Monday, October 20, 2008

First Australians

If you haven't been watching First Australians on SBS (8.30 pm Sundays and Tuesdays), do yourself a favour and tune in. It is an incredible series all about how the Aboriginal nations of Australia have been repeatedly screwed over by the white settlers.

One of the many strengths of the show is that they get the opinions of a wide variety of expert historians, some Aboriginal, some white. There's a broad range of responses mostly concerning the character and motivations of some of the major historical figures. It's really interesting to see the same person described as incredibly selfish and manipulative by one historian, then as wonderfully altruistic and honorable by another. The uncertainty and debate is what's great about history, but you seldom see it shown on TV. Yet despite the uncertainties, the terrible facts speak for themselves.

I was surprised to find that I knew almost nothing about Aboriginal history. I had thought I was well-informed and well-educated yet almost all of this story is new to me. By comparison, because of books like Dee Brown's Bury My Heart At Wounded Knee, I have a much better sense of the native American experience of invasion and conquest. However, the sense I am getting from this series is that unfortunately many of the themes are the same. Disease, murder, lies, broken promises, prejudice, denial of autonomy, genocide. It's a tragic story.

One of the historians on the show (whose name escapes me) has an understandably angry and hostile air which sometimes makes for uncomfortable viewing. She maintains that the reason that this history is not taught in Australian schools is because Australians could not face up to the truth and would prefer to lie about history instead.

I think that on this point she is mistaken, although perhaps the truth is worse. I think that the real reason this history isn't taught in schools (at least not in my day) is because all this violence and crime and genocide is simply considered to be unimportant, of no impact, not worth knowing about because it happened to "those people over there", not "us".

This is terrible because not only does it deny the basic humanity of the victims, but it hides from us an awful truth - that by perpetrating and perpetuating these crimes our society has something monstrous at its heart. That's a lesson that we are fools to ignore.

I've watched three episodes so far and it has had such an impact on me and my Smaller Half that I decided to contact one of the show's interviewees, Bruce Pascoe. If you've seen the show, Bruce is the guy with the white hair and long beard who in my opinion has the most interesting things to say out of all of them.

I emailed him telling him how amazed I was and thanking him for his input to the show. He emailed me back today, saying:
"Good on you [PTR]. I'm glad you enjoyed the show. Please help us change the outlook of australia. This is a great country and we can be a great nation... with the application of intelligence and compassion. Bruce"
If you've missed the episodes so far, you can watch them online at the SBS website.

Do it.

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