"We're worse off than we were 50 years ago&qu
"We're worse off than 50 years ago"
Interview with Michael Anderson, broadcast to all regions of the world by Radio Deutsche Welle, Germany's international broadcaster, on 31 March and 1 April 2000
Interviewer:….Michael Anderson, from eastern Australia, now a clan leader, qualified lawyer and experienced university lecturer, was one of the leaders in the struggle for equal rights for Aborigines back in the 1960s and 70s. He was appointed by his peers as their first Aboriginal ambassador to white Australia, after setting up an Aboriginal tent embassy on the front lawns of Australia's Parliament House back in 1969. His views made him a highly controversial figure and he withdrew from active politics 17 years ago after several attempts on his life and those of his family. Now he's returned to the political stage as a national convenor of a new movement to promote worldwide the continuing sovereignty of indigenous peoples. At the moment Michael Anderson is travelling in Europe to draw attention to the situation of Aborigines. First, he gave me his assessment of their position as he sees it today.
Anderson: They pour millions, billions of dollars in fact, into Aboriginal affairs, but the people are worse off now than what they were in the 50s and 60s. They say we got houses, there are measurable sorts of yardsticks that can be used to say that there's been improvement, but the numeracy, literacy of the Aboriginal people has dropped, child attendance at schools has dropped, our death rate has increased in terms of our morbidity rate, our imprisonment rate has increased, the poverty level in the community has really increased quite significantly, and so Aboriginal people are looking for something, they're trying to get something. Unfortunately, ATSIC, the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission, have to toe the line of government because they're a functional organisation established by an Act of the Australian Parliament.
Interviewer: Isn't it also important to try to work with people, with those who are in power and, if you like, also with the vast majority, rather than to opt for a course of confrontation?
Anderson: It is, we've been trying that for years. Everybody's told me over the years, 'look Michael, you've got to get inside the system if you want to effect change'. We've had Aboriginal people who're heads of these organisations, but unfortunately when you're working against the power structures that have their own opinion about where Aborigines are heading, it's pretty difficult to try and shift the mountain. When you get in there and you understand the constraints that exist within the bureaucracies and within government, it makes life very difficult for you to try and bring about change. If you give up your Aboriginality and just use your culture as being something of the past and that is now a tourist attraction, then that'll do everything for you in the world. But if you sort of have a living culture and keep that part of you and have it as an operational part of your life - like languages, etc., and cultural practices - then that's a little bit hard because, you know, most white Australians have always practised and run with this idea that 'we're all Australians, so why should we be different'.
Interviewer: Let's just turn to the young people for a minute, the key to the future lies with those young people. Do you think that the vast majority of Aborigines are really interested in the sort of promoting and maintaining or returning to Aboriginal cultures, as you see it, or isn't it something that is almost incompatible with life in a modern industrialised society? Isn't there more of a tendency for them to say, 'We just want to be part of it, we want to integrate and get on with it. We're not interested in the old traditions and the old languages and all that sort of thing'?
Anderson: You know the greatest irony here is that in the Northern Territory and other parts of Australia, where they consider the 'real Aborigines' - is how the government puts it - that is where the 'real Aborigines' are, the tribal Aborigines, or the people who still maintain culture, tradition, practice and languages, their youth are the ones beginning to reject the old ways, whereas we've been, for 212 years of white contact, our kids are saying, 'We know that our old people kept it going in secret, now we want you to teach it back to us, because we know that the white man's system has rejected us all these years. Now we want to know who we really are!' And so our kids, on the eastern states, south-eastern states, are now demanding amongst our people that they want to go back and learn their culture, they want to learn their language, because they see their parents - you know - so demoralised into a state of, I suppose, absolute powerlessness; like my father said before he died, 'You know, you watch the people on the streets who're drinking alcohol,' he said, 'son, they're drinking alcohol because they don't like being sober, because in a sober state they see the hate and the worst of mankind. But when they're drunk, they can be happy.' These kids, they don't want that life, they're rejecting that; lot of the kids are on drugs as well, drugs is also a thing. But the kids, really deep down, what's underpinning these kids, I suppose, active minds and resistance of the white system, is that they watch what the white system has done to their parents, their grandparents, they've seen it. It's not going to happen to them, they don't want it, and these kids are standing up and saying, wearing the colours all the time, the people, headbands, wearing shirts, clothes made out of the colours, they want their identity known, those kids. And these kids, when the police talk to them, these kids don't give a damn about authority, they're militants in their mind, they're militants before their time, they're young men and women. But go and have a look at the number of our kids in jail. These statistics tell you something different. Have a look at the kids who are committing suicide in Australia, the death rate in Australia. There are kinds who are so frustrated that they don't see any purpose in life. But when those kids stop internalising the oppression and they look outwardly to a better life, and they know what can be there, that's when Australia needs to worry.
Interviewer: One of your projects is to set up a camp for youth people to teach them about Aboriginal culture.
Anderson: My sister came to me some time ago and said that there's a lot of kids in the school, in urban areas of Newcastle, which is a provincial city north of Sydney where we live, and her idea was to try to get the kids back to some culture so that, you know, at least we can put an Aboriginal sort of component into their life because everything that's being thrown at them within the schools is white. And they talk about Aboriginality and Aboriginal issues as an abstract, so it's an elective subject within the school system, so you can either choose to have it or not to. And so she sort of wanted to make a component, create this component as an active component of the school programme. And so I said, 'why don't you advance that further. You can't just have it here in the school system', and so she said, 'what do you mean?' I said, 'well, why don't we take them to the bush, why don't we get them back.' And so I wrote up a programme to get them back into the bush and take them back into my country. And you go out for a week of activities of walking, identifying, watching, teaching them how to observe animals, birds, insects, you know, the rain, storms or just look at the land, how to read the trees, etc., and learn to eat the food, naturally occurring foods as well. And so as I was writing it, I thought, 'well, now wait a minute, I've written cross-cultural courses for government departments in Australia to understand, you know, racism and xenophobia and prejudice and otherness and how to tolerate this and where all this comes from,' so I've written courses like this and I thought to myself, 'now, wait a minute, we could also use this for adults as well, so it could become a cultural camp for not just children to go out there and learn about culture, but it can also be for adults as well. You teach them about your connection, the Aboriginal connection to all things natural and so you teach them about your relationships, we teach them how to connect to all things, so we can say, see that bird there? That's my uncle, or that's my thing, and this is my obligation to this one.' So we can go through that whole process, so we take them back to nature to give them a clear understanding of this. Now I think that would be a good way, a good cross-cultural exercise.
Interviewer: What kind of response have you had among young people, do they go for it?
Anderson: Oh yeah, the kids' reaction is, 'This should have been done long ago.'