Saturday 14 March 2009

Mona Mona: a better story

CairnsBlog columnist Syd Walker, a long-time local commentator in the diverse Kuranda region, critiques Cairns Post's Gavin King's view of Mona Mona and wonders why he simply doesn't get it.

Gavin King writes opinion pieces, mostly about politics, for the Cairns Post, one of Rupert Murdoch’s innumerable regional newspapers in Australia. His column in the Post appears under the pretentious title ‘The King’.

King seems to revel in cynicism. One suspects he’d rather be in Canberra, covering the spiteful wrangles of national politics and writing about egos as big as his own. But perhaps he can’t stand cold weather, or maybe he has parking ticket warrants outstanding in NSW? At any event, it seems he’s stuck in Cairns. And we, who live in Far North Queensland, seem to be stuck with him, along with his pretensions, crass opinions and naff attitudes.

Last week, a media release from Sarah Isaacs of the Barron River Greens began with the words “The Greens usually welcome new National Park initiatives but find themselves in the ironic situation of opposing the formation of one on the old Mona Mona reserve”.

It’s true, there is irony in The Greens support for a better deal for local Aboriginal folk in this case, because it led them, uncharacteristically, to oppose a National Park expansion. The reasoning was that while new National Park additions are welcome, this would have been a case of taking away land previously promised to local Aboriginal people. That would be a dirty trick on folk who are already, to say the least, long-suffering. That’s why the Greens’ media release used the word ‘ironic’.

But King writes his story about this as though he personally invented irony. It’s a typical hit piece, in which he rubbishes his usual targets: woolly-headed greens, bleeding-heart pinkos, good-for-nothing natives and naïve locals. Perhaps it never occurs to him that there’s more to life than cynicism? Maybe, in his case, there isn’t?

Mr King accuses the local Barron River member Steve Wettenhall of “politics at its purest and scummiest level” for getting the cabinet decision reversed so all the Mona Mona land can become Aboriginal-owned.

Now, I have my ups and downs with Steve Wettenhall and I’m certainly not his apologist. But in this case, Steve saw a problem and moved fast to correct it. He recognized that continuing injustice to the local Aboriginal community would taint future relationships in his electorate. He acted fast and got a result.

What’s more, to the credit of local candidate Wendy Richardson, the LNP seems supportive too. The Aboriginal people are pleased. No-one (apart from Gavin King?) seems upset – and why would they be?

This might be ‘scummy politics’ to a jaded hack, but to those of us who actually live in the Kuranda community and would like it to be more happy, united and prosperous, it’s remarkably akin to ‘consensus politics’. Of course, ‘consensus’ may well be anathema to King as well. He probably thinks of hippies when he hears the word: hippies who snigger at him around the campfire, looking like they have more fun than he does. Reach for the deodorant, Gavin!

Having lived in the Kuranda area for a decade, I’ve been lucky enough to befriend some of the Aboriginal folk, visit Mona Mona at their invitation and hear some of their accounts of the remarkable and quite tragic history of the area.

140 years is beyond a human life span, but it’s not such a long time. That’s how long it is since history – in the narrow sense of human affairs documented by written record – began in this area. Before that, continuous Aboriginal occupation of this region over tens of millennia, in an environment more stable than many other parts of the world, gave rise to one of the most ethnographically and linguistically complex quilts of related cultures in the world.

During the 1860s, European settlers who had arrived on the coast in the preceding decades began to make inroads into the Tablelands. They soon began dispossessing the Aboriginal people. Sometimes invaders were resisted. There were massacres of indigenous people and a population collapse, probably caused in the main by introduced diseases. It’s also true the full narrative of contact wasn’t all doom and gloom. There were friendships, inter-marriage and positive stories to tell. All this has become part of our local history, which FNQ historian Dr Tim Bottoms has studied and written with loving care.

By the first decade of the 20th century, the Queensland Government, now part of the Federation of Australia, took steps to ‘protect’ the remaining Aboriginal people of FNQ. Its policy was to round up surviving Aboriginals and confine them to a few settlements, run by religious orders. Mona Mona was one of these Missions (there were others in the region too, such as Yarrabah and Hopevale).

In pre-invasion times, the Aboriginal people of FNQ spoke many languages and – despite complex inter-locking kin relations – considered themselves many different peoples. But these nuances were lost on the new overloads, who probably regarded all indigenes as ‘blacks’. In any event, Aboriginal people from many districts, speaking many tongues, were confined to the same Missions. The people sent to Mona Mona were a mixed group. To make things easy (for the managers) and in keeping with the paternalistic assumptions of early Australia, residents of Mona Mona were permitted to speak only English. There was a systematic attempt to eradicate local indigenous languages and cultural traditions. It nearly succeeded…

Mona Mona was opened as a Mission run by the Seventh Day Adventist Church in 1910. Three decades later, young men from Mona Mona were sent off to fight Australia’s war. So, there was occasional escape from the Mission – but not much. These days, we might call an institution like that a concentration camp. It was not unmitigated brutality. It was not a place of extermination. But it was a system of rigid control, in which Aboriginal residents had few rights.

On a visit to Mona Mona last year, I was told a story by an elderly man about his childhood in Mona Mona. He described his childhood as a happy time in many respects and spoke without bitterness. Even so, the harshness he had experienced as a child was shocking to me.

On reaching puberty, along with the other boys of Mona Mona, he was required to move out of his parents household and sleep in a dormitory. Amazingly, he wasn’t allowed to speak to his parents after that if he met them in the street!

As a young man, he was sent away to work on large cattle stations distant from the rainforests of his childhood. The stations were desperate for labour and recruited widely. Many co-workers were non-Aboriginal. But although the boys worked together and sometimes played together, there was a big difference. The non-Aboriginals were paid wages. Aboriginals, by contrast, worked for their keep and their wages were remitted direct to the authorities.

By the early 1960s, the anachronism of places like Mona Mona was probably too much for even the Bjelke Petersen Government, which decided on a new approach. Eyeing up the Flagge Creek, which runs close to Mona Mona, as the site of a major new dam, it closed the Mission and dispersed the Aboriginal inhabitants. They mainly moved to places such as Kurowa and Mantaka in the Myola valley – small pockets of temporary housing, without adequate sewerage, water supplies or other services.

Within a few years, the village of Mona Mona – a well-constructed settlement until 1961, complete with community facilities – was wrecked. Local landowners pillaged just about everything they could find. Today, what was the old Church is a stone slab. Everything movable, of any value, was stripped.

The Government soon changed its mind over the Flagge Dam, which was never built and is no longer on the drawing board. So the dispersion of Mona Mona’s Aboriginal community - and the destruction of their village - was for no good reason. As usual, the indigenous people bore the brunt of policies into which they had no input. They were treated not much differently from livestock, really - moved at will from one paddock to another.

Happily, since that time, attitudes in Australia have changed a lot. There is much more goodwill in the local community now and reconciliation is on the national agenda. Modern Australians have much more appreciation of Aboriginal culture and what it has to offer the nation and the world. The didgeridoo is found in shops from Toledo to Tokyo. Aboriginal art is a global success story. Even so, we are really just enjoying fragments of what’s left. Most of the pre-1788 Aboriginal culture is lost for ever. Most of the languages are extinct.

No Aboriginal people that I know spend long hours bemoaning the past. Like most of us, they want to move on. They’re more interested in a better future. But they retain a sense of indigenous identity and feel themselves custodians of their ancient culture. That culture, of course, was inextricably connected with the land.

Mona Mona is not an Aboriginal sacred site. It’s a historical site. It’s where many of the locals recent ancestors are buried. It’s a place with childhood memories for the elders. The young know its stories. And slowly, but inexorably, Aboriginal inhabitants have drifted back to Mona Mona.

There have been more recent betrayals. In the early 1990s, millions was promised by the Keating Government to help rebuild Mona Mona. Most of this money was unspent. The Howard Government was unsympathetic to supporting ‘remote communities’ and favoured assimilation. If money was to be spent on Aboriginal housing, better to spend in Smithfield, Kuranda, Mareeba and other local suburbs. Until very recently, it seemed the new Labor Government in Canberra would go along with this agenda. The State Government fell into line.

Now that’s changed. Mona Mona will be Aboriginal land – not just the minimalist 100 hectares agreed in last November’s State cabinet decision, but an additional 1,500 hectares of the surrounding area that was also Mission land in the old days. It will provide a strong basis for the rejuvenation of Aboriginal culture in this area. Crucially, at long, long last, the Aboriginal people are about to regain some real power over Mona Mona. They have campaigned long and hard for this and deserve congratulations.

With power comes responsibility. As a conservationist, I’m concerned that the natural values of the region are protected – by all landowners and land managers. I hope that adequate wildlife surveys will be undertaken of the Mona Mona area (perhaps they have already exist?) If it’s anything like the rest of the native forests around here, it’s rich with rare and endangered species. I believe the Aboriginal people would be wise to negotiate conservation agreements to help protect the natural values of their land. Ultimately, it’s their decision.

‘Green extremists’ might have supported the transfer of the 1,500 hectares to National Park against the Aboriginals’ wishes – on the basis that would give the greatest protection to that area from activities such as logging and mining, which can all-too-easily destroy those values forever.

But in this area, most conservationists I know support the principle that justice for the Aboriginal people should not, yet again, be at the bottom of the agenda. A National Park against the wishes of the indigenous people would be a hollow victory for environmental protection. We cannot build a better future on foundations of continuing injustice.

As equals, conservationists have the right to ask Aboriginal people to respect the natural values of their land and live sustainably. They, in turn, are equally entitled to inquire how we are getting along ourselves on these fronts?

The dreadful truth is that, until now, none of us have been doing very well. The culture and way of life of the last people around here to live sustainably was largely obliterated over a century ago. Living sustainably in Far North Queensland is rather like Gandhi’s famous quip about Western Civilization. It’s a good idea – but who’s doing it?

The vision of a model, sustainable community at Mona Mona is inspiring. But no one should imagine it’s going to be easy. It’s a project that must run in parallel with developing a sustainable Kuranda, sustainable Cairns… and sustainable world society. This is all unfinished business – indeed, the work has barely begun.

But at least, at Mona Mona, there’s now the prospect of establishing foundations in which all the community can share a sense of pride.

That’s a good basis for a better future. You'd think even a King might appreciate it? It seems to make sense to ordinary people.


Arthur Festerbestertester said...

thanks for a stimulating argument. did you read the next-door column in the cairns post? having the great pretender was bad enough in its dreadful immaturity, but now we have a young women who has managed to waste an entire page of newsprint trivialising the environment debate and engaging in what i imagine she thought would be interesting banter (semi-literate at best) about the great pretender himself. it must be like kindergarten playtime in there. and as for the self-important, sanctimonious verbiage in the editorial column, i hardly know what to say. although i may not agree with much that is written in this and other cairns blogs, i find do find them a welcome break from the dross that gets foisted on us by the intellectually and emotionally impaired children in lake st.

Anonymous said...

Thanks Sid for your historical and contempory history of Mona Mona. The history of recent indigineous policy in this country is shameful and good on the Greens for bringing about a sort of happy ending for the Mona Mona people.

KitchenSlut said...

It's a wonderful and worthwhile anecdote. However as far as new analysis is concerned that may contribute to future policy I can't find anything in here beyond the baying of acolytes?!

Did it really need that many words to combine the history of the Mona Mona with a claim of the bleeding obvious that Gavin King as presented by the ComPost is arrogant and cynical?

So what insights did I learn? None!

Duncan McInnes said...

it is a pity that you are like all misinformed people and thick that the Djabaguy are thr TO'S of Mona Mona where do the koko-mularidgi come from have you bothered to speak to their spokesperson maureen green all the blackfellas you list are like yourself johnny come latelies