In the shadow of Burnum Burnum 23



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On Australia Day at 7.30am an Aboriginal Flag will be raised on the Sydney Harbour Bridge. On Australia Day 1988, Burnum Burnum raised the Aboriginal flag at Dover in the United Kingdom as a symbolic gesture to highlight the absurdity of a country claiming a continent and the treatment of Aboriginal people over 200 years.

I knew Burnum Burnum as Harry Penrith in 1963. He was the first Aboriginal person I had ever met since arriving in Australia in 1962. As a scrawny 15-year-old I played soccer with a team called Cherrywood in Wagga. Harry played in this team. In all of Harry’s athletic exploits and other exploits, it has never been documented that he played soccer, though it has now. It is likely that Harry and I exchanged few words as I was particularly shy and Harry was 11 years older than me (a lifetime difference when you are 15). I remember seeing Harry at other times always immaculately dressed in a suit. I also remember Harry’s first wife, Carmel, who I served while working part time at a general store in Mount Austin in Wagga. Harry’s story is told by Marlene J Norst in her book “A Warrior for Peace: Burnum Burnum”.

I understand why many Aboriginal people and others would see the re-enactment of Governor’s Phillips landing in January 1778 as a reminder of what has been termed Invasion Day. It is a matter of history that White settlement of Australia was and still is in some respects a clash of cultures that resulted in the deplorable treatment of the original inhabitants of this land. Burnum Burnum saw a future where we all walk hand in hand in the spirit of reconciliation. However, this is still a developing scenario with some way to go.

My teenage granddaughter looks forward to Australia Day to hear Triple J’s 100 hottest hits, have a day off school and tuck into a bit of food. Approximately 28 per cent of Australia’s population is born in some other country than Australia. We are a country of many different cultures. We are a tolerant country while in the main we know little of other cultures.

I have always maintained that Australia is a great country. Not only because of its climate, the beauty of the land itself, its tolerance and diversity, but because we are limited in our lives only by the limitations we place on ourselves. It is still possible to take on different careers throughout a lifetime and be successful. Even become a Prime Minister.

Along with these attributes, on Australia Day I believe we should now be celebrating Australia’s diversity. It’s different cultures. Perhaps it is getting to the time where we move on from how Australia Day as it now celebrated.

Australia Day should be celebrated by all Australians with a celebration of the culture of our original inhabitants and other cultures and even the pop culture (for the teenagers). So instead of the barbecue we could enjoy other culture’s foods and engage in other cultural activities or displays in celebrating what Australia is today.

While not denying that the First Fleet landed in Botany Bay in January 1788, the re-enactment of the landing is so last century (two actually) and should be shelved to be re-enacted in school plays or the like. Making Australia more of a cultural event with an emphasis on our Aboriginal culture would assist in the reconciliation process.

Incidentally if you want to find out more about our indigenous culture, “Burnum Burnums’s Aboriginal Australia: A Travellers Guide” is well worth reading. Burnham Burnham died in 1997. A more inclusive Australia would certainly be something he would have wanted.

Tell us, how do you feel about Australia Day? Do you like how it is celebrated?

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Michael Whitehead

Michael Whitehead attended uni as a mature age student in his 50s, completing multiple postgraduate degrees in health science and psychology. He has a canoe, a pushbike, a bodyboard, a tennis racquet and a fishing rod. He uses them all. Michael is now enjoying retirement after a wide range of careers, most recently as Manager of a Family Support Service.

  1. I most certainly do agree, Australia is a big wide beautiful country, there is more than enough room for all of us. Everyone brings their own uniqueness to Australia. Our Indigenous Population is small compared to many races that we have here and they unique to the World. We need to value and learn from them, the many things they know about Australia we are still yet to learn..Happy Australia Day all

  2. I met Burnum Burnum several times in the early 1990s. He was a very gracious man and very good with young people.

  3. It is indeed for all Australians, Katherine. However, many indigenous Australians see Australia Day as the day their country was invaded, which is completely understandable, and do not agree with the celebrations. You would hope that if indigenous Australians wish to be involved in Australia Day celebrations they would be warmly welcomed.

    2 REPLY
    • Peter ..all countries have been” invaded” at one time or another ..Best we just get on with it and embrace all

    • English semantics, Joan……everyone interprets things differently 😜. I agree with you completely.

  4. I heartily agree that the aborigines got a dirty deal from the first and subsequent settlers in this fair land but i like to think that we are all grown up now and have realised the mistakes of the past and have tried to make amends probably not as well as we could have but we are trying. May I say to the indigenous population ….is it possible for you to put your bitterness and hatred aside and come to the table with good sensible suggestions that are going to help lift your people out of their entrenched poverty and give them the same opportunity to prosper as every Australian citizen has and every immigrant is given. If as i think a certain section of the indigenous community would prefer to live the traditional life let us work out the very best way to achieve this for them , having stood on my soap box and my apologies to any that i may have unwittingly offended let us all enjoy the day and give some thought to making things better for the have nots of this country.

    2 REPLY
  5. Not so much celebrating our diversity but more celebratng our inclusiveness, I would like to see more inclusiveness in our celebrations. Happy Australia Day, enjoy each other.

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