Before AIM [American Indian Movement], Indians were dispirited, defeated and culturally dissolving. People were ashamed to be Indian. You didn't see the young people wearing braids or chokers or ribbon shirts in those days. Hell, I didn't wear 'em. People didn't Sun Dance, they didn't Sweat, they were losing their languages. Then there was that spark at Alcatraz, and we took off. Man, we took a ride across this country. We put Indians and Indian rights smack dab in the middle of the public consciousness for the first time since the so-called Indian Wars … [AIM] laid the groundwork for the next stage in regaining our sovereignty and self-determination as a nation, and I'm proud to have been a part of that. Russell Means (Oglala Lakota)
Strolling through New York's Union Square a few months ago I noticed a Native American selling T-shirts which read “Homeland Security: fighting terrorism since 1492”. I was wryly amused, but thought nothing more of it.
On the same trip a National Parks guide was kind enough to volunteer a tour of rarely seen parts of Alcatraz. She lamented the loss of wooden panelling in an old church burnt by a group of Native American supporters who from 1969 to 1971 symbolically occupied the island of Alcatraz for "Indians of all tribes". "How could they?" she said. "You have similar peoples in Australia, I understand, that do that sort of thing ... the Aborigines?"
Nearly 40 years on from that occupation, both the potent symbolism of the protesters and the plight of the American Indians have been lost on this person. How many others are there like her, I wondered? Why did she make the mistaken assumption that the American Indians valued what she valued, and with the same ranking?
But it was her comparison of the American Indians to Indigenous Australians that struck me.
I am not so presumptuous as to assume comparability of their circumstances or attitudes, nor would I support any ill-informed comparison which might offend Indigenous Australians, but the combination of those experiences got me thinking.
What would Indigenous Australians print on their T- shirts? "Repelling illegal immigrants since 1788" or "60,000 years of paradise ... then the white fella shows up"?
How do Indigenous people feel each time January 26 rolls around, or each time their ceremonies are dragged out of the empty white-Australian cultural wardrobe to parade in front of foreign dignitaries, or even when hearing political speeches acknowledging them as the traditional owners of the land on one day, followed by the unsanctioned plundering of their land the next?
Many Australians don't think twice about sticking a poster of the American Indian on their wall with snippets of Native American wisdom, but where can you buy a poster proffering the counsel of Indigenous Australians?
Exercise your imagination for a moment: would you trade places with an Indigenous Australian? How would you cope with spending every minute of every day in a society that, if it recognises you at all, treats you as a person of inconsequence or suspicion? Living in your country but governed by parliaments overly representative of white Australians and their interests, and "protected" by prison systems housing a disproportionate number of your group.
Unfortunately, I can't claim to have what I would regard as an adequate understanding of Aboriginal culture. I'm probably as ignorant as the average Australian. But when an Aboriginal land rights protest group of about 50 people, including children, passed my office a few weeks ago it reminded me of the passionate popular protests I had seen in Mexico City so I ran to the front of my building and clapped as loudly as I could.
I was the only supporter in the street, and the protesters looked at me perplexed. I looked back at them being perplexed, and then there was an exchange of smiles. At that moment I felt there was a fusion between strangers, an understanding, a sharing of beliefs and values.
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