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Baa baa black sheep

A map depicting the different Indigenous groups around Australia. Photo: South Australian Museum

Opinion by PETER HEHIR

The herd instinct is strong within us all. It’s in our DNA. We seem to need to gather together to sustain ourselves, seeking the reassurance of the rest of the flock.

Do we really have the courage to dare to be different? 

To decide NOT to align with the herd, with either the right or the left or even more incisively to dismiss these ‘divisions’ as arbitrary at best; having more to do with birthright, class, culture, education, religion and privilege; or the lack of it, than anything that is in any way remotely relevant to the issues that still face us today.

Ask yourself these simple questions. Are the natural and work environments still under threat? Are things getting any better?

Can we honestly say that either Fascism, Socialism or Capitalism has ever delivered that which they so earnestly promised to do? 

An equal due, as humans of all races, creeds, abilities – because we are all members of the same family of Homo sapiens and that we all inhabit this earth – is as surely just now; as was our birthright in 1988 or 1788 for that matter. That today we have at least a moral claim to an equal share in the benefits provided by the planet that we all live on; one that sustains us all, animals and humans alike?

Imagine a sulphur crested cockatoo, raised as a fledgling in a farmer’s cage – who actually spoke better English than the farmer did – no doubt due to the influence of the farmer’s wife and the kids, a captive who finally manages to escape from his wire prison.

Fuck off! screams the escaped cocky, in his best impression of the irate farmer, not long after he lands amidst the flock of sulphur crests feeding on his barley crop. 

The chaos that ensues is indescribable.

The significance for me is that the flock was able to recognise and accept one of their own, but that they obviously were incapable of recognising one who looked as they do, but spoke with a different tongue; one who uttered a strange human language.

We are all the descendants of the inhabitants of Olduvai Gorge, regardless of our language, the colour of our skins, hair or eye colour, facial features or height; from the pale skins of the Northern European, the ‘red’ skins of the American Indians, the South East Asian hue, the Celtic colouring, the brown of the Australian Aboriginal or the coal black of the Central and Southern African.

In 1988 I felt extremely privileged to be accepted by and permitted to join with thousands of likeminded individuals as part of the unofficial 26th January of 1988 march, carrying a cardboard placard on a broom stick that bluntly stated; ‘Stop Cops Killing Blacks’.

I’ve never seen a photograph of me holding this banner, but I’ve caught a close up of the sign with me just cropped out of shot in a doco of the Aboriginal march. 

We were all a very long way from the re-enactment of the ‘official possession’ of this land near the Opera House, exactly 200 years earlier. Both physically and metaphorically. For me and the aboriginal people of this country, the 26th of January will always be Invasion Day.

And I’m a whitey. I had a beard and long hair. My blood is red, just like everybody else’s. And I was 39. I may or may not have had the courage to smoke a joint before I left home. I don’t remember. Dope does that to you. I’d probably given up by then. Not that it matters. 

What did blow me away was the subtle shade of the different skins from the indigenous communities all across the country, but especially those from the Northern Territory, as they gathered in their clan groups prior to the march. The subtle shades were distinctively different, and each group was of the one skin.

Clearly, even then it was important to respect the laws regarding intermarriage between those of an unacceptable ‘skin’. This is as it was; and no doubt had been for many tens of thousands of years here.

Think about the cockatoos for a moment. It doesn’t take much to be seen or sound as different and hence perceived as a threat… Something that is not capable of being understood; and so must therefore be eliminated; a bit like COVID-19; should it infect the rest of humanity.

The trip into the Liverpool Street assembly point was uneventful as I was the only passenger on the free Australia Day bus I joined in Rozelle, until we picked up six uniformed constables in Pyrmont. My sign on a broomstick had a paper bag over the hand painted placard.

My lack of courage had brought self-preservation to the fore. Thank Christ! 

The six wallopers on the bus paid me no attention. Not even wondering what it was that I was carrying. But there I was seated all alone in the back of the bus, as they engaged with the driver in suitably jovial celebratory banter. 

I still wonder even now why, to the enquiring law enforcement mind – considering I was outnumbered and dressed the way that I was, that whatever I was holding covered up on the broomstick, surely must have seemed inherently suspicious and so wasn’t investigated? Maybe it was just too much effort to walk to the back of the bus?

I was at pains to ensure that the orientation of this wafer thin cardboard placard was always kept pointed forward so as to be side on when viewed from up front. And I never made eye contact.  Not with any of them. I wasn’t looking forward to a beating.

I planted the sign in a garden bed in Hyde Park at the end of the march, but I suspect it was given the usual treatment in the pre-dawn of the following morning, just tossed out with the rest of the garbage…. In the way that it always was for aboriginal people. The way that it’s always been.

Thirty two years later, in spite of Mabo, very little has changed for the indigenous owners; and for those whiteys who like me had been really moved by the remarkable scholarship of Norman Tindale. 

A man who mapped all of aboriginal Australia; clearly establishing aboriginal clan boundaries and ownership of the entire country and in so doing banishing forever in my mind, the empty whiteness and borderless Australian continent from my primary school days. I was also moved by the courage and the persistence of Eddy Mabo.

On the inside, I remain, yours sincerely, just as black as any aboriginal anywhere.

And proudly so.

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