As a kid growing up on a fringe camp on the outskirts of Cunnamulla, Queensland, I lived a happy life unaware of my so-called "impoverished" surroundings. Times were good back in the early 60s, experiencing the communal lifestyle out of necessity, with a couple of hundred other displaced traditional owners who moved into the Yumba. This was a consequence of the government's forceful relocation efforts to free up land for new and expanding pastoral leases. Out of respect every adult was called uncle or aunt and they all collectively represented to me the image of what I deemed role models.
It wasn't until I started moving through my secondary school years that I sought a different type of role model, in addition to my father, who acquired profiles other than that of a greater hunter or pugilist. As a boarder at a private school in Brisbane I read about Malcolm X, Martin Luther King Jr. and other prominent black leaders. Although I was inspired by their mantra they weren't exactly the black people I wanted to emulate. I was looking closer to home. I sought one of my people who had the elegance, poise and gifted oratory to match those international headline grabbers I started to see regularly on the television.
And then one day I spotted a well-spoken black man on television, with a thick mop of hair and a radiant smile, who was suitably attired in a dapper suit. I later discovered that the standard footwear for this outstanding Australian was a shining pair of RM Williams riding boots. His name was Neville T. Bonner.
Neville Bonner was born in 1922. His mother was an Aborigine but he never knew his father, an Englishman, who went back to England before Neville was born.
I was born on Ukerebagh Island, in the mouth of the Tweed River. Because there was nowhere else for my mother to go, in those days, people won't know too much about it, but in those days, Aboriginal people had to be out of the towns before sunset. And they couldn't get back into town again until sunrise the next day, my mother was not allowed to go to hospital to give birth to me. She gave birth to me on a government issued blanket in a little gunya under the palm tree that still lives down there. Those are the kind of things that we had to cope with when I was born and when I was a small child, right up into my teenage years and into my manhood.
From many long conversations with him at various venues around the country I've since had the pleasure of knowing a bit more about this wonderful Aborigine who I'm proud to say filled that missing void of a role model in my teenage years.
I recall many famous speeches of the late Senator Bonner but the two that I'm fond of are his maiden speech to Parliament in 1971 and an official opening address of National Aborigines Week in wintry Canberra in 1982.
1971 - Those who avoided death, and the subsequent great roundup, and others who had escaped from the missions and reserve came to the cities and towns, there to be completely shunned by white society and forced to lead the life of pariahs in tin shanties, in bark humpies and in other degrading accommodation on the banks of creeks, on the outskirts of the towns and indeed any place sufficiently far from the cities and towns so that they would not offend the delicate senses of their so-called superior white masters. These of my race were the fringe dwellers, the legion of the lost, the dirty ignorant mentally inferior "Abos", "boongs", "blacks" as you were wont to call us, and treat us accordingly.
1982 - Our ancestors had been in peaceful possession of this continent for approximately 40,000 years. They had evolved a way of life and technology which balanced their needs with the country's fragile ecology. They were completely in tune with nature and were nomadic in the sense that they practised a type of conservation: rotating from area to area dependent on climatic conditions and the ability of the flora and fauna of the land to support their needs.
Thus to our virgin land came the white man, only a few thousand years out of his cave, a person whose only interest in mother-earth was to farm it, mine it and fence it off as a materialistic possession to be solely enjoyed by the owner to the exclusion of all others. This greed for land and its wealth was, and still is, the crux of the problem of race relations in Australia today.
... I once heard it asked by an American visitor why didn't we seem to have a separate distinct culture similar to the American Negroes, and this white gentleman enquired as to why we didn't sing the blues. The answer to this is easy, we are too busy living them to have time to sing them.
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