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Honouring the Freedom Seekers
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Honouring the Freedom Seekers
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Honouring the Freedom Seekers
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7 May 2019

Honouring the Freedom Seekers

On the unshakeable courage of a culture

Written by Lydia Fairhall

This story originally ran in issue #59 of Dumbo Feather

Courage for our people means so many things. Over the past 250 years, we have swum to the deepest parts of the ocean. We have climbed to the top of mountains that we didn’t know existed, faced with harsh, extreme conditions at every peak. We have sifted through flatlands of powdered sands in an attempt to retrieve what has been taken and to find what we have lost as a people. We have lived on the fringes of abundant and wasteful cities, walked the streets of our own Homelands with nowhere to go, cut out from a supply of unlimited and plentiful resources that were previously bestowed through a complex and vast kinship system that guided our roles, responsibilities and obligations to each other, to ceremony and to the land.

When I sit with the energy of my Ancestors, I am struck with what I believe has become my biggest and possibly most testing act of courage yet: to find peace, despite external conditions and inter-generational trauma, to practice nurturing, to shine a light on a deep love for humanity and to practice radical self-care and care of people and country as a form of peaceful resistance and alignment.

There is a spiritual bypass clause that needs to be front and centre when exploring this kind of courage, though. Before we, as First Nations people, can fully repatriate our old cultural practices of manifesting and creating, and walk together with our non-Indigenous brothers and sisters as one consciousness, we must first as a nation come to terms with the fact that white Australia has not only a black history, but a black soul and a black future.

Over 700 language groups economically, spiritually and emotionally thrived here for over two thousand generations before invasion. By its very own legal framework, the invasion of this country was illegal under British law, legitimised by two words that would change the balance and way of life for our people more rapidly over a 50-year period than the entire 80,000-year period preceding it: “Terra Nullius,” meaning, “no people here.”

Classifying us as flora and fauna was a critical moment in our combined story: it is a concept that ultimately led to the attempted genocide of the world’s oldest living culture. But we have survived. And in order to expand and create together, white and black, there are some realities around the on-going systemic and structural racism that still exists in this country that we must come to terms with. It is in this acceptance—in a collective, national shift in consciousness—that we can start to re-imagine a future that protects the self-determination and rights to cultural expression of all people who now call Australia home.

But there is another piece of work to undertake.

We must share and listen to the stories of courage that have flowed from our communities and through our daily lives, the acts of courage that have brought us to a time in our history where we can even contemplate radical self-care and nurturing as acts of resistance and solidarity. We owe a great deal to the freedom seekers that have come before us—those who led large-scale, public acts of defiance to enable a deeper truth and freedom for all people and planet.

William Cooper (Yorta Yorta) helped lead one of the first Indigenous political organisations, the Australian Aborigines League, and went on to organise Australia’s first anti-Nazi demonstration in Footscray in 1938, amongst other significant political achievements.

Torres Strait and South Sea Islander woman Evelyn Scott was the driving force behind the 1967 referendum that saw over 90 percent of Australians voting to delete certain discriminatory references to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in the constitution. Whilst Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people were granted the right to vote in 1962, the 1967 referendum saw the constitution amended to include Aboriginal people in the census, and allow the Commonwealth to create laws for them, which previously had been governed state by state.

Koikoi (Eddie) Mabo (Meriam Mer) was another activist in the 1967 referendum campaign and the key plaintiff in the historic Mabo Case that recognised the falsehood of Terra Nullius, and therefore recognised Indigenous land rights.

The many people who spearheaded the Aboriginal Black Power movement that emerged out of Redfern, Fitzroy and South Brisbane in the 60s and 70s—a movement that saw a shift in focus from campaigning for inclusion to employing tactics that demanded self-determination and sovereignty.

There are also those who displayed enormous acts of courage by simply being. These untold, every day acts of courage—combined with high profile political activism—deserve our time, honour and attention.

My own mother is the second youngest of a family of five. Her journey back to home has been a long one, filled with obstacles that the average human would not survive. She has been required to swim those oceans, climb those mountains and sift through those sands since the moment she took her first breath. Removed at age 12 from the care of her own mum who battled with chronic alcoholism, my mother was hit with another massive trauma just two years later when she fell pregnant at 14 years old. With no one to advocate for her or protect her rights at a time when brown babies were easily removed from their mothers, she walked home empty handed from hospital in the same nightie she gave birth in. The stories of previous generations being born on the riverbanks surrounded by the Aunties were long gone.

My mother’s greatest act of courage was not walking home that day, though. When she fell pregnant with me two years later, she hid out in the hills of the Northern Rivers, determined at just 16 years of age to keep her baby. Her courage was in loving her children, despite all of her pain.

There are countless acts of matriarchal resistance that have gone untold in this country. None more pertinent than the story of Boonwurrung woman Louisa Briggs, who, somewhere between the age of four and eight years old, was kidnapped by sealers and whalers at Point Nepean, sometime in the late 1800s. Louisa was taken to Tasmania where she later married an Aboriginal man John Briggs and somehow, against all odds, made it back to Victoria and instigated a rebellion off the Corranderk mission, fighting for the rights of her people to stay together on the mission that had now become home. An entire clan survived because Louisa did, and her descendants have carried on her legacy. N’Arweet Carolyn Briggs and her daughter Caroline Martin work tirelessly to protect and conserve Boonwurrung sovereignty and culture, an incredible feat in Australia’s second biggest city, with over five million uninvited guests (myself included) now living on the unceded lands of the Kulin Nations.

A formidable mother-daughter duo, their shared accomplishments are immense, the legacy of which will be felt for generations of First Peoples. N’Arweet Carolyn Briggs’ resplendent presence and mannerisms command a respect even without an awareness of her legacy; the establishment of the first Aboriginal child care and then later, the Boonwurrung Foundation where she shares her expertise around language and linguistics, the genealogies of her people and connects Aboriginal youth to their heritage. N’Arweet Carolyn and Caroline work tirelessly to expose the hidden stories of black women as mobilisers and the true agents of change, and women’s stories of their connection to place, politics and power.

Similarly, Uncle Larry Walsh, a Taunwurrung Elder, is the walking, talking urban warrior who promotes peace amongst chaos. A prominent figure across contemporary culture and politics in Melbourne, Uncle Larry is a master of cultural diplomacy. He was taken from his family at three years old and made a ward of the state. He was first homed in a baby’s orphanage and then moved into the notorious Box Hill Boys Home at five years old. Uncle Larry describes his early years, graciously, as “troubled.” In his later childhood, he would go on to be fostered by a family that had particular views of Aboriginal people, and years of daily violence and drinking marked Uncle’s foster-family experience.

Uncle Larry talks openly about a pivotal moment in his early teens when the local police pulled him up. “They asked me if I had a record,” he says. “I told them no, I’d never been in trouble with the law before.” Unbeknownst to Uncle Larry at the time, the officers could see that actually he did have a criminal record and whilst the details of the previous crimes were omitted, it was enough for them to brand him as a thug and a troublemaker. From that moment on, he was on their radar and accosted frequently on the streets. The criminal record they were referring to was something every Stolen person had unknowingly acquired—the conviction of being deemed “neglected,” meaning at age three Uncle Larry was branded a criminal. This policy wasn’t overturned until 2018 when he campaigned to have it changed and all such criminal records removed.

Uncle Larry’s relationship with the local police had a huge implication on his teenage years, as he describes it: “Once you’re branded a certain way, you end up acting like it.” After several years of misdemeanours and run-ins with the law, Uncle Larry remembers the moment he decided to fight with persuasion, rather than his fists. By default, he had become quite knowledgeable about white man’s law, and as such, he transitioned from “breaking the law, to bending the law.” This knowledge served him well and ultimately ended up in his appointment as the first Aboriginal worker at the Victorian Legal Service and the beginnings of the Victorian Aboriginal Legal Service.

It also important for me to pay my deepest respects to my children, who on a daily basis, display their own small but mighty acts of courage. Araulen, who is 12 years old and has always been a freedom seeker, told me on the weekend that he would proceed with doing an assignment of the “discovery” of Australia by Matthew Flinders, despite the fact that he can’t believe that schools are still persisting with imparting such obviously incorrect facts, because “mum, you can’t fight every battle and I’m going to sit this one out.” Ironically, as he puts pen to paper to write about the discovery of Australia, he is also writing his Acknowledgement to Country speech, which he will read out on parade on Friday, beginning with the words, “Always was, always will be”.

And I’m inspired by my small girl Serema, who is three years old in all her glory, and has the spirit of her grandmother, the late Norma Harvey. Norma was born on Saibai Island, when because of rising sea levels, half of the community decided to start a new settlement on the mainland. Sailing for over 160 kilometres across four days without navigational charts and guided only by the sea and the stars, they eventually sighted the mainland and began conversations with local Aboriginal Traditional Owners to establish the community of Seisia. Only last year, king tides breached a new $24.5 million sea wall on Saibai, and the threat of climate change is a heart wrenching, daily reality. Norma’s spirit lives on through Serema, and every day I feel closer to a woman I never met because her love defies it all: rising sea levels, generations, family politics and the emptiness of displacement.

I am in a state of deep gratitude to the people who have stood on the leading edge of expansion in this country. Our combined story is one that is hard to accept for many Australians, and one that has been hard to live through.

There have been times when we have stood triumphant in the face of this adversity and times when we have aligned with our collective anger and hatred as a way of surviving. And throughout two centuries of searching, the answer always is the same: that what has been left for us from our Ancestors is intact, untouched and unstirred by physical conditions. The strength, wisdom and peace of our Old People is invincible.

Lydia Fairhall

Lydia Fairhall (Worimi/British/Punjabi/Swiss) is a festival curator, theatre and film producer, freelance writer and singer/songwriter with over twenty years of experience across remote and urban communities.

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