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September 28, 2022

Storylines: Advance Australia Where?

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This article is made possible by the support of Ninbella Gallery.

♦ Budgeram means story in Bundjalung language.

Eli Cook

Australia, as a nation, is at a crossroads. The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed our many frailties and brought them to the front of our consciousness. But rather than view these vulnerabilities as an existential weakness, we should be looking more broadly towards how we can adapt. For too long, we have been stuck inside our comfort zones. The pandemic and subsequent recession have dragged us, kicking and screaming, toward a distinct inevitability: Change.

Are we heading in the right direction?

Indigenous Australians are no different. We too, must welcome change for the betterment of our people. Too often we are distracted by political grandstanding and media indifference towards our very existence. Our treatment is Australia’s greatest shame and until Aboriginal people can advance economically, socially, and culturally, Australia as a nation will never become whole.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people have always been able to adapt. For more than 60,000 years we have seen off enormous challenges: like climate change, rising sea levels, and colonisation. Throughout all this, we have managed to maintain our culture and connection to our homelands. This has been made possible through the overarching connection we have to each other.

The mysterious appearance of Aboriginal flags on the Brunswick bridge were a welcome sight on Australia Day. Photo Michelle Begg.

Future challenge

As one elder once told me; ‘Australia is like one big spider web. Our stories and our histories are all connected. We are all one people’. Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians alike must acknowledge this interconnectedness as we forge a shared history into the future.

But what is the way forward for Indigenous Australians? Is it through changing the lyrics of the national anthem? Or hanging our flags in parliament house during NAIDOC week? Whilst these would be nice gestures, they will not change who we are or where we have come from. Sometimes, when you look too hard for a solution, you miss the answer sitting right under your nose.

The solution is us. Our customs and our languages that our old people fought so hard to preserve. The longest continuing culture that can be found on planet Earth. So unique, so powerful. These factors have been the very essence of our survival. It is now time to consider how we can transition from simply surviving, to thriving once more.

It is easy to see our disadvantages. Unfortunately, for many of our people, we lack the economic foundation required to step out of this disadvantage. This has been brought about by many factors directly attributable to our past treatment: Stolen land, stolen wages, stolen children, suppressed languages, suppressed cultures. We have had everything taken from us. However, if we can only identify the problems, how do we generate solutions? We cannot continue to look backwards as a means of moving forward.

Minjerribah – North Stradbroke Island. Photo Wikipedia.

A future grounded in history

History is important and I am in no way diminishing the significance of Australia healing through truth sharing and recognising the wrongs of the past. In fact, I welcome such initiatives and wholeheartedly support the efforts being made in these areas. What I am saying is that modern problems require modern solutions.

Indigenous Australians need industry. This is something that we have lacked in modern times. Our people have forever been hardworking and innovative, but this has been stifled. Industry not only generates income, but purpose. A reason to endure and take risks. A reason to move forward and find opportunities. The foundation of such industry must be our culture.

This is evidenced in places like North Stradbroke Island where the Quandamooka people have managed to achieve something incredible. Through tourism and innovation, they are not only making advancements economically, but also through strengthening and valuing language and custom. Traditions that lay dormant for decades are once again reappearing from the ashes of colonisation.

Indigenous Australians are not going to disappear. Whilst, to some, we remain an inconvenience, we continue to adapt and survive in a changing environment. It is time for us to take the next step in our adaptation by crossing cultural barriers and finding a foothold through our own industries.

Our greatest asset is ourselves. We must take heed of our ancestors and their willingness to preserve their own existence. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people will play a critical role in the economic recovery of this nation. It is time for this nation to invest in our knowledge, and together we will indeed advance Australia.

Eli Cook is from the Nyangbal clan of the Bundjalung nation.

His family are descendants of the South Ballina tribe.

As a local school teacher from the Ballina area he has worked closely with the Aboriginal community for the past eight years.

‘I hold a great interest in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander advancement and seek to create stronger communities through truth sharing and shared cultural experiences,’ saya Eli.


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