by Karl Vikat
Looking back at the course of my stay in Australia, and UQ in particular there were a number of experiences, but there is a string of experiences that I would like to share with you and that stood out to me.
Since I had enrolled in a course on Indigenous Policy & Politics as well as Conflict & Nonviolent Change I had the chance to meet Mary Graham, Lyndon Murphy and Morgan Brigg who via a concerted engagement with us students discussed and explained the settler-colonised dynamics. I realize that I cannot by any means elucidate the issues pertaining to the entangled conundrum that is the relationship between Indigenous Australians and ‘White Australia’ concisely within the limits of this blog. Still, I want to give some insight in order to be able to show you why my experiences were so meaningful.
Mary Graham has been actively involved in Aboriginal organisations since the 1970s and has been grappling ever since with the content of, as well as the manner by which the government goes about enacting policies affecting the Indigenous Australians. She is an experienced activist, who currently is a member in the National Congress of Australia’s First Peoples Ethic Council. Through a number of discussions she conveyed the fundamental hypocrisies inherent in the Australian government’s and society’s approach. Above all, a lack of balance and rejection of Indigenous Australians’ terms of reference in political negotiations was brought to the fore as a key critique of the status quo. Furthermore, she addressed the lack of genuine societal discussion, dominant discourse favouring benevolent symbolism over substance and action on Indigenous Australians’ terms, and above all the lack of a treaty between Australia and the nations of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. In general, through discussions with her and our lecturers in and around two courses, it emerged that the celebrated history that finds its expression amongst others in ‘Australia Day’ represents mainly one narrative and ignores the other for the sake of creating ‘One Australia’ where difference is erased and harmony underscored for the detriment of the Indigenous minority that represent 3% of the inhabitants of Australia.
For students who will head over to Brissy next semester you probably won’t manage to avoid the exhibition, Courting Blackness that will be installed at the very heart of the university in the Great Court and that deals with these pivotal questions.
Now, off to the experiences.
As I headed off to Fraser Island, past the sand dunes and into the deep rainforest I could not help but be amazed of the splendour of the surroundings that qualify it as a World Heritage site. We walked among ancient giants who had escaped the once booming logging industry on the island. Whenever, we were told of the history of the land, the story begun with the loggers who arrived and focused on the environmentalist movement that managed to end sand mining and logging on the island. It finished with a summary of how the tourism industry established itself on the island, adorned with facts and figures about the veritably magnificent island flora and fauna.
When I enquired about the fate of the locals who had lived on Fraser before the logging industry, the guide conceded that there probably must have been some conflict, but returned to speaking about the arrival and the demise of the logging industry. Ultimately, then he either did not know, or insinuated that the Indigenous Australians on Fraser became part of the logging industry and left the island for the mainland, as did the loggers. With regard to the well-documented removal of the local population from the island in order to harvest more land for the timber industry, the murderous activities of the Native Police in the area, as well as the forced concentration of the population in reserves that is part of the island’s history, the narrative that was presented to us was heavily asymmetric and naive to say the least.
In Cape Tribulation it was the same old song. The commercially conveniently named ‘Indigenous tour’ that turned out to be part of our tour package left us speechless. We had expected time for genuine engagement with a knowledgeable member from the local clan, who would share the history of the land and his people. The ‘Indigenous tour’ however ended up being a phenomenal 10 minute display of precisely the ignorance and ‘pseudo’ way of dealing with the Aboriginal heritage, catering a worldview to backpackers and tourists that is comfortable and arguably meets the expectations of curiosity, affirming the already pre-established stereotypes. We were told how didgeridoos were made, how central the forest is and has been to the life of the local tribes, and the presentation also included some clarification on the utility of some tools…
As my travel companion engaged in conversation after what we interpreted as the introductory talk, we were called back by the tour guide as we had to be rushed through to what seemed at that stage just another piece of rainforest. We had come with a bus, hopped off at the information/tourist centre of the local area, seen an ‘authentic Aboriginal’ play and teach us about the famous didgeridoo, and now we hopped on again. Hello, thanks, goodbye, in a 10 minute interval. It was obvious that Cameron had not even scratched the surface of knowledge and experience that he could have communicated and made apparent in conversation.
I feel like these experiences were very useful in that it made me so much more aware of the salience of history in any place that I encounter when traveling. Also, they illustrated to me the immense power in shaping narratives and perceptions that local travel guides can have. I felt the power of the dominant structures in pushing a narrative and arguing for a discourse that attempts to forget and assimilate, while asserting remembrance, and the value of diversity. What was left untold carried more weight than any of the guides’ digressions on plant life. Knowledge is power, and I can be grateful to my tutors, lecturers and fellow students who helped me gain a slightly better understanding of the otherwise blindingly misty and contentious topic. As a politics student, this topic is what captured my attention and, as illustrated by the experiences, the confirmation of its relevance only added more fuel to the fire.