Australia Day: When Mourning & Celebrating Collide

by | Jan 27, 2022 | Grief and Loss

Reflections on Australia Day 2022

Yesterday was that day of the year when mourning and celebration collide. As a nation, we can’t even decide what to call it or when to celebrate it. For now, the date remains set to January 26, the anniversary of the arrival of the First Fleet.

  • Is it Australia Day? A day of celebrating this wonderful, beautiful country of ours?
  • Is it Invasion Day? A day to focus on the suffering our Indigenous brothers and sisters endured?
  • Is it Survival Day? A day to acknowledge the resilience of one of the world’s oldest continuous cultures!

Some people will try to straddle all the options: celebrating our nation and its people, while also acknowledging the sadness and grief of this day and the resilience of the survivors. It can get pretty tricky… and stretchy!

Where do you sit on the issue?

I used to do the straddle, but these days I feel uneasy about celebrating this beautiful, amazing country and its people on the same day that white people took the land as their own – land that had been inhabited and respected by the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples for up to 74,000 years. If you’re not convinced, this article might help.

I have been reflecting on the grief and despair that must have been experienced by the original inhabitants when strangers turned up on their shores with guns.

The lack of recognition, repair and reconciliation leaves Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders disenfranchised, grieving for their losses yet being told it was “such a long time ago” or “modern Australians can’t be held accountable for what their forefathers did”. They deserve to have their grief acknowledged.

I definitely stand with those who want to “find a different date to celebrate”!

We need to build bridges, not barriers
We need to build connection, not division
We need restorative reconciliation, not just remorse

And is ‘reconciliation’ enough?

If we’re going to continue choosing January 26 as Australia Day, let us also acknowledge what happened, how it impacted the original inhabitants of this land and the ways in which it continues. to do so. Let us also acknowledge their incredible survival and resilience.

Many events these days begin with an “Acknowledgement of Country”, but this needs to be more than words. Personally, I would like to take this opportunity to acknowledge some of the ways I have not acknowledged Country.

Getting it Wrong

  • I acknowledge that I don’t know what it was like to have my land taken or to be taken from my family
  • I acknowledge that I don’t know what it was like to be brought to this land unwillingly, simply because I stole a loaf of bread
  • I acknowledge that I cannot understand the mindset of an explorer or “free settler” who would willingly take over and dominate other humans beings
  • I acknowledge that while living “Out the back of Bourke” in Australia, I failed to take the time to sit with First Nations people and listen to their stories; I failed to take the time to get to know them and build relationships.
  • I acknowledge that my stories about “living on a cotton farm” at Bourke have not been accompanied by the awareness that it was originally home to the Ngemba peoples of the Wongaibon Aboriginal language group. I was not even aware that Bourke was located in Gurnu–Baakandji Country.
  • I acknowledge that I delighted in the natural wonders of places like Gundabooka, Mt Oxley, and the 40,000-year-old Brewarrina fish traps, without also appreciating the wonders of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples living in harmony with such incredible landscapes
  • I acknowledge that my discovery of the Bank’s foreclosure of the cotton farm had me thinking only of the white families who lived there. I failed to acknowledge that the red, dusty plains of the farm were originally First People lands and they, too, had experienced the loss of their home.
  • I acknowledge that the Christmas gift from my children of a beautiful, authentic Indigenous painting deeply touched me, but I failed to take the time to read the story of the artist and reflect on the painting’s significance.

Before I go on, let me introduce you to Anna Tilmouth Pengarte, pictured below with the artwork that now sits in my home office. Anna’s works can be purchased directly from Mbantua Fine Art Gallery and Cultural Museum in Alice Springs, NT.

Anna Tilmouth Pengarte

Anna Tilmouth Pengarte

Artist

Language group: Anmatyerre

Country: Mulga Bore/Bushy Park

Anna is the daughter of June Bird and Johnny Tilmouth and the granddaughter of well known Utopia artist, Ada Bird Petyarre (deceased). Having grown up with a strong tradition of painting, Anna is developing her own painting style, often experimenting with new designs.

Doing Better

I was blessed to be able to see all but one of my living children for brunch this morning. Although I don’t personally “celebrate Australia Day” on 26 January, I wanted to approach the gathering in a culturally sensitive way, even though it was just 5 very white people sitting inside my little home. I got my Google on and found some ideas for honouring the suffering and resilience of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders.

Here’s what we did. It’s but a drop in the ocean but it’s still a drop.

  • I created a little table display as a nod to the richness of the culture of First Nations people. Naturally, the centrepiece was the beautiful Indigenous piece of art I had been gifted. As I carried it from my home office to the living area, the above photograph of the artist holding my painting fell from its hiding position on the back of the canvas! I feel so privileged to have this. In fact, it is as special to me as the artwork itself. (How GORGEOUS is this painting!)
Australia Day Mourning and Celebration Display
  • We listened to the National Indigenous Music Awards Finalists playlist on Apple Music and discovered some awesome new tracks from artists such as Budjerah, who my daughter was privileged to meet once. Every time a song is streamed, the artist benefits, so this is a tiny way of giving something back.
  • We almost had an Indigenous-themed brunch! I recently discovered The Australian Super Food Co, a Melbourne-based supplier of native fruit, herbs and seeds sourced primarily from Indigenous Australians. My last-minute grand intention to create a brunch feast with ethically-sourced Indigenous ingredients was thwarted by Covid shipping delays. I’ll definitely place an order for another day, though!
  • And I am here writing to you, so that together,  individually, and as a society, we can do better.

Doing More

You may be thinking that ‘token efforts’ like this don’t make a difference, or that we should just ‘move on’ because it happened such a long time ago. The reality is, this country WAS invaded and the original inhabitants have survived, but not without much suffering. There is still much to be done and it starts with each of us.

Living standards and healthcare access continue to be a problem for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, yet they are just a symptom, really. There is a significant gap between how things should be and how they are. It’s appropriate to grieve the gap, acknowledge what was taken, and the impact this has had. It is also appropriate – and necessary – to turn feelings into action.

We must take action to help improve the health outcomes for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, who typically have a 10-year shorter lifespan and twice the rate of neonatal deaths.

As the mother of a baby who died due to medical negligence, I stand with my Indigenous sisters whose babies die preventable deaths due to limited access to healthcare.

You can sign up here for updates about this year’s National Close the Gap Day on 17 March 2022. This is just one example, but it is a start.

Going Deeper

The reduced health outcomes in First Nations people are unsurprising, given that intergenerational trauma is typically passed down from generation to generation. But it can be changed. It must be changed.

Intergenerational Trauma

Unhealed trauma can have detrimental outcomes for subsequent generations. When a child feels unsafe in the world, and even their home, it becomes difficult to connect securely with others, and the ongoing distress and disconnection tends to have a flow-on effect to subsequent children. The Stolen Generations particularly find it difficult to experience and provide nurture and closeness. This trauma cycle passes down the generations to those who have not been directly impacted by the initial trauma.

We should also remember that trauma and its impacts are defined by the one experiencing it.

“Thriving is our birthright. Healing individual and collective trauma is one of deepest reminders of this birthright.” — Dr. Scott Lyons

A wonderful resource for learning about intergenerational trauma is HealingFoundation. They have also produced this wonderfully informative video animation.

Is reconciliation enough?

If reconciliation is transactional and only treats the symptoms of the underlying intergenerational cultural trauma, it can never be enough. It is merely a step toward what is needed.

Reconciliation needs to be restorative and its effectiveness cannot be determined by those of us not harmed by colonisation. Deep healing of the underlying collective trauma is needed, practical strategies that bring about tangible improvements are essential, political and social change is imperative, and entirely new ways of living together respectfully and harmoniously must be imagined and implemented.

For those of us in the privileged position of not having experienced the ongoing impacts of invasion and colonisation, we have a responsibility to:

  • Open our eyes and truly see that which is so easy for us to overlook
  • Take time to understand the ongoing impacts on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples
  • Engage in deep listening and empathy – we do not get to determine if the ongoing impacts are valid or not
  • Address any unconscious bias or prejudice
  • Treat Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders with dignity and respect

Change is needed and it is possible. It is worth pushing towards, even if it feels out of reach. What are the options if we don’t?

We share this beautiful land with beautiful people who are worthy of respect, empathy, compassion and dignity. There is so much they can teach us about being wise custodians of the land.

We can and must validate Indigenous grief and trauma and stand with those who want to change the date of Australia Day, out of respect and consideration for the descendants of those who suffered and lost their lives.

Here are some ideas of what we can do and how we can learn.

What will you do differently?

 

Australia Day acknowledgement of country

Acknowledgement of Country

I acknowledge the Wurundjeri Woi Wurrung people of the Kulin Nation as the Traditional custodians of the lands and waterways where I live and work, and I pay respect to their Elders past, present, and emerging. I acknowledge the stories, traditions and living cultures of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples on this land.

About the Author: Karen

About the Author: Karen

Karen Bieman is based in Melbourne, Australia, and also works online. With a focus on grief, loss, and relationships, Karen works with her clients around issues of non-death loss, relationship endings, and bereavement. As an integrative person-centred counsellor with lived experiences of loss, grief and trauma, Karen is focused on creating a warm, welcoming, empathic space in which her clients feel supported, validated, and equipped to create a rich and meaningful life, moving forward, and understanding themselves better in the process.

Karen is a level 3 member of the Australian Counselling Association and is pursuing post-graduate training in grief, loss and trauma counselling. She is also an AOTT Qualified & Certified Online Practitioner TM. 

0 Comments

Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published.

Pin It on Pinterest

Share This