By Michael Deibert
There we were, at a community meeting of indigenous Australians in the remote Northern Territory town of Borroloola, where dispersed communities of this frontier province come together only a scant few miles away from the Gulf of Carpentaria as it empties out into the Arafura Sea. Representatives of the region’s four main linguistic groups—the Gurdanji, Yanyuwa, Garawa, and Mara—were all here, discussing with a government minister and with one another the impact of a local mine that had, without consultation with the region’s traditional owners, expanded its operations from underground to open-cut. In the process, the company had destroyed sacred sites belonging to the clans and, so they feared, wreaked environmental havoc on the region’s fragile ecosystem.
In addition to the discussion of local issues, talk turned to the upcoming inauguration of Barack Obama as the forty-fourth president of the United States. The assemblage approved, and, as one indigenous person told me in simply, “he’s one of us.”
Such has been the change of being an American abroad over the last few months, replacing the smirking frat boy of years past with a figure whom, as one Norwegian friend told me, “radiates dignity in a really intense way.” There is a new face of the U.S. global brand abroad, as I witnessed in my reporting travels over the last year, which took me to five continents and countries such as the Democratic Republic of Congo, Spain, Japan, and now Australia.
Australia, my base for the next few months and which today commemorates the arrival of Europeans on the continent, has grappled with its own issues of racial division and violence since the first British settlers arrived in 1788, with the country’s Aboriginal population bearing the brunt of massacre and mistreatment since that time. In recent years, newer arrivals to the country from places like India, Lebanon, and Vietnam have also had to confront a hard kernel of xenophobia here which can be rather shocking to visitors expecting tropical bliss as depicted in tourist brochures.
Though it will no doubt pain and even perhaps offend many Australians to read the words I am about to write, while traveling around the nation and observing the deplorable state of the lives of its original inhabitants—whose communities remind me of some of the impoverished African villages that I have seen and who regularly fall at the bottom of the country’s quality-of-life indicators—it seems that a sombre reflection on the follies of the past, rather than macho braggadocio about “the lucky country,” might not only be a necessary but welcome theme on this year’s occasion, known here as Australia Day. With considerable tensions continuing between the country’s European-descended population and those of Asian, Arab, and Aboriginal descent, it is hard to see when Australia will perhaps have its own Obama moment.
The country’s current prime minister, Kevin Rudd, bravely apologized last year for the nation’s treatment of Aborigines, referring before parliament to “this blemished chapter in our nation’s history…the laws and policies of successive parliaments and governments that have inflicted profound grief, suffering, and loss on these our fellow Australians.” It was the right thing to do, and, given this example, hopefully more and more Australians will begin moving towards this direction of openness and reconciliation.
History is a funny thing. The past is not dead, as William Faulkner once wrote and Barack Obama later reminded us, in fact, it’s not even past.
Michael Deibert is the author of Notes from the Last Testament: The Struggle for Haiti (Seven Stories Press) and a regular contributor to World Policy Journal. His blog can be read at www.michaeldeibert.blogspot.com.