So, Australia Day 2017 presents with an expected peak maximum temperature of 35 °C. Typical. What’s new? Perhaps, an increased awareness of the heartache and anger of our Indigenous population and a willingness to engage in the conversation. Perhaps.
I don’t often participate in Australia Day celebrations – not due to any sensitivity I hold for our Indigenous Australians, hurt and damaged over the tragic history they’ve experienced since the arrival of the British Empire; no. It is more to do with my own laziness and it is always hot and I don’t enjoy the heat. Also, my idea of a ‘lucky’ day off is to ‘be’ and not ‘do’, ‘retreat from’ and not ’embrace’ people and to ‘disappear’ between the pages of a good book.
On this day, however, I choose to at least attend the Citizenship Ceremony; a dry event (I know from personal experience) but a chance to welcome, in solidarity, our newest ‘Australians’.
Our town celebrations are being held in a local park only a short walk from my home and despite the promised horrible peak temperature, I decide to walk instead of drive. I leave home dressed in a light long-sleeved ‘cheesecloth’ shirt, hat and sunnies and carrying a shady umbrella. ALL bare patches of skin have been lathered in both Factor 30 sunscreen and Mozzie Repellant. I smell chemically divine.
I arrive at a bustling park, with too many cars and too many people. The local brass band plays, competing with the sound of hundreds of chatting people, many screaming and laughing children and the background noise of food truck motors – as there are a number of vendors selling such things as egg and bacon burgers, lamb and gravy rolls, cold drinks and barista-style coffee.
In those first few moments, I stand apart glancing around and I notice a group of Indigenous Australians gathered in the part-shade/part-sun of a small stand of trees.
They are a mix of the old and young, well dressed and scruffy, quiet and rowdy; some sit, but most stand – holding up posters and waving the Aboriginal flag of black, yellow and red. Colours representing the ‘Aboriginal people of Australia, the Sun and the red earth, the red ochre used in ceremonies and Aboriginal peoples’ spiritual relation to the land’. (taken from Wikipedia)
They talk among themselves, occasionally someone shouts out – it is difficult to make out what they are saying – but their signs and posters say it all.
“Invasion Day 2017” “Forgotten people” “We were here first” “Justice Day” and “Change the Date” to name a few.
Nobody in this group of people is smiling.
For 10 minutes I stand hidden behind my shady tree, attention switching from this group of unhappy Australians – not a standard Australian flag among them – to the noisy and laughing crowd.
Sporting crazy hats, t-shirts and thongs; waving little hand-held Australian flags, holding their cold drinks in stubby holders with “We ♥ Australia” “Proud to be an Aussie” and “100% Aussie”. With their t-shirts covered in slogans such as “My ancesters were First Fleet” or “Proud to come from Convicts” and invariably their clobber and accessories either in the well-recognised Aussie Green and Gold colours or (more likely) emblazoned with the insignia of British Imperialism. The Australian flag with stars representing our Southern Cross, and the British’s ‘Union Jack’.
These people are having a great day!
This white conservative, middle-aged and ‘naturalised’ Australian woman (born in Ireland) strolls to the nearest drink vendor, joins the queue and then asks “How much for a bottle of water?”
“$2,” answers the vendor.
“I’ll take 20 bottles, thanks!”
“Sorry, how many?” asks the startled teenager.
“20 bottles of water, please,” I repeat.
“Okay, that’s $40. Thank you,” she says as I hand her two $20 notes. She then starts handing down to me, the cold bottles.
I haven’t thought this through clearly, I think. I don’t have a bag and I’m suddenly juggling 20 icy cold bottles and my umbrella. People nearby help to load me up and I smile gratefully.
A mass of black and buzzing flies have taken just this moment to harass me – targeting my face and head. Or were they already there, but now that my hands aren’t free to perform the laconic ( or is that ‘iconic’) ‘Aussie Salute’ and swat them away, they seem to have proliferated?
Sort of stagger-walking, I head toward that group of Aboriginals – one eye on the ground looking to avoid trip hazards and the other nervously eyeing off the people standing at the front of the group. I realise now, that they have begun to ‘eye off’ this crazy white woman, who seems to be zigzagging her way toward them.
I stop and say “Hello. Water?” and try to make eye contact with anybody, over the stack of bottled water.
Only those at the very front have heard me and they look at each other, shrugging their shoulders. Nobody makes eye contact with me. I’m wondering if that’s a cultural thing, when suddenly four or five kids streak forward and grab some bottles, running off with large ‘white’ grins on their faces and laughing loudly.
“Cheeky buggers,” I murmur.
“What the fuck do you want?” yells an aggressive-looking man, perhaps about 30 years old. He moves closer to my personal space, his whole body radiating anger.
A couple of the nicely dressed young women of about his age, glare at him in rebuke. One puts a hand on his arm.
“Easy, Jimmy,” she whispers. Then she steps forward, nods and smiles at me and takes a couple of bottles and starts passing them back into her group.
As the load in my arms quickly reduces, I see that the group appears to be relaxing. There are more smiles and occasionally someone will raise their water bottle towards me, before taking a sip.
“Thank you,” says the same girl who stepped in to calm Jimmy.
“You’re very welcome,” I say, smiling around at the group. “I’m new in this town. I’m from WA and we have Yamatji and Noongar around where I’m from. I’m sorry, I’m not educated in Indigenous culture; but, I do know that Ernie Dingo is Yamatji, from the Murchison mob,” I exclaim.
I’m sure I hear someone in the group mumbling something about that ‘white fella, Dingo.” So, I guess there’s discrimination and racism within the tribes too.
“I worked with a group of Aboriginals when I was a girl, at a convention. They were Nana …. Naana …,” I stumbled over the name, my memory letting me down.
“Ngaanyatjarra?” the girl asked, frowning and elbowing her friend, who was listening closely.
“That’s it, yeah,” I laughed. “Not a tribe, I think, but representing some of the tribes in Western Australia. I think.” Smiling at them, I then ask “What’s the name of your tribe, in this area?
“Wiradjuri,” a few of them call out together. I laugh again. Clearly, I have more of an audience now.
We stand together, looking around us and sipping cool water in a companionable silence.
Then I say, “It must be hard for you today, to be here and watching these people enjoy themselves; celebrating a history that denies you place and (for you) begins a time of genocide of your people. A lot of hurt.”
“Yes,” said the girl. Many nod their heads at this. “And we stand excluded even more today, because we also want to remind them of that displacement and damage and at this particular time, they don’t want to remember.”
I drain the last of my water and ask the girl, “What’s your name?”
“Bethany,” she answers.
“I’m Trish, Bethany. Nice to meet you,” and I hold my hands out to her. “Tell me,” I ask as we shake hands, enthusiastically. “In Wiradjuri, how do you say ‘friend’?”
Bethany looks surprised, but answers “Mudyi.”
“Mudyi,” I repeat.
“And, ‘welcome’?” I ask.
“Gawaaymbanha,” she responds, grinning.
“And I wonder, how do the Wiradjuri people say “peace”.”
Bethany’s expression sobers suddenly, as she replies “Gwandalan.”
I nod and say “Gwandalan, Bethany,” as I walk away from her people and towards the space set up for the Citizenship Ceremony.
*** *** ***
Note: This is a work of fiction. If I was a braver person, this could be a conversation I would have, but for now it only happens in my ‘scenario-planning’ imagination.
I use words from the Wiradjuri language hesitantly. I ‘google’ researched (again) and these were the closest descriptions for the words friend, welcome and peace that I could find. Hopefully, no offence caused. And if anyone does know the correct words, I’m happy to be told.