Page 233 - Week 01 - Thursday, 14 February 2008
Let me consider some of those benefits today. A couple of years ago I was given the privilege of looking at the Barmah forests with Monica Morgan of the Yorta Yorta people and hearing the stories of how people lived richly on and by the river that we know as the Murray but that was called variously by the peoples who lived along it the Mobilong, the Millewa, the Murrundi or, as the Yorta Yorta themselves call it, the Dhungalla. Of course, I could not see it through Yorta Yorta eyes, but this was enough to give me a sense of how people can live sustainably in their environment for tens of thousands of years.
Because I have lived for many years near landscapes whose theft from Aboriginal owners was more recent, I have had the privilege of walking over lands marked by few settler steps. I know what it is like to look towards Mount Kosciuszko and see nothing but mountains and valleys in between, all forested. This land is not kind to people who like straight bitumen roads or a morning cafe latte—even Radio National and good TV reception. But judging by the axe heads and other tools to be found in those parts, it was home to many people over a long, long time.
Yet the story told by the second generation of white settlers in our valley was that there were not ever any Aboriginal groups living there. It was sorry country, they said, though I am sure they did not use those words. The old-timers said that this was country where, if Aboriginal people were there, it was because they had been banished from their groups—sent there as punishment: a kind of solitary confinement, which is surely the harshest punishment available apart from death.
The people who told these stories did not feel at all sorry—not by a long shot. One Sunday I, with my children, attended the 100-year anniversary of the establishment of the first school in the area. The families built it with their own hands, of course, and then they attracted a teacher. That is really commendable; that is the pioneering spirit of which we are so proud. But what were that school, those cleared lands and those roads built on the backs of? It was chilling to hear the old tales of conquering the wild land and getting rid of the stubborn savages, told as a white pioneering history.
Howard told a similar story in a more sophisticated way. He left out the nasties, but I never caught an iota of self-doubt in his judgements—this unempathic man in his comfortable mansion on the most expensive real estate in Australia looking over the bays of Sydney, bays which once teemed with fish and birds. And on the land, there were plants in myriad forms and animals plentiful enough that they could be caught with tools of wood and stone. Beautiful forests, streams and seascapes. As an Aboriginal friend said to me, “Where you see beauty, I see food.”
Today, due to the goodwill and empathy of Kevin Rudd and his government, we as a nation have the collective opportunity of saying sorry. I considered amending the motion to explicitly incorporate that word, but realised it would be churlish to do so. But if we are sorry, we should say so.
In the literal sense of the word, we are sorry for the earlier practice of taking children away from their families. This racist policy—potentially, and perhaps deliberately, genocidal—was excused by Howard and his ilk as “carried out with the best of intentions”. Few of these removals—or thefts, as Sir Ronald Wilson—called them,