Much has been said over the years of the hypocrisy of telling Aboriginal people to ‘get over it’ in one breath, while mournful chanting ‘Lest We Forget’ with the next. But the issue goes much deeper than just how we see our past, it speaks to how our nation chooses to view itself.
Australian likes to see itself as the Lucky Country, the land of the fair go, home of the ‘Aussie battler’. We like stories of underdog battling against the odds, even if they don’t always overcome them – Ned Kelly, ANZACs at Gallipoli, the Australian farmer, convicts, bushrangers – these are our national heroes.
These are how many Australians still like to view themselves, even though most Australians today have never farmed the land or even ridden a horse, have never fought in a war (thankfully!), were not sent to Australia in chains, and have never even worn a trashcan on our heads while having a shootout with police.
Yet, even though Aboriginal people were present in most of those stories – working the land and drovers, shearers, and stock hands; served in every Australian war (here and overseas); were bushrangers; and fought against the police for their beliefs, Australia has never found a way to embrace these stories in the same way.
Even stories of unequivocal Aboriginal heroism, where rather than fighting against the invading forces, have stories of saving their lives – like Yarri in Gundagai who along with other Aboriginal men helped save as many as 49 people in the 1852 floods. Even these stories have struggled to get their place of recognition in the hearts of Australians.
When we speak of wars fought between Aboriginal groups and white people – be they citizens or soldiers – we are met with calls of ‘but I didn’t do it!’. We do not hear those cries when we speak of Captain Cook planting the flag, or of soldiers storming the beaches, even though most of us didn’t do that either.
It is especially weird when we hear these evoked when discussing what should be taught in history at school since rarely is the focus of that subject about what we have personally done within our lifetimes. Yet these arguments carry across the land with the ferocity of a typhoon, shouting down any nuanced discussion or consideration of why Australia still feels such a strong hatred towards the mere mention of this history.
Most of us like to see ourselves as the heroes in our own life story rather than the villain, and this is true of how many people like to view the story of their nation as well. Perhaps starting imperfectly, but tirelessly marching towards greater heights of ‘progress’. We like to think that those who came before us worked hard to forge the opportunities we have today; that they were brave and honourable; that they would be proud of what we have done and so we like to be proud of what they did for us, even if that means applying a less than critical lens to their deeds, actions, and motivations.
This image of our nation is thrown into stark contrast when stories of theft, rape, murder, and massacre are discussed. These are historic facts, not open to dispute. They happened. This cannot be changed, but that does not mean that it should be forgotten either.
People need not feel a personal sense of guilt or shame for the actions of the past, but those people should similarly not be interested in feeling pride for other actions of the past. If you are a person who lives in the now and has no regard for history then okay, that is your personal choice. You can also choose to treat your national history as a smorgasbord where you only take the bits you like and leave the rest behind, but you cannot do this and also avoid accurate calls of hypocrisy from those whose history you try to ignore.
If you want to take pride in the spirit of the ANZACs you can do so while also acknowledging the mistreatment of many Aboriginal ANZACs, these are not mutually exclusive concepts.
I am not perfect, and I am not proud of everything I have ever done in my life, but I like who I am and I take the good with the bad from my own history. I try to learn from it, grow from it, and where I can I try to pass on the benefits of my learning to those who want to avoid making the same mistakes I have made. I don’t understand why, as a nation, we cannot do the same.
I am not ‘stuck in the past’, or ‘trying to change what happened 200 years ago’, I am trying to change our very current national denial of what happened, the infantile tantrums that we witness every time the word ‘invasion’ is mentioned. It is time that Australia, as a nation, grew up and came to terms with the fact that ‘Australia’ hasn’t always been the ‘good guy’ in the story of our national history.
Much of what happened to Aboriginal people was not ‘inevitable’ or happened because ‘they were different times back then’. Murder, theft, rape, slavery, and massacres happened for the same reasons that they usually happen for – power, greed, control, and a sense of superiority over others.
Should I ever gain access to a time machine I might be tempted to go back in time and change the past, but rather than hold my breath for that I think I will continue to talk about these simple and obvious truths and hope that Australia may one day develop the maturity to be able to honour our history rather than collectively bury our heads in the sand and continue to celebrate the myth that Australia was founded in peace and not war.
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