Australia’s “Columbus Day”
Aboriginal artist Glen Namundja at work, By Mark Roy, Jabiru, Australia
The herbal tea of the day is organic Eucalyptus tea. Here’s why:
Last October, my sons and I celebrated Indigenous People’s Day on What is traditionally called Columbus Day here in the US. It is is a solemn day for those of us with Native American ancestry, which the DNA folks say probably includes my family (though we are mostly descended from West African slaves). In celebrating the arrival of Europeans to the Americas, the day also marks the erasure of indigenous culture. To connect with that culture, we spent time in nature in New York’s Hudson Valley, once home to the Munsee and Mohican. We paddled mindfully across placid waters, trotted horses along ancient trails, hiked in the splendor of fall foliage, spent quite time by the campfire. I encouraged my children to draw spiritual energy from the surrounding forest, and strength from our motley mashup of ancestors. I don’t know if they did. They seemed so glad to get back indoors, to WiFi, and Minecraft and Madden. Each time I go for my walk back in my own neighborhood, I pass by a statue dedicated to “Cristoforo Columbo” in our town square. There is no statue for the Leni Lenape of our New Jersey region, or the Taino, whom the explorer first encountered in the Caribbean. As I pass the shining, sculptural replicas of the Niña, Pinta and Santa Maria, I remember our retreat in October. I breathe deep and I mentally say a little private prayer of respect and remembrance. It’s not for the famed navigator.
Today, it’s Australia’s “Columbus Day.” Australia Day commemorates the 1788 landing of English colonists. Many aboriginal people view this as a day of mourning, writes Amy McQuire, who herself is of indigenous South Sea and Darumbal ancestry. It marks the beginning of displacement and the dying of rights and tradition. You can read her and her coauthor’s very moving reasons for calling it “Survival Day” here in their New York Times Op-Ed piece. As I pour out my eucalyptus tea, it comes with an outpouring of sympathy. Still, I can’t sympathize with the title, which I don’t know whether the authors wrote: “White Australians Celebrate, Aboriginal People Mourn.” Editors (which is actually how I make my living) rather than the writers themselves are often tasked with choosing a title that will catch eyeballs, please the search engine gods and provoke controversy. This title is so “us and them,” so Black and White. The New York Times has been well-meaning but somewhat ham-fisted in their coverage of diversity lately, particularly in regard to titles.
I am extra sensitive to all the us-and-themming that is going on right now because of our recent Presidential election and the conflicts that preceded it and continue. I don’t know Amy or her coauthor Lizzy O’Shea, but I’ll be extending social-media friendship toward both ladies. It wasn’t lost on me that, like I do, they both have Irish/Scottish surnames. If you know any history of English colonialism, which impacted my ancestral home, Jamaica, like Australia, like America, this doesn’t surprise you. England boated off Irish servants, convicts and others to colonies across the hemispheres. The DNA folks say I have Irish roots too. I’m not at all shocked. But they also say I have South Sea or “Melanesian” ancestry. That is a revelation. And I’m convinced it also reveals why I’ve always been so drawn to Gaugin paintings depicting Caribbean and Polynesian people. From young, I looked at his subjects’ brown skin, broad noses and slightly conical breasts, to their connection to the natural world, and saw something of myself.
Back when I started out as a writer, I was hired at a magazine where I was the only Black journalist. They didn’t have an office for me. I sat outside my boss’s office, in a wide vestibule of a gold-embellished Beaux Arts tower owned by a billionaire real-estate developer and his wife who famously said “Only the little people pay taxes.” (I’m talking about Harry Helmsley. Google his wife, Leona, whom Donald Trump once reportedly pranked by filling the hood of her coat with a bottle of red wine. There’s a musical coming out about her.) Built in the Roaring Twenties right before the Great Depression, our fading but fabulous building had been the site of an infamous mob hit ordered by Lucky Luciano and Vito Genovese in the early 30s. A framed print of the Gauguin work pictured below was the first thing I bought to decorate. I got a cheap burnt-orange rug to match the impressionist ripples on the surface of the water. I scoured a used-furniture storage area on the floor for the best-looking office suite, which building maintenance guys set up for me. Then I asked them to hang this painting over the polished wood file credenza that matched my dark, heavy desk. Each day I added a pretty bowl of fresh fruit from my morning stop at a street vendor; I was on a diet. My petite, blond boss passed my new workstation setup for the first time, stared at my bronzed nude beauties and said, “Oh…” You had to be there. It was a very dramatic, stunned “Oh…” But, symbolically at least, I wasn’t the only Black girl in the office anymore.
Which gets me back to the subject at hand. Who is “us” and who is “them?” Most of us, when we dig among our roots, discover ethnicity that traces the historic migrations of that invasive species known as the capitalist. Those Colonial boats really got around, the DNA of the oppressed as well as the opportunist traveling with them.We are still on this journey together.
Aha Oe Feii? (What! Are You Jealous?) Paul Gauguin, 1892
I think the larger point my South Seas sisters were making in their article is that this is a time for consciousness, not conflict. It’s a time for us to recognize how we’re all connected by biocultural diversity, and to take much better care of ourselves, each other and our shared habitat. If you have ever washed your hair with Tea Tree oil shampoo, or rubbed an ointment containing Eucalyptus oil on your chest to ease nighttime symptoms of a cold, you have benefitted from Australian Aboriginal bush medicine that is thousands of years old. No holiday should erase that fact.
When we recognize the history, culture and rights of indigenous people, we heal our families, protect our lands and ensure our own survival. And that is a good reason for all of us to recognize and observe Survival Day.
This little neglected blog actually gets traffic from Australia sometimes. I don’t know why, but I absolutely love that. Today, on Survival Day, I raise my mug to all my teahearts Down Under, who love themselves a good cuppa.