Truth-telling: A hopeful pursuit of Indigenous self-determination, realisation and actualisation

[Op-ed Ian Hamm]

Ian Hamm CAAMA.jpg

Image: supplied

If Victoria’s story is a book, then there is a whole chapter which is the Indigenous experience.


The full story of the Indigenous experience in Victoria has never been told, but the recent launch of Victoria’s truth-telling commission offers the chance to tell it, to ensure that we fill in the gaps of the story of Victoria.


The commission will bring the good, the bad and the ugly; imperatives that will help us identify who we are and importantly, where we are going. My hopes? That truth-telling will move to restore Indigenous culture and identity and empower Indigenous people to take control of their future; financially, economically and socially.


If we are to measure ourselves in terms of our maturity as a society, then mature societies own the entire history. We don’t get to pick the bits we like, we must own the lot.


The fact that Victoria has stepped up to the mark to do this, by way of the commission, shows a level of maturity that other jurisdictions must move towards.


The Australian Curriculum Assessment and Reporting Authority’s recent proposal to revise school curriculums to include the Aboriginal perspective on colonisation shows another step in the right direction on a national scale.


Truth-telling is not about apportioning blame, nor is it about seeking accountability for past events. It is simply telling the full story and it becomes a focus on where we go from here, not where we have been.


In the 1980s, recognition of Aboriginal people was nonexistent; we were still fighting for fundamental human rights and the notion of traditional identity had no meaning to it. Looking at where we were then, and where we are now, the change is so vast it’s hard to quantify.


Eddie Mabo won his case, changing everything, we’ve seen acknowledgement of country become almost commonplace at events, and we have witnessed a move towards Aboriginal economic aspiration.


There has been a shift in perception from Aboriginal people being a series of unresolvable disadvantages, to being a whole people that have potential and possibility that is now starting to be realised.


What we have seen, historically, is a pigeon-holed approach to Indigenous life outcomes; in the early ‘80s, the focus was solely on education and getting Aboriginal children into schools. Later, the focus turned to employment, before pivoting to justice following the royal commission.


Now, I am thrilled to see (and to have played a part in) a fundamental shift in how Victoria conceptualises Aboriginal Victoria and Aboriginal people. Instead, the focus is on supporting Aboriginal people and communities to reach their aspirations. A large part of this? Adding culture and identity to the Victorian Aboriginal Affairs Framework.


Following recent research, the two most important things to Aboriginal people today is culture and identity; who we are in the 21st century and how we relate to the wider community in which we live. We have seen a shift in the attitude of Indigenous people; the onus is no longer on the Government to provide, it is instead on us as a people to act. We are now asking ourselves what our potential is and what we offer the wider community.


If we are to propel forward as a community, truth-telling should provide an opportunity to better tell who we are and how Aboriginal societies work. The strong points of ‘us’ and how we have not only survived, but sustained.


The last thing we want from truth-telling is a story that just paints our history as heartbreak and misery - it must be about the positives and what is unique about the Aboriginal community that the rest of Australia can learn from.


The big question at hand as truth-telling comes to the forefront is founded on self-determination and realisation: what does it mean to be Aboriginal in the third decade of the 21st century? How are young Aboriginal people forming their identity in this world?


My journey in government and with the First Nations Foundation has always been about Aboriginal people fully participating in the whole breadth of national life, with a focus on the economy and the role it should play in how we reduce disadvantage for Aboriginal people. However, products and services developed by the First Nations Foundation are not just aimed at the disadvantaged, they’re aimed at the aspiring Aboriginal middle class.


A lot of work is focused on giving the skills and the capacity to the younger Aboriginal population who are participating in the economy more fully, but who don’t have an inherited financial knowledge from their parents and grandparents, due to a forced lack of participation and understanding.


By involving Indigenous people in the economy, we are given the opportunity to receive an increase in income over a lifetime of economic participation. We are given the opportunity to build wealth and acquire capital, which can then be used in perpetuating the building of said wealth.


One of the reasons the First Nations Foundation’s products and services focus on economics is to reduce reliance on government support; when one is economically well-off, reliance on the government decreases. Thus, we can use the economy to resolve social problems, rather than relying on the government to do so. If, economically, the Aboriginal average income increases, people can afford a house or a decent rental accommodation.


They can put food on the table and send their kids to a good school and suddenly, the social issues are not there anymore. Then, with more Indigenous people on boards and in leadership positions, they will give narrative to who Indigenous people are. We will see Aboriginal people transcending social disadvantage and reclaiming the people and community they can be; we will see the reawakening and reemergence of Indigenous culture and identity.


Now, I have been accused of being an optimist, which I have to be. Because, if I’m not, then it becomes easy to get overwhelmed by the negative. The focus must remain on where we want things to be, not where they are. This may take a generation, but that gives me hope. And if we don’t have hope, we don’t have anything. 


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