Saturday, 22 November 2014

Review #FirstContactSBS Part 3

I could have written why some people didn’t like the SBS/NITV event First Contact before I watched the three-part series, the talk shows, the news and read hours and hours of Twitter.

I could have beaten every one to the punchline: when people think like racists, it is harmful and in the right circumstances people will educate themselves.

What happens when Aboriginal people are removed from their lands?

There are vast areas of land in the Western Australian inland that are classed as uninhabitable because there is no water. That’s not quite right. There is water, it’s just deep underground and you need to know where to look. How Aboriginal people survived in these places without access to rivers and regular rainfall was by maintaining soaks, the ‘native water wells’.

Without the knowledge that has been passed down for generations, you would probably never find a soak.  They were covered over to protect them from contamination, and in that heat with that wind blowing across the flat, a person needed to dig down through fifteen feet of sand for a drink of water.

It would have been impossible to move thousands of head of cattle across the country and down into WA on horseback without water. You don’t need to be an old bushy to work that out. 

Mum, St Georges Terrace, Perth 1960s on her way to a job interview
as a jillaroo driving cattle across WA, NT & QLD on horseback

Canning Stock Route, Western Australia at 1,850 km (1,150 mi) is the longest and reputedly most dangerous historic stock route in the world. The track runs from Halls Creek in the Kimberley region of Western Australia to Wiluna in the mid-west region.  One Road: Canning Stock Route Project app
When Alfred Canning set out in 1906 to survey a stock route that would be largely responsible for establishing the Western Australian pastoral industry, he needed a hand to find the water.  Aboriginal guides were so important to the Canning survey, they were rounded up and chained at the neck to ensure their participation.

When people are taken off their lands, when their children no longer know how to find their way home, they know their knowledge of the land will die with them. Their source of life will fill with sand and then the people are gone forever, never to return.


The vast majority of Australians are accustomed to consuming black news framed in conflict. Friction points illuminate the issues, otherwise how do you know what side people are on?

But who said there were two sides? It is a shallow self serving commentator indeed who suggests there are two camps: Constitutional Recognition as one, and Treaty and Sovereignty as the other.

If a former Liberal Prime Minister can quit his own party and an Indigenous identity can go from being the President of the Labour Party to supporting the Liberal Party why would Aboriginal people fall neatly into opposing trenches around political matters?

Aboriginal people do not have that luxury of being one or the other, but that is the easily digestible swill the public is continually served.

Black people are constantly divided, chained to an ideaology and sacrificed by others in the pursuit of their idea of the greater good. I’ve worked in the interface between black and white for long enough to be exploited most often as the proof of life.

I am in the ubiquitous photos of participants rounded up to pose and confirm the community engagement objective of a workshop was met. I am the counterweight that provides balanced reportage to a site, once I have been edited and strategically placed. I am the polarizing link that provides the dark to their light. I am what sustains their precedence over my self determination.
Is it any wonder that it is so difficult to find an Indigenous person willing to express an opinion? For many, Indigenous people continue to be an enigma. We're just drawn that way.


"The series does not reflect every Aboriginal person, is overly negative and fails to mention the positive stories, and was intrusive in it’s demands on Indigenous people to be responding when it should be the racist who has to explain themselves."

There are close to 520,000 Aboriginal people spread across Australia. To feature that level of diversity you would probably need a dedicated TV channel that runs 24 hours a day. Free to air. With news and documentaries, and shows about culture, sports and music, and have it produced and presented by Indigenous people. Sound familiar? It’s called NITV.

The positive stories were there in abundance:

Shane Phillips founded Tribal Warrior and here you can read about how to book a cultural cruise on Sydney Harbour.

Marcus Mungal Lacey is an artist and runs cultural camps Nyinyikay Tours and Sightseeing
You too can fly to these homelands, pitch your tent and hear local wisdom. 

The ladies on Elcho Island retail their art via Elcho Island Arts

For those not aware most of the Chooky Dancers came from Elcho Island. They were just local blokes who used to meet on the basketball court at night to listen to loud music and put together sequences that blended traditional and contemporary dance moves. One day, someone filmed them on a hand held and posted it to youtube. It went viral, and they flew all around the world to perform their version of infectious cultural exchange. The initial video has now been seen over two million times.

Those who watched First Contact can guess what their home conditions are like and may be surprised that as well as being the home of Gurrumul Yunipingu and Yothu Yindi, many Yolgnu people from that region participate in the Garma Festival every year.

"Aboriginal people want to be able to make decisions about their community."

June Oscar has been campaigning for local initiatives around children's health and alcohol management for years.

A vox pop in Alice Springs was quite clear ‘close the pubs, you brought the problem’

Pinned down, the best advice from those concerned that First Contact had been an intrusive and humiliating experience for Indigenous people was ‘ask the community, they have the answers for their own self determination’.

A bonus of First Contact breaking down negative stereotypes was the insight into community aspirations. These included eco tourism, cultural tours, to sell art and to do something about access to alcohol, for a start. Working for the Northern Land Council for three years a decade ago shows me that the traditional owners aspirations have persisted.

It would be great to think that this exposure would go some way to making these goals possible.

The biggest criticism was someone needed to take a sledgehammer to the blatant racism and the underlying institutionalized racism. That’s already happened as well. How else to describe the escalating rates of high psychological distress and self harm, and the highest rates of suicide in the developed world?


An exciting outcome for me are the ideas about how to frame a cultural exchange for different audiences. How to build on an event that rated over a million viewers. How to tap into the good will so many claim exists.

Some suggest humour works best, though the challenge is to actually be funny. Some prefer documentaries that focus on racists and interrogating them on their views and delving into their private lives to examine how it is they arrived at their negative stereotypes.

I hadn’t had these type of conversations before so I credit First Contact for opening up new lines of communication.

All about me

DISCLAIMER: I am not part of any collective or crowd funding 
initiative and I maintain 100% independence. 

I would be doing social media wrong if I didn’t find a way to capitalize on the spotlight that First Contact has brought to Indigenous Australia. However it wasn't my choice to be inserted and suggested as the opposing view all over social media but this is the danger of having a public opinion. 

Racism is a destructive evil pressure, but exploitation and being subjected to other people's privilege is just as damaging, in the deliberate and accidental misrepresentations and the psychological distress caused by constant threats to being the free person the advocates continue to insist I am.

It has been an ordeal watching the dissection of Indigenous lives while being reminded how fractured the Indigenous community has become. I choose to focus on the positives where if the six participants were able to admit they were wrong about Indigenous people, who knows how many countless others had similar revelations. I don't need to be reminded that racism continues to exist and doubt I need to remind anyone else.
Black writers, of whatever quality, who step outside the pale of what black writers are supposed to write about, or who black writers are supposed to be, are condemned to silences in black literary circles that are as total and as destructive as any imposed by racism. ---- Audre Lorde 

Parker kids, London 1974
I had reason to go back through the photo album this past week after reconnecting on Facebook with a cousin, and this photo was taken in his back yard in London in 1974.  At the same time, in the black soil country of far western New South Wales, my Aboriginal relatives were living on the smooth dry clay of the riverbank with their belongings shelved among the branches of the trees and food kept cool at the end of a line in the river. These days Cousin Miles is 30 years into a career at Abbey Road Studios and was excited about having just finished mixing Bandaid 30.

I have always liked the idea of Bandaid and collaborative arts projects, and feel the expanding void of good will and capacity to have fun within the Indigenous community. 

There weren’t any sing-alongs during First Contact though the good will was measureable, and the hashtag continues to roll.

I wonder how many who voiced their concerns about the First Contact will be moving to any of the remote communities anytime soon to facilitate any local aspirations. If they are fundraising at all, is it so they get to do more of their preferred work while never leaving the comfort of their own homes? If they are writing songs, is it for their music career? If they are producing art, is it on their tshirts for sale? If they are advocating, is it from the vantage point of committees with a little interstate travel thrown in?

By suggesting audiences shy away, this impacts on the people they claim to be supporting by denying them the result they wanted: for people to come and sit down in the dirt and talk to them.

But far worse from a cultural point of view is the scattergun attack on racists that shames the Indigenous people who participated in the series.  I refer to the Aboriginal English definition of 'shame' and no doubt that will be beyond the comprehension of those who felt it appropriate to shame by association with the airing of every grievance.

But who feels shame these days? People have lost the knowledge how to conduct themselves appropriately during funerals and state services and think their voice is more important than respecting the final wishes of someone who was held in high regard by the Indigenous community. If you do not know how to grieve, you do not know how to live.

Assessment of the series: The ripple effect of this series will continue to expand. The Indigenous community was already quite fragile and the in-your-face racism has been a distressing and disturbing experience for many to witness with no guarantee of a satisfying denouement.

Not all viewers were satisfied with explanations of Aboriginality. The ongoing debate about identity will continue but First Contact was never meant to address this issue in it's entirety. At three episodes in length there was a limit to what could be included. 

The Insight reunion show was a satisfying conclusion, in seeing the changes in attitudes of the six participants. I'd hope the Indigenous participants would be able to achieve their goals.

Racism will continue but now there are more people who know a myth when they hear it. The next step is to encourage people to be part of the revision of the narratives of contemporary life so we can begin to live in truth and not continue to stumble around in darkness.

Highly recommended. _________________________


The First Contact journey here 

Episode 1 here
Episode 2 here
Episode 3 here

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