Shannon Foster: Because of her I can’t – the rematriation of her(story) in his(story)

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Author: Shannon Foster

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Shannon Foster is a Sydney D’harawal Saltwater Knowledge Keeper, educator and artist and has been teaching her family’s stories to a range of audiences for over twenty years.  Shannon is currently undertaking her PhD in the Centre for the Advancement of Indigenous Knowledges at the University of Technology, Sydney researching and documenting her family’s Narinya stories (Living Dreaming).

Shannon Foster

Because of her, I can’t.  Because of her, I can’t succumb to colonisation, assimilation, and genocide.

Because of her, I can’t submit to the perpetual colonial and patriarchal forces that want me to forget.

I can’t forget who I am and who I come from.

Her name was Eliza Foster, she was a Worimi woman and my great grandmother. She was a warrior on the frontline of a war that is still being fought. This is a war not just against colonisation, it is a war against the patriarchy also. It is a war against the colonial-patriarchy’s erasure of Indigenous women.

They both work to silence and disempower us, to erase the ways in which us women keep our families together, and our cultures and languages alive.

You see, Granny Eliza fought her war to survive in the hearts and minds of her family, she left a mark so indelible that neither colonisation, the patriarchy, nor time could erase her.

I am fortunate to know about Granny Eliza from her own words. Her story “I Remember” was published in New Dawn magazine (July, 1970) and it is her comment on education that rings in my ears. Granny Eliza said “You must be educated now, to stand up to the way the world goes”.

But Granny Eliza didn’t get that opportunity. Being born in 1891, Granny Eliza had little or no access to formal, western education. In the missions at the time, the intention was to ‘Christianise and civilise’, not to educate. What education there was available only went to Year 3 for Aboriginal students like Granny Eliza. Any education beyond this was deemed a waste of resources. Society at the time believed that Aboriginal people did not have the intellectual capacity to learn beyond a seven to eight year old level, so inferior was our race. This is despite evidence to the contrary in the previous successes of Darug student Bolongaia (Maria Locke) who survived the horrors of the Parramatta Native Institute.   

But this is not all I know of Granny Eliza, for nearly fifty years after her death, my family are still yarning about her. As a fierce, strong black woman, she was there in the 1938 Day of Mourning protest in Sydney fighting for equal rights for Aboriginal people, including access to education. One of the very first civil rights protests in the entire world, she didn’t get to make a speech, and her presence doesn’t rate a mention in the media. You can see her though, in the background of the photographs of the men; her steely, determined eyes peering out from under her best Sunday hat in the front row of the crowd.

1938 Day of Mourning

But the colonial-patriarchal histories do not acknowledge Granny Eliza as a frontline warrior. She has been reduced to an object of domestic duties and child rearing. For over sixty years Granny Eliza fought to keep her community together, by raising and teaching countless children, grandchildren and great grandchildren. She did everything in her power to ensure they were not stolen, scattered or forgotten. She was no maid, she was a powerful matriarch who ensured that today’s generations could be strong in culture and community.

It is well past time that we told these stories of our women, of our oral histories, that defy the hold the colonial-patriarchy has over our Knowledges. Indeed, academia is beginning to hear and respect the voices of our Aunties and leading female Indigenous scholars like Larissa Behrendt, Aileen Moreton-Robinson and Bronwyn Fredericks. We also must respect and hear our female Indigenous social commenters and writers like Celeste Liddle, Nayuka Gorrie, Nakkiah Lui and Chelsea Bond.

It is no longer just about the repatriation of our stories, this is also about recognising our diversities by engaging with what Alaskan Unangax scholar Eve Tuck calls rematriation. Rematriation can be argued to be the widening of our lens to once again centre our matrilineal knowledges and positions within our communities.

Quandamooka Geonpul scholar Aileen Moreton Robinson writes in “Talking up to the White Woman” that:

“White Australia has come to “know” the “Indigenous woman” from the gaze of many, including the diaries of explorers, the photographs of philanthropists, the testimony of white state officials, the sexual bravado of white men and the ethnographies of anthropologists. In this textual landscape Indigenous women are objects who lack agency.” (2000, p.p. 1)

It is past time now for the world to know about us from us. We do not lack agency. One sideways glance from an Aunty has more agency and power over our behaviour than any other force. We have our stories and we have written them into the minds and psyches of our children and families. It is time now that the world knows them.

I would love for Granny Eliza to see what became of her fight. I would love her to know that I am proudly D’harawal and that I do not pander to white fragility and just remain silent in the face of countless questions, judgements and confusions over my fair skin and green eyes.

She may not be here but I am, and I am bringing her with me. Her absence in the colonial-patriarchal histories has helped me find my place. But I am not here because the colonial-patriarchy privileged my voice, education, and ancestry. No, I am here because she fought for me with her will, determination, courage, and persistence. I have an obligation to not only uncover her story, but to share her story.

Because of her, I can.

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