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Australia Day and Survival Day: the stories we tell

Written on January 26, 2011
This day, Australians are generally enjoying a public holiday and pondering what it is to be Australian. What story do we tell about our history and our country on this day?
Like most stories, there are many versions and to each teller, each version is true. (I love that line in one of the ‘Pirates of the Carribean’ movies where that wonderful, sexy witch in the dark jungle spits, in her thick Jamaican accent: “There are many versions of this story and all versions are TRUE!”) However which story we tell, as well as whether we tell  a story at all  about our nationhood, affects us profoundly on many levels.
Last year my daughter and I had a great time celebrating Survival Day in Byron Bay, weaving baskets with a group of women of Aboriginal descent. They were very generous and patient. It felt very relaxing, sitting and chatting while creating something useful with our hands from a natural fibre, tapping into deeply ancient traditions as we worked.
This year I couldn’t make it, but today I read about a fascinating work called  “Sands of time give vision to work of heart.” in an article by Ian Cuthbertson in ‘The Australian’ newspaper. It featured an extremely unusual dot painting. At first glance it  didn’t inspire me greatly, but as I read the article, I became increasingly intrigued. The art explores what Australia Day means in a very  unique and interactive way. Here is some of the article:

“The sculpture’s 8500 dots are replaceable vials containing sand and soil, extracted from as near as possible to Captain Cook’s landing site at Kurnell on Botany Bay… and Aboriginal viewers will be invited to take a vial. “Each vial handed out symbolises the return of land to an Aboriginal person,” Grant said yesterday.”

“Grant said the emotional impact of the work — as well as its complex title — on the 280 people who had received a vial so far had at times been overwhelming.

“When a person receives a vial there is often a very strong form of reconciliation within their own spirit,” he said. “No matter where they come from in Australia, they now own something that has within it a moment in time when the spiritual soul of their land was pure and connected with them.”

The title of Grant’s work is a mini-essay and begins:

Let it be known that this continent was in its true sense owned in its entirety for millennia by the Aboriginal nations of Australia both by title and spiritual belonging.

You may want to read the full article here.

As a local columnist in our Byron Shire News pointed out this week, it would be great to celebrate Australia Day on a different anniversary than when Captain Cook claimed part of this land for the Queen. This would change the story we are celebrating. Federation Day wouldn’t work (Jan 1)- most people sleep in. (Anyone got a different idea?) Since I was a University student, I have celebrated Survival Day, rather than Australia Day. Some call it Invasion Day. When I lived in Sydney, I would attend the Survival Day concerts in La Perouse, (where there had been a mission and a strong Aboriginal poplulation and where my partner Max grew up). It was at one of those concerts in the early nineties that I saw Christine Anu strut her stuff when she was still in Bangarra Dance Theatre and before she became a huge star. To hear a passionate discussion on the topic of Australian identity, you can listen to a podcast on Eric Wolf’s ‘The Art of Storytelling’ podcast, where I am interviewed by  Eric with Christine Carlton (current President NSW Storytelling Guild) when we were all at a Conference in Hawaii in 2009. I hope you have had a great day whatever you have been doing today! What are your thoughts on Australia Day/ Survival Day?

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