Visitors to Australia may see little of its indigenous culture, unless they seek it out or include Central Australia on their itinerary. An Aboriginal busker playing didgeridoo on a city street, or some art works on a gallery wall may be the extent of it otherwise.
They may hear a couple of phrases that mean little to them: “the reconciliation movement” and “the stolen generations”. Both are issues which – if investigated – could give them a new insight into Australia.
The Stolen Generations are Aboriginal children who were removed from their parents by government officials and placed in orphanages, children’s homes or church missions in the 1920s. Some have never found their parents; for others death intervened before reunion was possible.
This was not the only indignity Aborigines have suffered since white settlement. When the British arrived to settle this so-called terra nullius (empty land) in the late 1700s, they brought diseases such as smallpox with them – with devastating effect for the Aborigines. Many Aborigines died during conflict with the settlers, and by the early 1900s, the Aboriginal people were a dying race, the survivors mostly living on government-run reserves or in missions. Some became fringe dwellers on the outskirts of urban areas, while others eked out livings in rural and outback Australia.
They could no longer live as they had done for tens of thousands of years, but neither could they become equals in the society that had taken their land. It was not until 1962 that Aboriginal people were given the right to hold citizenship or vote in Australia and only in 1992 that the High Court of Australia expunged the concept of terra nullius and acknowledged the pre-existing rights of indigenous Australians.
Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders, from the far north of Queensland, are the most disadvantaged people in Australian society today, as a direct result of colonisation, dispossession, and the lack of rights and opportunities given to other citizens.
According to a report released last week by the Australian Institute of Criminology into Aboriginal deaths in custody, Indigenous people are 15 times more likely than other Australians to go to prison. They also have much lower life expectancy and higher birth mortality. In short, a cycle of poverty, poor health and limited education has created for them a lifestyle far removed from that of most other Australians.
This week (May 27-June 3) is National Reconciliation Week in Australia. Held since 1998, the week is preceded by National Sorry Day (May 26) when Australians of all backgrounds march in parades and hold other events around the country to honour the Stolen Generations. The first act to be carried out by the Labor Government following its election victory in 2007 was to officially apologise to the Stolen Generations. Aboriginal people are still not recognised in the Australian Constitution.
The reconciliation movement aims to promote an appreciation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures and achievements and of the unique position they hold as the indigenous peoples of Australia to the wider Australian community, and to build respectful relationships between Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and other Australians, and to create a fair and equal society.
So it was fitting last night to be present at the opening night performance in Brisbane of a unique adaptation of Bertolt Brecht’s classic morality tale, Mother Courage & Her Children, by the Queensland Theatre Company. With an all-Indigenous cast, this fresh look at Brecht’s famous play is woven with the modern themes of the Stolen Generation, land ownership, and the impact of mining on Australia.
Instead of Europe’s Thirty Years’ War of the 1600s, this is a futuristic setting, a post-apocalyptic continent ravaged by conflict between warring miners. Adapted by QTC artistic director Wesley Enoch (the first Indigenous person to run a major theatre company in Australia) and translator Paula Nazarski, it stars the luminous Ursula Yovich as Mother Courage, as she does her best for her children travelling the outback in a beat-up, broken-down old truck.
If it all sounds a bit heavy…well, it is. But the dark themes are lightened by comedic moments, by song, by the haunting sound of the didgeridoo and by stunning performances from a cast of 10. It helps if you take some time before the performance for a quick study of the glossary of Indigenous words and colloquialisms in the program; it was soon obvious that the Aboriginal members of the audience were enjoying jokes we migaloo (white people) were missing!
This is a production which showcases some of Australia’s finest – or should I say, deadliest – Indigenous talents.
Mother Courage & Her Children is at the Playhouse, Queensland Performing Arts Centre, Brisbane until June 6.