Why can an outsider see us more clearly than we see ourselves?
Someone not weighed down with our history, not burdened by shame, guilt or anger, can wade through a torrent of words and reveal a simple, heartbreaking truth.
The American woman, white and middle-aged, approached me with her husband and hugged me tightly.
“You always have to bend to them,” she said.
She had just seen the international premiere of The Australian Dream at the Telluride film festival, high in the mountains of Colorado.
The film — written by me and directed by British film maker Dan Gordon, another outsider with a piercing eye on Australia — is one of the handful of movies selected from thousands of entries.
I introduced the film to the audience in my language, Wiradjuri, likely the first time those words had ever been spoken on American soil. Like my language I wondered if the film would translate.
It is uniquely Australian, chronicling the booing of AFL player Adam Goodes. The football is of course, baffling to American eyes. Some of our colloquialisms, equally impenetrable.
But there are issues here beyond borders or sport: issues that are universal. Race, racism, the legacy of history, nationhood, justice and just what it is to be human.
I watch the audience looking for what resonates.
For two hours these Americans are taken on a journey into Australia’s dark heart; a journey that reveals their own country too. There is barely a movement, or a whisper, just the occasional groan, a sigh of empathy or a nod of the head.
They watch as Adam Goodes, an Indigenous man and a former Australian of the Year, was subjected to what amounted to a tirade of racial abuse until he walked away from the game he loved and so dominated in ways few others have.
A voice for Black Australians
In the film Goodes — for the first time and in his words — takes us on his journey.
It is the story of a young boy raised by his Indigenous single mother as he chases his sporting dreams and explores the history of Australia. We see him struggle with a legacy of pain: invasion of Aboriginal lands stolen; massacres, people chained and forced into missions and reserves, and the ongoing poverty and trauma of Indigenous communities.
His mother reveals her own pain. How she was taken from her parents; torn from them. As a five-year-old girl stripped, scrubbed and her hair shorn as she cried for her mother she would never see again.
The history of the stolen generations — a history that includes members of my family — passes from mother to son.
It is Adam’s history too.
I have seen this film countless times from production to the big screen, but this time something touches me in a way it hasn’t before. Another former AFL great, Nathan Buckley, says simply, Adam’s body or desire for the game didn’t give out: his heart was broken.
That’s what I am watching on the screen, Australia breaks our hearts. America has broken the hearts of its Indigenous people too.
I know that’s what is going through the minds of this audience.
In my introduction I paid respects to the Ute nation. These are the first people of this part of Colorado, forced off their land and onto reservations. A history just like our own.
Americans don’t hear the voices of Native Americans, just as many Australians can pass through their lives without meeting or truly listening to an Indigenous person.
The Australian Dream film is the voices of Black Australians: Adam and his family, fellow footballers, Gilbert McAdam, Michael O’Loughlin, Nicky Winmar, athlete Nova Peris, politician Linda Burney. I can’t take credit for this film, among my people our stories belong to us all.
Afterwards a Native American woman comes up to me, wraps me in her arms and says thank you. Then speaks to me in her language as I had spoken to her in mine. Language so different, but on this night needs no translation.
‘You always have to bend to them’
The white woman and her husband have reminded me of something so true.
Adam Goodes bent towards White Australia. He devoted his life to reconciliation and fighting racism — and paid an enormous price.
Once again we are seeing Indigenous Australia bend to White Australia. The Uluru Statement from the Heart asks all Australians to come on a journey with us to give the First People of our land a voice in the nation’s constitution.
We bend, and it hurts. I can understand why some are tired of compromise, tired of bending. But my people — Wiradjuri people — have a saying “Yindyamarra Winanghanha”: it is a philosophy that means to live respectfully in a world worth living in.
If my father and others like him bend, they bend from strength. From knowing who they are, and where they belong.
They bend knowing they will never move. They bend for our country, in the hope one day others will be ready to listen.
Being in America reminds me of what a great American, Martin Luther King Jnr, once said: “The moral arc of the universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” It bends.
In a foreign country among strangers, a Wiradjuri man from Australia and a white American audience bent a little closer to each other.