National Sorry Day

National Sorry Day is an Australia-wide observance held on May 26 each year. This day gives people the chance to come together and share the steps towards healing for the Stolen Generations, their families and communities. Stolen generations refer to Indigenous Australians who were forcibly removed from their families and communities. It follows the ‘Bringing the Home’ report on the Stolen Generation.  I do not claim any academic knowledge on the History of Australia, I can only say I have a willingness to learn.

I spent a half day in Sydney once and headed to the Australia Museum, I told the information counter I wanted to find out about Aboriginal history and they tried to usher me upstairs to a bring new spectacular show about robotic dinosaurs (or very similar) with much perseverance they admitted that they had a section about Aboriginal history, it was literally in the basement, the audio-visual displays were of poor quality, few even worked, the place needed some paint and care. The exhibits themselves had been carefully put together with art, architecture, music and culture but few people made it here.  When I expressed interest in Aboriginal art to an Australian they simply looked at me bored and said they had done that repeatedly at school and saw no worth doing more of it.  After the museum I wanted to see some of these Aboriginal people in the city – I wondered whose stories might have been mixed into the sort of being stolen, who I might pass in the street who didn’t know their personal history, which old white men I might be crossing the road with had ordered what to happen.  It was like walking through a city full of potential ghosts.  But in downtown Sydney no one seemed to be Aboriginal and I wondered if they really had a presence in town at all. If people have lost their density of if stolen Aboriginals not wealthy enough to be in the expensive downtown area.

Poster with Aboriginal flag painted onto a hand and words in Aboriginal languages. Text in English reads 'sorry'.
A commemorate poster from 2008

The Red Dot gallery in Singapore on the other hand is a wonderful home to Aboriginal culture for white expat folks like myself. I say that because the work they show and sell is sourced directly from communities they work with.  The full story behind the art is told and the paintings and bark art is broad and unsterotypical.  Artists are able to promote their work and be seen in this expensive galley setting and there is where I saw one of the most extraordinary events ever.  I saw two old Aboriginal ladies perform a chicken dance.  I do not remember where they were from or the language they spoke, and they spoke freely words through their translator.  Humble was not the word, but they were not putting on a show.  They seemed to demonstrate something I have not seen anywhere else, it wasn’t a performance for the white clients who had come to see their amazing pieces and drink free wine (in Singapore that is reason to come out enough!) they simply did a dance for themselves. There could be no show, I guess it isn’t a dance for spectators as we understand the term by dancers as we have the term.  They were dressed casually and when prompted by the gallery staff they affirmed their consent to share something from their hometown and it was simply a movement of the legs like a chicken when they strut. The dance had a contact and a story which wasn’t in the gallery, it couldn’t show it’s significance here. What it was cannot be translated – for we have no words, it is not for entertainment but to communicate with people from so different a mental place that we cannot take on what has been imparted.

And I feel a loss at what I will never know, how to dance without care for what another person sees, without the burden of their judgements of ‘good enough’, because this action wasn’t about outcome. I do not know how it is to have an action which is ground to a particular place and a story known for ages. I can only understand the small sphere I inhabit.

I cannot cite the source of this idea…I read it somewhere long ago…that when some Aboriginal people were taken and put into a jail they died of being away from their land (which would include community). They just died because they didn’t believe they could live separate from it.  Recently I shared a post about a study showing that medical doctors telling people they were ill made them ill, so neurologically I guess it’s an equivalent of dropping dead immediately hearing a diagnosis for terminal cancer.  We know concepts kill.  If I was jailed I believe I’d have a broke heart, but I don’t think it could kill me dead.  I’d still be in my world of lawyers, rights, dates and plans, whereas to be cut off from the land for an Aboriginal person with little contact from the outside world could cause physical death.

We know families have been divided, people tortured and murdered, there is a strong case for the deliberate spreading of small pox and localised genocide seems undeniable, burning, starving,the destruction of language, cultures, history, hope. Robert Krzisnik recently shared a story told to him directly which I’d rather refer to than continue with my ideas of what happened. And I can’t imagine how saying ‘Sorry for your sufferings and that you continue to suffer’ can be enough and I can’t imagine how some people find it a challenge to say sorry and I don’t know how I continue and get on with my day when there is so much grief in the world.  All I know is my own place and I know my understanding does not include that of chicken dances or death in a cell.

I can only be here and witness briefly and acknowledge what has happened and is happening still on this tragic planet. All I have is my heart, eyes, hand and brain and it doesn’t feel like much.

I apologise for error or crassness due to misunderstandings, if you know more please message me and I will correct.  I am trying to engage in a dialogue humbly not write as an expert, especially in this post.



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