John McMahon, Victoria Regional Meeting.
In 1997, five Victorian Quaker women launched what they called “The Vigil”. Sitting on stools or standing near steps of the former post office, in the heart of Melbourne, they raised a banner with words “Quaker silent Vigil, supporting justice for (first) Australian Aborigines, (later) First Peoples of Australia”. One Vigil worker handed out leaflets, the front side of them quoting Paul Keating’s words about Colonists’ (and assimilationists’) massacres, tortures, imprisonment of Aborigines, and stealing of their children. Then seven dot point paragraphs proclaim respect for Aboriginal leaders, for disparate Aboriginal traditions, support for treaties, sovereignty, and land rights, as pathways towards reconciliation.
About four different groups of Friends have worked at the Vigil from 1997 to 2017, Margaret Spong and I have known them, as we have continued in Vigil service for about 17 years. It was sometimes difficult to get three Friends together: two to hold up the banner, with another to hand out the leaflets, and be available to answer questions, on all Mondays of the years, from 12 noon to 1pm. Moreover, the Vigil position was a hard place for holding Aborigines in the Light, during what was supposed to be a “silent Vigil”. When trying to talk to strangers, our thin voices competed with buskers’ music, such as a three-piece band, or a digeridoo. However, the liveliest Vigil meeting ever, was held at this location in 2015, led by young Quakers, who had gathered for the Yearly Meeting. Many of them chased passers-by to hand them a leaflet, rather than the more passive old Quaker, who just held out one in a hand. One young Friend, with a leaflet, chased a male stranger, who was dancing in time with the three-piece band. Other young Friends displayed their own banner labelled “Quakers for Peace”. The usual hundreds of people passing by thought that all these young participants were combining with the band for some celebratory occasion. Consequently, they accepted hundreds of our pamphlets, and tried to make sense of our message. On another occasion, a group of about 12 over-weight Pacific Islanders paused to read our pamphlet, then, forming a circle, they joined hands with us, and sang a song, in their language, about the rights of Indigenous people. Of the few walkers who stopped to talk to us about Aborigines, I especially remember one young English woman. She walked past several times, before plucking up courage to take our pamphlet. Having read it, with tears in her eyes, she tried to give us some money. I wanted to know what had caused this grief, and she simply said that since coming to Australia, she had been boarding at Redfern in NSW.
Amongst its objectives, the Vigil listed reconciliation of Aborigines with non-Aborigines in Australia, and suggested respect, courtesy towards Aborigines, construction of treaties and sovereignty, as ways forward. Although addressed mainly to non-Aborigines, I expected the Aborigines themselves would find some interest in these pathways supporting reconciliation. But I can remember only three male Aborigines, who came to discuss reconciliation with us, during my 17-year period. One came from Western Australia, and threw a handful of our leaflets into the dust. Another stood with us, or sat on our stools, for parts of two sessions, and he also came to my 80th Vigil birthday party, but he disagreed about having the Vigil. And a young Indigenous male, training to be an actor, also spent one session with us. He spoke to me about his profession more than reconciliation, and claimed that he had really come to listen to the busker music.
Stan Grant in The Australian Dream, Issue 64 of the 2016 Quarterly Essay, outlines various Aboriginal populations, with different types of reconciliation. He writes that, “A decade ago the late academic Maria Lane observed two diverging Indigenous populations: An Aboriginal woman, Lane saw the emergence of a fledging ‘Open Society’ – opportunity- effort- and outcome-oriented – by contrast, with an ‘Embedded Society’ – risk-averse, welfare- and security-oriented”. She further claims that ‘the two populations are linked through kinship and continuing interaction’. Bess Nungarrayi Price, a Northern Territory MP, claims that ‘65 % (360,000) Aborigines now comprise the Open Society.’ This 65% is three times more than the numbers of the Embedded Society, living in urban and regional areas, who are largely welfare dependent, (22%), and another 13% are languishing in remote areas.” Grant claims that mainly white or brown skinned Indigenous peoples of the stolen generation have staged a peaceful revolution from the 1990s, the same period as the Vigil, to reject assimilation, and develop the Open Society. “Assuming equality, armed with their cultures, and a White education, they have both endured and challenged racism, developed friendships with other Australians, and used these connections to gain access to market forces.” Grant proudly highlights the resilience of his forebears, undergoing sacrifice, to help create a strong, confident, and self-assured Aboriginal middle-class. And as a reconciled Australian, he chooses what the Indian philosopher, Armartya Sen, labels as a multi-layered identity, featuring a strong Indigenous culture, his job as a journalist, loving a white wife, and a love for Shakespeare and European classical music.
Also, following Sen, Grant is critical of remote and vulnerable Aboriginal communities, with their people having a single Indigenous culture. Grant contrasts the Open Society with the welfare dependent Embedded Society. He claims that over the same period as the peaceful Open Society revolution, the Embedded Indigenous people “commit suicide at rates ten times more than that of the rest of the Australian population, or were graduating from juvenile detention to adult prison.” Grant wrote: “In a year of suicide, torture, the screams of black kids behind bars, broken lives and broken faces, deaths in lonely cells, I keep asking how can this happen in Australia, in a country like this? But it is happening and it keeps happening, to one generation after the next.” However, there are some happy Embedded people, who also claim a single Aboriginal identity, as a type of reconciliation. Moreover, Grant writes that “even amid dysfunction and disadvantage, there can be [for himself] a comfortable sense of belonging [with the embedded population]. I know them – they are family – and they are generous and loving and loyal”.
Although largely neglected by Indigenous people and other Australians, the Vigil has brought together its workers, and they have extended their friendships to members of both these types of Indigenous societies. They have dialogued with strangers about the cruel Colonist, and assimilationist destruction of culture, during stolen generation periods. In Quaker meetings, they aroused some support for the stricken Indigenous people, and helped Concerned Australians sell their books, which were critical of the Government Intervention in the Northern Territory. Their prayers and behaviour will have helped urban placed Aborigines to look beyond their resentments, to establish friendships, gain access to market forces, like their Indigenous brothers and sisters, of what Grant with Lane calls The Open Society, and make Australia “a place to call home”.