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Back to the future for Indigenous youth

  • 06 July 2009

The theme chosen for this year's NAIDOC week to celebrate the history, culture and achievements of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples is: Honouring Our Elders, Nurturing Our Youth.

Common with past themes, this theme links the Indigenous future with its past. In 2007 the theme was 50 Years: Looking Forward, Looking Black. In 2006: Respect the past — Believe in the Future.

Indigenous cultures, it seems to me, place more emphasis than Western cultures on those human and spiritual relationships that connect generations. In such contexts, young people ideally move confidently into adulthood with a pride and sense of their own generational history. Identity is not just about becoming an individual; it is also about knowing, valuing and embodying one's ancestral past.

This tension between past and future reminds me of a desert saying: marlakarti nyawa, kurranyu nyinama — 'If you want to go forwards you have to look backwards'.

Of course, moving forwards while looking backwards is not only difficult, it can be risky and dangerous. Would that drivers did not try it and that we were all born with eyes in the back of our heads. And yet, that is what most of us want to do, at least some of the time. We want the past to instruct and guide us while we seek to forge a future with new hope and possibilities.

Getting the balance right is not easy. We want to be faithful to what our grandparents have passed onto us, while being open to the future and what we might create and become. We want to avoid remaining sentimental or locked into our past, while also wanting to avoid our future becoming disconnected from our family and history.

Those who are most at risk with this tension are the young: reminded to respect their elders and acknowledge their past, while encouraged by peers, music and media to forget the past, change and be different.

At the same time, the past can no longer guarantee the security it once promised earlier generations, nor can the future engender absolute confidence. Young people can find themselves disconnected, neither able to access the past in ways that strengthen their identity and self-esteem, nor able to grasp and engage new pathways into the future. The most telling and painful expression of these human