Thursday, July 17, 2008


As you can imagine it was a difficult decision for me to make – speak in New York for NAIDOC Week or go to the ball in Canberra? Hmmmm. Warm weather, Macy’s, and a stroll through Central Park vs. potential ACT frostbite, the Canberra Centre, and a quick rush from one heated building to another. I chose New York, naturally. The city that never sleeps was perfect for this here insomniac, so extending my stay wasn’t a difficult task with the incentive of being part of the inaugural NAIDOC Week celebrations at both the UN and the Australian Consulate.

Coordinated by Michelle Z. Wood, Director of Media and Public Affairs Australian Mission to the United Nations, the week was launched at UN Headquarters on July 7th with the exhibition Gelam Nuguzu Kazi – Dugong my Son by Torres Strait Islander artist David Bosun. Australian Ambassador to the UN, Mr Robert Hill gave a warm welcome to the crowd of around 200 who comprised UN and Consulate staff, Ambassadors from a number of countries, and ex-pat Aussies from across the city. The highlight introduction for me on the night was meeting Dr Donatus St. Aimee, the Ambassador of St Lucia. I’d never met a St. anyone before.

Those who had never seen work from the Torres Strait before swamped David and I’m told there were many offers to buy his artwork, which will continue to adorn the UN headquarters until August. The buzz on opening night was electric, and I was excited about catching up with friends like Sonia Smallacombe who works at the Secretariat of the Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues at the UN, and who’s daughter Penny was flying in as part of the program. Penny produced One River, All Rivers (Directed by Tom E. Lewis) and Yolgnu Guya Djamamirr (Directed by Frank Djirrimbilpilwuy) and both were screened with Ten Canoes.

My ‘working’ time was speaking on a panel discussing the ‘Diversity and reality of Aboriginal Australia’. The evening at the Australian Consulate was opened by the Hon. John Olsen the Australian Consul-General in New York, and chaired by Roberto Borrero the President and Chairman of the U.S. Regional Coordinating Office of the United Confederation of Taíno People. I tried to make the point through my paper that as Aboriginal writers we are part of the same national Indigenous community, therefore the themes of our writing are often common - i.e. we are largely rewriting the history books that conveniently left out the facts around invasion, and the consequences of colonisation. And our writings often reflect the frequently similar politicised nature of our lives, and our works focus on the ways our identities are constantly being reshaped and defined for us and then analysed and categorised largely by the academic world. But it is the way in which we write that varies greatly and demonstrates our diversity.

For example -we have the Aboriginal English voices of Ruby Langford Ginibi, Vivienne Cleven and Gayle Kennedy. We have the guerrilla poetry of Lionel Fogarty; we have the urban-based poetry of Samuel Wagan Watson and the performance poetry of Romaine Moreton. We have the work of Miles Franklin Award-winning author Alexis Wright who some believe pushed the literary boundaries in Australia with her epic novel Carpentaria in 2007.

And while we are all writers with many similarities, the key one being that we can’t survive financially as writers, we have a wealth of life experiences that vary greatly. Our lives are the culmination of a diverse range of experiences that make us no more or less Indigenous than the next person.

For example, while we are poets, novelists, short story writers, auto biographers / biographers and essayists, we have been or continue to be lawyers, academics, filmmakers, dancers, stockmen and jillaroos, photographers, historians, salesmen, fraud investigators, graphic artists, labourers, actors, soldiers, fishermen and community volunteers.

And our writers tell stories about metropolitan Brisbane, the women’s movement, homophobia, the stolen generations, relationships, community politics and history, and all of them from diverse Indigenous perspectives.

I have no doubt that as a result of NAIDOC Week in New York that more people will look towards Aboriginal literature to learn more about who we are as a collective of diverse peoples in the 21st century.

I shared the panel with David Bosun who discussed the need to protect the intellectual property rights and resale royalties of Torres Strait Islander artists, and Karen Oughtred, a non-Indigenous advocate for Australian Aboriginal Theatre at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian.

I was a proud Blackfella in New York last week, and so was Sonia Smallacombe who said of the NAIDOC Week events, “From the perspective of one who works in the UN, the themes and issues of NAIDOC are universal because all Indigenous peoples in the world have similar experiences and are also part of bright, rich cultures.” She says the thing she enjoyed most about NAIDOC in New York was having Indigenous Australians there to celebrate with her.

I have no doubt the Australian Consulate and the UN are still buzzing with the excitement that NAIDOC Week brought to both sites. Australian Ambassador to the UN, Mr Robert Hill said of the week’s success, "This was the first time that NAIDOC Week has been celebrated in New York and the response has been extraordinary. We have had full houses at all of our events helping to spread the word about our multi-faceted and diverse indigenous culture to a new and international audience."

My trip was made possible by the Copyright Agency Ltd and the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade in Canberra.

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