Wednesday, October 03, 2007

Understanding Australia

'Speaking from the heart' is one of the books I brought back from Australia; it was one of the very few books of writing (or is it speaking) by native Australians, also known as 'Aaaabos' to Sir Les Patterson. (For those not in the know, the latter is not a nice way of speaking about the native Australian population).

It's a collection of stories describing their lives, by various members of the different communities. There are many different communities and they cannot be treated as the same; they have different languages and different cultural understandings of things. The stories are often fairly horrific, particularly in terms of the White Australia policy of the first half of the 20th century, when the Native Welfare Board was trying to breed out blackness - the board had to approve every marriage involving native Australians, and woe betide them if someone wanted to marry a blacker person (though by definition often one of the parties of the marriage would be blacker). A chap called Mr Neville, the head of the Native Welfare Board, was particularly feared and loathed. Children would be taken from the families and put into missions, often orphanages where they would be brought up in institutional life and encouraged to forget everything about their birth families. There also seems to be a concept of mission which seems to be a very large area of land, managed by some church folk, where native Australians of all ages would live. Although native Australians were able to join the army, they were not always able to participate in the lives of the other soldiers, for example when they would go out and the 'blackfellas' would not be served alcohol.

The spirituality of the native Australians comes through very strongly, as does their connectedness to the land (especially through the 'taproot' which we gardeners know is the strongest kind of root, though here the meaning is conceptual) and its nature, and their very strong sense of family, which does not only include those connected by blood. Hence it's even more atrocious to have the children removed. Interestingly one of the narrators talks about the British children who were in the orphanages at the same time (for a while the UK exported its post-war orphans to Australia and Canada).

Now, having been in Oz just at the time of the child abuse scandal, what surprised me most of all was the talk in the book of families living in four-bedroomed houses, having highly polished floors etc (though not all of them in the book). All the media images at the time (June this year) of native Australians showed rag-tag people sitting near nothing more than benders suggesting that these are their homes. Native Australians were almost invisible, and the few I saw in Adelaide, apart from one smart schoolboy, were always very much at the margin of things. This representation is totally different from that in the book, where most narrators are community leaders and some are academics. Many of them have non-native Australian ancestors, eg white Australians, English or Asians, and perhaps that gave their families a different experience to draw upon and a different outlook. In some way I would have liked to hear more about the downtrodden members of the community and their experiences of life - this is perhaps my greatest criticism of the book. Incidentally you wonder how much the alleged difficulties in childrearing is due to the institutional upbringing of so many native Australians.

Interestingly, at our viola congress reception in Adelaide Town Hall, there were a character whose namebadge said 'Uncle.....'. I asked him what it meant but just at that time the speeches started. 'Uncle...' seems to be the title of an elder of the community. He bade us welcome in another language which we did not understand. He was also white as the driven snow. So the White Australia policy has worked?