Fiction

Is your history my history?

I NEVER MET my grandfather, but we keep his skull on the top shelf of the hutch, behind two Toby mugs, an insulator from the old telegraph system and a soccer trophy awarded "For Participation 1990". I reach over this dusty clutter and touch the thin leather and cardboard box in which the skull is housed. My grandfather was not the original owner of the skull – if, indeed, it can be said he "owned" it. Of the man whose brain once sat in it, I know little save that he was Aboriginal.

Over the past few years, museums have publicly been returning artefacts and remains of indigenous people to the families and tribal groups from which they were taken. It is easy to empathise with this. It is not usually a matter of dispute; bones do not have the same economic value as land. Yet this skull is the only material link to a past I can only know through the memory of others. My parents, too, feel they have some claim to it. My mother's father gave it to my father (knowledge is a male domain) and he has kept it – it has become an heirloom. Even though it has been with the family for eighty years at least, and has emotional and symbolic significance for us, this is not a convincing argument to keep it.

I decide it must be returned. But to whom? Even if I say am returning this skull as part of "reconciliation" – a process which is supposed to involve indigenous and non-indigenous people – that doesn't mean I can write about it however I wish. The chance for misunderstanding and misrepresentation remains.

For me to start representing indigenous experience or Aboriginality runs the risk of getting it wrong. Professor A.P. Elkin was, for a time, the leading anthropologist in Australia, and one of the first to do serious, detailed studies of indigenous people. While considered a pioneer in the field – a humanist – he was, as Koori activist Gary Foley wrote ironically, a "great friend of the Aborigines". Much of what he said is almost the opposite of what is known now. The interaction between his research and the desire for land and labour enabled governments to justify policies of forced migration and child removal. Elkin's misrepresentation and misunderstanding had devastating consequences.

A young writer, unsure of the ground on which he is tentatively treading, can only approach this complex subject by starting at a small and local level. Sitting at our dining table, staring at a box holding the skull of an Aboriginal man, I cannot presume to understand what his life was like, or the pain and outrage this would cause his family. I wonder how he ended up in this box, how many children he had, whether he worked on a farm, where he lived. The box smells like books inherited from dead relatives and I'm apprehensive about opening it. I wonder if any attempt to write about this will be a failed pursuit. I am alert to the historian Heather Goodall's critique: "Constructions of history as indigenous history and non-indigenous history, as completely separate narratives, are inadequate; the only way is to approach it with a concept of 'shared history'."

The Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation (CAR), which operated for a decade from 1991, set eight key issues for reconciliation. Number four was "Sharing History: A sense for all Australians of a shared ownership of their history". This reflected the recognition that colonisation of Australia was not peaceful settlement, but a violent process of exploitation and dispossession. Stories from indigenous people about the process were being heard clearly and loudly for the first time. The Council suggested that both histories could be shared in a reconciliation process.

The result was a construction of two seemingly separate histories in which, as Heather Goodall wrote in 2002, "The stories and voices previously unheard could be regarded as additional facts, separate from the facts presently included in the dominant accounts, but able to be added up to create a new, joint and coherent account. What was far less evident was the recognition of entangled, interacting pasts and of contested interpretations of the same events."

Goodall's emphasis on contested and intersecting experience, of "interaction between indigenous and non-indigenous people on a personal and collective level over the full 200 years of colonisation", is important when considering my mission to return the skull and write about it. To learn more about the significance of this skull, to whom it should be returned, my family's role in colonisation, and how to write about it, I decided to pursue such a "shared history".

 

I ALREADY KNEW that my grandfather, Ian Doull, came from Scotland to Australia as a child in 1905. He lived in Sydney where he became a dentist, practising in the then rural suburb of Longueville. He divorced his first wife and in 1936 moved his surgery to Dubbo, where he met the manageress of the Coles Variety Store, who later became my grandmother. I know his parents and grandparents witnessed the enclosures and dispossession of Scottish peasants from their lands, and I wonder whether this had an impact on his desire to acquire land in Dubbo.

I want to locate the records of his land purchases. These documents aren't kept at the Dubbo Public Library, so I drive a few hundred metres up the road to the concrete and tinted glass council building. I'm not allowed to search the archives myself, but an employee will do it for a fee. After a few minutes of haggling, and explaining that I'm only after the history of one particular house in Fitzroy Street, the man agrees to do the search. In the afternoon he calls and I return to pick up photocopies and notes. From this I gather that my grandfather bought the land in 1942, and the council resumed it twenty-one years later for less than he'd paid for it, after accounting for inflation.

The next day I visit my grandmother, who lives a ten-minute drive from my father's house. I want to find out more than the scant council records. The red brick house is on a corner block of a suburban street with old square, high cement gutters. She opens the front door and, before I've even finished greeting her, she's off to get cups of tea. I don't like tea but, for as long as I can remember, anyone who visits my grandmother has had tea with her. She is so bent over, her spine so brittle, that as she enters the lounge room it looks as though the two cups she is carrying will tip her forward.

I'd never asked my grandmother about her past, and I realised the council records were a good place to start. Three cups of tea later and my grandmother is still talking. She's covering her left eye with her hand – it seems to be weeping – but her voice is stronger than I've heard it for some time.

"Lots of trouble with the council, your grandfather had, love," she is saying, with a scornful look.

My grandfather decided to buy the land with the intention of subdividing it once the town's population grew. A century earlier, the occupation of the land was justified under the notion of terra nullius, in which ownership was constituted according to Lockean concepts of property. "As much Land as a man Tills, Plants, Improves, Cultivates, and can use the product of, so much is his Property. He by his labour does, as it were, inclose it from the common," Locke wrote in 1690. Yet my grandfather was doing none of these things with the land; he bought it to sell for more money than he had paid.

When my grandfather approached the farmer who owned the land, they struck a deal. The condition was the relocation of the Aboriginal family who worked on the property. The farmer liked this idea, and obtained approval to subdivide the land himself. My grandfather settled for a smaller portion, and the Aboriginal family was moved to the Talbragar Mission, nine kilometres away. My grandmother is sure it was the best thing for them. I ask about the family, not really expecting her to know much but hoping I might find where the skull came from.

"Oh they were scoundrels," she says, leaning back in her chair with a grin. "Birch was their name, I think. Cheeky fellows always coming all the way back out here, just for ... I don't know what business. One came right up to the front door and asked if there was any work needed doing, while his friends were down the back shed trying to steal your grandfather's tools."

I let this pass and spend the rest of the day listening to my grandmother complain about how the council ruined my grandfather.

 

LOCAL HISTORIES SUCH as these have been ignored in the national history debate. The forced removal of children became the dominant issue. As part of her discussion of what "sharing history" has meant in Australia, Goodall describes the way the stolen generation was constructed in public and political discourse, to undermine greater understanding of the events and their continuing impact. "The polarisation of these histories is the product of the politicised public forums in which they are deployed. The adversarial nature of political struggle has transformed what were complex personal and collective memories into simplistic polemics," she wrote.

Local, conflicting and converging histories that began to be shared in the early stages of reconciliation were stripped back and transformed into extremes, for fear that people might not believe them. The stories brought into broader public discourse have been those that would "fit ideas and stereotypes of being 'stolen'", according to Heidi Norman, while experiences that weren't violent, but rather more complex instances of forced removal, were discounted.

The movie Rabbit Proof Fence, based on a novel by Nugi Garimara (Doris Pilkington) but written by a non-indigenous person, and directed by Phil Noyce, was promoted for the "universality" of its appeal to audiences. By centring on the individual tragedy, "many wider economic, social and land related issues [were] discarded". The film focuses on Western Australia's Chief Protector, A.O. Neville – a maniacal man – in a past remote from today, shaped by misguided science and uncaring government. The widespread desire for labour and land, and a willingness to disrupt indigenous society and family life to gain them, are not considered.

The immediacy of my grandmother's stories is lost in public constructions of history. This affects the way people understand events that are still relevant. In 2001, ReconciliACTION NSW invited school students to write a poem about the removal of indigenous children. The winning entry includes a personal plea to an imagined and perhaps absent audience of indigenous Australians: "From the actions of our ancestors/ A mistake made long ago".

These two lines push the past away. "Ancestors" and "long ago" are distant, yet the HREOC Bringing Them Home report clearly states that the removal of children continued into the 1970s, that the people who were involved are still alive, and that the effects are still real for many indigenous people. The word "mistake" suggests that the people involved were misguided, whereas historians such as Goodall and Norman argue that the "motivations for the treatment of Aboriginal peoples can mostly be understood as a grab for economic development, such as desire for land".

The winning poem is in sharp contrast to two poems written by indigenous students published in the Koori Mail: "Today the stolen generations are grown up, some are even grandfathers and grandmothers." That some are "even" grandmothers and grandfathers reflects the propinquity of the stolen generations, the connectedness of the author's family to these events. The other poem, Sorry Is, declares that the treatment of Aboriginal people was not a "mistake" of the past, but a deliberate attempt to undermine survival.

 

THAT NIGHT I call my mother seeking more information. She works at Delroy High, the school with the most indigenous students in New South Wales. She says she will ask the Aboriginal Education Officer whether he knows about the Birch family who lived on that farm in South Dubbo. I ask her not to, saying that just because he is Aboriginal doesn't mean he'll know anything. I know she'll do it anyway.

Two days later, I take the box back down from the shelf and carefully put it on the passenger seat of the car. On my way to the Dubbo Local Aboriginal Land Council, I figure the reason land councils are the first stop for researchers seeking information involves recognition of the importance of land to indigenous people – either that or naivety about who is responsible for what.

There's no reception, just a desk covered in carefully piled pamphlets – glossy federal, state and NGO brochures and scrappy local photocopies – with a similar message: Treaty, Let's Get it Right, Know Your Rights, Native Title and its Impact on You. I poke my head around a doorway and shuffle loudly. A man looks up from his computer.

"Can I help you?" he asks.

"I was just wondering if someone could help me ... I've got what I think is part of Aboriginal remains."

"Did you find them?" he asks, standing up. "Because if you did you shouldn't have disturbed them."

"No," I assure him. "My grandfather got it from somewhere. It's a skull."

I hold up the box.

The man looks uneasy, or perplexed. "Where are you from?"

"Dubbo, but I'm living in Sydney at the moment."

"What's your name?"

I tell him and I hear a chair creak and slide on the carpet in the next room.

"Are you the boy Rob Baker was talking about?" a female voice calls out.

"I don't know Rob Baker."

"Well he said your name and that you wanted to talk to me." She walks into the room. "I'm Kerry Birch," she says, as if I should know her. "So you don't know Rob Baker from Delroy?"

Birch is the name my grandmother mentioned; Rob Baker is the Aboriginal Education Officer. He called after speaking to my mother. I want to talk to Kerry about her family, but the skull takes priority.

She tells me the New South Wales Aboriginal Land Council runs an Ancestral Remains Project and that repatriation is one of the most difficult tasks. It is an area where written documents often fail and oral histories are challenged. "Contact can open old wounds and old enmities; return can divide, return can bring joy" a sign at the Macleay Museum notes. It hadn't occurred to me that returning the skull could cause pain. I hadn't considered that a repatriation would strain the resources of organisations and communities.

"First, though," Kerry says with a smile, "you'll have to go to the police with it."

I look at her blankly.

"We had a man who came in here once who brought the remains of his wife. Convenient way of burying evidence, hey?"

Kerry looks at her watch and stops smiling. She leads me into her office and directs me to sit.

"So what do you want to know about South Dubbo?" she says, looking intently across the desk at me.

I shift in my chair. I'm not sure whether I should be here at all. Who am I to seek what may be painful answers merely to allay my curiosity? Ian Doull means nothing to her, but she knows the name of the farmer who sold him the land.

"If my mother met you she'd probably mouth off at you," says Kerry, sure now that we're talking about the same events.

I just nod, wide-eyed.

After more of my grandmother's story, of the shed and the stolen tools, Kerry cuts in. "They would have done anything to visit their land. They weren't out there to steal."

I leave with an empty feeling. I've made a fool of myself. Why had I thought Kerry would be as enthusiastic about re-examining the past as I was?

My situation, though, gives weight to Goodall's criticism of "sharing history" – the notion that separate white and black histories can be added together to make one. My grandmother's story can't be added to Kerry's to come up with the "truth". My grandfather probably had a different view from my grandmother. Kerry's grandfather would no doubt remember the experience differently to her mother. Yet they all intertwine; they are all important. Discovering my family's role in colonisation is not about searching for belonging. I see the complex ways people were removed from their land. I see how different interest groups conspired to force the migration of these people for their own gain. The interaction between the farmer's exploitation of labour, my grandfather's desire for land and Christianity at the mission worked to dispossess those who owned the land, and remained connected to it as they worked for the farmer. I can imagine similar events all over Australia.

 

ALMOST SIX MONTHS pass and I get an email from Kerry Birch. I didn't expect to hear from her again after the way our meeting went. She has information about the skull. I'm going back to Dubbo for two days, so I suggest we meet at my grandmother's house, and Kerry can see the shed and the surrounding land. She agrees.

My grandmother comes outside to meet Kerry. She strains to look up, but she seems genuine – if bemused – when she smiles hello. Apparently the house is in too much of a mess to let a stranger inside. I believe her – not even her doctor is allowed in the house when it's a mess.

"I'll see if there's any mention of Birch in Ian's old papers," she offers, but I know that even if she found something she wouldn't share it.

Around here people are paranoid about any records suggesting indigenous presence or contact. I lead Kerry to the backyard and we start walking towards the shed. Kerry tells me about the skull. It came from the University of Sydney.

"They don't know if he had it as part of dentistry or if it came into his hands through another department," says Kerry.

At least it came from the university, and my grandfather hadn't murdered anyone. I'm sure it was obtained for New World exoticism, not scientific or medical reasons. It'll be a long time – if ever – before it might be returned to the appropriate community.

"This is where your grandfather and uncles were supposed to have stolen tools from," I say with a laugh, pointing at the shed.

"This is where they worked before there were houses here," she says. "They owned all this land."

Kerry touches the grey wooden frame of the shed.

"I've driven all around here, but it's different knowing this is exactly where he was. That other people know it too."

She crouches and lays her hand flat on the ground. As I'm standing there I start thinking about how a simple quest – to return an object that didn't belong to me – has led me through so many sites of black/white experience. I think about the countless small stories like this, stories that exist in fragments of paper, memories and the land.

I look away and catch movement in the corner of my eye. My grandmother is peering from behind a curtain at the kitchen window. For all her good intentions, she is probably watching to make sure nothing is stolen. I wonder if Kerry saw her, and how she regards my grandmother, as she imagines her grandfather on this land. 

Get the latest essay, memoir, reportage, fiction, poetry and more.

Subscribe to Griffith Review or purchase single editions here.

Griffith Review