Fight­ing Aus­tralia Day

Mel­bourne sub­urb de­mands re­spect for in­dige­nous his­tory.

Vocable (All English) - - Édito Sommaire - JAC­QUE­LINE WIL­LIAMS

Jan­uary 26 is a na­tional hol­i­day in Aus­tralia and for a while now, the sub­ject of in­tense de­bate. It celebrates the first ar­rival of Bri­tish colonists (1788) in Syd­ney Har­bour. Some lo­cal dis­tricts have taken the de­ci­sion not to cel­e­brate out of re­spect for the in­dige­nous peo­ple of Aus­tralia. One ex­am­ple is Fitzroy, a sub­urb of Mel­bourne, whose abo­rig­i­nal com­mu­nity has a long his­tory of dis­cov­ery and cel­e­bra­tion of its own cul­ture and past.


Aus­tralia — Un­cle Jack Charles, a well-known Aus­tralian abo­rig­i­nal ac­tor, was born in 1943 un­der Aus­tralia’s as­sim­i­la­tion pol­icy, which he said ab­sorbed abo­rig­i­nal peo­ple into white so­ci­ety by re­mov­ing chil­dren from their fam­i­lies. He grew up in a se­ries of group homes with­out any­one ever telling him the truth — un­til he was in­tro­duced to long-lost rel­a­tives here in a Mel­bourne sub­urb that’s long been a gather­ing place for the peo­ple of Aus­tralia’s First Na­tions.“This is where I found my­self,” Charles said last month in Fitzroy. “Found fam­ily, kin­ship, com­mu­nity ties.”

2. For gen­er­a­tions, re­con­nec­tion with his­tory has de­fined the area in and around Fitzroy. Now, per­haps in­evitably, it is quickly be­com­ing fa­mous in Aus­tralia for pro­vok­ing de­bate about how to best con­front the country’s colo­nial past.


3. In Au­gust, the lo­cal Yarra City Coun­cil be­came the first lo­cal coun­cil in the country to unan­i­mously vote against rec­og­niz­ing Jan. 26 as Aus­tralia Day, re­ject­ing the na­tional hol­i­day mark­ing the ar­rival of the first Bri­tish set­tlers in 1788 and opt­ing in­stead for an event on another date that ac­knowl­edges “the loss of in­dige­nous cul­ture.”

4. The move spurred outrage from Aus­tralia’s prime min­is­ter, Mal­colm Turn­bull, who ac­cused the coun­cil of “us­ing a day that should unite Aus­tralians to di­vide Aus­tralians.” And pub­lic back­lash over the de­ci­sion in­ten­si­fied, as far-right pro­test­ers stormed a Yarra City Coun­cil meet­ing yelling through mega­phones “shame on you” and “you’re a dis­grace.” But res­i­dents and offi- cials here say the de­ci­sion to stop com­mem­o­rat­ing Aus­tralia Day re­flects a de­sire for the country to rec­og­nize that a cel­e­brated part of its his­tory is also a source of great pain for many of its cit­i­zens.

5. At a time when the push to re­con­sider his­tory is sweep­ing across the United States and Canada, with stat­ues of his­tor­i­cal fig­ures be­ing torn down and univer­sity build­ings be­ing re­named, res­i­dents and of­fi­cials in Yarra say they are sim­ply do­ing what they have al­ways done: con­nect­ing with their peo­ple and seek­ing the truth. “There have been var­i­ous pop­u­lar and po­lit­i­cal forces at work to dis­cour­age a real un­der­stand­ing,” said Amanda Stone, the mayor of Yarra. “There’s still a strong be­lief that abo­rig­i­nal peo­ple have done well out of colo­nial set­tle­ment.”


6. Yarra, a coun­cil re­gion that in­cludes one of Mel­bourne’s ear­li­est sub­urbs, cov­ers about 7.5 square miles, and is cul­tur­ally and so­cially di­verse, with about 30 per­cent of its res­i­dents born out­side Aus­tralia. The area, and greater Mel­bourne, has been the heart­land of the country’s left and union move­ment, as well as pro­gres­sive abo­rig­i­nal pol­i­tics go­ing back to the start of the 20th cen­tury. For many in­dige­nous Aus­tralians, Fitzroy in par­tic­u­lar car­ries a spe­cial sig­nif­i­cance: it is the birth­place of many modern abo­rig­i­nal or­ga­ni­za­tions.

7. Ja­son Tamiru, grand­son of the Sir Doug Ni­cholls, for­mer gover­nor of South Aus­tralia and the first abo­rig­i­nal Aus­tralian to have held a vice-re­gal post in the country, said that from the 1920s to 1940s, a lo­cal fig tree was one of the most im­por­tant abo­rig­i­nal meet­ing places, where “pi­o­neers” in­clud­ing his grand­fa­ther ad­dressed gath­er­ings and “ral­lied the troops.” The tree, known as the More­ton Bay Fig Tree, is still alive to­day. “Un­der this tree,” Tamiru said, stand­ing be­neath its wide green leaves, “our great peo­ple formed a com­mu­nity, had a vi­sion and a dream. My grand­fa­ther taught me and my peo­ple to fight for our hu­man rights.”

8. Up the road, on Gertrude Street, known as the heart of Fitzroy, was the Koori Club, where in the 1960s, young abo­rig­i­nal so­cial and po­lit­i­cal ac­tivists met and chal­lenged con­ser­va­tive think­ing in the country. When Muham­mad Ali vis­ited Aus­tralia in 1979, he specif­i­cally went to Gertrude Street in Fitzroy, where the first in­dige­nous man to win a world box­ing title, Lionel Rose, helped set up a gym for young in­dige­nous peo­ple.

9. All of th­ese places were where many abo­rig­i­nal Aus­tralians came to re­ceive sup­port, help, and ser­vices, and in the process, many

of them dis­cov­ered their fam­ily roots. Un­cle Jack, part of the “stolen gen­er­a­tion,” found out the truth about his roots in his late teens af­ter be­ing ush­ered into the Builders Arms Ho­tel, a land­mark Fitzroy pub. Back then, in the late 1950s, it was known among in­dige­nous Aus­tralians as “the black se­nate.”

10. For Un­cle Jack and many oth­ers, th­ese kinds of con­nec­tions spread­ing over gen­er­a­tions have cre­ated a sense of em­pow­er­ment — and a com­fort with ques­tion­ing au­thor­ity that of­ten goes beyond what takes place in other ar­eas of Aus­tralia. Grad­u­ally, de­spite a pe­riod of gen­tri­fi­ca­tion that pushed out some peo­ple, it’s been passed down to the next gen­er­a­tion.

11.“Young peo­ple have grown up to be ashamed of where we’re from, not want­ing to cel­e­brate in­dige­nous cul­ture and her­itage,” said Robert Young, 28, an in­dige­nous artist. “But now peo­ple from around the world are want­ing to cel­e­brate and ac­knowl­edge our cul­ture and our iden­tity,” Young said. “There’s a greater aware­ness of celebrating peo­ple’s unique­ness and pay­ing tribute and re­spect where it’s due.”

12. Many abo­rig­i­nal peo­ple say Jan. 26 — when many Aus­tralians drink, watch fire­works and party, not un­like July 4 in the United States — marks a legacy of dis­pos­ses­sion and a de­struc­tion of their cul­ture. In­dige­nous com­mu­ni­ties some­times re­fer to the date as “Sur­vival Day” or “In­va­sion Day,” and in re­cent years, protests have marked the day in ma­jor cities like Mel­bourne and Syd­ney.


13. The in­dige­nous com­mu­nity in Yarra wanted some­thing more last­ing to be done. They spoke with the coun­cil about mov­ing Aus­tralia Day cel­e­bra­tions to a dif­fer­ent date. Shortly af­ter the coun­cil’s de­ci­sion, a statue of the Capt. James Cook, the ex­plorer, was de­faced in Syd­ney, with “change the date” and “no pride in geno­cide” painted all over it, which Turn­bull de­clared was part of a “to­tal­i­tar­ian cam­paign” to oblit­er­ate the country’s his­tory.

14. The statue’s in­scrip­tion assert­ing that Cook dis­cov­ered Aus­tralia ig­nited crit­i­cism that it ig­nored tens of thou­sands of years of in­dige­nous his­tory. Politi­cians said the van­dal­ism spurred a grow­ing de­bate and a push for Aus­tralia to cel­e­brate the country’s na­tional day on another day, one that meant some­thing to everyone.

15. Young, the artist, said abo­rig­i­nal Aus­tralians in Fitzroy just wanted to again find a way to lead the con­ver­sa­tion — to chal­lenge Aus­tralia’s white es­tab­lish­ment to for­mally rec­og­nize its com­pli­cated past and the fact that the country is now a mix of many dif­fer­ent cul­tures and back­grounds.

16.“To have a strong fu­ture is re­con­nect­ing with our past,” he said. He was stand­ing just in front of a mu­ral he painted on the side of Char­coal Lane, a so­cial en­ter­prise restau­rant, which he said paid tribute to Fitzroy’s en­dur­ing abo­rig­i­nal iden­tity. It showed a mix of prom­i­nent abo­rig­i­nal heroes and a flag with the word “sovereignty.”

Many abo­rig­i­nal peo­ple say Jan. 26 marks a legacy of dis­pos­ses­sion and a de­struc­tion of their cul­ture.

(Asanka Bren­don Rat­nayake/ The New York Times)

Robert Young, an Abo­rig­i­nal artist, in front of a mu­ral he painted in Fitzroy, Aus­tralia.


Ac­tor Jack Charles was a vic­tim of the govern­ment's forced as­sim­i­la­tion pro­gramme.

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