July 1, 2016

Editor’s Note

Editor’s Note July 2016

By Nick Feik

This month in a landmark essay, the great indigenous leader Galarrwuy Yunupingu writes about his history and culture, and sums up a lifetime of his thinking about relations between settler and Aboriginal cultures.

“My father had to sacrifice much, too much, to reconcile his life with the ways of the modern world,” he says.

What Aboriginal people ask is that the modern world now make the sacrifices necessary to give us a real future. To relax its grip on us. To let us breathe, to let us be free of the determined control exerted on us to make us like you. And you should take that a step further and recognise us for who we are, and not who you want us to be … Acknowledge that we have survived the worst that the past had thrown at us, and we are here with our songs, our ceremonies, our land, our language and our people – our full identity. What a gift this is that we can give you, if you choose to accept us in a meaningful way.

Yunupingu writes that all the prime ministers he has known – at least six of them – “have been friendly to me, but I mark them all hard”. None has delivered what they promised, he says, “for a prime minister is beholden to his party and to the parliament, which in turn is held by the Australian people”. He continues:

And the Australian people seem to disapprove of my simple truths, or the idea of proper reconciliation. The Australian people do not wish to recognise me for who I am – with all that this brings – and it is the Australian people whom the politicians fear. The Australian people know that their success is built on the taking of the land, in making the country their own, which they did at the expense of so many languages and ceremonies and songlines – and people – now destroyed. They worry about what has been done for them and on their behalf, and they know that reconciliation requires much more than just words.

This is a damning claim by Yunupingu, but its truth is undeniable. He then issues a challenge that will remain with us, making a mockery of all good intentions, until we accept it.

So the task remains: to reconcile with the truth, to find the unity and achieve the settlement. A prime minister must lead it and complete it. The leader of the nation should accept his or her commission and simply say what he or she thinks is right, and put that forward for the nation to correct, or to accept, or to reject. Let us have an honest answer from the Australian people to an honest question.

Recognition – as inchoate as that concept currently is – may eventually lead to meaningful change, but a growing number of indigenous Australians, like Yunupingu, have no stomach for any more empty symbolism. “The unwavering aspiration of indigenous people for decades,” as Megan Davis reiterates in this month’s issue, remains “a settlement between Aboriginal polities and the state.” The real work is yet to be done.

Nick Feik

Nick Feik is the editor of The Monthly.

@nickfeik

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