This year’s National Reconciliation Week theme is “Be brave. Make change”. We sat down with Tyra Petersen, a proud Wuthathi women from the North Eastern coast of Cape York Peninsula with connections to Badu and Moa Islands in the Torres Strait, to talk about what we can all do to make change.
“A big part of reconciliation is just accepting and recognising our history. How can you make change if you deny the history?” – Tyra Petersen
Tyra graduated from high school in 2021 and is currently doing a diversity and inclusion cadetship in the Community team at the College of Engineering and Computer Science. She sees National Reconciliation Week as a time to remind people that change is still needed. And that the first step to change is learning about our shared history.
Our shared history
From the moment the British set foot on this continent they attempted to control Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander lives. Many people were forced from their homelands on to missions, stations and reserves under protection and assimilation policies. The removal of children from their families was one of the most pervasive and systematic actions of the protectionist and assimilation eras. Across Australia, anywhere from one-in-three to one-in-ten children were removed from their families leading to disconnection and trauma. That trauma is still being felt today.
“Colonisation has caused a lot of wounds that are yet to heal,” Tyra says. “It’s important to recognise that the removal of children from their families, created the Stolen Generations, and racist assimilation policies affected most Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and impacted our connection to our identity, belonging and roots to Country and homelands, which we know today keeps us safe and healthy, and always has.”
“It’s really important to accept it and understand that it wasn’t too long ago that it happened. The generations that suffered at that time are still retraumatised and retriggered by interacting with settings that won’t accept or understand that trauma has an impact today.
“I recognise that I’m privileged to be part of a family that knows its roots and to have such an instilled pride about my culture. I acknowledge that it is a privilege because a lot of people have lost their connection to their identity.”
For Tyra, it is knowing this history and recognising the continuing impact of past policies on First Nations Australians that will help to make positive change in our society.
Knowledge leads to change
“When we talk about making change, as an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander person, I’m not born with all of this knowledge. It’s something that I’ve had to learn, about our history. The biggest change to make is to learn. I encourage people to learn.”
Learning about our shared history takes work and is often something that you need to seek out and be willing to acknowledge. For many Australians when history was taught at school, it generally began with Captain Cook. First Nations Australians were completely absent from the curriculum. While that is slowly changing, even for young people like Tyra, school was not a place where she learnt much about First Nations Australian history.
“In primary school nothing touched on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander history and cultures. In Year 10 I learnt about the Stolen Generations for two weeks. The first time I learnt about the White Australia policy from anyone other than my family members was when I did a cultural awareness course here at ANU. I feel like if everyone in my year at high school had learnt that, as an example of racism that impacts us right now, and still a source of such distress, it would make a difference to how people viewed things.
“I took a sociology class in high school and my teacher, who was pretty amazing, talked about how when you bring up the past it often makes White Australians in particular uncomfortable. I think that’s a massive barrier to why change hasn’t happened because denial has happened instead of accepting.”
Tyra reminds us that our shared history can be confronting and uncomfortable, but we need to know it if we want to reach for reconciliation.
Celebrating the past and present
While our nation’s story is marked by discrimination and racism, it has also been shaped by acts of incredible strength and determination. National Reconciliation Week celebrates two defining moments that illustrate how courageous actions made change possible; the 1967 Referendum and the Mabo decision.
On 27 May 1967, following years of campaigning by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and allies, Australians overwhelmingly voted to change the constitution to allow for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples to be counted in the census, and for the Commonwealth Government to make laws specific to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.
The 1967 Referendum was one of the most successful national campaigns in Australia’s history. And while it happened decades before Tyra was born, it remains deeply personal. “At the time of the Referendum my Nanna was only 16. She’s still alive, and for 16 years of her life she wasn’t considered a citizen of this country. She was seen as part of the flora and fauna.”
On 20 May 1982, Koiki Mabo and fellow Mer Islanders began a legal claim in the High Court of Australia for ownership of their lands on the island of Mer in the Torres Strait. On 3 June 1992, the High Court of Australia decided in favour of Koiki Mabo and his fellow plaintiffs, ruling that Meriam people were entitled against the whole of the world to possess and occupy the lands of the Murray Islands. This landmark case recognised for the first time in Australian law the rights of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples to their lands, overturning the myth of ‘terra nullius’; land belonging to no one. In 1993, the Parliament of Australia passed the Native Title Act.
This National Reconciliation Week offers all Australians the opportunity to not only learn about our history but to also celebrate the rich and diverse cultures of First Nations Australians. The ANU is holding a number of events where you can get involved.
Learn more and make change.