Acknowledging our First Nations People - Unfinished Business - CycleBlaze

Acknowledging our First Nations People

On January 26, 1788, the so-called First Fleet arrived in Botany Bay and this was the beginning of the demise of the world’s oldest cultures. For at least 65,000 years Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people encompassing 500 Nations or groups and 250-300 languages lived in all parts of the continent.  In all of these environments from the harshest deserts to the riverine landscapes of south eastern Australia and the extensive coastal regions, the inhabitants regarded themselves as caretakers of the land. This part of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander culture persists today and gains relevance with every flood, firestorm and species decline.

Now let me tell you something I still find disturbing.  I arrived as a child migrant in 1964 – a boat person, and did essentially all of my schooling in Australia. I had a history book when I was 12 with a picture of Captain Cook’s voyage of discovery in 1770 gracing its cover. I studied history until I left school and learnt about British monarchs, the World Wars, American documents but not a thing about the original inhabitants of Australia. I do not accept that this was anything but a cover-up. It was Terra nullius – nobody’s land, in the classroom. But it gets even worse when you realise that myths about them all being nomadic hunter-gatherers who had no concept of agriculture are spread throughout the literature. Jared Diamond’s classic – Guns, Germs and Steel, is one such book that promulgates the myth. An entirely different view comes from Bruce Pascoe’s recent tome, Dark Emu.

The arrival of Europeans, viewed by many Aboriginal and Torres Strait people as an invasion, led to the tragedy we see today. This followed the path of so many of the world’s indigenous peoples as disease, massacres and the theft of land left them helpless. And then came inhumane policies that stole their children, confined adults to settlements, prevented them becoming citizens, made them work for nothing but rations; the list is endless.

Is it any surprise that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are disadvantaged by any measure you care to use? They suffer poor nutrition, have a low birth weight, reduced life expectancy and high rates of chronic disease. Rates of unemployment, incarceration and of substance abuse are high in many First Nations communities. They have fewer educational opportunities and typically live in poorer housing. From this dire situation come policies on “Closing the Gap” often with little consultation with those affected.

But against this backdrop bright lights shine. It’s simply remarkable that 150 indigenous languages survive and that there is still a close connection to country. Their art appears in famous galleries around the world. There’s a thriving music and film scene, while Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people have starred in all manner of sport. There are indigenous radio and television stations and there are regular programmes on the national broadcaster. It’s 50 years since Neville Bonner became the first indigenous parliamentarian while the 2023 parliament has eleven Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander representatives. Douglas Nicholls was a remarkable sportsman but better known as the Governor of South Australia. How ironic that he was knighted by the queen!

My cycling trip will start on Ngunawal and Ngambri lands here in Canberra, the nation’s capital where traffic lights are rigorously uncoordinated. It will traverse the traditional lands of many Aboriginal Nations of which a rough list appears later. I acknowledge the traditional owners of these lands. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people have never signed a treaty with the colonisers of the land while the sovereignty of the land has never been ceded by any First Nations people.

I will be cycling at an important time in Australian history. Soon after I return there will be a referendum on whether to amend the constitution to give an Indigenous Voice to Parliament. The Voice would “advise the Australian parliament and government on matters relating to the social, spiritual and economic wellbeing of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people”. It seems long overdue. Is it the magic wand to start closing the gap? 

Some of the indigenous lands I will traverse:

Ngunawal, Ngambri, Wiradjuri, Ngiyampaa, Koun-yah, Bidjara, Kuungkara, Yiningaya, Koa, Mittakoodi, Kalkadoon, Pitta Pitta, Indjalandji, Dhidann, Gagaguwaja, Warumungu, Walpiri, Bilinara, Gurindjii, Mudburra, Kakkaning, Dagoman, Jawoyn, Wardaman, Wagoman, Asgicondi, Arigoola, Kungarakan, Awarai, Larrakia

A ride through aboriginal Australia
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Graham SmithWell said Ian. Spot on.

When you get to Yass, the main bridge piers have some excellent contemporary Aboriginal art. Including sketch maps.
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1 year ago
Rob ParnellAgree with Ian. If you can get hold of some music by Richard J Franklin, do it. He's following in the footsteps of Kev Carmody.
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1 year ago
Ian WallisTo Graham SmithGraham. Thanks for your comments. Much appreciated. Ian
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1 year ago
Lyla RoganIan, appreciate this acknowledgment and am grateful for you comments
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1 year ago