Getting ready for the Great North Walk

By Andrew Gills

Like many Australians of my generation, I am largely ignorant about Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island peoples’ cultures.

I remember doing a project about Aboriginal people in primary school – it involved bark huts, boomerangs and that photo of the Aboriginal man standing on one leg with spear in hand.

During my five years in high school, the word Aboriginal wasn’t mentioned except to describe the people we saw sitting in Fortitude Valley’s Brunswick Street Mall. As a student of criminology, Aboriginal people were merely described as statistics, reported in the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Deaths in Custody. And then, in law school, the only mention of Aboriginal people was a brief summary of the Mabo case. I’m currently studying education and it looks like the only mention the First People of Australia will be a token discussion in the one subject about diversity in education.

Over the past couple of years, my professional life has given me cause to read all the government reports and some academic articles about Australia’s hidden history. It’s been an eye opener and has created in me a need to learn more about the people and culture behind the statistics.

Last week, I had the good fortune of attending a Learning Circle hosted by Reconciliation Australia. During the function, we who are not of Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander heritage were challenged to take action to learn more about Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people’s cultures.

But where to start? I mean, how am I going to find time or information to even know where to start? Let alone actually learn something meaningful about Aboriginal culture? And aren’t there lots of different Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island cultures? Oh it’s too hard to even start.

Those were the thoughts that swam around my head as I rode the bus home that afternoon. And then it came to me – I am just making the same excuses that were made by those who set my educational curriculum all those decades ago. Here I am demanding the world accept, respect and understand my experiences as a transgender man yet I am making excuses rather than making the effort to learn more about the culture of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.

Almost instantly after I opened my mind to possibilities rather than limitations, a plan formed in my mind.

When I leave Sydney on the Great North Walk on 2 July, I will be doing more than just walking the 250km to Newcastle; I will be taking the next step in my journey to learn more about Aboriginal culture. During the hike, I want to:

  1. be respectful of Aboriginal beliefs during my walk by confirming that the trail doesn’t travel through or over any sacred sites
  2. learn about the stories of the land and Traditional Owners of the lands through which I travel
  3. participate in a NAIDOC week activity during the walk (or immediately after if logistics prevent me from attending an activity en-route).

I am currently hoping to make contact with people who can help me learn more about Aboriginal culture and history, particularly in the country between Sydney and Newcastle. Perhaps someone has a website or can recommend a book. Maybe I will be blessed to find someone who will meet me on their country to tell me a story or two.

I am just an ordinary Australian. I’m not a journalist. I’m not an activist. But I believe the future is what we make of it. And I don’t want to be part of the problem anymore.