There’s a cat and mouse game going on in my suburb of Sandgate, and until recently, I didn’t even realize it.
Across the street from my house is a strip of bush land rising in front of a cliff face. The area is too narrow, and too low lying, to ever be built on, so it’s a refuge for wildlife. There are a few tall gum trees, scruffy undergrowth and a large clump of bamboo that may hint at a Chinese market garden once upon a time. It hosts our street parties, until the mosquitoes drive us home. Once a week a group of women do tai chi there in the mornings; a few years back, there was a regular game of boules on Sunday afternoon.
I’ve lived here for more than a decade, and ever since I moved here, I’ve occasionally seen an Aboriginal flag painted along this strip. Unlike graffiti that defaces buildings and screams ‘Look at me!’, these flags are always unobtrusive, painted on natural features such as trees or rocks. Just a gentle reminder, I feel, to me and you and the tai chi ladies, that people have lived in this place for a very long time.
The council mows the grass regularly, but otherwise we are left largely to our own devices, so I was startled early one morning recently to see a Brisbane City Council van parked across the road and a council worker carefully painting a tree. I dashed for my camera, but by the time I got back the van – and the flag – had gone, and all that was left was wet grey paint, almost but not quite the same colour as the gum tree.
No doubt the painter is part of a general council anti-graffiti brigade, but his action left me sad. I liked the jaunty flash of red and yellow as I walked down the footpath, and I liked its jaunty message: I too am here.
The Aboriginal flag first appeared on the Aboriginal tent embassy in Canberra in 1971. Like the embassy, it was a symbol of an unacknowledged Aboriginal sovereignty. The embassy, within sight of Parliament House, made many people uneasy, but the flag has been widely accepted. It is now flown widely, and if Australians ever change their current flag, there’s a good chance that the Aboriginal flag may be incorporated within it.
The Europeans who came to Australia never made a treaty with the original inhabitants. Batman’s ‘treaty’ (1835) was really an unequal contract to buy land in the Port Phillip District, and the New South Wales Governor stamped very thoroughly on the notion that private individuals could make private land deals with the Aboriginal people. In 1839, another wealthy colonist, William Charles Wentworth, tried to buy the entire South Island of New Zealand in another such deal, and again the Governor intervened.
The next year the British government made a Treaty with the Maori, and with all its faults, the Treaty of Waitangi remains a significant constitutional document. Nothing like this occurred in the Australian colonies.
In the 1840s Oswald Brierly was the manager of a bay whaling station at Twofold Bay, on the far south coast of New South Wales. Both Aboriginal and Maori whalers worked at Twofold Bay, and now doubt shared their experiences of British occupation. Brierly was a thoughtful observer, and his diaries are a wonderful source of information on indigenous preoccupations at this time. Somewhere in there he notes that one of his Aboriginal workers had asked him why the Maori now had a treaty, but they did not. Brierly had no answer to that question.
It is a long way from that question to the wet grey gum across my street, but both say something about silencing indigenous voices.
A few days after the anti-graffiti squad moved in, I was walking home when I saw another tree marked with the Aboriginal flag. This time I photographed it. Although it is only a hundred metres or so from the local council office, so far it has survived. Unfortunately though, a gum tree doesn’t make an ideal canvas. At this time of year, the trees are shedding their bark, and this flag is peeling away.
I’m sure another one will turn up sooner rather than later. I too am here.
Note: For more on the indigenous whalers of Twofold Bay, see Lynette Russell, Roving Mariners: Australian Aboriginal Whalers and Sealers in the Southern Oceans, 1790-1870 (2013)
Oswald Brierly’s diaries are held in the Mitchell Library, Sydney
New Note: A lawyer friend emailed to tell me that Harold Thomas holds the copyright in the Aboriginal flag, and gave me the following links to the court cases involved:
Harold Joseph Thomas v David George Brown & James Morrison Vallely Tennant  FCA 215 (9 April 1997)
Flags 2000 Pty Ltd v Smith  FCA 1067 (7 October 2003)
Plus an article here explaining how Google got pinged for using the Aboriginal flag without permission