A Year 6 student from Trinity Grammar School in Sydney, made an impassioned speech at Reconciliation Australia’s monthly staff meeting in Canberra recently. The young student demonstrated understanding and empathy as he spoke about misconceptions in Australian history, and the relatively unknown history of genocide of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples – the speech moving his audience to tears.
After reading a series of articles called The Killing Times, published in The Guardian, and discussing them with his family at home, Daniel Lok decided it would fit the theme of “Did you know?” for his school’s Public Speaking competition. The following week Daniel and his classmates were due to visit Old Parliament House in Canberra, and when his teacher, Shannon O’Dwyer, realised the Reconciliation Australia offices were based in the same building, she contacted the organisation.
“The intention was to find someone from Reconciliation Australia who could chat with Daniel or give him additional literature on this topic,” said Ms O’Dwyer. “The people I spoke to were very helpful and asked for a copy of the speech. To my surprise, and Daniel’s, he was invited to attend the monthly staff meeting and present his speech to the entire organisation. He chatted to Chief Executive Officer Karen Mundine, and answered some questions about his research process and why he thinks the issue is important.
Daniel was invited to close the meeting by reciting his speech, which brought many staff members to tears. “It is very heartening to see young people like Daniel taking up the cause of reconciliation,” said Ms Mundine.
Daniel was then presented with a badge, recognising him as a champion of reconciliation. He was also given some literature about the Narragunnawali program, and learnt how he can continue to work toward reconciliation by creating a Reconciliation Action Plan when he returns to school.
“It was an honour to sit in a real meeting and talk to people who think like me, that we have to acknowledge this part of history. I really enjoyed meeting the people at Reconciliation Australia. There was an emotion of sadness but also happiness and hope in the room, because these people work really hard for reconciliation every day. I think they knew that I was trying to help by recognising these events,” said Daniel.
“It is a wonderful thing to watch young people wrestle with, and make sense of the world around them. And even more incredible to see them making an impact! We’re all very proud of Daniel,” concluded Chris Wyatt, Master of the Preparatory School.
A large family gathers in the bush, eating a roasted sheep together. They are relieved and hungry. There is a rustling in the bush. They cautiously go to look, then, “Bang! Bang! Bang!“ The gunshots ring through the valley, followed by deafening silence. This shocking violence against Aboriginal families occurred across Australia too many times. In the next three minutes I will tell you a little of what happened and how we can acknowledge it. This story, the story of an attempted genocide, has been referred to as ‘the whispering in the bottom of our hearts.’
Did you know that in Australia there were at least 270 recorded Aboriginal massacres in 140 years? In one year, there were up to eight massacres in a single area, each taking about 10 lives and injuring five. Many more took place but were not recorded. The estimated death toll exceeded 100,000. In only one massacre out of all of these, were the killers punished. Following the 1838 Myall Creek massacre, seven of the killers were hanged.
As Aboriginal people lost their land, food during this time was scarce and when desperate, they resorted to killing settlers’ livestock. Settlers and soldiers retaliated with deadly consequences. The British knew that the Aboriginal people were hungry, so they put out bread poisoned with strychnine and it took many lives. The British turned other Aboriginal people against each other by promising a home in society, money, and food. These special police were referred to as the ‘Native Police’ and were also involved in some attacks.
The killings happened because, just like the Aboriginal people, the European settlers were bound in chains. These were not physical chains but mental ones, locking away the truth and stopping them from accessing it. The truth was that there were people on this land and Terra Nullius, meaning uninhabited land, was a lie. Until recently in schools, children were taught that the British came and gave Aboriginal people food, medicine, and shelter. It was like learning in a room with only one window, only one perspective to see our history, when there is a completely different story to be told.
These are unforgivable acts, but we can try to recognise them. We can move forward with our relationship with Aboriginal people by firstly addressing the intergenerational trauma caused by these acts. With trauma comes very poor health which can affect life expectancy by almost 10 years. Education will also be affected, which may lead to poverty and incarceration from making bad decisions. It is going to be a struggle to close the gap between healthy people and traumatised ones. We must also learn from others’ mistakes throughout history and treat people the same, unlike the British to the Aboriginals, or Hitler to the Jews. We must acknowledge the people who called this land home more than 60,000 years ago.
You may think this doesn’t concern you because you have moved here from another country, or you didn’t do it – it doesn’t matter. But we are using this land and by being citizens here we are taking on the history of this country many call home. Only by recognising the truth of how we came to be who we are, can we move forward and make choices as a country about who we want to be as a community.