I was introduced to Uncle Adam at a Close the Gap event in West End, Brisbane. Close the Gap events are held regularly to improve the health of Aboriginal people and Torres Strait Islanders, to close the gap between them and the rest of the population.
What’s the Gap? The life expectancy for an Indigenous man or women is about ten years less than their non-Indigenous counterparts. Babies born to Indigenous women are twice as likely to die in their first year compared to babies born to non-Indigenous women. Suicide, diabetes, and cardiovascular disease are all much higher for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people than the non-Indigenous.
I’d like to add that I interpret Closing the Gap more broadly: as a way to bring non-Indigenous people together with the traditional owners of this land. To close the gap in understanding. To close gap by learning about the rich and varied history pre-1788. To close the gap by embracing the diversity of culture and language.
So that’s how I met Uncle Adam. He’s called Uncle because he’s an elder and he is the Keeper of Musgrave Park in the centre of Brisbane. Uncle Adam loves history. When I ask him if he reads a lot he points to his temple and says “It’s all here”.
Musgrave Park is the traditional land of the Jagara people.
“There’s Jagara people around but we don’t know where they are. They’re all dispersed.”
“Musgrave Park is the meeting place for all Aborigines, a meeting place for the Aboriginal community, the Torres Strait Islanders, the South Sea Islanders.”
Uncle Adam’s great great grandmother was from the Wakka Wakka people and his great great grandfather was a South Sea Islander.
“Three generations ago, in the 1800s, my great great grandfather was brought over to cut the cane and work in the cane fields. They were treated like slaves.”
I have trouble hearing the soft voice of Uncle Adam over the live music so we move across the road and sit together on a piece of pubic art. We can still hear the band singing as he tells his story.
“See belonging now. We’re trying to get our land back and get our traditional land back. Yeah, we belong to the land.”
“My family, my Aboriginal side belongs to the land. My other side is the South Sea Island side. So there’s two parts of my family history: South Sea Island and Aborigine.”
“We’ve got to get our land back. Like New Zealand and places in North America; they have their land back. In some places, in Arnhem Land and in the Northern Territory, some have their land back. We need that to happen everywhere.”
“We’ll get it back eventually, probably when I die.”
So hope lies with the younger generation?
“Yeah, we want them to come up and do it. Like in North America, the young are coming up and taking over. We want that in Australia. We want the young ones to come up and take over. Some are doing it, not all.”
What was your language?
“They cut it out. There’s thousands of lost languages. That’s part of our lives. Some still speak their language and want to teach the younger ones, but the younger won’t listen.”
What languages do you speak?
“I just speak English.”
That breaks my heart.
“That breaks all of our hearts. Back in the 1900s they was taking us away. See Rabbit Proof Fence. That’s proof of it all. Have you seen Rabbit Proof Fence?”
Yes. I don’t know how we can fix that.
“It’s still there. They’re still taking our children away.”
“In Brisbane, I’m just an elder. I’m a traditional elder for the Wakka Wakka.”
Can you be my elder too?
“If you want, I can.”
What’s the first thing I should learn from you, my new elder?
“You should learn to respect elders. That’s the one thing your Uncle say to you, respect your elder.”
How is the best way to respect?
“Through the culture. Learn about the culture. Then when you turn 50, you’ll become an elder and you can go to the elder meetings.”
Does that mean I can’t look you in the eye because you’re my elder and I need to show my respect?
“You can if you want. It’s not a sign of respect. It’s a sign of dignity. How old are you?”
“Well, you can be an elder when your 50.”
But I’ve got to learn the culture first.
I’ve only got this year. I’d better get a move on.
Uncle Adam gets up. He thanks me for interviewing him. He’ll be 59 this July.
(West End, Brisbane, March 2016)