An extract from ‘Growing Up Aboriginal in Australia”.
Edited by Anita Heiss. Black Inc RRP 29.99
One of my earliest memories is of eating white bread sandwiches with my dad. Not vegemite or peanut butter or devon and tomato sauce sandwiches like the other Australian kids in our working-class suburb of south-western Sydney. No, we ate oyster sandwiches, with vinegar and pepper and salt. Sydney rock oysters out of a jar, smashed onto bread slathered in margarine. Dad would say that we are saltwater people; we love the sea and would eat anything that came out of it. We are D’harawal Guriwal – whale people – and I wondered, who was everyone else? Were they D’harawal too?
I don’t ever remember being told I was Aboriginal. I just was. There was no one defining moment, it was just one of the pieces of grass that intertwined with the others to create the dilly bag that held all that was me. I had no idea what it meant to be Aboriginal, because I had no idea what it meant not to be Aboriginal. It is only now, with the vision of adulthood, that I can trace back the grassy strands of knowledge to their origins in the foundations of that dilly bag.
My D’harawal dad is an excellent storyteller. He speaks with warmth, meaning, expression, gravity and humour. I had no idea as a child that my father’s storytelling was an ancestral ability born of thousands of years of knowledge sharing. I never gave it a second thought, as I lay in the bedroom I shared with my sister in the little fibro home we lived in on the outskirts of Bankstown, which, at the time, was a very Anglo-Saxon area. I say that because now Bankstown is the quintessential, multicultural melange, rich in diversity and ‘inclusivity’ – who is including whom, ‘though, is never clear.
Dad would tell us stories of our family, of an aunty so black that she died in the bath trying to scrub the black off her skin. She scrubbed herself so much she scrubbed herself into oblivion. Or the uncle who never clipped his toenails until one day he fell over and his long toenails stabbed him in the chest and he died. His feet are now memorialised in a museum, and Dad promised to take us one day and show them to us. Looking back, I can see the messages under these children’s stories of the fantastic and the surreal; at the time, I had no understanding of the layers of knowledge that could be revealed when you peeled back the veil of naivety.
By far, the stories that I loved the most were the clever ones in which Dad would tell us how to fix things, how things worked and where to find things. My earliest memory of a clever story was on a warm Sydney winter’s day. We were having our annual sports carnival in the back paddock of our primary school, and Dad came along to watch and cheer. As we sat on the itchy buffalo grass waiting for our races, Dad showed us how to find little sweet berries in the grass that you could eat. I thought all dads did this. I thought all dads knew how to find food in the back streets of suburban Sydney. It would take many years of walking and talking with aunties and uncles, through the remnants of Sydney’s saltwater, freshwater and bitter-water country, to understand the full depth of what my father was teaching me – that the land can and will provide everything you need, without exception; and that is when I first became aware of the idea that Aboriginal people live in complete harmony with the land, and never take more than they need.
What It Means
This is what I grew up to believe it meant to be Aboriginal: to be Aboriginal meant that you were smart, intelligent, inventive and resilient – just like my dad. I had no idea that I should be ashamed of being Aboriginal and hide it like the family I read about in Sally Morgan’s book, My Place. Where I lived, you didn’t have to be ashamed – you just had to be silent. Just never mention it. There was no way Aboriginal people lived in this blonde-haired, blue-eyed suburb of Sydney; Aboriginal people lived in the Central Desert. You were told, ‘You don’t count –you’re not a real Aborigine.’ It felt real to me. It never felt more real than when my father would come home from his factory job, and I would hear him telling my mother the things that the men there would call him. ‘Dirty black bastard’ was the least of it. I thought they were commenting on the black dust from the welding machines that shimmered on his skin when he came home from work. But he seemed so cranky and sad about what they said. I didn’t understand why. Just have a shower and it will wash away.
My sister is my most constant memory from when I was growing up. She is only fifteen months older than me, and we were inseparable. If she got into to trouble for something, I wanted to get into trouble too, and I would stick my hand out alongside hers for punishment. As we grew up and my sister was taunted and called horrible names because she was Aboriginal, I wanted to be called horrible names too – I was Aboriginal too! But I was excluded from the overtly racial slurs because I had lighter skin, so they would say I ‘wasn’t really an Abo’. Strangely, my sister was and so was my brother and they heard it all, just like Dad. I wanted to be included with them. They were my favourite people in the world, but the world was telling me I wasn’t like them. I was different.
None of the teachers at school ever talked about Aboriginal people. ‘They’ were never mentioned. Australian history started in 1788 and, in the background of the photocopy of a First Fleet ship that I had to colour in, was a tall thin man with a long stick and a scrap of cloth over his privates. I had no idea what he was doing there and, I guess, neither did the teacher because she didn’t seem to notice him.
So the world around me was silent, which started to make me louder and louder, and my father prouder. At every opportunity I would talk about being Aboriginal. I would write about being Aboriginal. I would paint and draw and sculpt about being Aboriginal. I would see people twitch uncomfortably and sometimes even let their ignorant thoughts out: ‘But you don’t look it?’ ‘From how far back?’ ‘Do you get lots of handouts?’
I started to notice that it was not considered good to be Aboriginal, but I just didn’t understand. During high school I began to learn the stories of what happened to Aboriginal people around Australia. I started to hear the stories my father told me differently, and to understand what my father’s stories of his childhood as a ‘half-caste’ were all about. I realised that I was considered a ‘quarter-caste’ and could be easily assimilated into white society and not have to mention being Aboriginal. Apparently, I had a ‘choice’. I had a choice to deny how I really felt based on how I looked. I had a choice not to be my father’s daughter. I had a choice to ignore what he had taught me. It didn’t feel like a choice to me. This was me. No changing it. No choosing it. It just was. With every question and cruel remark, a piece of frayed grass would come loose from the dilly bag, but there was no way I would let a hole develop. I tightened the strands and twisted them hard against the constant picking.
As the great grand-daughter of activists Tom and Eliza Foster, I am passionate about continuing their work and educating Australians on our science, culture and stories. What many people don’t realise is that the Day of Mourning protest on the 26th January, 1938 was a foundation event for the 1967 Referendum as well as NAIDOC. At the time of the protest, the government refused the demands of the Aboriginal protestors under the excuse that Aboriginal people were under the jurisdiction of the Crown – King George V at the time. However, out of respect for Aboriginal people, the churches around Sydney decided to call the Sunday before Australia Day a Day of Mourning for Aboriginal people each year. This continued until 1955, when it was decided that the day should have its own time in July and, by the 1970’s, the day had turned into a week to celebrate all things Indigenous, not just the mourning of our people. These days, for most Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, NAIDOC is the entire month of July!
Day Of Mourning
This year marks the 80th Anniversary of the Day of Mourning protest, and I have been so privileged to be involved in some wonderful events reuniting the descendants of the protestors from that historic day. On the 26th January 2018, Metropolitan Local Aboriginal Lands Council organised an event at Australia Hall in which the 1938 protest talks were held. I was unbelievably honoured to be able to deliver the speech that my great grandfather had given on that day, in that same place, eighty years earlier:
(Tom Foster, himself a Christian and well known among the Aborigines at La Perouse as an open-air preacher, picked out their three main enemies.) ‘The first is the Aborigines Protection Board, which has meted out the most callous treatment to our people, and has forced us to do as the white man wishes. The second is the white missionary, who preaches to our people. The third is liquor. White men brought liquor for us, and it has helped to destroy our people. We should stand shoulder to shoulder to destroy these three enemies.’
We have so much to learn from our Ancestors, not just during NAIDOC, but all year round. Our Ancestors knew so much, not just about how to fight for what we believe in, but they also had a sound understanding of Country and how to survive off the land without harming it. So many of us have lost sight of this now, but our Ancestors knew how to heal Country and work with it sustainably, so that it was healthy and productive for the future. We must re-connect to the knowledge of our Ancestors in order to restore our humanity and our beautiful Mother Earth, because of her, we can!
D’harawal Saltwater Knowledge Keeper, educator and artist
(Shannon has relatives in The Manning, including the Russell family.)