Polly's pages (aka 'Donna Williams')

Ever the arty Autie

The First Australians


Here by Donna Williams  I was born in the 1960s, before the abolition of the White Australia Policy.  It was a shameful time of Anglo-Australians presuming themselves the First, the Real, Australians.  Sure, there were Italians, Greeks, Slavs and Chinese, many of whom had escaped poverty to come to Australia.  There were Lebanese escaping war, and Jews who’d escaped the Nazi’s.  And joining them, the Koreans, the Vietnamese.  But they were considered the New Australians, not Real Australians.  And Indigenous Australians?  Well, I rarely heard them referred to as the First Australians, the Real Australians.  They were The Aborigines, as though this meant they were somehow not culturally ‘Australians’ at all.  What did that mean?  Why did people think like that?  Did they think that if people didn’t ASPIRE to the same Anglo-Australian culture of ‘Australians’ then they were somehow outside of the concept?  Did they think that if our leaders carried themselves with Church-loving righteousness and Anglo reserve that this was a model of Real Australia?

And schools didn’t help.  The 60s were a time of singing God Save The Queen.  Every school principal had a picture over his door of some fairy like chick with a curly haired do in a sparkly tiara and gentle lemon crinoline propped posing on a velvet throne.  The Queen.  What, queen of what?  Of the fairies?  We didn’t know and nobody really explained it.  But one thing’s for sure, our primary and secondary schools right up into the 90s taught about brave Captain Cook and his ‘discovery’ of Australia, about the peaceful settlement of the First Australians (these were purported to be the whites, about how convicts were sent for punishment by a just white legal system.  That Australia was ‘settled’ by brave pioneers.

I have an Indigenous aunty and cousins on my father’s side.  Her great grandmother was one of the women left to the ‘charity’ of white men after the destruction of her clan, the degradation of her culture, the deaths of her people.   This charity involved removal from her people into white ‘care’ and on to servitude as a ‘respectable citizen’.  Likely never given the same respect as any white wife, this woman bore many children to her white fella, and generations on, her race, her culture, were but a hushed whisper in a world where Indigenous women who could ‘pass for white’ were encouraged to keep mum about their Indigenous roots.

On the other side were several 3rd cousins.  They were the children of an Indigenous father born to my 2nd cousin and they lived in the bush, hardly coming to the city.   I remember them gathered playing with the cousins in an aunt’s suburban back garden once upon a time in the 70s.  They weren’t ‘Aboriginal’, they were just cousins.

By my teens, the first boy to ask me out was an Indigenous kid in Fitzroy.  I was 13.  He was polite, more so than me, a well adjusted personality, more than me, and from a more well adjusted family than my own.  We went and saw Star Wars.   Afraid of closeness, I wouldn’t go out again, but the movie was OK.

As an adult I returned to education in the early 80s and learned about the real Australian history.  It was controversial stuff, daring to demonstrate a white washing of Australian history, a history as dark as the American’s treatment of their own Indigenous population, a history as insidious as Apartheid, as supremist as the Nazis and as ignorant and arrogant as the hunters and collectors responsible for the decimation of thousands of species across the globe.

And I thought this awareness would change everything.  But it changed nothing in the world at large.  I’d still hear bigotry and stereotypes and blame from the mouths of Anglo-Australians justifying their own separatism.  I’d still hear patronising ‘politically correct’ commentary which focused on ‘the Aboriginal problem’.

In 1991, I became a teacher and in my teaching practice observed the teaching of the curriculum, including history.  Surely, things would have changed.  At one school, a group of children were escorted out during the history lesson.  I asked why. “They’re Indigenous” was the answer, “they go and learn their own history”.  THEY?  THEIR HISTORY?  Was THEIR history not part of OUR HISTORY?  Were the non-indigenous Australians still sitting read for the history lesson not going to hear THEIR HISTORY?  No, they were not.   I remember my heart freezing as the teacher presented the same old white wash from the 1960s.  Good ol’ Captain Cook, a bit of convict labour, the brave adventurous pioneering first settlers, even the arrival of ‘new Australians’ from non-British Europe and Asia. And the Aboriginals?  Well they were illustrated as people who had befriended the settlers and after a few skirmishes integrated into Australian society.  Really?

No mention of poisoned water holes.  No bounty for shooting on sight every Indigenous man, woman, child in Tasmania a settler could find.  No mention of starvation, rapes, lynchings, enslavement, sexploitation, removal, destruction of lands and culture.  No mention of pushing Indigenous people further and further into wastelands and sectioning them off from ‘society’ for ‘their own good’.  No mention of selling their skeletons and sacred artifacts as curios and profit.  No mention of wiping out vast numbers through introduced disease and the destruction of culture through forced assimilation.  No mention of re-writing their history and making them voiceless, of denying them the vote until the 1960s, of dual payment systems; one white, one black, of destroying souls and communities then ignoring generations of abuse in their impoverished communities.

At my next school, I was expected to demonstrate a history lesson.  When I realised I was expected to continue the propaganda, I pleaded please to be able to teach it in a way which would not sell my soul.  My supervising teacher commiserated with me, but I was told that I had to teach it as is of fail my assessment and I’d not become a teacher.  How many aspiring Indigenous teachers dropped out right there, unable to stomach this perpetuation of white washed history?  I decided never to become a classroom teacher.  I have never had to teach that or any curriculum.  I used my teaching ability to inform my consulting work in making classrooms more diversity friendly.

But Indigenous history did make it’s way into our classrooms.  Not that of our schools, but through our TV sets.   SBS TV Australia aired the cutting edge series, THE FIRST AUSTRALIANS.  And millions heard them speak for themselves.

Donna Williams *)

author, artist, singer-songwriter, screenwriter