A black arm band is a gesture of mourning around the world. But for aboriginals in Australia it has come to mean something else.
The "black arm band view of history" is a version of history that takes a critical — some would say militant — analysis of Anglo-Australia's mistreatment of indigenous people. Much like American Indians, indigenous Australians — who've lived on their continent for at least 40,000 years — have had their land stolen, treaties broken, and children taken away.
That's exactly what The Black Arm Band sings about. Formally known as the The Black Arm Band Company, it's a kind of all-star protest music supergroup, featuring a rotating roster of Australian indigenous musicians who are all successful in their own right. Singer and songwriter Shellie Morris is one of the original members.
"We were all out there singing our songs, telling our stories by ourselves," Morris says. "So we were going to get together and do it in a much stronger way because of who we are and where we've all come from. We're not up there yelling and screaming and saying 'It's your fault, it's your fault.'"
Taking The Message Further
The aboriginal rights movement in Australia parallels the American Indian movement in this country, with similar goals: land rights, self determination, cultural acceptance. There is also day-to-day discrimination. Morris says last year she performed at the Sydney Opera House, a crowning achievement for an Australian artist. She invited nine indigenous women from her community to attend. When it was over, they went outside, stood on the sidewalk and tried to hail a cab.
"Twenty taxis wouldn't pick us up," Morris says. "They see that you're aboriginal and you're not getting in."
Dan Sultan is a 28-year-old aboriginal rocker who's played with The Black Arm Band from the beginning.
"What The Black Arm Band is trying to do," Sultan says, "is open people up, open peoples' eyes up to the situation, just put a big ole mirror up so people can have a bit of a look at themselves."
The Black Arm Band has earned a loyal following among its overwhelmingly white audiences. Brian Strating is a folk musician and a primary school teacher in Melbourne, and a big fan of the band.
"I think they are contributing in a very, very important way and a very powerful way to a conversation and the education of the general Australian public," Strating says. "The audience might already be sympathetic and understanding, but there's an amplification that I think spreads beyond that. It gives people like me in the audience inspiration to take the message with us further."
Retribution For Stolen Children
One of Australia's best known aboriginal singer-songwriters is 57-year-old Archie Roach. His most famous composition is his personal story of what have come to be called the Stolen Children. These are the aboriginal sons and daughters — especially mixed race children — who were forcibly removed from their parents by the Australian government to be raised by white foster families between 1870 and 1970. (Roach was 3 when he was taken away.)
In 1995, the Australian attorney general launched an exhaustive investigation into the Stolen Children. But it wasn't until 2008, in a landmark address to the commonwealth, that Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd issued a full apology: "We apologize especially for the removal of aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children from their families, their communities and their country. For the pain, suffering and hurt of these stolen generations, their descendants, and for their families left behind, we say sorry."
Australia now observes a National Sorry Day to express regret for the historical mistreatment of indigenous people — people who make up about two percent of the population and who suffer dramatically higher rates of infant mortality, drug abuse, alcoholism and unemployment than the rest of the population.
"We can be our own worst enemy," Roach says. "It's no use, us pointing the finger of blame at anybody else anymore. We gotta point our finger straight back at us. We can't blame colonialism anymore. We gotta get out of it, change our mindset."
Roach says now that his peoples' land rights marches are over, there needs to be another outlet for protest, and he hopes The Black Arm Band is it. The group will make its U.S. debut next February in New York.