My country? Images flicker before me.
It is 1943 and we are ‘in the bush’ at our favourite spot on the Yarra River, Veronica and me. We are clinging to a branch close to the water, and jumping in. Our mother says ‘Smell the gum leaves. Look at it all, so beautiful’. She will gather gum tips to put in a vase with the Iceland Poppies.
Learning ‘elocution’ I recite My Country, by Dorothea McKellar. ‘I love a sunburnt country, a land of sweeping plains … of droughts and flooding rains.’ There is no doubt in my young voice about ‘my’ country.
I am in Grade Six, a ‘big girl’ now. I can recite reams of bush poetry: Pioneers by Frank Hudson. ‘We cleared the track and we fought the black, we are the pioneers’.
At Melbourne Teachers College I choose art as an elective. I am fascinated with the paintings of the Australian Impressionists. Purple Noon’s Transparent Might. Down on His Luck. I carry my easel to bush and to beach and paint with oils. I revere what I see. This is the singular light and colour of my country.
It is May 1967. I am 21. I choose to vote ‘Yes’ in the Referendum. I think it is a matter of common decency, Aboriginal people should be counted as part our population. 90.77% of Australians think the same. It is ‘Yes.’
I meet Anne Marie Bryant as she comes through customs exhausted; we are both social workers, she has come from the USA to deliver a keynote address at a large 1974 Convention. I have been invited to companion her. I had not expected media jostling for her attention as she arrives, but she is poised and obliging, making clear that she has come to talk about the topic of her paper, not about the colour of her skin. She is African American. From the back of the pack comes a question. ‘Do you know the black power salute?’ She smiles and raises her fist. The image and the headline ‘Black Power Nun Flies In’ has national and international circulation before Anne Marie wakes from her jetlagged sleep. In the morning, as we sit in a meeting room that overlooks the Fitzroy Gardens, a group of Aboriginal protesters gather outside. They carry banners and shout for Anne Marie to come down to them. She excuses herself from the meeting and asks me to come down with her. The growing crowd is hostile to my presence. She says, ‘Joan is my friend’, sits on the grass and hears the stories. Gradually we are all weeping. Eventually Anne Marie says, ‘The anger is the surface. It is propelled by deep suffering which must be heard’. I am learning.
In 1996 Joan Hamilton and I are invited to live in Regent Street West Preston to be a Josephite community like no other. Regent Street is my base, I still go regularly for six-week bouts of work with Krom Akphiwat Phum in Cambodia. For many years Joan Hamilton has shared the lives of Aboriginal people in Redfern and Wilcannia. The back seat of a car would be enough of a dwelling for Joan. I expect nothing predictable in sharing the house with her. My expectations are correct.
Joan seems to be known from to the tip of Cape York to Australia’s southernmost parts. She is fondly called Joan-the-Bone by those who come to the city for their own reasons, or because there is a relative in a Melbourne hospital, or simply to be with Joan-the-Bone. Those who know her are too many to be numbered.
I arrive back from the airport, see a car parked on our front grass, turn my key in the front door and am welcomed by a friendly group Aboriginal people who invite me to share food around our table. They don’t know where Joan-the-Bone is. They know they are welcome, so have let themselves in by taking the louvers off the small window in the toilet. They pull up a chair for me and we yarn around the table until late. They have brought take-away but know they can help themselves to anything in the fridge or cupboards. They will stay for a while. I am learning step by step.
In early 1997 Bringing Them Home, the lengthy research on forcible removal of Aboriginal children from their families, is concluded. It is heavy with stories of lament and never-expunged suffering. Mick Dodson is the co-author; Joan knows him of course. We sit with Mick, a small group of friends in an upstairs office. This promising young Aboriginal lawyer, his mammoth work just concluded, is bowed down and silent. His head is in his hands. Those stories weigh him down. These tragic revelations are entering my bones too.
We are together, Joan and I, at the 1997 Reconciliation Conference chaired by Patrick Dodson. I am in awe at the way Patrick holds together the packed crowd, mostly Aboriginal, in Melbourne’s Convention Centre. He knows that his First Nations audience seated in the tiers of seats above the stage respects him. He announces that the Prime Minister, Mr. Howard, is about to arrive. ‘Show him the same respect that you show to me’, he pleads. The Prime Minister launches the Conference but ‘loses it’ by thumping the lectern and proclaiming, ‘I will not say sorry’. I think Joan is the first to stand and turn her back. Instantly, as if choreographed, the vast crowd is standing and turning. I stay seated, trying to catch Patrick’s eye as he sits immobile on the brightly lit stage. I am stolidly following rules while a spontaneous, peaceful protest is taking place all around me. There is no shouted abuse, no whistling, no fist raising. Just silence. I obviously still have a lot to learn.
In 1998 I am in Sydney with Joan-the-Bone to meet Mum Shirl who is now close to death. Mum Shirl is delighted to see Bone. They are remembering together. ‘I had an eye on you Joan t’ Bone when you first came to Redfern’, says Mum Shirl. Joan replies gratefully, ‘You had to break me to pieces then you lovingly put me together again’. They are laughing about the times when Mum Shirl would say, ‘Put on your veil Joan t’ Bone. We are going to the prisons’. These two women remember the times they would manage to ‘hop off’ a country train before it quite reached the station. They were short of money but not of daring. When the prison officers questioned Mum Shirl about her relationship to the prisoners, she’d reply, “I’m their mum!’ Mum Shirl has a reputation for comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable.
Joan and I are out under the cloudless sky of Mutthi Mutthi land, at Lake Mungo. It is 1999. We have talked with Nana Kelly Muthi-Muthi Eder; now we sleep beneath the stars in this sacred place. We are organising three ‘week-long’ retreats camping in the desert lands of Lake Mungo with Nana Kelly as guide. Josephites from across Australia attend and camp and pray in the desert. This is beginning to give me a glimpse of the ‘spirit history’ of this land.
Fast forward 23 years. There have been many, many other encounters; I continue to learn.
Now I have watched our Prime Minister, out there in the outback for the Gama Festival, in his brown shirt and brown hat, an ordinary kind of bloke, speaking of something I could hardly dare to hope for, speaking better than I thought him capable.
To the crowd in front of him, mainly First Nations Peoples, he said, ‘The Uluru Statement is a hand outstretched, a moving show of faith in Australian decency and Australian fairness from people who have been given every reason to forsake their hope in both’. He reached out humbly towards the gathered crowds saying, ‘Humility because – so many times – the gap between the words and deeds of governments has been as wide as this great continent’.
He gathered everyone in. Our Prime Minister acknowledged the torment of powerlessness, asking himself the basic question, ‘How would I feel, if this were done to me?’
On this clear hot day, standing on the red earth, he reached for his water bottle and brushed away a fly. ‘States and territories are embarked on agreement-making, truth-telling, and the work of treaty’ he said. He spoke of Voice to Parliament.
The listeners were totally attentive. As he approached the end of his long speech he said with great earnestness, ‘I am optimistic that this historic decision, this long-overdue embrace of truth and justice and decency and respect for First Nations people will be voted into law by the people of Australia … My optimism for the success of this referendum derives from my optimistic view of the Australian character’.
‘Yes’ I thought. ‘If only we can all have the precious chance to listen to our First Peoples with our hearts’.
Charles Perkins, born a year after my birth, known especially for the freedom rides of the 1950s and his life of advocacy and leadership wrote:
‘My expectation of a good Australia is when white people … realise that Aboriginal culture and all that goes with it, philosophy, art, language, kinship, is all part of their heritage … White people can inherit 40,000 or 60,000 years of culture, and all they have to do is reach out and ‘ask for it’.
Charles died in 2000 before we dared to hope for the chance to accept such a gift. I have already long outlived him but can hope that before I die, I may be able to say, ‘our country’.