Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander readers are advised that this story contains the name of a person who has died.
This weekend this country lost Bundjalung Senior Elder, songman and storyteller Gunditjmara (Kirrae Whurrong/Djab Wurrung) – Archie Roach. He was just 66. An age indicative of what First Nations people can expect in Australia – to die 8–9 years earlier than non-Aboriginal Australians.
A shorter life expectancy brought about by trauma and institutionalised racism created by colonisation and assimilation.
The fact we are still trying to close the gap 200 years later and not achieving anything is proof that we have caused enduring harm to the First People of this country.
It’s something that I as a non-Aboriginal Australian feel huge shame about and a sense of personal responsibility. Bad policy enacted by our great-great-grandfathers – our ancestors – IS our responsibility, because we profit from it, and generations of Aboriginal Australians have paid the price.
And they continue to.
With health and wellbeing disparity that sees overrepresentation of Aboriginal Australians compared to non-Aboriginal in presentations of chronic illness, incarceration, and death in custody.
We lost the voice of one the most powerful truthtellers on the same weekend that our PM gave his Voice to Parliament speech at Garma Festival in Arnhem Land. A speech that was delivered to build momentum for a referendum. A voice that he spoke to as having ‘a willingness to listen’ that will exist and endure outside of the ups and downs of election cycles and short-term politics. We need that voice.
In an informal way, Uncle Archie had been that voice. He has been using his music to tell stories about this country that are not in the history books.
From his first song Took the Children Away, Archie told the painful story of what had happened and continues to happen to First Nations families. He told the story of what happened to him, removed from his family and taken to an orphanage at just three years old. Look at your 3-year-old and imagine that happening to them.
Last year I read his memoir Tell me Why. It is the most extraordinary story. In fact I think it’s one of the best books I’ve ever read. The writing is sublime. The humanity, the insight, the honesty are unbelievable. It was such an honour to hear Archie’s story in his words.
A life of struggle and triumph, of adversity and love, of connection to country and of purpose. It’s so humble. It should be a book every high school student reads. Every Australian.
This is history. Raw and reachable. This is the untold, the unheard, being told and heard. It’s painful to read because it reminded me that black trauma is the currency that has underwritten our white privilege.
Archie’s truth-telling went to the bone. His lyrical genius made him a gentle leader. A mentor, a collaborator, a poet, a Gunditjmara and Bundjalung elder and a campaigner for rights of Indigenous Australians. So what is the role for those of us who are allies?
To listen. To learn. To step up when asked. To vote for Voice, for Treaty and for Truthtelling. To shut up. To change. To accept responsibility. To be led by black voices.
Last week a notorious racially divisive senator stormed out of federal Parliament because she wouldn’t recognise Acknowledgement of Country. We know who she is but I don’t actually want to acknowledge her. A great act of allyship would be to not speak her name, not tell her story, and not publicise her racist bile. Imagine if we supported Voice to Parliament by silencing hers. Maybe we should send her a book.
Maybe the woman who screamed ‘Please Explain’ needs to sit down and read Uncle Archie’s Tell Me Why. Because that book explains everything.