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Reclaiming the past

By Stephen Hagan - posted Wednesday, 1 June 2005

For the vast majority of Indigenous people, including myself, the record of our past is often the subject of debate and supposition. Unless one lives in a remote traditional society, where the regular practice of customs are taught and encouraged within the community, it is almost impossible to gain a comprehensive history of our culture.

Sadly many of us today do not enjoy the rewards of living “on country” due to the draconian policies of earlier governments that moved our ancestors off their land to make way for white “industry”. The racist policies introduced a new facet to the daily lives of our Elders, who had to forego their traditional educational practices of passing on cultural knowledge through the generations to be the family providers in a foreign environment.

No longer was time a friend to our Elders as they sought to provide shelter, food, clothing and protection for all family members under testing circumstances. With these new constraints consuming them daily, time quickly elapsed and years turned to decades.


Unfortunately, while past priorities were constantly being reassigned by our Elders something had to give and regrettably it was the passing on of cultural knowledge to the next generation. So effective was the divorce from the past that the inevitable and ugly face of apathy materialised. Many of the younger generation today have simply lost interest in the ways of their ancestors.

Ironically, while it was government policy that eroded our birthright and associated cultural teachings, it was the government’s Native Title Act 1993 that provided the respite so urgently needed. The origin of native title and the cause of the revival of cultural knowledge lies in the onus of proving facts of the connection to or occupation of the land by Indigenous people under their traditional laws and customs prior to colonisation.

With the emergence of representative bodies that were pursuing native title in the 1990s, our people were provided with access to anthropologists, mainly non-Indigenous, to assist in recording their genealogical links to the land. At long last people were able to put the pieces of their family jigsaw puzzle together. For some the genealogical links allowed for a closure of their past but for many it was the beginning of a new era of discovery. The appetite for knowledge of country and family was overwhelming. But no sooner did the authentication of new found historical records whet the appetite of our next pool of potential leaders then they were suddenly hit with a dose of reality with the arrival on the scene of political operatives with evil intent to douse the flames.

With potential riches at stake many smaller families were out-muscled by the more experienced players of the Aboriginal industry merry-go-round. Many Elders in the community today say that despite all its good points native title was the primary cause of family and friends parting company, with irreconcilable differences of opinion over boundaries and royalties. What was meant to be a union of traditional owners to identify shared interests through native title soon turned into a dog fight over scraps thrown onto the ground by even bigger masters from mining and other commercial corporations.

Opportunity lost. This brings me back to the theme of reclaiming the past.

How many of our youth today can name their parents’ first cousins? Can they go further back in time and name their grand-parents’ brothers and sisters or a step back again and identify the names of their great grand-parents and their siblings? What can they tell us of their peoples’ traditional lands? What clan are they identified with and what is their language group and totem?


These are not trick questions but a short test to place people on a scale of one to five:

  1. Being proud of their race but knowing nothing;
  2. being proud of their race but knowing a little;
  3. being proud of their race and knowing a fair bit;
  4. being proud of their race and very knowledgeable on the issue of their people and their country; and,
  5. being proud of their race and proactively maintaining their family’s involvement in their traditional culture.

I believe the interest level at the moment, from many within our community, is just not there. I’m aware of Indigenous people of my generation who can name the winner of the Melbourne Cup 20 years ago and the jockey, trainer and the condition of the track. They can even tell me the winner of the Rugby League or Aussie Rules Grand Finals in 1985. Yet those same people don’t know what their parents did with their lives 20 years prior or name three significant events in Indigenous Affairs that occurred in 1985.

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About the Author

Stephen Hagan is Editor of the National Indigenous Times, award winning author, film maker and 2006 NAIDOC Person of the Year.

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