Aboriginal elder still connected firmly to his roots

Waterford - After spending much of his life trying to improve the treatment of Australia's indigenous populations by mainstream society - at best incompetent and at worst barbaric - you'd think Bob Randall would be a broken man, embittered from years of struggle and disappointment.

But the aboriginal elder, who over time emerged as a de facto spokesman for indigenous rights around the world, maintains the same attitude he's held since day one, shaped by the beliefs his ancestors have passed down for thousands of years: With mutual understanding, it is possible for two disparate cultures to live in harmony.

"We're all responsible for each other's welfare, that's really what it is," Randall said. "We can respect the differences as well as the commonalities between us, but the desire to do so must be there."

Through lectures, books and songs, Randall has worked to spread that ideology, known in his language simply as "Kanyini." Since the 1950s, he's also started a multitude of community organizations and humanitarian projects for aboriginals across Australia.

Randall, who is in the area visiting his wife's family for the summer, will host a screening of "Kanyini," a recent documentary about his teachings, and a question-and-answer session at 7 p.m. Thursday at Waterford Public Library.

That Randall has managed to stay connected with his heritage is something of a miracle. Born to a Scottish rancher and an aboriginal mother sometime in the late 1920s, he is a member of the so-called Stolen Generations, a term used to describe the thousands of aboriginal and half-caste children forcibly taken from their families by the government and placed into institutions and orphanages. Although its ultimate goal was assimilation, the exact reasoning behind the practice, which lasted from the mid-19th century until the 1960s in some places, is still debated in Australia today.

Up until he was taken at age 7, Randall lived the traditional aboriginal lifestyle and spoke no English. After being removed from his family and relocated to the Croker Island Reservation on Australia's northern coast, run by the Methodist Church, he was assigned an official birth date and forbidden to speak his native language or maintain any cultural traditions.

"It was hard to learn English," he said. "They wanted us to be white, but we weren't. We couldn't be."

Although his tough upbringing on the reservation provided him with a quality education, it left him unprepared to understand and deal with white society and government upon his release in the late 1950s. He moved to the nearby city of Darwin, and ultimately it was his struggle to navigate the modern world that inspired him to start working to improve the lives of aboriginals everywhere.

"We had to adjust to urban living, which involved making our own decisions about everything, but we had no one to help us do that," he said. "The government just sort of dumped us into the world and said you're not in our care anymore, so I took it on to look after everyone that was coming in the best I could."

To do so, Randall started numerous community organizations in Darwin, including the Aboriginal Development foundation and a boxing club, a sport he said gave him an outlet for all his anger at the system as a teenager. He also traveled around the country and started indigenous centers at the Australian National University, the University of Canberra and the University of Wollongong, hoping to encourage aboriginals to pursue higher education to give them a chance to begin managing their own affairs.

"In my area, there are between two and five white people looking after every one aboriginal, and it's just to create jobs for themselves because so many of these public servants have nothing to do," he said. "The result is that there are a lot of people looking after us. But what we need is none of them and all of us, while maintaining the same resources that are paid to the whites; those need to be given to the blacks, and that never happens."

Song changes history

Randall's talents extend beyond community organizer. In the late 1960s he was sitting on a plane when his mother appeared to him in a vision and gave him the inspiration for a song about the government policy of taking children. The result was "My Brown Skin Baby, They Take 'Im Away," a haunting song that became the basis of a documentary, the publicity from which forced the Australian government to officially ban the practice in 1973.

For Randall, who learned how to play guitar by listening to old Hank Snow records on a windup gramophone on the reservation, the song will never lose its importance.

"The song made the film, the film went 'round the world and the world stopped to look," he said. "It changed the history of Australia; isn't it amazing how a song can do that?"

The song describes a child being taken from his family, but when the boy grows up and returns to his traditional land to look for his mother, he discovers that she is dead. It mirrors Randall's own experience - upon returning to his family's traditional land for the first time, 20 years later, only his grandfather and one uncle were alive. He says he is incredibly thankful that there was still someone alive, not only to show him around his land, but to validate his existence as a part of that culture.

Twenty years ago, after writing a few books on his life and the teachings of the aboriginal culture, Randall returned to his people's land once more, this time for good. He lives in a small trailer in the shadow of Uluru, the well-known giant sandstone mound in the middle of the desert, in a small aboriginal community known as Mutitjulu. Many of its 150 residents live in abject poverty with little education.

An absence of justice

On the other side of the rock, thousands of tourists stream into the national park and accompanying resort complex every day. Although the government formally handed back the land, including Uluru, to the Yankunytjatjara Nation in 1985, the fine print of the agreement leases the land back to the government for the next 99 years. The government collects all the admission revenue from the park, and while donation slips to help the aboriginals are placed in all the hotel rooms in the resort, the people of Mutitjulu, many of whom cannot speak English, must fill out a submission form to receive any of the money.

"The perception is that these people are being taken care of, but the reality is that they have no access to this money," said Barbara Schacht, Randall's wife. "Nobody has any idea that justice has totally eluded these people."

Schacht, a local woman whose grandmother helped found the Waterford Country School, met Randall in 2008 while visiting her daughter who had moved to Australia. She lives with him in Mutitjulu and compared mainstream society to a toddler in its capacity to understand and learn from aboriginal culture.

"We're not talking about everybody getting naked again and going backwards," she said. "We're talking about utilizing technology to help people while remembering an attitude of mutual respect and caring for all life; that's what indigenous cultures bring to our world, that's what we've forgotten."

In other words, Kanyini. In 2006, Randall's teachings on that philosophy became the subject of a documentary by the same name that went on to win several film festival awards. He has a small piece of advice to help people start incorporating it into their daily lives: "Just say hello to every person you meet and listen to them. If we do, it would make an enormous difference in the world."

k.cheromcha@theday.com

IF YOU GO

What: A screening of the documentary "Kanyini" and a Q&A, hosted by Bob Randall

When: Thursday

Where: Waterford Public Library

Cost: Free

More info: www.waterfordpubliclibrary.org

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