An Aboriginal revival on Invasion Day: ‘Australia thought we would die out’
Al Jazeera presenter Stan Grant’s family have been at the forefront of this renaissance in Aboriginal culture and language. Here he shares their stories.
I grew up speaking a foreign language.
A language brought to Australia on convict ships more than 200 years ago. A language imposed on my ancestors as they were pushed from their land, massacred, and stricken with disease.
In the 1830s, martial law was declared on my people, the Wiradjuri of Central West New South Wales. My ancestors could be killed on sight. British settlers formed raiding parties to hunt down and round up Wiradjuri people.
The remnants of these frontier wars were pushed onto Christian missions and reserves. Speaking their language, practising their culture or performing ceremonies was often banned.
My people, like the languages they spoke, were expected to die out.
“Aborigines” were deemed a dying race. Settlers spoke of “smoothing the pillow of a dying race”.
When Australia became a nation in 1901, one of the founding fathers Alfred Deakin forecast that within a hundred years: “Australia will be a white continent with not a black or even dark skin amongst its inhabitants. The Aboriginal race has died out in the south and is dying fast in the north and west ….”
An Aborigines Protection Board was established, a body that exercised a fearsome power over Indigenous lives. The board oversaw restrictive segregation policies and could determine where my family lived, who we could marry, or whether we could keep our children.
‘Think white, act white, be white’
For much of the 20th century, a policy of mad race science was inflicted on the Aboriginal people.
Assimilation – as it was known – aimed to breed out Aboriginal people. Its stated objective was that the Aboriginal people would be “absorbed into the commonwealth”.
The policy was captured in a poster depicting a dark-skinned Aboriginal woman, her lighter-skinned daughter and her blond, blue-eyed grandson. From black to white in three generations.
Light-skinned “mixed-race” children were often taken from their families to break the links of culture and kinship. Every Indigenous family I know has been touched by what we call the Stolen Generations.
My great-aunt was taken from her parents and sent to a dormitory for Aboriginal girls where they would be trained to work as domestic servants for white families. It was hoped they would marry white men and have whiter children.
My aunt slept under a sign that read “Think white, act white, be white”.
But in spite of it all, we did not die out. Aboriginal people regrouped on the fringes of towns, trapped in never-ending cycles of poverty and neglect.
We survived. Our language did not. By 1963, when I was born, we spoke English, spiced with some words left over from our old times.
When the British invaded Australia and claimed Aboriginal land, there were at least 250 distinct languages and more than 800 dialects. Today most are silenced. Of those that remain, 90 percent are considered endangered.
The green shoots of language
But Aboriginal people do not surrender so easily. My ancestors thrived in the land we now call Australia, for at least 65,000 years before Europeans came.
A skeleton of a man, dated at 42,000 years old, is considered to be among the earliest evidence of human ceremonial burial.
We are today, considered the oldest continuous civilisation on earth.
The green shoots of language are poking through. It is part of a spiritual and cultural revival, the descendants of the First People speaking ancient languages again.
My father has been at the forefront of this renaissance.
When he was a boy, he saw his grandfather arrested and jailed when he spoke Wiradjuri to my father in the Main Street of our hometown.
Fifty years later, my father was awarded an Order of Australia medal for saving his grandfather’s language. What a remarkable journey.
Greatest honour of my life
My father lived a hard life. A black man in a country where being black could be a crime. He was denied access to a full education. He raised me and many brothers and sisters with the strength of his own hands.
Like too many Aboriginal men, he was brutalised, beaten by police.
But he never lost his belief in who he is. He never lost hope. He never lost the love and memory of his grandfather.
In his late 50s, this man – who had lived on the margins of Australia – was approached by a white linguist, John Rudder, who was interested in salvaging the Wiradjuri language.
Over the next 20 years, these two men wrote the first-ever Wiradjuri language dictionary, set up language teaching centres across Wiradjuri land, and established a postgraduate Wiradjuri studies programme with Charles Sturt University.
Several years ago, my father was awarded a Doctor of Letters by the university for his work.
His name is Stan Grant. It is the greatest honour of my life that I am named after him.
We are still here
Everything I am is because of him and my mother. Together they kept us strong and proud. They kept our family together. They kept our stories alive. They told me who I am.
On Australia Day – Invasion Day – I think of them. I think of all of my family. I think of how we are still here.
We are the truth that exposes the great lie of Australia. The British claimed our continent on the basis that it was terra nullius – an empty land.
They did not see the humanity that had always lived there.
Australia thought we would die out. Thought we would be bred out. Absorbed and assimilated.
Two hundred and fifty years after British sailor James Cook planted the British flag and took our land, we are talking back. In our languages.