
I was recently out in the remote Simpson Desert with my Aunty and she was telling me stories of country in Eastern Arrernte. A story of a Giant man really stood out to me. It was a recent story and she retold it with sadness. A true story, of a giant that came from the north east near Alpurrurulum and killed families at some of our special sites while they were sleeping. When I asked how old this story was, she said to me in language “a long time ago, maybe around captain cooks time”. My Aunt’s grandfathers had told her this story that had been told to them by their grandfathers and this oral story was passed down from the event. All of our stories are now remembered or recalled (even by Aboriginal people) as fairy tales of the distant past, when in reality they dictate our traditional governance, our access to land, the actions of ancestors, totems, plants and animals and knowledge of ourselves and in such old language they can take weeks and months for linguists to translate.
Our stories were passed down in orally or in paintings, engravings, songs and ceremonies witnessed by ancestors from the far distant past. One of Gurrumul’s songs is about the ancestral cat that travelled around in North East Arnhem Land – the same cat that was extinct on this continent between 20 and 40 thousand years ago. Stop and consider how old the story he is singing. Today we reflect on culture and look at what we have lost, rather than actually living it… So what can I do’?
Repatriate, re-educate, and relearn.
Many of the richest archives of Aboriginal knowledge are accumulating dust in the libraries and universities of Australia and the world. Diaries, word lists, letters, photographs, maps, paintings, place names and artefacts, human remains and the secret and sacred. Some of the early Europeans who came to Australia learnt languages, created wordlists and recorded the habits of Aboriginal people. Understand your roots. Your cultural obligations is not to attending the Indigenous All Stars Rugby league, or the NAIDOC Ball, it is the obligation to re-learn and re-educate yourself on your traditions and heritage. Become a student of your culture, do some research, contact institutions, contact museum curators and ask them if you can come in for a meeting. If you’ve showed the commitment and excellence to achieve University level education, research your own culture and contribute your findings to your community. If you don’t live on your clan or tribes country, learn as much as you can from afar. If your languages are long extinct, search archives for wordlists. Find a linguist to help you, and mend bridges and coordinate with neighbouring tribes and establish new languages. Immerse yourself in your culture; it is your inheritance, yours to live. Utilise western technologies to tell Australia of our land and our ancestors. Put Aboriginal themes in your house that will inspire you. Demand place naming committees use Aboriginal names and ensure the public knows the meaning. Start spending your wages or royalties on investing in your cultural learning and set our own goal posts for ‘Economic Development’. Make investments into your own human and cultural capital.
Finally, if we choose to act and take personal responsibility our descendants will recall our names in folklore, idolised for our resilience and cultural knowledge, as opposed to disgust and ridicule for choosing to sit on our hands and inherit western culture, languages, behaviours and religions at the expense of our own.
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