Essay: Ali Cobby Eckermannon living culture

The Place of Terrorism in Australia

On Monday 25 July 2016 Four Corners reported on the torture of teenage Aboriginal boys in Don Dale Correctional Facility in Darwin. Footage of prison guards torturing Aboriginal boys burst on to television screens in family homes across the nation. At the time my 14-year-old granddaughter and I were in suburban Adelaide caring for my 82 year-old adopted mother, who had recently undergone a medical operation. We watched in silence. None of us knew what to say. When I went to bed that night my heart hurt with disbelief. I am sure theirs did too. The following day Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull announced a Royal Commission. The aim was to identify the systemic failures of the institution and provide lessons to ensure they are never repeated. The Four Corners episode was titled Australia’s Shame. This episode forced non-Aboriginal people to see the institutional violence that Aboriginal people have long witnessed.

Adam Giles, the chief minister for the Northern Territory and first head of government in Australia to have Aboriginal Australian ancestry, insisted the story was aired to maximize damage to his forthcoming election campaign. He sacked his Minister for Corrections and installed himself in the position. Further, Giles promised to pursue legal action against two of the abuse victims, for damages incurred by Don Dale to the sum of $160,000. This counter-suit was already in place before the story broke. With the Chief Minister’s every response appearing self-indulgent, one month after the story broke, the population of NT removed Giles from government, delivering a thumping dismissal of the Country Liberal Party. Giles has now stated that he plans to run for the Senate. Despite the worldwide broadcast of the legalised torture of Aboriginal boys by the Northern Territory government under his watch, Giles seems unable to pause in his career path.

Aboriginal Australians who know their intimate histories live with the heartache of many episodes of terror inflicted on their families since colonisation. The history of massacres is spread across the entire country. It’s all in the past, you may say. Yet, the contemporary replicate of this is the death of Aboriginal prisoners whilst in custody. While a Royal Commission into Deaths In Custody was carried out in 1987, the Commissioners concluded that the deaths were not due to (police) violence. A number of my friends have lost family members to the brutal hands of police. Yet, never has justice been gained. Around our campfires I regularly hear first-hand accounts from my kinship family and friends of deliberate targeting by police of our young boys and men. Whilst we may not directly witness it, we do see the hurt and worry in their eyes, and hear the emotion in their voice. Now in 2016 we are confronted visually with images of our children abused and tortured. There can be no further doubt.

The nuclear testing at Maralinga in the 1950 and 1960s affects my family to this day. My mother was a young girl when the first atomic bomb was detonated, forcing my family to leave their traditional way of life. Refuge was sought at Koonibba Mission, resulting in the separation of my mother from her mother. I was tricked away from my mother and extended family as a baby, and later my son was removed from me. We were not incapable mothers. We were viewed as second-class citizens, and our civil rights overridden by agencies and the church. In my experience assimilation has the absolute power to create inequality. It has taken many years to unpack this history, and its traumatic effect on my life. Finding my family, learning my culture and now sharing the poetry of my journey has enabled me a healing grace.

White Australia created the policies for removal of Aboriginal children from their families, as investigated and documented in the 1997 Bringing Them Home report (1997). For generations Australian governments have separated Aboriginal mothers and fathers from their sons and daughters; a common estimate is 100,000 children. There will always be a debate about the number of child removals across the country, due to documents being lost and destroyed. Personally I know many Stolen Generation survivors. Through shared and similar life experiences many of us have become friends. We stay in regular contact to support each other during times when our past hurts have an impact on our daily living. As survivors we know how these hurts manifest within us. We know the paths to our effective healing and we know we require support. The mainstream services available to us continue to dictate our path. Many Australians seem unable to see the ongoing role that white institutions have in damaging our families.

This was demonstrated by a cartoon published by Bill Leak on 3 August 2016 in The Australian newspaper. The cartoon portrayed an Aboriginal man with a beer can in his hand unable to remember his son’s name. It was published on National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Children’s Day. In response to this appalling stereotype, the New South Wales Aboriginal Land Council filed a complaint with the Australian Press Council. I felt sickened by the paper’s smugness in publishing such a hurtful portrayal on the day that Australians could be celebrating the achievements and resilience of our Aboriginal youth. It is this type of stereotyping which is the most damaging to our future, to our holistic health, to our hopes and cultural ambitions within the wider society we are forced to live in. I watched with interest as Suncorp Bank removed their costly advertisements from The Australian, in protest against the Bill Leak cartoon.

A wonderful response from the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community was #Indigenous Dads . This social media campaign featured many beautiful photographs and statements by indigenous fathers from the diverse economic backgrounds of Aboriginal Australia, countering the racist cartoon and media portrayals. This is more the truth I know, men who I call brothers and friends sharing their proud roles as fathers; honest, kind, hard-working, taxpayers. I have witnessed these men refuse to falter at the stigma thrown at them, standing strong in their love for their children despite their own disadvantage. I wanted to celebrate #IndigenousDads, but my heart stays hurt.

And then my peers and I had to suffer as Bill Leak responded to the criticism of his work. His rationale: ‘when little children can’t understand things, they often lash out and throw tantrums… you should have a look at the homes they come from’. I sit reflecting on my many travels across the country to the communities and homes that have welcomed my stay, remembering my admiration and respect of fathers, uncles and grandfathers who lead by humble example, the guidance coupled with the laughter of children, the teachings of generational knowledge, always the humour, always the love. I remember their concerns and depression at seeing their paternal roles reduced in a modern age. I remember young men telling me it is the boredom (from lack of employment) that will kill them, or incarcerate them. I remember watching some men who were struggling with addiction and frustration, and some with rage. I remember them all standing in the heart of their families. I wanted to scream. Will Bill Leak ever publish a cartoon about systemic government destruction of Aboriginal families? Will he ever see the failure of successive state and federal governments to address pressing issues like suicide, deaths in custody and unemployment? Will one of his cartoons ever show white Australians how they blame the victims?

A few days later on 6 August 2016 the news of an apprehended terrorist in Victoria was blasted onto our TV screens. We watched the arrest of a 31 year-old white Australian male by the Counter Terrorism police group. It was alleged he is a far-right extremist and affiliated with an anti-immigration group called Reclaim Australia. I notice that white-terrorism threats do not get the same amount of press as the ongoing argument about the character of Aboriginal Australians. An actual attack by extremists is not what I fear. The menace is the ongoing belittling, misinformation and prejudice about Aboriginal people in this country. This continuing dialogue affects our hearts. It is creating a new hyper-vigilance amongst my peers, parents and grandparents over-anxious about the whereabouts and behaviour of our kids. The contemporary definition of terrorism is ‘a state of terror; an organized system of intimidation’. This is the best description to explain our emotional state.

The resurrection of Pauline Hanson to Parliament also hit my heart. Twenty years ago Aboriginal people suffered her rhetoric – ‘my culture, my way of life and my country’ – whilst advocating the abolition of multiculturalism and support for Aboriginal Australians.  At that time I was studying an art degree at Tauondi Aboriginal College in Port Adelaide. The only joy of Pauline Hanson was the terrific artworks about her, handmade by the senior Taoundi art students.. I remember it being a bleak period of constant and misinformed ridicule of us. Today she stands secure in the Senate, continuing race-hate speech toward the Muslim minority. Her fear is irrational to me: my friendships with Samia and Mridula, among others, are such cherished moments in my life, both here and in India. I believe Pauline Hanson is offensive to all minorities. When I leave the sanctity of my home it is not the threat of terrorism or difference that worries me. I worry which member of the majority will offend me with their prejudices today.

A constant catchphrase I hear around me is keep the Muslims out; we should look after ourselves (Australians) first. I hate this statement; I don’t know what it means. I know every time I hear it my heart hurts. I wonder if Australians think about this catchphrase before they repeat the words. Do they mean better education and health, a rich vibrant society, help for the homeless and underprivileged or supporting Aboriginal people to heal? I believe it is the duty of our current Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull to show responsibility and lessen the volume of unproved race-hate dialogue.

In response to an attack by Islamic State in Kuwait in June 2015, former Prime Minister Tony Abbott stated:  ‘we may not feel like we are at war with them, but they are certainly at war with us’. As current governments continue their conversations about practical threats to Australia, they use each tragic event to divide, belittle and spread hate. My heart hurts. We may not feel like we are at war with them, but they are certainly at war with us. This statement epitomises the ‘them’ and ‘us’ attitude perpetrated by our governments. It reeks of blame and ego. It describes the organized system of intimidation to belittle and misrepresent the character of Aboriginal people exists in Australia.

Some politicians claim Australia is a Christian country. Many Aboriginal people were forced to adopt Christianity during the mission era. Many Aboriginal people still live within these moral learnings. Some of the teachings are similar to our own. Australian governments should be publicly obliged to debate each one of the Commandments explaining the tenure of their faith within their political practices.  A national conversation could be unpacked around a famous Christian proverb – 1 Timothy 6:10 – the love of money is the root of all evil. An in-depth conversation to unpack morals over economic policies? What a concept.

I lived and worked in the Northern Territory for over 25 years, as a check-out chick in the Tanami desert, catching wild camels in the Simpson desert, house-keeping, youth worker, foster carer, student and arts manager. The Northern Territory is unique in its cultural heritage, and boasts an indigenous population of 30 per cent. Home to traditional language groups unbroken since the time of creation, it is the oldest continuum in the world. Yet seeing only mineral richness for growth, Adam Giles was unable to embrace the cultural richness of the NT he represented. How I imagine a different outcome for those incarcerated boys if they had been disciplined by strict Aboriginal culture. Or mentored through promising educations, to reach goals unimagined, for example, as criminal rights lawyers. How I imagine future Aboriginal leaders that will strive for such purposes too. Impossible you say? Many Aboriginal people have already reached these goals. It is not often reported in the Australian media. Our positive stories do not sell. Perhaps our positive stories destroy the misleading image of us fed to mainstream audiences by our governments and the media? Maybe our land (for mining) is more important than we are as people.

I sit wondering why white Australians can’t see our actual strengths, the love of family, the wisdom of kinships and lore, the DNA of historic and cultural family trees? I sit wondering why Aboriginal Australians are prevented from strengthening our cultural ways, supporting us to strengthen our families. My heart hurts. Other Aboriginal people’s hearts are hurting too. A young Noongar man, Clinton Pryor, has begun his protest by walking from Perth to Canberra along the ancient Song Lines trails, because ‘the government only cares about the rich and making money for themselves, they should be taking care of the people’. Elder Paul Sampi is raising funds to support homeless people in Broome, undertaking a 30 km walk, being pushed in his wheelchair due to emphysema. Aboriginal Australia has a long history of these feats. We are a compassionate and caring people. It hurts when this is not reciprocated by the mainstream governments that continue to override our visions for self-empowerment. Not all of us want to assimilate. Not all of us desire the aspirations of Adam Giles. Nor should we need to.

I want to live my culture, my way of life within my country. Often this means a humble existence; a freedom that requires constant access to our traditional and natural world, always with an emphasis on family and cultural exchange. This is the essential path to my wellbeing; physically, emotionally and spiritually. It is a university that I need my grandchildren to prosper in, to know our intimate history and retain a strong understanding of us. A respect of my ‘university of learning and sharing’ with my traditional people, without harassment from police or derision from passersby would be polite. My international experiences have proved to me that our Aboriginal University travels world-wide. I remember happy, intelligent and poignant cultural exchanges with such humble and warm brothers and sisters overseas. Traditional language greeting words at airports and bus stations could begin a proud and inclusive protocol of welcome to all who visit our land. Recognition of our contemporary history and survival at every level of education would surely promote a deeper respect and friendship. And friendship is the key. Both my families taught me that. It was my traditional desert Grandmothers who taught me who I am, and the friendships that are attained when you know that. I don’t choose: it is crucial that I live in the heart of my Grandmothers’ teachings. This is the substance of who I am, and the essence in my writings.

Our politicians constantly teach the general populace to fear diversity. As First Nations people I believe the world needs to recognise the emotional terrorism that is being inflicted upon us, and help to stall it. Why aren’t Aboriginal people supported to stand empowered within the knowledges and realms of our ancient familial cultures? As Australia faces the barrel of this latest Royal Commission in Darwin many of us are left wondering about the impending consequences. Historically it is proven that recommendations from the prior Royal Commissions were NOT implemented, and the issues of deaths in custody and removal of children continue to exist today. It is a highly expensive hypocrisy. Another organised system of intimidation. We are forced to accept politicians appointed to new positions, even when public opinion deems they have failed in previous roles. We are forced to suffer the repetition of injustices that our previous generations faced. It is a harrowing existence.

Black Deaths In Custody

despite the cost a new gaol has been built
it seems the incarceration rates are trebling

I only came here in the role
of a Deaths In Custody inspector
all the cells are stark and spotless
blank screens watch from the corners
the offices boast the highest technology
the faces of the staff all look the same

when I walk down this wing and peer
into this filthy room the door slams behind me
the feeling in my heart is changing
from a proud strength of duty to fear
all the stories I have ever heard
stand silent in the space beside me –
a coil of rope is being pushed
under the door of this cell.

My culture is my entirety. It has been my privilege to be mentored by senior Elders and Ngangkaris (traditional healers) across the country, mostly in the APY Lands of South Australia and Adelaide. Yet my heart still hurts. I know it is my basic human right to feel secure in the country of my origin and birth, physically, emotionally and spiritually. If ‘progress’ and a modern society requires me as an Aboriginal woman to move away from this, in my view that is terrorism.