Friday, July 09, 2021

NAIDOC Week 2021 - reflections on the meaning of Country


My Country. Gordon Smith, Stormy Morning

The theme of this year's NAIDOC Week is Heal Country. The NAIDOC web site describes is in this way:

The NAIDOC 2021 theme – Heal Country! – calls for all of us to continue to seek greater protections for our lands, our waters, our sacred sites and our cultural heritage from exploitation, desecration, and destruction.

Country that is more than a place and inherent to our identity.

Country that we speak about like a person, sustaining our lives in every aspect - spiritually, physically, emotionally, socially, and culturally.

NAIDOC 2021 invites the nation to embrace First Nations’ cultural knowledge and understanding of Country as part of Australia's national heritage and equally respect the culture and values of Aboriginal peoples and Torres Strait Islanders as they do the cultures and values of all Australians.

For generations we have been calling for stronger measures to recognise, protect, and maintain all aspects of our culture and heritage.

We are still waiting for those robust protections.

This year’s theme also seeks substantive institutional, structural, and collaborative reform – something generations of our Elders and communities have been advocating, marching and fighting for.

Healing Country means finally resolving many of the outstanding injustices which impact on the lives of our people.

It is about hearing and actioning the aspirations of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples which are the culmination of generations of consultation and discussions among our nations on a range of issues and grievances.    

In a way, this description is confusing because it mixes together a number of different things. In this post, I want to concentrate one thing, the sense of Country. 

                                My Country. Julia Griffin Rain on the Uralla Road

I once tried to explain the difference between the Aboriginal perspective and that of the new European settlers in this way: to the Aboriginal peoples, the present was an extension of a living past, to the Europeans, a point towards a still to be defined but hoped for future. The Aboriginal perspective was carried through in various kinship systems that effectively integrated the natural and human environment by placing plant, animal and physical features within kinship systems. 

The modern Aboriginal idea of Country and connection to Country draws from this traditional base although it carries connotations that reflect the  Aboriginal historical experience, including the desire to re-establish and re-assert links to past connections and experiences destroyed by European colonisation. In a way, the idea of Country and healing Country is part of a set of beliefs linked to but independent of the original history, a set of beliefs that has now gained a living presence, creating its own history.

The Celtic Revival provides an example of a similar process in a European environment. This drew in part from historical grievances, in part from a sense of loss, in part from a romanticized version of the past.  In doing so it aimed to recover elements of that past, including language revival. It also incorporated mystical elements drawing from Celtic folklore that have had a huge impact in, among other things, fiction including in fantasy world. The ABC TV series Cleverman (a series I greatly enjoyed) provides an Aboriginal example.

                                    My Country. Gordon Smith Winter Morn 

When I first came across the Aboriginal sense of Country, my instinctive reaction was Yes! because it so exactly mirrored my reactions to the area in which I grew up, which remains my Country today.  Later, when I worked with Aboriginal people, I came to understand why Country was so important to people whose pasts had been so disrupted. Without that contact they were adrift in a way I sometimes felt faced with the destruction of the immediate past and present, with distance from my home, with my inability to do things that might protect, preserve and create. 

Some may argue, and especially those deracinated Australians who have lost connection with place, that the comparisons are not comparable. How can I as an older white male from a middle class background who has gained from the benefits of settler society, from the benefits of dispossession, possibly understand, share? In response, I would argue several things. 

From my experience, there is a thirst among many Australians to establish their own place in their family histories, to link back to the places they and their families have come from, to establish connection with the places they now live. Many, and especially older Australians from regional backgrounds who have moved on but now hark back to their past, share and re-share stories and images from places that were, in their thinking, their own Country. I know all this from my experience as a regional historian, from my participation in groups such as Armidale Families Past and Present. 

In my own case, my mind is filled with experiences, stories and images that now incorporate the deep history of Aboriginal New England however imperfectly. I am a story teller who has ended in the role as preserver of memories. My mind is full of stories. Those stories are all linked in some way to land, to Country.  
To my mind, the Aboriginal concept of Country holds out important possibilities for healing the gap between between Indigenous and non-Indigenous society. In understanding the Aboriginal concept of Country we learn about Aboriginal society and history. We can better support action to heal the past. But we also learn more about our own concepts of Country, about the things that are important to us. 

Sunday, July 04, 2021

NAIDOC Week - reflections on the teaching of Aboriginal history

Aboriginal languages, NSW at the time of European Occupation. In 1788 there were at least 250 Aboriginal languages on the Australian continent incorporating multiple dialects. 

I see that Neil Whitfield has put up his annual post(s) on NAIDOC Week.  The Week celebrations are held across Australia each July to celebrate the history, culture and achievements of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. NAIDOC is celebrated not only in Indigenous communities, but by Australians from all walks of life. This year the Week begins today, 4 July.

I am less familiar with NAIDOC Week than I was when working as a contractor for the Aboriginal Housing Office, NAIDOC Week was a major celebration, Now many years later and miles away, my current activities have caused me to reflect on the teaching of Aboriginal history. 

As regular readers will know, I have been teaching a full semester (six month) course on the history of the broader New England. As shown by the map, the study area covers the  New England Tablelands and the surrounding river valleys to the north, south, east and west. This is a large area, larger than many European counties including England, incorporating many sub regions. 

The first part of the course traces the history of Aboriginal New England from out of Africa perhaps 72,000 years ago though to 1788. I deal with the impact pf European occupation including the Aboriginal response in two lectures and then try to incorporate subsequent Aboriginal history as elements in the course.

The course has been more demanding than expected. Last year's course was stopped in its tracks by covid requiring it to be spread over the full year. Then I structured first semester 2021 into two groups with with two discussion groups, a structure based in part on the risk that covid might limit the numbers that could be accommodated in the available space. One result was that I ended up with two full lectures a week plus a discussion session. Now I am planning the the third session restructured again to take covid into account. This will start in a bit under two weeks, 

The numbers involved are not large, This is an adult education course, not a fully credentialed course targeting larger student numbers delivered within the University system. I did trial external delivery via  Facebook group but found that the combination of technical difficulties with my limited time and  skills prevented proper action. Still, by the end of 2021 I expect to have some 80 people completing the introductory course with a core group of perhaps 20 who want to go onto further discussion.

The participant reaction to the Aboriginal segments has been interesting. Almost universally, people have liked the story from out of Africa to 1788 because I am telling a story that they have never heard, one informed by new scientific discoveries that throw sudden light on a deep past, Nearly everybody wants this section to be much longer as we try to explore some of the changing detail of Aboriginal history and life. 

The Serpentine stone arrangements east of Armidale are one of the major Aboriginal ceremonial sites 

Having completed the story of Aboriginal New England I turn to European settlement sketching the penal and pastoral periods ignoring the impacts on Aboriginal peoples. I chose this route because it seemed to me that you needed to understand the pattern of European occupation before you could understand how it affected the Aborigines. When I do address the impact of European occupation people have some knowledge of the long Aboriginal history as well as the patterns and drivers of the settler arrival, 

 I also try to focus on the Aboriginal response.  To my mind, this makes it easier to understand just what happened. In teaching. I try to avoid the current focus on massacres. I do so a number of reasons. 

To begin with, a massacre focus is both contested and also largely ignores the multiple factors involved including disease and destruction of habitat.  It also treats the Aborigines as passive victims rather than people with agency responding to events that they could not directly control but did respond to as best they could. Presented objectively, it leads people to a sense of shock. It also lies the base for the later treatment of Aboriginal history. Herein lies a problem if we think of Aboriginal history after colonisation as uneasy co-existence, resistance and then survival and now, hopefully, recovery. 

The key problem from  my viewpoint lies in the absence of current writing that I can draw from.  As a general historian writing on a particular area, I necessarily have to rely on secondary sources, I can only do so much original research. There is enough material to allow me to sketch some of the history including key events, but not enough to present a proper synthesis.

This deserves a separate post at some point.

While useful, most national histories suffer because they are based on generalisations, focused on particular key events, The problem here is that Aboriginal history is local, family, regional and jurisdiction based. Only when you have looked at this level can you generate a proper national perspective. And here we have too few regional or jurisdiction studies. 

I try to teach history in an objective way, based on the evidence that I have. Of course, I have my own biases. 

When I look at Aboriginal history post British settlement including especially the attitudes of the best intentioned members of European society, I find myself myself shaking my head and saying "how could you believe that?!"  Too a substantial degree, the worst damage has been done not by the usual suspects but by those who really wanted to make a difference. I suspect that this may be true today. 

When I present post frontier events including the role of prejudice I find my class shaking their heads in shock. When I present evidence showing how far the Aboriginal peoples have come from disaster I have found the same reaction. This leads me to my final point. 

As a non-Aboriginal person teaching elements of Aboriginal history, I constantly strike trouble. Many, non-Aboriginal as well as Aboriginal, believe that Aboriginal history  can only be taught by Aboriginal people. 

I do not accept that view. As I reflect on NAIDOC week, I would like to think that my history teaching makes a difference, one that will contribute to our share future.    

Saturday, July 03, 2021

Confusions over AstraZeneca

Clyde reading local history.

I have a certain sympathy for Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce who was fined Monday for his failure to wear a mask. He had filled the car with petrol and then went inside the service station to pay mask-less. Someone reported the matter to the police.

We haven't had to wear masks in our area. The decision to mandate them from Sunday despite the absence of covid here was taken as a consequence of the current Sydney outbreak.

Sunday morning kitten Clyde was found paralyzed and unmoving on the bathroom floor requiring an emergency visit to the vet. The vet suggested a visit to the next door McDonalds for coffee while she ran tests. We entered and after a little while were told that they could not serve us if we did not have a mask. Wandering downtown I was able to get a coffee at one of the stalls at the monthly market. I noticed that there were more masks around although wearing was still patchy. 

I still wasn't sure what was going on. Coming home, I called in at the small corner store then at the little bottle-oh. In both cases I was served but told that masks were now mandatory. Now there was a problem. To get masks at the chemist I had to enter the shopping centre and then the chemist but could not do so without a mask! Finally, I found an old one and using that acquired some disposable masks. 

Monday I had to buy something, dashed out, reached my destination and realised that I did not have my mask.  I came home. Had I been going to a self-serve petrol outlet I might have found myself in the same position as Mr Joyce, filling and then unable to pay without breaching the regulations. 

As I said, I have a certain sympathy for Mr Joyce. However, there is a broader issue, the break-down in the social consensus that has made covid restrictions successful. All jurisdictions bear some responsibility for this. Some examples to illustrate. 

"I don't want an 18-year-old in Queensland dying from a clotting illness who, if they got COVID, probably wouldn't die.

"We have had very few deaths due to COVID-19 in Australia in people under the age of 50 and wouldn't it be terrible that our first 18-year-old in Queensland who dies related to this pandemic, died because of the vaccine.

Queensland's Chief Health Officer Jeannette Young 

The issues associated with AstraZeneca have been widely covered. By the time I received my first injection I was worried about side-effects, but decided that the risk was worthwhile given my age. Since then, official advice has varied although the epidemiological evidence has not really changed. 

The emotional intervention by Queensland Chief Health Officer Jeannette Young following the Prime Minister's announcement that AstraZeneca could be accessed by younger Australians was a dramatic over-reaction that, to my mind, reflected the pressures upon her as well as the political stance adopted by the Queensland Premier. 

The take-home message that the risks of a younger person dying from covid were less than those rare reactions from AstraZeneca strikes at the heart of the vaccination program, feeding into the narrative that the AstraZeneca vaccine is unsafe. It also feeds into the broader anti-vaxxer story that all vaccines are unsafe. If the risks of a young person dying from covid are lower than those associated with vaccination why bother getting vaccinated? Why take the risk? 

The issue is not helped by disagreements among professionals. Each jurisdiction states that it relies on its health experts, that its policy decisions are based on health advice. Leaving aside differences among experts, this statement is misleading in that the decision on that health advice is affected by political circumstances and judgements. This is not a criticism, simply an observation. 

The requests from Queensland, Victoria and Western Australia to reduce the quotas on overseas arrivals in Australia are inherently political. Take Queensland as an example. 

Queensland is running up against capacity constraints in the existing hotel quarantine system. That's a genuine constraint from a public policy viewpoint. The question of the best way of expanding the quarantine system is a public policy question. However, the broader expressed concerns about the risks of covid leakage from the quarantine system and the responses involve a mix of public heath and political responses. 

The public health question involves an assessment of risk and how that risk might best be managed. The political response focuses on the likely community impact and associated costs. These issues involve political as well as public policy responses including how much risk the community is prepared to bear as well a public concerns about preferential treatment for particular groups. .

Simplifying, the Prime Minister's core announcement was an indemnity scheme that would make it easier for those under 40 to accept AstraZeneca should they choose to do so, The responsibility here rests upon individuals who have been advised of the risks by their doctors. This seems perfectly appropriate to me.  Since the announcement, there appears to have been a rush of younger Australians to get the AZ jab. This makes perfect sense to me. 

Each Australian jurisdiction from the Commonwealth down focuses on those presently living and especially voting  within its jurisdiction. This makes perfect sense, but ignores changes elsewhere in a world that is now opening up despite the virus. To many younger mobile Australians, it makes sense to get vaccinated now with AZ not just because it reduces their immediate risks but because it will enable them to travel when the borders open - as they must.

Oh, just to finish, Clyde's x-rays suggested a possible spinal fracture or head damage from a fall or alternatively some form of thrombosis, The prognosis was grim. By nightfall, he was showing some sign of movement although the vet warned he might not last the night. By morning, he was moving and ate something, although he seemed to suffer from sight loss. By the time we picked him up, he was able to walk and was complaining. The vets were amazed!