Monday, December 07, 2009

It's about simple respect, really

Hello from Sydney! We spent today as tourists, (so far we have only been “travelers”), riding a bus to Featherdale Wildlife Park and The Blue Mountains. Featherdale started as a koala refuge and now is home to probably 50 different Australian critters—fins, feathers, flippers and fur all included. It was a delight to kneel next to (and pet!) a “free range” kangaroo relaxing in the sun and have a photo shoot with a snacking koala, (or his buddy in a eucalyptus-induced stupor!) Those non-bears are so adorable, and just watching a kangaroo move is a good lesson in physics. We loved the little penguins, and I think the wombat is probably the cutest thing on 4 legs.

What was most fascinating, however, was the behavior of some of the other guests at the park. We were “nudged” out of line by impatient adults and then waited through juvenile antics and various exhibits. Worse, though, were the folks who showed no respect for the animals. An eating wombat was pestered incessantly, first by folks putting their flash camera within inches of its face and then leaning over the rail of the enclosure trying to pet it. Later, a group of people took turns dancing with a kangaroo who was obviously not interested. As the roo got more and more agitated they tried harder and harder to be successful and get their photo, paying no regard to the animal and concerned only with satisfying our wants and needs.

In a way it reminded us of a conversation we had earlier in our trip with one of our new friends about the common treatment of the indigenous people in each of our countries. In Australia there is no lack of an Aboriginal presence. You can find a didgeridoo or boomerang within blocks of anywhere you happen to be, and Aboriginal art abounds, both in authentic shops and on trinkets and clothes. Clearly there is pride in the history and uniqueness of these people.

Yet we are told that the majority of those incarcerated are of Aboriginal decent, and more than 40% of the students at a reform school in the Sydney area are indigenous, and the alcoholism rate among the Aboriginal people is higher than the national average. More than once we saw an Aboriginal man in face paint and authentic dress, playing a didge with a blanket or basket at his feet, collecting coins from passerbys. While it was very cool to see and hear this exhibition, I was also saddened, thinking that somehow the display reduced the heritage of these people to street vendors pandering to curious foreigners. Looking historically, it appears as if we are not so different from the guests dancing with the kangaroo, seemingly oblivious to those around us, concerned only with satisfying our wants and needs.

Regarding the similar state of the American Indian in the states, years ago a friend remarked, “I'm tired of the complaining. There was a war and we won. They need to get over it.” I believe this is a common, if not always articulated thought, both in states and here in Australia (and perhaps other places across the globe?), but I don't accept it. Are we willing to disregard cultures different from our own because we haven't figured out how to honor multiple traditions within the same time zone? Are we so sure our way is the best way that we can't make room for diversity and perhaps even learn from each other? I don't believe the 21st Century concept of global awareness is limited to people living in countries other than our own. As we are called to teach the importance of global awareness and respect, we need to start at home.

How can we do this in our schools and classes? Do you have ideas for lessons or projects that honor indigenous people within our community or nation? We'd love to hear from you.


Laurie Wales said...

As an Aussie I thought I should respond. Unfortunately the impact european settlement in Australia from 1788 has had a dramatic impact on our aboriginal population. It is always difficult to make comparisons across nations. I visited the USA last year and was amazed that casinos were licenced to native american groups. We have reduced our aboriginals in many communities to selling their original art just to survive. I took my family on a trip to central Australia when my children were young. Then as now, many aboriginal communities live in 3rd world conditions. It is very sad. If you get the chance you might like to read the life story of Albert Namatjira. He was a great artist and our first aboriginal to get the right to vote - 10 years before all other aboriginal people. His treatment by authorities was deplorable. My catholic diocese shows great respect for aboriginal tradition and their ownership of the land. We employ an aboriginal liason officer to assist kids maintain their heritege and help with school life. I would really support a project that might help our students better appreciate each others indigenous communities.


Laurie Wales
CSO Newcastle NSW, Australia.

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