Aboriginal voices


Voices of Aboriginal Australia: Past, Present, Future
Compiled by Irene Moores
Butterfly Books, 1995. 492 pp., $19.95 (pb)
Reviewed by Sujatha Fernandes

From the use of Aboriginal runner Cathy Freeman to advertise breakfast cereal, to the proclamation of Mabo as "historical land rights legislation", the media are saying that Aboriginal people have come into voice in mainstream society and are making gains in the system. The voices presented in this anthology are not prepared to accept this media whitewash. These voices are angry about the injustices that have been committed against Aboriginal people and the continuation of that injustice today.

The book consists of personal accounts, papers, reports, poetry, speeches and interviews, all put together by Irene Moores, who passed away before this book could be published. The book reflects Moores' lifetime of involvement in the Aboriginal movement, including her participation in the Black Deaths in Custody committee and her knowledge of 80-plus years.

The anthology presents the pain and suffering of Aboriginal people since the invasion in 1788, but it also features poems of hope by Oodgeroo Noonuccal, and prospects for the future by a range of Aboriginal people.

Throughout the book there are descriptions of injustices that have been committed against Aboriginal people. The result is a powerful presentation of a past which the politicians and the media try to brush over, but which still exists in people's hearts.

These voices point to brutal, violent dispossession and large-scale massacre of Aboriginal people, forced labour, children stolen from their families and severe injustices at the hand of the law.

From the moment the colonialists set foot on the land, Aboriginal people were treated as though they did not exist. Aboriginal people recall the hunts where white station owners would go out and shoot women, men and children as if they were shooting game. They recall being stolen from their families at the age of two and three and put into institutions where they were given cow guts in milk for breakfast and fish heads in milk for dinner. They recall their communities being exposed to fallout from nuclear tests without any concern as to the possible effects on their health.

There is a need to listen to these stories of the past to understand the present, to comprehend why Aboriginal people are still subject to violence from a racist and brutal police force, why they still face discrimination in all areas and why governments still sell out their interests to the big mining companies.

Each voice in this book points to a larger, more frightening political reality. The individual accounts of attacks by police on young Aboriginal people and deaths in police custody are not isolated events. As the book details, the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody investigated 99 deaths; since 1989, when the commission stopped investigating, another 63 have occurred.

This anthology presents history from the perspective of Aboriginal people. It provides accounts of the shocking things that Aboriginal people have been through but also celebrates their struggle to maintain their culture and identity as a people. There is a history of struggle from the early days of colonial settlement, when Aboriginal people resisted by using guerilla campaigns and "spear and run" raids, to the famous Wave Hill strike which ended with the Vestey company returning a portion of the land to the people.

The book also gives a sense of the movement that developed in the 1960s partly due to the influence of the powerful civil rights movement that was sweeping the USA at the time. Charles Perkins talks about the Freedom Ride in 1965, when a group of Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal students from Sydney University travelled around Australia holding pickets to highlight the way in which Aboriginal people were treated.

Mum Shirl describes the Tent Embassy which began when a group planted an umbrella outside Parliament house on January 26, 1972, and hung a up sign declaring it the Aboriginal Embassy.

In looking at the future, the book presents the debates on strategy and tactics adopted by the leadership of the Aboriginal movement. The voices represented here are highly critical of government attempts to address Aboriginal issues, such as the setting up of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission (ATSIC), the Mabo legislation and the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody. It is argued that Aboriginal people have to be given an opportunity to determine their own futures.

The book gives a real feel for different currents of the Aboriginal movement. Michael Mansell calls for the setting up of an Aboriginal Provisional Government. Noel Pearson speaks about the limits of the Mabo case and the danger of relying on governments to grant land rights. Paul Behrendt questions whether a republic will bring change to Aboriginal people or be the same horse with a different jockey.

This anthology is historically important, giving a sense of where the Aboriginal movement is and aiming to take the movement further by educating, spreading awareness and encouraging debate. It ties together the threads of the past with the reality of the present and projects a positive vision and sense of direction for the future.