Being involved with Australian culture means being
involved in one way or another with First Nations arts, culture and
languages – it’s such a central and dynamic part of the cultural
landscape. First Nations culture has significance for First Nations
communities, but it also has powerful implications for Australian
culture generally. NAIDOC Week is a central and continuing part of that cultural
This year NAIDOC week coincides with the first week of DESIGN Canberra, so two of my major interests come together at the same time. NAIDOC Week is an annual series of events that celebrates the history, culture and achievements of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. The name originally derives from the National Aborigines Day Observance Committee that organised the earliest celebrations, with ‘Islander’ added in the early 1990s to encompass Torres Strait Islanders. The NAIDOC theme this year is ‘Always Was, Always Will Be’, to recognise that First Nations people have occupied and cared for this continent for over 65,000 years.
Today is the focus of many overlapping anniversaries – NAIDOC Week, DESIGN Canberra and the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month. It was a time when humanity stood at the eleventh hour, a moment that recognises a bright but vain hope at the end of World War I that the world might have seen the war to end all wars. It is especially significant in NAIDOC Week because so many First Nations volunteers joined the armed forces. It's a good moment to look back and take stock of where Australia has managed to come in its relatively short history as a global nation and to think forward to what we might be able to become.
Musician and songwriter, Jessie Lloyd, lights up the room with Mission Songs, at the National Folk Festival in 2017.
All of us immigrants, both new and older arrivals, and their descendants are still only part way through making our home here. We haven’t yet figured out how to navigate this land properly. When I was at school we learned about so many doomed explorers misinterpreting the country, unable to find their way. Burke and Wills were the perfect example, undone because they were incapable of learning simple lessons offered by the local people on how to make edible the vast supplies of food surrounding them. They starved to death in a field of plenty. Is this our future, too?
What is striking is how much valuable traditional knowledge had been passed on, from as far back as the 19th century, to those interested in listening. Will we also be determined to ignore offers of expertise about how to live on this continent as we try to absorb knowledge which could save us? Or won’t we know how to do so successfully because we don’t really know how to learn new things, no matter how old they might be?
Birth of the Aboriginal flag
First Nations culture also has a personal significance for me because I have had some involvement since my much younger days as a student. I still remember the Aboriginal Tent Embassy set up in North Adelaide when the main Tent Embassy was originally established in Canberra.
Many years later, by a strange
twist of fate, I found myself managing Australian Government programs
that supported First Nations communities to maintain their culture and
languages, after many decades of neglect and active suppression by
Government. I had been involved with community arts in South Australia,
including working as Community Arts Officer at Noarlunga Council South
of Adelaide for several years. Coming to the Indigenous cultural
programs reminded me of the spirit of those tremendous years.
In the DESIGN Canberra program this year there are a string of First Nations artists. These include Jennifer Kemarre Martiniello, Krystal Hurst, James Tylor, Samantha Rich, Kayannie Denigan, Jenna Lee, Eunice Napanangka Jack, Mavis Nampitjinpa Marks, Keturah Zimran, Daniel Boyd, Samuel Radoll, Beverly Smith, Sophi Suttor, Rozlyn de Bussey, Mackenzie Saddler, Paul House and Ikuntji Artists. I expect this presence will grow even stronger in future years.
Over the last ten years, amongst my main body of some 166 articles I have published a range of articles about the importance of aspects of First Nations culture for Australia. Here I’ve listed 17 articles that touch on aspects of First Nations culture and give some sense of the breadth and importance of the area for Australians generally.
‘What interests me in exhibitions about Aboriginal Australia is what they mean for Australians generally, even if most Australians won’t ever see them. After a mere 220 years, in many ways we are still only part way through making our home here. We haven’t yet figured out how to navigate this land properly. When I was at school we learned about so many doomed explorers misinterpreting the country, unable to find their way. Burke and Wills were the perfect examples, undone because they were unable to learn simple lessons offered by the local people on how to make edible the vast supplies of food surrounding them. They starved to death in a field of plenty. It made me realise that we can gain a much richer grasp of Australia through recognising that First Nations culture and heritage is part and parcel of our own Australian heritage’, Songlines – an ancient culture for a contemporary world.
History all around us – the long term practical impact of cultural research 14 Jun 2017
‘Cultural research has long term impacts in terms of our developing body of knowledge which stretch far into the future. Researchers are finding stories in our major cultural collections that were never envisaged by those originally assembling them – a process that will continue long into the future. The collections of our major cultural institutions are becoming increasingly accessible to the very people the collections are drawn from and reflect. In the process they are generating greater understanding about some of the major contemporary issues we face’, History all around us – the long term practical impact of cultural research.
The language of success – recognising a great unsung community movement 1 Mar 2016
‘What is especially significant about the Prime Minister, in his Closing the Gap address, recognising the importance of Indigenous languages is that this is the first time a Liberal leader has expressed such views. It’s exciting because for progress to be made it is essential that there is a jointly agreed position. This moment arises from the tireless work over many decades of hundreds of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander language revivalists – surely one of the great positive unsung community movements in Australian history. By their hard work they have managed to change the profile of Indigenous languages in Australia. Unfortunately the address reinforced the tendency of government to overlook the success stories that are already happening in local communities and look for big institutional solutions. I hope it doesn’t turn out to be a missed opportunity’, The language of success – recognising a great unsung community movement.
Unfinished histories – encountering ‘Encounters’ 29 Mar 2016
‘A single exhibition can sum up many things. By bringing together so many histories, stories and objects – particularly long-absent ones from the British Museum – the 'Encounters' exhibition at the National Museum presented a snapshot of the ongoing living history of Australia. Many strands ran through it, reflecting the complexity of the realities it tried to express. By successfully reflecting on the pressing issues it raised we have some hope of getting beyond the vision of the Great South Land of 18th and 19th Century ambition towards a truly great nation of the 21st Century’, Unfinished histories – encountering ‘Encounters’.
Literature and languages – inaugural Indigenous literary festival sign of things to come 20 Feb 2016
‘The inaugural Victorian Indigenous literary festival Blak & Bright in February 2016 was a a very important event for Australian cultural life. It aimed to promote and celebrate a diversity of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander voices. It raised important questions about how the movement to revive and maintain Indigenous languages – surely one of the great positive unsung community movements in Australian history – is related to ‘Australian literature’. Australian culture as a whole is also inconceivable without the central role of Indigenous culture – how would Australian literature look seen in the same light?’, Literature and languages – inaugural Indigenous literary festival sign of things to come.
When universes collide – ‘Encounters’ exhibition at National Museum of Australia 11 Dec 2015
‘The Encounters exhibition at the National Museum of Australia, a once in a lifetime event, makes you realise that astoundingly all this earth-shattering history happened only a few generations ago, so much so that descendants of the Gweagal, those first people Cook encountered, still talk about that encounter in 1770 as though it was yesterday. Despite the continuing concerns about the vast holdings of mostly looted cultural artefacts, the return of these objects, however briefly, will serve to emphasise how recently the British came to Australia, how much more we need to do to be fully at home in this country and how much part of a living, contemporary tradition Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures are’, When universes collide – Encounters exhibition at National Museum of Australia.
Land of hope 13 Aug 2015
‘There were times in our past when Australia was seen as the great hope of the world – when it offered a vision of a new democratic life free from the failures of the past and the old world. It seems we have turned from our history, from the bright vision of the nineteenth century and the great nation-building vision of the period after World War 2, with its sense of optimism and fairness, towards something much more pinched and narrow – mean and weak-willed. For such an optimistic nation we seem to have developed a ‘half empty’ rather than ‘half full’ view of the glass – and the world. If we want to live in a land to be proud of, a fair country that truly inherits the best of Australia’s traditions, while consciously abandoning the less desirable ones, we need to change course – otherwise we will have to rebadge Australia not as the land of hope but instead as the land without hope’, Land of hope.
A navigator on a Lancaster bomber 5 Jun 2015
‘Sometimes I think Australia has lost its way. It’s like a ship that has sailed into the vast Pacific Ocean in search of gaudy treasure, glimpsed the beckoning coast of Asia and then lost its bearings, all its charts blown overboard in squalls and tempests. It seems to have turned from the great nation-building vision of the period after World War 2, with its sense of optimism and fairness, towards something much more pinched and narrow. It’s time to rediscover the Australian dream. We need a navigator – or perhaps many, one in every community – who can help us find our way, encourage us as we navigate from greed and complacency to a calmer shining ocean of generosity and optimism’, A navigator on a Lancaster bomber.
Valuing the intangible 11 May 2015
‘We are surrounded by intangible cultural heritage – Indigenous and non-Indigenous – and often it’s incredibly important to us but we can’t seem to understand why or put a name to its importance. So many issues of paramount importance to Australia and its future are linked to the broad cultural agenda of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO). In particular they are central to one of UNESCO’s key treaties, the International Convention for the Safeguarding of Intangible Cultural Heritage,’ Valuing the intangible.
The Magna Carta – still a work in progress 4 May 2015
‘You don’t have to be part of ‘Indigenous affairs’ in Australia to find yourself involved. You can’t even begin to think of being part of support for Australian arts and culture without encountering and interacting with Indigenous culture and the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities and individuals who make it and live it.’ The Magna Carta – still a work in progress.
‘If you are convinced you have heard all of Australia’s great stories, think again. If you consider you know something about Indigenous Australia you probably need to start from scratch. Black Diggers, “the untold story of WW1’s black diggers remembered” is a great Australian story. Why over a thousand Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians left their communities in remote Australia or our regional cities or the big state capitals to travel overseas to fight and die in the European trenches far from home is part of a larger Australian story. Why they would bother when they were not even recognised as Australian citizens in their own land is a story all their own – but a story relevant to every Australian’, Black diggers - telling war stories.
‘The Indigenous cultural programs of the Australian Government play a critical role in support for both Indigenous communities and for a diverse and dynamic Australian culture – what is happening to them?’ Death by a thousand cuts – what is happening to the Indigenous culture programs of the Australian Government?
Real jobs in an unreal world 16 Apr 2014
'Subsidised Indigenous arts and cultural jobs are real jobs with career paths that deliver genuine skills and employment capability.' Real jobs in an unreal world.
Like a long-lost masterpiece 26 Mar 2011
‘Many decades ago when I was much younger and a student I used to march in National Aboriginal Day Observance Committee marches. They were shorthanded to NADOC marches, back in the days when Islanders hadn’t yet been included and there was no ‘I’ in the name. I realised a while back that I must have been marching under the new Aboriginal flag at its birth. I had a poster from those years which I used to cart around with me from city to city until one day when I was about to move yet again I decided to donate it to the National Library of Australia’, Like a long-lost masterpiece.