Digging for yams

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  • Published 20120605
  • ISBN: 9781921922534
  • Extent: 264 pp
  • Paperback (234 x 153mm), eBook

EMILY IS TEACHING me. I am learning about Yams, and so much more. My teacher, Emily Kam Ngwarray, died on 3 September 1996, but each time I study one of her Yam paintings she is alive and present. Like Emily when she began to paint on canvas, I am a woman of senior years. Like her I have served a long apprenticeship in my medium, in my case that of words. Emily expressed her identity through painting the pencil yam and its seeds and flowers, known as kam. ‘I am Kam now,’ she said. I think I am still defining my identity in an Australia that has changed greatly in my lifetime, and will continue to change.

I am deeply moved by the tenderness of Emily’s portrait of her country after rain. Young green shoots are lightly patterned on the red sand along with the delicate yellow buds of the Kam. Swelling beneath the surface I see the Kam pods, the food that nourishes, and the perennial roots of the plant. How precious is this place, how timeless and sacred compared to our ever changing cities. The white settlers named the area of Emily’s Yam Dreaming Utopia. The settlers have now departed, but the name is still used for the region north east of Alice Springs where Emily spent most of her life and became a traditional Aboriginal elder. After being displaced by the pastoralists in the 1920s, Emily’s people were able to regain custody of their lands.

Some of Emily’s Yam paintings are very fleshy; you could almost sink your teeth into them. Despite their abstract nature you realise they are the root system of a plant that searches for and finds the subterranean water needed for it to swell and provide food. I am now studying Big Yam Dreaming (1995), one of Emily’s last major works with only white swirling lines on the black canvas. It measures eight metres long by three metres tall. It occupies a whole wall of the National Gallery of Victoria and seems to blaze with the same intensity as the night sky seen in the desert. This painting is a wonder and a revelation. It is painted with the strength and assurance of an artist at the zenith of her career. Emily was 86 years old, in the last year of her life on earth, when she painted this masterpiece. The familiar tracery of Yam roots is there, as are the vine-like tendrils which creep across the earth. These may also represent ancestral and clan connections. It is not random; there is an internal coherence and structure to the painting as well as dynamism. It may not be the night sky, but nevertheless it is Emily showing us her place in the universe.

It comes to me that I have been seeking Emily’s certainty for myself as I trace my ancestral roots and follow the journeys which brought my people involuntarily to the shores of Australia. Emily’s Yam roots swirl and cluster, and go off the edges of the canvas altogether. They remind me of the lives of the Norfolk Islanders who ended up in Van Diemen’s Land, made into a community by the force of exile, joined by marriages and hardships shared. After many uprootings they finally found a home, but this time it was a home that would be saddened and compromised by the many deaths of the original inhabitants, Emily’s distant relatives, the Tasmanian Aborigines. This is where I grew up.


I FIRST BECAME aware of subterranean links in my community at my school Speech Night, which was the culmination of my high school education in Tasmania. My parents had not been to any functions at the school through my high school years because of ill health and hard times, but they made an effort to attend this special event where I was to receive some awards. I was amazed to find they were greeted by various parents and even several staff members with a casual ‘Hello Edith, hello Archie,’ as if they had been seen only last week.

On our way home I asked my parents how it was they knew these families. ‘Oh, we’ve always known them,’ was the reply, which left me quite puzzled. There were other things to talk about, so this mystery remained until I was much older.

My mother became interested in learning more about her family history after she reached retirement age. Her own mother had died by then but there were still some remaining elderly relatives to discuss versions of the family stories with, and some interesting books and records of early Tasmanian history. Three of my grandmother’s cousins had published books that gave accounts of our Norfolk Island connections. Another relative was the state archivist, who allowed my mother to access early state records. All this took her quite a long way towards connecting some of the chunks of information she collected. She made copious notes, which became her legacy to me after she died. Emily, who had no children despite marrying twice, bequeathed to her nieces her legacy of cultural knowledge.

My mother died before the advent of the internet and the digitisation of records. She would have revelled in this new way of learning and the ease with which one can find connections even though there are many false trails. As I sit at my computer seeking and recording the lives of my ancestors I feel I am, like Emily, tracing the pathways of ancestral knowledge. Where I used a computer Emily used storytelling, song, dance, the animals and the symbols of the landscape.

The families that my parents had ‘always known’ were descended from the 564 Norfolk Islanders who were relocated from their fertile, productive island to the starving colony of Van Diemen’s Land in 1807-08, thereby doubling the numbers in the colony to a total of about one thousand. Many of the newcomers were children or adolescents who had been born on Norfolk Island. There were fewer than 80 families with children, and three of these families were my direct ancestors.

The people of Emily Kam Ngwarray’s country live in about 16 small camps dotted across an area of 2000 square kilometres, structured on extended family groups. There are approximately one thousand inhabitants in total, about the size of the settlement on the Derwent after the Norfolk Islanders arrived. I’m sure Emily was aware of the intricate connections and relationships between these family groups, just as my parents were aware of similar ties between the Norfolk Island descendants.

The Norfolk Islanders were treated with scant regard for their human rights. When the British government decided it was no longer economically desirable to maintain the island settlement only five settlers volunteered for relocation in spite of tempting offers of recompense. The rest were rounded up and herded onto a series of embarkations. Their homes, barns, and gardens were destroyed, their livestock and domestic animals were shot, except for the few cows taken on the ships to provide milk. Each family was allowed one trunk or chest of possessions; everything else was burned. My ancestor Robert Nash and a friend ‘went bush’ to try and avoid relocation. They were hunted down by the crew and thrown onto the deck of the City of Edinburgh ‘like a couple of dogs'(Mercury, 2 April 1880). In Hobart Town lieutenant-governor Collins wrote to the commandant of Norfolk Island:

I am occupied in preparing for the reception of the Multitude, which may be expected to arrive in theCity of Edinburgh… The final evacuation of your little Paradise.


UPON ARRIVING IN Van Diemen’s Land the new settlers went back to living in tents and clearing virgin bush. At least they had not been shot, as were many Aborigines who inconvenienced the ruling classes.

No doubt the Norfolk Islanders were regarded by the British administrators as second class citizens – most of them had begun their stay on the island as convicts. In the early months and years at Port Jackson they had been handpicked for having skills or qualities of character deemed useful in supporting the struggling colony. They were sent to the uninhabited and undeveloped Pacific island, with only a few guards, and turned the island into a productive settlement that contributed to Sydney’s survival. By 1808 many families had been on the island for twenty years. They had married and had children there. They had long since served their sentences and most had received absolute pardons. They were land holders with farms and businesses, but the taint of convict identity stayed with them.

I have been tracing the trailing yam-roots of my ancestors to the new life and happiness they found on Norfolk Island. Like the life renewing yellow blooms of Emily’s yams, their lives were fed by the subterranean waters of hope; they were all great survivors.

Most of the adult Norfolk Islanders were no longer young when they arrived in Van Diemen’s Land. They found a precarious new convict settlement with few skills. The population depended on shooting wallaby and kangaroo as their main food source. The task of establishing new farming land was a challenge. It was slow laborious work, but the soil was fertile once it was brought into production. Van Diemen’s Land benefited enormously from the farming and trade skills of the Norfolk Islanders. Lieutenant Governor Collins wrote to Viscount Castlereagh in London on 10 May 1809:

Of the (Norfolk Island) Settlers, there are but very few who are not at this moment occupied in the cultivation of their new farms and erecting habitations of some kind for their families. The few not so employed are troublesome, discontented characters… It must be mentioned to their credit that the greater part of what is stated to be in cultivation by the Norfolk Island Settlers is the effect of their own personal labour.


AFTER SURVIVING THE perils of transportation the Norfolk Islanders had no choice but to undergo exile again when their first home was destroyed by government edict. The children born on Norfolk Island were reaching adulthood when their families arrived at the Derwent, and soon there were marriages joining the families. Family connections stayed alive for my grandparents’ generation and beyond. I now realise that the reason we always did business with certain shops or firms or individuals in preference to others was because of Norfolk Island links. This made it difficult for newcomers to establish themselves, as the reason for old loyalties was unspoken. It was probably the shame of being thought a convict that kept the families so quiet about their shared heritage. ‘We’ve always known them’ was the only explanation given to the curious enquirer. These loyalties helped many to survive the Depression years of the 1890s and 1930s.

My ancestors from England and Ireland had put down roots on Norfolk Island. Those roots were torn up, and transplanted to the larger island of Tasmania. They could never reclaim Norfolk Island, which was soaked in the misery of those who came after them in the punitive second settlement that lasted for 30 years, 1825-55. When public condemnation helped to close it down, the island was vacant for less than a year. In 1856 it was gifted by Queen Victoria to the Pitcairn Islanders and has been home to them ever since. Many descendants of my convict ancestors have had to leave Tasmania to pursue their dreams in a larger sphere; Norfolk Island would have been far too small for them. They have spread like Big Yam Dreaming off the edges of the canvas.

One cultural link shared by the Norfolk Islanders with the Tasmanian Aborigines was their relationship to the bird known on Norfolk as the Bird of Providence and in Tasmania as the Mutton Bird. On Norfolk Island it saved the settlers from starvation when very early in their history the ship Sirius was wrecked trying to make landfall, leaving the island with many survivor mouths to feed and no increase in stores to accompany them. They developed a taste for this bird, and after their removal to Van Diemen’s Land they continued to enjoy the flesh of its close relation, the shearwater petrel known as the Flying Sheep, or Mutton Bird, which was harvested annually by the Aborigines. My parents used to eat mutton bird at the start of each season, but my brother and I didn’t like the strong oily taste. Dad may not have consciously known it, but this was his family’s link with James Morrisby, the first of our Norfolk Island ancestors.

Many writers, visual artists and musicians over the years have represented the Australia of their experience. Compared to Emily’s people we are still newcomers, and the country away from our cities is alien to many. However we all do connect in our different ways with this new old land of Australia. Our commemorations, memorials, and celebrations are our forms of renewal, particularly after war or disaster has threatened our survival. We are a resilient people.

At the beginning of her public career as an artist Emily felt she was fulfilling her obligation as a custodian of her Country in painting it and showing the world its significance. Her land provided both physical and spiritual sustenance through its perfectly balanced and connected ‘all’. This included the people, the animals, the plants, the forces and cycles of nature. This is what she was able to show the world through her art, which began as body painting. As a senior law woman she was responsible for passing on the women’s ceremonies of song and dance which replenish the landscape, renew the law, and celebrate the Dreaming. It is by these means that her culture survives.

Emily had an individual dreaming around the pencil yam. This meant that she had been given stories about the origin of the pencil yam, and was entitled to tell these stories and paint the yam. This was her unique and particular role within her tribal culture, which was part of the much larger Aboriginal culture of Australia. Emily’s genius as an artist has enabled her to communicate beyond her own cultural group, and beyond the shores of Australia.

When I look at Emily’s Yam Dreaming her art extends my own experience. My stories of my Norfolk Island ancestors are only part of Australia’s big story, but they are my unique contribution. To honour the timeless dimension of Emily’s art I feel it is my duty to sustain the knowledge and family memories I have acquired, and to value and share them through the act of writing. The accumulated memories of people, places, and experiences of survival bond together to become a Dreaming, which is more than a historical record.

Australia has become rich and prosperous by world standards. It is still a long way from much of the rest of the world, but this isolation has been broken down by air and sea travel. People from many regions look to Australia when seeking to rebuild lives traumatised by war and grinding poverty, and to provide a better future for their children. It is not easy to leave your home and adapt to new ways but many newcomers have done this and enriched our culture and our economy. It is the land of the second chance, as it was for my ancestors. The irony is that many of our indigenous people still live in parts of Australia under conditions which shorten their lives and give rise to destructive social problems. One of the nation’s ongoing challenges is to provide the infastructure for those communities to rebuild and provide a better future for their children. The second chance should extend to all who need it for whatever reason.

The Australia of my youth was reputedly monocultural, of white Anglo-Irish origin. However some of my clearest memories are of the exceptions to this rule. We had an Italian internee working on our farm during World War II. After the war ended my parents were hospitable to some of the first refugees to arrive from Europe. We had the excitement of the Indian test cricket tour, and soon the first Colombo plan students arriving from Asia. All of these people were welcomed by my family and by many other Tasmanians. The records of transportation show that the early settlers were not a completely homogenous group. My ancestor William Kearney’s obituary tells of the sorrow of his negro servant of 36 years attachment, who was not the only person of colour or mixed race in the colony.

Certain values emerge as I trace the story of my ancestors. As an elder I set these down: human beings are our country’s greatest resource and their rights should be protected; no citizen of Australia should be disadvantaged through the circumstances of their birth; a safe and thriving society does not come from sealing our minds and our neighbourhoods to people from different backgrounds; we should always give people the chance to rebuild damaged lives. It is divisive and very unhelpful to building the nation’s future if our elected representatives pander to fear and prejudice for electoral advantage.

I think the journey I have made digging for knowledge about my family has strengthened my own sense of identity as an individual and as an Australian. What I discovered has reinforced the teachings I was brought up with and has shown me their origin. I was taught, mostly by example, that hard work and determination can overcome adversity, that courage and endurance are prime virtues, that we should be good neighbours to whoever our neighbours happen to be, that we should be slow to judge others, that we should be generous to those in need, that family bonds are to be nurtured, and friendships valued. Resilience is a newly popular word but my ancestors certainly owned that quality.

New layers are being added all the time to our cultural canvas. Our stories of family and community survival need to be shared and renewed in each generation as a way of creating and nurturing Australia’s own Dreaming of an inclusive society, a society which includes the original inhabitants as well as newcomers. From Emily’s people we can learn the importance of supporting our artists, musicians, writers and performers because they help us to know who we are and where we come from. Aboriginal culture can teach us to connect with our environment and learn how to protect it so that it can feed us and sustain us both physically and spiritually.

Renewal of the human spirit is something we all need, and I found it looking at Emily’s Kam pods and blossoms. By the time she died I think Emily recognised that her art transcended her own Country and indeed the nation of Australia. In the words of Hetti Perkins in Art+Soul, Emily Kam Ngwarray was telling us that the past is always with us, but we are also dreaming the future.

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About the author

Lois Calvert

Lois Calvert is a Tasmanian born writer and educator who now lives in Canberra.She has taught writing and literature in ACT high schools and...

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