Indigenous activists condemn New York Times obituary of Uncle Jack Charles as offensive

Ronnie Gorrie, a Gunai/Kurnai woman from Victoria and a former Queensland police officer, has condemned the New York Times over the obituary of Uncle Jack Charles.

Ms. Gorrie, who knew the celebrated actor and activist Uncle Jack personally, described the obituary as insensitive and culturally inappropriate.

NOTE: This story uses the name and image of Uncle Jack Charles with permission from his family.

“Uncle Jack Charles was a respected elder in our community,” said Mrs. Gorrie.

“His death shocked Australia and certainly Victoria, so I appreciate that his untimely death has reached the shores of New York.

“I found the original story and headline quite appalling and disturbing.”

Uncle Jack, a Boon Wurrung, Dja Dja Wurrung, Woiwurrung and Yorta Yorta male, passed away peacefully on September 13 at the age of 79 after suffering a stroke.

The main paragraph of the New York Times story initially read:

MELBOURNE, Australia – Jack Charles, one of Australia’s leading Indigenous actors, referred to as the “grandfather of Aboriginal theatre” but whose heroin addiction and penchant for burglary kept him in and out of prison his entire life, has died at Sept 13 in Melbourne. He was 79.

It has been updated to read:

MELBOURNE, Australia – Jack Charles, one of Australia’s leading Indigenous actors and activists, referred to as the “grandfather of Aboriginal theatre” and who spent years in prison for burglaries he regarded as reparations, died on Sept. 13 in Melbourne. He was 79.

“It is culturally disrespectful to speak ill of our dead,” said Mrs. Gorrie.

“So, it’s really a trigger for us, for Blackfellas to see this written about him. And to portray him for his past is pretty disgusting.

“I feel for the family, who would certainly be traumatized by what they read. It’s very disturbing.”

Ms. Gorrie said the article got a stir on Twitter before it was changed.

The New York Times also used the term “supposed” when referring to the stolen generations. The sentence has since been removed.

“First, if you are going to write about an Aboriginal who is a survivor of the stolen generation, know the history,” Ms Gorrie said.

“Don’t refer to it as ‘supposed’ as if to suggest it never happened.

“Right now, the Victorian government is compensating survivors and victims of the stolen generation. My grandmother was stolen when she was eight years old.

“My father was stolen from her the moment she gave birth to him, so I find that quite offensive and also quite disturbing.”

Uncle Jack Charles was a member of the stolen generations.(ABC news: Danielle Bonica)

The New York Times bureau chief in Australia, Damien Cave, tweeted yesterday about editing and deleting an original tweet, which read:

@nytimesarts “Jack Charles was one of Australia’s leading Indigenous actors, but his heroin addiction and penchant for burglary have landed him in and out of prison throughout his life.”

The ABC contacted the New York Times for further comment and was told they had nothing to add at this time.

Talking about criminal on a sore point

Ms Gorrie spent ten years as a Queensland Police Officer from 2002 to 2012, writing about her experience in Black and Blue: a Memoir of Racism and Resilience.

She said racial profiling of indigenous peoples by the police was an epidemic.

“White Australia has the assumption that all black men are violent and criminal when they are not,” she said.

“I raised an amazing Aboriginal man. My father is an incredible Aboriginal man. And Uncle Jack was an incredible Aboriginal man.

“I just know from my time with the police how cops profile racially.

“If you are an Aboriginal you will be intercepted, you will be detained, you will be searched if you are considered smart.

“They’ll give you a hard time, and they’ll find charges, and they’ll load them on you.”

Jeffery Amatto is a proud Wiradjuri man from Wellington NSW and the founder of More Cultural Rehabs Less Jails.

Jeffery Amatto holds his fist up, wears a black cap and shirt with logo on it
Jeffery Amatto is the founder of More Cultural Rehabs Less Jails.(Facebook: Jeff Amatto “More Cultural Rehab, Fewer Prisons”)

He never met Uncle Jack, but had been in touch with him on LinkedIn.

“He was a very strong advocate for our people and how broken the system really is,” said Mr Amatto.

“He was a very inspiring man and he certainly led the way for our younger generation to stand up and speak our minds.”

Amatto has spent time in the criminal justice system and said police were too quick to detain Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders.

“If we want help with our trauma and our addictions and alcoholism and mental health, we sometimes have to wait up to eight to nine weeks to get it and that doesn’t even guarantee a bed in a cultural rehab – where the magic happened for me,” he said.

Mr. Amatto advises communities in need of treatment centers, assists in the roll-out of youth programs and works with people who have come out of prison.

Mr Amatto said prison was not the solution.

“We can’t get well in a prison cell. Don’t tell me prisons rehabilitate our people, because it isn’t,” he said.

“You have to have us around the table now and have our say in the big decisions if we want to close the gap.”

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