Thursday, September 4, 2008

"Beds Are Burning" - Midnight Oil, 1987 (rock)

Out where the river broke
The bloodwood and the desert oak
Holden wrecks and boiling diesels
Steam in forty five degrees

The time has come
To say fairs fair
To pay the rent
To pay our share
The time has come
A facts a fact
It belongs to them
Lets give it back

How can we dance when our earth is turning
How do we sleep when our beds are burning

Four wheels scare the cockatoos
From Kintore east to Yuendemu
The western desert lives and breathes
In forty five degrees

G'Day, Mates! Welcome to Oz - the Land Down Under - the home of politically active Midnight Oil.

The song's two verses are jam packed with images of the Australian desert landscape. In verse one, the bloodwood is a species of Eucalyptus. The Holden was a vehicle manufactured by Australian auto maker GM Holden Ltd. located in Port Melbourne, Victoria. However, it's not just a generic description of what one might see in Australia. These are illustrations of a specific landscape - the Western Desert. Even more specifically, the land area west of Lake MacDonald and Lake Mackay in the Gibson Desert. Verse two talks about the desert and the abundance of life within it. Kintore is a settlement found on the border of the Western Territory. Yuendumu is an Aboriginal settlement and thriving settlement in the Northern Territory.

Yet, the entire purpose of this song is to protest the forcible removal of the Australian Aboriginal people, the Pintupi, from this Desert, their homeland, to the Northern Territories. During and leading up to the 1950's, this western desert's remoteness and isolation was prime real estate for Blue Streak (ballistic) Missile testing. It was figured that the trajectory of these missiles would land them in desert areas known to be inhabited. So, the government thought it best if those inhabitants, the Pintupi, were relocated. The vibrant life within the western Desert was disregarded in favor of military testing. Their land was not purchased from them. The received no compensation for their troubles.

The Pintupi were systematically removed from their traditional lifestyles and homes beginning in the 1940s, to Alice Springs and the Northern Territory and other government settlements such as Hermannsburg and Papunya. The last of these people, the Pintupi Nine, left in 1984. As with many people group relocation projects, the Pintupi were not alone in their dispersal, and while they were moved to these government settlements, they were not culturally isolated. For example, at Papunya, they were mixed with other language groups as Warlpiri, Arrernte, Anmatyerre, and Luritja. While the Pintupi represented the largest language group, conditions were so bad that 129 people (one-sixth of the decendents) died of treatable diseases such as hepatitis, meningitis, and encephalitis. But this forcible government relocation didn't just remove a people from their land; it also forceably removed thousands of Aboriginal children from their parents. These children were dispersed into separate government and religious institutions and foster care. They became known as "The Stolen Generation".

The focal point of "Beds Are Burning" is the repetitive rhetorical questions: "How can we dance.../How can we sleep..." while all this is going on, as if nothing wrong happened. Families were torn apart and the identity of a culture began to disappear into government supression. The call of the song and the most repetition "The time has come..." emphasizes the return of these native lands to their native people.

Over recent decades, many Pintupi have moved back into their traditional homes in their native land as part of the Outstation Movement. They have set up the communities Kentore in the Northern Territory, Kiwirrkura and Jupiter Well in Western Australia.

Midnight Oil performed this song at the close of the 2000 Sydney Olympic games to a world audience of billions of people, including Prime Minister John Howard. The entire band was dressed in black with the word "sorry" printed on their clothing because the Prime Minister refused to apologize on behalf of Australia to the Aboriginal Australians for how they were treated in the past 200 years, which was a gutsy move on the band's behalf at this venue, considering how they were allowed to perform but were advised to not make any political speeches.

"Beds Are Burning" - Midnight Oil (2006 Sydney Olympics live recording)

(compiled from various sources)

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