DAVID Miller is an Aboriginal man who wasn’t raised in his people’s traditional ways and he wonders how different his life may have been.
He’s a man well-known to many Brisbane Catholics as the one who breaks the silence playing the clap sticks at the start of Masses and liturgies for major celebrations in St Stephen’s Cathedral.
It’s a ritual he performs leading into the indigenous Acknowledgement of Country before Mass begins.
David would normally be at the cathedral today (July 2) for the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Mass at the start of NAIDOC Week but he is in Cairns for the 2017 NAIDOC Awards Ceremony and Ball.
He was attending the ball last night (July 1) with family and friends.
A proud descendant of the Gangulu peoples of Central Queensland, David is passionate about justice and equality for all.
He knows well how his ancestors were denied those rights, and he continues to work for the good of indigenous peoples today.
For 24 years, he has been a member of Murri Ministry, a not-for-profit Catholic group supporting indigenous people around south-east Queensland under the umbrella of Centacare Brisbane.
David’s family, like so many other indigenous families, has known the trauma of being torn apart.
“All my ancestors come from (Central Queensland), from a little town called Banana (south-west of Rockhampton),” he said.
“My family was split up under the Aboriginal Protection Act of 1897.
“The full-blood Aboriginal people were taken to Taroom, then on to Woorabinda, then on to Barambah, which is now named Cherbourg, near Kingaroy and six kilometres from Murgon.
“There were forty different tribes put into Cherbourg from all over Queensland.
“They weren’t allowed to speak their language. That’s why, unfortunately, a lot of the different languages are lost now.”
David said Aboriginal people there “were thrown in jail” for speaking their own language.
“My grandmother and an aunty are full-bloods, so obviously they were sent to Cherbourg,” he said. “My two uncles, my mother and my aunty were fair-skinned. Their fathers were station owners.
“My mother was sent out as a domestic – or slave – at eight years old.
“From then she was working on stations all her life, and I think she was twenty-two years old when she got her exemption papers (exemption from the Act).
“If you were given that, you weren’t able to speak to Aboriginal people.
“It was to make you white, and the Government in those days, thought they were going to ‘whiten’ us out.”
David’s mother Emily Miller was a domestic worker on stations around Rockhampton, and she made sure he and his older brother had a good education, but they weren’t raised in traditional Aboriginal ways.
He has pondered what that has meant for him.
“If you’re looking back to see where we were going to be, it was a genocide virtually – that’s what it was – how we were going to be ‘whitened’ out,” he said. “But, apart from all that and those atrocities that happened, I have benefitted, I think, from that education.
“But, at the same time, the people from Cherbourg or settlements, a lot of those young people, too, because their parents or the elders were very, very strong in education, you’ll find just as many people come out of Cherbourg who are absolutely brilliant, too.
“I think, with all that aside, I was very fortunate that I wasn’t brought up under the Act like my mother was, but, at the same time, she was a very, very strong woman and education was the name of her game (for us).
“It’s a hard question actually, to put myself … I was lucky that I was brought up that way but not in those circumstances.”
David’s followed his mother’s example by encouraging his children Belinda and Damien in education, and is pleased they’ve made the best of their opportunities.
Belinda works for NITV and Screen Queensland in production and Damien’s a former foreign ambassador working in Canberra for the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade.
David has also made sure they were proud of their heritage and armed against racism.
“I’m fortunate – I don’t let people put me down, and I brought my kids up the same way – ‘Don’t let anybody think they’re better than you’,” he said.
“And, also at the same time, ‘Don’t think you’re better than anybody else’. It’s no good saying one thing and doing another.”
Retired from work about eight years, David gives much of his time walking the talk – not just with Murri Ministry but with several other groups, including Brisbane archdiocese’s Catholic Justice and Peace Commission and the archdiocese’s Reconciliation Action Plan (RAP) committee.
The RAP, approved by Archbishop Mark Coleridge, identifies priorities and key goals in building awareness of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander culture, and strengthens relationships between Aboriginal and non-indigenous people across the archdiocese.
It includes recognising indigenous cultural protocols – “welcome to country” ceremonies performed by elders, acknowledging traditional owners of local parishes and communities, naming the traditional land custodians in commemorative plaques, and ensuring indigenous flags are flown in parish grounds and schools.
David’s also been active on his parish council.
And why does he do it?
“I like helping people, but I feel within myself that I have a calling to do justice-related acts,” he said.
He doesn’t think we’ll ever get rid of racism “but we can only try our best to stamp it out”. He’s only experienced racism “a couple of times” himself, although he said “once I wasn’t invited to a certain place, because I was Aboriginal …”
“It upset me a little … (but) I thought, ‘Well, I’m better than that, anyway, so why let it worry you?’
“I always walk with my head high.
“At the same time it affects you, but not everybody can do that and you don’t realise some of the damaging things that are caused by bullying and racism.”
David said whatever happened in debates about Constitutional recognition of indigenous peoples or treaties or other similar issues it was important the decisions were made by indigenous people and they were not “dictated to”.
“That’s been going on too long,” he said. “I don’t like inequality. That’s why I do what I do.
“My prayer for Australia would be justice for all – equality for everybody.”