To be honest, I haven’t always been an advocate for reconciliation. When the Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation (CAR) was set up in 1991, I was all of twenty-two years old and had a very simplistic view of it.
I thought it was bizarre to have a government appointed body established to essentially tell whitefellas to respect and be nice to Blackfellas. I told you my view was simplistic. I was also annoyed that, as an Aboriginal person, I was expected to participate in the process, because it was ‘Aboriginal reconciliation’ (that is, for us), while non-Aboriginal people could choose whether they participated or not.
I kept my distance from anything reconciliation related until 1997, when I was living on the Gold Coast and received an invitation from my friend Jackie Huggins – a member of the CAR for six years – asking me to attend a women’s reconciliation dinner in Brisbane. I went because Jackie was and remains one of my dearest sisters. It was at that dinner, where 400 women were squeezed into a hall that officially held 250, that I had my epiphany. I was confronted by the reality that there was a whole grassroots movement of Australians wanting to live respectfully and peacefully alongside Aboriginal people, who were happy to be part of a process that made that possible.
At the dinner, I recall getting up on my chair to take a photo of all the non-Aboriginal women in the room standing and reading a pledge to bring others into the process. It was quite an extraordinary moment, although so too was the moment when one of the speakers suggested it was the perfect time to hug an Aboriginal woman if they hadn’t had the opportunity to do so before. For the record, I don’t want to be hugged just because I’m Aboriginal, okay?
Since then, I have spoken at many reconciliation meetings and have seen the success and sustainability of the Residents for Reconciliation movement. Indeed, I believe it is one of the most successful grassroots movements this country has seen. It has outlasted a Labor government, a Liberal government, and will no doubt outlive the current government.
I know this because Reconciliation Week 2011 took me to both Deniliquin and Wollongong in New South Wales, where I saw the strength of conviction the supporters of reconciliation had, and I was blown away by the warmth and generosity of spirit of all those who participated in the events I went to.
The reconciliation movement is an example of the importance of symbolic gestures. One of the most significant of these was Prime Minister Kevin Rudd’s Apology to the Stolen Generations on 13 February 2008, when he said ‘Sorry’ on behalf of the Australian government ‘for the laws and policies of successive parliaments and governments that have inflicted profound grief, suffering and loss on these our fellow Australians…We apologise especially for the removal of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children from their families, their communities and their country.’
But there are others acts that are also necessary to not only recognise and respect Aboriginal Australians, but also to build bridges between Black and white Australia. This includes acknowledging country at events, meetings, festivals and in Parliament. There are those who think otherwise, like the Premier of Victoria, Ted Baillieu, who was quoted in a statement from his office in May 2011 as saying, ‘Acknowledgement of Country is not mandated, never has been, and nor should it be. The Coalition Government believes that such acknowledgements may be diminished if they become tokenistic.’
Contrary to his thoughts on the matter, I was pleased that only days after this statement, on my visit to Melbourne to be part of the Long Walk and the Emerging Writers Festival, everyone I met supported maintaining the status quo on that front. It is not tokenistic to acknowledge country unless in your heart you don’t mean it – if the act means something to the individual, then without question it is of value. And it will always mean something to the traditional owners and caretakers of country where an event is happening. I was relieved at the 2011 New South Wales Premier’s Literary Awards that both the Premier and our new arts minister, George Souris, both sincerely and effortlessly paid respects to country.
Another important gesture is flying the Aboriginal flag at schools, council buildings and town halls. While I was disturbed that my visit to Deniliquin in 2011 revealed their local council had (with no logical explanation) voted against permanently flying the Aboriginal flag, I’m grateful that my own local council in Randwick and many other local councils do fly the flag full-time.
This symbolic gesture is a basic recognition that a government building stands on the traditional lands of a specific Aboriginal group. Quite simple, really. When I drive along the street in any town or suburb and I see the Aboriginal flag flying, I don’t say to myself, ‘Well done!’ Rather, I say, ‘About time.’
Dr Anita Heiss is the author of non-fiction, historical fiction, commercial women’s fiction, poetry, social commentary and travel articles. She is a regular guest at writers’ festivals and travels internationally performing her work and lecturing on Indigenous literature. She is an Indigenous Literacy Day Ambassador and a proud member of the Wiradjuri nation of central New South Wales.
This is an excerpt from Dr Anita Heiss’ latest book Am I Black Enough For You?