When I was a student at the University of Canberra I spent a lot of time hanging out at the Ngunnawal Centre, a drop-in/support centre for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students. It was a great place, not just because of the services and support it provided, but because we had such diversity of students, from all over Australia, all different backgrounds, all different ideas and experiences. It was, generally speaking, a place of acceptance, and my time there and the people I met there certainly helped strengthen my identity as an Aboriginal person.
I remember once walking into the common room into a very passionate discussion about maintaining culture. One guy was making his opinions known about the evils of materialism and how we were all becoming “white fellas” and how he wanted to get back to “traditional life”. It was a stirring speech that many of us could identify with, especially those who had limited exposure to a ‘traditional’ cultural upbringing. That is, until someone said, “watchya on about? You’re not gonna give up your Nikes and your mobile phone for a spear and a lap-lap!” Which, needless to say, we all had a good laugh at.
Since then I have often thought about the challenge many Aboriginal peoples face with regards to living a modern life in a modern world while attempting to live up to cultural values and beliefs that are considered the definition of ‘being Aboriginal’. It is truly a case of walking in two worlds, a walk that would be much easier were those worlds allowed to merge into one.
Adaptation is a key component of evolution; a marker of whether a species thrives or dies. If there is one thing I’ve learned about my Aboriginal culture, it’s that we have survived for so long because of our ability to adapt. We have adapted to the environment, to the availability – or scarcity – of resources, to contact with other cultures, and even to invasion. Yet despite this ability, it seems there is an unwillingness to allow Aboriginal peoples to ‘evolve’ into the 21st century. That to be ‘Aboriginal’ is to remain in a pre-invasion state of existence, and any deviation from this somehow makes us less Aboriginal.
Adaptation is not assimilation. Yet that seems to be the view that many Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people take when Aboriginal peoples take advantage of the modern world, the modern conveniences, or even the modern ideas that exist today. Drive a nice car, live in a nice house, in a nice suburb, have an advanced education, a career, a desire for nice things like clothing, furniture, or lifestyle, and suddenly you’re assimilated, a sell-out, a big-noter, a coconut. You’re no longer a ‘real’ Aboriginal, because ‘real’ Aboriginal peoples don’t have, nor want, those things.
Yet think about some of the things that we wouldn’t have if Aboriginal peoples hadn’t adapted the the changes that surrounded them. There would be no repeal of the various Aborigines Protection Acts. There would be no Freedom Ride. No 1967 Referendum. No NAIDOC. No Aboriginal flag. No Aboriginal doctors, nurses, lawyers, teachers, police, soldiers, politicians, sport stars, business owners, writers, musicians, actors, tradespersons, or journalists. You would not be reading this article. Aboriginal peoples would still be considered part of the Australian ‘fauna’. If we existed at all.
Most, if not all, Aboriginal peoples have already lost so much of their culture and heritage. It is critical to our survival and our identity that we preserve as much as we can. Yet if we are to thrive – not just survive – we must allow ourselves to embrace those elements of 21st century life that can be used to our advantage and for the betterment of our peoples. We need to understand and accept that an Aboriginal person today is not the same as an Aboriginal person 250 years ago, or even 25 years ago, and recognise that can be a good, even desirable, thing.
Yes, we must value, retain, and give to future generations as much of our cultural heritage as we can. However, we must also live in the modern world, take advantage of it, adapt it to our needs, and use it for the betterment – the empowerment – of our peoples and communities.
How else can we expect to progress?
What is your take on what a modern Aboriginal person is, or should be? Please share your thoughts in the comments section below.