Voice. Treaty. Truth.

When I was younger I can remember being told that it’s always best to tell the truth – no matter what. Telling the truth meant that you wouldn’t get in trouble; on the contrary, lying meant the consequences would be worse. There was also an implied understanding that when you told the truth you would be believed and that no one would question the validity of your truth. They’d take what you’ve said at face value and act. Although we teach our kids to tell the truth and value honesty within society, there is still shame and uneasiness when people tell the truth about Australia’s Aboriginal history (aka Australian History). Those that speak an unsavoury truth are banned/blacklisted/ridiculed and the dominant, rosy narrative endures. It’s unsurprising then, that telling the truth – no matter what – becomes a real challenge as we grow up. We stop being rewarded for our candor, and start being ridiculed. 

This year’s NAIDOC theme is Voice. Treaty. Truth. 

Voice. Treaty. Truth. were three key elements to the reforms set out in the Uluru Statement from the Heart. National NAIDOC Co-Chair Pat Thompson says, “For generations, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples have looked for significant and lasting change. We need our fellow Australians to join us on this journey – to finish the unfinished business of this country.”

Aboriginal people have been using their voice to enhance the recognition of Aboriginal rights and freedoms for decades, long before we were acknowledged as citizens of this country. From the Day of Mourning in 1938, to the Tent Embassy (1972), Treaty momentum, Native Title, and treatment of Aboriginal youth in detention, (among others) there has never been a time when Indigenous voices weren’t fighting the good fight. This has often meant dealing with the repercussions of speaking out, including discrimination, violence, ridicule and detention/incarceration. Although in many ways it is becoming easier to speak honestly and critically of Australia’s past, there are still structures in our society that silence those voices and reinforce ethnocentric ideas about colonisation. 

The importance of voice can’t be understated. The determination and resilience of those who have used their voice for the betterment of others are the heroes that we need. The use of our voices to highlight the truth about Australia’s past and current treatment of Aboriginal people is still ongoing.

For the past 231 years, the reality of Australia’s history has been ignored (read: intentionally altered) and those that have had the courage to speak up have been persecuted. Aboriginal people have always been here. Always. Though somehow, the false doctrine of terra nullius a couple hundred years ago negates that truth. Inaccurate, defamatory and bigoted lies have dominated Australia’s historical narrative. This is seen in the continued allusion to the barbarity of Aboriginal ‘hunter-gatherer’ societies, the emphasis on token elements of the culture such as Dreaming Stories and dot painting, and the insistence that Aboriginal people ‘leave the past in the past’ and ‘get over’ past treatment. 

It’s not that simple.

The uncensored version of Australia’s history includes massacres, the forced removal of children, the destruction of culture and language, and genocide. James Cook did not discover Australia. Those who arrived with the First Fleet weren’t all poor people banished from England for stealing bread to feed their starving family. Aboriginal people did not leave their country willingly for the benefit of the settlers. Aboriginal people did not benefit from being mustered onto missions and reserves. Taking children from their families wasn’t in their best interests. Yet despite the truth in these statements, Australia as a whole has had a really hard time hearing, accepting and repairing this history. 

Sure, if the colonial past doesn’t disadvantage you in society (or you actively benefit from ongoing racist structures), then it might be hard to come around and see the need for things to change. Indeed, it might even be tempting to tell people that there’s equality in Australia and that despite the past, it’s all peachy now. 

Not good enough. 

According to Australian Institute of Family Studies data, Aboriginal kids are significantly overrepresented in out of home care. Although the reasons for this are extremely varied and complex, it has been identified that two of the main factors for removal of children are substance abuse and mental health issues – the main consequences of intergenerational trauma caused by the forced removal of previous generations. Aboriginal kids are also twice as likely to be categorised as developmentally vulnerable when compared with non-Indigenous children (AIHW, 2017). These factors, in addition to the overrepresentation of Aboriginal youth and adults in the criminal justice system, lower school completion, higher unemployment, poorer health outcomes, lower life expectancy, lower average income, greater risk of being victims of physical crime, higher instances of discrimination and frightening mental health and suicide rates highlight that things are far from peachy. 

These alarming figures aren’t an accident or a coincidence. They’re a direct result of the past (and ongoing) treatment of Aboriginal people in Australia and although there have been some improvements in recent years, it’s still a disgrace that in this country a group of the population does not attain the same outcomes in health and education. The first step in improving these is to enhance the voices of Aboriginal people and hear the truth about the past and present. 

Acknowledging the truth about Australia’s history means that greater investment can be made in the development of effective, culturally responsive strategies that can begin to remedy the challenges faced by Aboriginal people in contemporary society. It means that the identity and experiences of Aboriginal people are accepted and celebrated, rather than ignored or rejected.

Telling the truth is only half of the equation. It doesn’t matter what truth you speak if no one is actually listening. For as long as the true history of Australia continues to be censored or altered to suit some while it harms others, there is no moving forward. 

Hear the voices, hear the truth. 

Recommended reading:

  • Bruce Pascoe, Dark Emu, 2014
  • Anita Heiss, Growing Up Aboriginal in Australia, 2018
  • Marcia Langton, Welcome to Country, 2018
  • NAIDOC Website
  • Stan Grant, Australia Day, 2019

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