ON INDIGENOUS IDENTITY AND JUST WHAT IT MEANS IN ‘MODERN’ AUSTRALIA.
There’s one image I cannot cleanse from my mind: it’s seared into the darkest part of me. It is of a 10-year-old girl who took her own life. I have a daughter – I remember her at 10; long, lustrous dark hair, learning to ride her bike, throwing her arms around her Dad, giggling with her friends. I remember picking her up from school, jumping into the back seat bubbling with the excitement of the day. She has grown to be a confident, beautiful young woman with the world before her. My daughter has lived a life denied this other little girl. They have lived in the same country; a generation apart but from such totally different worlds. Like my daughter, the little girl was Indigenous, connected to an ancestry rooted in this continent and deep in tradition. But while my daughter has grown proud of her heritage and secure in her place in the world; the other little girl could not face another day of life in a country that is in so many ways the envy of the world: prosperous, free, cohesive and tolerant. The girl committed suicide in a remote corner of Western Australia. She was one of more than a dozen Indigenous people to take their own lives in that part of the country in just three months. She reminded us that Indigenous kids under the age of 15 are up to 10 times more likely to kill themselves than non-indigenous Australians. She was born into a world of statistics; damning numbers that tell us Aboriginals and Torres Strait Islanders die 10 years younger than other Australians, fill up our prisons, live in overcrowded housing and suffer diseases thought long gone from our country. When I heard the news of the girl’s death, I felt a profound failure. What good are all the words I speak? What difference does it make to write of such things? When I go home to my privileged suburban life what do I do to ease the suffering of those I would call my own? We spend billions of dollars each year on Indigenous programs: for what? For a little girl to surrender to misery? We can blame racism, or dispossession and colonisation – but then what? Between my daughter’s life and the sad short life of a lost, lonely girl in Western Australia, is a world of possibilities; a world of opportunities. My family is born of the same dispossession, my ancestors suffered from injustice, were rounded up and forced on to reserves and missions, had their children removed, were locked up in prisons, saw their language silenced, knew too many cold and hungry nights. But we survived. As the walls of segregation fell, we emerged from the darkness into an Australia where we demanded equality and justice and fought for a place in this country. My ancestors fought in this country’s wars and came home determined not to accept a life on the margins. They suffered indignity and stared down racism. They took what work they could find, found homes in town and walked their kids with pride to schools they were once banned from. Today, we are graduating more Indigenous students from universities than ever before. We have lawyers, doctors, architects and teachers; we are running small business, we are plumbers and electricians and carpenters. The Indigenous middle class is growing faster – much faster – than the comparable white middle class. They are challenging the notions of Indigenous identity and pushing open the boundaries of what it is to be an Australian. We live in a world that is more connected than ever before. Today, for the first time in human history more people live in cities than in rural areas. It is a world where borders are being erased even as we struggle with the idea of what it is to be a global citizen. My dream for any Indigenous child is that they can live in this world with the best of our culture and open to the best of other cultures, too. We can remember our history but not be chained to it. We can fight against injustice but not lose the joy of living. I wish the little girl could have met my daughter.
Wool-blend jacket, $949, and wool turtleneck, $249, both by BOSS at David Jones.