Professor and Director, Monash Indigenous Studies Centre
In February, Opposition Leader Anthony Albanese told Parliament that an Australian government had yet to acknowledge the nation’s true history. The section about the nationwide killing of Indigenous people by European invaders was usually missing.
“We have all failed,” Albanese said. “Truth must fill the holes of our national memory.”
The Aboriginal people who died at the hands of the settlers should be recognised, he said. “They, too, died for their loved ones. They, too, died for their Country. We must remember them, just as we remember those who fought more recent conflicts.”
Albanese also confirmed his support for the Makarrata Commission, part of the Uluru Statement of the Heart, released in May 2017 by the First Nations National Constitutional Convention.
A Makarrata Commission would tell the truth about how Australia was colonised, including the massacres of Indigenous people that took place all over the continent.
A month after Albanese’s speech, the Victorian government announced it would hold the nation’s first truth and justice commission – to tell a more complete story of the state’s colonisation, as part of its historic treaty process.
Monash Indigenous studies historian Professor Lynette Russell AM welcomed Albanese’s statement and the Victorian initiative.
“The myth of the peaceful settlement of Australia is something we need to undo, because we talk about reconciliation in Australia, but for the most part, we like to do it without truth,” she says.
“The War Memorial represents wars between nation states, and essentially wars between equals. In lots of ways, the frontier wars are anything but a war between equals.”
Australian history classes rarely include accounts of a violent frontier, and few monuments exist that tell the story of the Indigenous people who lost their lives in a conflict sometimes called “the frontier wars”.
Although work is being done to uncover the stories of Aboriginal resistance and to document Indigenous massacres, these accounts haven’t yet entered mainstream understanding, or bipartisan acceptance.
“We need to improve the historical literacy of Australians,” Professor Russell says. “It was not a mythic, peaceful settlement. It was an invasion. It had deep ramifications for Aboriginal people, their ongoing dispossession and alienation. If we want to undo some of that, or we want to move forward as a sophisticated, reconciled nation, then we’ve got some growing up to do.”
Some historians, including Henry Reynolds, have called for the story of the frontier wars to be incorporated into the Australian War Memorial. But Professor Russell isn’t sure the memorial is the best place to tell the story.
“I think it’s a really great debate, and it’s one a mature nation could have, and it could be really fruitful,” she says. “But it has to be done against the background of what, I think, is an obscene amount of money [$500 million] being spent on the War Memorial.”
Reynolds’ research estimated that up to 3000 Europeans and at least 20,000 Aboriginal Australians lost their lives in the frontier conflicts.
More recently, Raymond Evans, of the University of Queensland, has estimated that in this “largely unpublicised guerrilla war”, 66,680 Indigenous people lost their lives in 6000 attacks by settlers and native police in Queensland alone. Queensland was the most densely populated part of Australia pre-settlement, and the “epicentre of the struggle”, he says.
He and colleague Robert Orsted Jensen arrived at this figure using methodology described here. If their estimate is correct, it would mean that the number of people who lost their lives in Queensland was more than the number of Australians who died in WWI (62,300). Evans puts the ratio of Aboriginal to settler deaths at 44:1.
“The War Memorial represents wars between nation states, and essentially wars between equals,” Professor Russell says. “In lots of ways, the frontier wars are anything but a war between equals.”
This research, which continues to expand, estimates 8391 Indigenous lives were lost in the massacres it has been able to verify, and 312 Europeans. Their sources included parliamentary papers, private journals and letters, newspaper articles, anthropological reports and Indigenous records – both oral and visual.
According to the archive, massacres were often planned events that took place in secret without witnesses. A code of silence in the immediate aftermath makes detection difficult – although survivors sometimes spoke out years later, when they believed the danger had passed.
“Should we redefine what we’re talking about, when we talk about the colonial period, as a period of war?” Professor Russell asks.
“Maybe it’s a different type of war, an undeclared war. People see their lands invaded. They see people come, stay, and take from them. Dispossession and dislocation – all follow on from that. Then it segues into the removal of children … then you remove culture and language.
“In a way, it almost dignifies them to put them in the War Memorial as though, somehow, this is equal to attempting to land on the beaches at Gallipoli.”
Not a war in the Western sense
Although Indigenous people sometimes protected their borders, had rivalries with other tribes, or conducted raiding parties, they didn’t wage war in the Western sense. “They were doing something different,” Professor Russell says.
“People often say, ‘The Maori people fought back, and Aboriginal people didn’t.’ That’s absolutely not true. We know Aboriginal people fought back.
“[But] If you read, particularly, some of the work on the frontier wars, you do start to get this idea of Aboriginal people creating skirmishes, plotting, and planning in the ways we expect Western war to proceed. They are battle-ready, and they’re working out the best strategies for this.
“Now, they might have been doing that, but my fear is, because you’ve already got in your mind the view of the noble soldier, you then ascribe that to Aboriginal people, who are retaliating against the invasion in their land on their terms, not the European terms. That makes it really quite tricky to then turn around and say, ‘Oh, look, it’s war as we recognise it.’”
During the Eumeralla Wars – a protracted conflict between the Gunditjmara people in what’s now known as Victoria’s Western District, British colonists and police, the Aboriginal resistance was regularly reported in the press, Professor Russell says.
Indigenous people “fought back in various ways. They fought back overtly. They actually, literally, attacked settlers’ huts. Particularly, if you’re a shepherd on the outskirts of a station, then you could be in a lot of trouble, but they had to be very careful in how they managed their retaliation …
“There’s also covert retaliation – retaliation that the settlers might not have even seen, including the use of sorcery and magic, to influence people.”
The siege mentality
In the mid-19th century, colonists recognised that “they were under siege”, she says. “It was commonly spoken of. It was also common for settlers to talk about the validity of Aboriginal people trying to protect the land … Trying to chase off the invaders. It was part of the general writing. People wrote it in their diaries. They wrote it in letters to the newspaper. They would say things like, ‘Who can blame them. We’ve taken this from them.’”
But by the turn of the century, this conversation about Aboriginal resistance all but vanished from public view, she says.
“I think it’s tied into the dying-race paradigm, where, suddenly, everybody thinks Aboriginal people are dying out. It smooths the pillow of the dying race … humanitarianism comes to the forefront.
“Aboriginal people are needing protection. They’re needing to be looked after, but there’s also an anticipation they will go away – as in, they’ll disappear. They will be absorbed into the wider population. They’ll become white, or they’ll die out.”
In reality, Indigenous people were herded onto protectorates, deprived of their liberty, punished for talking in their own language, and their children were taken away. “It’s out of sight, out of mind,” Professor Russell says.
She hopes that during the Victorian truth and justice commission “these stories of dispossession, and violence, and all the rest, can be captured, kept, and held in posterity. People in the future will know what happened here. To me, that’s the most important thing we really need.”
This video started with a conversation. In fact, it started with many private and professional conversations with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander men who have been sexually abused about how difficult it was to speak about what happened to them as a child, about how their lives and relationships had been negatively impacted and about how isolated and alone they felt. The Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse has highlighted this over representation and sexual abuse of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children within government, community and church run institutions and the difficulties they face in being heard and accessing support.
Anthony Newcastle, Gordon Glenbar and I were discussing how to reach out and offer further support and encouragement to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander men who have been sexually abused in childhood. Many of these men have said they will never speak publicly about what was done to them, they have said how difficult it is to access support, how they do not know who to trust and how they are unsure if healing is even possible. These men have also said how important the connection to community and country is for them and how the encouragement and support of fellow community members is particularly meaningful and important for them. —Gary Foster, Living Well.
A starting conversation with Aboriginal & Torres Strait Islander men
by Anthony Newcastle, Natjul.com. In late 2015, I met with Gordon Glenbar, an Aboriginal man working as a special projects officer for Link Up, supporting community members to engage with the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, and Gary Foster from Anglicare: Living Well Service who works with men who had been sexually abused in childhood. Gordon and I have known each other a long time. We’ve always talked about our community, about Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander families and about the ongoing challenges our communities face confronting the negative impacts of colonisation and resulting inter-generational traumas.
Gordon, Gary and I spoke together of how to raise awareness and offer support to Aboriginal and Torres Strait men who have been sexually abused in childhood. We spoke of how individuals, families and communities are so often struggling to cope and live life in the present that the subject of helping men sexually abused as children is not talked about. We discussed how difficult it was to raise this subject, how the men themselves struggled to talk about it. We acknowledged the importance of qualified and connected individuals and organisations to lead discussions and negotiate community workshops and the extensive work done by many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women in addressing sexual violence. We also discussed how important it was for local Aboriginal men to take responsibility to start supportive conversations with Aboriginal men and their communities about this issue.
The didgeridoo group
Every second Sunday I run ‘Didgeri’ at an inner city park in Brisbane. Didgeri is an Aboriginal men’s didgeridoo group. Didgeri has between 9 and 15 men. Didgeri is a place or gathering where we as Aboriginal men can come along and learn the didgeridoo as a way to connect or re-connect with culture and heritage. It is also a place where we talk about community, identity, culture, about raising kids, dealing with anger, about family and about being a good dad or husband.
All the men who come along know they are welcome to bring a son or nephew, grand-son or friend. Didgeri is a place where Aboriginal men can build and enrich connection. No alcohol or drugs, no carry on or yukai. The boys and young men are encouraged to show respect to older men, to each other and to the purpose of the gathering. At times wives, mothers or grand-mothers do come along. They generally come to drop off family and say hello, but they don’t stay as part of Didgeri.
It was at Didgeri that I raised the idea of the men putting their voices to supporting men who had been sexually abused as children and now living with the consequences. We discussed the idea of us, as every day community members acting to help raise awareness and offer support.
The discussions at Didgeri
On a couple of occasions I found myself standing with three or four other men, all leaning on our didgeridoos talking about what to do about this, and how to support the men and families who suffer as a result of this issue. We talked about community and organisational responses to women who have been sexually abused, and of the advocacy groups, which so rightly wrap around these. None of us could think of a group or advocacy organisation established for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander men who were sexually abused as boys.
We talked about taboos and silences within the community. The idea of creating a video that makes a public statement addressing this issue started to sound important. It would be an expression of solidarity and support, by community members, for community members. It would be a way to start a conversation.
There was some talk about approaching well known footballers to see if they would like to participate. I’m happy now that talk lasted about 10 minutes before we moved on. Real happy. We had some quiet respectful discussion about who would be involved, we did not want the message being misunderstood, or not responded to, because we included men facing domestic violence charges or public nuisance charges. What was significant here was that ‘we as men’ from the community were talking about supporting men who had suffered sexual abuse as boys and young men – something we had not discussed before.
We talked about how men struggled, how many had attempted suicide, some dying. We talked about the guilt and pain many men carry about not being able to protect their friends, brothers and sisters from the abuser when they were children.
What became part of our discussions, is that by putting our voices and our images to this, we are giving voice to something that is almost silent, something almost invisible. We are saying silence is no longer OK. We want to lend our voices to acknowledge this as a challenge in the lives of men in our community. We very much wanted to offer support to families that are falling apart, where wives and children are seeing their husband and fathers become changed men because the demons from the past visit them late at night and torment them during their day.
We talked about how men found it difficult to talk with their families about why they are coming apart at the seams. Even though these men love their families dearly and would die without them, the taboo around this issue means it is difficult to speak about. Men do what men too often do. Push it down, ignore it, drink your way through it, yell at it, yell at others, feel ashamed, feel responsible, feel judged, feel alone, blame yourself, but don’t talk about it. As one man said:
“How the bloody hell do you talk about it anyway, and to whom?”
We want to find ways to talk about sexual abuse of males that invite participation. We want to communicate this in a way that invites empathy, understanding and respect, and says no more. Over the weeks we discussed how, if people aren’t talking about it, then nothing is being done. Some of our discussions had long pauses, or some changing of subject, before resuming. Some men stood in silence. We concluded that if nothing is being done about it and our brothers and our sisters lives are falling apart because of it, let’s do something.
We wanted to address the isolation and silence. We wanted to say,
“We know this happened to you and we are sorry it did. We want you to know that you are still our brother.”
We want to help address the fear of being judged and the feelings of shame. The shame is not yours to carry.
We talked about the importance of speaking, not just to men who have been sexually victimised, but to men and women across our communities.
Over the following weeks I rang, met with, and talked to about 20 people. All of the Didgeri group wanted to participate in some way. There were men who said straight away, “Yes, I want to support that and I will say it to camera.” Some said that they really wanted to offer support in some way, but because of family, work or how their involvement might be seen, they couldn’t be part of the video at present. There were men who said that although they felt for the fellas, they didn’t know if they could do it, as any talk of sexual abuse of children was hard for them to be around. Those who did not appear on camera, shook our hands and said, “Good on you for doing this.”
Making the video
Eleven of us gathered in a studio at the 4BE Multi-cultural radio station at Kangaroo Point to record our bits. We decided that in the room we would have only the person speaking to camera, the camera operator and myself, in order to help people relax and feel comfortable. We wanted to remove any shame-job. But with eleven Aboriginal people together in the waiting room, among the chats and yarns, people talking about who their mob were, and where their people are from, as always, family reconnections were found. “Hey, your mob from Roma? Your uncle is George from that cattle station? That’s my uncle too, that’s my tribe, we cousins.”
As people felt more comfortable with each other, as personal connections were made and a feeling of being in this together came over the group, then people started pairing up, saying, “Do you mind if I do it with Wayne, because he my cousin and we never met before.”
Others would say things like, “Brother, I never done anything like this before, can you sit with me and do one together?”
Before we knew it everyone was in the room supporting each other with comments like, “Oh that sounded deadly (really good) what you said then sis.” Or, “You two fellas look and sound good there when you said that.”
Ownership had shifted. Now the participants were making suggestions and talking about how good a project this was to be involved with.
It was on this day in the studio that some of participants spoke of how personal this was for them, their families and community. This issue impacted on members of the Didgeri and had not been discussed before that day. The gathering became an opportunity to talk and make a difference. The mood in the room changed, embracing connection, listening, caring, sharing and laughing together, offering support and genuine regard.
Talk turned to, “When this being released, we going to get to see it before?” and, “Do you think we can do another one?”
Six weeks later
It is now NAIDOC week and this Sunday afternoon we will have a first public showing of the video on a big screen at the Musgrave Park Cultural Centre in South Brisbane, where the guests of honour are the eleven people who participated, their families and friends. Over the weeks I have been constantly asked by those involved about when everyone gets to see the video.
This Sunday many of our Didgeri group will bring their didgeridoos and we will have our didgeridoo lesson aside before the video showing. My wife is making sandwiches, a curry and rice and some finger food. Gordon has been a constant source of encouragement and Gary has had almost boundless energy to keep pace, to bring this project together.
Now only days from the launch of our video I think about our first meetings (Gary, Gordon and I). I think of how appreciative I am of those individuals and organisations who work to address sexual violence and its impacts on our communities. I am however, particularly pleased that this project and these discussions happened in and amongst a group many would call grass roots. I am pleased that Aboriginal men and women stepped forward and put their face and voice to raising awareness and generating discussion that offers support to men who have been sexually abused in childhood, as well as their families. Community taking action and responsibility for community.
I was reminded of a discussion about suicide prevention and response I had with a 72 year old Aboriginal man on a remote Cape York community some years ago. When I asked him, “What can we do about this lack of counsellors and social workers and psychologists who can support people in remote places like this?” The old man said:
“When someone is finding it hard to live, we all know they might be finding it hard to live because we are a small town. Sometimes the best thing you can do for somebody else is go and see them, and sit on their porch and sit down and have a cup of tea with them. Even if you don’t know what to say about that thing that is a problem for them, you can still have a cup of tea with them. And they will know.”
We wish to express our appreciation to the men and women who have supported the development of the No More Silence: It’s Never Too Late to Start Healing video. This video reflects the power of everyday community members to make a difference.
We are only too aware of the profound impacts child sexual abuse can have on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander boys and men, girls and women and their communities:
Isolation, feeling alone and different.
Guilt, shame, self blame, distrust.
Feeling overwhelmed, hurt, angry, not good enough.
Disconnection from family, community and country.
Mental health problem, depression, anxiety.
Flashbacks, nightmares, sleep problems.
Suicide, self harm.
Relationship and sexual difficulties.
Drink and drug abuse.
Involvement with police and criminal justice system, prison.
Physical health problems.
Barriers to speaking
Men sexually abused in childhood report multiple barriers to speaking about what happened and accessing support:
Fear he won’t be believed or will be judged.
Sense of shame.
Concern his sexuality or manhood will be questioned.
Worry he will be seen as less of a man or people might think he will go on to abuse.
Distrust of authority, police, of anyone.
Fear of being blamed or that he will face payback for speaking up.
Worry that he will fall apart if he starts talking.
Being told to keep quiet that the community is not ready to talk about this.
Wanting to protect family members and others who were abused.
Having no-one to talk with.
Pressure from the abuser and others to keep the silence.
As well as hearing how difficult it is for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander men to speak about childhood sexual abuse, we hear that the pressure not to talk increases the sense of isolation, and makes it difficult to get the help they deserve.
A conversation starter
The video is designed as a conversation starter. Sharing the video is one way for community members to raise awareness and offer support, encouragement and hope to those who have been sexually abused in childhood. It sends a message to all those who have been sexually abused or sexually assaulted across Queensland and throughout Australia to say:
You’re not responsible for what happened to you as a child. You are not alone. We care. The blame is not yours to carry. The shame is not yours to carry. Keep talking until you get the help you deserve. Take care of yourself, you’re worth it. It’s never too late to start healing.
1800 Respect Website: 1800respect.org.au 24/7 telephone and online crisis counselling, information and referral for anyone in Australia who has experienced or been impacted by sexual assault, domestic or family violence. Staffed by trauma specialist counsellors. Phone: 1800 737 732 Online Counselling: 1800respect.org.au/telephone-and-online-counselling
Lifeline Website: lifeline.org.au 24 hour crisis support and suicide prevention. Phone: 131 114
Link Up (QLD) Aboriginal Corporation Website: link-upqld.org.au Provides counselling, healing and culturally appropriate support for indigenous Australians. Phone: 1800 200 855
Healing Foundation Website: healingfoundation.org.au The Healing Foundation is a national Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander organisation with a focus on building culturally strong, community led healing solutions. Phone: 02 6272 7500
Micah Projects Inc / Lotus Place (Find and Connect QLD) Website: lotusplace.org.au Support and resource service for Forgotten Australians and former child migrants. Phone: 1800 161 109 Email: email@example.com
Relationships Australia QLD Website: raq.org.au Family, children and relationship counselling. Relationship Australia are committed to offering the best possible counselling, mediation, education and support services in a professional, relaxed and confidential environment. Phone: 07 3423 6890 Phone: 1800 552 127 Government Funded
Bravehearts Website: bravehearts.org.au Specialist case management, counselling and telephone counselling for child and adult survivors, non-offending family members and friends. Services include counselling, support engaging with the Royal Commission, preparation of written statements, attending private sessions and public hearings. Phone: 1800 272 831 (8am – 8pm AEST/AEDT, weekdays) Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Blue Knot Foundation Website: blueknot.org.au (Formerly Adults Surviving Child Abuse – ASCA). National professional phone counselling, information and support for adult survivors of child abuse with referral database of experienced professionals and agencies. Provides workshops for survivors, family members, partners and friends. Professional development for health professionals is also available. Phone: 1300 657 380 (9am-5pm AEST/AEDT 7 days) Email: email@example.com
Murrigunyah Website: murrigunyah.org.au Murrigunyah Family & Cultural Healing Centre is a community based sexual assault support service run by Aboriginal & Torres Strait Islander women of Logan City. Phone: (07) 3290 4254 Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
BeyondBlue has programs for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and general information on mental health, including how to recognise depression and where to get help. Phone 1300 22 4636
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Community Health Service (ATSICHS) Call the ATSICHS Healing Centre on (07) 3240 8907 to access culturally appropriate counselling services for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in Brisbane affected by mental illness.
Townsville Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Health Services (TAIHS) The TAIHS Social and Mental Health Unit offers mental health counsellors and run regular men’s and women’s groups to help cope with:
Prison and court matters.
Phone TAIHS on (07) 4759 4022 to book a counselling session or join a group.