Why can’t you take the gift we offer?

Yesterday, quite by chance, I happened on Ellen Fanning interviewing Wesley Enoch, Director of the Sydney Festival.  She began by questioning him about the ALWAYS vigil installation at Barangaroo for the Sydney Festival, and whether it was making people uncomfortable in relation to the ‘Change the Date’ campaign about Australia Day on 26 January, the date that marks when the British took possession of Australia and claimed terra nullius, denying Aboriginal occupation of the Australian continent.

Enoch’s father was Aboriginal, from Stradbroke Island.  His mother was non Aboriginal.  He talked about his own rage-filled youth as he tried to come to terms with racism, and straddling the two worlds of Aboriginal and White Australia, while at the same time grappling with his own sexual identity.  Luckily for Wesley Enoch, he found a pathway through theatre and the creative arts, becoming one of Australia’s leading playwrights and directors.  He explained the role of Aboriginal dark humour, where ‘deadly’ means fantastic.  He suggested that the ALWAYS vigil (always was, always will be) celebrates the extraordinary survival of Aboriginal people and their culture in the face of almost overwhelming terror from relentless and pervasive racism, dispossession of their lands, and attempts to annihilate their culture.

It is no accident that many Australia’s First Nations peoples have found their voice and identity through the Arts—painting, sculpture, music, dance, theatre—for it is through the Ceremony involving singing, dancing, story telling and painting that Aboriginal people curated the landscape of Australia for over 60,000 years, along the Songlines that criss cross Australia.  Wesley Enoch talked about the way theatre had provided him with a way into the heart, sinew, flesh and blood of what it means to Australian.  He reflected on the absurdity of the words of the Australian national anthem, ‘Advance Australia Fair’.  Two stanzas of the lyric stand out for their ridiculous claim: “Australians let us rejoice for we are young and free”, and “For those who’ve come across the seas, We’ve boundless plains to share”.  Both deny our Aboriginal heritage.  How can Australia be ‘young’, when its uninterrupted human history stretches back 60,000+ years, making it the oldest living culture on Earth?  While we talk about sharing the boundless plains with those who’ve come across the seas, there is absolutely no acknowledgement of Aboriginal presence, whose rights to the freedom of citizenship was only granted in 1967.

The ‘Change the Date’ campaign is gathering more and more force as many Australians, including non Indigenous Australians, recognise that we cannot celebrate National Day on the very day that the arrival of Captain Cook’s fleet marked the dispossession of Australia’s First Nations peoples.  In the same fashion, the present lyrics for Advance Australia Fair cannot be our national anthem.  Both are a nonsense, that no amount of anguish by Whites who feel uncomfortable with the truth telling of our history can turn into political cultural warring.  It is why the “I am Australian” lyrics first sung by the Seekers is increasingly becoming the defacto Australian National Anthem.

“I Am Australian”

I came from the Dreamtime
From the dusty red soil plains
I am the ancient heart
The keeper of the flame
I stood upon the rocky shore
I watched the tall ships come
For forty thousand years I’ve been the first Australian

I came upon the prison ships
Bound down by iron chains
I fought the land
Endured the lash
And waited for the rains
I’m a settler
I’m a farmer’s wife
On a dry and barren run
A convict then a free man
I became Australian

I’m a daughter of a digger
Who sought the mother lode
The girl became a woman
On the long and dusty road
I’m a child of her Depression
I saw the good times come
I’m a bushy, I’m a battler
I am Australian

We are one
But we are many
And from all the lands on earth we come
We’ll share a dream
And sing with one voice
I am, you are, we are Australian

I’m a teller of stories
I’m a singer of songs
I am Albert Namatjira
And I paint the ghostly gums
I’m Clancy on his horse
I’m Ned Kelly on the run
I’m the one who waltzed Matilda
I am Australian

I’m the hot wind from the desert
I’m the black soil of the plain
I’m the mountains and the valleys
I’m the drought and flooding rains
I am the rock
I am the sky
The rivers when they run
The spirit of this great land
I am Australian

We are one
But we are many
And from all the lands on earth we come
We’ll share a dream
And sing with one voice
I am, you are, we are Australian

We are one
But we are many
And from all the lands on earth we come
We’ll share a dream
And sing with one voice
I am, you are
We are Australian

I am, you are
We are Australian

Wesley Enoch talked about the role of the contemporary artist in our community.  It is to create experiences that push us out of our comfort zone and stimulate us to ask questions.  That is the role of the ALWAYS installation.  It provides an opportunity for contemplation about our history, as we sit by the harbour, around the ‘campfire’ and come to terms with our real history. It is an opportunity for all of us to embrace our 60,0000+ year history as the oldest living culture on Earth—one which stretches from the last Ice Age, through the arrival of the British to establish penal colonies for prisoners, to its evolution into a society based on citizenship, to its post war embrace of multiculturalism as wave after wave of immigrants have come to Australia to make it their home.  It stretches through the inclusion of First Nations peoples since the granting of their citizenship and abolition of the whole Native Protection regime.  It stretches to our contemporary issues of reconciliation with First Nations peoples through Keating’s Redfern speech, the Mabo Decision that gave First Nations peoples land rights, the Apology, and now our response to the refugee crisis engulfing the world as a result of the conflict in the Middle East, and the cultural challenges of a multicultural nation of many religious faiths within a framework of shared secular law.  Finally it stretches to the current challenge as we try to find a way to respond to the Uluru Statement from the Heart and changes required to the Australian Constitution to give First Nations peoples a Voice to Parliament.

As Welsey Enoch says:  WHY AREN’T YOU TAKING THE GIFT WE OFFER?

What is this gift?  As we stand on the precipice of an existential crisis for human settlement on Planet Earth, in the face of the inexorable warming of our planet from human activity and environmental degradation, particularly since the 19th century Industrial Revolution and through European colonialism, the exporting of the materialism of its worldview to the rest of societies across the planet, we need to embrace a completely different worldview.  We will not find this worldview from Western Civilisation, despite despite the attempts of Tony Abbott and John Howard to seduce a university to offer a course that glorifies Western Civilisation, as they attempt to hold back the tide of history.  We will not find it among the world business leaders and intellectual glitterati who attend DAVOS.  Instead we will find it among the world’s First Nations peoples and the networks they have been building to protect their cultures and values enshrined in their very different worldview.  This is a worldview that is intrinsically eco-centric.  It is a worldview that the Vietnamese Zen Buddhist master calls Interbeing.  What western social scientists call animism.  What some psychologists call ‘participation mystique’.  It is a worldview that viscerally experiences a sense of kinship with the more than human world—with its animals, insects, birds, fish, rivers, mountains, grasslands, forests, snowfields, oceans and deserts.  It permeates the cultures of Aboriginal and Torres Straight Islander peoples of Australia.  It pervades that of the Maori people of New Zealand, the island peoples of the Pacific, the Indigenous Indian peoples of the Americas, the Inuit and Sami peoples of the Arctic, the Bushman of the Kalahari.

While we grapple with all the practical policies of energy transition beyond coal, to a world economic system that no longer shifts all the wealth to the 1% and drives right wing populism to dangerous levels of violent blame shifting on vulnerable people, and resulting backlash, the most important task that faces all of us is to learn from First Nations peoples and TAKE THE GIFT WE OFFER.  It will require a cultural humility that is foreign to our diet of the dream of technological progress built on the might of European culture and its demonstrated superiority as shown by the material standard of living that marks the wealthy OECD nations.  That very story has brought us to our current crisis.

Now we must turn our faces into a completely new direction.  It will not be easy in the middle of all the noise of stock market movements, anxiety about jobs, social media, gender politics, Trumpism etc.  It will require time and space for quiet contemplation.  What Aboriginal people of the north have called Dadirri.  “This is inner, deep listening and quiet, still awareness.  Dadirri recognises the deep spring that is inside us.  We call on it and it calls to us … When I experience dadirri, I am made whole again.  I can sit on the riverbank or walk through the trees; even if someone close to me has passed away, I can find my peace in this silent awareness.”

It will require us to forget economics as the dominant discourse of our times, and turn our eyes and ears toward the arts so that once again we can learn from First Nations peoples how to engage in the arts as ‘ceremony’ to curate the Earth and keep alive its fecundity for all life forms.

This brings us back to the importance of the ALWAYS Vigil—part of “the gift we offer”.