Alan C. Parsons has big eyes and large hands. His eyes are an undefinable color, green mixed with deep blue — eyes which in a way reflect his whole life. He moves his hands as if they were wings, instruments with which he is able to do so many things, and which show everyone his true inner stature.
Alan is an aborigine and a dwarf. A bone malformation confined him to a hospital bed for 14 years, in complete solitude. Every time he stood up, he was in danger of breaking his bones, and it was only when his growth had stopped that he was able to master his most valuable means of transport: his crutches.
He was working as a painter when one day, already 31 years old, he discovered he was an aborigine. After meticulous research, he followed the paper trail to reunite with his mother — an attempt, like many others, to heal the gaping wound left in the lives of the “stolen children,” taken from their birth families to be “assimilated” into civil society. Alienated because of their mixed blood, in most cases the result of a relationship between a white man and an Aboriginal woman, often rape, these children were brought up in special institutions or entrusted to white Australian families. In this way, their descendants were mulattos who mixed more and more with whites, so that all the Aboriginal body traits were lost by the fourth generation, effectively erasing the identity of a people that was denied the right to vote in Australia until 1967.
This was a policy aimed at transforming the Aborigines into “perfect Australians,” which affected around 100,000 children between 1935 and the mid-1970s. To keep their children safe from government agents, mothers would hide them in the bush or paint their faces. But this was not enough to save a whole generation.
Theirs are the stories that Parsons has become a mouthpiece for; those he tells us at his house at the foot of the Glass House Mountains, not far from Brisbane. Stretching out in front of him is one of the pristine skylines revered by Aboriginal culture: “Everything here is mother and father,” he says, and names the peaks and crests as if they were living relatives, sketching out a geographical family tree which is the starting point for the most important lesson Parsons wants to share: “For our culture, the earth is a living organism, and that is why it belongs only to itself,” he says, with eyes open wide.
“That is why, when we were conquered, the violence we suffered was twofold,” he adds. “Violence against us and against this land, which we have never taken as our own, but watched over as guardians through the centuries.” There is no concept of private property in the millennia-old ethos of this people. “Every time you decide to take away something from a mountain or a forest — a flower, a stone, or anything else — you ask for permission, so it wouldn’t be a theft. If you ask without any presumption, it will always be given to you as a loan.”
”Ask for permission” is the mantra that Alan repeats over and over while we walk along the path that leads to Mount Beerwah, the Mother Mountain, still watched over by the Jinibara people today. We walk for a few minutes, then we stop: “Look, we shouldn’t go any further, because the ascent to the summit begins here, and it would be like climbing on the head of Beerwah herself.” I watch the distracted tourists who continue on the path despite the warning signs, and the clueless Australians that have come to jog or walk their dogs. Alan continues: “Every time that nature is not respected, we experience physical, personal pain: whatever you do to the mountain, you’re doing to yourself.”
Parsons has been very popular among Aborigines for many years, and even far beyond the limits of the Sunshine Coast. ”We are not a race,” he says, “we are the people that has been here forever.” This year he has organized several events to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Referendum of 1967, which approved changes to the Constitution in order to give the indigenous people voting rights. Since then, some steps were taken to recognize the historical injustices they had suffered, but it was only in 2008 that the Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd offered them a formal apology, particularly regarding the “stolen generation,” an initiative that a national investigation recently judged to have been “genocide.”
Unfortunately, things are not as they should be, even today. A recent report by the United Nations’ Human Rights Council offers some shocking statistics: The Aboriginal population, only 3 percent of the total Australian population, represents 27 percent of the prison population, with a much higher percentage in some prisons.
The data concerning those in juvenile detention are particularly concerning. For instance, in the Cleveland Youth Detention Center in Townsville, Aboriginal children make up 95 percent of inmates. These children are basically punished for being poor, in most cases going from a condition of “out-of-home care” to detention. And these are the consequences of a regrettable chain of violence that began when the British first set foot in Australia. It is estimated that since 1788, when there were about 770,000 natives, their population was reduced by 90 percent between the 19th and 20th centuries. In the 1900s, there were only about 117,000 members of the native peoples left.
Many times this was done by poisoning their food and water, right up until the last known massacre, which took place in 1928 in Coniston, in the Northern Territory. They were murdered, and also decimated by diseases they had never known, by the loss of the land that was a natural source of food, by the impact of new foods (sugar, refined flour, alcohol, junk food) and the subsequent spread of diabetes, of which a dramatic proportion of them are still suffering today.
With the spread of large-scale cattle and sheep farming, the Aborigines became a significant labor force, sometimes reduced to a condition of slavery. Before the so-called “equalization of wages” in 1965, if they even got a salary, it was barely enough for their daily food, and was never more than half of what an underpaid European worker earned.
Even today, alcoholism, unemployment, and a low life expectancy are visible on every street corner, both in the great “white” cities and in the heart of the outback — for instance at Alice Springs, where almost half of Aboriginal men, and more than one third of Aboriginal women, never live past 45.
How do the natives feel today? “Lost!” is the most common response. It is what Aaron tells us in the Daintree Rainforest, a man with the night-black skin of the Kuku Yalanji people, who communicates with old plants and explains their every power as if they were his ancestors: “The ancestors are everywhere if you know how to see them … on a leaf, in a stone, in the flight of a kookaburra.” And that is also what Dam tells us; he plays the blues with his wife Karin, but plays the didgeridoo when he is alone in his house overlooking the Noosa National Park.
A possible solution comes from Connor, a young man with Anglo features who works as a driver in Uluru for Backpacker Deals, which involves travelers backpacking around the sacred mountains of the Aborigines which lie in the very heart of Australia. When you ask him if he is Aboriginal, he answers “yes, of course” — and then you find out that his mother is Scottish, his father is Australian, and he doesn’t have even a drop of native blood. Nevertheless, he speaks the dialect of the Pitjantjatjara and lives as they do, “because considering yourself to be Aboriginal,” he says, “is not a matter of blood; it is a culture, a feeling. It means that you aren’t an Australian of just the past 250 years, but you have always belonged to this land.”