Posted by: Lisa Hill | July 10, 2021

Finding the Heart of the Nation, by Thomas Mayor

Cultural warning to Indigenous readers: This post may contain the names of people who have passed away.


Thomas Mayor is an author like no other ever featured here at ANZ LitLovers.  A Torres Strait Islander born on Larrakia country in Darwin, he learned to hunt traditional foods with his father and to island dance from the Darwin community of Torres Strait Islanders. One of his teachers recognised his talent for writing, but—never imagining that he would become one of the first Torres Strait Islanders to achieve mainstream publication—at seventeen, he took up a maritime traineeship to become a wharfie instead.  And now he’s an author of a very important book in our nation’s history, Finding the Heart of Australia, the journey of the Uluru Statement towards Voice, Treaty and Truth. 

This is a book that took me on a learning journey.  I knew, like everyone else, about the Uluru Statement.  But I knew it only from reductionist media reports.  Mayor’s book brings it to life.  It begins with ‘an invitation to listen’.

The eloquent words of the Uluru Statement make an affirmation that the first sovereign nations of the Australian continent and its adjacent islands have never ceded sovereignty — not when first colonised by the British, and not with the enactment of the Australian Constitution in 1901.  The words remind us that colonisation did not extinguish the sacred link that no other civilisation on earth can claim — that the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples are born from, remain attached to, and will return to be united with ancestors stretching back an amazing 60,000 years.  At the same time, the Uluru Statement acknowledges the sovereignty that we all share, as citizens of Australia.  (p. 1)

People learn skills in all kinds of ways, and Mayor learned the skills of negotiation and organisation when he became a union official, and this is why, in this most remarkable book, the union movement is thanked in the Acknowledgements.  Thanking the leadership and the members, he writes:

As Australian unionists you’ve done more than further your own wages and conditions, you’ve also lifted the standards of living for all.  You’ve won our universal health care (Medicare), the standard eight-hour day, annual leave, personal leave, and the opportunity to retire with dignity, among other standards that are far too many to simply take for granted.  You’ve consistently stood with First Nations people.  (p.250)

The ACTU stood with First Nations people again at Congress 18, carrying a motion moved by the author Thomas Mayor, which amongst other matters, declared that:

The ACTU and Australian Unions will continue to work to identify, increase and empower Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander unionists and the broader community in a campaign to ensure a strong, self-determining, First Nations representative voice; a commitment to a Makarrata Commission for Treaty making and a necessary process of Truth telling which will lead to true reconciliation.

The significance of this support from the ACTU is that, almost before the ink was dry, the Turnbull Government in 2017 rejected the ‘Statement from the Heart’, putting the nation in same invidious position as it was for the decades of refusal to apologise to the Stolen Generations, politicising something that should be bipartisan policy.  The Opposition, however, re-committed the Australian Labor Party to the Uluru Statement from the Heart. when Shadow Minister for Indigenous Australians, Linda Burney, declared in parliament:

  • a constitutionally enshrined voice to the parliament;
  • a Makarrata Commission that will oversee agreement and treaty-making; and
  • a national process of truth-telling.

Mayor’s book, Finding the Heart is a beautiful book, with full-colour photos and Indigenous artwork.  In ‘Kunturu Kulini’, an Arrernte and Kalkadoon woman and a master storyteller through the art of film-making, tells the story of the artwork the that borders the Uluru Statement (see here) while ‘Dreaming Together’ by lead artist and Anangu law woman Rene Kulitja explains the cultural significance of it, which is amplified by an annotated reproduction of it on the following pages.

‘From All Parts of the Southern Sky’ tells the story of Referendum Council will culminated in the Uluru First Nations Constitutional Conventions.  It acknowledges the skill and expertise of significant leaders in key roles, particularly Alywarre woman Aunty Pat Anderson and Professor Megan Davis, a Cobble-Cobble nations woman, as well as acknowledging ancestors, heroes of the resistance, and past and present leaders and activists.

In ‘My Journey,’ Thomas Mayor tells his story of how he came to recognise that the skills he’d learned as a negotiator and organiser could be applied to First Nations activism. This section is written in a disarmingly humble style: this is Mayor recalling his arrival at a trial dialogue on constitutional recognition.

Have you ever walked into a room of living legends: people you’ve read about but never expect to meet? As I stepped into the hotel lobby in Melbourne, I immediately saw the familiar faces of high-profile Indigenous leaders, and I felt like I was simultaneously conspicuous and invisible.  (p.35)

In the next chapter, ‘A Constitutional Moment at Uluru’, he begins with

I’ve never considered myself a spiritual person.  On the flight to Uluru, I wasn’t praying to a god to bless us with a powerful consensus.  On the short flight from Darwin to Uluru, I read the Australian Constitution.

I read it from beginning to end.  It wasn’t hard to read.  Our constitution provides structure and rules; it is how power is shared.  As a workplace delegate, I had learnt to understand the nuances of words in agreements and legislation.  Every word could make or break our livelihoods. (p.39)

That document is the rule book for all Australians, no less.  The rule book that has allowed efforts to remove or diminish our existence.

Mayor acknowledges that there are opposing views about constitutional reform.  It’s hardly surprising, he says, when participants at the convention came from communities all over our vast country, and as a collective of 700,000 Indigenous people, they will always have different views, especially when you consider that…

… when Indigenous people gather, we bring with us the effects of colonisation, racism and inequality — intergenerational trauma both physical and mental.  To varying levels, the wounds are still weeping; the wounds are angry and raw.  Our internal conflict is part of our journey, though it doesn’t diminish our hope. (p.41)

Mayor has wisdom for a young man.  (He’s only in his mid forties).  He says:

To speak about the conflict at Uluru is vitally important, because it happened, and conflict is a normal part of collective decision making.  The nature of consensus making is that the outcome is never everything that everyone wants. (p.42)

(Wouldn’t it be great if everyone understood this?)

The conflict, which of course *sigh* was widely reported, made the next day’s agreement all the more wonderful.

It was an unforgettable moment.  The Uluru Statement from the Heart was endorsed with standing acclamation and raucous celebration. (p.43)

Now all we need is for the rest of Australia to catch up.  (Starting with those old fogies in the Parliament).


The rest of this book features the voices of the people behind the Uluru Statement.  It’s a wonderful book, thoughtfully considered and beautifully presented.  This is a book to cherish as an important document on Australia’s road to a mature relationship with its Indigenous people.

The Uluru Statement remains a live political document, and a call to action.

You can find out how to offer your support here.

BTW for those interested in the abysmal history of constitutional reform and the prospect of achieving the Voice to parliament, this article is depressingly accurate:  Timing is (almost) everything | Inside Story

Thomas Mayor is a Torres Strait Islander born on Larrakia Country in Darwin.

Author: Thomas Mayor
Title: Finding the Heart of the Nation
Artwork by Shatla Mayor
Design by Gayna Murphy
Publisher: Hardie Grant Books, 2019
ISBN: 9781741176728, hbk., 251 pages
Source: Personal library, purchased from Benn’s Books Bentleigh


Responses

  1. I loved this book. I was half-way through reading it when you announced this year’s #IndigLitWeek. Like Stan Grant’s works, its power to make non-Indigenous people understand the need for US to take action is clear – and attractive.
    I’m about to start teaching a Year 10 elective class of ‘Crime, Courts and Politics’. Hoping that I can subtly steer the ‘politics’ part towards this topic!

    Like

    • The Australian Curriculum gives you permission to do that. There’s a strand called Aboriginal perspectives across the Curriculum. So you could begin with a brief overview of the political system in place before settlement and segue into how Uluru is a modern adaptation of that?

      Like

  2. Met this impressive man last year at local library. We need to have these conversations whenever the opportunity arises. The only antidote to the embedded racism is to educate ourselves and encourage others for it’s only when we think differently that we do things differently. So proud to have some of that unionism DNA in my genes.

    Like

  3. “To varying levels, the wounds are still weeping; the wounds are angry and raw. Our internal conflict is part of our journey, though it doesn’t diminish our hope.”

    Such beautiful sentence construction. I know, there is a lot of power and political importance I should prioritize in a comment, but the beauty of the prose is remarkable too.

    Like

    • I know. It’s not the kind of language I had expected given his work background, which just goes to show how foolish my assumptions were.

      Like


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