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'Living in the Indigenous space' by Lynette Russell

August 2019, no. 413

'Living in the Indigenous space' by Lynette Russell

August 2019, no. 413

Living, working, and being in the Indigenous space, there are times when it feels as though nothing changes. Indeed, on occasion, it can feel as though things are in fact regressing. When The Hon. Ken Wyatt AM, MP was announced as the new Minister for Indigenous Australians, after the re-election of the Morrison government, numerous family members, friends, and colleagues expressed dismay that this appeared to represent a dilution of the role, which had been, to that point, the Minister of Indigenous Affairs. In recent weeks I have come to see that having an Aboriginal man as Minister for Indigenous Australians is indeed a step forward.

Wyatt delivered his speech while I was at the Australian Historical Association’s annual conference in Toowoomba. The AHA is generally not a hotbed of radical politics; often delegates are far more comfortable in the nineteenth century than they are among contemporary politics. This time, things were different. The Uluru Statement from the Heart and constitutional reform seemed to be a common theme during sessions, morning tea, and indeed the AGM. A colleague of mine who had attended the Association for the Study of Australian Literature conference in Perth the previous week remarked that a similar Zeitgeist seemed to be evident there. It is clear to me things are changing, and that change is political, cultural, and social.

Politically, there is talk of constitutional reform. The expansive generosity of the Uluru Statement has been noted by many, and there is talk at the highest levels of government that there will be constitutional reform, though precisely what this might look like is uncertain. Despite the deliberate obfuscation of conservative commentators, it is clear that a third chamber of Parliament is not being proposed. Constitutional reform needs the support of both sides of politics. Now might just be the right time.

Culturally, we are seeing an efflorescence of Indigenous creative talent. Tony Birch’s eagerly awaited new novel has been released, along with that of Tara June Winch, both to great acclaim. Birch probes the social and the political as he movingly demonstrates how the past shapes and gives form to the present. Winch draws on the power of language (Wiradjuri) of a lexicon lost, and reclaimed. Fiction, or rather storytelling, is a hallmark of Aboriginal culture; today’s creative authors draw on thousands of years of storytelling and yarning. Through a very modern form, they continue the tradition of sharing and informing.

In June, on a cold and wet Melbourne Saturday evening, Deborah Cheetham premièred her magisterial Eumeralla, a war requiem for peace. The performance was entirely in the reclaimed Gunditjmara language. Eumeralla was sold out weeks in advance, and the effusive praise it received suggests that the audience, black and white, was both moved and awestruck. Cultural productions at all levels from highbrow to popular and vernacular are now visible, even commonplace. The wildly successful ABC television show Black Comedy, along with the film Top End Wedding, indicate that mainstream Australia has finally allowed space for Indigenous ways of telling. It would be difficult not to see this creative energy as an Indigenous renaissance and a significant cultural shift.

Social change has been remarkable too, from Acknowledgment and Welcomes to Country, to the official apology to the Stolen Generations, to changes in school curricula. The sporting arena has played an essential role in this. The NRL and AFL Indigenous rounds have promoted the significance of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander players. The pride shown by all players when promoting their club’s Indigenous-designed jerseys melds the athletic with the aesthetic.

Ash Barty’s victory at the French Tennis Open, while celebrated by many, unleashed hate-filled comments in the social media space, with criticisms of her physique and her insistence on her pride in her Ngarigo Aboriginal heritage. Sadly, racism abides, often coupled with wilful ignorance. This ignorance was perhaps best demonstrated by the treatment of dual Brownlow medallist and Sydney Football Club champion Adam Goodes. The recent documentary on the Goodes saga, The Final Quarter, revealed the thin layer of civility that covers parts of Australian society. It is telling that following the première of The Final Quarter, the AFL and all eighteen clubs apologised ‘unreservedly for our failures’. Palpably things are changing; sometimes they move forwards, sometimes they regress.

This Indigenous-themed issue of the ABR marks the start of an annual tradition. Also, in this issue for the first time, an Acknowledgment of Country has been included, a feature that will henceforth appear in each edition. This issue represents a deepening of the relationship between Monash University, in particular, the Monash Indigenous Studies Centre and ABR. The creation of the ABR Indigenous Fellowship is a welcome extension of this focus.

I am grateful to ABR for this proactive, engaged commitment to true reconciliation and Indigenous recognition. 

From the New Issue

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