Transcript: Stan Grant’s NAIDOC Week 2016 Address

Speech

Speaker: Stan Grant

Canberra

6 July 2016

Thank you very much, thank you all for coming along. It's great to see a crowd here. It must be cold outside, it's warm in here, that must be why you've all turned up.

I also want to pay my respects to the Ngunnawal people, some of whom are family members of mine of course. Ngunnawal and Wiradjuri countries border each other, so I am very pleased and proud to be here on their land and indeed on the land of members of my own family. So thank you very much for being able to have me.

As we heard there in the introduction, I've had a career which has taken me around the world; a career that started here in Canberra actually, as a young reporter and ending up living overseas for more than 16 years covering more than 70 countries.

I covered the big stories of our time, seeing the big shifts of history and how that history impacted on the lives of people. How people's lives were formed by those big historical forces. I was able to witness up close what many people have described as the third world war; war that we are involved in, wars that are the longest running conflicts that Australia or the United States have ever been involved in; the conflicts of Afghanistan and Iraq.

Those conflicts, of course, have spilled over into other parts of the world and just this week we've been reminded once again with a range of devastating bombings and terrorist attacks that have stretched from the Middle East right through to South-East Asia. The rise of terrorism is something I've reported up close. All of these things to some degree have been born out the same struggles, the same tension, and that is the tension and the struggle that exists where peoples are trying to assert their rights. Where peoples are living as stateless nations within bigger nations. Where peoples are chaffing against borders that have been imposed on them, by governments that have often been imposed on them by forces outside of their control.

Now in this we can see we are talking about nations that are effectively stateless; groups like the Catalan, the Basque, the Québécois in Canada.

When we talk about Scotland, which has had a referendum for its independence, Wales, the struggle in Ireland. I reported up close for many years the struggle in Northern Ireland. Whether it was countries like East Timor after years of violent struggle finally winning its independence. The post-colonial rise of nations throughout Africa. The bloody borders of the Middle East as we've seen the Sykes-Picot Agreement effectively torn to shreds as the borders themselves are being dissolved, as governments and leaderships are being overthrown.

I reported those things up close, seeing the impact that it had on people's lives. Not just to hover above, but to report this from the ground up. To walk in the blood of the bombings, the terrorist bombings themselves. To be able to see heads, severed from bodies. To see people picking bits of flesh out of the shrapnel-marked walls to put into plastic bags so that they could bury them. To stand in blood so thick that when I went to sleep at night I could still taste it in the back of my throat. And to see the aspirations of people to be able to live lives with dignity and meaning, often when all certainty had been removed.

It couldn't help but have an enormous impact on me both as a reporter and also as a person, and more specifically, as an Australian Indigenous person. The years that I spent reporting on the conflicts in Afghanistan, Iraq and throughout the Middle East; the rise of China; into the secret world of North Korea; I had the sense that I was living my own history in real time.

The struggles of those peoples, the impact of politics and conflict and religion and economy on those lives, were the same things that we had endured here as Indigenous peoples. But in those years reporting it, I got to make those connections in a real, lived, way, in a first-hand way. When I looked into the eyes of a refugee in a refugee camp in Afghanistan and Pakistan, I knew that look. It was the look that was in the eyes of my father or my grandfather; the people I grew up with.

When I looked at the struggle of people to assert their culture, to speak their languages, to decide for themselves their identities, I saw our struggle. I returned to Australia just over two years ago to a country that in many ways is the envy of the world; in many ways is a model of a liberal, western, democratic, prosperous, safe, cohesive, secure country. A country that has been able to create an extraordinary multicultural mix devoid, despite what you may hear at the height of election campaigns and from some of the fringe elements of our society, a society and a country and a multicultural society devoid of a lot of the tension we see playing out in other parts of the world. Thankfully we haven't had the horrific attacks in Brussels and Paris. The horrible attacks we have seen throughout the United States, a shocking shooting just last month. A country that has been able to draw people from all around the world and bind us together in a sense of what it is to be an Australian, and to live in a country such as Australia.

But when I returned I saw another country, a country that was still divided across the chasm of its own history. That despite all of its great achievements still has this tension unresolved that sits at the heart of Australia; the tension that emerges from settlement, the tension that emerges from the very birth of the modern nation of Australia; that collided with the tens of thousands of years of traditions of my people.

I saw this spectacularly just last year in an event I think that really asked hard questions of us Australians; that asked us who we are and what we are prepared to accept. You heard mention of the AFL, and of course I am referring to the booing of Adam Goodes. This moment when a man who was not just a champion footballer but an Australian of the Year, someone who saw himself as Adam had described, as an assimilated man. Adam saw himself yes, as an Indigenous person, but as an Australian and suddenly confronted with a crescendo of derision, the boos that echoed from one ground to another, until in the end he walked away from the game that he had not just loved, but the game that he had in many ways dominated throughout his career.

This man who had given so much to his sport, and through that to the broader Australian nation, could not even attend the grand final last year. I looked at the booing of Adam Goodes and asked myself "How does this fit with the country that so many people overseas have told me is the envy of the world?". How does this fit?  How do we make sense of this chorus of boos? Was this who we were? Was this telling us who we were as Australians?

At the time I wrote an article about it where I said I didn't want to be able to look into the hearts and the minds of the people who booed Adam, but I wanted to say what we heard as Indigenous peoples, and what we heard, as I have said many times, was a howl of humiliation. We all know that. Indigenous people in the room today know that. It was the howl of being served last when you walk into a shop. It was the schoolyard taunt. It was the snickering glance and the off-hand comment and the joke that we're all meant to laugh at. It was seeing our people forced onto the margins of society. It was the feeling of being estranged in the very land of our ancestors.

I spoke of what it said to me, as a person who had emerged out of this history, and had gone off to find a career that had taken me around the globe. What it was like for me to come back to this country and see, this after all that I had experienced, all the conflict that I had reported on. I said at the time in many ways I would prefer to be overseas. Overseas I felt liberated. I felt free from this history. People didn't look to me and see me just as an Indigenous person, and when they asked me where I was from and I told them who I was, it wasn't met with that same incredulity or scepticism or mocking questions we often get here. "But you're not really Aboriginal are you?  You're too smart to be Aboriginal. You're not like the others".

All of us here have heard those comments. And now, here I was, confronting this taking place as not just something that was remote and removed from us. It wasn't about politics. This wasn't on the front page of the newspaper it was on the back page. It was where we lived. It was the sporting field. Sport is meant to tell us who we are. We are all meant to be equal. Sport is where Australia draws its sense of common identity. And now we were being told we were a country that would boo a man, an Aboriginal man, into submission and then deny that it was racist at all.

These are the questions that are still unresolved in Australia. These are the questions that emerge out of what the anthropologist Bill Stanner in the 1960s called "The Great Australia Silence". I'm born out of the great Australian silence. This was the forgetting, as he said, on a national scale. The writing of history that wrote us out of the story of this country.

The Polish Nobel prize winning poet Czeslaw Milosz in his poem "Spirit of History" said, "The golden house of is collapses. A world turning. A culture and a people facing devastation.  The golden house of is collapses and the world of becoming ascends." The golden house of is collapses and the world of becoming ascends. For us, that golden house of is, that ability to say who we were, who we are as a people, to practice our traditions on our land. That certainty was destroyed at the point of settlement and invasion; we still debate those terms today. And then began the becoming, becoming something else. That certainty was destroyed for my people, the Wiradjuri, at the crossing of the Blue Mountains, the coming of the whites to my land, of devastation and death.

As we debate whether this country was invaded, it's worth remembering the facts about the crossing of the mountains and the conflict that then erupted around the settlement of Bathurst. Martial law was declared.  By law, Indigenous people - Wiradjuri people, my people - could be killed with impunity. Within a matter of years half of the Wiradjuri population of Bathurst were annihilated. William Cox who built the road across the Blue Mountains and received the first land grant on the western plains, advised a public gathering that the best thing that could be done would be to shoot all the blacks and manure the ground with their carcasses which is all the good that they were fit for. Just shoot us and manure the ground with our carcasses.

When I crossed the Blue Mountains today, I crossed the Cox's River. William Cox is immortalised and so many of my people were forgotten. If we are in any doubt about what to call those conflicts we need only go back to the reporting of the time. The Sydney Gazette which was carrying reports on the Napoleonic Wars in Europe was also reporting the conflict of Bathurst. And in the reporting of the day, in the words of the Sydney Gazette, this was an "exterminating war", an exterminating war. Windradyne, a name that should fall from the lips of every Australian schoolchild as surely as we can recall the names of the great American Indian chiefs; Geronimo, Sitting Bull. As sure as we can recall the Battle of Little Bighorn, we should recall the conflict of Bathurst and the name Windradyne. Windradyne led my people, the Wiradjuri people, in a guerrilla war that lasted for years, chased off livestock, speared settlers, burned homesteads to the ground. Retaliation.

Our people were poisoned, shot, rounded up and forced off of cliffs. There was a price on Windradyne's head, 500 acres for anyone who would bring him in alive or dead. After years of struggle Windradyne rounded up the remnants of the Wiradjuri and marched them on a trek across the Blue Mountains into Parramatta. There he sat down with the Governor of the day, Governor Brisbane, and negotiated peace. He wore that day, a straw hat, and in the brim of the hat was written the word "peace".

After Windradyne led the Wiradjuri to Parramatta they handed out blankets and rations to the people. My family's name appears at that very point. My family's name is there in the ration books. The name Grant appears in the Australian records for the first time. That name comes from another part of our history. It comes from a man who fought oppression in his own land of Ireland. John Grant had risen up against the British in the uprisings of the 1890s. His brother, sister and his mother were all hanged, he was banished to Australia never to return. After several years he was given leave and a parcel of land in the Blue Mountains, west of Bathurst.

When he died, he died the wealthiest Irish Catholic in the colonies. The rebel had become the aristocrat. He left behind two families. He left behind a white family, the Grants who still live on that land today and enjoy the bounty that John Grant had built; and he left behind the "shadow" family, the so-called "black Grants". My ancestors. As he had his white family he had children with an Aboriginal woman. As he named his white children an Elizabeth and a William and a Hugh and a Patrick and a Selina and a John, so he named his black children.

A black Elizabeth, a black William, a black Hugh, a black Patrick. But we don't find their names in the births, deaths and marriages.

When I found my family's history, I found it in the registry of unmarked graves. The ages of these people, dead at five, ten, twelve. Some barely making it into adulthood. Those who did survive, were rounded up and their names, the Grant name, recorded in the missions that were established throughout New South Wales. Missions where our lives were controlled. Where we were told who we could marry, where we could live, whether we could speak our languages. It was from one of those missions in Cowra that a young girl was taken, signed into a girl's home in Cootamundra. She lost her name and was given a number, the number was 6-5-8. It is a number that is remembered still in our family today.

There she was trained to be a domestic servant. She lived her life by a whistle. The whistle would blow and the young girls would rise and go into town, they'd go to school. The whistle would blow and they'd come back. They had no contact with anyone but with those that were also rounded up and taken to the girl's home. In the girl's home there was a sign on the dormitory wall "Think white. Act white. Be white." This young girl was sent out to work for wealthy squatter families. When she finally found her way back to her own family she had to apply for permission to live on the mission next to her brother. She had to apply for permission to marry the man that she loved. Every aspect of her life would be controlled by the state.

She died at the age of 36 from complications of rheumatic fever that she had contracted inside that girl's home. Leaving behind six orphan children to inherit the legacy of loss, the wounds of our history. Number 6-5-8 was Eunice Grant, my great aunt; she was the sister of my grandfather. These are the stories who tell us who we are. These are the stories that all Indigenous people in this room here today will understand. We all know these stories. We've lived this history. This history that was written out of the pages, the official telling of the settlement of Australia.

When I went to school Captain Cook discovered Australia. Blaxland, Lawson and Wentworth crossed the Blue Mountains but there was no mention of the people who waited on the other side. There was no mention of Windradyne. There was no mention of the annihilation of the Wiradjuri people at Bathurst. There was no mention of the poisoned water holes or the massacres, the frontier wars. We vanished from the frontier.

By 1901, when Australia was becoming a new nation, in the lead up to federation there were great debates across the country. New Zealand at that point was considered to be part of the federation itself. Captain William Russell is a name that should be known to us all.

Sadly he too has been relegated to a footnote in Australian history. Captain Russell was New Zealand's representative in those federation debates of the 1880s. He walked away from the process with a warning, and it's a warning that speaks to us still, today. He said the whole of New Zealand politics hinged almost entirely upon the "Native Question". It was the opposite in Australia, he said. The federal parliament would be a body that cares nothing and knows nothing about native administration. Cares nothing and knows nothing.

He feared that if New Zealand was part of this new federated Australia, with the Australian government in charge of relations with Maori, that they would descend back into the conflict that they had moved beyond. When you consider the words of Alfred Deakin of course who was Australia's second Prime Minister, who at the time of federation said that little more than 100 years ago, Australia was a dark continent in every sense of the term. There was not a white man within its borders. "In another century", he said, "the probability is that Australia will be a white continent without a black or even dark skin amongst its inhabitants". That's what Captain William Russell was afraid of, the annihilation of the native peoples, the first peoples.

In the vernacular of the time, the pillow was being smoothed for our extinction. Our people know this now as the smoothing of the dying pillow; that as a people, we were not long for this earth. That a people of 60,000 years of tradition and lore and culture and music and economy and politics had no rights in this new Australia, and will not be recognised in this new Australia.

We would not be counted in the census. We would not be part of the Australian nation because we were doomed for extinction. But of course, we didn't disappear. We have endured and our voices have never fallen silent. Joe Anderson, the great King Burraga of the Dharawal people, in 1933 said "all the black man wants is representation in federal parliament. There are plenty of fish in the river for us all" he said, "and land to grow all we want."

William Cooper, the great Aboriginal leader of Victoria petitioned King George in 1937 for representation in parliament. Over the years that call has been refined. The protesters continue, citizenship, an end to segregation, the fight for our rights and for our land. Vincent Lingiari walking off a station at Wave Hill in the Northern Territory in a protest for equal pay. It ended with Gough Whitlam pouring the sand through Vincent's hand when he won back the land for his people. Charles Perkins taking a group of students from Sydney University on a bus, on the freedom rides that smashed segregation in outback New South Wales. The 1967 referendum, finally we were counted among you. The most successful referendum in Australian history, finally we were counted in the census.

1992, Eddie Mabo, a man who years before, had begun a legal battle to overturn the fiction of 'Terra Nullius'. Terra Nullius, that belief that this was an empty land free for the taking, with Indigenous peoples, the first peoples, having no rights. He fought through the court systems in Queensland and was denied. He fought through the Supreme Court and was denied. He took it to the High Court and died before he ever saw that historic judgement. That he had a right to the land of his ancestors, that this was not an empty land. This was our land. These are the champions of our struggle. The champions who have looked to make Australia a bigger country. A country that is better than the worst of its past. A country that will not be defined by the violence of the frontier, but a country that looks to a bigger idea of itself.

In 1963 the Yirrkala bark petitions, still now housed in our federal parliament, called for the government to negotiate with Yolngu people before making decisions on their behalf. In 1988, Yolngu leader Galarruwuy Yunupingu presented the Barunga Statement to Bob Hawke calling for a treaty. After the stolen generations apology from Kevin Rudd, Galarruwuy Yunupingu gave a historic speech where he talked about what he called, serious business: recognition of Aboriginal people and meaningful constitutional reform.

Since then we have had expert panels, joint select committees and now, the Referendum Council, and we are still no closer to an idea of what this recognition will actually mean. We know that there is broad consensus, that people support the idea of recognition, but we don't know yet what it means. When I look at this, I draw on my experience as a reporter, I remember the conflicts that I covered around the world, the struggle for people to assert their rights, for their voices to be heard, and I see the same thing here.

But we have a chance to do it differently, we have a chance to do it free of the violence that afflicts so many other countries. Here we can have a seat at the table. Here we can work through the democratic and legal processes of our country, to acknowledge the rights of the people, those rights that were denied at the point of settlement. We have a chance to do it better, and it is not a chance that we can afford to let slip from our grasp.

There is an urgency to this question right now and I fear it could not come at a more difficult time. We've just had the election, we still don't know who the next government will be, and a quarter of the Australian population voted for someone other than the two major parties.

A full ten per cent of voters in Queensland voted for One Nation, for Pauline Hanson, a party that speaks to division, and separation and fear. It mirrors what we are seeing around the world, the rise of Donald Trump, the rise of extreme politics in the left and right in Europe, Marine Le Pen may soon be president of France from the Fronte Nationale. Where as the Syriza in Greece, the left-wing party that is responding to people there as of their voices aren't being heard, as if they're being dominated by the European Union.

There are people who voted for BREXIT, who feel as though their voices haven't been heard. This sense of alienation, this sense of disenchantment and disfranchisement is being here, its what we saw in the election just last weekend. And in that alienation, that disenchantment we look to easy slogans and look to popularism. Someone comes along and appears to have the answer, and when they're not hearing that reflected in the two major parties they look for those voices on the fringe. And into this environment we are trying to have a discussion about the unresolved tension that still sits at the heart of this country, the unresolved question of the rights of Indigenous peoples.

We hear a lot about reconciliation , about closing the gap and those things are important. It is important that we have socio-economic equality. It's important that we graduate more people from our schools and at our universities, it is important that there are jobs and opportunities for people, but they are our entitlement the same as everyone else in Australia.

But there is a bigger question here, there is a question to our rights as a people.; Australia is a signatory on the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples , that speaks of the right of people to identify themselves, that speaks to the right of self-determination. Australia, a nation that in many respects can lead the world in cohesive multiculturalism, lags the world when it comes to the recognition of the rights of Indigenous peoples; the only commonwealth country that has not signed a treaty with Indigenous peoples.

New Zealand, North America, Canada, parts of Europe, in various ways they have configured self determination, self governance, the recognition of rights. There are positions for people inside the parliaments of those countries, there is self-government and self-determination in Native American reservations, there are parliaments for the Sami people in parts of Europe. But in Australia we are still framed around the issue of socio-economic equality and reconciliation, closing the gap, assimilation, the idea that we can all just be Australian. And we can't really have a discussion yet about what are the fundamental rights of Indigenous peoples, the rights of a people who have had their land taken from them, who had another system of government imposed on us.

So we talk now about recognition, we have begun a process of discussing this with various Indigenous communities around Australia, of trying to put some flesh on the bone. And wherever we go, wherever we speak to people, the message is the same, it cannot just be symbolic. It cant just be about putting up a plaque and saying we recognise you as the first peoples, there needs to be some substance.

There are still race clauses in our constitution, redundant clauses, like section 25 that can give the right to the government to disqualify voting rights on the basis of race. A redundant clause that needs to be stripped out. There is section 51.26 that gives powers to the government to make laws for any race of people in Australia. Those laws have only been made directed towards Indigenous peoples. The government can still suspend the racial discrimination act if it wants to impose laws on Indigenous people. We saw that with the intervention in the Northern Territory.

These are the big questions. The big questions about who we want to be as a nation. The big question about whether this country can be a country that can fully enshrine the rights of Indigenous peoples, that can wrestle with its past, that can draw a line through its history, that can give Indigenous peoples the opportunity to make decisions about our lives that are going to lift our people and communities.

The Wiradjuri people fought for the right to survive. Windradyne led us on a trek over the mountains to negotiate a settlement so that we might survive. I am standing here today because of my ancestors, because of my father who has kept our language alive. I don't want the Wiradjuri people to vanish from this earth. I don't want there to come a day when we say "once were Wiradjuri".

I want my children, their children, their children after them that we are proudly Wiradjuri people, we are Australians, we live in the Australian nation and we are Wiradjuri people.

These are the big questions we're now facing, questions that will fall to you and fall to your children to come, what sort of a nation so we want to be.

Just last month, I was attending a suicide prevention conference in Alice Springs. Suicide is a scourge in our communities, children under the age of 14 are nine times more likely to take their lives, Indigenous children. For people under the age of 35 suicide is the single biggest cause of death.

Just earlier this year, a ten year old girl in a remote corner of Western Australia took her own life, ten years old , that's where we are at in Australia today. Two centuries after settlement, more than a century after federation, we live in a nation where a ten year old indigenous girl does not want to face another day of life.

I spoke to an old man at the conference who too had been touched by suicide, he'd lost a grandson and he'd lost a nephew, and I asked him, "why are you here?". And in English, probably his third or fourth language, he spoke so beautifully and eloquently, and what he said told me not just the scourge of suicide, but the struggle of Indigenous peoples. He said "I just want to be able to sleep again at night".

For more than two centuries our people have been trying to sleep again at night To keep our traditions alive. To remember our history. To forge a better and bigger Australia. To reach out and find a place in Australia. To have our rights recognised; our ability to keep our languages alive; and to find a place in an Australian nation that will one day be able to say not just that we lead the world as a multicultural nation but that we can be the gold standard too when it comes to the recognition of the rights of Indigenous people. This is our challenge. We just want to be able to sleep again at night.

Thank you.

Last Updated: 18 July 2016