It was Senator Malarndirri McCarthy’s final words, spoken in Yanyuwa, that were among the strongest of her address at the 2018 Kerferd Oration.
“This law is important, it is powerful, don’t break it, it is from the old people … do not leave it behind like some sort of rubbish,” Ms McCarthy translated, before being met with a standing ovation.
The Yanyuwa woman from the Gulf country, who travelled 3800 kilometres to speak in Beechworth, began her speech with the silencing of Indigenous voices in historical records.
Referencing the work of Beechworth historian Jacqui Durrant, she spoke of an event in Benalla in 1838, where the stockmen of squatters George and William Faithfull were attacked by Aboriginal people “in a fight that cost eight white lives and one Aboriginal life”.
“It (a plaque about the event) does not mention the years of reprisals that resulted in the deaths of up to 100 Aboriginal people, nor does it mention the research that suggests the motivation for the attack may have been retribution for the shooting of several Aboriginal people days earlier,” Ms McCarthy said.
“It reminds me of other accounts of violence in my own country … about one sixth of the population were killed in the Gulf country to 1920.
“You may think it strange I’m talking about times of division, struggle and violence in a speech about a unified vision for Australia.
“But to be a unified Australia, we first have to engage in truth-telling about our history.”
Ms McCarthy spoke about the Victorian government’s legislation to create a framework for the treaty process and the signing of a similar memorandum of understanding in the NT as steps forward, and was asked about how to avoid tokenism in community action.
“When I go to schools and talk to the next generation, they’re more savvy as a result … and that’s out future,” she said.
An audience member, speaking of raising her granddaughter, commented there was still stigma in the community.
“We still get a lot of people saying ‘Why do you bother?’, if she wears her Aboriginal clothes they say ‘Why has she got that on? It’s not celebration time’, so there is still a problem,” she said.
Ms McCarthy told the audience of more than 400, “That’s just downright racist ... don’t do that.”
“If the first nations people are telling you a story about themselves, or wearing something to make them feel strong, feel strong for them, don’t rubbish them,” she said.
“The people continue to see the Gujingga (songline) and the Yanyuwa laws continue to be observed – we are survivors, and first nations people across this country are survivors.”