Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Australia Day: A time for storytelling & action

Today is Australia Day, the official national day of our nation. It is celebrated on the 26 January each year. It commemorates the arrival of the First Fleet in 1788, which marked the start of British colonisation. Until recently it has been a day that some Australians have found hard to celebrate because for almost two centuries the nation largely ignored the fact that Australia’s first settlers were our Indigenous Australians who archaeologists suggest have been here for 40,000 years. Not surprisingly, Indigenous Australians have found it even harder to celebrate this day because for them the day is also a reminder of their loss when the British established occupation and control of this great land.

The bicentennial celebrations in 1988 were a significant time of discussion and opened up even more intense debate between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians. Since then much has happened culminating in Prime Minister Kevin Rudd’s apology in parliament on the 13th February 2008 on behalf of the nation. Most see this as an important first step in full reconciliation. The announcement of Professor Michael (Mick) Dodson’s AM as Australian of the Year in 2009 is also highly symbolic, important and deserved, for he is seen by many as the father of the reconciliation movement.

All of this is good, but as I argued in a previous post (here), there is no point in saying sorry if there is no action and outcomes to address the significant injustices that Indigenous Australian’s experience every day. I look forward to how our collection action can make a difference in the coming years.

So while I’m a keen supporter of the idea of a national day we need to continue to recognise the traditional owners of the land on which our nation has been built. I don’t see this as needing political action, and I don't want it be tokenistic, but I do believe that there are many stories to be told, ongoing attention to reconciliation and action to address inequities. I also see this as very important, and not simply symbolic. Saying sorry must always be accompanied by action. Australia’s federal government has shown resolve in recent times to address the significant educational needs of Indigenous children, particularly in remote communities, but we will await a later assessment of the outcomes.

Parents and teachers can also play their part in creating awareness of the issues. One way this can be done is by sharing some of the stories that address Indigenous issues. One of my favourite children’s books that seeks to do this is the acclaimed picture book ‘My Place’ by Nadia Wheatley (writer) and Donna Rawlins (illustrator) which was published in 1987 and was read widely in Australia’s bicentennial year. This book makes a strong statement about the fact that Indigenous Australians were here for thousands of years before white settlement. It is a very clever book that takes one suburban block and tells the story of this place in reverse chronological sequence decade by decade from 1988 back to 1788 when the first British Fleet landed at Botany Bay. It also acknowledges the special importance of the land and a sense of place for Indigenous people (see my post on the literary theme ‘sense of place’ here). The overall meaning of the book is shaped by multiple narrative recounts of the families who have lived in this spot, 'my place' and the changing nature of the physical landscape and built environment.

Collectively, as a nation, we have much to do to build an Australia that demonstrates justice and equitable delivery of basic services such as health, education and employment for all Australians. Today is a great day to remember this and recommit to joint action.

Related links

Key themes in children’s literature: A sense of place (here)
Better educational outcomes for Indigenous Australians (here)

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