What does a Greek Australian woman have do with the National Indigenous Human Rights Awards? How does she understand occupation? Well, the Ottomans were in Greece for close to 400 years. The eradication of language? The Ottomans systematically tried to erase the Greek language. What about brutality against young men? Consider the brutality of the Janissaries or the death of Angelo Tsakos. What about the loss of diversity, like Indigenous culture? Greece is actually a culture of diversity. It is made of islanders, mountain people, mainlanders, Northerners, Peloponnesians. We too are from ancient culture so we understand and respect others ancient cultures. As a wise man once said to me … it is all one story.
So I find myself in the NSW Parliament House at the first-ever National Indigenous Human Rights Awards. Emceed by the impeccable firebrand and deputy leader of the NSW Opposition party Linda Burney, the night promised much and it delivered wisdom and more.
The night kicked off with keynote speaker Yalmay Yunupingu, who had travelled from the Northern Territory, presenting the Dr Yunupingu Award for Human Rights. The late Dr Mandawuy Yunupingu is widely known in mainstream Australian culture as the man behind Yothu Yindi and as the 1992 Australian of the Year, but he was also an educationalist, who was the first Aboriginal man from Arnhem land to achieve a tertiary degree. In 1990 he was appointed principal of Yirrkala School, becoming Australia’s first Aboriginal principal. His wife Yalmay is proof of the John Lennon saying ‘behind every great man there is an even greater woman’, as she delivered her speech (in her second language of English) and clearly put the case forward for the establishment of bi-lingual schools. Her soft manner gave speed to her words and her exhausted reiteration of consultation, consultation, consultation/policy, policy, policy left the audience sensing the time wasted by politicians to sustain the many diverse languages and cultures. We Greeks know how important the sustaining of language is for the continuation of culture, during the Ottoman invasion of Greece, when the Greek language had been banned, our ancestors taught the new generations Greek in ‘Hidden Schools’.
The Dr Yunupingu Award for Human Rights was awarded to the outspoken elder Rosalie Kunoth-Monks, who was left speechless. Brought to tears, this fearless actress/activist reminded us that language is the gateway to culture. Rosalie, who was born on Utopia Cattle Station, and collaborated with filmmakers including Charles Chauvel and John Pilger, has had an amazing life. She was instrumental in the Aboriginal political movements from the early 1970s and still is uncompromisingly vocal about Indigenous issues, as her recent appearance on ABC’s Q &A proves.
Story-spinner Gail Mabo, the daughter of the late Eddie Mabo, presented the Eddie Mabo Award for Achievements In Social Justice. Gail outlined her late father’s struggle for social justice from 1981 -1992 that led to the High Court of Australia overturning Terra Nulius, that this land belonged to no-one when white settlers first arrived. Gail outlined how her father’s examination of their Torres Strait language and culture was instrumental in this long battle for justice. The Eddie Mabo Award for Achievement in Social Justice was posthumously presented to the late Arthur and Leslie Murray, whose painful determination to seek justice for their son Eddie led to the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody into Police Brutality in 1988. Eddie was an Australian Rugby league player who died in 1981, within an hour of being arrested for being drunk and disorderly. Police alleged that he had committed suicide by hanging in his cell. His parents’ ongoing pursuit of justice still remains an on-going symbol in mainstream Australian culture. The award was accepted by the Murray’s daughter, who reminded all present that no-one was ever found guilty of Eddie’s death and that justice has yet to be served.
Always cool, the easily recognisable Anthony ‘The Man’ Mundine presented the Anthony Mundine Award for Courage to a person who has made an incredible advancement in sports.
Respectful of his elders, Anthony paid a huge tribute to his mother. He also told an amazing story that contradicted the mainstream media demonisation of him. He told the audience that he had ‘always wanted to be great, firstly in rugby league and then in boxing … but that his greatest victory had come at 15 years of age when he said no to drugs that his cousins and friends had offered him’. This is a message that is worthy of being shared by mainstream Australia. The Courage Award recipient, photographer Barbara McGrady, has worked extensively with Aboriginal and Torres Strait sportspeople, as well as archiving through photography the struggles of urban Aboriginal people.
Finally MLC Shoaquett Moselmane, the convener of the Indigenous Human Rights Awards, presented an Award for Courage and Commitment to Social Justice and Human Rights to Gerry Georgatos. A long-time human rights and social justice campaigner, Georgatos acknowledged both the award presenters and the recipients and went on to share with us the wisdom of his late father, who had told him as a child, ‘if we get the Indigenous issues right, then we get ours right too’.
It was obvious to all in the room, state politicians, Indigenous leaders and the media, that something special was born with the presentation of the Indigenous People’s Human Rights Awards, and that Indigenous Human Rights issues can be assisted in moving into the mainstream public domain with national recognition.