If your child asks why Australia is celebrating a day of invasion, what will you tell them?

26 Jan 2021

Children ask vital questions of the world which expose accepted ‘truths’. On 26 January, we contrast Australian displays of amnesia with Aboriginal truth-telling

Black children are often left out of national conversations. Yet their welfare is often invoked by governments and commentators to support white agendas and position non-Indigenous Australia as benevolent rather than violent. First Nations children are silenced even though the most brutal acts of colonisation were perpetrated and continue to be perpetrated against them. The attempted destruction of Aboriginal families and communities was central to the settler-colonial project, and those who were most victimised, who suffered the most hurt, were black children. These past policies directly aimed at destroying Indigenous families and removing black presence from stolen land did not disappear, but instead took on new forms, evident in the justice, child protection and health systems.

Not all Indigenous children have experiences of detention or child removal, but they all share an inheritance of this trauma, and they all experience the violence of the education system, where they are taught a false history about this land.

This is slowly changing and it is largely because of the efforts of First Nations people across the country. An example is the work of my sister Hayley McQuire and her colleagues at the National Indigenous Youth Education Coalition (NIYEC) who have just launched their Learn Our Truth campaign to encourage school leaders and educators to prioritise First Nations history in their teaching. NIYEC is the first Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander youth-led organisation solely committed to asserting our Indigenous rights to education.

“For the past two years, NIYEC has been going around the country talking with young mob about our differing experiences with education, and the theme that was recurring was the impact of feeling erased when you don’t hear your true history about what happened during colonisation,” Hayley told me.

“It’s not just black history that silenced, it’s the violence of settler-colonisation and how that impacted First Nations people that is never talked about. It’s the way that history is described and that narratives that are continued which obscure the extent of what settlers actually did.”

Hayley said that similarly, in discussions with young people who did go to schools where they were taught true and accurate accounts of history, they reported feeling empowered and included.

There is a reason why so many Indigenous children reported feeling silenced. The lies about the “settlement” of this country were not innocent; these lies had a purpose. That purpose was to secure white supremacy in this land, and to erase black presence and black resistance. Our children are asked to participate in a system that is still predicated on what Associate Professor Chelsea Watego has called the “myth of the dying race”.

But Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children begin their acts of resistance at very young ages. Some of them stand up on tables and call out the lies. Some of them sit down during the national anthem. Some of them go up to their classmates at recess and tell them the truth. Some of them stay silent, but that does not mean they are not resisting, because silence can be a form of passive resistance as much as a survival tactic.

First Nations children are constantly thinking, learning and weighing up what they are taught with their own experiences. They hear different narratives of history from their elders, and they are actively decolonising in their own ways. By their very presence on what is stolen black land, they offer up a counter-narrative to the mythology of Australian history that was about removing us from this land; displacing us to make way for a white settler-colony.

These are the resistances I wanted to pay tribute to in Day Break, a new children’s picture book about 26 January. The book is about how First Nations families and children enact their own sovereignties on this day – which represents a national celebration of genocide.

When illustrator Matt Chun and I were thinking about what we wanted to portray, we kept coming back to the act of remembering as a form of resistance. Australia Day is at its heart about amnesia. Every 26 January, Australia tells us to forget and to move on or be co-opted or assimilated into “celebrations”. We wanted to contrast Australian displays of amnesia with Aboriginal ways of remembering. This is what occurs in every First Nations community on this day – it may come in the form of protests and rallies, or it could come in the form of a grandmother telling their grandchildren about the truth of this country. This is where “truth-telling” is actually happening at the ground level, and it is happening first and foremost with black families.

The book also celebrates the strength of the black family, despite the two centuries of settler-colonial attempts to destroy it. But it is also a book for all children, because children ask vital questions of the world which expose “accepted” “truths”. Children are incredibly smart and know more than we give them credit for.

The questions asked by adults on this day are often loaded and convoluted. But sometimes, the simple questions are the most important. This 26 January, if your child asked you why we are celebrating a day that represents an invasion, what will you tell them?

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