The meaning of ‘reconciliation’ is as contentious as the meaning of ‘truth’. For indigenous peoples, traditionally more than one ‘truth’ exists, and expressing what we believe is the ‘truth’ today does not mean that it will not change. This is common sense.
Many Australians see the meaning of ‘truth’ in ‘reconciliation’ differently. From my experience, this is the meaning I see today.
The main object of the Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation Act 1991 was to promote reconciliation between Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and other Australians. The aim was to help the wider community better appreciate indigenous culture and achievements, and better address the disadvantage experienced by indigenous Australians.
The Council for Reconciliation, the members of which were appointed by the Governor-General, was charged with providing a forum to discuss matters of particular concern to Australia’s indigenous communities. Much like the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission (ATSIC), however, the Council for Reconciliation was developed by the machinery of government, not by regional indigenous communities.
As part of this reconciliation project, by the time of the celebration of the centenary of Australian federation in January 2001, all Australians were to have discarded their colonial shackles and duly embraced the characteristics of modern times.
The general belief held by non-indigenous Australians of ‘settlement’ is often idealised as the pioneer struggle which tamed and industrialised a vacant continent. However, there are other indigenous and non-indigenous Australians who expressed varying degrees of another ‘truth’ – refusing to believe that all indigenous Australians had been treated equally in every area of life.
The way we embraced or rebuffed ‘reconciliation’ depended upon the way we interpreted our individual place, our family history and our participation in the dispossession of indigenous Australians.
Enthusiasm for the official ‘reconciliation’ project was stage-managed. It was a big event – the Olympics of enculturation. The posters were magnificent and glossy. Conference events and panels featured many talk-fest professionals – many of them individuals now far removed from social disadvantage, others just cultural groupies.
By 2000 the spirit of ‘reconciliation’ and its objectives had become highly politicised, most obviously in the leadup to the ‘people’s walk for reconciliation’ over the Sydney Harbour Bridge and in capital cities around the nation.
Some lauded these events as a great success, as a sign Australians had at last come to term with our ‘invasion’ history and the maltreatment of indigenous Australians. Others saw the walks as a waste of time, overrated, a demonstration of a ‘black armband’ view of our nation’s past. At this point it became clear that generations of social conditioning could not be turned around within artificial time frames.
Australian popular culture is saturated with stories of the frontier narrative. Urban and rural parks feature obelisks of settler commemoration, lit by floodlights and surrounded by exotic plants. Honoured ‘explorers’ are profiled as ‘sacred’ icons, while indigenous Australians usually appear as (or in) some kind of appendix to Australian history.
Modern Australia has generally sustained these colonial images as historical ‘truths’. Our school-age children still learn that the clock of ‘progress’ started ticking with the arrival of the First Fleet. The heritage of indigenous Australians is still referred to as ‘primitive’ or ‘stone age’ history. Which ‘truth’ do Australians believe?
For many Australians, no walk across any bridge will alter their personal ‘truth’ about indigenous identity as interpreted through the prism of colonial ideology. So what should we do? To start with, let’s abandon the quaint ‘reconciliation’ gestures of seminar-style cultural awareness training, wearing t-shirts with dots on them painted in foreign lands, and visiting Uluru.
To move on, we must really hear the ‘truth’ about ‘reconciliation’ as it is seen and lived by indigenous Australians. Until we can do this, and do it sincerely, we will remain stuck where we are. Inert in the face of poverty that shouldn’t exist in a wealthy nation like Australia.
Indigenous Australians are more than iconic representations of our culture and ancestry. Many are no longer victims of circumstance. We have reconciled our past, our ‘truth’ reflects a confident cultural and personal identity, irrespective of the shade of our skin.
The confident identity of indigenous individuals and communities begins with cultural power and knowledge. It begins with the land and the waters. It begins with our ‘truth’.
The clowns, jugglers and the circus entourage may continue to market ‘reconciliation’, legislate for social change, and announce their arrival with fanfare. But these efforts will always fall foul if each ‘truth’ is not heard.
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