The new edition of this successful 1998 collection from iconic Aboriginal writer, historian and activist Jackie Huggins, comes at a good time.
With the election of the Labor Government in May, there is new momentum for the action called for under the Uluru "statement from the heart" - Prime Minister Anthony Albanese committed to it on the night of the election.
The statement calls for the three elements of "voice, treaty and truth" to bring reconciliation with Indigenous people into the heart of Australian politics. While the Greens and some State parliaments are pressing for the "makarrata" treaty to be taken up first, the Federal government has now pledged to move forward with a referendum that would enshrine an Indigenous Voice to Parliament in the Constitution.
The argument is that the Voice needs to be constitutionally guaranteed to put it above the hurly-burly of partisan politics. No doubt this reflects bitter lessons learned through the changing fortunes of government commitment to Indigenous affairs over decades - in particular the 2004 abolition of ATSIC by the Howard Government.
New material added to Sister Girl fits with momentum for a referendum. Huggins' memories and opinions on the success of the 1967 referendum are pointers to the task ahead. Referendum change is difficult to achieve in Australia, she reminds us, and success requires wide community and bipartisan support.
In "The 1967 referendum... four decades later", a speech she gave on the occasion of the 40th anniversary and reprinted here, Huggins reflects on the extraordinary success of this landmark reform that enfranchised Aboriginal people:
"I remember the day of the 1967 referendum well and see it still, in many ways through the eyes of the 11-year-old girl I was at the time. And I also remember some of the long lead up to it. If I was asked to make one more toffee or lamington for a fundraising drive (or do the hula) or stand on another street corner handing out badges ..."
It gave her early memories of Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people working together, "recognising that if a group of us is not free in this country, nor are the rest of us. It's the struggle that at some stage we started calling reconciliation."
Reconciliation involves, Huggins writes, the recognition of Aboriginal culture as the first culture of Australia and "one of the oldest surviving cultures on the planet". It involves recognition that justice won't be done for Indigenous people until the social disadvantages of dispossession "that can be summed up in one stunning statistic that says our children can expect to die on average 17 years earlier than the children of other Australians" are overcome. Healing can then begin, including the building of respect between Indigenous and Non-indigenous Australians.
"Nobody should doubt that reconciliation is in all of our best interests. Because it's right and because it's absolutely within our grasp." But given this was written in 2007, the tone of several of the later pieces in the book becomes explicable. After ATSIC disbanded, Huggins worked with others to create a new independent Indigenous body. Unfortunately, this body didn't prosper and there is some bitterness in Huggins' reflection that "it was far too ahead of its time. Whitefellas and Blackfellas didn't get it. Certainly the government policymakers and bureaucrats did not make it easy for us. Hostile politicians from the Prime Minister down never understood its authenticity or power."
Trying to organise a new national representative body was hard because "most people were focusing on trying to maintain regional structures and funding for services".
Huggins describes the journey to 2015 when she was co-chair of the council as a long and difficult one. "I can tell you there were many teleconferences conducted with crying children, barking dogs and the Wiggles as our soundtrack. Parts of the constitution were mapped out on serviettes in hotel lobbies."
Elsewhere in this book are new pieces on the high incarceration rate of Indigenous women, reflections on leadership in Indigenous communities along with the classic pieces from the earlier edition such as the 1996 Coming Out interview with bell hooks on black feminism, which is as stirring today.
Huggins is a special kind of leader, and her words ignite a special kind of candour: "... for things to really change in this country, whitefellas have to come to terms with the racism too many of them will accept and excuse, even if they don't feel it themselves. Whitefellas need to look past their whiteness and try to feel what it is to 'walk a mile in our shoes'."
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