‘Cleverman,’ Indigenous Futurism, and the Empowerment of a Lost Culture
I awake to morning air breezing through the window with an unseasonal Spring chill-snap of 12 degrees centigrade. Outside, in a half acre garden lot paradise, swallows cavort recklessly – mating, hunting, and pecking each other in endless tiffs. Sulphur-Crested Cockatoos screech the calm out of your head. The sounds of the all-day long river of cars rushes continuously close by and somewhere a door slams after a well-advertised argument on a neighboring property. This is the soundtrack of suburbia.
Why is this relevant, if at all? Because these are the quaint things that fill my street-world. There’s no hustling, robbing, or dirt-kicking (well there is, but you see it intermittently) of down-and-outers and slum dwellers like you might find in larger cities like the Slums of Napoli or in George Orwell’s experiences living as a tramp in London. Yet for all its seemingly quiet solitude of Cairns, Queensland, there is a hidden world of destitution, homelessness or abandonment in the seemingly ‘perfect’ garden city. Quite often never seen, but no less troubling when it is. Which is why the man I saw three months ago still arrests my memory. When I describe the next thing to you, you will see how morally and emotionally complacent we have become.
…it was what he was doing that hit me. The man, probably more shy of his 60th than his 50th year, was scrunching up his eyes, mouth hanging open, weeping in utter despondency.
I had stopped at a set of traffic lights on the way into the city center when I happened to look over at the cold black marble walls of Café Semra. The pavement was filled with the usual sort of foot traffic, but there hunkered down against the partitioning wall between the café and a hairdressers, an Aboriginal man sat. His clothes well worn and wrinkled, perhaps from sleeping rough, and his head was a shorn bristle of grey. But it was what he was doing that hit me. The man, probably more shy of his 60th than his 50th year, was scrunching up his eyes, mouth hanging open, weeping in utter despondency. Yet everyone was walking and passing him by. No one turned an eye toward him. Or tried to help him…including me. Now I have seen many white men (mostly) in such a deplorable lot, but for the black man, I can’t help feel that his struggle is beset with even more challenges: alienation, misunderstood mentality, double identities. People walk by, indifferent, just another black man roaming lost.
Down city streets I would roam, I had no bed I had no home. Crawled out of the bushes early morn used newspapers to keep me warm, then I’d have to score a drink calm my nerves, help me to think
– Archie Roach, ‘Down City Streets.’
Australia’s Greatest Shame
Generations of stolen children, massacres of whole clans, children brought up and brainwashed ‘white,’ losing their language and their culture. Adding to that police brutality, people living in squalid or rough conditions waiting decades for housing, educational standards that test children in English and not their native tongues, and the fact that, not long ago black men and women, who once walked and lived freely on the lands where urban jungles now thrive, could only legally enter a town with an approved permit. This is the darker side of modern Australia’s history. It is something future generations will look back on as crimes against humanity.
…the added problem is, socially speaking, when you try to discuss it on a critical level, there are few who want to, or are bothered by it.
Recently, Australia’s government was again denounced last year by both the UN and Amnesty International for the treatment of disadvantaged indigenous people. Not particularly progressive or enlightening. And the added problem is, socially speaking, when you try to discuss it on a critical level, there are few who want to, or are bothered by it. Everyone’s just trying to get on with their lives.
Cleverman: Symbology in Indigenous Futurism
In the US, you have Black Lives Matter, you hear about gun violence and state police profiling. Here, you do learn what goes on sometimes through things like the riots in Wadeye in the Northern Territory or the violence that caused a whole school of staff to evacuate Arrakun in Cape York Peninsula, but mostly their situation is silenced, televised news media rarely reports on it, and there are many that seem to wander with a lost identity/sense of purpose, who are being ostracized as people with no real value to contribute to society. These are a people that endured over 170 (recorded) massacres that decimated the population in Eastern Australia with the nationwide death toll numbering in the hundreds of thousands. This is a systematic genocide on the scale of the Rape of Nangking in WWII. With this in mind, it adds significant emotional weight when you watch Cleverman.
If there is a new Australian sci-fi TV series that everyone must watch, its Cleverman. The first episode, “First Contact,” is filled with an undercurrent of dislocation, anger, and loss. It has everything: drama and tension between brothers, the questioning of honoring family and responsibility, and the very real third world conditions that ‘some’ Aboriginal people live in today. Through the vehicle of social science fiction, the series tackles things that make for sometimes uncomfortable viewing, simply because these are relevant issues that come from a real place of pain and subjugation.
Through the vehicle of social science fiction, the series tackles things that make for sometimes uncomfortable viewing…
Koen Wests’ act of betrayal, selling out ‘hairys’, is part of a larger insult to them and his own ‘tribe.’ Soon we learn that he has cut ties with his family to run a bar with his white friends. Here we see the two lives that a lot of Aboriginal people are required to live: balancing their own culture with the dominant western one. Later we see police separate a child from its family, ending in her death. This alludes to the Aboriginal Stolen Generation (forcible removal of children from their homes), which sadly is still happening today, with black children being removed at ten times the rate of non-indigenous children. Terms like ‘subs’ (sub-humans) and the fact that some people need a license to live outside their designated zone, and you see that there are a lot of serious, and all too real, themes being addressed.
Changing State of the Nation in Murrumu’s ‘Gimuy’
In Australia, we often read about how the rest of the world’s getting on. There is a lot happening in the world that is revolutionizing the way we think, communicate, work, and create. Sweden trials shorter working weeks while Finland abandons rigid teaching by subject in favor of adaptive ‘topic’ research projects. Both Germany and France have both reintroduced conscription in 2018, leading many of us to speculate that they are preparing for cold war, while Russia and China practice and display their military might in their largest tactical wargames since 2014, preparing themselves for (possibly?) modern global empire-building aspirations. And many consider the 2010-11 Arab Spring to be a Western-influenced sabotage of a proposed Pan-African league which, like the unifying of Euro and the EU, sought to bring the nations together, consolidating power and introducing a singular, national currency. But what of Aboriginal Australia?
Meet Murrumu Walubara, the Yindinji man that is turning the notion of future statehood on its head. Debate has long been held about whether Australia should become a republic or remain a member of the Commonwealth. But the former journalist has taken bold action, doing away with recognition of the invading government altogether. It is one of the most important developments in Aboriginal history since Richard Franklin demanded that the first wars fought by indigenous people during white invaders be recognized by the government and the Australian War Memorial.
…’Gimuy’, the Yidinji name for Cairns, has a growing number of pledged members, but looking to the future, it will be interesting to see what further develops.
Several years ago, he went as far as to renounce Australia and all the legal ‘chattels’ that tie him to the country, giving up his passport and drivers license in favor of living by tribal law and creating a sovereign Yidinji government. And to prove the sincerity of his mission, Murrumu has already met with ministers of foreign nations including Russia, Cuba, and Argentina. One can’t help but feel excited to be alive at this monumental paradigm shift in identity, meaning, and representation in this country, and it’s one of the more positive advances in Australia’s poor human rights record. At the present state ‘Gimuy’, the Yidinji name for Cairns, has a growing number of pledged members, but looking to the future, it will be interesting to see what further develops.
People have often romanticized Australia in a sci-fi future wasteland or a revolutionary time where current Australian states and nations break up, forming their own governments, much in the same way as the historical North-South Sudan split occurred. But imagine a future where you can obtain a Yidinji birth certificate, have marriages and educational qualifications recognized by the sovereign government, and even a hold a passport. It would be an opportunity to be part of the first nation, the original owners of the land.