CONTENT WARNING: This post may contain voices, images or names of people who have died.
*Note, throughout this article we use the terms Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander. This term was chosen specifically due to the naming conventions of the tribes focused on within this article. It is not meant to be disparaging or hurtful in anyway.
As a child growing up in the eighties in rural Florida, I had an unusual collection of stuffed animals consisting of kangaroos, koalas, and even an echidna thanks to an Australian family friend. I also had very little access to television. I can still remember the channels, all four of them, with most of my ‘tv time’ spent watching educational shows on PBS (the Public Broadcasting Station). One of my families’ favourites being Wild America with host Marty Stouffer as he explored the lands and animals found in North America. Our family friend had a son my age. While I was watching Marty, he was watching The Bush Tucker Man hosted by Les Hiddin’s, an ex-Army soldier and war veteran.
In The Bush Tucker Man, Les’ travels around Australia’s Northern Territories showing edible wild foods and often discusses Aboriginal peoples and their extensive knowledge of, what is arguably, their backyard. As a white man, Les’ respect and admiration for the Australian Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples comes through loud and clear, both then and now. Perhaps even more so since most white Aussies had little to nothing to do with their aboriginal neighbours and when they did, it often ended in disaster for the aboriginals. At the time of The Bush Tucker Man, the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people had only been allowed to vote in Australia for less than twenty years (1965) and had not been included in the census counts (or subject to Commonwealth laws) until 1967. The population was also small, only around 175,000, barely 0.012 per cent (out of 14.69 million). Considering these points, it’s no wonder than many Australians either didn’t have a good opinion of or more accurately, didn’t even consider, the Aboriginals in their daily life.
Understanding why means taking a look back on a tumultuous history of forced resettlements, mass murder, and racism, but we’ll start small, with one young man named Galmarra (aka Galmahra). Born around 1833, in New South Wales to the Wonnarua Aboriginal Tribe, Galmarra was a guide under the employee of the Surveyor-General’s Department of the State of New South Wales during Edmond Kennedy’s fatal expedition to the Cape York Peninsula in 1848. Just fifteen-years old, Galmarra, led the thirteen-man team into the unexplored region of Queensland even though he had never left his home in NSW before and was unfamiliar with the area. The team travelled over 1,000 kilometers up and down steep mountains, through dense tropical jungles, and hostile Aboriginal territories. By the end of the expedition, only Kennedy and Galmarra himself were able to continue on, but thirty-kilometers from their destination, the pair were attacked. Kennedy took a spear to the gut and Galmarra carried him until he died. Galmarra finished the trek alone arriving ten-days later at the supply ship. He’d had no supplies. He led an expedition looking for the members of the team he and Kennedy had left behind at various points, but only two were alive. The three men were returned to Sydney several months later. He had survived, but at what price?
Galmarra, however, was not what Kennedy and the other members of team called this brave young man. They called him Jackey Jackey, a dismissive slang term often used by white Australians to deny the Aboriginals their personal identity. When called this by another Aboriginal, the term denoted a collaborator to the colonial powers and meant that the person had been complicit in their own people’s dispossession. Yet it was this very name that was etched into a silver breast plate the Governor of New South Wales, Charles Augustus FitzRoy commissioned in honour of Galmarra’s bravery in early 1851. In addition to the plate, £50 was placed into trust at the local bank under his name (close to £80,000 today). Neither were actually received by Galmarra. Instead, Galmarra faded into obscurity and three years later (1854), at the tender age of twenty-one, he fell into a fire on an overland journey near Albury and died. He’d supposedly been drinking, something Captain T. Beckford Simpson (captain of the Ariel) noted he was fond of during the retrieval of Kennedy’s body. He’d gone from hero to heartbreak in just three years.
Unfortunately, Galmarra’s story is not unusual in its tragic ending. Last year The Guardian did a piece on “The Killing Times”, a period of 140 years (1794 – 1928) where British soldiers, Australian police, and white settlers performed over 270 state-sanctioned frontier massacres resulting in the deaths of thousands. Gippsland squatter, Henry Meyrick, wrote to his family in England in 1846 saying:
The blacks are very quiet here now, poor wretches. No wild beast of the forest was ever hunted down with such unsparing perseverance as they are. Men, women and children are shot whenever they can be met with … I have protested against it at every station I have been in Gippsland, in the strongest language, but these things are kept very secret as the penalty would certainly be hanging.
The primary reasons for the killings? Retaliation for the deaths of settlers (up until the early 1900s), their cattle (at least 51 of the attacks), or for land. I think this strikes close to home for me, a white woman from Florida, because the area I grew up in the early 1980s still had a very active Klu Klux Klan. Hangings were something you read about in the history books for most people, but in my area, it was something to be, if not actively feared, then definitely conscious of. Twenty-years earlier the Civil Rights Movement made such acts illegal in the U.S. and likewise in Australia, where, in 1967 (after a ten-year campaign), the Australian government finally added a referendum to the Australian Constitution to include the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island people. The Indigenous Land Rights Movement also gained momentum during this period with legal battles for Aboriginal people to maintain possession of land they had lived on since the beginning of their history. Most of the battles were due to mineral rights such as the Yirrkala mission in Arnhem Land, Lake Tyers in south western Victoria, and the Gurindij strikers in the Northern Territory.
Today, closer to 3.3% of the population is listed as Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander (just under 800,000). One would think the changing times would have brought progression and understanding, but the history of the Aboriginal people, their interactions with the white colonists, and the current political climate hasn’t changed as much as one would hope. While the 1980s and 90s saw verbal promises by the Australian government to recognize the rights of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders (the “Barunga Statement” and the Mabo Agreement), those same promises never seemed to bear fruit and though the 2007 creation of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) could have been a catalyst for change around the world, initially the United States, Australia, and New Zealand all voted against it. A large part of the problem is semantics. UNDRIP states that “Indigenous peoples have the right to the lands, territories and resources which they have traditionally owned, occupied or otherwise used or acquired,” but Australian law says land ownership must be proven, something almost impossible due to Australia’s own history of forced relocation and resettlement. Other concerns revolve around perceived unacceptable cultural practices with governmental policies making “welfare payments conditional on school attendance, compulsory health checks on children, abolition of Community Development Employment Projects, alcohol bans and new restrictions regarding Indigenous culture, custom and law. Many children were also removed from their families, bringing back memories of Stolen Generations,” those children who were forcibly removed from their families and adopted into white communities in the 1960s and 1970s, some 20,000 of which were alive in 2018 when the government formally apologized. A 1997 report estimated that one in three children were forcefully removed to institutions and foster care, many suffering abuse and neglect.
For a community that is still not formally recognized by the Australian constitution, there are little legal options. Their voices are not heard or acknowledged by the Australian government and this makes any form of relationship difficult at best.
Sol Bellear, a former rugby league player for South Sydney Rabbitohs and Aboriginal rights activist told The Guardian in 2017 that “things should be so much better for Aboriginal people. I think the country saw 1967 as the end of the fight…before 1967, we weren’t counted in the census or anything as people. Dogs and cats and pigs and sheep were counted in Australia before Aboriginal people.”
Some terrifying social justice numbers have come to light in the past few years, including the one that equates Indigenous incarceration rates in Australia today to matching those in apartheid South Africa with Indigenous rates being 15 times the age-standardised non-Indigenous rates or the federal government cutting $534-million to Commonwealth-funded Indigenous programs. These are the not-so-subtle points, the more insidious aspects are found in the fields of medicine where institutionalised racism can be found with health care workers making assumptions on a person’s living style based on them being Aboriginal. Even in the world of museums we find issues, such as the 2013 Protection of Cultural Objects on Loan Act which was passed mostly due to pressure from the British Museum. The law prevents claims from Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander owners of items on loan to Australia from the British Museum’s Indigenous collection, some 6,000 pieces just like the silver breast plate given, not to Galmarra, but to a museum and eventually to the State Library of New South Wales where it has been in residence since 1966.
In Aboriginal mythology, the world and everything around and on it was created during a period called The Dreaming. The goal of this living system is to reproduce itself through a balanced relationship with all of its parts by being aware of each other and acting morally towards one another. As the Wonnarua Aboriginal Nation, of which Galmarra was a member, states “the land held the key to life’s secrets. Man was given the knowledge to read the land and for every rock, tree and creek he found an explanation for existence. He did not own the land, the land owned him.” We should all try and remember such a fundamental concept.
For Galmarra, perhaps if he had been shown the connection between all of us his fifteen-minutes of fame might not have broken him. Having someone to talk to about what was most likely PTSD from surviving the massacre of the Kennedy expedition might not have sent him to the bottle and his untimely death. Galmarra’s story is a sad tale but one that highlights and brings to focus so many different issues we prefer to ignore. However, to hide our heads in the sand is an inexcusable practice. Like the 2018 apology we must sit up, steel ourselves for some unpleasantness and acknowledge that we messed up. Galmarra is just one of thousands of forgotten voices and it’s time that their stories came to light; time he stepped back into the national spotlight and reclaimed the right of his name and his heritage, so let’s give it to them. Let us remember what he and dozens of others did, their service for both their country and their people and the world. Let us give all the Galmarra’s not just a voice, but a hand. Let us give them back their culture and identity and make reparations beyond ‘I’m sorry’, because words can only take you so far.
It is up to each and every one of us to be aware of and act morally towards each other. To be good neighbours. Only then can change truly take place.
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 (Collins Dictionary, 2020)
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 (Florek, 2020)
 (Beale, 1967)
 (Allam & Evershed, 2019)
 (Allam & Evershed, 2019)
 (Australians Together, 2020)
 (Australian Bureau of Statistics, 2012)
 (Lamensch, 2019)
 (Lamensch, 2019)
 (Lamensch, 2019)
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Tamisan Latherow is a PhD student at the University of Reading’s School of Agriculture, Policy and Development researching Women’s Participation in the British Agricultural Community in the Second World War. Members of the WLA and Women’s Institute who wish to participate in her research should contact her at: email@example.com.
You can also find her om Twitter @SeshatofMars