In a farcical appointment, Tony Abbott, a former Prime Minister (also a farcical position for him), has become the Indigenous Envoy. A man with such a foul reputation in any issue that requires compassion or some semblance of knowledge, this role was destined to be a train wreck; if nothing else, he provides some comic relief, albeit at the expense of those he presides over. His most recent scandal? He said the “I” word: invasion.
All through my 12 years of schooling, my exposure to Indigenous history and culture was through the lens of the settlers and a school camp in grade 5. At the camp we learned boomerangs and spears were used to hunt kangaroos, and we painted our own souvenir boomerang with colours we were told were important to Indigenous culture. In high school, we learned some of the history surrounding these people – all of it was from the perspective of the colonists, including the term “terra nullius”, and referring to the natives as hunter-gatherers. We were taught about the oppression these people faced, and that many were killed, but the extent of this was heavily omitted. We looked back on this knowledge with the understanding it was wrong, but were promptly thrown into yet another unit on the World Wars.
The World Wars are important chapters of history, for sure (although much is omitted here too; other than vague references to Gallipoli, the Middle East campaigns were unknown, and the Ottoman Empire wasn’t even mentioned by name, it was simply Turkey). But it’s telling that in five years of secondary school, not one had a dedicated set of lessons about Australia’s history pre-colonial times, or any serious coverage of the first decades of contact. For a nation that considers itself proud of its history, it seems only 250 years are of any relevance to us. And from that, only one half of the story is worthy of mention.
I’m currently reading the book Dark Emu by Indigenous author Bruce Pascoe, and a couple of chapters in it is instantly clear why our knowledge of pre-colonial Australia is so limited. Within years of the first settlements and herds of sheep and cattle, the land had gone through dramatic shifts as a result of the grazing animals and the settlers. We are told people arrived to an empty land, with an “uncivilised” native population; it’s true that most arrived to see this, because any trace of a more complex society was essentially wiped out before they got here.
Pascoe’s book explains, with evidence from archaeological findings, academic studies, and diaries of the first explorers and settlers themselves, how Aboriginal society was much more complex than most believed. By the standards of England at the time, it would be considered primitive, but it was not the wasteland many called it. At least, not until the Europeans arrived. Instead of a nomadic people, roaming the lands in search of food, many were in fact housed in villages, with a rather complex and well-designed system of agriculture and aquaculture. The book details how these activities were carried out, and also explains how they were ruined following the settlements. The crops, such as grains and yams, had been carefully cultivated for many, many years, only to be walked on and eaten by herds of sheep and cattle making their way through.
The native’s livelihood was destroyed, and the farmers claimed the land. When later settlers stepped onto the country for the first time, the damage was done, and so little was known or documented of these practices. Pascoe is rather blunt when he states that this wilful ignorance made the settlers feel better about usurping the Aboriginal people from their land.
This disruption of the Aboriginal peoples’ way of life, coupled with numerous massacres (a growing map of which is being documented here), and a deliberate omission of all reference to anything above a basic ‘hunter gatherer’ level of complexity, could very well be considered an invasion from the perspective of the Indigenous. Even today, so many years later, this history is known by so few, and acknowledgement of it is abysmal. In 2009, then Prime Minister Kevin Rudd gave an apology speech in regards to the Stolen Generation and the treatment of Aboriginal people. We are still a long way from fulfilling any meaningful acknowledgement and representation of our nation’s first peoples, with our current government openly working against Indigenous interests.
That Tony Abbott, in all his infamous glory, said the word invasion at all is surprising, and one could potentially commend him for it. But it is the rest of the statement that gives context to this otherwise ground breaking acknowledgement, and reveals the true Abbott:
“Thank you for putting up with the invasion.”
We’ll thank you for your resignation when your Party collapses next election, you sad excuse for a human being.