We can project all sorts of fantasies onto our Aboriginal ancestors. There is scant record of their individual exploits or characters, and very few colonial Aborigines left behind a documented account of their experiences. I could, therefore, decide that my foremothers were courageous warriors of the resistance, or mysterious keepers of ancient feminine wisdoms, or I could envision them as victims and martyrs, enduring the humiliations of colonisation with grace and dignity. These romantic fantasies would be accepted as fact, and my ‘truth’ would be applauded. My own (arguably more plausible) vision is that my Aboriginal foremothers had the good sense to form alliances with the settlers, and that they improved their own lives and their children’s prospects as a result.
I don’t begrudge any Aboriginal person a desire to fill in the blanks in their histories with romanticism, particularly given the rewards on offer. The story of white injustice and black tragedy has become the most acceptable Aboriginal tale to tell, and is now the only perspective on Aboriginal history – despite that dearth of documented accounts – that could possibly be accepted as authentic and true. To suggest that our story is not all about victimhood is bad enough; to suggest that modernity was in any way a blessing is double-plus ungood crimethink.
National angst over Aboriginal history peaks every summer, when we agonise over the meaning of Australia Day. There was no bloodshed at Sydney Cove on 26 January 1788; no shots were fired or spears thrown, although plenty of both were to follow. It is understandable that some Aboriginal people regard the arrival of the First Fleet as an invasion, and object to the celebration of this event. If foreign tanks were to roll into your hometown, heralding a new order that you did not anticipate or invite, ‘invaded’ is how you would probably feel. I am comfortable with calling it an invasion, and yet I don’t regard that invasion as a calamity, because one man’s ‘invasion’ is another man’s – or in this case, woman’s – liberation.
Those who mourn the demise of Aboriginal culture almost always regard things from the viewpoint of the men, who were indeed dispossessed of their land, and subsequently their traditions and status. Land wasn’t the only item of property they lost, however. They also lost or traded their women to the settlers, and this absorption – along with frontier warfare and disease – rapidly eroded tribal structures and doomed Aboriginal traditions to obsolescence. The settlers arrived with a wealth of goods and a shortage of females, and they were generally less enthusiastic about beating women than was customary in Aboriginal culture. In contrast, the Aboriginal men held no wealth, treated their women appallingly, and there were few taboos to prevent women from straying – and so stray they did. The men lost a lot in the invasion, while the women had little to lose and plenty to gain. Modern-day Aboriginal women who mourn the loss of traditional culture have rocks in their heads. (Metaphorically, that is. Back then, it would have been literally.)
Throughout human history, females have almost always been the ones to marry out, to be farmed out, or carried off by a rival tribe. We are instinctively inclined to be adaptable and opportunistic; tribal loyalties and maintenance of traditions are a lesser priority than security and material comfort for ourselves and our children. We will tend to prefer men who hold a winning hand over those who are losing - and we will inevitably be resented by the losers as fickle, greedy bitches for doing so. The orthodox perspective on colonial history portrays Aboriginal women as virtuous victims of mass rape by the white invaders, or as shamefully exploited concubines at best – anything but women acting on their natures and pursuing their own self-interest. The purveyors of the approved version of Aboriginal history try to simplify the narrative to ‘white males oppressing black women’, yet every adult knows that when it comes to sex and money, the power dynamic is more complex than the double helix of our DNA.
It’s those opportunistic Aboriginal women to whom many of us owe our Aboriginal heritage, especially those of us who have benefitted from generations of integration. For insights into the fate of those women who didn’t have a chance to jump ship, visit one of those remote communities that former Indigenous Affairs Minister Amanda Vanstone once so accurately described as ‘cultural museums’, and see the miserable time that the women have of it there. Generations of separatism has left these women more isolated and trapped than Aboriginal women were in 1788. Surely that’s something for feminists to be angry about?
Social critic Camille Paglia once said that if the world were run by women, we would all still be living in grass huts. Perhaps – but only if we never saw anything else. If we were to see something better, a grass hut would no longer do. Our hunger for something more and better - more rights and more freedoms, better housing and quality of life – prods our menfolk to innovate and trade, and forces traditional cultures to either reform or die. On 26th January 1788, modernity hit Aboriginal Australia like a tsunami, and the women suddenly saw possibilities beyond a grass hut.
This Australia Day, I will celebrate all those fickle, greedy, opportunistic bitches who walked away from their camps and went after something more. I’ll celebrate that I live in a time and place where I don’t have to make such a choice, where I don’t have to put up with beatings, where I am not merely a thing to be traded and discarded, and where I have more freedom, security and material comfort than even the most ambitious of my Aboriginal foremothers could ever have imagined.