*Speaker: Rebecca Bateman (R)
R: Yaama , I’m Rebecca Bateman, a proud Weilwan and Gamilaroi woman and the Assistant Director of Indigenous Engagement in the National Library of Australia. I’m speaking to you today from beautiful Ngunnawal and Ngambri country. I pay my deepest respects to the Ngunnawal and Ngambri people and also to the Dharawal people on whose land the event you’re about to watch was recorded. I acknowledge the deep and enduring connection of all indigenous Australians to country and I pay my deepest respects to elders past, present and emerging who are and will be the custodians of this land.
I’m very excited and proud that the National Library is able to present the following discussion between young Gamilaroi/Dunghatti woman, Marlee Silva and her father, Rod. Marlee is a writer, podcast host and cofounder of Tiddas 4 Tiddas, a social media-based movement dedicated to elevating stories of inspiring Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women and girls from across the country.
In this discussion Marlee and her dad yarn about their experiences as Aboriginal people. They talk about why it is important that indigenous stories continue to be told truthfully and honestly and why we should remember and honour the struggles of our elders. Marlee and Rod also talk about why it is important for all Australians to celebrate and be part of maintaining the oldest continuous and surviving culture in the world.
On behalf of the National Library I invite you to enjoy Marlee and Rod as they talk about the importance of truth-telling and discuss their hopes for a future built on mutual respect and a proper understanding of where we have come from as a nation. I invite you to take this opportunity to, in Marlee’s words, listen to learn.
End of recording
Marlee Silva Conversation
*Speakers: Marlee Silva (M), Rod Silva (R)
M: Yaama. My name is Marlee Silva and I am joined today by my dad, Rod. How are you?
R: Good, how are you?
M: Good. It’s weird I guess in this COVID era, we have to be adaptable in these sorts of situations so I’m coming to you from my bedroom on Dharawal country south of Sydney, we’ve made it into a little makeshift studio to have this conversation today. Before we begin I just want to pay my respects to the Dharawal people of this nation who cared for it and been connected to it for over 60,000 years and extend my respects to their elders past, present and emerging. Always was, always will be Aboriginal land which is quite fitting because we are here, even though the NAIDOC Week celebrations have been pushed back to November for this year the theme is Always Was, Always Will Be and that’s what we’re here to talk about, I guess, tell a little bit about our stories, who we are and our connection to identity. So I wonder if, Dad, you want to start by introducing yourself, talking about where you grew up and we’ll just start there.
R: So my name’s Rod Silva, I’m one of six children. My mother was a French from Moree, Gamilaroi country and my father is a Silva from Kempsey, Dunghatti country. But I grew up on Darug land out in Mt Druitt so I feel I’m connected to all three and all three played a big part in my upbringing and the sort of man I became so that’s a little bit about me.
M: So by extension I obviously identify with being a Gamilaroi and Dunghatti girl and have really proud connections to that country. So, Dad, I guess a good question, a good place to start is with maybe your first or your earliest memory of understanding your Aboriginal identity. It’s always a hard question because for me there was never a point where I found out I was Aboriginal like we always knew that we were and we were raised in a household where that was something to be really proud of but was there a moment when you realised that that maybe set you apart from other people?
R: Yeah, just with my upbringing. Mum and Dad were always good with telling us who we were and what we were about but it was interacting with other kids. There weren’t many Aboriginals at school when I went to school and there were just little things that made me realise I was different besides my skin being brown but just the way people reacted to me. When kids are little they don’t realise how much they scar you with what they do and what they say to you so it was just little things, not one thing in particular but people not wanting to sit next to you in class or just things being frowned but like just – I don’t know, going to your mates’ houses and sometimes you weren’t allowed in there because they already had perceived – what’s it called? Preconceived ideas about Aboriginal people and what we were about. There
was a lot of blatant discrimination and racism that I had to deal with and not only me but my brothers and sisters.
I think it made us resilient, it taught us that we were different so we realised from a young age we were different and I think it made us stronger individuals growing up.
M: I think that’s something that’s almost universal for blackfellas, is that when we’re only 3% of the Australian population that means for the most part we’re the minority in the room. From a young age it becomes very clear that you are different to most of your peers and even though people’d be able to see how much lighter my skin is to yours, especially in this lighting, but that didn’t save myself or my sister, Keeley, from similar experiences but more because we have always been so loud and proud about our identity and worn it in a particular way so it became a thing where not so much as a really young kid in primary school, it was cool to have something different about you and kids would talk about. I always had Aboriginal flag-coloured bracelets and things like that and kids were like oh that’s cool and that was it but when you get to high school again there’s those preconceived ideas of who you are, where do you identify?
For us it was well you're not really black because look at you or if you are Aboriginal do you believe in the Dreamtime? What do witchetty grubs taste like? Just this whole thing and then even other more horrible things like expectations that we’re poor and suffered for things and had less of an education or things like that. It’s interesting because you grew up in the ‘70s and ‘80s and I was at school in the 2000s and we went through similar things but definitely yours was more severe.
R: Yes, definitely different and I think the media played a big part because the average Australian when I was growing up thought all blackfellas were alcoholics or domestic violence offenders, took drugs, didn’t work, all these preconceived ideas. A lot of the media didn’t realise how hard our grandparents and our parents and our aunties and uncles worked to just get the basic things that everyone else had. Even my mates would say oh but yous get cheap housing loans and you get this and you get that and you get all this but it’s because of what’s happened and what they’ve been taught but it’s not taught that our parents couldn’t go to school. Kids got taken from their families by the police so this hatred of the police is natural for our people because they split up our families ‘cause it was government policy.
So there’s a lot of things that me as a – Aboriginal man, my wish is to have a balanced story of history and have both sides and then all Australians can choose and make a decision about how they perceive Aboriginal people and how they were treated.
M: Well I think that leads in quite nicely to the first official question that I have beyond our background and our stories and who we are but you’re touching on that now but what are your hopes and dreams for the future of Australia, to have that balanced truth-telling and history there but on top of that what else do you want to see?
R: I think I heard the great Nova Peris say in an interview that a lot of Australians are worried about losing stuff where Nova just put it so simple when she said you're not going to lose anything, you're going to gain 60,000 years of our culture, our history. So that’s a way I like to think of it, it’s a pretty simplistic way but it’s so true
in my eyes. I’d like our education system to change to just give a balanced portrayal of what happened and when I went to school we were taught Captain Cook discovered Australia and basically there was no-one here when we all know that’s not true. So I would love our powerbrokers or our politicians or whoever can make it happen to change the system so all Australians can benefit from the Aboriginal culture and our history before the white man came and then a balanced approach of what happened when the white man came and everyone can make up their own mind.
M: There hasn’t been much change to the education system again generally because I was taught the same thing, we had to make -
R: Unfortunately that’s sad but true.
M: The first assignment I remember doing at school probably in kindergarten or Year 1 was making a diary of a settler like you had to make one. I remember dying the paper with teabags and things like that and it was this whole romanticised version of what it was and it was a peaceful interaction and this kind of stuff and it goes back again to that whole truth-telling element of that. Back to the NAIDOC thing, Always Was, Always Will Be, we’ve always been here and you’re exactly right and I’m really glad you paid attention to the Q&A episode when Nova said that because I was honoured as well.
R: That was awesome, that was awesome.
M: That’s so true, you will gain so much and I think that is the fear, there’s the fear of power being taken away or people losing their self, nonindigenous people losing themselves in the story of this country but that’s not going to happen.
R: See the dialogue from the media and commentators is that we’re always getting something, we’re always getting something. We’re getting it given to us, we’re not earning it. The only thing I’d say about that is they never have the balance to say what we gave up or what we missed out on.
M: We paid in sacrifice and suffering -
R: There’s no balance, it’s either one or the other. We’re always being criticised for wanting this and wanting that and just a lot of stuff is stuff that I believe everyone should have anyway as Australians but when it’s an Aboriginal take on things it seems to be dramatised, sensationalised. That’s what the media does anyway but if we could just have that balance and I think that would help all Australians to understand the fight of the Aboriginal people.
M: Switch gears a little bit, how do you on an everyday basis find yourself connecting to culture?
R: I suppose it’s hard as a policeman, especially in recent times with the Black Lives Matters stuff overseas and then all the similarities with the Aboriginal deaths in custody stuff but I just try to focus on being a good role model for my people and for the cops as well. So I try to do my job at a high level so people can see that Aboriginal people are making a difference. I just want to in my role as a cop to try and save some of the kids that were like me, that went through stuff and just to
provide a little bit of guidance and support which wasn’t around when I was growing up. I don’t know if I’m making sense, am I?
M: You are.
R: It’s hard to put it into words your whole life about what you’ve been through and that.
M: Maybe another good point to talk about is that we do a lot of talking about who we are and I guess what we want people to know and in these recent times again where you’re talking about Black Lives Matter and that sort of stuff I personally am getting lots of requests from nonindigenous people to give a lot of myself and our family’s story and you want to take those opportunities and you want to run with them because they deserve to be heard and celebrated and things like that but it’s also pretty exhausting. I wonder if now like seeing the way that certain different nonindigenous brands and individuals and people suddenly have all this interest, do you feel like we’re almost at a point where people can do their own educating and that some of the pressure might be taken off us? Like are we in this turning point like that’s what -
R: I think we are. Unfortunately over my time I’ve seen a lot like my grandparents and my aunties and uncles and a lot of powerful individual Aboriginal people worn down. They’re worn down from the fight, they’re worn down from having to fight for everything. So it’s great and I think in recent times you’re right, Marlee, where you say everyone’s jumping on board. I don’t know if they’re jumping on board but their eyes have been opened to what’s been happening. So that is a good thing for not only our people but for our country so everyone is starting to realise all the things that did happen and like I said earlier they’re getting a more balanced view or understanding of how our people are reacting to stuff that’s happened over generations.
M: One of the next questions is what does reconciliation mean to you and I think probably a better or practical question is what do you think or what would you like more non-indigenous people to do to better build relationships with us?
R: I would like them just to do their own research. Talk to Aboriginal people, ask them how their upbringing was, what sort of hurdles they had to overcome and ask them about racism and discrimination and how they’re treated in their daily lives. I’m sure not all our people say bad things have happened to them but a lot of our people will say the same thing, that because of the colour of their skin they’ve been treated differently, unfortunately. So that comes down to education, I think, like I see it in the police all the time, people that we deal with, they just don’t know so they assume and I like to think most Australians are pretty objective -
M: I think most are on the fence.
R: Yeah, most are objective so they can be influenced one way or another by their own -
R: Experiences or what they’ve been taught or what they’ve heard or what they’ve witnessed so there’s a lot of things that may shape their opinion but unless you’ve had interaction with Aboriginal people or been around Aboriginal people I suppose it’s like anything, you wouldn’t know much about them.
M: I think on the flipside of that, though, there’s a certain level now, I just think that the education is so much more now at the forefront of our understanding of the Australian identity living on this country that I just don’t know isn’t a good enough excuse.
R: No, not anymore.
M: You need to take the initiative. There’s so much information. The prime example of this is what happened to Adam Goodes and we’ve had the mirror held up to who we are as a country and everyone who saw those documentaries or read any of the articles or just lived through that period should understand that there is work to be done and I don’t know a single person who identifies as an Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander person, regardless of what colour they are, who hasn’t faced some sort of discrimination, oppression, stereotyping, blatant racism or just had to face a – uncomfortable situation in a room because people are talking about Aboriginal culture and you feel your muscles tense up and things like that. I don’t know a single one of us who hasn’t gone through that stuff so that tells you that there is so much to be done but I think you’re right in saying that it needs to start with that baseline education from the day you walk into school that -
R: This is what happened.
M: Exactly. It’s got both sides and the other thing that makes me hopeful is when my grandparents and my parents and my aunties and uncles were growing up it was really shunned upon for an Aboriginal to speak out when now we have so many young Aboriginal people, great in their areas of whatever they’re doing, speaking out and holding people to account for things that used to be taboo, no-one used to say anything about it, it was just accepted. We all got tarred with the same brush but they didn’t know anything about us so now through different public areas and platforms our young people are becoming powerful with their message of it’s unacceptable to cop what used to be a regular occurrence.
R: The last question is let’s say – it says here for her, what are your hopes and dreams for your children’s futures but I guess I'm getting a bit old for that now. What kind of Australia do you hope your grandkids grow up in?
M: I hope they grow up in a country that’s balanced, shows both sides of history and a country where you don’t have to worry about the colour of your skin or what you believe in as long as you are contributing to the country and are being positive and being thankful for where you are and the beautiful things that this country is all about. I just want them to appreciate that and just remember, remember, never forget all the battles that our elders have gone through to make things better for us and the ones that are going to come after us.
R: I heard someone else say somewhere, and it’s of a similar vein to the Nova quote you said but the fact that we are the oldest continuous surviving culture on earth
is something for every single person who lives on one of the many countries that make up Australia, that’s for all of us to be proud of. That is such an incredible thing, I think we say it a lot and I think it again goes back quite nicely to the theme of this year but we are it, we are the oldest continuous surviving culture. That is phenomenal, no-one else is older than us and we have survived for so long and our knowledges need to be respected and they need to be told and especially when you look at things like the bushfire season and just like the way that we demonstrate and perpetuate resilience. It is unmatched, unmatched and it’s just -
M: To learn from our neighbours like how proud they are. Kiwis, they embrace the haka and their national anthem is sung in English and Maori so why can’t we do the same? Have English and the Aboriginal – and I think we do have those versions but something that embraces the whole country and something we all agree upon because there’s still division, there’s still debate about - the 26th of January is so important to our people because our world was changed forever. But I think there’s got to be that mutual respect moving forward so we need especially our younger people involved in these processes to make it better for everyone. So we make sure we learn from the bad things that went on before us and make sure that never happens again.
R: Well thank you, Dad, for taking the time to -
M: I don’t know how it sounded.
R: The first step is always that listening which you mentioned before and it’s listening to learn, not to respond and we’re just two blackfellas of many thousands and we all have different experiences and there’s no one universal way to be an Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander person so see this as a starting point, see this as a time to leapfrog off this onto other stories and keep learning and keep reading. We’re learning every day as well. That 60,000 years of history, it’s not something we can have all up here as well so -
R: It’s a journey, it’s exciting, it’s something for everyone to be a part of and keep celebrating black excellence, that’s the foundations of Australia.
M: Exactly. I was going to say I believe in our people and I’m really hopeful for our young people because they’re becoming more powerful.
R: See you.
End of recording