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Reflections of one who came to stay


First AustraliansWho are the First Australians? We can identify them under various titles: the Indigenous People, the Original People, the First Nation of this land.

In Australia we have preferred to use the word 'Aboriginal', those who are 'from the beginning'. They offer a continuity of culture and memory longer than any other human group on our planet.

There is, of course, another group we might also describe as 'first' Australians. These are the early convicts, settlers and colonisers of this country. They were the ones who engaged the Aboriginal peoples of this land. Their efforts significantly shaped the legacy of a relationship that has needed much reconciliation and an apology. They were instrumental in forging what we can take for granted, often without much reflection, about being Australian.

The SBS program First Australians takes us back to some of those early contact places and relationships. It offers striking photographic images of those people, now seen through further historical evidence and a prism of current Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal perspectives.

We hear the names of significant leaders such as Bennelong and Pemulwuy and the description of key events as both Aboriginal people and colonisers struggled to understand and relate with one another at that time.

The State of Victoria is a good example. As William Barak and Simon Wonga sought to find some land where the Wurundjeri people could settle, Government and Protection Board forces denied, avoided and procrastinated. Despite the support of Christian missionaries such as John and Mary Green, and despite Victoria being incredibly wealthy at that time, the Aboriginal voice and the critical needs of a diminishing and suffering people struggled to be heard.

As Professor Marcia Langton reminds the viewer, this is a particularly shameful period of Victoria's history. The neglect and rejection of the Wurundjeri people, particularly around their desire to hold a small piece of land at Corranderk (near present day Healesville), remains an important founding story for all Victorians.

Sadly, the experience of the Wurundjeri was repeated in many other places across Australia, sometimes the result of some very nasty people, sometimes simply the accumulation of ignorance, frustration and greed. There were also the singularly inspiring and prophetic.

I do not consider myself as an Aboriginal person, nor will I ever be able to claim the honour of such an origin. However, this TV program reminded me that my history is intimately bound up with the history of the first people of this land.

It is their ancient life that my ancestors once engaged, and I am a descendant of that history of engagement. I cannot avoid, nor do I wish to, a history and relationship that reminds me of where I was born and where I belong, but also the story of an ancient land that travels way back, far beyond those early contacts.

This is my history. To accept it as my own I need to acknowledge its messy, sometimes bloody, largely fragile moments. The program First Australians offers me this opportunity.

As with much of our later post-settler history, relationships and communication between the First Australians and others were often poorly and carelessly valued. The impact of dislocation, disease and destruction lay heavily upon those who lived on the Aboriginal front-line. Some remarkable people arose to speak, protest and offer a hand of friendship. More often, the onslaught and priorities of colonial interests took precedence.

Those of us who are the descendents 'of those who came to stay' can be tempted to see our ancestral origins in other places and foreign lands. However, after seeing this program, I am confirmed in my preference for another way. While the majority of our population does not share the identity of First Australians we owe the benefits of our present lives to the land that was, and continues to be, theirs.

Our history and relationship has been and will remain closely intertwined and interconnected. The sadder and messier elements of that relationship will always remain part of who we are, as the moments of communication and friendship will always offer hope as to who we wish to be, as Australians.

While the program First Australians challenges, confronts and even causes me to feel shame, it also invites me into further insight and desire to be more fully and honestly Australian.

Episode one of the seven-part documentary series First Australians airs this Sunday night, 12 October, at 8.30 p.m. on SBS.

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.

Topic tags: brian mccoy, first australians, bennelong, pemulwuy, william barak, simon wonga, john and mary green



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Existing comments

Thank you for your wonderful insight into how some of the early settlers viewed the native inhabitants. We have two grandsons whose ancestors lived in Australia long before the settlers - they also have ancestors who arrived as convicts on the First Fleet so they have a double claim to "original Australian" heritage whichever way one looks at it. I look forward to watching the SBS program.

pat | 09 October 2008  

Thanks, Brian, for an insightful account of how this series is important for all of us in this land who are tied up with the Aboriginal story in a range of ways.

Robin Koning SJ | 09 October 2008  

Interesting stuff you're putting out here, Brian. Timely too. A decade ago an Aboriginal Elder put to my husband, when both were attending a conference, 'go honour your ancestors, to know who you are.' So then as pilgrims we travelled to Ireland, Italy and Norway, our ancestral homes. Stories were shared, reconnections established. An ancestral energy guided me down a valley to Sognefjord, where Vikings boats begin journeys to new homelands. I was home. So too am I home when sitting with Indigenous friends, in country, around the campfire sharing our stories. Our shared ancestral stories. I am blessed.

jo dallimore | 09 October 2008  

Thanks, Brian, for an insightful account of how this series is important for all of us in this land who are tied up with the Aboriginal story in a range of ways.

Robin Koning SJ | 09 October 2008  

Your Eurka article on THE FIRST AUSTRALIANS jogged me into action. I have just read and thoroughly enjoyed your book, Hollow Men, whilsttravelling the Canning in convoy during Sept. What a relevant & perfect setting to enjoy your book in the peace&tranquility of that flower strewn desert wilderness.

Met up with Katie,Jesse et al @ Billiluna which gave us a brief insight into how daily life functions in the area,

Keep up the great work & hope my slender understanding of the First Australians is enhanced by the SBS series.

JUSTIN HALPIN | 11 October 2008  

I'm from ireland and i'm looking to find Halpins that were sent to Australia in the 1800 also Halpins that are living there now and their lives and experience.

kevin halpin | 04 February 2010  

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