Australia: dreamtime down under

11 12 2009

It’s been three years since I lived and studied for a year in Melbourne, Australia. I fell in love with the good weather, friendly people and sense of space that seemed magical to a Londoner used to close proximity with about eight million other people (usually all at the same time, on the same bus at rush hour).

But, like most Brits who head out there, I had absolutely no idea about the struggle of the indigenous Australian peoples for autonomy. I had never heard of the ‘Stolen generation’ of ‘aborigine’ and mixed-race children who were taken by the Australian government and placed in white homes as servants or boarding houses, often never seeing their families again. (Amazingly, this policy of enforced removal only stopped in 1997.)

It’s incredibly difficult for me to encapsulate the full and complicated situation of how race is entwined in the fabric of Australian society. As an outsider, I often found myself shocked by a comment from a white Australian about how “Aborigines love to get drunk” or “they don’t like to work, just get benefits”. Equally, I met white Australians who didn’t want to talk about it at all, finding it too trivial or too complex a topic to discuss. There were those who actively spoke out about the then Howard Government’s refusal to even say the word ‘sorry’ (whatever that’s worth) to indigenous Australians.

One day, near the end of my stay in the country, my friends and I travelled north to Cairns. It’s a small, muddy town with three bars and probably more backpacker hostels than the whole of continental Europe (almost all of them run by Brits who went for a week and ended up staying). The town thrives on the back of the thousands of people who travel there to visit the Great Barrier Reef and spot sealife, snorkle, scuba or just break bits off to take home (illegally).

While there, I met the first indigenous Australian I had ever seen in Australia. Lying outside a shop, stinking of booze, occasionally shouting something. Several people stopped and laughed, others took photos, and a few shook their heads in disgust. After walking around him and entering the shop, I saw ‘traditional’ didgeridoos, ‘authentic’ boomerangs, dreamtime stories and a whole batch of other ‘Aborigine’ paraphenalia for sale.

It’s only now, years later, that I sometimes think about this incident and struggle to work out its significance. Perhaps there’s none. Perhaps I’m uncomfortable with the appropriation of  ‘aboriginal’ culture while indigenous Australians are still on the margins of society. Perhaps I’m embarrassed that I travelled to a country without understanding a single thing about its history, including 200-odd years of colonisation by European invaders/settlers.

I’ve since found out about some current activism going on in Australia and Europe, and thought I’d post the links. If you’re heading Down Under, they’re worth a look.

Aboriginal Tent Embassy:

European Network for Indigenous Australians’ rights: