In June, prominent Indigenous Victorians issued a call: to ask them “deadly questions”. As part of the state’s treaty push, Australians were encouraged to ask anything they had ever wanted to know about Aboriginal people.
Now, that group – dubbed the Deadly Questions champions and including Yorta Yorta man Adam Briggs, Gunditjmara film-maker Richard Frankland and the Wemba-Wemba actor and academic Carissa Lee, among others – has answered those questions.
The Deadly Questions website has received more than 2,600 queries. They offer an insight into the thoughts and concerns of the non-Indigenous public as the Victorian government pushes forward with the treaty process.
“It is sad that these questions need to be asked, but there’s a hope in the fact people are willing to ask them,” Lee told Guardian Australia. “Treaty is a big step towards showing that we’re not only just like everybody else, we’re pretty important.”
Of the questions, 19% are specifically about Indigenous cultures and tradition – things like face and body painting, dancing and family names – according to data collected by the organisers, while 16% asked how they could be an ally to Aboriginal people. Another 8% of questions focused on cultural appropriation and 4% were about the treaty process and what it meant for Indigenous people.
Lee, who had been worried the project might amplify racist opinions, was pleasantly surprised by the results.
“It’s been lovely, people have wanted to know how they can help with certain things, developing literacy and numeracy, or the difference between someone being Aboriginal and Koori, that kind of stuff,” she said.
“[They have asked] how our quality of life is going in Australia because they actually want to know. It’s odd to me that some people have gone through their life without actually having a conversation with an Aboriginal person, but apparently they exist.”
The word deadly is often used to mean cool or great in an Indigenous context. Perhaps unsurprisingly some questions have been more deadly than others. Organisers said they would filter out questions with racist language, but not those built on racist assumptions.
“Do you have to have dark skin to be Aboriginal?” reads one, while a second says: “How can Aboriginal people be equal if you also want special treatment?”
To that, Briggs replies: “Being treated equal is about understanding where people are at, where they’re from, it’s also treating people to their means and what they need.
“You don’t treat someone with a broken leg the same way you treat someone who’s got internal bleeding. They’re two different things. They’re both sick, they’re both hurt, but they need two different things. That’s the difference between equality and equity.”
In another, the Yorta Yorta artist Tiriki Onus responds to the suggestion that Aboriginal culture is stuck in the past.
“Aboriginal culture didn’t stop evolving 230 years ago,” he says. “It’s never stopped changing. It’s never stopped growing. That’s how you live through an ice age … being connected to your surroundings and being able to constantly change to survive.”