To those who ask me (and I am asked, with astounding frequency) what the point of travelling and exposing my children to different cultures and people at such a young age is? Let me tell you a little story.
The EatsWorlds 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 (I’m taking particular caution on this mission, given I’m a red-haired female).
We’re visiting kid-friendly Canberra, or Ngunnawal country, to see a little, do a spot of museum hopping and, of course, eat. But on this chilly winter day, instead of our filling bellies we’re filling our hearts and minds with a little history and a whole lotta love for Australia’s Traditional Custodians.
After a morning of earthquake-simulating, free-fall sliding scientific fun at Questacon, we walk the shortish distance to Old Parliament House. Our plan is to stop and smell the roses in the gardens and breathe in a little fresh air (and by fresh I mean we have frost forming on our runny noses). But that plan is scuppered once Sugarpuff spots some ducklings in a pond and five-year-old 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 shoot them. So I find myself wiping away the snot icicles and explaining in the simplest of terms (Raffles being too young for an undiluted dose of mummy’s “tree-hugging, bleeding-heart, hippy” exhortations) that the Aboriginal Tent Embassy represents the pride and political rights of Indigenous Australians who have been historically marginalised and still experience massive inequality and disadvantages in education, health and life-expectancy. A conversation that still isn’t all that five-year old friendly.
Taking in what I’ve said, he momentarily wanders of with Sugarpuff to 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 an interested Raffles soon returns, demanding to know more. It as this point I rue the education system’s whitewashing of Australian history. So much so, I’m feel distinctly unqualified to answer his questions. And tell him so.
For those readers not au fait with Australia’s indigenous history, here’s the two-minute idiot’s guide (I’m the idiot) that I share with him as we sit in the cold on the lawn opposite Old Parliament House.
Aboriginal peoples have occupied this country for more than 60,000 years, making them the oldest continuing cultures in human history. Captain Cook rocked up in 1770, so it’s fairly safe to suggest that they were here first… but only by 59,757 years, give or take a millennia. However, as the natives didn’t farm or build disease-ridden towns and cities on the land, Captain Cook decided that the country was “unoccupied” and promptly declared it the property of England. As you do.
Of the Aboriginal people, Cook 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 ensure they were miserable too.
The arrival of the First Fleet altered the life and traditions of Indigenous Australians in the most brutal way. Not only did the new settlers (predominantly convicts) bring guns, which they used to full effect, but an arsenal of diseases that the Indigenous population had never before been exposed to. Take small pox for example, a sociable little germ that quickly wiped out about 70% of Sydney’s Indigenous population.
Conflicts between the early settlers and Aboriginals, other introduced diseases and the introduction of alcohol reduced the population further. The small minority that survived 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 actually mean persecuted or enslaved. This, despite a Royal instruction that “Aboriginal people were legally subjects of the King and protected by law”.
I’m ashamed to admit that some of these new settlers were my relatives, my ancestors having arrived on convict ships. And for their actions I apologise.
As Australian cities grew, the new settlers forgot to put the “civil” into civilisation and banned First Nations People from using their traditional names or continue traditional customs. Segregation was widespread and children, known as The Stolen Generation, were 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, Indigenous Australians were denied the right to vote or even be counted as existing in the national census.
Inn 2013, though things have improved and First Nations People have the right to vote, better access to education and the same right to free or low-cost health care as the rest of the population, they have the worst health status and suffer the 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.
Steps have been made to create better relationships between Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and non indigenous Australians to help break the cycle of degradation and disadvantage. In 2008, the Australian Government even offered a formal apology on behalf of the successive parliaments and governments whose policies and laws “inflicted profound grief, suffering and loss on these our fellow Australians”. But there’s still a very long way to go.
But enough of my ranty-pantedness and back to the Aboriginal Tent Embassy.
I am doing my best to answer Raffles questions in an age-appropriate way, when a 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 of the Embassy.
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 over the next hour it didn’t even occur to me to ask this gentleman permission to use his name or the pictures we took of he and Raffles together. Ergo, out of respect for his anonymity, I shall refer to him here only as The Dude.
The Dude asks Raffles if he has any questions. Big mistake. My little inquisitor lets fly! This kindly man happily fields every question, answering his every query with patience and grace. He is the one qualified to answer these questions. He has lived these experiences.
Irrespective of a five decade age difference, the two of them click and are soon chatting like old mates. Raffles new BFF invites us on a tour of the Tent Embassy and explains the meaning behind the Aboriginal Flag to my little man in a way that’s easy for a five-year old 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 (keeping in mind there’s the temptation of a shiny Xbox in our hotel room and a surplus of kid-friendly fun on our doorstep), Raffles asks if he can go back and visit his friend at the embassy.
Instead I suggest he be thankful for The Dude’s time and stories and the lovely connection he made. And that he take 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 very long time to get here, is the point!
What is the point of travelling and exposing my children to different cultures and people at such a young age? This.