New South Wales

Aug 19, 2009

Why don’t we hear these stories about Aboriginal Australia?

You might not guess it from the photos in the newspapers, but the largest concentration of Aboriginal people in Australia lives in western Sydney, writes anthropologist Professor Gillian Cowlishaw.

A side effect of the NT Intervention has been an intense focus, by the media and by governments, on the disadvantage of Aboriginal people living in the NT, especially in remote communities. We hear far less and know far less about the lives of the majority of the Aboriginal people -- those living in cities. You might not guess it from the photos in the newspapers, but the largest concentration of Aboriginal people in Australia lives in western Sydney -- as I discovered when my Koori friend Frank Doolan demanded that I come and record the "deadly stories" of the "black warriors" of Mt. Druitt. I turned from research in rural and remote places, to this "bogan" area, among "westies" in the cultural deserts of western Sydney. It turned out to be the site of intensely interesting, moving and often dramatic life stories, told by those who lived them with humour, courage and perceptiveness that are the subjects of my book, The City’s Outback. The Aboriginal people who Frank took me to meet were not the exotic primitives nor the distressed and dysfunctional Indigenous communities that we see on TV. They are ordinary citizens living on the edge of the cosmopolitan city in that vast, mysterious suburban sprawl that few city dwellers want to know. This is where "Tina" lives, a big, warm and welcoming woman in her seventies, who embraced us with her arms, her smiles and her hospitable sentiments. I recorded her story of how five of her children were taken by kind Christian families and, not returned to her as she had expected. She wanted to tell her story, she said, "Because I still don’t know why it happened like that". The children were sent back to her as teenagers by "the welfare", unaccompanied, in a taxi! Then there is "Ellie", taken to the Homes with her brother and sisters, who now says "I’ve lasted all those years. My kids, they’ve all got a house. I got my little pension. I’ve got a roof over my head, food, I got gas, what else would I want?" Frank’s mordant wit always provided a different view of the social conditions around us, and he involved me in tragic personal dramas. He was profoundly distressed at the disrespectful and inaccurate newspaper reports about some young men he knew shooting up in a lane in Redfern. One died of an overdose. Frank saw the real story as more beautiful young Kooris lost, victims of "the steel spear" and also victims of the nation’s contempt. But then there was "Barney" who stood out as a relentless critic of victim politics. He said "The ones that want to hold on to that anger have been hurt at some stage by the past policies ... they’re still blaming Captain Cook, blaming everyone else." Besides the lives of "Tina", young "Vera" and "Moonie", my skilled assistants Frank and "Norrie" are also part of the story of The City’s Outback. Western Sydney’s people defy easy summary but one point comes through clearly. Aborigines are very familiar with whitefellas, but the reverse is not the case. Though said to be the most researched people in the world, Aborigines are mostly ‘known’ through shocking images, worrying statistics and concerned discourses that flood the press. The complex and varied lives of the people I met overflowed all the usual categories. *Gillian Cowlishaw is an ARC Professorial Fellow with the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences at UTS and author of The City’s Outback, (University of NSW Press, 2009).

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