• Renae Ayris & Magnolia Mymuru, Bawaka Homeland, East Arnhem Land, Northern Territory - First Contact - Series 2 - Photograph by David Dare Parker (First Contact)
Renae Ayris reflects on her participation in series two of First Contact.
By
Renae Ayris

30 Nov 2016 - 4:18 PM  UPDATED 30 Nov 2016 - 4:33 PM

When I was asked to participate in First Contact, I was taken completely by surprise. I had no knowledge of the previous series, and very little knowledge of Australian Aboriginal history. My first instinct was to study up as much as I could, but obviously, my lack of knowledge was the reason they wanted me to participate. I was requested not to study up and to go into the experience with my current understanding. I have to admit this was a very scary prospect. But it did ignite a desire to educate myself on the topic.

My previous experiences with Aboriginal people prior to this was mostly negative. On several occasions I would be walking through the city and get abuse. I even had an Aboriginal woman come up and spit in my face. Australian Aboriginal History was not something taught in schools when I was there, the most we did was the Dreamtime, and this was in primary school.

Before we started filming I was extremely nervous and I really began to question why I was doing this. I knew very little about where we would be going and how I would react. People would judge every word I said. Regardless, I knew this experience was mainly for me and expanding my knowledge, so I decided I could deal with the judgement, after all, I admitted my ignorance on the subject and knew this would be a great education.

Filming was tough, especially at the beginning. I ended up with pneumonia in the first week which added to the pressure, and I missed out on the first part of the trip in Kununarra. It was long days full of things I’ve never done or seen before, but I learnt so much in so little time.

My highlight was meeting the ladies from the Stolen Generation. They were so inspirational and they really touched my heart. I didn’t have much knowledge of the Stolen Generation, but my understanding was that the Government thought they were doing it for the good of the aboriginal people. Then I heard these women’s stories - that they were ripped from their parents for no reason; taken from fully functioning families. They were taken to this house, a place that we visited, and beaten and punished. It’s stuck in my mind. I hadn’t known that this was going on in our country, and it wasn’t even one hundred years ago. It made me feel sick. Staying the night in that house where it all happened was an eerie feeling. They showed us a room where they used to go to be punished and told us how they would try to escape through the roof. They showed us where their beds were situated, and that’s where we slept that night. It just felt so uncomfortable to be sleeping where this went on, where little kids were beaten.

They were some of the most inspiring women I’ve ever met. After everything they went through in life, their positivity was amazing. What remains with me utmost is their willingness to forgive and the fact that these woman, who had lived through this terrible part of history, have no ill feeling towards white people.

Something else that stuck with me was the prison we visited in the Kimberley region. I didn’t know they had prisons for Aboriginal people. It felt kind of like a community with little houses instead of prison cells. I saw prisoners walking around freely instead of locked up. It was different to what I expected, but apparently it’s working, and Aboriginal prisoners are coming out of jail wanting to work.

We saw so many good people trying to change things in their community. I met an Aboriginal guy in a town called Elliott who has his own building company and he employs Aboriginal people to work with him. He was fantastic, so down to earth and humble and inspiring. He didn’t like people on the dole, he told me there are not enough opportunities for Aboriginal people out there, and he’s doing the best he can to create jobs for people in his community. Everyone in that community looks up to him.

Arnhem Land was absolutely beautiful; I didn’t know that part of Australia existed. In Arnhem Land I was still sick and the ladies were so concerned and were making me bush medicine, they were so lovely.

Having met all these amazing people, I was feeling more confident, and my experiences during the past month had changed my preconceived impressions.

One day toward the end of the trip, I went for a walk and passed a group of Aboriginal men. I wasn’t feeling scared, or intimidated, as I would have in the past, however, out of the blue I was called a ‘white slut’.  Sadly, it is from this kind of behavior that people like myself have formed this negative stereotype. I am grateful I have been able to turn this around through my experience. I do feel that my generation has a lot of learning and understanding to gain on both sides.

There will always be negative people, regardless of their ethnic or cultural background. I do feel that this journey managed to open my mind and give me more tolerance.

First Contact continues tonight and tomorrow at 8.30pm on SBS and NITV. MIss an episode? Catch up on SBS On Demand: