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Lest we forget

By Rosie Williams - posted Monday, 25 January 2010


Last year I sat in my apartment trying to figure out what to do about Australia Day. There was a celebration in the local park, a beautiful riverside niche where I often enjoy the local cafe. Yet today I felt torn. Would the celebrations carry on around the Indigenous Australians living on what we feel are the margins of society, looking past them as though they do not exist? Had anything changed since the 2008 Apology? Was Australia Day celebrating an achievement or an invasion?

These questions troubled me and having no answers kept me away from the park. I realised that for time unknown Aboriginals had sat by that river doing pretty much what everyone was doing today: socialising, eating, living. And there the Aboriginals are - still doing exactly the same thing in the new millennium. This timeless culture lives among us yet we do not see it. With all our educational programs we are still blind. What we see as culture: nice rooms, expensive furnishings and stiff behaviour does not acknowledge the respect for nature, the rites and customs that grew up with this ancient land.

We live alongside one of the oldest cultures on earth yet know almost nothing about it. So often we think of history as boring and irrelevant without realising that the history of Australia is the history of the world. Australia has a rich history dating back into the mists of time and one which we need to know.

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On the ride into town there is a small park with a sculpture of an Aboriginal family, naked and pointing toward the sky. As sculptures go, I like this one yet the irony speaks loud to me whenever I pass. We see a sculpture of a naked Aboriginal family, vulnerable and poignant as a quaint expression of high culture. Yet an Aboriginal family drinking in the very same park would be considered the opposite of what we call cultured.

Our own expression of culture is to dominate nature rather than live among and with it. Our precious things are locked away from us in galleries and museums while our truly invaluable resources are trampled beneath the heavy footprint of urban sprawl and industrial wasteland.

We are an amazing country of amazing people with incredible stories. Reducing that rich tapestry down to a beer and barbie on Australia Day sells us short. What events most fascinate you about Australia's history?

For me it is the Sydney Hilton bombing, with its unanswered questions and revelations of the questionable extent of security records kept on Australian citizens. The history of some of our 8000+ offshore islands is another point of interest with their use as prisons, leprosaria and occupation during World War II.

More recent stories include the Springbok Tours, the nuclear testing at Maralinga, The Sydney Push, to name but a few.

I recently had the task of creating 600 questions about everything Australian: history, culture, law, economics, demographics and so on for an iPhone quiz developed by my son. Having spent many a school history lesson standing in the corridor for talking (a real Aussie can't be too smart), I suspected I didn't know as much Australian history as I should. Having now completed the task I feel I learned a lot from that intense journey through our past and present. When we celebrate Australia Day 2010, what are we honouring? We can only appreciate what we understand so I challenge Australians to learn more about our own country. We should not consider this of relevance only to our children in the naivety of youth. Often what was once considered irrelevant and pointless takes on a different precedence as we mature and become curious about what made us who we are.

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Much of our history with the Aboriginal people has been erased, swept under the carpet. Clashes with the settlers, retaliatory massacres and before that, the inter-clan conflict is no more than a whisper from a past that is almost forgotten. Without this knowledge, how do we prepare for the future?

We are not a 200-year-old culture, we are a country made up from people around the world who have come here as a result of major political events. Whether it is the Afghan cameleers that helped develop the outback (only receiving popular attention thanks to the “camelcide” affair) or recent refugees escaping the Taliban, Australia continues to be shaped by other cultures in a way which we seldom acknowledge. Recent concerns about asylum seekers and violence against Indians have a lot to tell us about the importance of politics both beyond and within our borders. If we are to understand Australia we must come to grips with the bigger picture of international events and not just consider Australia Day to be about Captain Cook and The First Fleet.

Learn something new about Australia and then tell someone you know or meet. Australia Day will be much more interesting with our own Mallawilli. Indigenous Australians knew the importance of handing down their stories, a tradition we disrupted through the Stolen Generations. Let us not fall victim to our own short-sightedness and share our stories for all to know - lest we forget.

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About the Author

Rosie Williams is the founder of BudgetAus the first implementation of the entire federal budget in an online searchable database.

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