Great acts of courage, generosity, humility
We will remember gentle smiles, hands that have reached out to others with friendship and love
A gift of food, of milk, of a smile or a gentle word
We will look forward to a new day dawning with great hope
These acts will inspire us and from this we will have opportunity to build something new and far more balanced than the system we have come from
Once we get through this dark period
We will be wiser, stronger, walk more gently on mother earth
We will see the truth in each other
For some of us, some truths will terrify us
There will be other truths
The truth of the goodness of humanity
These inspiring truths will create a foundation for a better world
A better living
A better way
A new day
A new way
A new hope
For one, for all
We will shine through this dark period
We will unravel the cultural tapestry of a nation
And weave together a new tapestry
A new way
A new foundation
We will have a new nation
We will take the best of the old
We will rise up from the darkness
We will have a home for us all
Letter to Australia
Richard J Frankland
1 July 2020
I write to you as a disparate member of the nation now called Australia.
My name is Richard Frankland. I’m a Gunditjmara man, although I celebrate other heritages: English, Scottish, Irish.
Firstly, let me pay my respects to the traditional owners of this country and also to all of you in broader Australia, and thank you all for your contribution to who we are as a nation and, more importantly, to who we can be.
I want to write to you, Australia, about yesterday, about today, and about Tomorrow Australia.
Captain Cook never landed on Australia. He landed on some 500 different clan groups or nations. In so many ways, Cook is still landing on every First Nations man, woman and child.
We call this transgenerational trauma; I also call it continuous colonisation.
As a result of this 200-plus-year-old cultural clash, my people live in a storm. Our identities have been challenged, we have many scars upon our souls, our garden has changed. In fact, we mostly do not have access to our garden; we are excluded from the benefit of the fruits and harvest of our garden.
To describe or clarify what I mean by ‘storm’, I want to quote from a film and play of mine called No Way to Forget.1 This film screened at Cannes in the Un Certain Regard section, and told the story of what it was like to be a field officer and investigator throughout the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody. I had covered Victoria, Tasmania and parts of New South Wales; in the initial years I was the only Blackfella covering the first two states.
Sometimes I wonder about all of the people around me going on with their day-to-day lives and I wonder what they would do if they knew what I know and what most Koories know.
We live in a storm, a storm that rages all around us, in us. This storm that rages all around me, I wonder if it can possibly match the storm inside me.
I wonder if anyone can see the tears on my face or will they think it's the rain.
I wonder if the storm will ever end.2
The turbulence, the storm, the trauma that First Nations Australians live with is often unseen, hidden from broader Australia. We carry amazingly large and sometimes vicious cultural loads: ten funerals a year, at times more; lateral violence; discrimination; overwhelming chronic illness; and a suicide rate that is horrific.3 We have to justify what we have lost, the price of maintenance and recovery and at times our very existence.
The cultural loads for First Nations people are immense and unwieldy, a constant in our lives. They wear me down, they wear us down. The lack of access to the garden of our nation is devastating.
So how do I cope with it? On a local and home level, I plant trees for the dead. I have a tree for my father who took his life when I was six years of age—it’s a red-fleshed apple tree, because it is rare, as he was in my life. For my brother who passed in a car accident, I put in a large plum tree, because when we were young he cried fat tears; for my sister, who loved to party, I put in an apricot tree – one day, I hope to make apricot brandy and party with her one more time. Although I owe so many trees, too many, I have planted them for young people, old people, a young woman who took her life, White friends, mainly Black friends and family. Sometimes I offer people who have lost someone to plant a tree, so we can care for it. I owe many trees.
On another level, my partner and I recently purchased some 77 acres, and we are hoping to seed a different type of garden, to build a Healing Centre on a small part of this land, a ‘train the trainer’ place for trauma management, so that communities, both Black and White, can heal themselves. We want to create a curriculum for cultural strengthening.
What is cultural strengthening? Well, my take on it is informed by many years of seeing people reclaim their culture, language, practice and processes. I have seen people use cultural regrowth and maintenance to challenge the poverty of spirit that contributes to suicide and dysfunctional behaviour such as inner community violence.
When people know their tribe, learn parts of their language, their dance and song, I see a light come on in their eyes, a strength. Recently I took some men up to begin building a ceremony ground and I wrote this piece reflecting on the experience. I wrote to my deceased father:
Thursday, 7 May 2020
I am walking on country, not really walking, I have stopped, I am standing, staring at the bush, seeing everything but nothing. My spirit is singing, a song ringing out in me so deep I am overflowing with the song, with the sights and sounds of the bush. I am breathless, my spirit is drinking, my inner well is being filled, refreshed. I have been drained for so long, from so many things, even events and individuals I cannot recall.
I have the urge to dance, the morning dew is shining, a bird here or there calls out – they seem to be welcoming the day, charting their daily tasks—roos stare at me over the bush and the creek is running. Everything is bursting with life and my spirit is dancing. I can even feel where possums and other nightlife are sleeping. I am consumed by the energy of the moment.
The old people are here.
Dad, you’re here with me, and I realise that you have been with me for every step I have taken on my dreaming path, good ones, bad ones and ones that seem not so important. You are standing here with me, inside me.
I am dancing, my body starts to move, every sound, every beast, insect, tree, bush is dancing with me. I am home, I am home, I am home. I am part of an old lore circle that nothing can break, I am home, I am home, I am home, I am one with everything around me.
As I come to approach the winter years of my life, I am still excited and invigorated by new things, new concepts, new artists, new art, voices and freedoms yet explored. I am so small in it all, but such a part. I am still walking my dreaming path.
There is blood on my hands, distasteful memories on my lips, vengeance for so many in my spirit. This is part of my lore circle, my dreaming path. The song is still ringing out in me, the refrain of the song echoes within me, ‘your home, your home, your home, this is who you are’, and the comfort I feel only comes when I let go.
Dad, my job is to make others feel this; perhaps, to build a foundation.
I stand in the new ceremony ground we are building. There is a cousin, Dad, he’s had 28 different families, him and his brother. His brother carries the same name as me, and he’s now gone, hard eyes he had, but I have seen them so soft, so gentle. I know his son, and I try to stand for him – I can never do enough, it seems, I can never fill the void of a lost father. His brother is sitting on country with me, his son is there, a couple of other nephews, and my job has become to talk, and more importantly to listen. It’s never so much words that I hear, but I watch them. I sing a song in language, explain a lore circle, connection to country, and there is a deep listening silence. I am hearing myself as I talk.
I watch my cousin brother, he is mouthing language words, getting his tongue used to saying them, his eyes are closed, and he looks so peaceful and comfortable; he is on country sitting where his grandfathers for over a thousand generations have sat, have sung, have loved, have won and lost in life, and spoken these same words. He is coming home.
(Thank you spirits)
I am on country
I am on country
Ngatook Meereng ye
Thank you spirits
The song goes on, and then the young ones take the song and sing it. The song gets new life, bigger meaning, I have goose bumps and my cousin is now singing out loud. We thank the spirits of woman and man, of the father, the sun and universe, the mother, the land, the brothers and sisters, the water and wind. We are grateful.
The song rings out, the bush and everything within overwhelm us with belonging, we have begun to build a ceremony ground. Not just for us, but for everyone. The song has bought us home. The ceremony ground has begun its journey into being.
Michael Chandler and Travis Proulx, in their report Changing Selves in Changing Worlds: Youth Suicide on the Fault-Lines of Colliding Cultures, show us that the more agency First Nations people have the fewer suicides in their communities.4 In essence, the more cultural authorities a tribe or people have, the more hope, the more vision of a sustainable and culturally vibrant future.
This makes me ask: What is the garden we are sowing here in Australia? I am using the metaphor of the garden to describe the nation, our nation.
Who were we in the past? What seeds did invasion and cultural collision plant?
Who are we now? Who has access to the nurturing of what was planted?
And most importantly, who can we be? Do we need to plant more together?
To my mind we all need a home in this national garden.
I believe in Tomorrow Australia. I am excited by the prospect. I do not think I will live to see the completed journey, as we have a long way to go.
We are in a storm. The storm has much debris, thrown and flung recklessly about.
I believe in Tomorrow Australia. I have such hope.
I believe we need to unravel the cultural tapestry of a nation. There are many ways to do this. We must revisit the past, we must challenge the inner racist, we must create good and strong cultural resources. Art and the voice of art can help us create a new cultural tapestry for Australia, a collective voice: ‘a new song, a new dance’, as Germaine Greer says in my play "The Charcoal Club." 5
We must weave together a new cultural tapestry, a new nation, we must create a home for us all.
Then I think, we must hand over to the young, let them create a vision for victory, a Tomorrow Australia. A new garden, where we can all benefit from the harvest.
In conclusion, I want to offer a question or two: What type of home should we build? What seeds should we plant? What is our vision for victory? For all of us.
Your native son,
Richard J. Frankland