By Sean Burke
Location matters. We cannot ignore our surrounds, or the people who have lived here for thousands of generations. The connection of indigenous people to the land is a gift that they can share with all others, but one which has been seriously undervalued.
Mainstream of society in Australia has, for the last 200 years, tried very hard to distinguish itself from the Aboriginal people. This has taken on many forms. Then, as time went on, various attempts were made to bridge that gap of understanding, and of culture.
When I went to school, the emphasis seemed to be upon mere intellectual understanding. The idea was that attending the odd movie and writing reports on Aboriginal culture and traditions (taught by a European Australian who had read it in a book) would help to bring about harmony.
In more recent years, there have been many programmes that try to bring children first hand experiences of their local Aboriginal cultures, both contemporary and traditional.
A few years ago, I came to understand that in order for there to be a real understanding between the mainstream and the disenfranchised Aboriginal population, the mainstream would have to ‘become a little bit Aboriginal’.
But then I realised that we already are. Language was the key. I realised that there were absolutely thousands of Aboriginal words in active use in Australia, both in the language proper and in place names, and also that the Australian accent has the influence of Aboriginal tongues. In other words, I realised that I spoke an Australian English language that was partly formed out of Aboriginal languages. This is not to say other tongues weren’t also important, such as Irish, Scottish or Cockney, but whereas we are ready to accept that our English might be a bit Irish, we might find it confronting to try to accept that our English is partly Aboriginal. It shouldn’t be. Over millennia it has always been the case that a conquering people take on some of the attributes of the local subjugated people. Over time they become indistinguishable.
Shall I claim that I am a Norman, like the Deburghs of 1000 years ago? There are no Normans any more. In Australia we might start to say that there are no English here anymore, only part English, part Aboriginal, part other, and thus Australian, people.
It isn’t a matter of blood, but of culture, of which language is a major aspect.
Everyone who has lived in Australia for any significant time, and particularly anyone who was born here, is, culturally, part Aboriginal. The current tendency is to avoid, be ignorant of, or deny this.
In the American context, poet Robert Frost, in his poem The Gift Outright, wrote: “…something we were withholding made us weak
Until we found out that it was ourselves…”
Not only is the way we speak in Australia a little bit Aboriginal, but also is the way we relate, the way we dance and sing and paint, the way we joke, the way we deal with distress and loss, the way we move over the land, the way we think.
The current challenge in Australia is for the mainstream Aussies to embrace their own part-Aboriginality, which is present in the way they are, in their culture and their very soul life.
Once we begin to understand this, it has ramifications for the way we teach, learn and live.