Nayuka: Connecting with Indigeneity

interview by marie chung

When we learn about Australian history in the classroom, we learn about Australia Day, who first landed in the country, the Prime Ministers, and ANZAC day. Before all of that, we learn very little about Indigenous history, who this land originally belonged to, and whose land we colonized for the sake of establishing a civilization. When I crossed paths with Nayuka at the Foundation for Young Australians, some unsettling thoughts emerged that reflects what little I learned in school. “Oh, she is Aboriginal” and “she must be an exceptional woman”. These thoughts that seem harmless actually depict how out of the ordinary it is for many of us to experience an Indigenous individual in our daily lives.

Nayuka Gorrie is a project co-ordinator of the National Indigenous Youth Leadership Academy (NIYLA), a program run for young Indigenous Australians to engage and contribute to their local communities. She is also on the board for the Australian Youth Climate Coalition (AYCC) and the Koorie Youth Council. Outside of those things, she manages an eccentric wardrobe and a lifestyle of a young 23 year old. It has been an amazing learning experience with Nayuka even with what little time we had to chat. She and I settled over a glass of vodka, lime and soda at Murmur Bar in Melbourne’s CBD. Here she told her own story of the history we carelessly forget.

Nayuka, could you tell me about where you are from and your family?

I was born in East Melbourne at the Mercy hospital. My mum was 19 at the time and my dad was a few years older, they didn’t stay together for a very long time. For awhile there, it was mum and I. She was a uni student and she’d take me to uni and breastfeed. We later ended up in Morwell, Gippsland.

That’s where my family are from. I’m a Kurnai Gunnai woman which is Gippsland (from my mum’s side), Gunditjmara is my dad’s mum and that’s Western Victoria. Yorta Yorta and Wiradjuri are my dad’s dad, that’s northern Victoria.

These regions would otherwise be called localities?

These are places where I’m from. People say clan or tribe, but that word is not used very much anymore. It’s how I identify, depending on who I’m talking to. I ended up there because that’s where I’m from. My grandfather grew up in Lake Tyres Mission. My brother and sister were born in Moe.

When my sister was 6 months old, we left for Queensland. We had to get out because it was getting serious. My mum met this Gooreng Gooreng man from Bundaberg and ended up marrying him. From Gippsland, we went to Bundaberg and lived there for a couple of years.

We then moved to Biolela which is in Central Queensland. Then mum became a police officer and got accepted into the police academy.

It was sometimes a challenge. Do you know those Delfin estates?

Yes. Legoland, I used to live in something similar.

We moved to one of those neighborhoods and went to one of those high schools. Those communities are sort of suburban and manufactured. It’s a depressing shit hole.

We had gone through a series of upheavals in my childhood, and I was always really clever, but by Year 10, my marks weren’t reflecting my ability. I found out at the end of Year 10, that I had a back condition called Scheurman’s disease. It’s a common thing I think, a few of my vertebrae fused together and my back get’s really stiff. When I think about all of that, I can see we were going through some shit. Later when we went to this school, it felt like what we all needed at that time. I ended up making best friends there who I’m still friends with now. I found people just like me.

That’s a good age to identify with others or otherwise people can be really hostile. What was primary school like?

I went to three different schools. They were all really different, Bundaberg and Biloela. There were quite a lot of Aboriginal kids at Biloela. Sometimes, some kids were quite racist that my older cousins had to intervene.

When did you experience this?

Year 3 or Year 2, it wasn’t very nice.

What were the things they were saying?

I don’t remember. Things like ‘abo’ were very common. Even worse than that name-calling was when teachers treated you differently from other students. I remember them thinking I was very dumb, or I wouldn’t be as smart as the other kids. It was really the exact opposite. I was doing well.

I know other people who have had the same thing happen, teachers assuming that you are dumb probably because you are Aboriginal. I mean we can’t assume their motives, but what was the one thing we all had in common?

You were all Aboriginals. Reflecting back on my primary school, I funnily remembered being in a similar situation where I was put in a special ed class because I was a migrant. Yet my English was better than everyone else in class also.

Aside from that, I remember learning in history (or not learning) about Indigenous Australia. I didn’t learn about aboriginal history until Year 10 or even university. How do you feel about Australian history? Did you have to consult your mum at any time when you came home?

When I was in Year 4 and 5, mum was doing Indigenous history at uni. I was getting this stuff at home, and it was implicit. I knew Australia had a dark history because my family lived through a lot of that but at school it wasn’t really acknowledged. It was all about celebrating Captain Cook or Australia day! “Australia was founded in 1788 or when white people came and before that, nothing much happened”. It was probably not as bad as my mum’s education, but it wasn’t much better either.

In saying that, there were cool initiatives at the time that aren’t around anymore. On a school level, there were committees across the school dedicated to Aboriginal students. You would get lunch and at NAIDOC (National Aboriginal and Islander Day Observance Committee) week you’d get cool stuff. As I got older, it wasn’t as fun anymore and then the committee was abolished after ATSIC (Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission) got the cut.

It’s a really interesting time actually to grow up, looking at our history and also being in the Howard era. It’s not surprising then that Captain Cook and Samson and his bloody donkey were awesome. I don’t mean to diminish the role that they played, but as a young Aboriginal kid, I couldn’t see myself fit in that curriculum or in the people that were teaching me.

It would’ve been a disconnection to your identity.

I love Ancient Egypt, I was essentially an Egyptologist by the end of primary school (not really). If I had relied on my education, I would’ve known nothing about Aboriginal history. Have you heard of Anita Heiss? She is an author and an amazing Aboriginal woman. In her book, Am I Black Enough For You? she comments that:

All the shit that has happened in Australian history is labeled as Aboriginal history, when really it is Australia’s history. It’s how Australia remembers those things about Aboriginal people. They’ll tell you to look at this horrible history, when it was something that was an important part to Australia and something that Australian’s did, not Aboriginals.

Are you saying that they did not respect the positive aspects of your culture as something that was independent from their history?

There are a lot of things that we’ve done. Things like Mabo winning that case, or the Gurindji strike and many other great things, or people like Charlie Perkins – those are parts of our history where we have agency. I guess it’s this notion of calling what happened before invasion as pre-history when …

When you had a history before that.

Yeah, we weren’t primitive nomads.

We had a history, society, an economy, a way of doing things, rules, politics, love and life – that’s all known as ‘pre-history’ in schools – neatly packaged.

It’s interesting growing up in that era when politicians had their grubby hands over what we learned as kids. We don’t realize that until we are older and think “shit, my parents didn’t learn about ANZAC day the same way I did”.

Often by then it’s too late. By the time you get out, it’s socially conditioned as normal and I still find it hard to break down those norms in my head. I still think of your history as pre-history, because it is so engrained. It’s such a shame. Your great grandfather, and great grand-parents would’ve been closer to these experiences. When you do speak about these to them, how do they feel about colonization?

All of my grandparents are impressive people, I’ll speak about my two grandfathers for now. One grandfather, it was his 70th a few months ago. He is a legend, a living legend. There were over one hundred people at his party, he is a community figure head.

During the speeches with everyone saying “I love you, I love this man”, he gets up and says that we need to open ourselves up and be prepared to connect with everybody. Anytime you get to share something with someone else, whether it’s what we are doing now, or it’s in a taxi, be open to moments of sharing.

Both my grandfathers have been on the receiving end of shitty policies, but they still happen to be open and getting on with the job. My grandmother is as well.

My other grandfather grew up in Lake Tyres Mission. He tells the story about hearing a car coming into Mission. Any time you heard a car back then it’s usually the government taking children away. His mum was stolen from her parents and institutionalized. She lost a lot of her brothers and sisters growing up. By institutionalized, I mean that she went to a girls’ home to receive what the government believed to be an education. It was largely more like how to be a servant, and it was by no means an education. Often when I talk to people, they think that it was so long ago, why don’t people just move on? For a brief time, my grandfather was taken and he is still alive. They were still taking children when my mum was born.

The Northern Territory Intervention is recent as well.

Yeah, in fact we have a crisis with the amount of young people being taken and put into foster care. There are some startling statistics around the Bringing Them Home report. Something like a 400% increase in the number of children in out of home care since that report was released. Of the 6,000 brought out of home care in Victoria, it is around 1,100 of them that are Indigenous. I could go on all day, the Northern Territory Intervention is happening now under a different guise, but it has the same impact.

There is still the card system that monitors purchases, isn’t that right?

It is now called the basics card, where in particular communities instead of having access to money from the government, it goes into a card that can only be purchased on certain things. It’s in communities where their income is being managed.

What do you think about that?

I don’t know enough about it, but it feels like paternalism. I don’t understand how in other parts of public life, we loathe government intervention (god forbid we pay higher taxes), but we are completely okay with a group of people in our society where a lot of their income and what they are entitled to spend it on are controlled by the government. When you think about it, it’s pretty shit.

There is no agency.

I just look at how people are going on about how the government monitor the websites or IP addresses. If people understood the implications of income management, and what that means for those communities, it’s messed up. In saying that, I don’t have to live under that system, and I don’t live in those communities. There are some people who know a lot more about it than I do who agree with it.

What are your thoughts about Kevin Rudd’s Apology? What do you think is the significance of it?

It’s easy to dismiss it and I can understand why people don’t care or didn’t want it. But I also know people where it meant something for them. I know for my mum’s father, it was a moment for him. So many people were fighting for this to be acknowledged, “hello this actually happened”, because for so long particularly under John Howard, it was not acknowledged. The common view was that it didn’t matter, it was just a couple of people who were taken because they had bad parents. Really, the children were only taken because their parents were black. For a lot of people, there was a sigh of relief because people were acknowledging that this happened. Though I think people wanted it to be coupled with action.

Symbolism is great, it can be a catalyzing moment. Arguably, symbolism or awareness is not enough, it needs to be coupled with the practical.

What does the apology mean if the Northern Territory intervention is still happening, and if the state are still continuing to take children away at levels that are unacceptable? What is the point of acknowledging history only to repeat it again?

I am aware that minimal policy has been implemented since the apology. There is an aim in government now to give these communities more recognition. However, there is still that association of the communities with alcoholism, crime or being of a primitive nature. What do you think we could do to change those perspectives? I know it is a systemic issue and rather difficult to ask a solution for.

I was up at Garma Festival, and speaking to people at Melbourne Uni who assumed I did the extension program or the alternative entry scheme for Indigenous people. It is a bridging course for Indigenous Australians who need a bit of extra support to go to university. I got the marks to get in, but there was this assumption that I didn’t.

My grandmother said what would we be without the suffering? What are we in the narrative? Without the struggle and the suffering, so much of our narrative is around incarceration, alcohol and drugs.

It’s a deficit narrative. There are people working in that field to equate Indigenous with excellence. For so many people that I know, they are volunteering, they have so much social and cultural capital, they are go getters and amazing. But they will be walking up Brunswick st and people won’t see  the ‘young Aboriginal woman’. They will see the ‘drunk woman’ or the ‘person begging for money’ and think ‘Aboriginal person’. I think if you’re setting the bar low, don’t be surprised if what you get back is where you are setting the bar. When we set the bar high, our young people will exceed our expectations every time. If we ask for a bare minimum, we shouldn’t be surprised if we don’t get anything back.

This same lady from Garma was just telling the Indigenous young people about the bridging course instead of the full suite that this uni offers. She was assuming they wouldn’t get the marks. We have the most smart and bright individuals in our community!

That’s embarrassing. Well, would you like to elaborate on what you are doing now to challenge these current perspectives?

For my paid work, I work at NIYLA (National Indigenous Youth Leadership Academy). It is an initiative of Foundation for Young Australians. It’s great, I get to work with some of the most amazing young people in Australia who are funny, clever and step up every single time. Outside of that I am on the board of the Australian Youth Climate Coalition (AYCC). I have a passion for young people having a say on things that affect them and I think young people have something so important to add to that debate.

I was nervous about taking that position at AYCC, then I realized I was constantly encouraging other young women in my life to take leadership roles. You need to see your reflection in someone else’s actions to get a clear direction of where you are going. Studies have shown that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students do much better when they see black teachers. Why can’t we be in boardrooms? We have so much to contribute.

On the board of AYCC, are you the only Indigenous Australian?

Yeah, majority of them are young women though which is pretty kick ass.

That’s great from a gender perspective!

Also I’m on the Koorie Youth Council which is a peak young Indigenous body in Victoria.

That shows that you are doing some amazing work. What would you like people to take away from this interview?

I guess that I’m just one person and that there are so many other amazing people who are lawyers, environmentalists, bankers, writers, scientists or doctors who are bloody amazing. You are probably walking past us every single day. In the spirit of what my grandfather said, see every moment as an opportunity because you will be much better off.

Don’t take everything at face value when it comes to Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander people, because so much of our story is told for us not from us.

Nayuka’s phone rang persistently as our interview came to an end. Her boyfriend was waiting for her to join him for a stand-up show with Nazeem Hussain, the comedian from Fear of a Brown Planet.

It is still difficult to remove ourselves from these thoughts of the Stolen Generation and the suffering around Indigenous cultures. Nayuka reminds us that it is not the best story to be told. There are well-established histories and livelihoods that are yet to be learned in Aboriginal cultures. The media, government and politics share one-dimensional perspectives of Indigeneity. It is up to us to be critically aware of what is being said, who is saying these things and to open up avenues that take narratives from real characters of the story.