Kevin Rudd’s National Apology was a moving occasion for many Australians, including Indigenous musician Kutcha Edwards. But a year on, Kutcha is less moved by those memories and not at all impressed with Rudd’s follow-up.
"In 1967, we [gained]citizenship but in the same year we’re forcibly removed from our mother, Mary Edwards and our father, Nugget Edwards, to be institutionalised. Not because we had done anything wrong to society, not because we had climbed through someone’s window and burgled their house, but because of the simple fact that we were born this colour."
Kutcha Edwards described this shameful irony on the ABC’s 7.30 Report and again to much of the media who were gathered in Canberra on 13 February 2008 to cover the historic national Apology. The heaviness of the occasion weighed on his voice.
"My father, Nugget Edwards, went to his grave thinking, ‘I mustn’t be much of a father if I can’t keep my family together,’ you know. It wasn’t his fault — it was these people in this building up here, not specifically them but what they represent.
When reporter Tracee Hutchinson asked Kutcha what the day meant to him, he said "For me, it means a spiritual healing".
The emotions were well documented a year ago. Pictured in The Age, Kutcha’s harrowed face showed a startling mix of grief and relief.
The Edwards’ family story is well documented too. Much of the singer-songwriter’s body of work deals with the emotional impacts of being forcibly taken at 18 months of age from his parents in Balranald, in New South Wales, along with five of his brothers and sisters. He and his siblings spent many of the years that followed at Orana Children’s Home in Melbourne’s east and although he met his mother when he was seven it wasn’t until he was 14 that he was eventually reunited with her. In the 2008 play Songlines of a Mutti Mutti Man, Kutcha and several of his siblings retrace the Edwards family’s story of this dreadful separation and its consequences. The Age coverage of the Apology last year described the incredible story of seven surviving members of the family coming together for the occasion.
But a year on, Kutcha can’t find the words that expressed those emotions. His first comments when I ask him to recollect the day describe feeling torn between the attention he attracted and the wish to grieve privately with his family.
"It was weird for me, because I had a lot of media wanting to know what was going on with me, how I felt, what I thought … And all you really want to do is, all you are really doing is — like at funerals — remembering. And for me it was about remembering my mother and father, my brother and even my nephew and that is what that day was really all about. So it was bittersweet."
Kutcha is a prominent figure in Victoria’s Indigenous community. As an acclaimed musician, an actor, broadcaster and community worker, he has become nationally and internationally recognised. At 43 years of age he has a personal history of successful public endeavour – from starring on the football field to filling music halls with his resonant voice and aching lyrics. His own sense of fractured identity, the time he has spent inside institutions and the reunion with his family shapes his albums Cooinda (2002) and Hope (2007). The lyrics are poems to his relationships with his mother and son, his father and brothers and they carry messages which speak openly to his Indigenous and non-Indigenous fans.
Some parts of the day are still pretty vivid though. "I even got offered to go into the Great Hall by a Federal MP," he says, "and you think to yourself, ‘Yeah I could go in there, but why would I?’ It’s meaningless if you are not with your family when you are remembering all this. All that I was subjected to, all of us were subjected to this ridiculous situation. So that day was about my family, and without family you are nothing really."
A lengthy pause follows and I bring up the obvious irony that the whole policy was about separating families. "Well exactly. Of course I wanted to be with my family — my brothers and sisters and nieces and nephews and remembering, you know, our past."
Kutcha is comfortable in the spotlight, and he generously shares his story of survival and success. But he does so humbly because he knows that not many people with a background like his have been as lucky. So it is no surprise he was popular with the media and was interviewed and photographed extensively about his feelings on the day of the Apology.
At the same time his misgivings raise the question about the purpose and value of a symbolic event like that — what really are the lasting benefits to Indigenous people of what remains a private experience of acknowledgement and mourning, especially given that their mourning takes place within a very public event shared by non-Indigenous people all over the country?
As far as the efforts of the Prime Minister are concerned, Kutcha is visibly unmoved. "To be realistic the [Australian] states had already started dealing with the [Reconciliation] debate. So Rudd has done what he has he done, but nothing concrete has changed. You know, in real terms it brought about a lot of onlooking, not much else. A year on, nothing has happened. It’s just like any other year that has passed beforehand. The Apology doesn’t really change much."
The question of justice casts a long shadow over whatever relief he may have felt at the time of last year’s acknowledgement. His work within the community and especially with young Indigenous people in prisons and schools motivates him, and shows, he says, that the institutionalisation of Indigenous people is still systemic, cutting short their youth and childhood as his was.
When we talk about whether he sees any of this shifting since the Apology, his frustration emerges. "Obviously [Rudd] wanted to make that step of acknowledgement, but then at the same time, he still maintains the status quo with things like the [Northern Territory] intervention. So he still has that welfare mentality.
"It’s great to think that just because Kevin Rudd apologised its time to move on. But how can you really move on when nothing is going to change in bureaucracy and the psyche of Australia?"
His first-hand experience of injustice and a stark evaluation of the past year may also explain a bitter edge that sharpens Kutcha’s voice.
"It’s all Pie in the Sky now, you know? My brother is still in hospital. My mother is in her grave, my father is in his grave. I am still chasing my tail trying to make change with the people I come into contact with in my life.
"We blackfellas live day-to-day. We can’t look 10 years down the track and say economically we will have this and that, because we are struggling to make tomorrow a better day."
He hesitates then says something disturbing, something that could be forgotten in the solemn significance of apologising and the sense of relief that we finally, publicly acknowledged one horror of Australia’s race history. "But that apology would have brought up a lot more hatred among the racists."
I don’t want to hear this. So the racist elements in white Australia have gained something from the Apology? "I would say yes. Because now they can say "well, you got what you f*cking wanted, now what are you going to complain about?"
It’s an ugly possibility. Kutcha is a pragmatic person. He knows the streets, he knows what its like to be spat on, slandered, denied entry, beaten, insulted, manipulated – treated like an Indigenous person. Kutcha never says too much about those experiences, but this one statement is a reminder that he is witness to a disturbing capacity for hatred which denies the reality of such things.
I ask Kutcha about his thoughts on compensation. He is quick to answer, and emphatic. "Money won’t change the lost years. No amount of money can give me what I lost when I was taken away from my mother and father. I think education is more important than money. This story — the truth — should be in the curriculums. Compensation is pointless for me."
On the evening when I first talked to Kutcha about the Apology, the world was abuzz with the ideas of hope and change. That morning Barack Obama had been inaugurated. I asked Kutcha what it would take for him to feel he was seeing some real progress in Australia and again he had no hesitation in answering.
"True land rights. Our own representative body that isn’t a token gesture to government, that can govern our own future, our own destiny. Where we hold the purse strings."
"And I just need people to be aware that I was put in an institution because of the colour of my skin. It’s ludicrous. Especially today when a black American is inaugurated as the 44th president. The same day, people in this country still don’t understand the reasons why I was institutionalised."
Well, I ask, do you think Australians now have more opportunity to understand that because of the Apology? I am starting to feel like I am fishing for good news. "Well, they understand that there were policies now."
That’s not very much comfort. My final question is whether he thinks the election of a black President in the United States would be a source of inspiration to the Indigenous people that he works with here in Australia. Kutcha doesn’t say either way, but laments the incoming President referring to the United States as a "young" nation, knowing that Indigenous American people would be upset by the reference just as Indigenous Australians are. Still, he says he "fell into the moment’ and was moved by the whole thing.
Could he imagine there would ever be a black Australian Prime Minister? "I can’t see that happening here. But it would be a great day if and when it does."
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