Island at the Far Corner of the World

Brendan Donley


Brendan Donley is an American expat experiencing Australia’s biggest holiday. It’s a day divided in two: a celebration of national pride, and the anniversary of the beginning of inflicted violence and trauma on the Aboriginal population. Here is a look at Australia Day 2016, as a local Indigenous community attempts to bring awareness to what these celebrations of fireworks and picnics really mean: “If we don’t stand up for who we are, the government will do whatever they like. We didn’t have a Martin Luther King, Jr. or a Nelson Mandela in this country, just a tent in Canberra in the ‘70s.”

I’m in the middle of Australia’s sunniest city on a day with no clouds, feeling water drops splash onto my ankle. Up ahead of me, a man with white ocher painted on his chest and arms yells into a megaphone for probably the hundredth time: Always was, always will be, Aboriginal land!  Things suddenly get quiet behind him, and he turns around. There’s a plastic water bottle lying crumpled on the pavement, a wet spray of splash marks, and a group of nervous protestors looking up at a luxury apartment balcony fifteen stories above.

This was the 2016 edition of Australia Day in Perth, a holiday that commemorates the 1788 arrival of the First Fleet of British ships to Sydney harbor, and serves today as an ardent national ode to Aussie pride. But in many Aboriginal communities, the day marks the beginning of a harrowing history of genocide and segregation, and goes by a wholly different appellation: Invasion Day. 

As an expat and outsider, I found myself with an up-close look at this divided holiday, without the obligation to participate. The day ended with the sight of 10 tons of fireworks shot off into the night sky over a seemingly endless spread of family picnics. But I began the afternoon at the Invasion Day march (or Survival Day, as it’s also known)—part protest, part cultural celebration—watching as it wound its way through the main city’s main streets. 

It was there, along a prominent strip of condos and hotels, that the whole group of nearly 200 protestors craned their necks up at the balcony overhead, its tenant quickly dodging inside, unidentified and seemingly alone. The protestors—moms with strollers, older couples, shirtless men and kids waving flags—looked around them with a familiar frustration, seeing the smashed remains of discarded fruit and at least two crunched up plastic bottles. 

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After a few minutes, with no one injured, they marched onward, booming out chanted refrains at double volume, past another mile of high-rises and overflowing sports bars. They made their final turn across a long park toward the site of a protest concert, passing giant slip-n-slides, cotton-candy stalls, and a teeming crowd of yachts anchored offshore in the Swan River estuary.

Earlier that day, at an Aboriginal tent community on nearby Heirisson Island, where the march would later begin, I spoke with Clinton Pryor, the leader of the protest, sans megaphone and traditional Noongar garb.

As I walked over through the grass, he was sitting on a lawn chair in a blue tent, typing updates on a Facebook page created to spread information about the march. I asked about his plans for the protest, what messages he’d been posting.

“We want people to not celebrate,” Pryor said. “What are they celebrating?” he asked. “Australia Day is a racist day.”

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For most who celebrate Australia Day, the holiday exists as a prideful but oft-parodied catch-all for the kinds of beaming patriotism usually less pronounced during the rest of the year. A high-budget TV advertisement for lamb sales with the hook “Commence Operation Boomerang” went viral here in December, depicting SWAT-like agents breaking through glass windows to rescue Australians living abroad, saying “Come on—we’re bringing you home for Australia Day!”

And self-deprecating memes including, “This Australia Day, try not to punch anyone in the head,” circulated widely online around Australia in the lead-up to the holiday. 

But the day, even outside the Aboriginal community, has not been without calls for more serious opposition, and concerns about its sometimes ugly, more nationalistic side. In December and January, forest fires brought about by dry conditions led many Western Australians to question the merits of a holiday devoting—and not inexpensively—its primary focus to the release of celebratory fireworks in a part of the country where the odor of burning ashes lingers in the not-too-far-away air.

As a foreigner, my experience with the holiday grew steadily in the weeks leading up to January 26th. Like an alternate version of Independence Day back home in the U.S., the local grocery stores displayed kiosks of Australian-flag-themed merchandise, Vegemite jars, Tim-Tam packages, sparklers and colorful beach towels as hype-filled Twitter trends started roaring up to full steam.

In this conflicting sea of marketing, controversy and online postings, it was hard to get a full sense of what the holiday stood for or even looked like until it actually happened.

So I decided to look for visual markers: how cultural divisions tend to be mapped between one area and another, hoping the city would reveal some glint of its conflicting, complex colors if I simply looked closely enough. 

With a week to go until Australia Day, this led me to Heirisson Island.

The first time there, I was out for a run in the early morning along a causeway that runs through the island as it connects the eastern suburbs with central Perth. The island is at once an unusual place, with no permanent housing or landscaping, sandwiched between a massive casino and cricket stadium across a narrow bend in the river.

I took a turn onto the island’s southern half, winding my way around the dusty trails of a fenced-off kangaroo enclosure, noticing groups of European and Indian tourists trickling in. The northern half of the island, back across the major causeway, yielded a different scene: no kangaroos, no tourists, and a dense thicket of camping tents with banners hung on poles outside: GIVE BACK OUR HOMEGROUNDS, and SORRY FOR WHAT?

Days later, I ran along the same route, planning to loop around toward the tents to see if anything had changed. Along the causeway, a row of large Australian flags had been fixed atop the planters on the median. A padlock had been attached to the gate. And a sign had been posted to the fence of the enclosure, marking the area off-limits for the safe assembly and testing of the country’s largest fireworks show on Australia Day. 

To understand Australia Day, I soon realized, is in many ways to understand this island. I turned away from the fence, jogged back to my apartment from the island, and set out to learn exactly what forces were dividing it and a nation so sharply in two.

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Before the march, I spoke with Clinton Pryor at the tent community on Heirisson Island, in lawn chairs beside the huddled mass of tents, together with elder Bella Bropho, as he described his role in the tight community of citizens identifying as Noongar, the predominant Aboriginal collective group in Western Australia.

“We on the island class ourselves as refugees,” he said, showing me a wooden post along the road, marked Matagarup Refugee Camp.

The current tent community has been set up since March of 2015 to protest the government’s proposed closure of more than 100 far-flung Aboriginal communities deemed economically unsustainable—with utilities and funding threatened to be cut off, but with uncertain solutions for existing residents. Since 2012, similar iterations of the current community protest have periodically emerged, all paying homage, in some respects, to the original 1972 “Tent Embassy” in Canberra, the nation’s capital, which protested the national government’s response to Aboriginal land rights.

In April of 2015, these lands-rights disputes reached a breaking point.

Led by police on horseback, the Perth government advanced on the island in a show of force, confronting a unified, vehement standoff from residents. Tents, beds, childrens’ toys and other property were confiscated in the raid—one of several recent attempts to stop the protest from expanding, now with over a year of consistent full-time inhabitation of the island.

The Noongar community, while not united in consensus around the many issues, includes the island community as one of its representatives, some of the most consistently vocal activists against the city’s perceived poor treatment of conflicts. They advocate, in addition to their primary cause, for the awareness of toxic content in rural rivers, and high Aboriginal suicide rates. 

And perhaps most pressingly, Pryor and others have led opposition to the $1.3 billion agreement reached in 2015 with the Western Australian government and SWALSC, a representative body for Noongars, which, while lauded by some for the influx of funding, included an alleged miscarriage of fair voting procedures, excluding a portion of Noongar votes in a decision set to affect the community for decades to come.

What Heirisson Island represents, in a state over three times larger than Texas, is a core urban part of a community often overlooked in media due to the struggles plaguing rural communities, including the high rates of suicide and alcoholism abuse. With the protests of 2015, with the native-title deal, with the rows of Aboriginal flags staked along the highway crossing the island, they’ve started the push for greater attention.

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In the days before January 26th, I ventured to the southern half of the island to speak with Andrew Howard, director of Howards & Sons Pyrotechnics. He’d been tasked with preparing and producing the upcoming fireworks display, the headlining act of a day that would drape Perth in patriotic pride in the form of camel and pony rides, motocross shows, water slides, and aeronautic and aquatic displays. 

“The main consensus,” Howard said, “is that Australia Day is a great day to celebrate together as a community.”

I asked about the protests on the other side of the island, and about the aftermath of a man’s tent that had been removed by police from the southern (fenced-off) half, a dispute that put the city’s safety concerns with the Noongar community’s long-standing claims to the land in direct conflict.

“Protests happen everywhere,” Howard said. “Milestone dates are almost always marked by protests.” “In the city’s view,” he added, “it’s public land—it’s always been used for this purpose.”

Mr. Howard, whose company won a three-year contract from the city for the show, maintained that all necessary permits were legally acquired, and that providing entertainment and safety were the main concerns.

“There are spectrums within the community that see Australia Day differently,” Howard said, about the protests, “with some not having any problems and others that deliver a strong message about it.”

On that side of the island, behind the chainlink fence, I’d seen a group of workers concerned with safety and not conflict, putting on a good show and not territorial encroachment. 

But on the island’s other half, the conflict was picking up steam, with Noongar protests declaring the set-up an offense to what they consider just, and the city government the unlawful arbiters of a land considered too hallowed to be contributing to such a holiday.

“This island is a sacred place,” said Clinton Pryor, alluding to its ancient past as a women’s birthing ground and to the sacred fire the camp had maintained over the past year.

The encroachment of the fireworks, in his eyes, together with the police raids constituted a violation of Noongar rights on the part of the city of Perth, as he cited 1972 legislation designating Heirisson Island as an officially recognized site through the Department of Aboriginal Affairs.

Mr. Pryor, along with his relative Herbert Bropho outside the tent, had hooked up a garden hose to a small park facility nearby, and began filling up a blow-up pool for the children staying on the island, one of many donations from outsiders sympathetic to their cause. He interrupted our talk for a moment, mentioning his computer battery had been running low. Gathering his bag, he strode over to the underside of one half of the causeway bridge spanning the island, returning to an improvised power source that had become vital after generators were seized in one of the police raids. Pryor plugged in his device, looking for enough power to send the messages he said needed to be heard.

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As Australia Day grows every year, the essential problem for most Aboriginal Australians is this: What it commemorates, rather than independence or the birth of a unified Australia, is day one of the British fleet setting a flag down in the soil some 2,000 miles away in Sydney Harbor—a symbol still enshrined in the upper left corner of today’s flag, and in the minds of many Aboriginals as a harsh reminder of a long history of second-class status.

Elder Bella Bropho, who’s been living with the community on the island for months, and assembled there as early as 1982 campaigning for similar causes, spoke frankly of a violent, traumatic history in an Australia once deemed terra nullius—empty land; land uninhabited—and the long-time unrecognized legal standing of Aboriginal Australians.

“It’s a never-ending thing,” she said, recalling the “stolen generations”—a long-term systematic policy of removing Aboriginal children from their original homes, and into state and missionary institutions, as recently as the 1970s.

“If we don’t stand up for who we are,” she said, “the government will do whatever they like. We didn’t have a Martin Luther King, Jr. or a Nelson Mandela in this country, just a tent in Canberra in the ‘70s.”

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In a press release, Lisa Scaffidi, City of Perth Lord Mayor, emphasized the diverse cultural threads running through the holiday, remarking on its universal positivity above all else.

“It is a fine example of Australian culture and our unique brand of patriotism,” Scaffidi said. In the release, Scaffidi added: “When people want to know what Australia does for its Fourth of July, they look to the City of Perth Skyworks.”

For Bella Bropho, and many in the Australian Aboriginal community, understanding the holiday is a matter of perspective, with a distinction to be firmly made. 

January 26th, as it currently stands, celebrates not independence from Crown rule, as the 4th of July does in the U.S., and not the commemoration of a great naval victory or an abstract ideal of national pride. 

It celebrates, in blunt terms, day one of an invasion. 

“I get it,” said Marc Jones, a member of the Noongar community in Perth, unaffiliated with the Heirisson Island protests and community. “It’s the one day when everyone goes all out.”

“But it stands for genocide,” Jones said. “It does.”    

The week of the holiday, I spoke about its implications with Leonard Collard, Professor at the University of Western Australia’s School of Indigenous Studies, who’s worked to create a Noongar Wikipedia dictionary, to help preserve a language fading in use throughout the state.

“Australia Day is marking an episode in European colonial invasion history, when they occupied something that didn’t belong to them,” Collard said, adding that the day acts as a culmination of many dissatisfactions across Aboriginal Australia.

“Aboriginals have always had counter narratives and have challenged views about the day of occupation,” he added. 

For Mr. Collard, who understands the holiday’s role for many people as an innocent appeal to national pride and outdoor summer fun, Australia Day—whether widely known or not—commemorates a painful history, the worst possible date for a holiday which, while likely to always offend some, would be regarded by many as far more acceptable elsewhere on the calendar.

“If the holiday has to stay,” said Clinton Pryor, back on Heirisson Island, “we only ask that it be moved to January 1st, which is when Australia was really founded, with official Federation.”

With the holiday unlikely ever to be cancelled, the oft-repeated secondary goal is thus for more pliable debate to emerge over how the country’s divided cultures can coexist without existential protest, and how modern Australia can come together across two different flags, two different communities, and two sharply different reactions to a British flag being planted in the ground over 200 years ago.

In January, just before Australia Day, a video went viral here, circulating with rousing inspiration to all corners of Australia. It was a speech, given at Sydney’s Ethics Centre in October, from former CNN journalist Stan Grant, who spoke of his native Wiradjuri heritage and Australia’s legacy of racism to a nationally televised audience at the IQ2 debate.

In the winter of 2015, he began, Australia turned to face itself. It looked into its soul, and it had to ask this question: Who are we? What sort of country do we want to be?

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On the evening of January 26th, with Australia Day 2016 all but over, I sat watching the fireworks from the Swan River foreshore, with downtown Perth as the backdrop to a massive show of lights. It was peaceful, happy. I saw neither protest nor blatant patriotism at play, only the miles-long spread of post-picnic faces pointing together in one direction, toward lights and lasers and the youthful joy that comes with mid-summer—lit up behind scores of smart-phones recording the moment. 

I heard Arabic and Cantonese, Spanish and Gujarati, a testament to an increasingly multicultural Australia.

But just across the river, in the flickering shadows between explosions and drifting smoke clouds, the sole unlit part of Perth huddled atop a bend in the Swan River like a forgotten party guest, in plain sight but unseen by a single pair of diverted eyes. The tents were still there, somewhere, their residents probably tending a small fire or turning in for the night, with the sounds of patriotic Australia cascading out overhead. 

It was usual, but unusual—yet another year within the long history of social division in Australia, though it looked only like celebration. It was a warm summer night without any visible dissent. It was 30 minutes of dazzling fireworks synchronized to a soundtrack of AC/DC and Coldplay. It was an island I returned to a week later, running its sandy perimeter, with the padlocks and fireworks crew long since gone, looking as if nothing at all had changed. 

Next year, the crowds will return. Fireworks will fly, and boats will line up in long rows along the foreshore. The island will be listening, quietly with its own fire lit, for the many sounds of a conversation not being had. Listening for a change to come. Any year now.

@BrendanJDonley