Born on Aboriginal land

by Caitlin Prince

I was born a white woman on Aboriginal land.
Blood drenched land,
white washed in omission.
The land still stains my feet.


I WAS BORN on Whadjuk-Noongar land, not that I knew it. In 1985, our suburb in Perth – with its grid of streets named ‘Walter’ and ‘Edward’ and ever-browning neighbourhood sports oval – couldn’t have felt more removed from anything indigenous. There weren’t Aboriginal families about, my parents didn’t have Aboriginal friends and there weren’t Aboriginal people in the local church. Aboriginal people had been counted as citizens since the 1967 referendum, but they were invisible citizens to me.

My first significant encounter with Aboriginal Australia came via a social studies class, where a teacher decided to show a documentary about the stolen generations. It was 1997; the Bringing Them Home report had just been released. I remember an Aboriginal woman crying on screen and a knot tightening in my stomach. Afterwards, when the lights came back up, a kid beside me called out, ‘Abos are drunks and they can’t look after their children.’ The room chorused in agreement. Still soggy in my tears I peered around me, stunned.

While my school had some kids with Vietnamese, Chinese and Indian parents, there weren’t any Aboriginal ones. Our parents’ understanding of Aboriginal Australia mostly ran along the lines of natives living on the land, hunting kangaroos with boomerangs and leaving handprints on rock faces. We supplemented this with our few interactions with real-life modern Aboriginals sitting around Forrest Chase Mall, yelling at one another. We presumed they were drunk.

Mine was the first generation to be taught about Australia’s genocide in school. It was, however, a curricular extra, an inessential part of our history a teacher might opt not to include – and many didn’t, focusing instead on genocide further afield in Nazi Germany. We didn’t cover pre-colonial Australia in any detail, or explore the history of massacres and resistance that ‘built’ our nation.

If this was the education of my generation, is it really that surprising that still, in 2014, Tony Abbott described Australia before white settlement as ‘nothing but bush’? Or that The Daily Telegraph could be outraged in 2016 by the use of the term ‘invasion’, calling it a ‘highly controversial rewriting of official Australian history’.

By the time I left school I didn’t know much about Aboriginal Australia, but I felt uneasy that the little we had heard had been met with such a strong and inhumane response.

 

MY REAL EDUCATION came much later, after I had graduated from university and started working in rural and remote healthcare in the Kimberley, Pilbara and Northern Territory. Through my work, I finally began to hear things from an Aboriginal perspective. The education that came was brutal.

There are many things not spoken about in non-Aboriginal Australia that continue to be recounted in Aboriginal communities. In the dirt, sitting beside snoozing camp dogs, Aboriginal men and women told me what my own people had been cowardly enough to forget. In the Roper River region of the Northern Territory, a woman explained to me how the sudden extinction of languages there was the result of ‘hunting parties. Shocked, I looked into her statement and found accounts not only of indiscriminate massacres of entire camps, but also the shooting of Aboriginal people for sport – ‘just for fun’ – in the Gulf country. As a woman, it was even more confronting to learn about the prevalence of rape and sexual slavery, with deaths of Aboriginal women from sexually related violence and sexually transmitted disease at times outnumbering all other causes of Aboriginal death.

In the Western Desert, I met a woman who’d never even heard of white people until she was fourteen years old. She’s captured on film walking out of the desert in 1968 as if out of the Dreamtime. After telling me her story, we debated the pros and cons of dialysis for the treatment of kidney disease. I was struck by the huge adjustment she’d made in her short lifetime, from a traditional Aboriginal world to understanding the modern Australian healthcare system.

In the Kimberley, I spoke with a man who was one hundred and four years old. Born in the time of pre-colonial contact in his region, he had lived through pastoralists stealing his land, worked as a stockman for rations and stolen wages, and witnessed the recognition of native title and the return of land to his family to be run as an Aboriginal corporation: the full arc of colonial history played out in his lifetime. Another woman, Mary, shared with me the last memory she had of her mother, chasing the truck as Mary was driven away. There had been a time when her name wasn’t Mary.

These were the history lessons my school curriculum had deemed inessential, the details of the past two hundred years, the actions of my ancestors. These events afforded me my position on Australian land, and Aboriginal men and women theirs, for better or worse.

I now take speech pathology and occupational therapy students with me out into Aboriginal communities as part of their final-year clinical placements. They walk away from conversations like these dazed.

‘Why weren’t we told?’ a student asked.

‘I guess we kind of were,’ another replied, ‘but I had no idea it was all so recent! Why weren’t we made to listen?’

Leah, twenty-two years old and from a wealthy white suburb in Perth, came for a walk with me and spoke to a man not much older than us. He had told us about being ‘trapped in the mission’ a thousand kilometres from home, unable to see his family. Now that he’s home, he’s unable to speak his people’s language. He is caring for a relative’s six-year-old, the father killed in a car accident, the mother drinking. The child has fetal alcohol syndrome. At the end of the visit I had asked Leah how she had found it.

‘Lovely!’ she said, with a perkiness incongruent with the story we’d just heard. ‘It was great how much he wanted to talk.’

The truth is we are being told about the experiences of Aboriginal people. They are telling us. The problem is we will not, or cannot, always hear it.

 

WHEN WE BEGIN to listen to Aboriginal people, there’s a lot to take in and it isn’t easy. Galarrwuy Yunupingu, a leader of the Yolngu people, described the reaction of Australian prime minsters, taken out bush by tribal elders, to have ‘star-dust sprinkled in their eyes’.[i] He said, ‘All of them kept their eyes wide shut – except Hawke and Keating, who couldnt see the future for their own tears of self-pity and remorse.’[ii]

I see this in myself and in the people I work with, the struggle between keeping our eyes wide shut and opening them, venturing into an intimidating emotional swampland of remorse, anger and shame. Listening to Aboriginal people means facing not only the actions of ancestors, but our own ongoing participation in a discriminatory Australia.

University students coming out to communities have to admit they were told about the plight of Aboriginal people. They covered it in their Indigenous cultures unit. They flicked through pages, answered reflective questions and collected credit points – eyes wide shut. Yet when they were out in the community, and when the images from inside Don Dale Youth Detention Centre were broadcast, many of them ended up in tears. It wasn’t hard to imagine the truant teens they were working with ending up in that place.

‘In a few weeks,’ one student said, ‘I’ll be back in Perth. I can put this aside and not even think about it. But the families here can’t just walk away.’

Students willing to open their eyes experience shame and guilt for the times they previously looked away, and for their ongoing privilege of still being able to do so whenever it gets too overwhelming.

I’ve learnt to be alone after spending time in remote communities, to digest the huge range of emotions elicited by being there. I rant and cry, laugh and wax lyrical, trying to comprehend how such joy and resilience can be present in communities with so much hardship and tragedy. I wrestle with my relationship to it all as a descendent and beneficiary of colonisation. I am both an outsider to Indigenous experience and inextricably linked by history and ongoing politics. I feel a longing to connect to something distinct and valuable in these Aboriginal-owned places that I can’t quite articulate and don’t yet understand, but can sense. It’s a complicated emotional experience. No wonder so many Australians just keep their eyes wide shut.

Even in remote communities where Aboriginal Australians should be impossible to ignore, many non-Aboriginal people still avoid contact. Some, like Leah with her incongruent perkiness, seem to disappear into a fantasy, floating across the surface, focusing on the cute kids bringing thorny devils to her door but ignoring the parent behind the child who is raging and weeping. I’ve met resident anthropologists who can recite the literature, statistics and history but have no Aboriginal friends. Others express an awkwardness, an anxiety that grows into a panic they can’t explain. Clinic staff hide behind clinic walls and teachers drive from home to school to home again, never having conversations beyond the exchange of medicine or homework.

Most staff working in remote community health, education and social services are laughably unprepared. We don’t speak the language, have no Aboriginal skin-name to define our place in the community, no clout, no safety net and nobody looking out for us. Cultural-competency training, designed to inform staff about the cultural differences that might impact service provision, is at most a one-day affair, and more commonly an hour or two. Sometimes it’s just an online module. Services desperately seek community engagement, so staff blindly slide into a quagmire of community politics. In one community of just three hundred people, two aged-care providers were operating without an awareness of the other, engaged by two different feuding families. Two agencies, visiting from two different cities, to service no more than twenty people!

The cultural and social complexities of a remote community would be best explained by the people who live there, but communication between non-Aboriginal and Aboriginal people is often so poor that this information doesn’t get shared. Non-Aboriginal people are used to asking direct questions in quick succession, to get the answers they need. They will often interrupt one another, sometimes to argue or contradict the speaker, but often just to agree with emphatic statements like ‘I know!’ This is at odds in a remote Aboriginal community where conversations depend on established relationships, are circular, non-conclusive and vague, and largely negotiated through silence and body language. Not to the mention the fact that English is rarely anybody’s first language. Even when emissaries are sent out with the express purpose of consulting with Aboriginal people over policies such as ‘Resilient Families, Strong Communities: A roadmap for regional and remote Aboriginal communities’ (the closing of WA remote communities), there’s little consideration of these linguistic and cultural differences. The result, as one Martu woman reports: ‘They treat us like we’re stupid. They’re not listening to anything we say. They’ve already made up their minds and are just here to convince us of their way of thinking.’ Non-Aboriginal professionals often speak over the top of Aboriginal people, fail to hear them out, and then we shake our heads in bewilderment or paternal outrage when Aboriginal clients ignore our advice or ‘won’t engage’.

 

MIRIAM ROSE UNGUNMERR-BAUMANN, a Nauiyu Aboriginal elder and renown artist and writer, writes about dadirri, a practice of her people:

It is inner, deep listening and quiet, still awareness.

Dadirri recognises the deep spring that is inside us. We call on it and it calls to us. This is the gift that Australia is thirsting for. It is something like what you call ‘contemplation’.

When I experience dadirri, I am made whole again.

…In our Aboriginal way, we learnt to listen from our earliest days. We could not live good and useful lives unless we listened. This was the normal way for us to learn – not by asking questions. We learnt by watching and listening, waiting and then acting. Our people have passed on this way of listening for over 40,000 years…

There is no need to reflect too much and to do a lot of thinking. It is just being aware.

Nobody has ever spoken to me directly about dadirri, but I credit the Aboriginal people I work with for teaching me how to listen.

My first job in an Aboriginal community was in aged care, meeting with men and women to discuss their needs and helping community centres provide for them. I was to hand them a double-sided brochure listing, in small font, their rights and responsibilities, then complete two large reports, one done on an iPad with the client present.

I knocked on doors but nobody came out. One house went to the trouble of turning off the TV and going quiet. When people were sitting outside, they went inside. I tried visiting day centres where old women gathered, inserting myself between them on to the couch. I asked questions about their families and homes, daily activities and health. Mostly they stayed silent, sometimes they spoke in language around me, and if it was a good day they’d answer ‘Youai’, which I came to understand could mean yes/no/everything’s okay/come back later/go away.

Finally, one day I sat down on the floor of the day centre, a little apart from the women and waited. My fingers twitching, heart racing, I wondered what my bosses would think about their staff sitting around doing nothing. I heard my own breath, felt the wall on my back, the weight of my body driving down into the floor. Then I was no longer waiting, I was listening. I heard the hum of the air conditioner, the women’s laughter, their voices, a cascade of languages around me: English, Walmajarri, Kriol – a few words I was beginning to recognise. One woman looked over at me and held my gaze.

That day she began to tell me about the people who lived there. Pointing out over the horizon she told me who came from across that river, behind that hill, from the desert; about the different nations crowded into one community, people who should never have lived together relocated by pastoralists. Other women joined in. Laughing hysterically, a woman recounted the day she was first given a box of cereal – she had speared it! Another told me how to hunt goanna, how to know when the stingrays are juicy and fat and make good eating. They told me about giving birth in the bush, about the children that were taken away, children who returned, decades later, alienated from their law. They asked me where I was from, if I was married and had children. I pulled out the photos of my wedding.

After all of this, many weeks later, the women began to share with me their health concerns. They were worried that having their teeth removed would cause a heart attack. They didn’t know how to get to their specialist appointment in town. An old man was having his food stolen by his kids. A woman was frequently wetting herself. Women began to say, ‘Wait for that Caitlin to come down, we can talk to her.’

In a remote community, time loses its tautness, sagging and collapsing like elastic in the heat. There’s nowhere to run to, and no point rushing; the problems are two hundred years in the making. Regardless of federally regulated interview forms, standardised assessments and the schedules and agendas of various organisations, I have learnt there is no way to rush. As Ungurrmurr writes, we cannot be good and useful unless we listen.

 

IT WAS A woman named Neela who really brought home for me the exquisite potential of dadirri, as well as the awful cost of not listening. When I first met Neela she was sitting on the back porch of her house, staring at the ground, face hard. She had just come home from hospital, a fifteen-hour bus journey. Her left leg was twice the size of her right with a wound on the foot that was visibly weeping. She remained silent, leaving her niece to speak for her. She insisted they didn’t need medicine, help or equipment.

My colleague and I exchanged glances, sat down on the ground near her and waited. The sun was getting low, the light hazy, red dust suspended in the humid air. My colleague pointed out some brumbies in the distance. The four of us watched them as they slowly moved.

After a time, Neela looked up. Her face had softened, the folds around her eyes had dropped away, revealing an intense brightness within. She met my eyes only briefly, but I saw for a moment a depth of feeling I didn’t know was possible. She began to speak, softly, slowly, letting each piece settle into the dust. She was exhausted, she told us, this was the third long bus ride home from hospital in just a few months. Every time she got home the leg was worse. She couldn’t keep it elevated during the drive; she couldn’t even get up to go to the toilet. In hospital they gave her medicine – she pulled out six Webster-paks in paper bags, piled beneath her bed. She asked: What was in this medicine? Neela was a knowledgable practitioner of bush medicine and showed us a salve made from local eucalyptus, explained how it could also be made into tea. Waving the Webster-paks, she said no one had explained this medicine to her.

We were with Neela for a couple of hours, and returned the next day with a clinic nurse to go through her medicines. Later, we spoke with the hospital staff in town. They were frustrated Neela had left hospital, they wanted to keep her in longer but she had insisted on going home. They complained she was non-compliant with her medicines.

Neela took time to speak. She waited until she was sure we were listening, gathering silence around her like a tidal pool. This clashed with the busy pace of the hospital that was supposed to save her life. She died just a few weeks after we met her. Her wound turned septic and her already failing heart struggled to deal with the infection. The only doctor available in the community was a locum who had never met Neela or her family. There was confusion over what ‘not for resuscitation’ meant; some misunderstanding because complicated medical discussions were being held in English with a non-English speaking family. A respected painter and law woman, Neela died young from preventable circumstances, taking with her all the weight and presence that had altered me in a single meeting.

 

DADIRRI HAS TAUGHT me to let conversations move at the pace of the heart, so pain and complexity can bubble up without being stymied by a hasty solution. It has taught me to let stories leave an impact, to alter me as the tide alters a shoreline. Held in the boundless embrace of two humans connecting deeply, I have learnt even the most awful stories can find an inexplicable buoyancy, a possibility our hurting nation desperately needs. Aboriginal men and women have redefined what listening means to me, and given me a glimpse of what ‘reconciliation’ could really mean.

When we speak about reconciliation, we often emphasise the need to empower Aboriginal people. Yet the Aboriginal people I meet are the ones teaching me what empowerment means. In the Kimberley I met a woman who taught herself to read by following lyrics on cassette covers. In the Northern Territory a mother chased health professionals over multiple states to get competent medical assistance for her son. One Pilbara community, unhappy with teaching practices in the state-run school, organised a boycott, withdrawing their children from class. Aboriginal people are having courageous conversations among themselves, such as Melissa Lucashenko asking Aboriginal men to take responsibility for their violence, acknowledging its colonial roots ‘but at its pointy end it’s violence in our families and we can’t keep deflecting it’.[iii] Doris Eaton, an elder of the Nyamal people of the north-east Pilbara, is sharing dirty secrets about the past: ‘We gotta abide by our culture, but sometimes we gotta move around it.’[iv] Some of this work only Aboriginal people can do, but wise and resilient people are doing it, repairing, healing and forging a future.

But this is only half of the story of reconciliation. The other half lies here, with a white woman born on Aboriginal land, facing increasing examples of the deafness and determined ignorance of her own people, her nation’s dominant culture. The Kimberley woman who taught herself to read is now coaching her son after school because he doesn’t seem to be learning in class. The mother in the NT is still waiting for an accurate diagnosis for her son; the last paediatrician listed ‘autism’ in a letter without even discussing it with her or bothering to complete an assessment. The Pilbara community boycotting their school are six months in, and when the government ministers visited, their course of action was to return for a review in another two months.

As non-Aboriginal Australians we must learn to listen to things we find difficult to hear. We need to stop interrupting and speaking over Aboriginal people, slow down and enter the deep stillness that will help us to hear something new. If we held open the connection long enough, the full, complicated story could come tumbling out, and we might experience the buoyancy and hope that comes when humans truly listen to one another. There, in that inestimable space of human connection, we might finally begin to reconcile.

 

Some names and details have been changed to protect privacy.

 

[i] Self, W. Australia and I. The Monthly. N.p., 2015. Web. 26 May 2017.

[ii] Ibid.

[iii] Kinnane, S, 2016. Stories from the Front. Westerly, 61.1, 178-194.

[iv] Eaton, D., Hopkins, L., & Ingamells, A. Westerly, 61.1, p. 125

From Griffith REVIEW Edition 56: Millennials Strike Back © Copyright Griffith University & the author.