12 Feb. 2008

Sorry

It was 1985, I was 21 years old, I had just finished my Arts degree, and I wanted to get away from everything. So I took up a job as a live-in teacher to three kids on a remote North Queensland cattle station (amazingly, I found the job in the Sydney Morning Herald classifieds).

The station owner drove me out through Mareeba and Chillagoe, picking up an Akubra and some boots along the way. The property was enormous - 600,000 hectares, I think it was - and the nearest neighbour was about 10 km away. The family lived in a little fibro house, with brown snakes crawling around the pylons.

I was given a room in the house, but the other workers on the property, the Aboriginal "ringers", lived about thirty yards away in a corrugated iron shed. There were about five of them, but three I remember in particular...

One was an old fella with bad teeth, who nevertheless did most of the dangerous work (like jumping off a horse, grabbing a bull by the horns, and twisting it to the ground). He showed me scars on his back and head from when he was a kid, explaining that the station owners used to beat them with chains. When I expressed my sympathy and horror he laughed, saying he was one of the lucky ones who survived the beatings.

Another was a softly spoken, slightly plump fella who had an intelligent look in his eye and was always interested in discussing the outside world. He said he wanted to go back to school (he was about 25) but he couldn't because he was too old. He said there was a policy in the local schools that Aboriginal kids could not be "kept back", even if they didn't understand the work. Because he and his friends were always skipping school to go fishing and so forth, he had reached a point (by about 12) where he had no idea what the teacher was talking about any more. So he just stopped going to school completely.

Another was a lanky guy who was rather shy and always smiling - Francis, I think his name was. We got along well, and I asked him if he wanted to come with me in to Cairns one day, or even come visit me in Sydney. He recoiled in horror at the thought:

"They got them moving stairs there, hey?"

It took me a while to realise he was talking about escalators. The very idea of stepping onto stairs that moved was intimidating to him.

I quit the job after two months, following a heated exchange with the station owner.

I was constantly asking him questions about how the whites up there interacted with the local "Murris" (as the local Aboriginals called themselves) and he just couldn't handle it. He was also unhappy that I was spending "too much" time associating with the ringers, instead of playing with his three young kids. In fact, the kids and I used to play regularly with the Murris, often going fishing, or swimming in the river (the freshwater crocs would splash into the water when they heard you approaching), or playing soccer and cricket together in the cool of the afternoon. And that seemed to be the real problem.

The owner accused me of being a stuck-up Uni student from Sydney, coming up there with my preconceived attitudes, implying all sorts of bad motives on the locals, etc. I was kind of surprised. I could tell my questions had been making him uncomfortable, but I didn't find him personally to be racist, and I didn't expect this explosion of anger. I was just trying to understand how things worked up there, and it had become increasingly obvious that there was a strong underlying current of racism permeating all areas of life in the region.

I quit the job there and then, but the owner told me I would have to wait two days for the mail plane to take me to Cairns, because the roads were blocked. Later he apologised for his outburst and asked me to stay on, but the whole situation had become too uncomfortable.

Francis said I should come with him and the ringers into Chillagoe, where they would soon be going to blow all the money they had made over the past few weeks. What happened is that all the ringers in the area landed at the Chillagoe Pub on a Friday night and got shit-faced for a whole weekend. Then the station owners drove out on Monday, picked up their chosen workers from the gutters, and drove them back out to the properties. The ringers joked about waking up with hangovers not even knowing what property they were working on.

"You like Aboriginal girl?" Francis asked me. "You get nice Aboriginal girl, you see. You come with us, mate."

I passed on the offer and took the mail plane out instead.

When I got back to Sydney, however, it was the topic on everybody's minds. Even my own uncles, a staid bunch of happily-married suburbanites, gave me sly nudges around the barbeque:

"Did ya get any of that Black Velvet, then? Did ya?"

That's what sex with Aboriginal girls was called: "Black Velvet". Alan Ramsay had a great article about it in the SMH last weekend, and I urge you all to read it.

When you think about it, Black Velvet has probably been the root cause (excuse the pun) of a whole shitload of human misery. Both whites and blacks treated half-caste kids atrociously, largely due to the stigma attached to the act of sex with either natives or oppressors. And from that sense of shame sprang a whole host of troubles.

If whites back then thought they were doing the right thing by removing kids from their families, it was surely (at least partly) a way to assuage their own feelings of guilt for abandoning these kids in the first place. No doubt a lot of embarrassing little "situations" were quietly resolved by putting a half-caste kid in a car and taking him or her very far away, never to return.

But of course these things do come back to haunt us, don't they? Karma's a bitch, as they say.

Anyway, this post is just my way of adding my voice to the chorus of caring Australians saying "sorry" today. I've seen enough to know that this apology is well and truly overdue, and I hope it does open the door to a brighter future for all Aboriginal Australians.

From me to all of you, including generations past, present and future, for all that has happened, with all my heart:

"SORRY!"