Memoir

Living cultures under the acts

Thriving beyond resistance

IT IS EARLY evening. The family is together at the home Mum bought and paid for with cash savings squirrelled away over many years. All four of her daughters are present. Aunts, Uncles, cousins too. And, most importantly, our nana – Mum’s mother.

There is a video camera from who knows where. We are filming Nana telling stories.

And Nana starts singing. In Wakka Wakka language.

We sit in wonder as we girls hear full language spinning around us for the first time. This is all about family, culture and love – perhaps only in retrospect do we also see it as resistance. Colonisation and assimilation simply can’t win when families are living cultures together.

 

INVADERS AND THEIR animals stomped their footprints over our lands uninvited, and their stories of heroism are inscribed over and over on paper and canvas, carved in wood, built of metal – and now transported in high-circulation digital form. Go to any museum and you will find inscriptions of British invasion and colonisation writ large – collected, revered and displayed. In classrooms, children and adults are taught that the Australia we know today came about through courageous white pioneers taming a desolate, harsh country devoid of people and culture. This institutionalised storytelling compounds the original violence of stolen lands and refuses our stories and truths, complicating any moves to reparative justice.

The conditions for survival on these frontiers were brutal; privilege meant survival and a strong chance of thriving – not off the back of sheep but off the back of ‘free’ land and labour. Today on our lands, the descendants of convicts, colonists and ‘settlers’ are almost indistinguishable from each other – although if people bothered to dig a little, they might reveal how colonial history generated wealth for some white folk and not others.

The many faces of our dispossession continue to tell the real history: poor life expectancy, chronic diseases, communities in turmoil, stunted ambition, limited opportunity and some hopelessness.

On both sides of this enduring frontier, stories are told and retold.

These stories go something like this: pioneering spirit and entrepreneurialism have built success for the whites who have flourished, while congenital bad character leads our peoples to our inevitable conclusions. Pioneering spirit is celebrated across the landscape: Pioneer Park. Pioneer’s Sculpture. Bicentennial Park. Selected history is held in every small country town’s local museum, some even featuring a working blacksmith’s shop – as if this were the height of historical achievement! Miners and graziers are memorialised with statues and street names.

Wider storytelling reinforces certain other tropes: the image of a full-faced helmet forged from scrap iron with a long rectangular opening is instantly recognisable to most Australians. An anti-hero in the 1800s, Ned Kelly is a now claimed as hero by a nation that prides itself on giving everyone a ‘fair go’, that advertises itself as a multicultural kaleidoscope of fair-dinkum, deadset legends who will always look out for the underdog and bring the uppity back in line. In places like the one where we grew up, to suggest a different narrative is to be ‘politically correct’: too influenced by an out-of-touch, city-living elite.

Despite the effectiveness of these whitefella yarns, there is now a mainstream social movement for reckoning with our origins as the world’s oldest living culture as well as with the unfinished business of the recent colonial past. In these times of renewed reckoning there are the big-picture questions of Sovereignty, Treaty and Voice to Parliament, and there are local sites of reckoning with implications closer to home. Home is where our people continue to live through our own cultural renaissances; home is where we have always rejected the myths of invasion and colonisation. Home is where the rose-tinted glasses are being forced from the faces of our neighbours, where cataracts obstructing vision are being carved away. Reckoning with the past in the present with an eye on the future is hard work, and by necessity it will tear down the old social fabric to generate new.

We come from a small country town in Queensland on the lands of our Wakka Wakka ancestors, neighbouring the Gooreng Gooreng to whom we also bear unbroken lineage. It’s the kind of town where families have known each other for generations. Across the continent, such proximity and familiarity seem to hold tight the lies and protect the secrets from across three centuries.

Gazetted in 1852, Gayndah is touted as Queensland’s oldest town. Our mum was born eight years before Gayndah’s colonial centenary, and she – Ruth – as a child heard full conversational language all around her. Mum also recalls the paternal aunts of her grandmother bringing clothes by horse and buggy. Perhaps those white women were trying to make up for the absence of their brother, who fathered our great-grandmother?

Our mother, Ruth, was born off Country on Badtjala Country in Maryborough. Mum’s father – Walter Hill – joined the Australian Army, in which he served from 1941–46. Papa absconded regularly due to the racist treatment he received from white Australian soldiers. His tours included Papua New Guinea, Indonesia and Nauru. Papa enlisted in the army so that Nana and the family they were nurturing could return to her beloved Gayndah – they’d met at Woorabinda mission. Nana had originally been forced to move to Woorabinda, but in true fashion she got back home with her cherished and growing family.

We were two of four children resulting from the 1960s marriage of a Gayndah girl and a lad from Cherbourg. The birthplace of these four daughters alternated between Gayndah and Bundaberg following the seasonal cane-cutting movements of their parents: Gooreng Gooreng, Wakka Wakka, Gooreng Gooreng, Wakka Wakka. While the marriage was short-lived – there was love but there was also domestic violence and poverty – Mum’s resourcefulness meant we always had a home and us four girls never wanted for anything. And while we all left Gayndah not long after graduating high school – the first of our mother’s extended kin to complete Year 12 – to be Aboriginal is to always identify with home Country. Socially and culturally, we return to our hometown for funerals, weddings, family and friendships, but the power of our ancestral connection transcends any of this; the vitality of 60,000 years of living culture runs through our veins.

A treasured family portrait taken some time in the late 1950s shows our mum’s mother standing tall with her own brothers and sisters on Wakka Wakka Country, gathered around our seated great-grandmother. Granny Simpson and great-grandfather Harry MiMi had nine children, and by the time us four girls were born, every one of their five daughters was alive – but only one of their four sons. Still, they all feature in our memories of growing up, one way or another.

Country history, family history, personal history, story, narrative, personal and public memory are powerful things. In coming to write this piece together we shared our own memories of different times, passing questions and answers between ourselves, checking in, considering the possibilities:

Do you remember hearing about the time that…?

Can you remember?

Were you there?

Where was that?

Who else was there?

What do you reckon we were doing that for?

Whose video camera was that?

Who took that photo?

How come I’ve never seen that?

Remember when…

You would have had to have been there…

Two photographs: print photographs somehow taken in the first place then much later somehow re-sourced, reproduced in grainy black and white, and shared in limited circulation.

The first shows our great-grandmother, Sarah Simpson, with our mum and our eldest sister, Toni, and Jay was there too. If Granny Sarah Simpson’s death is recorded as late 1967, and us four – Toni and Jay and Sandra and our other sister, Milly – were all born in the mid to late 1960s, it’s likely the photograph was taken in 1967.

1967.

The year, of course, that Australia voted in a referendum on whether we were going to be counted in the census. With a 90.77 per cent yes vote for constitutional change, it ended up as one of Australia’s most successful referenda. While the nation-state was still grappling with counting our very human existence, that photo depicts our family carrying out the very human obligations of performing one of the key markers of civilisation: rituals for the dead.

The photo was snapped at the Gayndah cemetery, in the top northern corner where many of our ancestors are buried. Three generations out of four were up in our corner tending graves that day, paying respects, reaffirming the bonds of our civilisation, our Country and our family. Granny Simpson was wearing a large light-coloured floppy hat and a billowing blousey dress, Mum looked like a Sapphire – svelte with bangs in her hair; Toni and Jay were captured mid-cavort. Despite Mum’s slim figure, she was likely pregnant with Sandra, born the following year.

The second reproduced print – black and white, grainy – shows a very black-skinned woman on horseback, identified as Mollie Jones, our great-great-grandmother, Granny Simpson’s mother. We two, with the help of some research by a cousin – Brendon Hill – are fairly confident Mollie Jones was born not long after the whitefella gazetting of Gayndah. Mollie Jones, a woman born on her land during the earliest brutalities of the colonial frontier, epitomises Blak strength and grace as she sits tall on the back of that introduced species. The fact of Mollie Jones’ existence, along with sixteen other key ancestors, became a foundation for new history made much later by descendants of the Gooreng Gooreng, Byellee, Gurang and Taribelang peoples in achieving federal court recognition of their continuing cultural connections to Land and Sea Country.

While our lives and the stories we grew up with and continue to share among ourselves can be understood in and of themselves, they can also be understood by dint of invasion and colonisation: they inescapably sit alongside and in relation to those white lives and stories vaunted by the mainstream as definitive accounts of Australia. Local historians of our own town not only commence their storytelling with the arrival of white colonisers in 1843 but persistently exclude the existence of our family and many other Aboriginal families whose presence with these lands go back millennia.

A bronze plaque set in concrete emphasises this, commemorating Jonathon Hazeel, a Scottish convict transported for assault and attempted robbery who arrived ‘with nothing’ in 1850 where Gayndah was to be established – and, after getting a fair go, died in 1900 ‘owning’ freehold land and one of the local pubs. Would he have anticipated that this same pub would later celebrate nationalism in the twenty-first century with thong-throwing and lamington-eating competitions? Is this the contemporary rural face of terra nullius: seeing how far one can throw bits of wearable rubber? Seeing how many lamingtons people can guts down? And betting on the outcomes? Is this where all that colonial and institutionalised storytelling gets us – ­alongside permission not to think too deeply about the Country, its First Peoples, its current dilemmas, its climate crisis, its rich and its poor, and the job of reparations that still awaits us?

 

ALTHOUGH IT’S NOT presented as such, this celebration relies on the selective memory that excludes First Peoples and what was done to us; it also excludes our culture and cultural vitality. The frivolity of these acts, purporting to represent the culture of a nation founded on white hardship and discovery, shows not only a strange continuation of the ‘great Australian silence’ but also some notion that the past is resolved, closed off – and that now is the time to race cockroaches, throw thongs and eat lamingtons…as if these are the most normal things in the world to do.

Anyone who has access to a library – bricks and mortar or online – can find articles, journals, books, audio tapes and films that will let them access so many of the ways in which ‘have a go to get a go’ is not how this nation was made. But a lack of knowledge about Australia’s colonial history enables persistent brazen deflection in scholarship and on through to rantings on social media.

Yet the past keeps echoing in the present.

Written records exist of forced movements around Queensland made at the whim of protectorates. Search the archives and you will find records kept by mission managers and various colonial departments – including the Queensland Aboriginal Protection Board – with partial records of births and deaths, marriages, rations doled out on missions and stations, wages withheld and certificates of exemptions by which Aboriginal people sought freedom of movement akin to that experienced by white folk. From oral history and archival items, it seems only one of Granny Simpson’s children sought a certificate of exemption – and that Granny Simpson herself never did. How she eked out a living raising the children from whom we are descended remains a mystery to be unpacked.

In the archives, too, in the spindly handwriting of the day, there are character assessments: one described our grandfather’s sister, Aunty Cora Hill, at twenty-five years old, as ‘sulky and prone to walkabout and talking back’. These records locate us as problems, as impediments to progress in the natural order of things, which is always whites on top and Blacks underfoot. We find ourselves cheering Aunty Cora on and we hope she would be happy knowing her brother’s granddaughters are still prone to a whole lot of talking back. Or Talking Blak as we giggle among ourselves when recounting all the ways in the world that we talk back!

According to historian Margaret Slocomb’s archival research, the resistance of Wakka Wakka and Gooreng Gooreng peoples was all but exhausted twenty years after first contact and our ancestors settled in to providing menial labour for the colonists. There’s more, of course, to this story. There would be bloodshed, both figurative and literal, well into the twenty-first century. The menial nature of labour performed by our families well into the 1980s was only a function of stolen land and heritage and denied opportunity. Some of us are now designing policy, educating future generations and changing institutions – clearly there was no settling in to menial labour: there was a biding of time until we could break out of the imposed shackles of intergenerational colonial habit and thought.

Slocomb’s work also explores the murder by the Native Police Force – in 1862, and under the direction of Lieutenant Joseph Harris – of an Aboriginal man called Jimmy as he walked more than 100 kilometres from Maryborough to Mingo Station with his wife, infant son and a Chinese shepherd called Tommy, looking for work. The trial of the Native Police involved took place at the Gayndah Courthouse. While the trial for the murder of an Aboriginal person was and still is highly unusual, the immediate discharge of the defendant, Harris, was not: this speaks to our lived story as well. In the mid-1950s, not long after the family photo, Nana’s youngest brother, Uncle Charlie MiMi, was killed in custody after being beaten by police in the Gayndah watchhouse. He was in his early twenties. There were no repercussions for the policeman who perpetrated this murder. Mum said she can’t remember all the details of her uncle’s slaying, just that there was great sadness in their home for a long time.

Five hundred members of the continent’s Indigenous peoples have died in police and correctional custody since the 1991 Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody identified 339 ways that the state could prevent these deaths. Until very recently, no person was taken before the courts to test their responsibility for these contemporary deaths under the imposed rule of law. We are told over and over to have faith in the rule of white law, while we see too few signs that it treats us justly.

Today, Gayndah locals are said to be intrigued by the unsolved murder of a young white woman, Anna Katherina Krieger, as she walked on the road leading from Mt Debateable to Gayndah in 1857. A large monument was unveiled by the Gayndah Historical Society in 1994 to remember and honour Ms Krieger – although how this story was held close to people’s hearts for 160 years in order for this commemorative project to be enacted so long after the tragic event is a mystery.

There are no such monuments to the Wakka Wakka people who died in defence of our lands. No images of Wakka Wakka people grace any corner of the Gayndah Historical Museum. Visitors would be forgiven for believing that the Country was indeed terra nullius and only ever occupied by white men in suits and white women in long poplin dresses.

 

If you want to dispossess a people, the simplest way to do it is to tell their story
and start with ‘Secondly.’
Mourid Barghouti

IN HER 2009 talk ‘The Danger of a Single Story,’ the Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie speaks about Mourid Barghouti’s idea in relation to power and colonisation that stories of invasion always start with ‘secondly’. How different would the story be, she asks, if it began with the stories of First Nations peoples? It would make storytelling more truthful. First, Indigenous peoples occupied the lands. We had law, lore, spirituality, complex social systems, ecological knowledge and economies. We were sovereign and we have never ceded our sovereignty.

We began this story with the memory of the first time we understood the close connection between us and our culture before the violence of colonisation. This was through our grandmother – Lily Hill – singing and talking in Wakka Wakka. And while speaking our traditional language would have fully enriched our lives, culture is passed on without that as well.

We are indebted to our ancestors and Elders and we honour the choices they made in asserting sovereignty and passing on our culture in spite of the colonisers and their technologies that would disappear us. Their resistance informs our own. What is possible today is a direct consequence of their actions. When Jay was taught about ‘the Aborigines’ in her Grade 3 classroom, she stormed home and said, in response to the concern of her mother and Aunty: ‘They were talking about Aborigines in class today and everyone looked at me as if I was one!’

But three decades later, Sandra’s youngest boy had a different experience in his Grade 3 classroom. As Biran and one of his best friends were being taught about Aboriginal people, his friend – intrigued by what he was hearing – sought a firsthand account from his Wakka Wakka mate. He asked, ‘What was it like living all those years ago?’

Biran’s retort – ‘I don’t know, I wasn’t even born then!’ – led to some confusion.

‘[Then] how can you be Aboriginal?!’

And Biran’s quiet and confident response was sufficient for a non-Indigenous eight-year-old boy to understand. ‘It’s about family.’

This work was supported through a fellowship made possible through the Queensland Arts Showcase Program.

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