Do Aboriginal People Get Punished For Their Crimes?

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Do Aboriginal People Get Punished For Their Crimes?

Mia Stanford

“Crime!” by Gustavo Verissimo is licensed under CC BY 2.0 

It was the most relaxed I had seen them. Casually yarning across the room to the other tables. We held a safe space. It took some time. But we got there. Shared some tips and intel on troubleshooting advice. Naturally, the conversation moved from ‘actions’ to probing questions, which I love. That’s where the juice is. I sensed the questions veiling assumptions on what they were preparing themselves for, how to mitigate these… let’s say expectations.

I explained my experience, and what I would do differently, as positively as I could. During NAIDOC week, I was informed that I could run a library session and read the children’s book about the Rainbow Serpent. The acronym is completely lost here. Day of Celebration means to celebrate achievements, culture, and contributions, not dictate the selection, homogenise and culturally appropriate, and utterly minimise the opportunity to share and celebrate. The children’s books I published – just pictures and words in a language; were not allowed to be used as they were not ‘approved’ by the department. That was my experience, but I assure this group that would not be the same for them.

Safety planning was happening. Apparently, certain places are safer to work in… more multicultural, and have ‘less natives’ working there. I love that term. Natives. Perfect. We laughed.

Clearly, this is a common concern discussed throughout this community; listening to their stories I gained some insight into the types of schematic themes impacting their experience. How this influences cultural positioning, and, from those permeate and eventuate into shared values. This leads me to the real question I want to answer. The question I wish we were discussing: what kinds of knowledge hold value and ARE valued?

So, do Aboriginal people get punished for their crimes? This was the burning question that needed answering.

Looking around the room (I needed a moment), there was a lot of invested interest in my response. I knew I had to choose my words carefully and keep this curiosity and open dialogue going. I’m representing my country here. The continent called ‘Straylia. It’s important that these mob feel safe. That’s my responsibility to them. The thought makes me chuckle… the irony is not lost on me.

Oh yes, they get punished… for sleeping outside, they get fined. For leaving any blankets or clothes out they get fined. If they don’t have anywhere to go to when they are fined for being outside, these fines go up and up and up. And if you can’t pay them you go to prison for unpaid fines. So yeah, I would say definitely- they get punished for their crimes. Don’t think that the answer captured the context of the ‘crime’ that was in mind.

Guilty Until Proven Innocent

Wrapping up the session, I heard an abrupt, ‘You are so Koawrl!’ I wondered why the growling – looking all serious, piercing, widened eyes. No idea what she said…I responded to the tone. With genuine concern, I prepared to resolve whatever seemed to inspire the outburst.

It started in my knees, a slight wobble, I stepped and rocked heel toe, heel toe into the floor to rebalance my footing.

Focussing on my composure, I can feel the strain frown on my face. Scrambling through my brain files for a solution, what are we trying to do here…diving into boxes… none of this shit is labelled. I scramble some more.

Sure, I must have missed something. I’ve slipped up here, somewhere … did I drop the ball at some point? Where is the ‘ANY’ key? (My favourite Homer Simpson quote). My mind is racing with notions of inadequacies… I don’t know what the F’ I’m on about. Where is the… mentally I’m rummaging through tubs and throwing out ‘irrelevant’ junk like a scene from Back to the Future. IDIOT! I think to myself. This reaction – no, this reflex is involuntary and instinctive. Instantly, I felt ‘caught out,’ somehow.

I was on a plane waiting to depart as the plane moved into position for take-off. The attendant walks down the aisle doing the final check. Three-quarters of the way down the plane I watched her make her way down the aisle. As she gets closer and closer towards my seat, I feel myself begin to check myself… over and over. Have I … yep…seat belt on… bag…tucked yep… everything done right? Yep. Yes, and yes. The sense of dread bubbling up. I feel it in my chest. Heavy. Waiting to be targeted, I sit up straight … Don’t give them a reason. Don’t give them a single, FUCKING, reason. The mantra I was raised on. Because they WILL find one.

I mean it’s not like I was traveling with a loaded gun or anything: guilty until proven innocent. You’re doing something wrong. Somehow, there just is ‘something’ bad about you. That’s my inheritance. Internally, I ‘get up’ myself – I tell myself off. STOP IT NOW. I paid for my ticket just like everyone else. I’m allowed to be here, to take up this space. To you know… Breathe.

Throwing both arms down in a …right here directive, open palms towards the floor, A single intentional stomp of the foot, she sounded out slowly ‘You… Are…So… Koawrl’, eyes wide and direct. ‘Your dress, your shoes, your hat, – you are just (hands again) SO cool!’

I don’t know why this inspired such a strong need to make this point and I supposed it doesn’t matter. Relieved, quickly deflecting, I turned to my son under the table in his makeshift cubby, ‘What about him? He’s pretty cool, too?’

It’s demented, I know. ‘Get that shit out of your DNA my friend would say.’ I own it. I took my son to work. I was so overwhelmed that he had woken up violently sick in the early morning hours. Just think how that would look not showing up to work – no notice? I panicked. Unreliable. Slack Black.

My Nan Opened the Door

My Grandmother was beautifully spoken, beautifully presented, and dignified. With the most amazing collection of silk scarves I’ve ever seen, worn in all kinds of arrangements. Perfectly placed crisp, clean, fashioned in bows and broaches, the symmetry. Scarf artistry. I’m sure there is a word for it, but I wouldn’t know it. That’s just a bit too Tea House and doily for me, which is about the extent of my knowledge of that kind culture. Ornaments and pretty things that serve no purpose, dolls that aren’t for playing with. Spooky shit.

Intelligent and professional and trusted my nan was. A celebrated member of the Country Women’s Association and respected administration manager for the Bagot Community. She had no phone or work car, was subjected to travel restrictions through the exemption laws, and was not permitted to work in the main building with other government employees. If a phone call came in the person taking the call would place the phone down, drive down to the Aboriginal community to pick her up, and drive back to the office which she says was fifteen min each way. She says some days that is all she would do, travel back and forth to take phone calls.

I’m not talking about long ago, not at all. I was born about five years after this. The first in my immediate family to go to university. Of course, others have, later in life. But it is my generation that has come after segregation. My Nan opened the door.

At the end of the workday, from managing government bureaucracy to concerns of bush and town camps. From Countrymen to Country – Women…’s’ …Association. Relentlessly taking on every hurdle that arose, navigating a thin line of contradicting worlds competing agendas with utmost elegance and class. My Nan, my Almeyook; Mimbingal would go home to her family and after dinner, as everyone prepared for bed she would go outside and sweep all the dirt away from the house. To make sure there were no footprints in the sand before sending her children to sleep. She would sweep backward all around the house just to make sure.

Be a positive representative of your people and role model the young ones. I could affect another person coming after me, that could be judged by my actions. You have to. Like it or not – I’m the problem AND the solution. Any experience I have is not my own. Achievements are not for me. Any value is value for my people, the tools, and knowledge are all situated alongside what is good for my people. That’s the landscape.

I’m Not Part of This World

I don’t belong anywhere, but I’m connected to everything. It’s the strangest thing. Dystopia. Everything around me speaks to me wherever I may be… even right now, at this moment, two Torres Strait Island pigeons nestle in my pongah tjuda paperbark tree – a sign for family, I’m told. They have finished their courting rituals; the third wheel has finally admitted defeat. It’s a lot quieter—less theatrics, and drama. I look forward to the next season. It is a welcome change from the bush turkeys who routinely claim this space—little colonisers, industrious, predictable, and completely undeterred by any inconvenience I present. A honeyeater finch sits in her nest, lovingly constructed from a sleeve of my dress; sweet little Mumma. My outdoor area has become a sacred place… everyone is quiet. ‘Shhh… we got babies sleeping. You wanna yukkai (yell and carry on) get back inside the house.’

It’s All Gravy

I don’t want just the gravy with the bread (even though that is the best part) you see that was the best we could hope for and now that’s part of us, like the flour, sugar, and tea rations. We could have a bit of bread and dip that into the gravy juice. Never any cuts of meat or vegetables. That was life on the cattle stations. My mum was a Jilllaroo. Riding horses, mustering cattle, and cooking for the station owners. That was the life of our mob. Sleeping with stock. Dinner time you get one piece of dampa and dip in that gravy.

I never forget my first white Christmas. Proper Coles catalogue stuff. My boyfriend waited on me hand and foot like an invalid. And the food? Don’t get me started. He asked if he could get me anything. Quietly, I asked for just one of them bread rolls with butter and gravy on top. He thought that was ridiculous. All the same, he comes back with this beautifully presented roll with gravy drizzled on top. Served with linen napkin folded like that scarf origami. I tipped that roll face down and tore up the bread, mopping up the juice – that got weird looks. But it’s all GRAVY isn’t that what they say? And it really is!

That Magic Thing

There’s this magic I wanna learn… that magic: when a person can walk into any place and just insert themselves. No doubt, no sense that you are not welcome. To feel that everything and every space is available to them. Have you seen this magic? I have. There’s freedom in that. No fear. It’s like a magic trick that happens right in front of you. But you have no idea how they did it and how they made it look so easy. That’s Magic.

Call Times

I’m done being tough. Swallowing that you’re not welcome here message that grinds me down. Killing myself to prove I’m not lazy, and that I CAN be trusted. I want that magic thing. I want to walk into a room and know, really know. I have a right to take up space.

When people talk to me about where they live, their ‘land’. They talk to me about my home. I used to have one too. But it was taken by someone who didn’t want me to have it. Yothu Yindi said it best: Promises disappear – like writing in the sand. When people talk about their land my heart aches, and I know I have no right to feel this way. When they ask me about the bush tucker, medicines, trees -seasonal stuff, I’m proud to share my love for Country and story.

To honour our old ones, who are always present, our Mulpulbuk Dreaming spirals. But I can’t visit. It’s too painful for me. I couldn’t conceal it, I couldn’t pretend. And what’s worse? I could come across as jaded or angry. No one likes an angry black woman. There is way too much provocation for that. It’s expected—the role we are cast to play. I’m not doing that.

While I write this, I see a goanna chasing a lizard right in front of me. Just earlier, I saw him climb down a pole, pulling out a frog in his mouth. Reminds me of the Gumnut Babies. The predator visits his favourite fishing holes. my fence posts. The cries of the frog trying to scootch further down the pole so the goanna can’t grab him, it’s bird song to me. I know this because I used to hunt them, too. When I was a kid; bored at all the rugby games we would go to. I would walk around the perimeter searching poles for frogs to catch. Their cries are a nostalgic comfort to me. A comfort that reminds me that life goes on.

While I write this, I see a goanna chasing a lizard right in front of me. Just earlier, I saw him climb down a pole, pulling out a frog in his mouth. Reminds me of the Gumnut Babies. The predator visits his favourite fishing holes. My fence posts. The cries of the frog trying to scootch further down the pole so the goanna can’t grab him, it’s bird song to me. I know this because I used to hunt them, too. When I was a kid; bored at all the rugby games we would go to. I would walk around the perimeter searching poles for frogs to catch. Their cries are a nostalgic comfort to me. A comfort that reminds me that life goes on.


I don’t want to ‘change’ any of it. Challenge this fact. I accept my reality. I carry my people, our past, our pain. Please, when you speak of your ‘land,’ know these hurts, and you’re not ‘doing’ the hurting. It’s a leg lost in the war. A direct connection to the source of our creation. The foot on Country. Healing life. Channel to my mob, speaking to me – through me. Spirits who play with me, sniff me. Check-in on me. Teach me and show me how to shift and move through the seasons. Reset my clock; show me what is important, put my heart back together. Draws out the ‘distractions’ from all those brick walls that tell me I’m not welcome. I don’t belong. I can’t ‘sit down’. Imagine having that magic… feeling… really feeling, knowing – 100% – without a doubt in your being that you ARE welcome. How radical would that be? I can’t even imagine, what that would, could, even look like. I’m overcome with guilt for even considering it. I have no right.

Reconciliation. Reconcile. Justification for this breath I dwindle away, others never had that option. Decay. Decadence. Survivor’s remorse.

Five generations. FIVE GENERATIONS. That was our first contact. My GREAT, great, great Grandmother witnessed the change of everything. She saw the Purrikoots (colony) come. I missed being alive at the same time as her by a mere 20-something years. Now that is a TRIP! It’s no wonder it’s so difficult to understand us. You only just got here, like literally only JUST got here.

That taste in the back of your mouth is impossible to ignore, always there, the dripping faucet, haunting your restful state. Whisper in the silence. Do you hear it? Inherit responsibilities. The call to arms, the first responder, cultural loading they call it, far beyond the logistics tangible simplification of our ‘stuff.’ It’s so much more than that.

Our Languages Matter, Because of Her I Can. For Our Elders. The power of that: deeper than any catchy slogan.

A century ago, William Cooper delivered a message to the King. With kindness, grace, and dignity a sign of true strength. His message was profound, simple, and just as relevant today.

‘There is plenty of fish in the river for us all.’

Now, 100 years later, the new King. Still mourning. Day of Mourning, without the day. Perpetual.

See it Clearly. Visibility. Understand. Nutimoo Nirridjuguh Urrungutoom.

Achievements are not mine alone,

They are megaphones to fane legitimacy

Catalyst for industry portfolio.

Box ticking, promotional photo ops

Justification budgets quota

Givebacks token

Making ‘good’.

Altruistic capitalist


About the Storyteller

Mia Stanford is an educator, artist, academic, mother, curious human, and black belt at uncomfortable truths. A passion for meaningful authentic, strength-based capacity building, working aligned to engagement to culture and country in tangible everyday practice. Mia has a beautiful way of weaving meaning, symbolism, and knowledge into her work with children and adults alike.

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