Some thoughts on our shared history in Australia – the 220 year old bits and the 60,000 year old bits

It is currently 10:11on a Wednesday night. I have just got home from work. No, my boss is not a sadist. I was very happy to work long hours today for the purpose of being the scribe for the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander staff conference and then attending a conference dinner. I was the scribe for a similar event last year, but not through design, for the person earmarked for the task was off sick and at the last minute I think my Manager asked me to do it. Being Jeanette I did a stellar job of the notes and earned the praise of our Indigenous leader – a very senior manager based in Western Australia.  So this year, based on my prior performance I was the first choice for the job. And I was absolutely delighted to do it,

Let me flash back 30 years to my arrival in Australia as an intense and thoughtful 11 year old English girl. As my mum is Australian I had heard some stories about Australia and its first inhabitants were in there somewhere. I remember a book of photos of tousle-haired children in the desert with names I could’t read and failed miserably to pronounce, But before I arrived here I had no real knowledge of my new country’s Indigenous peoples and their 60,000 year history in this stunning land of ours.

We moved to a country area shortly after arriving in Australia, a place called Wodonga in north-east Victoria (for non-Australians among the readers, that is in the bottom right-hand corner of the map of Australia). One of my first surprises was the hatred that the non-Indigenous kids had for Aboriginal people. And it wasn’t just the kids – one friend told me his dad thought that ‘the best Aboriginal person is a dead one’ (for the record, my friend didn’t share the sentiment). My young mind found it hard to fathom such hatred of people who it was becoming apparent to me had actually been on the receiving end of a lot of flawed policy and racist treatment over the years.

In 1988 there was a Bicentenary celebration for the 200 years of British colonisation of Australia. Obviously this was somewhat controversial in the light of the fact that our country had actually been discovered some 60,000 years before Captain Cook sailed over the horizon and planted a flag in the ground. However, the only bit of challenge to the celebration I saw was a book of political cartoons in the school library and when I stopped to ask teachers what the issues were I was roundly fobbed off by all of them. History then appeared somewhat fraught.

Over the ensuing years I met a number of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander friends and colleagues (and one partner). What struck me was that many people were as ignorant and prejudiced as my 11 year old schoolmates had been. I wondered why people weren’t as proud of our Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures and heritage as they were our Italian food influences or even Afghan cameleers from the 19h Century? I recently discovered on a television documentary that 6 out of 10 non-Indigenous Australians apparently had never had contact with an Aboriginal person. Think about that. 60 per cent of people. That is such a whopping figure I can hardly imagine it. And it really isn’t like Indigenous Australians are hiding somewhere. They are everywhere.

Which brings me to today’s conference.  Our department has a strong commitment to making ‘Indigenous business everyone’s business’. This includes supporting and empowering Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander staff in the department and also fostering understanding or Indigenous cultures and business amongst all staff. So the conference today was part of that whole focus, which is fantastic.

I had friends and one of my managers attending the conference as participants so I had a great time catching up in between taking copious notes. I attended the dinner – hence the late hour of this post – and there was an amazing speaker who I think might just have changed my life a little. He was Jeremy Donovan, a Murri man from Far North Queensland. Jeremy Donovan has been voted the best speaker in Australia and is the CEO of Generation One – an organisation which strongly promotes employment of Indigenous people and works with employers to do this. Jeremy told an immensely engaging story about his life, but it was much more than simply that. He and a strong message of self-empowerment and setting goals and dreams. That was not what appealed so much to me though. I was struck by the fact that Jeremy’s life story so closely mirrored my own. Almost every element of my early life was in his story. At first I was a little taken aback. I felt a little triggered and raw at some things because they were so close to my own experience. I wondered if I should talk to him afterwards?

Sitting in that audience I suddenly saw some parallels between my own life as an Autistic woman struggling with identity for most of her early life and this Aboriginal man who seemed to have been through similar things. Another thing that hit me was how many Indigenous people I have seen get up on stage to speak and start their presentation by saying ‘I am a proud Aboriginal woman (or man)’. Autistic speakers don’t do this generally. I actually posted a meme with a quote of me saying ‘I am a proud Autistic woman. I love me as me’ recently and hundreds of people liked and shared it on social media. It got a few comments that people wished they could say they were proud Autistics too. I wonder if Autistic people can learn how to positively identify from those Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander speakers. Just a thought. And I apologise for the roughness of this writing, it;s after my bedtime by I wanted to put these thoughts down. Thanks . Oh, and I did talk to Jeremy afterwards and said a very heartfelt  and enthusiastic ‘thanks’.

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