NACCHO Aboriginal health news alert: Our Survival is a process of living, whereas victory is a choice


” This Survival Day I would like all of us make a decision – in our communities, our families, our businesses and in the way we speak to people – to live in victory. To complete the survival process and reach that better place.”

Josephine Cashman BIO and her ‘Mother’ Margaret Brown pictured above The STRINGER

Josephine is also member of the Prime Minister’s Indigenous Advisory Council.

From Bungaree

Please note: All NACCHO Aboriginal media alerts are provided to members and stakeholders for information sharing and “healthy debate” purposes only and are not endorsed by the NACCHO board .

Speech Chapel by the Sea, Bondi 26th January 2014

Today is Australia Day, a day that many Indigenous people call Survival Day. The title for my speech tonight is ‘Survival is a process of living, whereas Victory is a choice’. The inspiration for this title came from our Prime Minister, Mr Tony Abbott and in a few minutes I’ll tell you why.

Firstly, I want to acknowledge all the Elders past and present who fought so hard to ensure this day would provide a platform for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander voices. I feel honoured to be one of those voices this evening.

In Indigenous affairs, we talk a lot about disadvantage and survival. I find these words uninspiring. I don’t believe they portray the resilience of our people or our people’s successes. And they certainly don’t portray the potential for all Australians to come together.

Indigenous people are more than just survivors. Tonight I want to tell you the stories of two people who exemplify what I am talking about. I will also tell you a bit about my own story.

I’ll start with a young woman called Lani Brennan. Lani is of Aboriginal and Maori descent and was raised in an urban Aboriginal community in Sydney. She grew up in a world where alcoholism and violence was part of life. At 18, she began a relationship with a young Aboriginal man from her community, a relationship she nearly didn’t survive, after he raped, battered and tortured her over many years.

I first met Lani in 2006 when I was assigned as her ex-partner’s prosecutor. To this day Lani bears the scars of her abuse – chisel marks in her back, a massive gash on her leg, a large indent in her head. We took photos of her scars as evidence for the trial … 6 years after they were inflicted.

Lani made a complaint to police in 2002 at the urging of her current partner, John Duckett. It took three and a half years for the police to execute the warrant. They just didn’t do it. During that time, her ex-de facto was arrested at least 42 times and imprisoned for firearms offences amongst other things.

However, John and Lani never gave up. They demanded justice in an environment where justice was not offered to them.

At the trial Lani went through months of gruelling cross-examination during which she was attacked with appalling accusations – that she likes being hit, that she was a drug addict. However, Lani stood strong.

Lani was heavily pregnant during the trial and one day she went to hospital for a caesarean. The judge offered her 2 weeks leave. However, she was back by Monday morning. She told the judge she wanted to continue giving evidence – he just had to stop when she needed to breastfeed.

Lani’s ex-partner was convicted and sentenced to 33 years. Then he appealed. So she he had to go through it all again.

Today Lani and John are still together and they have six children. She works at a drop- in centre supporting Aboriginal women. Last year she told the Sydney Morning Herald “Going through the beatings and escaping death so many times has made me a stronger person. I voice my opinion and I don’t care what anyone says.”

Lani’s voice came out loud and strong last year in her book Lani’s Story published by Harper Collins and a documentary  produced by Blackfella Films.

I offered to help organise a book launch. I decided I would ask Mr Tony Abbott, then Opposition Leader, to launch the book. I’d never met him before but it couldn’t hurt to ask. I was so pleased when Mr Abbott agreed to host the launch at Parliament House in Canberra.

Mr Abbott arrived at the launch with his copy of the book. It was extensively tabbed and highlighted and we could tell he had spent time reading it.

When he stepped up to the lectern he cast his eyes across the room filled with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and senior members of the Coalition. Then he turned and looked directly at Lani. The room was full but it felt like there was no one else there. He said, “Lani you are not just a survivor, you are in victory”.

At that point, it struck me. Survival is not the end goal. Surviving is a process we go through to get somewhere much better. On that day, Mr Abbott described that place as being “in victory”.

I want every Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander person to make that choice to move past survival and into victory, whatever that is for them.

The second person I want to tell you is about William Brian Butler. Uncle Brian was born in 1938 at Bagot Reserve Detention Centre in Darwin but his people come from east of Alice Springs.


Uncle Brian’s grandmother, Eliza, was removed from her family by police troopers when she was only 9 years old. She wasn’t taken to an institution. Instead, the troopers took her with them as they rode through the camps around Alice Springs and used her to help them find all the “half caste” children. They also used her for sex. She was forced to smother her first-born baby at birth. Eliza travelled with the troopers for years. Nobody knows how many other children she had or what happened to them.

Eliza lived to her nineties. She carried this burden alone until she was on her deathbed. Then she finally broke down and shared her story with her family.

Eliza had two known children who lived to adulthood – Emily and Mavis. Emily, Uncle Brian’s mother, was born to her and her Luritja husband. Sadly, he was killed by the “kadaicha men” from the Aranda people amid tribal conflict. Mavis’ father was a local pastoralist.

Emily and Mavis were taken away from their mother and separated from each other in the mid 1920’s. Emily went to Bagot Reserve and trained to work as a domestic in Government House. She married Brian’s father, Jim Butler, a non-Aboriginal man who worked as the cook at Bagot Reserve. After the Japanese bombing of Darwin, the family relocated back to Alice Springs and were reunited with Eliza and the extended family.

Butler subjected the family to ongoing abuse. Uncle Brian clearly remembers his father swinging his mother around by her long dark hair and sinking his steel-capped boots deep into her sides. He did the same thing to Eliza.

Jim Butler eventually sent Uncle Brian to board at Sacred Heart College in Adelaide. He was the only Aboriginal boarder amongst 500 students. There he received an education, but a brutal one. Racism forced him to fight every day whilst grieving for his mother and grandmother.

On his return trips during school holidays, he often sat with the old people in the communities around Alice Springs. He would listen to the cries of the women wanting to find their children. He decided to devote his life to searching for the children and reuniting families. He joined the Merchant Navy so he could travel around the country. And that was the beginning of his work to bring families and communities back together.

There is so much more to Uncle Brian’s story. With other Indigenous leaders, he established some of the first Aboriginal child protection mechanisms in Australia. These institutions were pivotal in lobbying in 1978 for the Inquiry into the Forced Removal of Aboriginal Children, which in turn formed the basis for The Bringing Them Home Report in 1997. In time, this led to the National Apology.

And that is how Uncle Brian became victorious.

These two stories illustrate that not all of the hardships our people suffer have been at the hands of white people. We have also suffered at the hands of each other. People don’t always treat their families or neighbours well in ordinary circumstances, but when a people are oppressed they can often be more harmful to each other. We call this phenomenon “lateral violence”. It happens when members of oppressed groups turn on each other, fuelled by the anger they actually feel for their oppressors. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities have been terribly damaged by lateral violence.

Indigenous people hurting each other, whether through violence, put-downs, jealousy or even abuse on social media, is a big problem in our communities today. Whether it is caused by inter-generational grief or past oppression or drugs & alcohol or abuse or rage about the past isn’t the point. The point is that it is hurting our people and we need to address it. Part of our healing process as Indigenous people means looking inwards: at ourselves, our own families and our own communities.

The current chapter in Uncle Brian’s amazing story has been to co-found the organisation Lateral Love. The organisation has grown rapidly in a short time with interest from around the world. Essentially, Lateral Love promotes mutual respect as the way forward for Indigenous people. This is also essential for all Australians as we seek reconciliation.

Lastly, I would like to tell you a little of my story.

People’s stories are not just about what happens to them. The more interesting part of a person’s story is the choices they make. So I am going to tell my story as a series of choices.

I first ran away from home when I was 12. I wanted to escape a childhood scarred by domestic violence, alcoholism and inter-generational trauma. I spent the first night in a drain and I decided I was going to live there for the rest of my life. The police put an end to that ambition when they pulled me out the next day and sent me home. I left home for good when I was 14.

I could have made a decision to become a street kid, but I didn’t. I found a family who let me live with them, finished Year 10 and then left school to get a job.

Eventually I finished my schooling in a roundabout way and was accepted into University. In between, I had my son Joseph just after my 19th birthday. I split from his father when he was 3 years old and moved into a women’s refuge.

I could have made the decision to live the rest of my life on a pension, but I didn’t. I decided to go to University and change my life.

I stayed in that women’s refuge for the first 18 months of University. I now have two degrees, Law and Communications & Journalism. I was behind the eight ball when I started University and I could have made all sorts of excuses to fail, but I didn’t. Instead, I decided I was going to pass everything at University. And I did.

At University, my son attended day care and I worked to support us. I felt like an outsider, different from everybody else. I wasn’t like the other students and I wasn’t like the mothers who were at home looking after their babies. I didn’t fit in anywhere.

I could have been resentful and miserable, but I wasn’t. Instead, I remembered something my grandmother used to say to me, “You are not better than anyone else but no one is better than you.” I decided to just be the best I could be, focus on my own goals and stop being jealous of other people. I decided to treat anyone who had hurt me, or whom I had lost my trust and faith in, as blessings in my life. I decided to play the hand that I had been dealt.

** *

For Lani, living in victory meant dealing with her past and building her life with John and their children. For Uncle Brian, living in victory meant devoting his life to putting families and communities back together. For me, living in victory meant focusing on the things I can change – myself – and not on the things I can’t – other people.

People talk about “empowerment” of Indigenous people. Power is not given. It is taken. Lani and Uncle Brian made a choice to break away from the past and exercise the power they actually already had. They didn’t wait for someone to give it to them, and nobody would have.

We need to stop telling Indigenous people that they are disadvantaged. And Indigenous people need to stop telling each other, especially their children, that they’re victims of a racist system.

Imagine the impact on a child to hear from the time they are born that they are disadvantaged, that everyone is racist and that the country is against them. Imagine growing up looking at life through that prism.

It’s time to change the music. Let’s decide to tell our children that they live in a world of possibilities, that they can try their hand at whatever they want to, that this country wants them to succeed (because actually it does) and that they can go as far as they want if they try hard enough.

This Survival Day I would like all of us make a decision – in our communities, our families, our businesses and in the way be speak to people – to live in victory. To complete the survival process and reach that better place.

Disadvantage is something that happens to us. Survival is a process we go through to move past disadvantage. Victory is a choice. Let’s all make a decision to be victorious and reach that better place.