Australia and its Native People
This article belongs to Life in Britain column.
Red sand, almost unbearable heat, and scattered shrubs of grass along the ground. In the middle of this, a funny-looking toilet house. Two entrances, one saying Sheila's and one saying Bloke's. There are pictures beside those signs too. Both the man and the woman on them look cheeky and cheerful, wearing heats and cowboy-boots - and, of course, they are white-skinned. The people coming out of that house at the moment look very different from this bloke and this sheila. Their clothes are more ragged, their hair and skin darker, their faces less cheerful. They aren't acknowledged in this country, although they are its native people.
Australia: white, sandy beaches, rainforest, the outback, glamorous cities – a country it is very hard not to like. Being there as a German tourist, I was constantly torn between affection and rage towards this place. You can be perfectly happy there, blissfully happy, if you just ignore Australia's native people: the Aborigines, or "Aboriginal people", as they are referred to Down Under. On arrival in Sydney, I hardly see any of them at all. As people tell me, most of them live in Redfern, a ghetto-like suburb with a high criminal rate. Sydney people don't like them much, because they have a reputation of robbing innocent white people. Innocent?
On my first weekend, I take a trip to the Blue Mountains. Unfortunately, we have picked a very bad day for going there. The "Three Sisters", three majestic mountains with an Aboriginal legend, are completely covered in fog. Just like a solitary Aborigine sitting at the viewing platform, blowing into a didgeridoo. It is the first time I hear this sound live, and it goes straight through my bones. Australia's native people: they are there, but they are not really seen. Aboriginal legends are told by white people. Aboriginal history is sold to white people, by white people. Australia's cities are full of glamorous, white people. It is a perfect country. A wonderful country to holiday in. A privilege to come here. But what about the people who have always been here?
One of my nights in Sydney, an Australian TV channel is showing the movie "Rabbit Proof Fence". Until less than 100 years ago, children who had some white blood in them used to be taken away from their Aborigine parents. Usually without warning. They were taken to boarding schools hundreds of miles away from their homes, never to see their parents again. The "Daily Telegraph", an Australian newspaper, referred to this as "policies to assimilate Aborigines into white society", at least admitting that "these had involved the people leaving behind their culture" (The Daily Telegraph, supplement "How Did That Happen, Part 5, Earth Works – Aborigines Show How to Master the Land, the Boomerang and the Didgeridoo", November 2004). This is the only reference that the supplement cited here makes to maltreatment of Aborigines. The rest of this work is mainly concerned with Aboriginal history. No white reader is likely to take offence to any of this.
The day after watching that movie, I was in a complete rage. Reading Bill Bryson's "Down Under", I can only laugh at his characterisation of this country as "stable, peaceful and good". Isn't it a bit odd to say this about a country most of whose people have been treated that way for years? People who have never done harm to anyone. Who have a completely different life style that white people cannot accept. So what if those people don't embrace the "white" lifestyle either? Why blame them? Why call them primitive? Why say that they are not capable of human emotions?
It is hard not to get heated up about this topic. Even Aussies do. Such friendly, polite people, you hardly ever hear any raised voices in this country. People say "sorry" to you if you bump them on the road. City rangers show you the way to karaoke bars, and if they can't help you themselves, they will phone colleagues. Sweet people, they shorten their words ("chokies" for chocolate, "Bikkies" for biscuits, "Brekkie" for breakfast", etc). But there is another side to them too. They have a wicked sense of humour, and are always ready to say something politically uncorrect. Which can be hilarious, or confusing, and often leaves the European observer unsure whether they should be offended or amused.
One thing nobody gets amused about is the topic of Aborigines. It is avoided everywhere. Life in Australia is truly most pleasant if you just ignore the existance of its native people. Look around Alice Springs. People come there because they want to see the Red Centre. Aboriginal culture. But who teaches you about this Aboriginal culture? White people. Some shops around Alice Springs are owned by Aborigines. At least that. But what about the flocks of Aborigines sitting by the street side, unemployed, intoxicated by alcohol? That is not what tourists want to see, so they are simply ignored. Instead, people go past them and buy a didgeridoo in one of the shops, to bring home. How many of them are going to tell their friends about the life of Aborigines today? And if they do, will they judge the natives as alcoholics and criminals, or will they acknowledge the facts that there are no jobs and no perspectives for them? That white settlers have taken a land that was never rightfully theirs and reduced its true owners to shadows of themselves and their ancestors?
Sure, things have changed for the better. Aborigines finally "attained" the Australian citizenshipin 1967. After being treated as foreigners in their own country for many years! They have also been given back some of their land. They got back their sacred rock Uluru (Ayers Rock), but only under the condition that tourists be allowed to visit and even climb that rock. Sure, an airport and a camp right next to the rock have been torn down, and tourists now stay in Yulara, some miles away from the rock. However, Uluru is a sacred place, and only a high-ranking Aborigine chieftain is allowed to climb it. Tourists climbing up the rock violate this every day. Sure, they are "requested" not to do so nowadays. But who will use force with tourists who have travelled thousands of miles just to climb this rock? Tourists bring in money, and are unlikely to bring out the news that climbing the rock is in fact not as natural and acceptable as it seems to everyone.
Is it any wonder that Aborigines are unwilling to tell us about their legends themselves? Our tour guide, an Aussie, seemed genuinely sad about the situation. He told us some of their legends, mentioning that those were only those stories which Aborigines had been ready to tell to white people. There are many more they have kept to themselves, which I don't find very surprising. There were two Australian women in my tour group. While all the foreigh tourists listened and watched more or less intently as our guide told us about drawings in the rock and corresponding legends, those women sat at the edge of the rock with their backs to all of us. I am sure they had their reasons.
Aborigines are given high welfare payments from the government. They are, in fact, higher than payments for white Australians, which makes those furious. But what are they given this money for? As an indirect apology for their treatment in the past and present? (The government has never officially apologized.) Or just as a reward for keeping away from public life, as a compensation for not being accepted in jobs created by Australian employers? Look around New Zealand, you will see Maori people everywhere, and it is completely natural to see them working in all kinds of jobs. The situation between New Zealanders and Maoris is not free of conflict, but still, there is nothing of the tension in the air that you can experience between Australian immigrants and its natives. I stayed in Australia for six weeks, and the only time I saw an Aborigine working was when one served me in a roadhouse in the Red Centre. They also sold Aboriginal crafts there, whose revenue went directly to the artists themselves. Seeing this was great, but it was an exception.
The question that remains now is, what do we make of Australia? It's such a lovable country. Its sights are spectacular, its cities magnificent, its people open and friendly. Public transport is efficient and reliable. It's a dream country. A dream come true. A dream that has been created by destroying the life of its native people. People who lived in peace with their environment, who did not care about making profits, who never took more from the country than they needed for survival. Now their time is over, and a new group of people has taken over Australia – turning it into a dream country which has become a nightmare for some.