Back to the future for Indigenous youth


'NAIDOC week' by Chris JohnstonThe 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 tensions is in youth suicide.

Recently, a young Aboriginal man I know committed suicide in a remote desert community. His was the fourth suicide in that community in a little over 12 months. His death, sudden and unexpected, came the day after a funeral for a previous suicide.

When our young end up in prison, on drugs, lost, confused and even die, we feel the pain of lives suddenly cut short. We experience a wounding of hope, a realisation that the life and energy of those presently young will never be transformed into the knowledge and wisdom of elders. These deaths strike at the heart. They prevent what might be. They threaten the possibility of enjoying a future built upon the past.

This is one reason why NAIDOC week is so needed and important, not just for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and the daily burdens that so many carry, but for all Australians.

The annual NAIDOC awards cover a range of ages and abilities: old and young, scholar and apprentice, elders (male and female), sportspersons and artists. There is also an award for 'lifetime achievement'. It brings together the wise with the energetic, the creative with the imaginative, a wide gathering of experiences, talents and skills. In them we toast a new and promising future built on respect and knowledge of the past.

In NAIDOC week this year let us take some extra time to enjoy the richness of the young and old among us. There are so many Indigenous leaders, scholars, artists and sportspersons to celebrate. We might watch our sportspersons with joyful anticipation of their skills, or engage those artists who draw us back to the land, or listen to musicians such as ARIA award winner Geoffrey Gurrumul Yunupingu. We might send an encouraging message to an Indigenous student, teacher, academic or leader.

This is a week to celebrate Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander life. It makes a powerful statement to those who have recently suffered the loss of a young person: there is a future and it is being built upon the past.

Brian McCoyDr Brian F. McCoy, SJ, is NHMRC Post Doctoral Fellow for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Health at the Australian Research Centre in Sex, Health and Society, La Trobe University. He is the author of Holding Men: Kanyirninpa and the Health of Aboriginal Men. 

Topic tags: naidoc, aboriginal, torres strait islanders, tradition, Honouring Our Elders, Nurturing Our Youth, suicide



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Existing comments

Thank you Brian for passing on the wisdom that has come from your many years of sharing your lfe and gifts with Aboriginl people especially the yung.

Ray O'Donoghue | 06 July 2009  

Thanks for this piece Brian and the opportunity to read more of your research in the list of articles appended to this one.

I am also in an honoured position of trust and relationship with Indigenous People as a photographer. My images of Brisbane's NAIDOC Family Day 2008 have been used to promote this year's festival.

My camera lens has allowed me access to stories and relationships that have also introduced me to the joys and hopes, the grief and anguish of young Indigenous people from Ltyentye Apurte to the streets of Brisbane.

To be called 'deadly" by young Indigenous People is the ultimate accolade and was given to me in a recent Facebook chat with the organiser of the Youth Stage at this Year's NAIDOC Family Day in Brisbane.

I hope my images of young hip hop musicians and of the Elders contribute to the conversation and reconciliation that is part of our cross-cultural community.

Tony Robertson | 07 July 2009  

Thanks Brian, Let us continue to recognise and celebrate the great achievements of many indigenous people in this last year both during the week and throughout the year. The question remains WHAT can we do to stop the horrific loss of life of young men. I think of the grieving families and communities. There has to be an answer to such a loss for the communities and the nation. Surely if we paid more attention to what they are crying out for it would help!

Cheryl Sullivan | 07 July 2009  

Thanks for these insights, Brian.
'marlakarti nyawa, kurranyu nyinama' — 'If you want to go forwards you have to look backwards'.

I can't think of more apt advice for non-idigenous Australians in respect of our relationship with indigenous people. We need a much better understanding of and respect for the complexity and depth of traditional indigenous culture and spirituality and acceptance of the tragic history of our relationships.

Peter Johnstone | 07 July 2009  

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