It wasn’t my fault either

The new law appeared as a short notice on page 10 of the West Australian, sandwiched between a section heading and an unrelated paragraph clarifying some aspect of the Vermin Act.

Aborigines in Perth – By a proclamation in the Government Gazette yesterday, the city of Perth was declared a prohibited area for aborigines and half castes not in lawful employment.1

That’s it. One sentence, written in March of 1927, advising that Aboriginal people were to disappear from the city centre. Not much in literary terms, but a sentence indeed for the indigenous population living and working around the northern banks of the Swan River. A sentence that could still be heard loud and clear as recently as 1954 – the same year as Marilyn married Joe DiMaggio and the young Queen Elizabeth visited Australia, when Bill Hayley recorded Rock around the clock and the first nuclear submarines were launched.

The prohibited area stretched roughly from William Street to the west, Bennett Street to the east, and south to the river from Newcastle Street. If you stood today on the corner of Barrack and William Streets in central Perth, enjoying a burger from nearby Macca’s, you’d pretty much be slap bang in the middle.

What the rule meant, in practical terms, was that any person of Aboriginal descent caught within this area after a six o’clock curfew could be arrested, unless they held a special exemption certificate. It brought distinct hardship and disadvantage to those who lived in the slums of East Perth, and had to cross the city each day to their employment (usually as domestic servants) in the leafy western suburbs, or for people who migrated towards the city during the Depression in search of work. Those who worked in the city could apply for the exemption certificate, of course – but they would usually only be granted one on the proviso that they abandoned all aspects of their traditional lifestyle and their aboriginal identity.

The proclamation was made under Section 39 of the notorious Aborigines Act of 1905. It was the very same act which allowed the appointed – and very white – ‘Chief Protector’ of Aborigines to deny indigenous Australians the right to marry outside of their race, restrict their rights to own property and thus vote, and most famously of all, to remove children from parents without a court order or proof of negligence or abuse.  What I find interesting is that over the years so many Australians expressed distaste over South Africa’s apartheid – without really realizing that we had our own special version of it here.

Despite its obvious racial discrimination, the rule restricting Aboriginal access to Perth city was broadly supported, no doubt particularly so by the hard working shop owners and businessmen, people who often would have made tremendous sacrifices to find themselves where they were. It was a move to clear the area of vagrants, an attempt to rid Perth of the drunk, the dispossessed and the angry Aborigines who loitered around the city. Let’s put political correctness aside for a moment, and acknowledge that antisocial behavior can – and obviously was – a significant problem, and the lawmakers, shaped by the attitudes of the day, simply acted in good faith to keep the city civil and safe.

What the law didn’t acknowledge at the time, of course, was that the city itself was built upon those ‘anti social’ vagrants’ land, upon an area where they formerly hunted, met and celebrated. Their dispossession started when their spiritual links to the soil where shattered and fences put up as replacement, and white man’s alcohol no doubt filled the void of anger, helplessness and lost identity.

Still, it’s all in the past now, so we need to move on, right?

Our current generation can hardly be held responsible for what happened in the years gone by. So many times I’ve seen people bristle when past mistreatment of Aboriginal people is brought up, resentful of the implication that seeing as the ‘whites’ were behind it all, they themselves, by the virtue of their white blood and heritage, are thus also somehow tainted. And others, the non-white, non-European migrants,  perhaps those who arrived here on boats, or flew in from war ravaged lands, they may shrug their shoulders and say, “well, you know, I’ve been through shit too, but you don’t see me going on about it, feeling sorry for myself for what happened and using the experience to get drunk and disorderly”.

Yep, I agree. I bristle sometimes, too. It wasn’t my fault either.

But in accepting this country, I am bound to its history. I am a white Australian, born in Poland, married to a New Zealander. This is not particularly unusual in the context of our multicultural society.

What is unusual, perhaps, is that Australia’s indigenous history interests me more than it does many other migrants. See, I am more than a member of a migrant family. I am also a foster parent to a little Yamaji boy. He, his past and his future matter to me – and because he matters, he connects me to his indigenous world. Not through blood, but through my thoughts and my heart strings.

And so I find myself trying to learn more. Although I’ve had partial schooling in Australia, it was at a time when Aboriginal history and culture were rarely acknowledged. Certainly, my old Social Studies textbook barely went as far as to say something along the lines of ‘they were here first’. It was only later, working as a humanities teacher and then a museum educator that I started to learn about indigenous history, starting with the very basics such as the difference between Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders, the name of our local indigenous groups and the impact of colonization.

It just so happened that I had printed off the article which included the map of old Perth, the Aboriginal restricted area marked in red. I read the story over breakfast and thought nothing of it as the printout lay on the table.

I didn’t think it would grab my boy’s attention.

But he saw it. “What’s this?” he asked.

Such a loaded question. How much, what, how do I even begin to explain to a six year child the complexities of history, of indigenous policies which ultimately affected his own life history?

I decided on the truth; he will learn it soon enough anyway, and in my experience children appreciate honesty and are more resilient than we give them credit for.

“It’s a map of our city. White people often unfairly treated people who weren’t white. The area in red shows where Aboriginal people weren’t allowed to go, simply because they were Aboriginal”.

He looked at the map again and furrowed his brows. “That’s mean”, he said.

“I agree, but I don’t think they saw it that way back then”. I gave him a hug and he ran off to play.

I am hardly naïve enough to think that this simple exchange will solve all the issues this young man will one day have to deal with, once he starts exploring the past and confronting his identity. But sometimes, the starting point for the future is simply acknowledging the past.

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