Stan Grant: We must remember our history, but move beyond it

by Dale Husband
Sun 4 Jun 2017
15 min read
2

Stan Grant is a high profile 53-year-old Australian journalist angered by the shameful treatment of his Wiradjuri people — and by the ignorance of so many other Aussies about the brutality of the country's colonisation.

It's an ignorance he's trying to combat through his books — The Tears of Strangers and Talking To My Country — and through his television work.

In this interview, Stan recounts the path he's taken, notes the progress being made, and encourages the tangata whenua on both sides of the Tasman not to be crippled by anger.

 

Kia ora, Stan. And thank you for joining us here in Auckland. I’ve been working in Māori broadcasting for 20-odd years and in that time I’ve learned a little about Ngā Iwi Moemoea: the Tribe of Dreaming People. That’s a name some prefer to the term “aborigines” or to the long-winded phrase “indigenous people of Australia”. Are you comfortable with Ngā Iwi Moemoea?

I love that.

Thank you, Stan. Our names belie our backgrounds, don’t they? You and I both have names that reflect our other sides — and not our Māori and Ngā Iwi Moemoea ancestors whose countries have been colonised.

The story of the world is the story of colonisation. People being usurped, moved from their land, dominated by others. And it’s still happening in our world.

New Zealand has always been a reference point for us in Australia and a really stark contrast as well. The two countries have very different histories. Australia was a penal settlement and New Zealand wasn’t. And, of course, there’s a treaty here — and there is no treaty in Australia.

Another difference is that Māori — and now Pacific Islanders too — make up a much greater percentage of the population here, whereas we’re fewer than three percent of the Australian population.

There’s also a very strong and recognised political and cultural Māori voice in New Zealand. And we’re still a marginalised voice in Australia. So, while we have a lot of similarities in the impact of colonisation, dispossession, invasion and resistance, there are stark differences in the way that we’re represented politically, and acknowledged historically and socially in our own countries.

Your Moemoea whakapapa is, so I understand, through the Wiradjuri people who’ve been an especially prominent Australian iwi.

The Wiradjuri, my father’s people, are from central western New South Wales. The single biggest nation in the eastern part of Australia — and still, today, a very strong cohesive people. With a very strong voice. Heavily involved in the Aboriginal political struggle. As they were in resisting the European invasion and settlement.

Back in the 1820s, after the Europeans had crossed the Blue Mountains west of Sydney, there was a widely acknowledged war between the Wiradjuri and the settlers. It was described in the newspaper of the time, The Sydney Gazette, as “an exterminating war”.

Martial law was declared against Wiradjuri people who could be, and were, killed on sight. People were rounded up, women and children, killed. It was a long-running battle. Our people fought very strongly and committed our own murders and massacres of Europeans as well.

We were led by a man named Windradyne who fought the British for many years until he finally led his people over the mountains to sit down with the Governor and negotiate an end to the conflict.

How well known in Australia is that history?

Many people are unaware of that history. Much of what we know now as the resistance wars and the frontier conflict were written out of our history. And many Australians don’t know there was a real battle fought — that martial law was declared. This was, in the language at the time, a war for the country.

My mother’s father is a Kamilaroi man, another indigenous nation in Australia, and her mother is European. So I have a mixed background as well. And that’s really important. I think that makes me part of the story of Australia. Both the indigenous story of Australia and the non-indigenous story of Australia.

I’ve seen my life and my writing as an attempt to try to bridge those divides, the different backgrounds and traditions. Yes, there was conflict. But, if we are to survive, if we are to be able to live together, then we must find a sense of identity that acknowledges our differences but also embraces the things that we share.

And ultimately what we share is our place. Our sense of place. Our sense of country. Our attachment to the land Australia. So, coming from those different traditions, hopefully allows me to be both in my own life but also in my work, a synthesis of those traditions to help create something new that everybody can feel a part of.

From reading your book, Talking to My Country, it’s clear that you’ve taken pains to introduce your son to the significant places in Wiradjuri history. You want him to know about these places. Such as Poison Waterhole Creek with its shocking, deplorable story.

Australians don’t know much about these things or about the brutality of the frontier. And they’re not just stories of us as victims, either, as indigenous people. We fought and we committed our own atrocities as well.

Conflict is bloody, and that was how it was in Australia. There were waterholes poisoned, yes. There were women and children killed. There is a place not far from where my father lives called Massacre Island, Murdering Island. That’s where Wiradjuri people were shot. This was part of the landscape. This was part of our history.

I think the real challenge — and I’ve been very aware of that with my own children — is to introduce them to the full story of Australia. Introduce them to the history of their own people. But to also say that we don’t need to be trapped in that history. We don’t need to be victims of history. We don’t need to live lives defined by misery and suffering and victimhood.

But it’s a very fine line between remembering history — and, at the same time, acknowledging that we need to move beyond history. One of the things that I learned as a reporter travelling the world is that countries that are bound to a history of grievance and division repeat that history.

They continually repeat that cycle. Whether it be Catholic versus Protestant in Ireland. Sunni against Shia Muslims throughout the Middle East. Hindu and Muslim in Pakistan and India. Or Hutu and Tutsi in Rwanda.

All around the world, we’re reminded of the divisions and the blood feuds of history where people can’t relinquish old grievances. And it’s a real challenge for us. For all nations. It’s a challenge in Australia and here in New Zealand as well, to acknowledge our past, but also find a way to move beyond that and find a common purpose and a common sense of identity and unity. Otherwise we repeat the same cycles.

That’s been the message that I’ve picked up in my work and passed on to my own family. And, through my own work, I’ve tried to encourage discussions that move beyond the chains of history.

Indeed, Stan. But, sadly, unless we’re addressing that history much more effectively in our schools, we seem destined to repeat the inter-generational ignorance that harbours racism. That’s a concern here in New Zealand. I wonder if Australia is doing any better.

Well, it’s almost like there’s two Australias. There’s a kind of generational shift. The older Australia of my generation is still mostly bound in ignorance. They’re people who’re not aware of our history and the treatment of indigenous peoples.

It was never part of my education at school. We were taught that Captain Cook discovered Australia. Discovered Australia. There was no one else here. Australia was founded on the lie of terra nullius, a legal doctrine that said that this was an empty land. An empty land that was free for the taking.

And, of course, that meant that our rights were extinguished. It took until 1992 before the High Court, in the Mabo decision, acknowledged that there was a pre-existing and ongoing connection and title — legal title — to that land. That terra nullius was a legal fiction.

And it wasn’t until 1967 that indigenous people were counted in the census. We weren’t included in the population of Australia up until 1967. But, over the last 25 or 30 years, there’s been a revision of our history in both non-fiction and fiction. There’ve been some films. And our history and the treatment of indigenous people has started to permeate the consciousness.

It’s still not to the point where there’s widespread understanding about what’s happened. But, with this generation — my children’s generation — I think we’re seeing a real shift. It’s still a slow process but no one now pretends that Captain Cook discovered Australia — despite the fact that there’s a statue still saying that right in the middle of Sydney.

People are now acknowledging the fact that indigenous people had a rich tradition and history and connection to this country and that that’s ongoing. There is a greater level of awareness now in our education system and I see that in the lives of my children and their friends who seem to wear that history much more loosely. They’re aware of it. They’re prepared to acknowledge it. They live with it and they respect it.

So I’m very hopeful for the future. But, of course, in the interim, the country is run by people of my generation who were brought up without their schools providing them with an understanding of that history.

You know, Stan, it’s not just a matter of what goes on in the classrooms. In New Zealand we still have a great many Pākehā who’ve grown up without having had any Māori mates. They haven’t played any sport with them. Haven’t been to a Māori home. Sat at a Māori table and had kai with the whānau. Or been welcomed in a way that our people are renowned for.

And I suspect the same could also be said of Pākehā Aussies living lives that involve little or no contact with families from within Ngā Iwi Moemoea.

Whenever I meet another indigenous person, no matter where they’re from in Australia, the first thing we’d say is: “Who’s your mob? Where are you from?” It’s how we identify ourselves. It’s how we connect ourselves to our history, to our past and our lived experience.

Our families are just so rich and welcoming and deep in culture and tradition.

Whenever I go back home to my country, my father’s country, I feel an immediate sense of belonging and an acceptance. No judgement. There is no judgement. There is no one there who is going to see or treat me differently to anyone else. We are the same. I walk in. I sit down. We are the same.

I know my place in that hierarchy. I know our cultural protocols. I know what it is to be part of that family. And we laugh. And we eat. And we love music. It is an incredibly welcoming place to be. Humour has been so important to us. You don’t survive that history unless you can laugh with each other. Unless you can share that sense of humour that gets you through the day.

That’s been vital to us. Music has been vital to us. And family coming together, that sense of belonging, is absolutely critical to us. So it’s a real shame that not enough non-indigenous people in Australia, get to share in that.

It’s still a fact that the majority of people in Australia have never met a First Nations person. Never met one. And as a result of that, they don’t know us as human beings. They don’t know that, in many ways, we’re the same as them. We are human beings. With the same failings. Same virtues.

I think we need to have those relationships. But I remember, when I was a kid, we never went to a white person’s house. It just wasn’t going to happen. And still today, when I go back home to my parents, the world that they live in is their own world. It’s the indigenous world. A world that the rest of Australia is unfamiliar with. And that’s a shame because there is a lot for us to offer. And the rest of Australia will be enriched by that experience.

Stan, for some years now, you’ve been a high profile, international journalist. And, as you’ve explained in your book, the path that led to your work in the media came into your calculations thanks to a remarkable woman who encouraged you to aspire higher. But I imagine that there’ve been others you’re indebted to.

Well, first of all, I was fortunate to have been born into our particular family. My parents didn’t have anything. Like most Aboriginal people, we were living a life on the margins. On the fringes of town. It was an itinerant existence moving from town to town. My father worked in sawmills. My mother got work wherever she could.

It was an extended family — grandparents, uncles, aunties, cousins — all living together and moving together. Being connected to that rich life was essential to me. I never felt that there were things that I couldn’t do in life because of where I came from — because I was rooted and centered in that sense of family. So, the most important influence in my life has been my family and the unconditional love and support I’ve always had from them.

But there’ve been other indigenous people who’ve inspired me. Especially Marcia Langton who is now Professor of Indigenous Studies at Melbourne University. When I first met her, I was an aimless 17-year-old who’d graduated from school with no real ambition, pushing a trolley around the Institute of Aboriginal Studies in Canberra delivering the mail.

She was a young researcher there doing her PhD. And she pulled me aside and asked me: “Well, what do you want to do in life?” She made me believe that anything was possible. That university was possible for me. That I could aspire to things. I could have dreams.

I’d always had in the back of my mind that I would like to do something with stories and words and journalism. I was an avid reader and I loved to sit and read and think. And Marcia encouraged me and inspired me to go into journalism.

When I was at university, I had a lot of encouragement from Fred Hollows and his wife Gabi. Fred did amazing work saving the sight of indigenous people with eye diseases such as trachoma. They fed me. And around the dinner table, they opened up for me the world of ideas and debate and politics and history. And Gabi taught me how to type.

Then, once I got into journalism, I found there was always someone prepared to reach out to encourage and inspire. I worked with some of Australia’s best journalists and they were always really giving of their time. Later, when I went into international reporting and I joined CNN, again a world of opportunity opened up to me where I worked with Ethiopians, Kenyans, Chinese, Indians, Pakistani, Canadians, Brits, Koreans. And where we had this rich cultural mix that I was able to draw on and learn from and be encouraged by.

So, I’ve been really, really fortunate to have had a great family life, a wonderful range of mentors, and great indigenous role models as well who’ve been there and have given freely of their time to support me and to encourage me.

But I gather that, back in your schooldays, you didn’t get that kind of backing.

There’s a fine line between opportunity and success on the one hand, and despair and failure on the other. And, for us, the odds are stacked against us. When your people have been born into a history of dispossession and segregation and separation, injustice and suffering — and state-sanctioned discrimination — you don’t overcome those things easily.

To succeed requires an enormous amount of effort and support. And, sadly, for so many of our people, they don’t get that. In fact, they get the opposite. They’re presented with obstacles and discouragement.

And that was how it was for me. I was in school coming up to 15, living in a small country town in New South Wales. Big Aboriginal population — a lot of them my cousins and extended family. And I was among a group of boys called up to the principal’s office and told very clearly: “You have no future here. You’re no longer legally required to come to school.”

We were told that the best thing we could do would be to leave — that we would not amount to anything. But I was so lucky at that point. Fate stepped in and my father got a job in another town. We moved. He got a job in a sawmill and we moved to Canberra.

That was what opened up the potential of university and the career that I’ve been able to have. And yet kids who I went to school with and who, frankly, were a lot brighter than me, had all of that snuffed out by a principal who didn’t see our potential. Who didn’t see what we had to offer.

Sadly, many of those boys who were in that room with me that day, did leave school and fell into a cycle of long term unemployment along with the social problems that come with that. The lack of opportunity. The sense of worthlessness and hopelessness that leads to alcohol, drugs, mental illness. And, too often, to jail and early death.

The fact that you and I are both working in the media suggests that we share the belief that there’s value in our countries hearing the voices of Māori and Ngā Iwi Moemoea — and that it’s important for there to be a strong indigenous presence in the media.

It's still the case in Australia — as it is here no doubt as well — that we’re underrepresented in so many areas, but particularly in the media. It’s slowly changing. When I came into journalism 32 years ago, I was the only one at that time working at that level. It’s slowly starting to change. We’re seeing more indigenous voices in journalism.

That’s especially valuable with National Indigenous Television where we get to make our stories our way, with our voices, and where we’re bringing back the concerns of our communities and opening that up to the rest of Australia as well. It’s been a slow process but it’s starting to gain momentum now.

And now there’s a great opportunity, I think, to share our stories with Māori people here because we share a similar history, and face many of the same challenges — political, socioeconomic challenges. And there are many things we can learn from each other.

We can particularly learn from people here about having our voices heard. About the impact of the Treaty — and the difference that can make to your place in your country. There’s a lot of room to share. We’re both storytellers. That’s what we are. Great storytellers. We come from an oral tradition. We carry the legends of our history. We carry the stories and traditions of our families.

So there’s a lot of room to be able to bring that — not just to each other — but to a mainstream audience as well, through film, television, literature. It’s a way of opening up the world to one another other.

And by you including us as part of the Pacific, as being a Pacific people — I think there’s a shift in attitude, a shift in language, a shift in how we see ourselves. We are part of this place too. We share a history with the people here as well. And I think we really need to build on that consciousness. We need to be very aware that we’re often speaking the same story even though we’re coming from different places.

When we look at the injustices of the past — and the present-day injustices too — there’s a risk of being consumed by anger. But, and it’s hard to get an accurate reading of this, perhaps it’s subsiding. What do you think?

Sometimes it can come out of nowhere and it can take me by surprise — really take my breath away, to be honest with you. We live with that. We live with that anger. It’s never really far from the surface. I see it in my father.

Anger can be a good thing. Anger has often inspired me and propelled me: “Well, you’re not going to defeat me and I’m not going to give in.” Anger can be used constructively but it can also be a terribly debilitating thing.

And it can be awful when you turn that anger on yourself. We see that in the rates of suicide and self-harm which are at catastrophic levels in our community. It’s awful too when you turn it on your family. The rates of domestic violence and abuse among our people in Australia are also catastrophic. They’re 30 times higher than in the rest of the population.

The only way that we can overcome that is to change the narrative. Change the way we see ourselves. Change the way we tell our story. We can tell a story of defeat and of suffering and injustice. Of being marginalised, being segregated, being dispossessed.

We can tell that story.

But that doesn’t tell the full story. It doesn’t tell the story of resilience, of survival and of ingenuity. It doesn’t tell the story of success that we have today. Far too often our identities are tied to a narrative of suffering, injustice and anger. And of a resentment and a desire to hold white Australia or white New Zealand to account and to never relent.

That often frames our identities in a contemporary sense. I think we need to change that narrative. I think we need to be able to say: “Yes, these things happened. Yes, people still suffer as a result of this. But let’s also celebrate our resilience, our success, our ingenuity. Let’s call it out and say that it’s unacceptable that Aboriginal people in Australia are three percent of the population but are 25 percent of the prison population.

We need to call that out. But we also need to be able to say that for every Aboriginal person in jail, there are four others with a university degree. Four times higher than the number of people in jail. That’s part of our story too.

A critical part of challenging that narrative of injustice and victimhood is to be able to embrace a counter-narrative of resilience and survival and success — that we are here, proud people connected to our traditions. And succeeding in spite of all that’s happened.

And, in that way, I think, we then light a path for the rest of the country. We say: “Come with us. We are the people of this land. We can connect you to the past of this land. We can acknowledge our history and we can move beyond it. We do not have to be consumed by anger.”

That’s an ongoing battle in my own life. It’s an ongoing battle for our communities but one that we have to embrace. We can’t allow ourselves to be crippled by anger.

 

© e-Tangata, 2017

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