Aboriginal Anthems

Red Hand Cave, Glenbrook National Park. NSW. Australia by Jeannie Fletcher

Queensland beat NSW last night in the annual State of Original rugby league series.  This year was special for a number of reasons.

It was a clean sweep.  Queensland won all three of the games played this year – the first time they’ve done this in fifteen years.  I think State of Origin football is Rugby League in its highest form.  It doesn’t get much better than this, and to see your state win a series so comprehensively feels great!

But this series was overshadowed by some ugly racist overtones when the NSW assistant coach, Andrew Johns tried to inspire his team by making some racist jibes about some of the aboriginal players on the Queensland team.  Stupidly, he didn’t realize that those jibes would offend some of the aboriginal players on his own team.  Some people must be slow learners when it comes to interpersonal sensitivities.  The end result was that Andrew John’s racist comments galvanized the Queensland team, and tore his own team apart.

The highlight (in my opinion) came last night when the Australian National Anthem (“Advance Australia Fair”) was sung at the start of the game, first in an Aboriginal language and then in English.  Although not unusual by world standards (for example the New Zealand and South African national anthems) , it was a new experience for some Aussies.  In fact, some of them found it a bit hard to take.

Some of my friends made comments such as:

“Excuse me but since when was our AUSSIE national anthem in any language other than English?”

“In Australia we speak ENGLISH. Deal with it or piss off I say.”

“I have a personal issue, with the ones around here that come and steal ya shit while you are at work to pay for thier (sic) rent, drugs and booze”

It seems like a lot of people share Andrew Johns’ attitude towards Aborigines, and feel insulted that something as sacred as our national anthem should be sung in a language other than English.  After all, English is the only true Australian language, isn’t it?

Isn’t it?

Admittedly, English was the native language of the boat people who arrived here  in the eighteenth century.  But before they arrived there were more than two hundred and fifty Aboriginal languages in use throughout this continent.  Most of those languages have become extinct, while a handful remain and are still spoken.  Indeed there are some Aboriginal people for whom English is only a second or third language after their own traditional languages.

For many of us who only speak, read, write and hear English everyday, we forget the importance of one’s own language.  Our mother tongue is bound inextricably with our culture and self-identity.  It is the language of our soul.  Without it we’re just foreigners trying to express the cries of our spirit in words we don’t fully understand.

Ian Waldron’s aboriginal ancestors come from around Normanton in western Queensland.  He says “I can’t speak my language properly. And that hurts. It was supposed to be mine. It unlocks the Kurtjar world and connects us to the stars and the rivers and everything. It came out of that country near Normanton. Just like we did.”

Perhaps the colonial masters of nineteenth and twentieth century Australia understood the importance of the traditional language when they tried to stamp out all use of Aboriginal languages.  Patsy Fourmile is an elder of the Yirrganydji Aboriginal people.  At a language revival workshop in Cairns she said, “If you were caught speaking language, you were dressed in a rations sack, had your head shaved and locked in the dormitory”.

Perhaps I should make this a bit more personal.  I’m  a whitefella who wasn’t even born in Australia.  I don’t know much about aboriginal culture.  The only language I speak is English, and a bit of high-school French.  I love Australia passionately.  Liz and I own a suburban block to the north of Brisbane.  But the more I fall in love with where I live, the more I realize that I belong to my country – not the other way round.  The words on the title deed to my home say that I own a bit of land, but the reality for me is that it owns me.  No matter where I go in the world, my guts tell me that this place is home.

And as this land infects who I am, I want to know more about it.  Whose feet stood in this dirt before mine did? Fifty years ago?  Two hundred years ago?  Two thousand years ago?  What stories did they tell?  What was important to them? It matters to me because it’s part of the story of my place.  It’s part of me.

And that’s the bottom line.

Whitefella’s like me who love our country need Aboriginal people, their stories, and their dreams.  We need the spiritual link to the land we love, and we can’t get that from a meager two hundred years of European-style land title and tenure.  We are blessed when an aboriginal woman sings our national anthem in an ancient language that was spoken thousands of years before Rome was built, before the Old Testament was written, when Englishmen were still daubing themselves with blue clay.  It gives Australians a sense of spiritual continuity that nothing else can.

The sooner we embrace Aboriginal culture as something that is part of us as a nation, the better.

(More info about Aboriginal and Torres Straight Islander Languages is available at http://www.fatsil.org.au/)

UPDATE 9-Jul-2010

I found these videos on youtube of the performance:

8 Replies to “Aboriginal Anthems”

  1. Hi Neil, I’m happy that you have used my photo for a subject so close to my heart. Like you I wasn’t born in Australia but emigrated, with my family in 1961 at the age of 15 yrs.I had a wonderful childhood in England but felt re- born as an Aussie the moment I set foot on Australian soil. I’m so heartened to know that there are more people out there who feel the same way as I do about this amazing, wonderful, culturally blessed land. I’m not a rugby league follower but would have loved to see and hear the Australial National anthen sung in an aboriginal language. How wonderful it must have been. Your comments about us all needing the aboriginal people, their culture, their stories etc. are my feeling too. I’m so pleased to have met you via this medium!! Jeannie.

  2. Hi Jeanine. Thanks so much for the comment and your thoughts. I’m sure that as non-indigenous people appreciate aboriginal culture, we’ll make more progress in reconciliation.

    Incidentally, were you a ten pound pom? I was, and have uploaded some pics and documents about it here if you’re interested: http://tenpoundpoms.com

  3. Neil. Good blog. Well written and some interesting points. Can I check with you though, as I can’t see it above. Do you know what Aboriginal language the national anthem was sung in? I’m sure they said before the game, but as I muted the anthems I can’t recall (nope, not racist, just can’t be bothered listening to them. I did the same through all the Football World Cup games – even England’s anthem. They sing the wrong song see, but thats a topic for another day!).

    I think the main point you have to take into context here is that essentially Australia is a racist country. Yes, that is probably brought on by what happened in Terra Australis many years ago, but it still stands today. Racism still runs deep. Australia is a racist country.

    How do we fix that? I’m not sure. But getting an Aboriginal girl to dress up with paint on her face, singing the national anthem in her language accompanied by 2 guys with traditional Aboriginal musical instruments isn’t going to do that.

  4. In one of my very first classes on Studies in Religion we learned that there was at one point well over 600 distinct dialects in Australia before it was colonised. That is a level of linguistic diversity that is, or should I say was, unparalleled anywhere else in the world. The native Tasmanian language for instance, remained uninfluenced for thousands of years before all those who could speak it were wiped out – on purpose. I think you’re right; if you want to stamp out the life-blood of a culture, you being by removing the language of that culture.

    It’s inspiring to see people attempt to make amends for this. And shameful to witness people completely missing this point. I’ve noticed a lot of my contemporaries expressing racist attitudes when it comes to Native Australians and frankly, more people need to call them out about it.

  5. Rob, sorry I don’t know what language it was, but at a guess it was probably Gaddigal / Eora, since that’s the traditional language of the Greater Sydney area. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Eora). Benelong was Eora – his story is amazing.

    Yes – there’s a lot of racism in Australia. I see it in myself. I think the point I was trying to make (and probably not as well as I could have made it) was that Aboriginal Culture is something that can benefit all of us as Australians because of the link it can give us to the land.

    How do we address racism? I’m not sure either 🙂 There were quite a few comments on twitter of people who appreciated the Aboriginal content in the anthem – maybe that was a plus for some people (maybe it alienated some people too). I think The Apology in Parliament was a big step. I guess it will take lots of different steps from different people.

    One radical idea I have is for local Aboriginal groups to accept whitefella’s into their clans. E.g. where I live is Turrbal country. I think it would be cool if I could become like an “honorary” member of the Turrbal clan as a mark of the respect and love I have for where I live. If you follow that to its conclusion we’d all become Aborigines in a small way. And if that happens… well you can’t really be racist against yourself 🙂

  6. read the fatal shore by robert hughs and understand who should be singing songs about this ancient country.

  7. Yamma – hello. Great article Neil well written and i understand exactly what you are saying and my thoughts exactly, everything in life is dualistic eg – yin & Yang . light and dark (shadow) Australians see them selves as the fair go people as in the anthem but the shadow side to that comes across as racism but i believe from my observations that stems only from a lack of ignorance, the more you understand a culture the less you are racist towards it – that’s how you stamp out racism , my belief anyway, regarding the singing of the Anthem using local first nation language, maybe that’s the only way to introduce the culture slowly in small steps as most Australians know very little of their 1st Australian people and yes it does seem a little ironic 🙂
    The first nation people see English words very different from you and i – for example Ab – Original (not original) Native – flora and fauna , Indigeneous – In De Geneous (of no race)its a complex issue even the clans differ on who claims the land around Brisbane (Mianjin) the Jagera or Yagerra or Yugurapul ppl south of the river, spoke the Turbul language but their is a Turbul woman who believes that the Jagerra ppl falsely lay claim to the area but she is from north of the river..
    So i agree the point Neil is making and its one i’ve always felt since learning more about the past and what happen’d here, is the more we learn about their culture the more we feel fully Australian, iv’e always thought to myself why after going to school here for 12 years do i know more American Indian tribes than i do Australian ? somethings wrong with our un-education system..

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