Lies Damned Lies, Claire G Coleman

ANZLitLovers First Nations Literature Week, 3-10 July 2022

I first really got to Indigenous Lit just seven years ago when WG persuaded me to read Kim Scott’s That Deadman Dance, which I would say now was an almost perfect introduction. Shortly after, a letter appeared in the West, our local newspaper – now a Murdochesque rag – which I reproduced and subsequently revised/expanded on as Pinjarra Massacre (1834). That began two important (belated!) streams in my blogging – reading Indig.Lit and documenting Western Australian massacres.

A year or so later when I got to Scott’s Benang, I wrote to him and he sent me some newspaper cuttings from which I was able to write up the Cocanarup Massacre. The central figure of that novel is the matriarch Fanny (Benang) of the Wirlomin-Noongar people. She marries a white sailor and they have a son and two daughters. Scott tells and retells this story over a number of books, each time with variations on the names, in one of which he discovers that Benang is his own great-grandmother.

Basically, Wirlomin country is on the WA south coast east of Albany , around the (small) towns Ravensthorpe and Hopetoun. Benang’s two daughters marry twin brothers, named Coolamon (in Benang) or Coleman. The Cocanarup Massacre, which is witnessed by Benang, occurs on the Dunn bother’s Cocanarup Station, west of Ravensthorpe, in the 1880s after John Dunn rapes a Wirlomin girl and is killed by her relatives by spearing.

Claire G Coleman appeared on the literary scene with the clever Terra Nullius in 2017. She is a Wirlomin-Noongar woman and a descendant of one of Benang’s daughters. She writes that “the Coleman name came from my dad’s grandfather, a free settler from Ireland via South Australia”, and later refers to her (paternal) grandfather’s mother Harriette, and grandmother Binian.

The place of my grandfather’s birth was said to be taboo. No blackfellas ever dared to go there these days, not for a long time, my dad used to tell me, too many ghosts, he said, too much death, too many bones in the ground … My dad told me that blackfellas drove through that town with their windows closed tight, not to breathe the air, not to get the bad stuff, the ghost stuff, on them.

For some reason, I had expected Lies Damned Lies to be a collection of facts about the settler project in Australia, but it begins at least as a passionate memoir: “I am furious about colonisation, that fury is perhaps all the qualification I need to write a book excoriating it.”

Coleman, born in the 1970s, grew up in Perth not knowing she was Wirlomin-Noongar, still not knowing when she left Perth in her twenties to move to Melbourne (Naarm). She was not/is not white – though she has written a lovely poem about ‘passing’, Forever, Flag – her father told her she was Fijian, a fiction begun by his father to prevent his children being taken away under the (WA) Aborigines Act, 1905. So her family weren’t Stolen Generations; she refers instead to ‘Hidden Generations’, people forced to deny their Aboriginality by the Aboriginal “Protection” laws.

My grandfather was so scared to lose his sons he hid us from the government by hiding us from ourselves; from our families; from our Country.

I see Coleman on Twitter. She is fierce, gets in lots of blues. Trolls for some reason respond to her by questioning her skin colour. She writes a chapter Not Quite Blak Enuff where she interrogates this: “There can be no doubt that all mixed-race Aboriginal people are a product of colonisation; and the attempt to define us as not Aboriginal enough is also part of colonisation.”

She writes else where that she automatically identifies with the underdog, but here are the three reasons she gives for identifying as Aboriginal
1. Who would you identify with? the bully/murderer or the victim
2. Pride in being able to identify with the first people, the ones who belong;
3. The colonisers were attempting genocide. “If I identified with my wadjela ancestry at the expense of my Aboriginality, the colonisers win.”

Colonisation, and to be precise, settler colonisation – the occupying of a land by settlers replacing the original inhabitants – is not an event, does not occur at one particular date, it is a process, a process which in Australia is ongoing. Coleman offer us the hope that if we cease attempting to take over, we might earn a place here in “a postcolonial society, a new Australia that is connected to Country”, born of a dialogue between wadjelas and First Nation people.

I’m not going to spoil Coleman’s novel Terra Nullius for those of you who haven’t read it, but is (surprisingly) dystopian SF. Coleman says all novels about the history of Australia are dystopian – post-apocalyptic for the original inhabitants. And writes further that the inspiration for HG Wells’ The War of the Worlds about an invasion from Mars was the invasion by the British of Van Dieman’s Land (Tasmania) and the near-genocide of the Palawa people.

Coleman uses the central part of her book to debunk myths; from the obviously ignorant like (former) prime minister Morrison’s assertion that Cook circumnavigated Australia; to the odd belief that Australia was first settled by ‘negrito’ pygmies (an hypothesis attributed to Tindal and repeated by Windshuttle); to the original inhabitants benefitted from being colonised (also Windshuttle); to ‘you were lucky it was the British’; to Australia Day, “an annual vitriolic and excited spasm of settler colonialism and white nationalism”.

There is a long chapter about Grog; depression; the Intervention; Grog bans enforced only on Black people; but this quote struck me: “Remember how well Prohibition went in the US. All it did was lead to organised crime. Already white crime gangs smuggle grog into Aboriginal communities, even the government knows about that ..”

Towards the end, Coleman writes: “It can be hard work being an Aboriginal writer, columnist, activist, it’s hard work and risky work sticking our necks out in this increasingly polarised, dangerous, and in my opinion, increasingly white supremacist society we call Australia.” But she sticks at it! This, she says, is her compilation albumn, a book of all her greatest hits from years of writing. Not as fierce as Chelsea Watego, but in some ways more thoughtful, offering at least the possibility of a way forward.

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Claire G Coleman, Lies Damned Lies, Ultimo Press, Gadigal Country, 2022. 270pp

Coleman’s latest novel, Enclave was released a few days ago. My copy awaits me at Crow Books. See my reviews of her two previous novels:
Terra Nullius (here)
The Old Lie (here)

Seven Fallen Feathers, Tanya Talaga

North America Project 2022

Seven Fallen Feathers documents the deaths of seven Indigenous high school students living away – a long way in most cases – from home to attend Dennis Franklin Cromarty High School (DFC) in Thunder Bay, Ontario (Canada) in the years 2000-2011.

I listened to it a few weeks ago and then again for a few hours yesterday. I can’t pretend to have retained enough for a proper review, but this is a moving and important story and I will attempt to reconstruct it from the considerable resources of the internet.

Tanya Talaga is an experienced journalist and an Ojibwe woman “with roots in Fort William First Nation… Her great-grandmother, Liz Gauthier, was a residential school survivor. Her great-grandfather, Russell Bowen, was an Ojibwe trapper and labourer. Her grandmother is a member of Fort William First Nation, and her mother was raised in Raith and Graham, Ontario.” (About Tanya)

The book is divided into seven sections, one for each ‘fallen feather’ plus a couple of chapters to wind up. But throughout Talaga winds in background material. Northern Ontario sounds bleak, forests, snow and innumerable lakes, with small remote First Nations communities accessible only by seaplanes, or by long drives when the roads are open.

I gather most communities have schools up to Year 8, but beyond that it’s either correspondence or living away from home – boarding with families, not residential colleges – to attend DFC. Sadly, it is (or was) a condition of attending DFC that the kids come from a remote community. Hence if a parent set up home in Thunder Bay to support their child then they no longer met the condition for attending the school.

Indigenous education fell, and maybe still falls, under Federal Native Affairs (however it is now named) while the education of settler children was a function of Provincial governments. As is the way with Native Affairs bureaucracies everywhere, even if the spending per student was nominally the same, most of it went on (white) administration, and Indigenous schools were woefully underfunded compared with settler schools.

Talaga’s thesis is that the Canadian government engaged in the systematic elimination of First Nations culture – cultural genocide – and for all their good words/good intentions now, that is ongoing. Treaties, which First Nations leaders entered into under duress, were not honoured; the 1876 Indian Act restricted First Nations people to mostly remote reservations and enforced the attendance of of all children up to 16 years at one of 137 residential schools, run by churches, and now notorious for physical and sexual violence, inadequate food and clothing, and rampant disease, especially TB which might easily have been controlled; even with the closure of the residential schools, Indigenous education has been inadequately funded.

To date, according to conservative estimates from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, approximately 4,100 to 6,000 children died amid abuse and neglect while in the residential school system, which ran until 1996.

CTV News, 1 June 2021 (here)

DFC, with 150 students over Years 9-12, was opened by the Northern Nishnawbe Education Council on the site of an old residential school in Thunder Bay in 2000. Within weeks of the opening the first of the seven, Jethro Anderson, was reported missing. His body was subsequently found in the Kam River, bruised and with what appeared to be cigarette burns to his face. In what became an unvarying trend, Thunder Bay police reported, prior to any possibility of investigation, that there was no suspicion of foul play.

The other six are –
Curran Strang, 2005, found in the McIntyre River
Paul Panacheese, 2006, collapsed and died at home
Robyn Harper, 2006, died of acute alcohol poisoning
Reggie Bushie, 2007, found in the McIntyre River. He had been drinking on the banks of the river with his brother Ricki, who came to, in the river, with no memory of how he got there
Kyle Morrisseau, 2009, found in the McIntyre River
Jordan Wabasse, 2011, found in the Kam River

Talaga writes sympathetic accounts of each of the seven and their families. She provides instances of Indigenous kids reporting being beaten up by white kids and of being tossed into waterways. She documents ongoing racist harassment; taunts and rubbish thrown from passing cars; one Indigenous woman dying of injuries from a lump of metal thrown at her stomach. Over and over we run into indifferent police and coroners inquiries with all white juries.

There is clearly a problem with children 14-18, too far from parental love and supervision, with too many opportunities for drinking and smoking. As in Australia, concerned elders patrol the streets at night and do what they can. As in Australia, Indigenous kids out after dark are treated by the police with suspicion rather than compassion or understanding.

Provincial police were brought in to redo the investigations. To no effect. An inquest into the seven deaths made open findings about the causes of the deaths and 145 recommendations. Children are now brought home for a week mid-term; and new, more local schools are opening. I was left unsure about whether there were local Provincial high schools that Indigenous kids might attend.

In 2017, two more dead teenagers—Tammy Keeash and Josiah Begg—were pulled from different parts of the McIntyre River within two weeks of each other.

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Tanya Talaga, Seven Fallen Feathers, House of Anansi Press, Toronto, 2017. Audible, 2018, Read by Michaela Washburn. 9 hours.

Christian Morrisseau, an Ojibwa ‘woodland’ artist, painted Seven Fallen Feathers in about 2016, after the inquest into the deaths of his son Kyle and six other First Nations students in Thunder Bay in the years 2000-2011 (Tanya Talaga, Ojibwa artist paints Seven Fallen Feathers to ease pain, remember seven young lives, Toronto Star)

see also:
Marcie/Buried in Print’s review (here)
Lisa/ANZLL’s Indigenous Lit page/Canada and the Americas (here)


I don’t get the impression anyone is attempting to read along with my North America Project. Just as well! Next month (June) my review will be of James Baldwin’s Just Above my Head (1979) which I happened on in the library and have already listened to (yes Emma, it was excellent). July WILL be Their Eyes were watching God (1937), Zora Neale Hurston. I already have Life Among the Qallunaat, Mini Aodla Freeman, so that leaves me four more to find (I also have Dhalgren, Samuel R Delany, but I think that’s a project for another day).

Also in June, for Naomi’s Literary Wives Club, I have The Sentence (2021) by Louise Erdrich to read – I know! What a waste to read a book for only one challenge when it might easily cover two or three.