December 2014

Moving beyond ignorance through shared stories

Are you one of the six in ten Australians who have never really encountered Aboriginal Australia? Moira Byrne Garton reviews SBS TV’s recent participant documentary First Contact, and admits she watched it with “some trepidation”.

BY Moira Byrne Garton

I was in high school when I first met an Aboriginal person. In a rural community full of white people, the most different people I knew were the Italian family who came to my church, or my Nanna’s Greek neighbour in a nearby country town.

But when I was 12 an Aboriginal family moved into the district, with a daughter my age. Tracy was quiet, gentle and she spoke softly. She had the darkest eyes I had ever seen and skin the colour of strong tea. I don’t remember much more than that. I sometimes ponder how it would have been to move to my community, especially back then. Even with white skin and a family history in the area, I knew how it felt to be an outsider. I can only imagine how things were for them. They moved on after only a few months.

After I left school and moved to the city, I met people from a variety of backgrounds and cultures – in my workplace, at uni, and at my youth group. I did not know that a young woman who became one of my oldest and dearest friends was Aboriginal. She did not know herself back then – but that’s her story.

Later, studying politics, history and theology at uni taught me about some issues surrounding aboriginality, such as colonisation, racism and reconciliation. I even chose a case study for my honours thesis based on my interest in aboriginal land rights.

But a few years later, I started thinking about indigenous Australians a whole lot more.

I was in Alice Springs to see my sister, who is a registered nurse and midwife, and has worked with Aboriginal people all over Australia for decades now. At the time of my visit she worked as a community health nurse. She had an errand to run at an Aboriginal community just outside of Alice Springs, and I joined her. I watched happy mothers taking babies into a clinic for check-ups. I saw busy employees going about their work with professionalism.

But I was taken aback to see the state of housing, the lack of facilities, and clutches of people befuddled by alcohol – lurching as they walked in the morning sunshine, or even passed out under trees. I’ve since had more encouraging experiences of indigenous communities but they are stories for another time.

So I watched the SBS TV series First Contact with some trepidation. The series takes its cue from earlier SBS participant documentaries like Go Back to Where You Came From. Observing that six in ten Australians have never really encountered Aboriginal Australia, it offers six people an opportunity to hear the stories and experience the lives of Aboriginal Australians in some confronting settings and circumstances.

Along the way, information was shared and judgements revised. In the first episode, one participant asked what constituted Aboriginality, as many identifying as Aboriginal have a mixed race heritage. Her Redfern host used an analogy: “You can add milk and sugar [to tea], but it’s still tea”. Hosts broke preconceived notions about Aboriginals on welfare.

Later, in the Northern Territory, participants visited Nyinyikay where a turtle was hunted and cooked. One participant seemed more concerned about the turtle than the community members – but acknowledged other inconsistencies in her opinions.

The next episode documented the trip to Elcho Island, where some condemned the homes of those welcoming them. When the group flew to Alice Springs, one particularly critical woman decided to leave the show. Remaining members watched a night patrol service looking out for vulnerable people including those affected by alcohol.

A discussion of fairness in housing resulted in a squabble, as one participant remained steadfast in judgement. Later she appeared reflective when she revealed how alcohol had affected her own life. In the Pilbara, she and another participant watched as their host, an Aboriginal businesswoman delivered a training course on cultural sensitivity to some managers working in mines which are a big part of the community. I was touched to witness the healing between participants and the Aboriginal woman as they said their goodbyes.

In the final episode the six participants were bundled into a paddy wagon and taken to Roebourne regional prison, where they talked with inmates. One participant shared how domestic violence and prison affected her own life, while another realised that he could have taken a similar path.

In Fitzroy Crossing, participants met children with foetal alcohol syndrome and one participant accepted that her own drinking while unknowingly pregnant could have affected her child the same way. Local community members noted the role of hope for the future.

The series concluded with a smoking ceremony in beautiful Windjana Gorge and a discussion with host Ray Martin. All spoke words of openness, forgiveness, sharing, and learning: “Whether you’re white or Aboriginal… you can go through the same stuff”.

A special edition of Insight followed the series during which participants reflected on the show, with most of the more strident participants recognising their past ignorance.

When writing about the SBS series on asylum seekers, Go Back to Where You Came From, I observed that hardline views were tempered after being involved in an experience similar to those of many refugees. By placing non-indigenous Australians in touch with Aboriginal people, I was not surprised to see similar transformations.

If many more Australians could share the stories and experiences of Aboriginal Australians, we could make real progress in reconciliation and recognition, together.

If you missed First Contact when it was first broadcast, you can watch all three episodes plus the special edition of Insight online here.

Moira Byrne Garton

Dr Moira Byrne Garton is a mother, caregiver, public servant and writer.

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