Archive for the ‘Indigenous Australians’ Category

Black silhouette of an apparently female figure in a top hat on a green background (with some faint writing in the top and bottom thirds), with the words in white: 2015 Australian Women Writers Challenge

Every Secret Thing by Marie Munkara
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Goodreads blurb

When culture and faith collide . . . nothing is sacred

In the Aboriginal missions of far northern Australia, it was a battle between saving souls and saving traditional culture.

Every Secret Thing is a rough, tough, hilarious portrayal of the Bush Mob and the Mission Mob, and the hapless clergy trying to convert them. In these tales, everyone is fair game.

At once playful and sharp, Marie Munkara’s wonderfully original stories cast a taunting new light on the mission era in Australia.

‘told with biting wit and riotous humour’
Judges’ comments, Queensland Premier’s Literary Awards (2008)

My review

I intended to read this book for the 2015 Australian Women Writers challenge, but as I realised I had read it before, that was not to be.

However, in the spirit of the challenge – and because it is a must-read, and excellent with it – I am including this as an extra review.

Every Secret Thing is written as an account, told by anecdote, of the development of the relationship between the bush mob and the mission mob – the latter have set up the mission somewhere in northern Australia, not too far from a town referred to as Big Joint, with the purpose of Christianising and “civilising” the bush mob.

The various anecdotes tell, humorously, disputes and misunderstandings between the bush mob and the mission mob, and within each, with everyone’s flaws exposed and with the joke generally being on the mission mob – at least at first. The kids confound the visiting Bishop with their logic (why would Adam and Eve eat the apple instead of the snake when the snake would taste better?); Augustine and Methuselah outsmart Brother Michael and make off with various livestock in The Brotherhood; Pwomiga gives deliberate, and hilarious, mistranslations in Wurruwataka.

But as the book goes on, the stories become more and more bittersweet. The dark undercurrent which is evident from the beginning, such as oblique references to child sexual abuse, become stronger and more explicit, such as the story of Tapalinga and Perpetua, two members of the Stolen Generations, in The Garden of Eden. And the ending, which I won’t spoil, is very black indeed.

We have far too few stories about the mission mob/bush mob interaction from the perspective of the bush mob. What I think is particularly valuable about a book like this is that it treats the bush mob’s life pre-mission-mob as the baseline, and the interactions with the intruders, the parts of European culture/industralisation the bush mob accept or reject are explained, and make sense, in that context. For example, if you have always cooked over an open fire, why would you automatically recognise an oven as a device for cooking as opposed to a convenient storage space – or den for newborn puppies? To my mind, this is an effective method of refuting the proposition that Aboriginal Australians and Torres Strait Islanders are (or were before the coming of the white man) backwards, uncivilised, stupid and lawless. And whatever else, it is refreshing to start from this perspective instead of the perspective which uses the European Australian attitude as the default position.

This was a book I was very pleased to read again, and it is a book I think is a must-read for all Australians.

This is an extra review for the 2015 Australian Women Writers Challenge. You can see my full list of books here. You can find a full list of my reviews, and other posts relevant to the challenge, here.


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Black silhouette of an apparently female figure in a top hat on a green background (with some faint writing in the top and bottom thirds), with the words in white: 2015 Australian Women Writers Challenge

Too Flash by Melissa Lucashenko
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Goodreads blurb

Bring problems to us before they’re too big to handle, the Princpal advises Zo when she arrives at her new city school. But good advice isn’t much help to Zo. Her Mum’s still a workaholic, and her best friend is still a thousand miles away, back home. Zo soon teams up with Missy. She’s cheeky, smart, a mean soccer player and believes in magic. She comes from a tough family that doesn’t take crap from anyone and it shows. She’s all muscles and attitude like a cattle dog on the warpath. Zo is more laid back – having money makes for a bigger comfort zone, even if you are fat and black. A showdown can’t be far away when Zo and Missy’s worlds collide. It’s not a racial issue – or is it? At school or clubbing or stomping the bush on Kulcha Kamp, the girls are on edgy ground. But in the darkness of night, each of them finds a special magic of her own…

My review

I don’t read much YA these days (I consumed masses of it when I was part of the target audience) but there is something about well-written YA that leaves me feeling very satisfied. This book falls well into that category. (more…)

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Black silhouette of an apparently female figure in a top hat on a green background (with some faint writing in the top and bottom thirds), with the words in white: 2015 Australian Women Writers Challenge

MumShirl with the assistance of Roberta B. Sykes
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Goodreads blurb

Colleen Shirly Perry, better known as ‘Mumshirl’ worked for the Aboriginal Medical Service, recieved an MBE and generally did everything she could for aboriginal people.

My review

It feels quite appropriate to be writing this review on Australia Day/Invasion Day/Survival Day, particularly one on which the debate is not only about the nomenclature of the day and what (if anything) we should be celebrating or commemorating, but also about whether someone such as the husband of the Queen of England should receive the top Australian honour, in circumstances where that honour is itself controversial and where the man is known for making ignorant and bigoted comments, including to Australias First Nations people.

I’ve said in other reviews that books have given me access to a new perspective, a different way of telling the story. This is also true of MumShirl’s autobiography. (more…)

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Black silhouette of an apparently female figure in a top hat on a green background (with some faint writing in the top and bottom thirds), with the words in white: 2015 Australian Women Writers Challenge

Maralinga: The Anangu Story by Yalata and Oak Valley Communities
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Blurb from Goodreads

Maralinga: The Anangu Story is our story. We have told it for our children, our grandchildren and their children. We have told it for you.

In words and pictures Yalata and Oak Valley community members, with author Christobel Mattingley, describe what happened in the Maralinga Tjarutja lands of South Australia before the bombs and after.

My review

This book sets out in considerable detail what was lost by the Anangu people – and, as a consequence, what we have all lost – as a result, first, of the Europeans’ overuse of water and timber at the Ooldea Soak (which caused devastation of the local environment) and, secondly, the testing of nuclear weapons by the British at Maralinga.

It is often astonishing to me how much survives, despite the atrocities performed. Maralinga contains anecdotes and memories from members of the communities at Yalata and Oak Valley, such as stories about Wanampi (water snake) and how people found water and food, as well as traditional stories, such as the story of Aru and Makuru. Some community members have also provided accounts of being separated from their families.

The book then moves on to describe how the nuclear tests were managed – or, in many respects, mismanaged, particularly in relation to the Anangu community. The mission was closed suddenly and people were dispersed. Many were moved to Yalata, close to the coast. And the weapons were tested when there were still Anangu people living on their traditional lands – within the “Prohibited Zone”, an area enormously affected by the tests. Of course, the effect of the tests extended beyond the Prohibited Zone, and many people became sick. Later, many more became sick when employed to assist with the clean-up.

Despite all of that, the book ends with hope. The Oak Valley community was established on traditional lands in 1985. Oak Valley has grown and prospered. The people there retain their strong links with those who have remained at Yalata. The final substantive page includes quotes from several children stating what they hope to be doing in ten years’ time.

This is a book which all Australians should read. What happened at Maralinga is among the worst wrongs the government and White Australia committed against the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, and it is a story too easily overlooked. It also serves as a reminder of the other wrongs committed. And the hope voiced at the end of the book is hope for us all.

This is a review for the 2015 Australian Women Writers Challenge. You can see my full list of books here. You can find a full list of my reviews, and other posts relevant to the challenge, here.


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Black-on-white silhouette of an apparently female figure in a top hat, with the words in white: 2012 Australian Women Writers Challenge (and the url australianwomenwriters.com at the bottom)
We of the Never Never by Jeannie Gunn
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Blurb from Goodreads

An Australian classic. Depicts the enduring hardships of life in the Australian outback and the battles against sexist and racial prejudices.

My review

One of the things I tried to do for this challenge was to read a number of books I have been meaning to read for some time. We of the Never Never was one such book. Because it is an Australian classic from the early 20th century, I expected to find parts of it confronting, and in that, I was not disappointed.

A quick precis: the book is a memoir of the author’s first year on the Elsey, a station in the Northern Territory, several days’ journey (by the modes of transport then available) from Katherine. She is there because she has just married the Elsey’s manager, referred to in the book as “the Maluka” (this is later explained to be a name given to him by the Aboriginal people they have contact with and is, at least, so the author tells us, untranslateable). She is the only non-Aboriginal woman on the Elsey. She tells the story of her journey from Darwin to the Elsey early in the Wet season, and goes on to narrate other episodes, including staffing difficulties, the completion of the homestead and trips out on the station.


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Last year, I wrote a post about the Aboriginal Australian stories I’d had around me when I was growing up (as far as I know, none of the stories I was exposed to were stories of Torres Strait Islanders). I also wrote about Indigenous Australian characters, and an interesting comment thread developed about stories about Indigenous Australian characters and people.

If, like me, you are interested in seeing more Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander stories, you will be delighted to hear that the Belvoir Street Theatre’s [NB: site down at time of writing] collaboration with Big hART to produce Namatjira has resulted in the best play I’ve seen for a long, long time.


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I’m an atheist. I don’t believe in God, nor do I believe there is any inherent supernatural reason not to walk on Uluru.

However, I do believe there are excellent cultural reasons not to walk on Uluru.

I also believe that human rights are important.

However, I don’t believe that your choice to do something as trivial as climb Uluru because it’s there is a human right.

Unlike Kerry van der Jagt and her mates.


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Most Australians would be aware, at least, of the High Court’s decision in Mabo, which was handed down on 3 June 1992. Many would also recognise the phrase terra nullius and would know that it has something to do with the Mabo decision.

However, there has historically been a lot of misinformation about the meaning of Mabo, and on this, the 17th anniversary of the decision (and the final day of Reconciliation Week this year), I thought it was worth posting about what it means, what it doesn’t mean, and some of the current issues related to native title.

Question #1: Did Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people have any land rights prior to the Mabo decision in 1992?

They did, but these were very limited – basically, between the early 1960s and the Mabo decision, most states had put into place legislation (as the Federal government had done for the Northern Territory) which granted Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people some ownership of land which had been reserves. Notably, Western Australia did not have any such legislation – and as you can imagine, that’s a big deal, given it’s the largest state.

Question #2: If there was already legislation, what was the significance of Mabo?

Well, first of all, the legislation only gave a very specific group of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people any rights to land (again, any Aboriginal people from Western Australia didn’t have any protection!).

But the real significance of Mabo (in terms of how it protected land rights) was the recognition of native title in the Australian common law. Before Mabo, there had been a case (Milirrpum v Nabalco Pty Ltd (1971) 17 FLR 141) in the Northern Territory in which a judge had rejected the concept of native title, essentially on the basis that there had never been any governmental recognition of native title.

This decision was criticised for a while, but (possibly because of the limited land rights granted to some Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people by legislation) the question of native title didn’t come up again properly until Mabo.

Question #3: Did Mabo grant Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people any land rights?

No. In fact, ironically enough, it actually validated the dispossession of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people that took place before 31 October 1975. The significance of that date is that on that day, the Racial Discrimination Act 1975 commenced.

In Mabo, the High Court held that there was no general restriction in Australian law (either under the Constitution, general principles of common law or other legislation) that prevented the dispossession of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people before the Racial Discrimination Act came into force. As a result, any land granted (ie no longer held by the Crown) before 31 October 1975 cannot be subject to native title claims. This includes most land in urban areas, and a significant amount of land in other areas.

However, the Court held that any attempted extinguishment of native title after 31 October 1975 is subject to the Racial Discrimination Act. That means that native title can be extinguished after 31 October 1975, but there must be a clear intention in the legislation to extinguish native title. (The High Court split on the issue of compensation.)

Question #4: You haven’t mentioned terra nullius yet. What’s that all about?

Although terra nullius is one of the “take-home” phrases from Mabo, the concept is actually not enormously important to the decision.

One judge (Brennan J) did focus on the concept, but this appears to be because he felt it necessary to overrule previous cases which he thought applied. Other judges seemed to simply accept that the concept of “native title” could exist whether or not a place was terra nullius. Whether or not Australia was terra nullius prior to the arrival of the British was irrelevant, and in fact, most of the Court did not actually reject the concept.

Question #5: What must Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander people prove in order to establish native title?

They have to prove that native title has not been extinguished as described above.

They also have to prove a continuing connection with the land. (Since Mabo, this is governed by the Native Title Act 1993.)

This means that people who were forcibly removed from their land suffer a double-whammy. Where a group of people was entirely dispersed, it is likely to be very difficult to establish a native title claim.

The current Chief Justice of the High Court of Australia, Justice French, has recently suggested that the system is unfair and unwieldy. [NB: that link is a .pdf – there’s a .html list of speeches here.] His Honour is widely quoted as saying that there should be a reversal of the onus of proof – that is, that rather than the native title claimants having to prove their continuous connection to the land, that the other party should have to disprove it. This is not stated in terms in the speech, but there is a suggestion that the difficulties faced by native title claimants are opposed to the generally beneficial purpose of the Native Title Act.

Some current issues

One current issue is that referred to French CJ: the difficulty that native title claimants still face in proving their continuous connection to the land in question. This means that native title cases tend to take years to resolve, with enormous amounts of evidence put before the court. This puts a strain on the parties (as litigation always does, and particularly because it is an issue which is so important to so many people) and on the justice system.

I’d highly recommend reading the Chief Justice’s paper, which I hope is reasonably accessible to non-lawyers.

Another current issue is the NT Intervention. One very topical issue is the pressure the Federal government is placing on some Aboriginal groups in the NT to enter into leases, with the Aboriginal groups leasing their land to the Federal government in return for an “investment”.

It’s not directly related to native title in the Mabo sense, but it raises the same sorts of questions – and makes many people fear that the government has some ulterior motive in requiring the leases to be granted.

There are other current issues, but this post is already long enough, so I’ll leave them to be raised in comments.


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