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So Jo Tamar posted a link to an info sheet (PDF) Hexy (of Hexpletive, who is a Wiradjuri woman) sent her concerning language surrounding Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. I recommend you read it. I’m not sure how accessible PDFs are, so if you’re having trouble, let me know and I’ll post a summary. This post is just my reactions.

I was astounded at how much of that I didn’t know. Like, the misuse of the word “traditional,” which seems so obvious now.

Okay, look. I’m a non-Indigenous resident of NSW. (Overseas readers, New South Wales is on the east side of the country and the most populous Australian state.) I’ve had one Aboriginal friend (so far as I’m aware) and I didn’t want to upset him by asking him lots of questions about what I gathered was a sad family history. There are no longer many Aboriginal people living in my immediate area. (There’s this fantastic woman who got the local high school, her granddaughter’s, to include an acknowledgement of her people and the land in every school assembly and major gathering.) In primary school, we had occasional days on which a few Indigenous people would come by, tell us about their cultures, show us paintings, dance and tell us stories. (When I have kids, I am so finding a book of Dreamtime stories. Wonderful.) We got a bit of in-class education, too, mostly in Year Three from memory. In Year 10, we had a unit on post-contact history, mostly concerning Aboriginal people but a bit on Torres Strait Islanders. There was also a unit in geography, which was broader in time frame but pretty light on content.

All that background is by way of telling you that my knowledge of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander rights, history, culture and concerns is just not good enough. I’m a bit worried that I may have unwittingly offended people in the past, but, as I’ve had limited contact with any Indigenous Australians, it’s more likely that I’ve been contributing to oppression indirectly. It gets more and more obvious that the NSW education board did a half-arsed job of teaching us about our Indigenous peoples. As a kid, I trusted my educators to be teaching me everything I needed to know. Which is laughable, looking back: I can see political bias riddled through my education. (And what’s with women being in the coloured boxes at the end of chapters in textbooks? Don’t we have experience and history that should be counted as part of the main story?) But now I’m growing more and more disappointed at how little I really know and how much of that is inaccurate. Not really surprised anymore.

With regard to self-motivated research, I’ve watched TV programs and read articles and things. On the commercial networks, the presence of Indigenous Australians is tiny, but SBS and ABC are a lot better. Recently I’ve started a sustained pattern of research. All this feels hopelessly inadequate. Of course, anything I can do against the horrific legacy of oppression against Indigenous Australians by Europeans would be pretty small in any case. But doing positive work requires knowledge. And what I’ve been told by the government and media, what I’ve been sold as solid information, looks increasingly shaky.

Also, this shouldn’t just be something reluctantly shoved at children for a brief period. Australian society as a whole should be interested in continual acknowledgement and learning about Indigenous life and experience. Just now I’m learning that using ‘European settlement’ is inappropriate. The phrase was in all my school textbooks. You can be reasonably sure that the writers and editors didn’t consult actual Indigenous Australians before publishing. Also, the invisiblising of, say, Larrakia or Eora people and cultures because kids are taught about Indigenous Australians as having one big, homogenous culture. It is a giant country with many different groups, people. Learn to logic. There’s so much that is falling through the cracks and it’s hugely disrespectful.

Additionally, it’s difficult to rework the ideas I’ve been presented with by official means when the media is so rubbish about Indigenous concerns. There’s sometimes a story shoved in somewhere, generally from a highly white perspective. And I don’t see a whole lot of Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander presenters or fictional characters. (There’s a great actor called Deborah Mailman, who used to be a presenter on Playschool and whom I saw last year as the title character of my favourite play ever, Antigone.)

Getting back to language, I’m switching between using “Indigenous Australians” and “Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people” because I’ve heard that some people consider either one or the other offensive and I’m not sure what’d be appropriate for non-Indigenous me to use. I used to use “Indigenous Australians” when refering to both Aboriginals and Torres Strait Islanders, and the fact sheet nominates that also, so when generally speaking and when pressed to use one, I’ll use that, I guess. Of course, if an individual person requests something else for when I refer to them, (eg to be referred to by their specific nation, I’ll use that.

It’s ridiculous that I’ve lived here all my life and my knowledge of Indigenous Australia is this poor. So, that even someone like me, who is trying to be an ally, is finding it this hard to separate out what’s respectful and what’s not, is a poor reflection on not just my own efforts, but the semi-accurate information I’m being fed by the government and media. Obviously, going to Indigenous-run organizations is good for righting that, so that’s what I’m having a go of.

So I don’t even know whether this post is in keeping with Indigenous sensibilities. If you’re concerned, you’re not obligated to, but it’d help me out if you’d let me know. To finish off, I’m thinking of having a linkage post on good online resources on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander topics. Personal perspectives, like blogs, are good, as are stats pages, organisational homepages, whatever – it would be great if you’d care to recommend any resources.

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