In this together: Reconciliation Week 2020

By Dash Buxton @dirkandscabbar1

National Reconciliation Week 2020 is this week, May 27 to June3, and I’ve been thinking a lot about the issue of reconciliation.

If you’re not familiar with it, National Reconciliation Week involves activities and conversations facilitated by Reconciliation Australia. It’s aim:

“Creating a nation strengthened by respectful relationships between the wider Australian community, and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.”

I’m a non-Indigenous Australian who was taught in school about Australia’s birth as a nation being “settled” via application of the legal principle terra nullius. Loosely translated from Latin, it means, “land of no-one.”

In short, on arrival here in 1788 the British asserted that the laws of England applied here on the grounds that Aboriginal people physically inhabited the land in a way that was inconsistent with then British (feudal) understanding of land ownership and sovereignty, characterised in particular via their agricultural, housing practices and societal organisation. (An oversimplification, yes; but for the purpose of brevity it will have to suffice for now).

Each year I celebrated Australia’s birth as a nation on Australia Day without paying it too much thought, given what I learned at school.

Shamefully, it wasn’t until I studied law at uni, including the High Court decision of Mabo No. 2 that I came to understand the assertion this land was terra nullius at the time Cook sailed into Botany Bay was not only an absolute fiction; but what followed constitutes nothing less than genocide.

I was horrified. We all were. Some of us cried in our tute as we discussed our nation’s dark past, including me.

On reflection, I don’t remember Mabo No. 2 being discussed at home or at school. After reading and analysing the High Court judgment in detail much later at uni, that astounds me because of its significance in Australia’s history and for our First Nations peoples. For the first time Australia’s highest judiciary found that native title rights of our First Nations peoples could be recognised. That case also served as the catalyst for the Native Title Act 1993.

Since I learned the dreadful truth about the way our Indigenous Australians were treated then, and have been since, I no longer “celebrate” Australia Day the way I once did, and I have shared the truth wherever I’ve felt I’ve been among an audience who could hear it.

I’ll skip forward now to very recently, when I was buying a book online. A suggestion popped up, that I might like a certain other book too. I clicked on the link to read the blurb about it. It was a work of non-fiction by Adjunct Professor Bruce Pascoe, named Dark Emu.

The blurb was full of glowing remarks on the importance of the work, and the fact that it had won a few literary prizes. Without a second thought I bought it. I’m so glad it did. I couldn’t put it down.

After only my first reading (its likely I’ll read and refer to it again), I feel it has much to contribute to the conversations to be had between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians, particularly during Reconciliation Week.

The book is a powerful tome on the careful land management and food sourcing practices that Aboriginal people employed sustainably for up to 80,000 years before Cook’s arrival. Pascoe carefully pieces together direct evidence from key sources, including the written observations of the First Fleet and “settlers” who followed.

Detailed notes were made of sophisticated practices in the areas of:

    • Agriculture;
    • Aquaculture;
    • Food/water storage and preservation;
    • Population and housing;
    • Fire;
    • Language; and
    • Culture, land, lore, law and their interconnection.

When coupled with the important detail Pascoe includes about the cultural stories and lore they used to cleverly cloak their instructions to each new generation on exactly how to care for and thrive on this beautiful land, it becomes an essential read for all Australians, Indigenous or otherwise.

The evidence gathered by Pascoe further justifies the High Court’s dispelling the application of terra nullius. In fact, it makes that British assertion of 1788 all the more farcical, if not tragic. This is particularly so in terms of the evidence on Aboriginal systems of agriculture, housing and social organisation; all of which were such pertinent issues in Mabo No. 2.

But I return now to the issue of reconciliation. It’s true that reconciliation action plans and other initiatives go a long way in promoting discussion between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australia. It’s also fair to say that The National Inquiry into the Separation of Aboriginal Children from their Families,culminating in the 2008 National Apology to the Stolen Generations delivered in parliament by then Prime Minister Kevin Rudd also contributes in meaningful ways; along with marking Sorry Day each year.

However, I think it is work such as Pascoe’s that has exponential power to generate actual, meaningful discussion that reaches all Australians, even those whose views remain where mine had shamefully (and ignorantly) been before law school: stuck in a pre-Mabo No.2 era.

Pascoe’s work has the power to pass the ‘pub test,’ given it brings simple and irrefutable proof of the incredible ingenuity of Aboriginal people and their cultural practices.

It has the power to promote genuine understanding of the strong connection Aboriginal Australians have always maintained with this land, and highlights how much nonAboriginal Australians can learn from the country’s first inhabitants and custodians. I recommend that you find a copy of the book and read it.

Here’s to the conversations to be had during National Reconciliation Week 2020, and beyond.

Featured image courtesy the Reconciliation Australia website:

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