Indigenous Australians and the legacy of European conquest

Indigenous Australians and the legacy of European conquest

The ten years since 1997

Tracey Bunda

In the first edition of Indigenous Australians and the Law (Cavendish, 1997) Maria Lane wrote of the impact that the dominant white culture has had upon the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people since colonization. Against the background of Maria’s chapter, Tracey Bunda updates the reader as to the ongoing impact of colonization and the nature of the contemporary political climate in which the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people enter into dialogue with the dominant white culture and with the Australian Governments.

My experience, as an Aboriginal woman academic within higher education, has been concentrated primarily in the disciplines of Aboriginal Education and Aboriginal Studies and moreover in how these fields of study have resonance with, and are able to inform, Gender Studies, Sociology, Psychology, Australian Studies and Justice Studies, to name a few. It has also been my experience that in teaching undergraduate students, both non-Aboriginal and Aboriginal, although mainly non-Aboriginal, there remains an absence of critical understanding and engagement with the issues that affect Aboriginal peoples. Many of my Aboriginal colleagues in other universities speak of the same experience.1 The Aboriginal contribution to the nation has an extensive history that commences prior to white occupation. This history and the knowledge that accompany it are made subordinate to the dominant story of the white nation and its achievements, its heroes and its significant sites.

In the following, I provide my understanding of the story of the critical Aboriginal issues and events of the last decade, a challenging and tumultuous time within Aboriginal affairs, so as to provide a broad contextual understanding for the chapters that follow. I write cognisant that, as an Aboriginal woman, my work in the university does not operate in a vacuum and acknowledge that I am inextricably connected to the events that happen to Aboriginal peoples beyond the bricks and mortar of universities. The bricks and mortar, the foundations, of my identity are bound up in my connections to family, community and country. And so I write of the last decade of critical Aboriginal events viewed through a wide lens that captures these events as they have been shaped within the new discourses of Aboriginal peoples, and which demonstrates how these discourses have played out and highlights the consequences for my family, community and country.

I have, for professional reasons, journeyed far from home, although I return to country and family as often as possible to reaffirm my relationship with people and land. This is a fundamental enactment of my social, cultural, political and spiritual identity as a Ngugi/Wakka Wakka joohndal.2

Where is my family? Most members remain in and near our family home in Ipswich, Queensland. This community of my childhood of the 1960s and 1970s was a semi-rural community, although the success of the primary producing properties was giving way to the seemingly more secure industrial work of coal mining and its related industries in the railway workshops and the electricity industry. This economic environment sat alongside a social context that was simultaneously denied and repulsed by Aboriginal peoples, and yet was fascinated by us.

We knew that we lived on the periphery of town, geographically, socially, culturally and economically. The Salvation Army-operated mission named Purga had been tucked away on the periphery of the greater Ipswich area for over forty years. Aboriginal people had been forcibly herded to this mission from the surrounding areas. This site was, for decades, the epicentre of the Aboriginal population in Ipswich. The mission signified a source of black unpaid labour comprising Aboriginal children and adults and exploited by white families in the district. Members of my extended family had been incarcerated at Purga, where religious inculcation, the receipt of a minimal education and slavery were the core defining features of the mission during this period.3

The closure of the mission saw many of the Aboriginal families relocate a little closer to town, although still on the edge. Few of our families were able to secure permanent employment and, politically, we lived with the repercussions of the government policies of the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s that sought to assimilate and integrate us. During this period, we were questioned as to the blood quantum of our Aboriginality to verify our authenticity to the white people who questioned us. We were looked upon with disdain, considered untrustworthy, lazy, stupid and as drunks. At times, our families physically defended the representation we wanted to have of ourselves against that which sought to contain and control us. There were also rare moments when white members of the community showed genuine kindness and humanity. Ipswich, like many communities throughout the nation, rural or urban, did not name itself as racially divided and socially incompetent in embracing diversity.

Against this historical backdrop, Ipswich as a community showcased federal politicians of repute. A would-be Prime Minister of the country lived and worked in Ipswich. Its other contribution to the nation’s political history is mostly known through the election of the first Aboriginal senator, who also lived in Ipswich. Both men, although of opposing political affiliations, gave Ipswichites representation at the national table.

Political debates in my family were served with mugs of tea. My family drinks lots of tea and so there are many debates. What was the possible value for the Aboriginal nations of an Aboriginal senator in a conservative political party? Does the Labour Party truly provide for Aboriginal peoples, or is this political window dressing? How do the white legal system and systems of government do or undo land rights, not only for the mob in the Territory, but also for our mob in the east? How do the labels of ‘radical’ or accusations of being ‘difficult’ or an ‘uppity blackfella’ speak more about the fears of the whitefella than about Aboriginal peoples or communities struggling against injustice? Who is the Aboriginal individual being called ‘leader’ for Aboriginal peoples? Where does he [usually an Aboriginal man] come from? Who is his people and how can it be presumed that this individual speaks for all Aboriginal peoples for all issues that affect Aboriginal peoples?

Through these debates were woven the serious and considered reactions of the political issue of the day, in other words, in the discourse we owned and spoke as Aboriginal peoples about the white nation that surrounded us and sought to create us. It was this discourse that shaped my blackness in ways that no white education system could. In time, I would have a speaking position at the family table and, through this, I would participate in the discourse.

My position from spectator at the edge to talker was not the only change. On the many occasions that I returned to my family throughout the 1980s and 1990s, I observed the population of Ipswich grow as suburban activity became a little busier. New brick suburbs grew out of old paddocks and neighboured the rows of wooden homes on stilts, as the professional class neigboured trade workers, the poor, unemployed and unemployable.

Ipswich, at the centre of the seat of Oxley, was no longer a Labour Party stronghold and Hansonism had arrived at the national table of politics. Pauline Hanson enacted a politics of blame that targeted those in the community whom she had imagined as more privileged and more powerful than ‘ordinary, normal’ Australians. The following extracts from her maiden parliamentary speech (1996) makes transparent that Aboriginal peoples and supporters were a target for blame and a cause of division in the nation.