How the Birds Got Their Colours

How the Birds Got Their Colours

It all started with a story. Dancing across the front of the book was a colourful bird with black feet. Green, red and blue, if my memory serves correctly. How The Birds Got Their Colours is an old yarn – a small thread in the vast and intricate web of The Dreaming. Growing up, it was always one of me and my sisters’ favourites.

How the Birds Got Their Colours tells many stories, but what it impresses upon me most is the idea of identity. It is when the birds receive their splashes of colour – the pink of the Galah and the mixed palate of the Rainbow Lorikeet – that they finally become themselves. They know who they are and take pride in their unique beauty.

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Many years after I first read that book, I found myself in high school struggling through the depths of pubescent awkwardness.

“Dreamtime stories are just kiddie books,” argued a classmate.

I struggled and grasped for words that didn’t surface, left only with a hollowness I now know well. People say you feel the most powerful of human emotions – joy, sadness, love – in your heart. For me, it’s always been in my gut. From the intensity of my first love to the death of close relatives, it always seems to come from somewhere deep in my belly.

In 2009 I was in year 12, amidst the all-encompassing journey of the Higher School Certificate (HSC). In the English exam, I chose to refer to an artwork by Vernon Ah Kee. In the centre of the piece the word ‘austracism’ appears in big bold letters. From afar, the backdrop seems like a mirage of black and white. Upon closer inspection, it’s actually a repetition of a phrase with the same beginning each time it is written across the canvas.

I’m not racist but… they’re all alcoholics
I’m not racist but… they don’t help themselves
I’m not racist but…

Each year, the NSW Board of Studies English syllabus comprises a central theme. When I was studying the HSC, that theme was belonging. To accompany Ah Kee’s ‘AustRacism’, the other text I used was Mean Girls, directed by Tina Fey. Fey’s film portrays the chaotic nature of being a teenage girl and explores how young women interrelate in American high schools while trying to belong to something.

Ah Kee’s message seems a little more sinister. How can he hope to flourish in a country that neglects his deep connection to this place?

It was outside the perimeter of the tall green fence of my high school that, for a couple of chaotic hours every day, kids from across the Lismore area would converge to make their way home. The bus bays were notorious for hosting fights and, as a nervous teenager who’d run at the slightest prospect of conflict, I usually tried to keep my head down and make my way quickly to bay 13. My school had a few Aboriginal kids, but most in the area went to the public schools like Lismore High or Kadina. Sometimes a group of Aboriginal kids would walk past, and I would avert my gaze. They were always the ones who wanted to fight, I was told.

It’s really hard to write that, but I cannot hide from it. I’d have to say I’ve probably committed the same subtle act many more times in my life since those days.

Years passed and I graduated from high school, travelled some and enrolled in university. Like many people in their early twenties, who I was and how I lived was dynamic, in a constant state of flux. But those moments kept coming: a joke about ‘Abos’ recycled by a mate over a few beers. Something said by my beloved Pop as he sat in his armchair, looking out over Sydney Harbour. Watching the military descend on Indigenous communities in the Northern Territory like some civil war had started. That gut-wrenching emptiness would return and, with it, the search for words that continued to evade me.

So I did the only thing I knew how to do: stayed silent. Sometimes, I tried to organise words into something meaningful I could say. A question maybe, like: “Is that really how you feel?”

It never seemed to be enough, though. Or at least I persuaded myself that it was that way. And so the silence endured.

I’m a product of my experiences: of all that I’ve seen, heard, felt, read and written. To me, it seems as though a kid growing up in Australia today has to fight to believe in the beauty and power of Dreamtime story, and Indigenous traditions and systems more generally. Why aren’t children afforded the freedom to be inspired by it all?

As much as I loved my history teacher Mr Gilmore, my classes with him in high school mostly followed the experiences of Indigenous Australians after the arrival of Europeans. Two hundred years of a 60,000-year-old culture. A drop in the Pacific Ocean, it seemed.

That part of our history is laced with a darkness that can only be lit by an understanding of the complexity of the previous 59,000 years or so. It is a history we all have to acknowledge, understand and process. We have the unique opportunity to couple this reckoning with a source of inspiration drawn from the various forms of deep creativity that have developed over countless generations, of knowledge built on careful observation and interaction and wisdom intricately weaved into the fabric of the very earth we all stand on and love so much.

In 2017, Australians were presented with the Uluru Statement from the Heart. Many argue that it represents one of the most important political documents since our country’s inception. But I think this summary neglects something more powerful, something more human.

The Uluru Statement brought people from across the nation to discuss what they think is the best direction for the future of Australia. It wasn’t intended to be a political document; it was a gift– and it came from the heart. Our Indigenous brothers and sisters laid bare their hopes and dreams for our country. After centuries of pain and suffering and denial, they were – and still are – willing to forgive in order to move forward together. The Uluru Statement represents humility at its most inspiring and hope in its most enduring form. And the request is simple:

“We seek to be heard.” 

The Uluru Statement reminds us that the sovereignty of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders “has never been ceded, or extinguished” and that it “coexists with the sovereignty of the Crown.” Despite the best efforts of some, the richness of oral history through Dreamtime story has also continued thanks to the immense resilience of Indigenous elders and their communities.

In 2014, I was lucky enough to travel to Yonglu country in the Northern Territory to volunteer at Garma Festival: a celebration of Indigenous culture nationwide with a particular focus on Yonglu belief and kinship systems. It was an enriching couple of weeks that I have fond memories of, but it was also really challenging. I felt as though I was grappling with so many ideas, battling with preconceived notions and prejudices and a lot of emotion.

At one point during the festival, I snuck around the back of a marquee to find a seat. Rachel Perkins, director of movies such as One Night the Moon and Mabo, was speaking to the crowd for an hour. I had earmarked this talk as the most important. There was an immediate soberness embodied in the tone of voice Perkins used. I was left captivated by her words as eucalyptus leaves rustled in the breeze and red dirt blew through the audience. She was pleading with us to take up one of the great challenges that we face as a nation: to use our collective energy and ingenuity as Australians to guard the intricate network of story that is slipping through our fingers faster than we can imagine.

A day earlier, in a special location screening of ABC’s Q&A program, three aunties stood up and spoke to the audience of a saddening truth. They explained in a way only wise old women can that, when they die, a vast catalogue of stories will be buried with them. Forever. Those three women assured us that once they were gone, there would be no more living speakers of their particular dialect.

If the strength of oral history lies in beauty, complexity and performance, then its weakness appears to be its fragility. Like a thread slowly unraveling, compromising the strength of the entire web itself.

Rachel Perkins knows we have the means to capture this wealth of story. She reminded us that it can be done, that it must be done. In her talk, she revealed that she clings to the hope that all Australians will be willing to listen. And it’s that same hope that accompanies the Uluru Statement. In its request for a First Nation’s Voice to Parliament, it is asking for all of us to sit down, shut up, and listen.

“In 1967 we were counted, in 2017 we seek to be heard.”

In a world where democracy is under threat in many places, we have been granted the incredible opportunity to make ours whole once and for all. That is the country I want my children to grow up in. An Australia that accepts the Uluru Statement from the Heart is a country I will be unashamedly proud of.

This gift came from the land and the people who sung its song for millennia. It was not meant for Malcolm Turnbull – though when he and his merry band of Liberal politicians turned their backs on the Uluru Statement, they forfeited the opportunity to be responsible for the most important political act since Federation.

It was meant for us – for all Australians across our vast, dry continent, our island home. The many faces and personalities of Indigenous Australia opened their hearts and extended their hands in an offer to walk together towards a brighter and more hopeful future. Only to be denied by those who claim to represent us.

To that I can only say one thing: you do not speak for me.

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As an outdoor educator, I now have the chance to educate young Australians without the restrictions of bureaucracy and high school syllabi so packed full of jargon I still don’t understand. Spending 10 days in the bush with a bunch of teenagers teaches me a lot of things too. I have learned how telling stories from the old people of this country can influence young minds. One of the nights, usually by the fire, I like to tell the kids how the birds got their colours. It is a story gifted to us from the original caretakers of this land. It is also a story from my childhood. I pass it on in an attempt to continue the oral history that has sewn itself into the fabric of this country; the stitches have been pulled out in places, but I don’t see any reason why we can’t fix them.

It all started with a story, and I want it to end with one too. I want to tell my grandkids – and whoever else is willing to listen – about where I was the day we became whole again. Both as a nation and as individuals. It is this story I yearn to tell. It’s not far away now, I can feel it.

Cover by Jack Stafford; first inset via Zuleyka Zevallos; second inset via Peter Eve

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