A GOOD DAY
At the moment I’m a temp. I do mail. I’m in it for the money. It's fine. Although, I have this strange feeling I'm not meant to be there. I arrived on Monday to replace a girl called 'Dot' (another temp who was sick)... so I sat at her desk and did her job and nobody seemed to notice 'Dot' had changed people (yet kept the same name). I asked if they wanted me back on Tuesday and nobody was sure WHICH Dot was meant to come back. So the next day I rang them up and they said they didn't want me. Fine. But then 30 minutes later they called to say actually they did want me. So I went into work again. Then on Tuesday when I was leaving I asked if they wanted me back on Wednesday. My supervisor literally said to me, 'Which 'Dot' are you? You both look the same...'. I told her I was the replacement Dot. She said she wouldn't need me then. But then the temp agency called and said I AM THE RIGHT DOT. So I'm meant to keep going to this work. But I'm not sure... I honestly think I'm the wrong 'Dot'. This other 'Dot' has left personal things all over the desk so I think that she thinks she's coming back. But because she is sick, and her desk is empty, and I have the same name as her (and apparently look the same), I seem to have ended up sitting in her place, using her login, doing her job... and nobody seems to have realised. I have had no induction. I have had no tour. I haven’t been introduced to any one. I have had no training beyond ‘sort this’ and ‘file this’. I am nobody. Nowhere.
And the reason I’m telling this story is because I’m trying to convey the mind-numbing zone of bland in which I spent this historic day. I was jiggling in my seat all morning wanting to say something to someone about reconciliation. Anything! But nobody said nadda. And it was really depressing because I started to wonder if this little apathetic office represented the bigger picture of ‘not care’ going on in Australia.
But then, thank god, I started getting emails from friends and family (Thanks Mars, Kiki, Sister and Blane!!!!). Which made me feel better. And I’ve been feeling better and better all day. Because saying sorry is about feeling better. John Howard thought apologizing was a negative act focused on guilt and opening old wounds and compensation and division. But it’s about feeling better. Didn’t everyone, Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal, seem so happy on the tv? It’s a happy sad though, because it’s about remembering the past so we can do better in the future. So while ‘sorry’ is just a word, a mind-set, a philosophy, an idea, it is real. I can see it working. I can feel it.
I worked on an Aboriginal community in the Top End for a few months last year. It is a unique place for a community in that its history of settlement isn’t one of forced removal, rather the ancestors of the community’s current residents migrated to the region looking to trade with European buffalo hunters. Over the years a camp grew into a settlement and then eventually, of course, the missionaries arrived. And, of course, the missionaries set up shop and got to work ‘civilising the natives’. To start with this was a brutal process that sought to strip people of all traces of their traditional culture, and fill the void with petticoats and Jesus. You know, the horror stories. It didn’t work. However, eventually the missionaries adopted a more cooperative approach, recognizing that Bininj culture and Christianity might work quite well side by side. The missionaries weren’t idiots, they weren’t evil, they were just plain (naïve) do-gooders...
I met an old lady at a bus-stop in Darwin who had worked as a nurse on a mission in Croker Island. She told me how shocked she was when she first arrived seeing naked men and women. She told me how they had to lock up all the food in the mission because otherwise “wild ones” would steal it. She told me of “dressing” people as they walked out of the bush for the first time. I think it’s remarkable, this time of ‘first contact’ is in living memory. It’s such a short history of contact. So much change in such a short period of time. It couldn’t be controlled, and it was inevitable there would be violence.
Today, in the community where I worked, there are only a few of these old ones left. Men and women in their late 70s and 80s and maybe older (there is no record of when they were born). They speak multiple languages, many lost to all but a handful of speakers. They know English too, and can tell the story of when they were teenagers and they first saw a white man. But they don’t write, and they sign their name with an X. In contrast, the children of these old ones grew up in the mission system. These middle-aged men and women sign their names in a flourish of cursive script. This is the legacy of the mission. These people have skills, they can read and write, they work in the community bank and store, they are artists, they are mechanics… But the mission is gone now, and I was so confronted to meet people in their 20s who can’t read and write. I met teenage boys who can’t even spell their own name!
And I met alcoholics and alcoholics and alcoholics. Sick people who are ruled only by their next drink. Young people whose teeth are falling out, whose bodies are scarred from gaol fights, whose siblings are dead.
I’m saying this on Sorry Day because the ‘stolen generation’ is not everyone’s story. However, reconciliation is for everyone. Something has gone tragically wrong in communities. They are not healthy. Even the healthy ones (like the one I visited) are not healthy. History tells a story of government sanctioned abuse; forced removal, slave labor. But even after the 1967 referendum and ‘equal rights’, a new abuse of neglect and denial crept onto the record. The missions and other agencies stuffed-up when they stole people from their families and cultures. Actually, they did more than stuff-up – they fucked-up. But they also did good. It is possible to 'do good' and it is possible to measure. Today was the best day ever, because even as a nobody sitting nowhere I still managed to feel inspired and optimistic and believe in this, as Rudd said, "future where all Australians, whatever their origins, are truly equal partners, with equal opportunities and with an equal stake in shaping the next chapter in the history of this great country, Australia."
Reconciliation is the start. It’s about recognizing everyone has the right to live in peace, without violence and hunger and sickness. All Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people have this in common. And if we can all be equal in this, then we can truly start celebrating our diversity.
6 years ago