Finding myself through First Peoples' stories

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In the last few months I have been thinking a lot about identity: mine, others' and Australia's. Those thoughts finally came together when on the same day I was reading the Interim Report of the Joint Select Committee on Constitutional Recognition relating to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples and listened to Fatima Measham's podcast with Nathan 'Mudyi' Sentance on faulty memories and cultural institutions.

Smoking ceremony is held on the steps of Parliament house on 6 July 2018 in Melbourne, Australia. (Photo by Darrian Traynor/Getty Images)Place and identity are fundamental for each of us. They are what our First Peoples had taken from them. In thinking about who I am, I have come to the conclusion that without understanding our First Peoples and their story as told by them I really can't understand myself as an Australian.

Why should I even think about what it means to be Australian? Because I was born here, but my parents weren't. My late father was born 100 years ago in Czechoslovakia, then part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. My mother, who died last year at 92, was born in the USSR. They were post-war migrants who met here in the late 1950s. When I came along they gave me a name that recalled their origins: František Gregory Vladimir Kunc. It was all a bit much so since childhood I have been called François, what we lawyers call a common law alias. Why not Frank or Francis? That's another story. But when you start life with an alias, you already have good reason to think about who you are.

We never spoke English at home; mostly Russian and Czech, some French or German. After Australian school during the week, on Saturdays I went to Russian school. On Sundays my father would take me to the Czech language Mass at the now defunct Marist Chapel at Circular Quay. It was less than a decade after the Prague Spring and at the end of every Mass the congregation would stand and sing the Czech national anthem finishing with the words 'Czech land, my home'. Everyone would cry. They were making a new home in Australia, but they could not forget where they were from, their land and their language.

So I am a first generation Australian. I am proud of my European heritage, which is part of me as an Australian. I am deeply grateful for the privilege of serving my community as a judge. But what about the Australian bit? To make sense of that I have read a lot of Australian history.

The history of a nation, like of an individual, is made up of good bits and bad. Pope Benedict once said that even saints can make lots of mistakes. We have many good bits, not least our democratic institutions and the rule of law. How a convict colony at the end of the earth (to Europeans) became one of the world's most stable and confident democracies is something worth celebrating. But we also have the bad, with the treatment of our First Peoples at the top of that unhappy list.

In court every day I listen to witnesses tell their stories. I hear the same events told from different points of view. Truth can be complex and the varying accounts cannot always be reconciled. But for the parties in that court case to be able to move forward, we have to try to make sense of what happened, accept the consequences and learn.

 

"What makes it truly Australian for me is that I share it with the oldest living culture in the world, a culture whose history, artistry and wisdom I look forward to continuing to learn about from my fellow Australians who are Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders."

 

In trying to understand Australian history it is clear that most Australians of European descent have barely begun to hear the stories of our First Peoples directly from them. After a thoughtful and deeply felt process they have now formally asked the rest of us for a voice in our democracy. People of goodwill and legal skill are working out how that might be done. I hope they succeed. In the meantime we must think about other ways how our First Peoples can tell their stories so that we can all listen and learn together as Australians.

Recently I saw Indigenous playwright H. Lawrence Sumner's play The Long Forgotten Dream. This wonderful show is about the effect on a family, a community and the spirit world of the repatriation of an Indigenous leader's bones from a foreign museum to be buried in country. But not long after the opening night Sumner was quoted as being concerned about what he called 'whitesplaining' Aboriginal stories in Australian theatre. He said that we need a national Aboriginal theatre company. As a theatre lover I think that's a great idea. But as a non-Indigenous Australian, may I respectfully suggest that our First Peoples consider going one step further?

I recently visited the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington DC. It has been open for less than two years. The building is an architectural masterpiece. The technical excellence of the museum's displays is outstanding. But it is the contents that are a treasure beyond price for all humanity. They record the history, the stories of African Americans told by African Americans not just for African Americans but for all Americans.

The heart and the stillpoint of the museum is a room where taking photographs is prohibited and the attendants tell you to be silent 'because this is a sacred space'. There you find the coffin in which Emmett Till was first buried. Till was a 14 year old African American boy who was lynched in Mississippi in 1955. His murderers were acquitted by a white jury in a trial that today we would call a farce. But it was his mother's decision to allow photographs to be published of her son's mutilated body in his coffin that gave renewed impetus to the civil rights movement at a critical moment.

It seems to me that Australia needs a similar place for storytelling by our First Peoples, a National Museum of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander History and Culture. I am not criticising the capability and good intentions of our existing museums and other cultural institutions, many of which already benefit from First Peoples curators and advisers. However, as Measham's podcast demonstrated, more can be done to ensure the cultural integrity of what and how our institutions present from their collections. That is best done by our First Peoples themselves.  I also acknowledge that any such project will only succeed if it is led by and enjoys the support of the Indigenous community. I have no doubt that the rest of us would follow that leadership by supporting the idea in whatever way we could, especially financially.

Australia is my country. What makes it truly Australian for me is that I share it with the oldest living culture in the world, a culture whose history, artistry and wisdom I look forward to continuing to learn about from my fellow Australians who are Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders. It is not for me to postulate the benefit for them of having their own national place to tell their stories, even though I believe it will be good in all sorts of ways. What I can say is that it will help me to know more about myself as an Australian.  

Peter Carey ends his latest novel about Australian race relations, A Long Way from Home, with the memorable observation that 'our mother country is a foreign land whose language we have not yet earned the right to speak'. Whether it be a theatre company or a national museum, I hope our First Peoples help all of us to learn that language, to learn their stories, whether we are new, first or eighth generation Australians. It is only by such learning and sharing that we can come to know ourselves, and each other, better.

 

 

François KuncThe Hon François Kunc is a justice of the Supreme Court of NSW, the General Editor of The Australian Law Journal and a papal knight. Main image: Smoking ceremony is held on the steps of Parliament house on 6 July 2018 in Melbourne, Australia. (Photo by Darrian Traynor/Getty Images)

Topic tags: François Kunc, Aboriginal Australians, African Americans, migration

 

 

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Existing comments

I totally agree. We do need a single Australian Aboriginal and Torres Strait island museum/gallery, something alla the British museum. It has to show the richness and diversity of first people and it needs to preserve the cultural memory that inveriably dies with change.
Jane | 18 September 2018


What a wonderful idea. A very thought provoking article, thank you.
Grahame | 18 September 2018


Thank you. SO TRUE! And I would add to the last sentence - "our land"!
Anne Lanyon | 18 September 2018


The Malthouse theatre in Melbourne incorporates indigenous plays into its yearly repertoire, plays written by talented indigenous writers, that are truly "from the heart". Blackie Blackie Brown presented this year is being repeated next year due to public demand. Tv , Film ,novels and music show the work of inspiring indigenous writers and producers. By all means give these talented people support and funds to keep telling their story . We can all watch and learn
Celia | 18 September 2018


Well said Judge Kunc. We have, in recent times, witnessed what happens when a major cultural Institution such as the National Museum of Australian became caught up in the politics of race and power. John Howard's denigration of the work done by Indigenous leaders/curators at the Museum was a part of that ugly discourse he allowed to grow: the 'back arm band' view of history. A Museum of Australian Indigenous History, Culture and Society could protect such important work of ensuring Indigenous cultural history - including the collection of Indigenous cultural narratives - from the vagaries of political chicanery and self-serving political expediency.
Heather Wearne | 18 September 2018


An inspiring article, well written. I agree with the ideas. I think our flag is inappropriate, why can't we simply replace the Union Jack in the top right hand corner with the Aboriginal flag.
Rob Colquhoun | 18 September 2018


This is a profoundly important piece which is, of course, written with the lucidity and elegance which are characteristics of its learned author. When I read it, I immediately thought, "Why didn't if think of this?" We ALL should ask ourselves that question and if enough of us do -- and draw Justice Kunc's letter to our political (and religious) leaders, -- then his suggestion should be taken up sooner than we might imagine. Thank you "Eureka Street".
(Dr) John CARMODY | 18 September 2018


Thank you François for that most timely plea for an overdue cross-cultural commitment. Timely, in that a parallel vision remains precisely the goal of the World Heritage community of Lake Mungo and the Willandra Lakes. Theirs has long involved an expectation of a Cultural Centre of the type François anticipates. Some 10 years ago, the renowned Sydney architect, Glenn Murcutt, envisaged just such a centre. Moreover, with his wife, also an architect, he offered to design it in collaboration with traditional Aboriginal owners, the three tribal groups a western New South Wales, the Mutthi Mutthi, Barkindji and Ngiyampaa people. Such centre would honour both the intellectual contribution and physical remains of the iconic 40,000 year old Aboriginal figures, Mungo Lady and Mungo Man. Alas, bureaucratic bungling with years of government inertia produced nothing, not even an appropriate place to honour the repatriated human remains. Mungo Man and Mungo Lady have come home, but there is still nowhere appropriate to put them! Until we honour the dead, what hope for the living? Despite the frustration, the Murcutt dream is still alive. It desperately needs assistance of others like François to bring it to fruition. With the passage of the years and aging memories, unless we respond now that opportunity will pass us by.
Jim Bowler | 18 September 2018


Thank you, François.
Frank Brennan SJ | 18 September 2018


Thank you sir. I won't embarrass myself by fracturing an attempt to tap your name properly with these unskilled fingers. Your points of comparison, compassion, illustrate the awareness of someone whose heritage gives you a glimpse of the experience of First Nations here in this Land. As an Anglo, I admire and appreciate it. Interested to read that your are a judge, wondering if you are able balance the injustice palpable in criminal courts for First Nations. A suggestion: my understanding is that First Nations would prefer not to be called "our" First Nations. The possessive pronoun is all too clearly illustrative of our sense of ownership of the Land, of the people. Summer May Finlay recently presented her argument for how First Nations would prefer to be referred to. I think you'd be able to find it online. Again, my thanks and respect to you.I wish you well.
bev henwood | 19 September 2018


Many years ago I transcribed some tapes of conversations with local Aboriginal people for Heather Felton in the Tasmanian Education Dept's Curriculum Branch. She compiled a wonderful series of booklets for use in schools: Living with the Land. I grew up in New Zealand, coming to Tasmania in 1968. I learnt so much about how differently the native people of those two countries had been treated had lived and been treated, just through hearing those conversations: a man remembering being told "Tell 'm you Maori; tell 'em you're Negro"; another person struggling to be recognised as Aboriginal when one had blue eyes and fair hair. The details of cultural practice were entrancing. At the same time, I realised how little I really knew about Maori people in New Zealand, as well as my own cultural background. I consequently decided to talk to my parents and old relations when I visited New Zealand. A wonderful world opened up for me, as their stories gave me a new perspective on New Zealand history.
Paddy Byers | 27 September 2018


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