A warning to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people; this article contains references to people who have died.
I love walking through cemeteries. I love to read the gravestones. They are like the first and last page of a novel whose contents I will never know. Here lies many from my community; they were born, lived, and then lost. They were loved. This evening I am walking with my 11-year-old daughter and my husband through Mullumbimby’s cemetery. It is a quiet and beautiful place. I feel the stories rumbling under our feet. I never understand why people see these places as creepy. They are places of reverence and remembering. They remind us of our transience. It’s the small graves that hurt the most. We see the grave of a baby girl who lived and died 100 years ago. One year and nine months. Another, only seven months. For an instant, when I read their names, I feel the pang of the loss travel across the decades. Then I see his grave; my friend Bob Morgan has told me about this very important man who is buried here. It is the only grave in the entire cemetery that has a Black Power salute on the headstone. This is the resting place of Solomon Bellear, a Bundjalung man from Mullumbimby. This is a story I want to know.
He was born in 1950 and died in 2017. In his 66 years Sol made a massive impact on this country. And here he lies, in a humble grave in my country town – and I had never heard of him. I feel ashamed. How did I miss this? He is quite possibly one of the most politically significant people to come from Mullumbimby. With Invasion Day looming, it seems even more important to know the story of this man on whose country I have chosen to dwell.
One of nine children, Sol was born at the old Mullum hospital, and grew up in Mullumbimby. He moved to Sydney in 1967, just after the referendum that provided Indigenous Australians with a powerful symbol of their political and moral rights. There’s a date worth celebrating – 27 May, 1967.
In 1970 Sol was part of an Aboriginal delegation to the UN General Assembly in the United States. He was just 20-years-old and he stayed on for six months, working with the Black Panthers, the most influential black movement of the late 1960s, a revolutionary organisation with an ideology that emphasised racial pride, economic empowerment, and the creation of political and cultural institutions working for their empowerment. He investigated the stories of the Sami Parliament in Europe, of US and Canadian Indigenous reservations, and Maori communities. He said ‘What I found in my travels shames our nation… dozens of treaties have been signed in the US and Canada, which afford First Nations communites varying degrees of genuine self-determination, from controlling their own schooling to giving them a real capacity to generate an economic base.’
Sol was the first chair of the Aboriginal Legal Service when it was founded in 1970’s. He was also the chairman of the Aboriginal Medical Service in Redfern, and on the board from 1975 until his death. He was a member of ATSIC and was elected as one of the 20 councillors for the Sydney region and as a commissioner for the NSW Metropolitan Zone.
Not just a fierce contender in the world of politics, pushing forward for equity and justice in his community, Sol was also a talented footballer, playing for South Sydney Rabbitohs, where, word has it, he was stood down after giving the black power salute after scoring a try. He was part of the Redfern All Blacks, managed the Indigenous Dreamtime team, and was a director of South Sydney until Russell Crowe took over in 2006.
Here in our local cemetery lies one of the most influential national Aboriginal leaders of his generation. When non-Aboriginal people protested Apartheid, he drew attention to Australia seeding the political movement needed here for Aboriginal people.
When Paul Keating gave his famous Redfern speech, Sol stood next to him. He forged relationships within the Muslim and Jewish communities, and was, as Labor Senator Patrick Dodson described ‘A true activist and justice warrior for First Nations people.’
When he died he was honoured with a huge State funeral at Redfern oval. This great man now humbly lies at rest on his country.
So on 26 January, I invite white Australians to not stick a plastic Aussie flag to your aerial, or to wear it as a cape as you drink beer to celebrate Australian history that you don’t actually know. Instead, search out the important stories of First Nations people that perhaps you didn’t know.
I now know the story of Sol Bellear. It makes me proud to be from Mullumbimby, knowing the spirit of activism is so deeply seeded.
The sun is going down on a sleepy Mullumbimby Friday night. The cemetery has a silvery stillness – except for the headstone with the Black Power salute. I take one last look at that raised fist, that symbol of struggle and power and defiance. Even at rest, Sol is stirring the narrative.
I’d like to thank Professor Bob Morgan, a Gamilaroi man and long-time friend and colleague of Sol for telling me his story and pointing me towards his grave.
I’ll finish with Bob’s words from his tribute to Sol:
‘In an age when Aboriginal people search for leadership beyond those that are generated by and anointed by the media, the warriors who helped create so many of the “benefits” we enjoy and often take for granted in this modern, contemporary world, are being lost to us. Such is the case with the sad passing of our brother Sol Bellear.’
So on 26 January, don’t raise your Aussie flag, show solidarity to the First Nations people of this country, and symbolically raise your fist.
(This article was resourced from articles by Professor Bob Morgan, published by kooriweb.org, The Australian, The ABC and Wikipedia.)