1967 was a big year for Kev Carmody. That was the year he turned 21, got married and witnessed a resounding ‘yes’ vote in the 27 May referendum – a vote that carried hope to improve the lives of Indigenous people.
For the singer–songwriter once dubbed ‘Australia’s black Bob Dylan’, this was a major turning point in his and fellow Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples’ lives.
“We were finally being recognised as blacks, with our own culture and identity,” he said.
“We actually had rights to go into the picture theatre or the pub, we could vote…this was unheard of in a society with such institutionalised racism. I just couldn’t get my head around it.”
For, despite being proud of his 65,000-year Lama Lama and Bundjalung heritage, Carmody (Diploma of Education ’81) was used to hiding his identity – in fact, his whole body.
“As a child growing up in a droving family in western Queensland, my younger brother and I were taught to run and hide whenever we heard a motor car or engine because they [the authorities] were just taking all the kids away at that stage,” Carmody said.
“We thought it was a game. But that all stopped when an old Catholic priest convinced my parents to put us in his boarding school to ‘get the authorities off your back’. I was nine or 10 at the time and found it hard being put in the Grade 1 class to learn how to read and write.
“I remember thinking to myself that my intellect was going to be crammed with their way of thinking, yet I had all these skills they didn’t have – tracking, fencing, horse-handling. At age 10, I already knew how to make a living; I could survive, and I didn’t see why I needed to learn whitefella ways.”
Still, he stayed at school until early 1964, after which he spent several years working as a drover, wool presser, welder and labourer before enrolling at the Darling Downs Institute of Advanced Education (DDIAE) to complete a Bachelor of Arts. He had already been studying music part-time and his teacher thought he would cope.
“Perhaps because of the oral tradition of my people, I had always loved stories and songs,” Carmody said.
“I believe in the song-cycle of life. I had a thirst for learning and managed to convince DDIAE to enrol me on probation, and let me be assessed via song and guitar accompaniment while I brought my reading and writing skills up to speed. I studied music, history and geography.”
Carmody then moved to Brisbane and completed a Diploma of Education at UQ, later enrolling in master’s and PhD programs. However, he spent much of his time involved in student politics and forging his music career.
“UQ was a very political place during the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s, but so was the rest of the world,” he said.
“You had the Vietnam War, the civil rights movement in America – there was change happening. The dominance of Christian theology had started to erode and the traditional political system was having trouble coming to terms with everything.”
Since 1957, Queensland had been ruled by a conservative coalition government and protests had been effectively banned. But this did not stop about 4000 UQ students and staff from taking part in the first civil liberties march from UQ’s St Lucia campus to the Brisbane CBD on 8 September 1967. A turning point in activism in Australia, it led to the arrest of many. It also marked a new focus on gender and race equity and participatory forms of democracy.
So for the referendum to have been passed earlier that year was perhaps inevitable in such times of change. Carmody certainly thinks so, and believes that era was also the start of the land rights movement.
“In 1966, word was starting to spread about the drovers walking off Vestey [Wave Hill] Station in the Northern Territory because of the appalling conditions – not only with the wages and living conditions, but what was happening with the women when the men were off mustering. It made the news each night and in a sense consolidated a lot of Australia who started saying, ‘well this is just deplorable that these people haven’t even got the vote’.”
By the time Carmody arrived at UQ years later, many other issues – such as campus safety, sexism and police brutality – had captured his attention. With community Radio 4ZZ located on campus, he would take his guitar down to the studio and do a song live to air that would then be sent all around Australia.
“It was like an open conference. I would just make up a song on the spot when we held our little protests,” said Carmody, who would later co-write From Little Things Big Things Grow, a song about the Indigenous struggle for land rights and reconciliation.
One of these ‘little protests’ included working with UQ’s first Aboriginal tutor Lilla Watson and social work academic Matt Foley (who later became Queensland Attorney-General) to help establish what is now the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies (ATSIS) Unit on campus.
“We had to face the full Academic Board and explain why they were getting [Indigenous] students but not keeping them, because our mob’s used to having big communities around them. Thank goodness they finally got it, and the retention rates went up straight away,” Carmody said.
Fast forward to 2017 and another 21-year-old, Tionne Seden (Bachelor of Health Sciences’ 16), visits the ATSIS Unit almost daily. Currently studying a Doctor of Medicine program, Seden is a proud Torres Strait Islander woman and appreciates having a ‘home’ away from her home in Cairns.
Doctor of Medicine student Tionne Seden.
“The ATSIS Unit is a cultural haven for me on campus. I have a place to study and have a yarn with my friends, staff and academics. I feel a sense of belonging here,” Seden said.
Although not alive at the time, she believes the 1967 referendum was instrumental to her pride, identity and educational opportunities.
“To imagine my people not being considered as human is just disgusting, and also frightening. Without the ‘yes’ vote, I wouldn’t be able to walk around campus or in shopping centres and be proud of who I am and where I come from,” she said.
“My grandparents have worked, and continue to work, a multitude of jobs since their teenage years – from delivering the post on Thursday Island and being health workers to working on pearl luggers in remote Western Australia. It is clear that my life journey compared with my grandparents has been filled with an abundance of educational opportunities, specifically for our mob.
“It makes sense why my Athe (grandfather) encourages and praises us, his grand children who are at school and university, to get qualifications and make the most of our opportunities.”
Dr Pearl Duncan (Doctor of Philosophy ’14), who worked as a teacher in New South Wales in 1967, agrees that education needed improving in the ’60s.
“Aboriginal people couldn’t live in white suburbs or get a job, schools could refuse to accept Aboriginal children, or parents could band together and get Aboriginal children removed from schools,” she said.
“My brothers and I were lucky because we lived in a small country town where our mother did the housework for lots of families and, because they relied on her, they couldn’t get rid of us!”
At the time of the referendum, Duncan said the topic of the vote was in all the media and most people were all for it.
“I was accosted in the streets by [non-Indigenous] people saying they would be voting ‘yes’ in the referendum and that they were excited to be involved, saying it was long overdue,” she said.
Duncan said things did improve for her people after the referendum, and “rather quickly” once Gough Whitlam took power. She was on the National Aboriginal Education Committee and said they modelled their actions on the Canadian enclave support systems, such as Indigenous teacher aides, more Indigenous teachers and tertiary entrance assistance.
“It was about time people could make up their own mind and be able to influence government policies.”
Senior Lecturer in the ATSIS Unit and Munanjahli woman, Dr Chelsea Bond (Bachelor ofApplied Health Science (Hons) ’01, Doctor of Philosophy ’07), believes we still have a long way to go.
UQ Senior Lecturer Dr Chelsea Bond.
“While it was a remarkable feat that, 50 years ago, 90 per cent of Australians supported (in principle) the idea of a fair go for Aborigines, we cannot get too swept away with the idea that attending to the power of race is unfinished, or that it is confined to a constitutional clause or two,” she said.
“Fifty years on, there remain some uncomfortable truths about what those amendments did to improve the relationship between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australia… I cannot be blinded to the ways in which my presence is read racially, regardless of how hard working I am, how articulate I might be or how acceptable my presence might appear.”
“It does not inhibit the surveillance by police who perceive my presence as a predisposition to an unknown criminal act.
“It does not inhibit a rendering of me as an Aboriginal mother or my husband as an Aboriginal father being deemed at risk of not being able to look after our children properly.
“It does not prevent colleagues from seeing my presence as a scholar as an equity act, as an accommodation of my intellectual incapacity or as a cultural broker to white knowing.”
UQ Research Fellow Michael Aird.
UQ Research Fellow Michael Aird (Bachelor of Arts ’90) agrees somewhat, as demonstrated in his From relics to rights exhibition currently on show at the UQ Anthropology Museum.
“The 1967 referendum was a symbol of nothing really changing very much legally, but it was an incredible show of support from mainstream Australia to Aboriginal people,” he said.
“It was also the start of the Australian Government taking charge of Aboriginal programs and taking control off the states – which did not have a high opinion of Aboriginal people, seeing them as an inconvenience and having deprived them of many financial, educational, social and employment opportunities.
“But once that public support happened on 27 May 1967, many positive outcomes eventuated. Right across society, things were changing and justice for Aboriginal people was part of that.”
Although Aird is “always positive that things are getting better all the time”, he thinks more still needs to be done and, from his anthropological perspective, education is the key.
“You have to understand past injustices to understand why people are still suffering today. As much as we’d like them not to be, consequences are ongoing.”
For more information about the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island Unit, visit atsis.uq.edu.au.