“Remember that you are standing on the lands of the Kulin Nation.”
I heard this statement in a video near the end of my trip through the Melbourne Museum’s Bunjilaka Aboriginal Cultural Center. The center is named for Bunjil – the creator deity of south-eastern Australia. Literally, it means “the place of Bunjil,” and is meant to emphasize the continued existence and evolution of Australia’s Aboriginal people. Throughout my four days in Melbourne, I observed the active nature of this existence, and the struggle Aboriginal people face every day just to have their rights recognized in their own land.
Among the most visible signs of that struggle is the fight over Australia Day. Australia’s official national holiday falls on January 26 every year and commemorates the 1788 arrival of the first British fleet in what would become Sidney. It has been a controversial holiday throughout its history, and in 1938 was accompanied for the first time by an organized Aboriginal Day of Mourning. To many Australians, it’s an excuse for a family barbecue. For Aboriginal Australians, it marks the invasion of their countries, and carries different names: Survival Day, and more prominently during my visit, Invasion Day.
As an American, the date brought to my mind the celebration of October 12 as Columbus Day in the United States, and the recent movement to rename it Indigenous Peoples Day. But even that is not quite right – our national holiday, after all, is Independence Day, July 4. Australia Day is a combination of the two, the celebration of a nation on the very date which saw its original people conquered.
In Melbourne, the holiday took three major public forms.
- An official parade would start with a flag raising in front of the Melbourne Town Hall and continue down Swanston Street and St. Kilda Road
- A “far-right beach party” run by organizations like the True Blue Crew, a self-professed Pro-Australian, anti-Islamization group.
- The Invasion Day rally and march, starting on the steps of Parliament (which is in Wurundjeri Country) and continuing down Bourke Street to Town Hall.
After my visit to the Bunjilaka Center, I chose to attend the Invasion Day rally.
It was peaceful, heartfelt, and huge. Official estimates place the crowd at 60,000 people, more than the other celebrations. At the end, we listened to speeches by Aboriginal Australian leaders, including Gary Foley, a former Australian Black Panther who follows in the footsteps of Marcus Garvey, and Jenny Munro, a Wiradjuri elder. You can see video I took of Foley’s speech here, and of Munro’s speech here (though sadly you won’t see much of her face due to my angle). Both activists helped found Aboriginal “tent embassies” in Canberra and Redfern to promote aboriginal rights.
Both speeches were full of equal parts optimism, humor, and anger. Munro spoke of voting for politicians who resist the “white virus” brought by European settlers who felt they had a right to land held by Aboriginal Australians.
“And it is a virus,” she said, “and it was and is as insidious as the chicken pox they introduced to us here. It will kill you if you let it. The virus is called racism. The virus is a sickness that make people think they’re better than other people by virtue of money, stolen wealth, stolen gain. We all stand the same way, we all sit the same way, we all shite the same way. Nothing different about us.”
Overall, Munro struck a conciliatory tone. “The only way you can stand on your own true feet and be proud is to embrace the truth, and not deny history. Learn from the mistakes of history and then we can go on and build a land we can truly call our home for all of us.”
Foley emphasized the importance of studying the past. An activist for most of his life, Foley entered a degree program in history at the University of Melbourne when he was nearly fifty, “because that’s where I considered some of the worst of the academic historians who were distorting our history [were].” He worried that the work of Aboriginal Australian activists had been misrepresented, and perhaps worse, forgotten. By earning a degree, he hoped to share his history with younger people, something which he was able to do, first at Melbourne University and later at Victoria University.
Foley lectured like a historian, peppering his speech with colorful language to draw reactions from the crowd. “In 1972 with the Black Power movement and the Aboriginal Embassy, we had Australian politicians shitting themselves, running for cover. They feared the movement we had created. And the movement that we had created was like this – I can see it today. The government cannot ignore this sort of protest, cannot ignore this sort of movement.”
Both speakers made me think of my project – about ensuring that the history we teach in American high schools includes multiple perspectives, especially those outside the dominant culture. For many people at the protest, myself included, the history of the Aboriginal Rights movement in Australia was completely foreign. As Munro said, it is only by learning the history of a land that all people can come together and work for a better future. We ignore the stories and knowledge of those around us at our peril.
As Aboriginal Australian singer Dave Arden put it later that night, on stage at the gloriously grungy old music club The Tote, “Once you’ve eaten honey from the wild bee, then you can come talk to me.” Arden’s ancestors have lived in Australia for 60,000 years. The knowledge they passed down about the land should not be forgotten by its modern government. Eat the wild honey. Learn the history of the land and its people. By doing so we will better understand our space and our time, and make it better for all of us.