By Ganur Maynard
In the wake of this year’s National Reconciliation Week and the lead up to NAIDOC Week, Mr Palanirajan’s opinion piece in the July 2019 edition of this publication was a disappointing reminder of how poorly Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples are understood in Australia, not least by those who profess to champion our cause. For those who haven’t read the piece, Mr Palanirajan was underwhelmed by this year’s National Reconciliation Week and believes that it and programs like it—including the contemporary practice of non-Indigenous people giving acknowledgements of country—accomplish little for reconciliation.
Unsurprisingly, Mr Palanirajan offers very little insight into what would achieve reconciliation, nor does he conceptualise what reconciliation and National Reconciliation Week are. He fails to identify that, at its core, reconciliation is about improving the relationship between Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples. Each year, programs are run under the auspices of National Reconciliation Week in the hope that Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians might learn about our shared histories and explore how we can all contribute to achieving reconciliation in our communities. The events are held from 27 May to 3 June to commemorate two significant achievements of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples’ agency in the pursuit of reconciliation . The first is the 1967 referendum, which followed Charles Perkins and others’ exposé of the anti-Indigenous racism that plagues some parts of Australian culture. The second is Eddie Koiki Mabo’s successful native title campaign in the Torres Strait, which overturned the legal fiction of terra nullius to recognise that we owned our land when Europeans arrived in this country.
The message made by the choice of dates is clear: we are not passive objects of government, but have an active role to play in reconciliation in this country. Consider this year’s theme, which focused on ‘truth-telling’, drawing on the 2017 Uluru Statement’s call for the establishment of a commission to conduct a comprehensive national historical account of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples’ experiences in this country. It’s a common focus for a week that is all about understanding where we came from to know where we’re going. More importantly, and especially with respect to the Uluru Statement, the week is about giving Indigenous people the agency to make the changes to this country that we know would improve the conditions under which many of us continue to suffer today.
However, Mr Palanirajan believes that a reconciliation week just isn’t “the right way to go about” reconciliation. His evidence: the fact that he didn’t pay attention to the Aboriginal guest speakers during a high school event. I’m sorry that Mr Palanirajan doesn’t remember any National Reconciliation Week except for the one that had the atmosphere of “a funeral with an interesting soundtrack”, but I think that the problem isn’t the program itself. Rather, his attitude toward Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples comes across as problematic. Take the anecdote in which Mr Palanirajan regales us of the heady, “horny”(?) years of his high school career, when a group of “20 Aboriginal people suddenly appeared at [his] school” to talk about reconciliation. In this tale, Mr Palanirajan adopts the age-old allegory of the childish Aborigine and the mature non-Indigene. In his eyes, the twenty Aboriginal men and women, who ostensibly expected to be respected while talking about their culture during a formal event, become 7-year-olds who are giddy with the prospect of watching Disney’s Frozen for the fiftieth time. Meanwhile, the inattentive teenagers in the audience play the role of the bored parents who are forced to sit through yet another rendition of an animated but vacuous performance. It’s a role reversal of epic proportions and a deeply disturbing metaphor.
But I’m not convinced that all non-Indigenous Australians share Mr Palanirajan’s paternalistic brand of boredom during cultural events. Despite the sad fact that the majority of non-Indigenous Australians think that they have little day-to-day interaction with their Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander compatriots, almost all of them believe that the relationship between the cultures is important. Further, 64% agree that cultural diversity makes the country stronger, notwithstanding the popular media’s unrelenting war on multiculturalism and ‘identity politics’. I’d go so far as to wager that the majority of the students of this institution appreciate the value of what Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders have to say when talking about culture and reconciliation.
I’d also hope that most people don’t share Mr Palanirajan’s ignorance of the cultural protocols that inform an acknowledgement to country. However, on this count I fear that his opinion piece was depressingly symptomatic of a growing misunderstanding in this country. Many well-meaning critics might agree that the acknowledgements we’ve started to hear before events are absurdities, whose failure to address the ‘real’ Indigenous disadvantage that the Closing the Gap metrics measure is all the more egregious for the irony that the acknowledgement of ownership is not accompanied by an actual return of land. In fairness, I agree that acknowledgements might appear incongruous with the reality of colonialism, which has ripped the land from First Nations peoples except where there was no (usually economic) imperative to do so. But how does denigrating Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander culture remediate this, or repay the “200-year-old debt” that Mr Palanirajan believes First Nations are owed?
The truth is, when an acknowledgement of a country’s Traditional Owners is made, an ancient and powerful custom is kept alive and all Australians get a chance to express a shared connection to the world’s oldest living culture. An acknowledgement hearkens back to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander nations’ practice of seeking permission to visit the land of another tribe. Giving an acknowledgement involves participating in Indigenous culture and educating oneself and one’s audience of the history of the land on which people meet. It is different to a Welcome to Country, in which a member of the land’s Traditional Owners grants that permission to people who are visiting. And, when it is made from the heart, it is not the empty gesture of political correctness that Mr Palanirajan and other patronisingly ‘edgy’ commentators would have you believe, but a sign that Australia is moving toward a more multicultural and therefore stronger future. If Mr Palanirajan had bothered to research the purpose of an acknowledgement, or asked an Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander community of its thoughts on the practice, he might have learnt that it is fundamental part of what we should expect from visitors to our lands.
There will be many who, like Mr Palanirajan, still doubt whether National Reconciliation Week and acknowledgements of country do anything to improve the statistics that cultural conservatives love to hold out as the ultimate and exclusive indicators of Indigenous wellbeing—alcoholism and literacy. I’d remind them of what these practices of reconciliation are really about: self-determination and genuine respect for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures. In fact, while embracing Indigenous culture and granting Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples the respect to determine our own affairs might not always appeal to the universalist liberal logic that reduces cultures to a measurement of their deviation from the non-Indigenous norm, it might actually lead to better outcomes for our peoples, even those quantified in conservatives’ reductionist terms.
To that end, if you find yourself wondering whether you should acknowledge Indigenous peoples’ connection to land, you would do better to avoid Mr Palanirajan’s mistake. Instead, why not start by listening to and engaging with Indigenous voices? You likely spend more time around Indigenous people than you might think. Contrary to Mr Palanirajan’s suggestion that “there’s no one to receive” UNSW’s Indigenous scholarships (I’ve never held one personally, but I would be eligible to apply for them and know plenty of brilliant Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students who do), there are many Indigenous students on campus who would be happy to engage in a frank but respectful discussion with you.
If these discussions start happening on a larger scale, even Mr Palanirajan might realise that something exceptional can come from acts of reconciliation.
Ganur Maynard is a final year Arts/Law student at UNSW and proud descendant of central NSW’s Kamileroi people. Fan of candid discussions on Indigenous affairs that incorporate Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander voices. Not a fan of the all-too-common experience of being spoken down to by those who think they know better.