Ours is a country of songlines. These living threads of learning crisscross the landscape, undulating with the sound of languages grown old. They teach us that events take place, and that respect is rooted in country.
There is no greater privilege than being asked to stand up and to acknowledge country. I do not see it as empty tokenism. I was too young to remember seeing Gough Whitlam pour sand into the carefully cupped hand of Walter Lingiari, but I do remember the Mabo settlement. Treat the words acknowledging country as empty, and you treat country as empty.
As it is, it is all too easy to hide country, to pretend it isn’t there, and to sever the ties between country and its custodians.
For thousands of years, Aboriginal peoples came together and braided songlines at the place where I work. There is no better place for a university to be: thousands of years of unbroken lines of learning came before us. This location brings with it the privilege of living reconciliation, to find country, to acknowledge it, to be there at the invitation of its custodians.
Finding is listening. When I hear language spoken, I think of country carried to the missions, and I think of all the words and traditions lost because of fear and disrespect. Yet I also feel profound gratitude to be a witness to the renaissance in which young ones are stepping up to paint, to sing, to speak and to show story as a gift to strangers like me.
Accepting that gift means learning that acknowledging challenges us. That challenge comes with the assumption that sorry can be discharged once through material gestures. A statue is not sorry. Nor is a wax cylinder. Nor a building. Nor a constitution. Nor a report on how children were stolen and families destroyed, no matter how much it still breaks our hearts. Gestures are nothing without sustained, living actions.
You live sorry by being in country with its custodians, by entering into it as a learner and by speaking it as a living language.
Our university is about to bring life back to country. In June, fences will go up at the centre of campus and the bulldozers will move in. Many will mourn the loss of teaching buildings that date from the 1980s, but I hope we will also celebrate the removal of so much concrete that has hidden country and reduced the creek at its heart into a stormwater drain.
In one language it is called Sullivan’s Creek, but in another it is called Kambri. Kambri was a source of water and of food to the local Aboriginal peoples, and a navigation aid. The Kambri flooded, and still does occasionally. It is dynamic, always changing, always to be learned from.
From January 2019 Kambri will have more of its water flow restored, and it will have a meeting place on its eastern shore. Local Aboriginal peoples will finally be able to welcome us to the heart of country, including other Aboriginal peoples who wish to continue the unbroken legacy of songline connection.
None of this could have been achieved without the patience and leadership of both the local Aboriginal peoples and our Aboriginal leaders in the University. We have had to commit to listening, to acknowledging, to being in country. Reconciliation is wrought first in our local land.
And while we may call this local land many names, I for one cannot wait to acknowledge this country, Kambri.
This blog’s shout out is for Aunty Anne Martin, first teacher.
About the image: Georgia Mokak’s stunning design for 2017 Reconciliation Week blends the topography of Black Mountain and the ANU campus with the straight lines and circles of the University’s buildings and roads.