Truth-telling to reimagine our nation(s) histories

25 Jan 2019

It is customary amongst Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people to introduce oneself by identifying their family and country.

It is customary amongst Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people to introduce oneself by identifying their family and country. So I will begin by acknowledging that I come from a family of displaced Aboriginal people. From Jingili to Alyawarre to Kaurna to Wurundjeri/ Boonwurrung country my family’s history has been characterised by deliberate efforts by the dominant culture in Australia to move and control Aboriginal people. Here I tell this story of displacement as a way of remembering, of sharing, and importantly of truth-telling the story of our Australia.

Each and every Australia Day, I, like many Aboriginal people are made to feel excluded. We are told to ‘get over’ or ‘forget’ our history and experiences. Unlike many of the dominant culture who are able to celebrate ‘their’ Australia, it is clear to us that not all Australians believe that our survival is worthy of celebration and our history worthy of remembrance. Despite in recent years an increasing acknowledgment that the 26th of January causes hurt to Aboriginal people, there still remains a lack of understanding around why the celebration of Australian nationhood is problematic to Aboriginal people.

Instead there is persistence that we celebrate an imagined Australia. Through the lens of colonialism, we are presented with a palatable history of war heroes, bronzed white bodies, engineering feats, cattlemen and pioneers. Through ongoing exertions of a white nation founded on white successes the nation suppresses the lived experiences of all others and distorts our true identity and histories. We forget our nation’s truth. We forget our nation’s brutal and ongoing violence inflicted on Aboriginal people in the territories claimed as Australia from 1901. We forget the rapes, the murders, the deprivation of liberties, the frontier wars, the imprisonments, and the theft of land and children. Other heinous crimes against humanity in the 20th Century are remembered as such and are afforded a rightful remembrance that recognises the tragedy of the lives destroyed. In contrast Australia forgets.

To escape these limiting imaginations of nationhood we need truth-telling. To recognise the humanity of lived experiences of Aboriginal people we need truth-telling.

We know that truth-telling has the potential to provide Aboriginal people who experience injustices a voice, as evidenced by the Royal commissions into Aboriginal deaths in custody and the National Enquiry into the Separation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Children from Their Families. But we also know that without political leadership that listens to these truths, the nation does not learn from these injustices and trauma continues to be inflicted upon Aboriginal people and communities. As is the intention of the Uluru statement from the heart we need truth-telling combined with political transformation to change this nation.

Bamayu, Jingili country: Powell Creek Homestead, the Birthplace of my mother’s Grandma Flora.

To escape these limiting imaginations of nationhood we need truth-telling. To recognise the humanity of lived experiences of Aboriginal people we need truth-telling.

Changing the nation begins with truth-telling.

Here I tell my family’s truth to reimagine a more truthful Australia.

My family’s story in Australia, is not uncommon amongst Aboriginal families. Similar stories are told throughout Aboriginal communities all over Australia. They are the focus of our films, writings, plays, art and scholarship. They are not in the distant past. They represent the lived experiences of people living in twentieth and twenty-first century Australia.

My family’s experiences with colonisation largely occurred in the years after the Federation of Australia in 1901. These experiences began with the recent occupation of Bamayu (Powell Creek, NT) in the 1870s with the construction of the overland telegraph pole. My grandmother’s mother, Flora, was one of the first generations in Jingili country to see invasion. Her displacement began when two pastoralists passing though Bamayu took Flora and her sister Louise, then young women, to Alyawarre country (Elkedra, NT). As in much of the Northern Territory, pastoralists claimed land through force and committed despicable acts of rape, assault and murder. Aboriginal people, alive in my lifetime, have passed on encounters with the “cheeky whitefellas”, the “real revolver men” and their violence and brutality. The old homestead at Elkedra still today has chains attached to trees from where pastoralists tied Aboriginal people and the buildings where Aboriginal people were locked for the night. Instead of condemning these acts, non-Aboriginal Australia celebrates them. Pastoralists who committed these acts are lionised in the history books and in places such as the ‘Stockmans’ Hall of Fame’. It is their image that Australia celebrates, of the hard-working larrikin with a sense of adventure and a pioneering spirit. We seem to forget their success came through their brutal exploitation of Aboriginal people as they took their land and liberties.

My grandmother Eileen was born on Alyawarre country and was an illegitimate child of a pastoralist. As told by the late, great Aboriginal activist Charles Perkins, in remembering his own family’s experiences on the Central Australian frontier, Aboriginal women were frequently subject to physical and sexual violence. My family knows of this frontier violence first hand. In 1927, my grandmother’s mother Flora, then a young mother, died a horrendous death at Elkedra Station. The investigations surrounding her death denied her any humanity as the investigating officer from Barrow Creek (also the Chief Protector of Aborigines) ruled her death to be an accident. The Alyawarre Elders still remember and speak of her violent death. Coincidently, the investigating officer was the same officer involved in the Coniston Massacre and charged with the murder of 17 Aboriginal people. The Coniston Massacre of 1928, was one of the last known massacres of Aboriginal men, women and children recorded in Australia. Historians estimate 60-100 Aboriginal people were murdered, while Aboriginal communities put this figure at closer to 170 people. This heinous event occurred in the decades after World War 1. However, unlike Gallipoli (an event every Australian is able to remember and reflect) these sordid events in Australia’s history are something we choose to omit from the collective memory in favour of a national identity established in European battles.

As children, both my grandmother Eileen and her brother Dan were removed from Alyawarre country to Kaurna country (Adelaide). My grandmother was only four years of age when she was separated from her brother and placed in an orphanage. Both were far from home. It is only now that I have children of my own that the enormity of this hits home. Under Australian law, the ‘Bringing them Home’ report estimates that as many as 100,000 Aboriginal children were removed from their families as a result of Australian protectionist and assimilation legislation such as the Northern Territory Aboriginals Act 1910, Aboriginal Ordinance 1918, and Welfare Ordinance 1953. These racist policies enabled the displacement of Aboriginal children and were implemented in Australia right up to the 1970s. They were based on the ‘scientific’ rationalisation that through removal, Aboriginality could be bred out within a few generations. These policies were deliberate acts to extinguish an entire people by absorbing them into the mainstream culture and as a way of solving Australia’s apparent mixed-race ‘problem’.

But despite these injustices I celebrate the resilience of my family and of all Aboriginal people.

It was through the assimilation period that ‘mixed-raced’ girls like my grandmother were moved from their Central Australian communities to Adelaide so they could be absorbed into the white population. In particular, young women were removed from their communities and away from Aboriginal men for fear that ‘mixed-raced’ people would soon outnumber whites in Central Australia. One solution to the ‘mixed-race problem’ employed by the Australian government was to enforce strict regulations and control over who Aboriginal people could marry. To encourage the “breeding out” of Aboriginality, there were laws stipulating who Aboriginal people could marry based on blood quantum. My Uncle Dan had to write letters to the Protector of Aborigines in order to ask for permission to marry. The intent of these laws were to eliminate a group of people by controlled reproduction.

In 1939, at the age of 16, my grandmother was taken to Wurundjeri/Boonwurrung country (Melbourne) to be a domestic house maid. My grandmother provided unpaid labour as a domestic worker to a non-Aboriginal family in a large city where she knew no other Aboriginal people. Many Aboriginal women of my grandmother’s generation as well as Aboriginal men who worked the land as cattlemen and farmhands were never compensated for these stolen wages. This free labour no doubt contributed to the wealth of many non-Aboriginal Australians and their subsequent generations who have been able to ‘benefit’ from the labours of Aboriginal people.

As an adult, my Uncle Dan enlisted to fight for Australia in the Second World War. In fact, many Aboriginal people have served Australia in its wartime battles. This is remarkable given that many Aboriginal soldiers weren’t even citizens of a country they were so willing to serve. However, unlike non-Aboriginal soldiers who were provided with either soldier settlement blocks or war service loans on their return to Australia in the 1940s, Uncle Dan was denied both on basis of his Aboriginality. I can’t help but think of the ‘benefit’ that this land has afforded non-Aboriginal people in the 1940s setting them and their subsequent generations up as land and home owners. All these ‘benefits’ afforded to the dominant culture in Australia have come at the expense of denying Aboriginal people theirs.

All these injustices have had a lasting impact on my family. My grandmother’s experiences of removal from her community stayed with her throughout her life, until her premature death. My Aunty Lorraine told me how while she was growing up my non-Aboriginal grandpa became the face of the family as there was a fear the children could be taken. My own mum has told me stories of her mum always making sure she was clean. Another family member told me of the anxieties caused by visits by government officials. Members of my family, Aunties and Uncles who are alive today have told me how the nation has time and time again overlooked their humanity.

But despite these injustices I celebrate the resilience of my family and of all Aboriginal people.

My family’s story is in the living memory of Australia’s short history as a nation. It is by no means a comfortable history to confront. It certainly isn’t a history I consider worthy of annual celebration. Aboriginal people deserve to have their story told with humility and truth. These histories are worthy of remembrance. For there is healing for us in telling our stories and healing and lessons learnt for the nation in remembering and reimagining a truthful Australia.

I acknowledge the assistance of Aunty Yvonne Luke, Aunty Lorraine Parsons and extended family for piecing together the family story.

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