To those who ask me (and I am asked, with astounding frequency) what’is the point of travelling and exposing my children to different cultures and people at such a young age? Let me tell you a little story.
The Eats Worlds and a giant plastic pineapple named Johnny (don’t ask) are visiting the National Capital, dodging the knives and bitchiness being flung in all directions by our esteemed politicians (taking particular caution given that I’m a red-haired female). We’ve come to see a little art, do a spot of museum hopping and, of course, eat! I mean, this is us we’re talking about. But on this day, instead of our bellies we’re filling our hearts and minds with a little history and a whole lotta love for our fellow man.
After a morning of robot-loving, earthquake-simulating, free-fall sliding sciencey fun at Canberra’s awesome Questacon, we walk the shortish distance to Old Parliament House so we can stop to smell the roses in the gardens and suck in a little fresh air (and by fresh I mean we have frost forming on our runny noses).
But that plan is quickly scuppered once Sugarpuff spots some ducklings in a pond and Raffles’ curiosity is aroused by a bunch of tents on the lawn.
“What’s that, mama?”
That is the heritage-listed Aboriginal Tent Embassy erected in 1971 to symbolise and peacefully protest the land rights struggle of Indigenous Australians.
“What’s Indigenous, Mama?”
“What are land rights?”
“What’s a protest?”
Is this a freakin’ test? The questions are coming as thick and fast as only a five-year old or a Spanish Inquisitor can throw them. So I find myself wiping away snot icicles whilst explaining in the simplest of terms – Raffles is far too young to drink mummy’s tree-hugging, bleeding-heart hippy kool-aid – that the Tent Embassy represents the pride and political rights of Indigenous Australians who have, historically, been treated without the respect afforded to others.
The kids frolic between the protest signs (just quietly, there’s something a little disturbing a about watching your kids circling a drum marked toxic waste) but Raffles is interested and empathetic and wants to know more and I kick myself for not having paid more attention during history at school.
So for my son and those readers not au fait with Australia’s indigenous history, here’s my sixty second idiot’s guide (I’m the idiot).
Aboriginal people have occupied this country for more than 40,000 years. Captain Cook arrived in 1770, so you could say they were here first… but only by 39,757 years, give or take a millenia. However, as the natives didn’t farm or build giant disease-ridden towns and cities on the land, The Cookster decided that the country was “unoccupied” and promptly declared it the property of England. As you do.
Of the Aboriginal people, The Cookster wrote that “these people may truly be said to be in the pure state of nature, and may appear to some to be the most wretched upon the earth; but in reality they are far happier than we Europeans”. So 18 years later England sent 11 ships full of convicts to make sure they were miserable too.
The arrival of the First Fleet altered the life of Indigenous Australians forever. Not only did the new settlers bring guns, which they used to full effect, but an arsenal of British diseases that the Indigenous population had never before been exposed to. Take small pox for example, a sociable little germ that wiped out about 70% of Sydney’s Aboriginal population. Conflicts between the early settlers and Aborigines, other introduced diseases and alcohol reduced the population further.
Those lucky winners of the Small Pox lottery got to sit by and watch as their land was over-run and their heritage and cultural identity stripped away. And by sit by, I mean persecuted or enslaved. This, despite a Royal instruction that “Aboriginal people were legally subjects of the King and protected by law”.
As our cities grew, the new settlers forgot to put the “civil” into civilisation and banned Indigenous Australians from using Aboriginal names or continue their traditional customs. Segregation was widespread and some had their children forcibly removed and placed into missions. Those who attempted to assimilate into white society were shunned and forced to live in poverty and unemployment. Even as late as the 1960’s the Aborigines were denied the right to vote or even be counted as existing in the national census.
I’m ashamed to admit that some of these new settlers were my relatives, my own ancestors having arrived on convict ships. Bastards!
Today, though things have improved greatly and they now have the same access to health care as the rest of the population, Indigenous people have the worst health status and highest mortality rates in this country. And though statistically there have been improvements to education, Indigenous people still have the lowest attendance and continuance of education which, combined with the racist social attitudes of certain members of society, leads to high unemployment in the Indigenous population.
Now call me crazy but I think that sucks. Hard.
While steps have been made to create better relationships between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people to help break the cycle of disadvantage, there’s still a long way to go. But enough of my ranty-pantedness and back to the Tent Embassy.
I am doing my best to answer Raffles questions in an age-appropriate way when an Indigenous gentleman catches our eye and waves us over, inviting us to stand by the warmth of a log fire in one of the communal tents. He introduces himself to us by his traditional name which, out of respect, I will not reproduce here. You see, I was so entranced by what happened next that I totally forgot that I was a writer and didn’t even think to ask him permission to use his name or the pictures we took of him and Raffles over the next hour. Ergo, I shall refer to him here only as The Dude.
The Dude asks Raffles if he has any questions. Big mistake! Off my little inquisitor goes but this kindly gentleman loves it, answering his every query with patience and grace, leaving politics and negativity entirely out of the conversation. Irrespective of a five decade age difference, the two of them click and are soon chatting like old mates.
Raffles new pal invites us on a tour and explains the meaning behind the Aboriginal Flag to my little man in a way that’s easy for him to remember. The black represents the Aboriginal people, the red the earth and a spiritual connection to the land and the yellow the sun, giver of life and protector.
The Dude leads him to the site’s Sacred Fire, first lit more than 40 years ago, and shares a message of equality and respect which I hope my son will carry with him forever.
An hour after we first wandered by this beautiful soul reaches out and takes my son’s hand in his and tells him it was an honour to meet him. Pointing towards Parliament House he tells my wide-eyed baby that he hopes one day that he’ll get the top job there because a boy like him could make a big difference. And with the words, “love you forever, my brother”, he shares a special handshake and bids us farewell. While I quietly blub.
When we wake the following morning and ask our son what he’d like to do today (and there’s the temptation of a shiny x-box in our hotel room and a surplus of kid-friendly fun on our doorstep), Raffles asks if he can go back and visit his pal at the embassy.
Instead I suggest he takes what he’s learned back to school for news to help raise awareness and knowledge of Aboriginal history and culture and assist in changing attitudes built on prejudice. And so, his teacher tells me, he does. Beautifully.
And that folks, though it took me a while to get here, is the point!