I’ve been on this Earth for 30 years and in that time I’ve learnt a lot about a lot of different people. I’ve travelled through Europe, South East Asia, Central America and the Pacific and lived in Asia for an extended period. I’ve been up and down the East Coast and along the West Coast of this country. I’ve met and befriended people from all over the world in my job as an English teacher.
What I’ve never done is befriended and shared stories on an intimate level with an Australian Aboriginal person. I have done this with people from everywhere except those who embody where I come from.
The spirits inhabiting the lands and waters all around me are nothing more than invisible ghosts, harbouring stories I know none of and carrying song lines I cannot hear.
These feelings arose after attending the Kunjiel Coorroboree on Minjerrabah also known as North Stradbroke Island recently. I had to write a story about the Quandamooka Festival, and what was essentially the first organised corroboree on Quandamooka country in a long time.
It was here my realisation hit me. I knew nothing of these people.
Well I knew a lot, in theory.
I knew they were the oldest surviving culture in the world. I knew they had suffered under colonial policies for the past 250 years. I knew there were social and economic issues abundant in Indigenous communities throughout the country. I knew about the Stolen Generation and the White Australia Policy and Native Title and the ongoing complexities of dealing with our Indigenous people living in third world conditions in one of the richest countries in the world.
But when I had to talk to someone in the community, about their mob, about themselves and their lifestyles I realised I knew nothing.
I didn’t understand the complexities of introducing myself to an Elder. I didn’t understand what it feels like to perform your cultural dance on land where it had been outlawed for generations. I didn’t understand what it felt like to be wary of the media because for years it had misrepresented or even totally forgotten your people and your culture.
I don’t know what it’s like to have the pressures of a community watching every decision you make. I don’t know what it’s like to have never met your mother or grandmother, because she was stripped of her motherhood at a young age.
I’d never felt what it is like being an outsider peering in and trying to be one of ‘them’ until today where I stood on their land, at their corroboree, as just that.
I was welcomed but not included, accepted but not privy to essential information and unaware of nuances in community structures imperceptible to the eye.
I was as they have been in their own country for two centuries.
But today was a good day, a day to celebrate. For it was about them, their culture, their jarra, their kunjiel and their corroboree.
It was my turn to be invisible. And so I could begin to learn.