Various recent events and factors have moved me to reflect on my understanding of indigenous cultures in an Australian context.
I have been reading in religious and cultural traditions since my late teens. I started off with Indian, Tibetan, Chinese and Japanese texts, because that material was relatively easy to find in late 60s and early 70s.
I grew up in Victoria and Tasmania. I was around 8 when we moved to Tassie. I spent a lot of time in the bush as a kid – with friends and alone. I took to serious bushwalking as I got older. From quite early on I had a lot of ‘paranormal’ experiences in the bush. I won’t describe them here. At the time I had no language for them, and they made me seem strange to my walking companions. As I grew older, I became intrigued by what they were, and why they were happening to me, and not to others.
In the early 1970s I met a guy called Black Allan in Kings Cross. He was an indigenous man from Western Australia. There was a bunch of white fellas like me who knew little or nothing about indigenous Australians – neither culture, nor history. I had a dim idea – from my frequent visits to the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery in Hobart, and from a sanitised version the ‘settlement’ of Tasmania at school.
Black Allan was the first obviously indigenous person I had met. Over several months we gathered regularly to hear him talk, and answer questions. Then, one day, he was gone – back to W.A., we assumed.
I had a glimmer of sense of indigenous spirituality, but it didn’t go very far – beyond some subsequent superficial reading.
I didn’t have anything to do with indigenous people after that until the mid 1980s, when I joined the Commonwealth Employment Service (CES) in Lismore, on the Far North Coast of NSW. Two indigenous guys joined the staff. One was from Coraki, and the other from Grafton. I got to know them as colleagues. Then we had a flood and the 3 of us were the only ones of 26 staff who turned up to ensure records and equipment on the ground floor was out of flood risk. We worked flat out – it was a Saturday – and when we took breaks we talked, sharing our stories. The manager turned up eventually and hung around with us for a while – the job had been done.
When the flood had subsided, and the office was up and running again there was no acknowledgement that 3 staff had turned up to save the office. Had we all been white, I am pretty sure there would have been.
I later transferred to the CES office in Casino. There, a Bunjalung woman (SF – not her real initials) who had been working in Brisbane was made effectively assistant manager of the office. SF had been working in an Aboriginal Employment unit and had sought a transfer back to the region for family reasons. She had accepted the role without being fully aware of what it was. It was a Senior Employment Officer role, and she wasn’t told that it was also effectively 2-IC. SF didn’t have the background knowledge to perform that role, and she was upfront in saying so.
I had been acting in the role for around 18 months. It was high demand and she struggled to keep up, so we stayed back after work regularly for a couple of months to help her get up to speed. No flex time back then. We were directed by our regional manager to stop doing so. We ignored her. Apparently, by providing support to a colleague I was being a racist.
The CES management back then professed support for indigenous staff but instead set them up for failure. The CES had introduced a new computer-based program management system. Training was provided for all the offices, except for the Aboriginal Employment Unit, where SF had transferred to as manager. Despite the fact that there was an audit report critical of the administration of Aboriginal programs, there was, apparently, no more funds for training in exactly the system that would improve administration of funds.
So, I volunteered to go to Lismore to provide training for Aboriginal Employment Unit staff. SF wanted this to happen as she was keenly aware that the unit was seen as not competent because of the audit report. My offer was refused by district management because I was not a formal trainer. I was the only person in my office who was processing program payments – and it wasn’t difficult – it just took repetition. But back then computers scared some folk – which is why I was the only person using the new system.
So here was the situation. Training was urgently needed but could not be had because there were no longer any funds for it. I couldn’t provide it because I wasn’t a formal trainer. No problem. SF dropped into the Casino office on her way home for a few days and she and I did some training, and then provided some support by phone. I got into trouble for that. I was being racist again – and I disobeyed a directive not to train the Aboriginal Employment Unit’s staff. I pointed out that I did not – just the manager.
The CES management was astonishing to me. It proclaimed support for Aboriginal staff and then seemed to do everything it could to deny them the help needed. It had an interest in numbers, but not the people behind the numbers.
I left the CES in 1990/1 to join the NSW Department of Community Services. One of the jobs I was given was to perform a forensic financial audit of an Aboriginal children’s service. There was concern that it was not spending money in accordance with grant guidelines.
The service had been set up to solve the problem of indigenous kids in a town out west roaming the streets in the evening and getting up to mischief. To do that a manager and 2 youth workers were hired. All 3 were members of the local indigenous community but they not had any training in community or youth work. They were essentially left entirely to their own devices to solve a huge complex problem.
It was quite clear that how they were spending money was unconventional, but it was strategic and intelligent. I recommended the service be provided support and training. The recommendation was refused, and the service was defunded and closed.
There was a problem that needed an effective solution. The funds could have been used better, if key support was provided. But hiring indigenous people without giving them the training and support that would have been provided if the ‘problem’ was caused by white kids struck me as singularly racist – as if the colour of their skin was sufficient to give them the skills to address the challenge.
I have other stories of entrenched racism in the public sector being the reality behind outward professions of support. I liked the indigenous staff I worked with on a personal level, and it was impossible to witness flagrant racist attitudes without speaking up. To be called a racist for doing so was bewildering for a long time.
Just before I joined the CES I developed an interest in Wicca, an interpretation of the indigenous spiritual traditions of Europe – my heritage. That helped me make link between my experiences in the bush and a spiritual system that fitted better with my experiences.
In 2001 I was granted a scholarship to undertake a Masters Honours research project in Social Ecology. I had just completed my Masters in Social Ecology. I decided to explore how my paranormal experiences might be accommodated in our Western European discourse about how the world works. This led me to read on indigenous spiritual and philosophical traditions – and to discover the idea of ‘animism’.
I had set out to understand my own experiences, to make sense of my life. As a European in Australia, I found myself without a spirituality that worked here. I absolutely could not adopt the indigenous ways – they went too deep. But I could be guided by, and learn from, them.
My contact with indigenous Australians hasn’t been close. I can count 2 friends and half a dozen good working relationships. I find the racism deeply entrenched and unconscious, and that is something that bugs me profoundly.
These days I am committed to addressing discrimination against people with disability. But it has been the discrimination against indigenous Australians that has been burned most deeply into my heart and mind.
Learning about indigenous traditional culture isn’t easy. It’s a completely different form of consciousness relative to white European ways of knowing. You can learn enough to know that you don’t know; and can’t know – and be content to acknowledge and honour the mystery. By being open to that mystery it is possible to find a personal sense of connection and belonging – filtered by one’s own cultural traditions.
Learning about contemporary indigenous culture is just as difficult; because it so often means acknowledging the intergenerational trauma that accompanies invasion, occupation, and dispossession of lands – and the invalidation and demeaning of traditional ways of knowing and living.
My paranormal experiences were not accepted by the culture I grew up in. I read cultural traditions other than my own for around 20 years simply because there was no sensitive discourse grounded in my cultural heritage open to me. Finding Wicca was a relief – but not a destination. It lacked the intellectual vigour I craved.
I had no sense to adopt an alternative tradition they way others have. This was, I believe, an intuition that later served me well. I don’t disparage finding an alternative way of knowing. It just wasn’t for me.
My engagement with indigenous Australians had a powerful impact. The racism I encountered drove me to think more deeply about how my paranormal experiences were invalidated by my culture. I could not deny my experiences – they were an integral part of my identity. That seemed so similar to the invalidation of a person because of their different ways of knowing, and relating to, the world we share.
I am not saying there is an exact equivalence. I can be silent about my experiences (as I still often am), so my sense of invalidation was only ever partial – though I still felt it keenly – because of what I could not say or acknowledge.
Identity, whether experiential, intellectual, spiritual, cultural, or racial is vitally important to us. Knowing who we are must come from affirmations and validations, not from denial and discrimination.
I am a surprised how strongly I feel about this. There is a fire I still feel – but its not a pain now. It’s a motivation. It’s good to know that.