Aboriginal land rights #
According to her daughter, Meredith McKinney, Judith fought two big campaigns in her life – the first was for the conservation of the environment and the second was to secure land rights for the Aboriginal people. Her interest in Aboriginal land rights was sparked by her friendship with fellow poet Oodgeroo Noonuccal (Kath Walker).
“That’s what she spent her final couple of decades doing,” says Meredith. “Oodgeroo started to write poems, and send her poems to Judith. She was extremely moved by them. Oodgeroo used to go and stay at Tamborine with her. They were very special friends. It was early days, and people weren’t really talking about Aboriginal land rights then. It was an uphill battle trying to shift perceptions, and then suddenly it all took off. Mum and Nugget Coombs formed the Aboriginal Treaty Committee – they were trying to convince the white population that this was necessary. Then there was a sudden surge of political consciousness among Aborigines themselves, and they decided to hand over the torch.”
Georgina Arnott’s new biography, *The Unknown Judith Wright*, paints a contrary view: Judith Wright managed to weave her own family history of settler wealth, privilege and power through George Wyndham’s squatting on Aboriginal lands in the mid-19th century into an account that recognised the historical violence of dispossession while still allowing for a vision of the Wyndham Wrights as benevolent pastoralists.
Arnott lays down the evidence that Wright’s forebears did directly dispossess the local Hunter Valley Wonnarua Aboriginal people in 1828, that they were perpetrators of violence, that it is likely they participated in and condoned the murder of the Aboriginal occupiers of the land — and that evidence of this was there in letters and diaries Wright had consulted for her own two books on her family’s pioneering history.
From 1826 to the late 1830s there was a state of guerrilla warfare punctuated by revenge massacres and the public display of hanged bodies by the roadside (a corncob stuck in the mouth) as warnings to would-be thieves, with pastoralists calling for military assistance against the Black Natives.
In 1839, George Wyndham (a squattor of almost 11,000 acres of the Hunter Valley by then) responded to a questionnaire sent by the Legislative Council to ascertain landowners’ attitudes to Aborigines, that the best way to encourage them to work would be to:
“cut off their great toes. They could not then climb the trees for possums”.
After perusing the same source diaries as Wright, Arnott provides much detail in this picture of occupation (including on the Myall massacre of 1838), and her point seems to be that at every juncture, as a historian, Wright chose to put her ancestors in the best light or imply that their involvement in the land grabs of the era were not as compromising as some others’ were.
The song is gone; the dance is secret with the dancers in the earth, the ritual useless, and the tribal story lost in an alien tale.
Only the grass stands up to mark the dancing-ring; the apple-gums posture and mime a past corroboree, murmur a broken chant.
The hunter is gone; the spear is splintered underground, the painted bodies a dream the world breathed sleeping and forgot. The nomad feet are still.
Only the rider’s heart halts at a sightless shadow, an unsaid word that fastens in the blood the ancient curse, the fear as old as Cain.
The following is a much later recognition of white man’s dispossession:
At Killula #
The blue crane fishing in Killula’s twilight Has fished there longer than our centuries He is the certain heir of lake and evening, and he will wear Their colors till he dies.
But I am a stranger come of a conquering people. I can’t share his calm who watches lake being unloved by All my eyes delight in and made uneasy for an old murder’s sake
Those dark-skinned people who once named Killula, Knew that no land is lost or won by wars For earth is spirit.
The invader’s feet will tangle in nets there And his blood be thinned by fears.
Riding at noon, ninety years ago, my grandfather Was beckoned by a ghost, a black accoutered warrior Armed for fighting who sank into a bare plain And now it’s time past.
Quite short of sand, plumed reed and paperbark Clear heavenly levels frequented by crane and swan. I know we are justified only by love, But oppressed by arrogant guilt, have room for none.
And walking on clean sand, among the prints of bird and animal, I am challenged by a driftwood spear Thrust from the water And like my grandfather Must quiet a heart accused by its own fear.
This is a powerful poem that speaks for itself, only appreciated in a holistic sense; the visceral, emotional and cerebral. To dissect the above poem, in the words of Susan Sontag would be to “usurp and desecrate” it.
Coming to terms with unentitled privilege is a widespread condition. The bible is conflicted. In Deuteronomy 24:16 “Fathers shall not be put to death because of their children, nor shall children be put to death because of their fathers. Each one shall be put to death for his own sin”, is contradicted by Exodus 34:7 “who will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children and the children’s children, to the third and the fourth generation.”
Many writers expose and confront reality. Ceridwen Dovey, born in 1980, an émigré from South Africa, claims we write to make sense of our world, to understand our origins, our values and influences. Sometimes we write to escape the grip of the past. Ceridwin writes as a “guilty pleasure”, and expresses an appreciation to her audience for reading her work.
“We express ourselves to excavate our past to acknowledge and expiate our complicity with the randomness of life; to dispel wilful amnesia, to deal with or reckon with the secret guilt of our good fortune.”
We are always coming to terms with the past by animating the present, by constantly changing the narrative of history. Influenced by Freud’s theories of suppression, we need to cannabalise history, accounting for different wrong doing.
History illustrates that social organisation consists of perpetrators, victims and beneficiaries. Which one of these we are, determines our perspective and motive. We may carry the moral burden of our ancestors; inter-generational trauma.
Examples include: beneficiaries of South African Apartheid, Turks and attempts of Armenian genocide, Germans and the holocaust, or Rwandans dealing with genocide. All British Colonials owe a debt to displaced indigenous occupants. Evidence of vicarious trauma exists for not only our grandchildren, but those of the holocaust and Rwandans eager to volunteer for UN peace keeping forces. Intergeneration guilt and trauma takes a long time to heal.
As perpetrators or beneficiaries, we need to find the right words to heal the vicarious guilt and shame of our inherited past. Some become benefactors – Warren Buffet, Bill Gates….
Dovey distinguishes chronic guilt as “what we have done”, and chronic shame as “what we have benefited from”.
‘To feel shamed is to be made to feel unworthy of our peers, a feeling human will go to great lengths to avoid'.
We write to become free of our cultural markers; not to be a prisoner of them. It can be a quest for atonement and belonging.
Under Whitlam and later Hawke and Keating, many constructive measures to reconcile white and indigenous interests were implemented: recognition, land rights, Mabo, indigenous councils… Any action results in a reaction, so by 1996 groundswell movements like Pauline Hanson emerged to counteract the reconciliation reforms. Despite expelling Pauline Hanson from the Liberal Party, Howard and later Abbott simply adopted her policies, rolling back much of the progress made.
It may take many more years before we “quiet a heart accused by its own fear”. Henry Reynolds calls it “a secret whispering in our heart”.
On December 10, 1992, the prime minister Paul Keating said some words that started that journey, without which we could never start.
Noel Pearson is chair of the Cape York Institute for Policy and Leadership. This is his response to Keating’s Speech:
Keating’s 1992 Redfern speech used the occasion of the launch of the International Year of Indigenous Peoples to speak to a matter that had long been gnawing at his soul, which he had now formulated as a cornerstone of his prime ministerial program.
Facing history was the starting point. The words are well-known but bear repetition: “Recognition that it was we who did the dispossessing. We took the traditional lands and smashed the traditional way of life. We brought the diseases. The alcohol. We committed the murders. We took the children from their mothers.
“We practised discrimination and exclusion. It was our ignorance and our prejudice. And our failure to imagine these things being done to us.
“With some noble exceptions, we failed to make the most basic human response and enter into their hearts and minds. We failed to ask - how would I feel if this were done to me? As a consequence, we failed to see that what we were doing degraded all of us.”
This passage resonated across the continent and roiled the national soul, and gave fodder to the culture and history wars.
The rhetorical device used by Keating in using personal empathy for the actions of his own ancestors and of those on whose part he spoke, gave rise to the complaint contemporary Australians could and should not be held responsible for what happened in the past.
While electorally useful to Keating’s political opponents in the emerging cultural war, this complaint ignored the plain words later in the speech: “Down the years, there has been no shortage of guilt, but it has not produced the responses we need. Guilt is not a very constructive emotion. I think what we need to do is open our hearts a bit. All of us."
The profundity of Keating’s subject and the directness with which he chose to confront it meant that it would not be taken lightly. This was strong medicine. While searching for its soul, he was probing the central nervous system of the nation. Of course there would be convulsions.
Keating gave the speech that Edmund Barton never did. That Alfred Deakin never did. That John Curtin and Ben Chifley never did. That all our prime ministers up to and including Robert Menzies and Gough Whitlam never did. That Malcolm Fraser and Bob Hawke never did.
It was not that Paul Keating made this speech out of some idiosyncratic motivation. It was that some prime minister at some point in Australia’s history had to give this speech. Keating’s genius was to recognise the time had long fallen due for it.
The nation needed these words. This is the sense in which the words of a speech are not just words: they are words that make (or diminish) a nation.
We little appreciate the extent to which Australia has changed these past 20 years. Indigenous people were present in the national policy concerns before then, but always at the margins.
Keating brought indigenous Australians and the challenge of reconciliation to the main table of national priorities.
His recognition that the opportunity provided to the nation by the High Court’s Mabo decision, to make land justice the cornerstone of a new relationship was correct and Keating seized it with great alacrity.
The following year he staunchly defended native title against even his own party, and set up the Indigenous Land Fund to buy land for those groups who were dispossessed of their traditional lands.
Keating made it possible for Australians to imagine a reconciled nation. If the word “reconciliation” is so tired to Australian ears, we need only look the conflict in the Middle East to hear the word afresh in its true imperative meaning. Reconciliation is not just a launch, it’s a journey to a real destination.