It has been a tough few months for Aboriginal leader Jack Kanya Kudnuitya Buckskin.
They are months tinged with sadness as the Voice to Parliament referendum failed and a growing number of social media posts questioned the need for the Welcome to Country ceremonies his Kuma Kaara team performs.
While the former Young South Australian of the Year was not holding out for a referendum win, he feels those putting the referendum forward thought “Australia is a better place than what it is”.
Buckskin knows when he stands to perform a ceremony like the Welcome to Country “there is a big population that don’t want that or don’t think that they need it”. In the wake of the referendum, One Nation MPs called for the ceremonies to be banned.
“We don’t hear it directly, we never hear it directly, it’s largely people saying it over social media or to their own friend network as many don’t want to be seen as racist,” Buckskin says.
“But I think that in itself, the result of the referendum shows where Australia really is placed.”
Despite the sobering result, this proud Kaurna and Narungga Man remains resolutely positive in its wake.
He remains committed to Kuma Kaaru (One Blood) – the business he started in 2008 to bring stories and tradition to life through language, dance and performing ceremonies.
Since it started, Buckskin has welcomed Prince Charles to a Penfolds estate event and Prince William and Kate to a visit in Elizabeth, his team performs or teaches language at schools, AFL football matches, music awards and business lunches.
And for 37-year-old Buckskin, there have been far worse times to navigate than the aftermath of this referendum.
He tells the story of being one of three siblings, of being 19 years old in 2006 and life ticking along nicely.
Buckskin was the second in his family to have finished Year 12 at high school, university studies were underway, there was a job as a pizza delivery driver and he was playing footy for Central Districts and in possession of his first car.
Suddenly, it all changed.
“I came home from uni one day and my family told me my sister Mary had committed suicide, she went to Darwin and didn’t come back,” Buckskin says.
“I stopped doing all that. It took me about a year and my uncle said to me, you have to raise your spirit, why don’t you come and dance with us.”
With that kindness, Uncle Stevie Goldsmith and his son Jamie soon became “my idols”, Buckskin says.
He joined the Taikurtinna dance group, and made his public dance debut at Festival Plaza in a Bollywood film called Love Story 2050.
“It was like a hook,” Buckskin says, adding that the dance group went on to perform in Samoa, Austria, India, America and Malaysia.
Then another role model stepped up. Dr Rob Amery encouraged Buckskin to join Aboriginal language classes where he proved a natural and was soon also teaching to save and revive the Kaurna language.
Before long the opportunity to perform his first Welcome to Country arrived.
“I’m actually a really shy person, I was sweating like crazy, it was on the steps of Parliament and it was scary,” Buckskin says about the event.
It was also part of the catalyst for Buckskin to “accidentally” start his business alongside friends from his dance group. Requests began arriving for dance performances, language teaching and ceremonies, so they drew together to support members of the community.
Over time Buckskin lost those nerves and just last month performed some 50 Welcome to Countries across the state.
And he takes pride in knowing those trained through his business are encouraged to be personable and humorous in their work, building relationships and reconciliation in the wider community.
“We want the experience to be personalised and inclusive, we are not there for finger pointing or to be aggressive people, it brings people on a journey, we want to take people on a journey and not tell them what to do,” Buckskin says.
“Our sort of motto over the years from when we started up, our main goal is we want to inspire our elders, but at the same time be there as a role model for our youth, and that’s through positivity not through regret or anger.
“You can only control your own life and control your own story.”
His own story from the past is one rooted in “borderline poverty”, with Buckskin moving between the houses of aunties and uncles as a child, depending on where there was most food on the table.
The family elders started life at Port Pearce Mission on Yorke Peninsula, Buckskin’s grandfather allowed to leave for work with an “exemption certificate”.
It led to the family living in an Aboriginal fringe camp outside Berri in the Riverland, with laws at the time preventing them from moving into town, where Buckskin’s mother was born “at the back of the hospital”.
One of his aunts – Pat – was born on the banks of the River Murray.
“The fringe camp was on the other side of the river and my grandmother had to swim across the river in labour,” Buckskin explains, telling how a woman called Pat stopped to help, hence his aunt’s namesake.
Buckskin met his own partner Khesanh while they were both studying at Salisbury High School and the two now have three children, Mahleaha, 12, Vincent, nine, and Jackson, seven.
All are keenly into their sport, with his daughter plays in the state Under 12s football team while Buckskin coaches his son’s netball team.
There are high hopes for his children – who all speak the Kaurna language – and for the turmoil surrounding the recent referendum to one day be overcome.
“I would love for my kids, if they wanted to, to be cultural educators,” Buckskin says.
“And I hope there is a time when my kids get older that they are not having the same conversations I’m having today. It would be lovely if we are progressing and moving forward as a country.
“My goal is for my business to be irrelevant, to have enough people learning language and culture so that it becomes embedded into our social status as South Australians so there isn’t a need to have a business like mine.”
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