The Old Lie, Claire G Coleman

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If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,—
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori*. [Wilfred Owen]

The Old Lie is a war story, framed by Wilfred Owen’s famous poem, of Australian soldiers, Indigenous Australian soldiers it turns out, part of a larger force fighting in the mud and ruined habitations of distant lands. Strange territory for Western Australian Wirlomin/Noongar woman Claire Coleman, but as we are learning, she is full of surprises.

Corporal Shane Daniels was lost, the grey uniformity of the sky and dirt, the rain, the muck, had rendered the flat, bomb-wracked plain featureless … Tangled barbed wire was a constant obstacle, tangling, tearing , hidden, trampled into the soupy mud …

A familiar opening for Australian war stories for a hundred years now. But in Coleman’s sure hands it becomes something else, becomes more. Yes, the treatment the protagonists, best friends Daniels in the infantry and fighter pilot Romeo endure bear out the justifiable bitterness of Wilfred Owen’s poem. But the story is also a metaphor for Aboriginal dispossession; for White settlement on Aboriginal lands; for Australia’s lickspittle subservience to Empire which led to the Maralinga atom bomb tests on Aboriginal-occupied desert land; for the stolen generations – the seizing and selling into institutional slavery of mixed race children; for the imprisonment of refugees.

No, I won’t discuss how the metaphor works, though that would be a pleasure with others who had read the book. And I won’t discuss this as a genre novel, which I could, and which I think Coleman does well. The Old Lie is clearly presented as literary fiction and that therefore is how it must be judged.

The underlying story is that Daniels and Romeo fill out the old trope of brave, anti-authority soldiers; fight their way out of impossibly tight situations; Daniels has family back home, Romeo finds a (saccharine) love interest. In another part of the war zone, a young man and a girl separately escape slavery and join forces with a foreign monk; find themselves herded in with refugees from the various fields of conflict; do their best to head for a near-forgotten home. William, a medic, wakes up in prison; is forced to assist his captors in their experiments. A strange illness follows the bombing of a remote city.

Unlike fellow Wirlomin/Noongar writer Kim Scott [and I assume there is a connection. The Coleman boys married Fanny/Benang’s daughters (here)] Claire Coleman is not particularly literary, but she is a great story teller. And she uses her stories to emphasize Aboriginal themes, in this case, particularly connection to country.

The red scrub, it didn’t even reach her knees, the red sand, that was home. She could feel it, hear the voices of her ancestors. Maybe it was Walker’s lessons … maybe it was her proximity to death, but she felt more in contact with her people, with her Country, than she had ever felt in her life. [Or ..]

He waited to die, he could not breathe, he smiled, he waited to die. His soul, what was left of it, would escape his body and return to his Country. There he would join his old people. His wife and kids would be there one day too.

The Old Lie is an old-fashioned adventure story, but also a story with a purpose, with an underlying theme. On the basis of her two novels I think it is fair to say there is always more to Claire Coleman than first meets the eye.

This is a very short review but Coleman’s story telling depends for its oomph on the reader coming upon the elements of the story in the order which the author presents them and saying more would put that at risk. Yes I liked it and I would recommend that everyone read it and discuss the issues it raises.

It ends without a resolution. Perhaps Coleman is planning a series.

 

Claire G Coleman, The Old Lie, Hachette, Sydney, 2019

see also: Terra Nullius (my review)


*It is sweet and fitting to die for one’s country, Horace (Ode III.2.13)

When the Pelican Laughed, Alice Nannup

ANZ LitLovers Indigenous Literature Week

When the Pelican Laughed

Sue/Whispering Gums mentioned recently that she was thinking about writing about “As told to’s” and whether that is/was/might once have been an appropriate way to publish Indigenous stories. It certainly works for non-writing sports people.

Readers my age might recall from their schooldays I, the Aboriginal by Douglas Lockwood, as told to him by Alawa (Roper River, NT) man, Waipuldanya, aka Phillip Roberts. When I reviewed it (here) four years ago I expected to find it surrounded by a great deal of dismissive commentary, but in fact it seems to be regarded as a quite faithful account, although expressed in Lockwood’s fluent journalese.

The story around When the Pelican Laughed is slightly different in that it is more recent, 1992 rather than 1962, Marsh and Kinnane were working on an oral history project about Aboriginal women forced to work as servants, and Alice Nannup knew Kinnane’s (Indigenous) grandmother. But there is another, much greater difference, and that is that the words are all Alice’s.

‘You, Wari, you’re lucky to be with us, because you nearly got drowned one time.’ This is a story my mother told me about when I was very young. She told it to me in language.

For what it’s worth, my opinion is that it is important that oral histories be collected, but the author credited should be the teller not the writer. In this case all three are credited.

This book also brings up another much more important issue and one that Australians have nearly always swept under the carpet and that is, whether Aborigines were slaves. In The Great Australian Loneliness (1940) Ernestine Hill writes of pearling at Cossack (near Roebourne, south of Port Hedland and 1500 km north of Perth WA):

Nearly all the pearlers employed aboriginal divers… A bag of flour and a stick of tobacco bought a human life… From hundreds of miles inland the blacks were brought, men who had never seen the sea and now were to live and die in it. A dark sentence of history tells that when they refused to come voluntarily they were lassoed from horse-back, and dragged.

There was a form of agreement to be signed in Cossack… With a clumsy cross the natives signed their death warrants. Few of them lived longer than two years.

Alice Nannup, who was born in 1911, tells of her own position as a 19 year old on Ida Valley station 7 hours drive (maybe 200 km) from Leonora, itself a remote desert town 240 km north of Kalgoorlie in WA’s eastern goldfields (map).

Thinking back, I’d say Beeginup and Ida Valley were the two places where I was the most flat out. It was really terrible. All of us – Jess, Mary and myself – were just worked and worked. I was supposed to get five shillings a week there but they never paid me. They never paid any of us [and wherever she worked she almost never had days off].

This was on a ‘society’ property. “People would come from stations all around there, and the Bunning girls and Nellie Manford used to come up from Perth to have these big parties and play tennis.” Those were big names when I first came to Perth. Whether they still are I don’t know, though the companies bearing those names have been subsumed into others.

Alice was born on a station in WA’s north west, “Abydos Station, out from Port Hedland”. Her father was a small-scale cattleman, Tom Bassett though Alice didn’t find this out until after she had been removed to Perth as an 11 year old. Alice’s mother mostly worked for Bassett, though she moved around a bit.

My mother’s name was Ngulyi, that’s her Aborigine name… She was born on Pilbara Station, which is between Roebourne and Marble Bar and she belonged to the Yindjibarndi tribe. My mother spoke five languages as well as English – Nyamal, Palyku, Kariyarra, Ngarluma and Yindjibarndi. I spoke Kariyarra and Ngarluma the most, and, of course, English.

These languages belong to the Ngayarda group, around and inland of Roebourne, bordered to the south by the Yamaji, and to the east by the Martu, the northernmost of the Western Desert peoples (I learn as I go, so I hope I have this right. See a previous post (here)).

Wari (Alice) lived a quite happy life, an ordinary bush life with lots of cousins, at a time when all her people were station hands, until her mother was tricked into allowing a White family to take her south “to be educated” where they delivered her into the hands of the Chief Protector and she was held at Moore River, not educated at all, but made to work until she could be sent out into ‘service’.

Bassett came down and attempted to recover her, but he was soon thwarted from even visiting, and she never saw him or her mother again. This is where the question of slavery comes in. Of course Aborigines under the 1905 Act were not owned by individuals and so could not be bought and sold, but they were effectively ‘owned’ by the State. They had no freedom of movement; they had to work where they were told; if they were paid, it was a derisory amount, half of which was paid into an account held by the Chief Protector and which they could sometimes beg to be allowed to spend (on necessaries); and by Alice’s account they worked tremendously long hours, seven days a week. Late in her life, Alice discovers she had been the sole beneficiary of Basset’s will – £400 – but the money had been paid into an Aboriginal Affairs account, was lost, and they had made no attempt to tell of his death or of the earlier deaths of her mother and sister.

Alice mostly worked as a servant on farms, which involved both inside and outside work. The farms of course were all down south. The Chief Protector made sure that northerners only worked in the south and southerners only worked up north, to reduce the possibility of abscondment. Alice did in fact walk off Ida Valley and once picked up was able to resist any attempt to return her.

[A policeman] told us that Mr Neville had said we should go back to the station, and we should never have run away because it was dangerous. So we told the policeman how we were treated and that, and he said, ‘Well, I can’t force you, so you’ll have to come into Leonora.’

Here they found work until they were able to return to Perth. Alice knew Neville from having been a maid in his house, so she got him to give her a pass to go and work with a previous employer, but after only a few months, Neville wrote to her saying that Will, her boyfriend had the chance of a married position so she should return to Moore River, which was the only place he would allow Aborigines to be officially married.

They found work around Meekatharra but eventually settled at Geraldton, on the coast and began raising a large family through the Depression and WWII in a series of camps, shanties, reserves, and all too infrequently, reasonable houses, experiencing all the while both casual and official racism. Eventually she and Will split, I think Alice was a pretty forthright woman, and although she continues to live and eventually retire in Geraldton she is contacted by relatives in Roebourne and is able to reconnect and make peace with her past.

Towards the end of the book she is able to say,

… I had thirteen kids, they had forty children between them, and their kids have had forty six. So altogether that makes ninety nine. I have another great grandchild due in 1992 which will make it one hundred – and maybe I’ll get a telegram from the Queen.

Alice Nannup was a sober and abstemious woman. Originally C of E, she moved on when a South African vicar began discriminating against the Blacks in his congregation, and found a home with the Seventh Day Adventists. And if she didn’t get the material rewards she deserved for her tremendous hard work, she ended up secure in her culture and with an enviable network of family and friends.

 

Alice Nannup, Lauren Marsh, Stephen Kinnane, When the Pelican Laughed, Fremantle Arts Centre Press, Perth, 1992. Cover painting by Michael Francas (taken from a photo of Alice but with a background clearly of the country inland of Roebourne).

see also: My review of The Fringe Dwellers by Nene Gare (here), which is set in Geraldton. Gare’s husband worked in Aboriginal Housing, so Nannup knew him and was friends also with another Aboriginal woman working with Nene Gare on the book.

 

“It’s Still in my Heart, this is my Country”

ANZ LitLovers Indigenous Literature Week

"It's Still in My Heart, This is My Country": The Single Noongar Claim History

“It’s Still in my Heart, this is my Country”* (2009) is subtitled The Single Noongar Claim History – the Noongar people being the original occupants and custodians of south-west Western Australia. The authors credited are South West Aboriginal Land and Sea Council, and John Host** with Chris Owen. It is basically the case put up to The Federal Court (Australia’s second highest court), Justice Murray Wilcox presiding, in 2005, to prove the Noongars’ claim to native title over the Perth metropolitan area.

To do this Host demonstrates that the Noongars, who can be divided into 14 regions with their own dialects, are one people with an ongoing, uninterrupted cultural life, and that the indigenous people forced out of Perth by white settlement continued their cultural practices within Noongar communities on the outskirts, and maintained their contact with important sites within Perth. These are the main elements to satisfy the Native Title Act (1993) shamefully introduced by Paul Keating to limit the ambit of claims after Mabo, and further tightened by John Howard in 1998 after Wik.

Because the Perth people had been so decimated by occupation and direct government action (eg. “Battle” of Pinjarra), not to mention laws which for many years in the C20th banned Aborigines from being in towns, it was necessary to prove that the Noongar were one people – hence ‘Single Noongar Claim’ – not a number of distinct tribes, and that, as was so often claimed, they had not lost their connection with Perth and the Swan River or, as was often claimed, died out. Indigenous people with European blood continued, and continue to lead Indigenous lives.

The SWALSC won their claim, but in 2007 the state (Labor) and Commonwealth (Liberal) governments appealed, successfully, on the basis that the claimants had not shown continuous occupation of the Perth area “explicitly”. An agreement was finally reached and registered in 2018 (here, includes map).

Host, an historian, describes his task as ‘histriography’, a critical summary of writings about the history of the Noongars. What is known about them prior to white settlement is ‘pre-history’.

Map South East Asia and Australia during the last Ice Age. Courtesy Wikimedia

I think we all know that at one time you could walk from PNG to Cape Yorke and from Victoria to Tasmania (and from Perth to Rottnest) but what hadn’t occurred to me is that around 8,000 BC, lower sea levels meant that Australia was surrounded by a wide, fertile littoral plain, and its subsequent inundation has removed much evidence of early occupation. However, there remains plenty of evidence that the South West has been occupied for 50,000 years.

When the British arrived in 1826, Professor Sylvia Hallam describes the people of the south west as “firestick farmers and kangaroo pastoralists” with practices that had been continuously evolving for millenia. It is a (cruel) curiosity of the Native Title Act that claimants must show that their practices have not evolved since white settlement, but have been ‘preserved in aspic’. With the British came writing and ‘therefore’ history. Explorer Matthew Flinders called in at King George Sound (Albany) in 1802 and “wrote with evident bewilderment that Aboriginal people ‘seemed to have no idea of any superiority we possessed over them'” (see also Kim Scott’s That Deadman Dance (my review)).

Matthew Flinders organised a military parade for the amusement of the locals and it is some evidence of the efficacy of oral history that the story of that parade was related to (anthropologist) Daisy Bates a century later. In fact, Bates’ meticulous records from when she was living with Noongars around 1906 formed an important part of the evidence for the claim (see also: my post Fanny Balbuk Yooreel (here)).

During the years up until the Swan River colony was formed in 1829, explorers and the garrison at King George Sound observed and recorded a great deal of material about Noongar law, custom and ways of living, by living amongst them relatively unobtrusively. In fact garrison commander Capt Collet Barker and local, Mineng man Mokare were clearly friends, and by the account in Barker’s journal had long discussions about all sorts of matters which greatly informed Host’s opinion about the Noongars’ adaptability in the face of changing circumstances.

Host spends a chapter establishing that there is no evidence for a decline in Noongar numbers after white settlement, despite the opposite being true around Sydney (due to smallpox probably). And in the process makes mincemeat of the work of Dr Neville Green, author of Broken Spears (1984). And yes, he acknowledges that there were massacres, but the number killed were not enough to lead to population decline.

If taking issue with the notion of drastic population decline between 1829 and 1850 has diverted me from the terms of my brief, it has been necessary. As noted …, evidence of cultural maintenance is of doubtful value unless the allegation of Aboriginal extinction or near extinction is shown to be groundless.

An interesting aspect of Host’s account is the permeability of boundaries. While one family group had primary responsibility for one area, the area may have been occupied by different groups at different times, with connections formed by marriage allowing families to travel widely to hunt. For instance, Mokare told Barker his family sometimes moved away inland to allow another group to camp by the shore and fish. However, absence did not lessen connection.

It is clear both from settler accounts, and from oral histories – of which many are cited – that Noongars, who in any case had always moved around a lot, adapted to white settlement spreading throughout the south west in the latter half of the C19th (and up to the 1930s) by combining seasonal farm labouring over a number of properties with frequent absences to maintain their culture.

By 1900, disregarding official attempts to distinguish between ‘full bloods’ and ‘half-castes’, Noongar culture remained vibrant and the Noongar population had probably increased.

The turn of the century brought two shocks. First, goldrushes expanded the white population from 50,000 to 184,000 in a single decade; and then, the 1905 Aborigines Act, brought all WA Aborigines under the direct control of the Chief Protector, and presaged 60 years of determined attempts to separate children with European descent from their mothers (see: Follow the Rabbit-Proof Fence (my review)). The Indigenous population of the South West in the 1901 census was about 1,500 but only Noongars living near towns or as farm workers were counted. As Noongars were notoriously (and rightly!) shy of officialdom and there was, and still is, a great deal of bush in the South West, the actual population was much higher, but as had always been the case, could not be accurately estimated. By the 2001 census, the Aboriginal population of the South West was 27,596 and a high (but unknown) proportion of those were Noongar.

Finally …

I will argue, however, that although the maintenance of traditional connections has been harder for some Noongars than for others, the Noongar as a people have retained the web of territorial and kinship ties along with the reciprocity or mutual obligation, that made up (and make up) the matrix of traditional law and custom.

The last quarter of the book documents the survival of the Noongar in the face of the 1905 Act, concentration camps at Moore River and Carrollup, the paucity of aid, the loss of farm work during the Great Depression, legislation which effectively prevented Aborigines from becoming landowners, and misguided attempts at assimilation in the 1950s, through to the current situation of recognition tempered by high rates of unemployment which we might say began with the Whitlam years, 1972-75.

This is a fascinating work, eminently readable, which greatly added to my understanding of Black-White interaction during the first century of white settlement. Of course this is local history for me, but I am sure Eastern-staters will find it equally interesting.

 

South West Aboriginal Land and Sea Council, John Host with Chris Owen, “It’s Still in my Heart, this is my Country”: Single Noongar Land Claim, UWAP, Perth, 2009. Cover: Ngallak Koort Boodja (Our Heart Land) canvas by Shane Pickett, Lance Chadd, Troy Bennell, Alice Warrell, Sharyn Egan and Yvonne Kickett.


*”White fella got it but it’s still in my heart, this is my country,” Noongar elder, Angus Wallam, during Oct 2005 hearings.

**From what I can gather, Dr Host, who wrote this report, assigned the copyright to SWALSC who then had it published with some alterations and without Host’s permission. Chris Owen is/was an historian employed by SWALSC. See: Struggle over Host report (here)


Message to Lisa: It’s of course entirely up to you whether this counts as Indig.Lit. The report was commissioned by the South West Aboriginal Land and Sea Council, and they list themselves in first place as authors, though the actual writing has clearly been done by Dr Host.

 

 

Blakwork, Alison Whittaker

ANZ LitLovers Indigenous Literature Week

Blakwork - Base Image

I am not a poetry reader let alone reviewer and I only bought this book, a year or so ago, because I was in my local bookstore and the book’s from Broome, WA based indigenous publisher Magabala, and so I assumed it was West Australian. In fact Alison Whittaker “is a Gomeroi multitasker from the floodplains of Gunnedah [NSW]. She is a Fulbright scholar, and a poet and essayist …”.

BlakWorks then languished on my bedside table until I was reminded by Brona’s review of the poem A Love like Dorothea’s (here including a video of a reading by the author) to give it another try. I wasn’t really thinking about who Dorothea was when I started to read and so it hit me like a punch. The assertion Whittaker is making here, I think, is that our love for this land we have so recently occupied alienates the people who have been its custodians for the last 60 millenia. Our love leaves no room for their love. No quote, it would decrease the impact of you reading/listening to it yourself.

The book is divided into 15 sections: whitework, bloodwork, storywork … through to newwork, blakwork; each with about half a dozen poems. Whitework commences with the poem blakwork which tells us that it is a full time job dealing with white guilt: “Indentured blakwork, something like:/nine to five, forgiv-/-ing you.”

I won’t pretend I understood all, or even half, of what I read. Some of the poems are concrete, that is their structure is part of the poem; at least a couple are short essays but here, in a book of poems, we must be aware of the shape, the sound of words as well as of meaning; a number render legalese into poetry to provide a commentary on Indigenous people’s experience of the Australian legal system; and some (I think!) are about other stuff, not just Black-White relations.

Some I like without knowing why: “… so many blaks/How could I name them all?/Inner city arty blak/Remote yet so connected blak/Welfare woman villain blak …” (bpm); or “Indigine, slip through the world Aboriginally this is your line, as your parents will prepare/you so too will you prepare yourself so too will you repair you …” (badblak).

One, ethnomathematics, struck me with a dose of that white guilt. A few words (numbers) dotted across the page: “one, one   /halfhalfhalf …/threequarters/fiveeighths”. Pretty clear what it’s referring to.

There are a few poems which are commentaries on white man’s law. Two or three are ‘simply’  lists of the most common phrases in the judges’ decsion. So, the skeleton of the common law is extracted from the Mabo decision; and exhibit tab is from the inquest into the death of Ms Dhu [who died in a police cell in Port Hedland WA in 2014, while being held for unpaid fines (here)] –

Exhibit 2 tab
The custody system
XXXX Dhu’s temperature
The police vehicle
Lock up procedure

Another, An Act, plays with white legalese: “This Act is the Binaal Bunma-li, Warra-y Act 2018 …  Definitions:/… Binaal Bunma-li: to soothe or settle down/…/Regulations: such as determined by Elders through Country/…. “.

Some is more or less what you would expect, family stories in the section the abattoir; a complaint that a Black woman has been white-washed out of the Thunderbolt [bushranger] legend; an ode to her schoolmates, for feral girls:

‘O, youse feral girls,’
Twisting hands, dancing to warrambul like they’re crossing fingers,
twisting Kmart bras under Big Dub singlets.
They got that
sacred patchwork of precedence–legging thighs follow panty lines,
topograph their overcourse–goad softly little babs to sleep
goad firecourse to wake
goad Centrelink, its cards and monies, from the settler state.

And out of the blue, the section, the centre appears to be a dystopian short story in blank verse:

Bounced through a low-hanging satellite that competes with the atmosphere like I compete with the pedestrians, the Centre for Mob Futures is being rebuilt. Far from here, out desert ways, I’ve reported on its programmers quick to plug its many hostile haemorrhages and rework its paper scaffolds. An archive of drives all buzzing with unsteady fans and unlabelled wires. (futures. excellence.)

Access to the centre is guarded by an AI which determines Aboriginality by yarning, and demands that it be made a cup of tea (blak captcha). In a virtual outback-

… totally unsupervised by mission managers –old and new alike–mob frolicked, philosophised, borned art, and built technologies… In the Centre, a place spinning imprecisely through the sky and broadcasting to a supercomputer in the desert … (virtualisation).

It fails, I think (the project, not the poem).

As I slipped back past the belly-touching AI into the real meatland, all sparse and beige-hot and withering, the Centre’s satellite lost its signal. It shut down. (the last project).

You know I’m an SF/dystopian fan and it’s interesting that Whittaker, Ellen van Neerven and Claire Coleman, to name the most obvious, are all, sometimes anyway, in that space (pun unintended, and indeed unnoticed until about the fourth re-reading).

All the poems require contemplation, more than I have given them at this reading, and I recommend you follow Brona, both in reading one poem at a time, and literally, to see what she has to say about them. And if you’re really serious you could read the review below from the Sydney Review of books. (I haven’t, not yet anyway).

Melanie, did I like it? Not enough to rush out and buy more, but nor did I dislike it, it was interesting.

 

Alison Whittaker, BlakWork, Magabala Books, Broome WA, 2018

Jeanine Leane, Ultima Thule: BlakWork by Alison Whittaker, Sydney Review of Books, 5 Feb 2019 (here)

For further reading of Indigenous authors see –
my Aboriginal Australia page (here) – there’s a list of all my reviews at the bottom.
Lisa’a ANZLL Indigenous Literature Reading List (here)

Tracker, Alexis Wright

Michael Winkler reviews 'Tracker: Stories of Tracker Tilmouth' by Alexis Wright

Tracker (2017) is Alexis Wright’s Stella Award winning ‘biography’ of Central Australian Aboriginal activist Tracker Tilmouth (1954-2015). Known during his childhood as Bruce, and officially as Leigh, he should now, I think, as a late Arrente man be called ‘Kwementyaye’ Tilmouth, but I will continue as his friend and biographer Wright does, with ‘Tracker’.

Tracker is a giant of a book, 620 pp, a collage of overlapping interviews and stories, told by Tracker himself with very occasional prompting from Wright, and by his friends and colleagues.


Tracker Tilmouth: My political education began at a very young age when Lois Bartram, the housemother of our cottage on Croker Island Mission, read … to my brother William and me … Cry, the Beloved Country.

I went to Croker when I was three or four years old, with my younger brothers [William and Patrick].

Lois Bartram: I went to Croker in 1956, and Bruce came in 1957. I was twenty-five … I had done general nursing training and mid and infant welfare.

My family and grandparents on both sides lived in Nullawil … in north-western Victoria, and were farmers in the area.

We heard at the beginning of the year that these three brothers were coming but then they didn’t come… I learnt years later when I met the boy’s Aunty Doreen that she and her husband had gone to court to gain custody.

The law that said children could be removed had just been changed. It had been repealed so that they could no longer be removed but the same bureaucrats were still in power, and they got around it by charging the kids with being neglected.

Patrick Tilmouth: Sister Bartram was a good lady. And a tiny lady, she was only tiny. She put the fear of God into all of us.


And so it goes on – these are only excerpts, each ‘story’ is generally two or three pages. The Arrente people are from the area around Alice Springs, but it was policy to send the children far enough that they could have no contact with their families, and so the boys went to Darwin, to the Retta Dixon, a “drafting yard” from whence children were distributed. Their five older half-siblings, “because their skin was fairer they were sent south.”

They were lucky with Lois Bartram, who loved and educated them, took them home with her on holidays (Tracker caused Nullawil’s first race riot during a game of cricket when he refused to be given out); and also with Croker Island where they were free to roam about and catch and ride the local ponies.

Tracker eventually does a bit of high school in Darwin, returns to Alice Springs, spends some years on a cattle station, meets his father, does a lot of hell-raising, begins to be involved with the Central Land Council, gets a degree (in Agricultural Science, I think, though he refers to himself as an economist) at Roseworthy in South Australia, lives and works with communities, particularly around Docker River on the WA border, and finally, with little fanfare, we find him assistant Director and then Director of the CLC. And from there he goes on to Indigenous politics, prawn farming, and advising on Aboriginal economic ventures.

Tracker’s story, which as you can imagine, does not proceed in straight lines, concerns his wide range of contacts through Indigenous, State and National politics, as well as of course all the actors in the Central Land area, and indeed throughout northern Australia; and his core belief that Aboriginals must achieve economic independence, and that all else is just gifts from their white masters.

So you have this assimilation process running at a hundred miles an hour, parallel to the dysfunction of Aboriginal communities. And they have to be kept dysfunctional because you do not want any models to evolve from the Aboriginal community. (p. 424)

Self-governance for Aboriginals is a myth. Property rights are a myth. The land is vested in the Commonwealth Government and indigenous people are permitted to live on it with conditions. Aboriginal bodies are invented, funded, appointed by Government. Government chooses from whom it will take advice – Tracker is very, very angry, and often very funny, about Black intellectuals, about the Dobsons, Marcia Langton, Warren Mundine; White people, failures down south, come to communities as workers, mechanics and end up Administrators; Black bureaucracies, the Northern Land Council in particular, follow the rules, “Stay between the lines”, collect their salaries, their constituency not communities but their paymasters, Government.

Tracker is a lifelong member of the Australian Labor Party, was certain to become a Senator, but was sabotaged, vilified by the man he was to succeed, Bob Collins, who subsequently suicided before he could face charges relating to sex with children. Nevertheless he is adamant that property rights for traditional owners, which logically flowed from Mabo, was hijacked by the Government acting for white interests, first by Paul Keating and then John Howard, that the Native Title Act confers nothing, no right to occupy, just the minimum of royalties from mining, soon squandered on salaries and fleets of white Toyotas.

Tracker led the CLC to buy up cattle properties in the NT, as there was a sunset provision in the Native Title Act which meant that up till a given date Native Title would be automatic on Aboriginal owned properties. His big success was Mistake Creek which has always been profitable, but his dream is horticulture based on the good soils and underground aquifers of much Aboriginal land.

Eventually, another case will make its way to the High Court, the Native Title Act will be thrown out and the original inhabitants will be granted full property rights to all unalienated land.

The next task is to find a model for community ownership. Tracker was greatly attracted to the Israeli Kibbutz Movement, both for their successes in desert agriculture and for their communal governance. The Governments’ policies divide and rule, deliberately causing divisions even within language groups. Abbott, at the time of writing still prime minister, in particular attempting to enforce a ‘white picket fence’, assimilationist, individual ownership model.

Tracker Tilmouth was a man bursting with ideas, and I have barely touched on them here, bursting with stories, riding racing camels, driving, camping, living in the bush, friends with everyone he met (maybe not Peter Garrett or Jenny Macklin), sitting on Bronwyn Bishop’s lap and asking her if she wanted to make babies (I will never get that out of my head!), driving major negotiations, Jabiluka, Century Zinc, telling the young Marandoo Yanner, a leader in the author’s own country at the bottom of the Gulf, that you don’t say you have sovereignty, you’re not given sovereignty, you take sovereignty, the sovereignty is yours and has 60,000 years of history.

If you’re serious about Reconciliation – and Reconciliation is just a token without Aboriginal property rights – then read this book.

 

Alexis Wright, Tracker, Giramondo, Sydney, 2017

see also:
My post, Tracker Tilmouth on … (here)
Lisa at ANZLL’s ‘thoughts’ (here) but – sorry Lisa! – don’t stop after 250 pages. This is a fascinating book from beginning to end. Not just the ‘life’; not just the format, story telling, which Wright has contributors discuss in the last hundred pages; but the knowledge of what worked and what didn’t, why so much of what we nice, liberal whites do is wasted, mired in bureaucracy, or runs headlong into racist government (every NT government) and dickheads like Malcolm ‘take your Statement from the Heart and shove it’ Turnbull; and whatever else you read, read p.499 on the community running Ali Curung Horticulture who kept the minutes of their meetings as an enormous ever-growing dreamtime mural.

Tracker Tilmouth on …

TRACKER,-GREG-CROUGH-KALKARINGI-CONVENTON.jpg
NT Aboriginal Constitutional Convention, Tennant Creek, 1993 (Central Lands Council archive)

Self Determination: The last thing [white people] want to do is have Aboriginal people escape. Escape through the fence and go into the paddock where you can dream the unthinkable dream. They were very worried for Aboriginal people, that democracy would break out, rather than guided democracy which we enjoy at the moment. The guided democracy is still in place. And so Aboriginal people do as they are told, when they are told, by whom they are told because they do not have any control over the finances. Anyone who says Aboriginal self-determination, I would say you really want to think about that statement before I hear it again. (p.264)

Negotiating: My main argument is that you cannot go to the table with a begging bowl. If you are going to exercise your rights, and your rights are enshrined in the ownership of land, your rights are also enshrined in the economic power that you bring to the table. You cannot negotiate from a point of, Please be kind to me, I am a coon. That goes nowhere. The only time you negotiate is when you say, Righto! If you don’t listen to me it’s going to cost you. And it is going to cost you a lot more than you thought. It is delaying your project, it is delaying your resource development, it is delaying everything. (p.351)

The Intervention: The minute you saw the Intervention in the Northern Territory you thought this is madness, absolute madness. It had taken so long to get people to start [working on] self-determination, and to understand what self-determination means, and then as soon as they nearly grasp it, [the government] takes it away from them…

Even under Australian government policies of self-determination, self-management was never really happening. It was words. When there is an invasion of land, where there is an invasion of policy, whether it is an invasion of money, you cannot [win]… The minute you rely on somebody else you are gone. You adopt their policies and politics…

So you have this argument that is coming, and it has not stopped coming, and it is that the next boom in the Northern Territory will be gas and oil, and they are going to say, Righto! What have you got to offer and how do we take it off you?

Diminished through the Intervention. Totally sat on our arse. Totally sat on our arse because the Intervention was the worse thing that ever happened. Did we get any arguments from Labor politicians about the Intervention in the Northern Territory? None. (pp. 374-6)

Paul Keating: The agenda [during the negotiations to develop the native title legislation in 1993] … had nothing to do with Aboriginal people and that was day one on native title. What does the government want? Not what do you want, not how do you want it, nothing like that, so [Michael] Mansell, Clarky [Geoff Clark], and those blokes and me were pushed out the door … We were thrown out … never invited to another meeting. It had nothing to do with what Keating could deliver to you. It was about what you could deliver to Keating. Keating saw them coming a mile away. He did them cold. And today the argument that is continuing is about property rights on native title and the delivering of native title was not a discussion for Aboriginal people, it was a discussion by the leaders to deliver the Aboriginal people on a plate to Keating…

So yes, the native title debate was an absolute sellout by Aboriginal people who should have had a lot more understanding of what were the rights of Aboriginal people going forward. We lost all the ground that Faith Bandler and those people gained for us. Lost all the ground that Charlie Perkins gained for us. Lost all of that. (pp. 246-8)

Property rights: This is the disconnect that land councils keep falling over, this question about what role has native title got in relation to the [NT] Land Rights Act? The answer is very simple, the Land Rights Act is the political process by legislation… Native title is a legal decision by the High Court of Australia which supersedes any political process … So there is no need to have the legal debate. It is a question of going down to the High Court and exercising your native title rights….

Native title property rights goes past the Land Rights Act, to where you actually own the land, not the Commonwealth. Whereas under the Land Rights Act the Commonwealth owns the land under a land trust. So there is an argument there that people are really, really scared of pursuing. (pp. 372-6)

Recognition: That is why the Dodsons are wrong about advocating for recognition in the Constitution. It is not our Constitution, it is their Constitution. If you want to be invited to a shit sandwich, off you go. It is not ours, it has nothing to do with us. So we have the stupidity of recognition. What do you recognise? You recognise we own it? If you want to recognise we own it all, give us a treaty. Give us our rights. Give us our property rights. Return the stolen land. Do those sort of things. Do not talk to us about recognising us because you can do that on a piece of paper, it is not going to mean anything. (p.407)

 

‘Kwementyaye’ Tilmouth (1954-2015) was an Arrente man, from the country around Alice Springs, and a leading figure in NT and Australian Indigenous politics. The extracts for this post are from the extensive interviews which make up Alexis Wright’s recent, innovative (and Stella Award-winning) biography of him. A review follows.

 

Alexi Wright, Tracker, Giramondo, Sydney, 2017

 

 

 

Don’t Take Your Love to Town, Ruby Langford Ginibi

ANZ LitLovers Indigenous Literature Week

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Ruby Langford Ginibi (1934 -2011) was a  Bundjalung woman from the NSW north coast. Last week I said Hetty Verolme (here) was the same age as my mum, well so was Ruby Langford. and three Australian women couldn’t have had more different lives. We just need a Toorak or North Shore matron to complete the circle, though of course there would be points of similarity as well as difference. So mum and Ruby grew up in rural communities, with not a lot to go round in those years before and during WWII, did well at school but left early and were soon saddled with young children.

Ruby’s oldest, Billy was born the same year I was and Pearl a year later. Seven others followed, to other fathers, and while mum and dad like most of white Australia, working class and middle class, began to leave post-Depression poverty behind in the 1950s, that was not true of Ruby and her fellow Kooris. Indeed, as I read this book there seemed to be many times until her children were all grown that she seemed to be going backwards.

Ruby’s mother and father separated when she was six. Her mother went to Sydney and raised a new family and it was a long time before Ruby regained regular contact with her. For a while she and her sisters Gwen and Rita were ‘mothered’ by Aboriginal clever man, Uncle Ernie Ord, then her father took them to “Aunty Nell and Uncle Sam in Bonalbo“. She lived an ordinary country life in Bonalbo, which she always looked back on as her home town, her father seeing them occasionally while working away, and a mysterious self-contained Aboriginal stockman who was sometimes in town turning out to be her grandfather.

Ruby describes herself as always having her nose in a book, and a good student but at 16 she left home to join her father and his new family in Sydney and began working as a machinist, sewing shirts. Of course she becomes interested in boys and is soon pregnant. This is a warts and all autobiography, an Australian classic, and another view of Sydney and NSW working class poverty which we are familiar with from the works of Kylie Tennant and Ruth Park. Ruby lists her husbands and we see each of them as real people, but they are also a type – rural workers without trades, drinkers, womanizers and violent when drunk.

At each setback, the man finds work fencing, burning off, labouring, Ruby establishes a home – in a hut or a tent – keeps the home clean, the children fed, pitches in with the outside work, has another baby (gets to spend 2 or 3 weeks in hospital) and then one day the man doesn’t come back, or comes back drunk and belts her.

I felt like I was living tribal but with no tribe around me, no close-knit family. The food gathering, the laws and songs were broken up, and my generation at this time wandered around as if we were tribal but in fact living worse than the poorest of the poor whites, and in the case of women living hard because it seemed like the men loved you for a while and then more kids came along and the men drank and gambled and disappeared. It happened with Gordon and later it happened with Peter [Langford], and my women friends all have similar stories. Neddy [Nerida, her best friend] and I have talked about it often as we get older, and how it’s not always different for our daughters and their kids, but those stories are for later.

There are glimpses of hope – that is I, the reader, thinks she may grasp an opportunity to move towards a middle class life – she is an early member of an association formed by Charles Perkins and is appointed editor of their magazine, but is gone before the first issue; and she wins a prize with a short story. But that is it, she descends into urban poverty and welfare dependence, her children start getting into trouble, Pauline dies, struck by a car, Billy dies next, Ruby begins to drink heavily and becomes morbidly obese. Another son is victimised by police, fires a gun, is beaten and charged with resisting arrest, is jailed, escapes, is recaptured, beaten etc. etc. On release he settles down, buys a house, the solicitor steals his money, he gets into fights, is victimised by police, fires a gun …

Ruby gives up the grog, joins a women’s group, starts writing, gets interested in Aboriginal affairs, in particular the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody. As I have said elsewhere and as Ruby Langford documents here, Aboriginals have mysterious accidents when in the hands of police who of course are always found to be not at fault.

Slowly she becomes aware of Koori success stories as well as the failures. Her sister Rita has trained as a teacher and works in teacher ed. At the top of her list of books that shouldn’t be taught is We of the Never Never, Mrs A. Gunn.

Don’t Take Your Love to Town (1988) made Ruby Langford a success story in her own right and she went on to honorary degrees and four more books. I hope I haven’t given the impression she had an unhappy life, she lived and – so she writes – enjoyed a life of considerable exuberance and love. If you haven’t already, read this book!

 

Ruby Langford Ginibi, Don’t Take Your Love to Town, Penguin, Melbourne, 1988