I was born white
Photo: Mark Minchinton / www.soca.ecu.edu.au/mailman
This journey begins with my awakening to my indigenous identity. This awakening has taken more than 40 years.
The awakening is performed. I walk from Busselton – where my grandmother was known as black – to Kellerberrin – where my grandmother was known as white. I carry a pack with food, clothes and shelter. I also carry a digital camera, a handheld computer, a Global Positioning System (GPS) and a mobile phone. A modern nomad.
Twice a day I stop, take a GPS reading and five photographs and write about what I hear, touch, see, smell, taste, find, feel, think or imagine at the place I have stopped. Each day, I choose two of these photographs and send them with a text to a website.
I was born white-skinned in Victoria, in an Australia that still had a White Australia policy. My great-grandfather, a Wardandi man1, was born at Cattle Chosen – the estate of Alfred Bussell – around 1868. He married a white woman in 1891 – not unheard of, but unusual. His last child, my grandmother, was born at Busselton in 1901. Subsequently, she moved to Wyalkatchem where she gave birth to my mother in 1927. My grandmother then moved to Kellerberrin where – living in hardship – she raised my mother and her other eight children virtually on her own.
Somewhere between Busselton and Kellerberrin, or perhaps before then, my grandmother ‘lost’, disavowed, or ‘forgot’ her Wardandi identity. Perhaps her father and mother had already done it for her, I don’t know. In any case, by the time she got to Kellerberrin my grandmother certainly no longer identified as Aboriginal. In light of the 1905 Aborigines Act – which allowed cruel interventions into indigenous people’s lives, including taking children away from families – the reasons she did that are obvious. Many people did the same. I don’t know whether she told her husband, or what she told her children. Most of them are dead, and those alive, including my mother, are unwilling or unable to talk.
Before she left Busselton and met my grandfather, my grandmother either had a relationship with, or was raped by, another man. As a result, she had her first daughter, my aunt, in Perth in 1923. This daughter was raised by relatives outside my grandmother’s home. Certainly, my mother didn’t know that she had a half-sister, although she had met her and felt there was something ‘strange’ about her.
My grandmother’s ‘illegitimate’ daughter is now dead. I spoke to her third husband last year. He knew that she had Aboriginal ‘blood’, and was proud of it. He described her as nervous, edgy, and particularly fearful of authority. She seemed ashamed – and told many different versions – of her childhood. He could have been describing my mother.
Uncovering these stories has taken me nearly 20 years. I wouldn’t have been able to do it without contacting a helpful second cousin. Unlike my mother, my cousin’s mother and family weren’t ashamed of their indigenous antecedents. They spoke about their history and family. My mother spoke too, but never openly, about her Aboriginal background. She stressed how much better she and her brothers were at running, throwing stones, getting away with things than others; how smart they were, how tough, how they were always outwitting a hostile world. Underneath, there was a pattern of poverty and shame.
I inherited the paranoia, the aggressive defensiveness, the grandiosity and shame. Other factors, other histories, intensified their effects in me. I swung between monstrous self-confidence, scorn for the world, and suicide. I couldn’t understand the intensity of my feelings, my rage, my childlike need for comfort; and my indifference to myself, my emptiness, and my feeling that I did not belong on this earth and certainly not in this country. As I pieced together these stories, I understood the obvious: that my story, my paranoia, defensiveness, grandiosity and shame are not mine alone. The repression of my mother’s family’s Aboriginal history is the story of Australia. As my history was suppressed and elided, so too have some politicians and historians tried to suppress and elide the presence and contribution of Aboriginals in Australia – not to mention current attempts to ‘correct’ (water down or remove) the record of massacres of Aboriginals by settlers.
Before I and this country can overcome those feelings, we must speak and own them, as we must speak and own the stories that produced them.
I know my story is only a small one, that there are many more tragic stories to tell. But for now I can speak only of my story, my awakening, keeping in mind that, ‘even when we are speaking for ourselves, we always speak in the place of someone who will not be able to speak’.2
Photo: Mark Minchinton / www.soca.ecu.edu.au/mailman
I walk from Busselton, birthplace of my great-grandfather and grandmother; to Perth, birthplace of the ‘illegitimate’ aunt I never knew; to Wyalkatchem, birthplace of my mother; to Kellerberrin, where my grandmother and her children lived for many years.
In Kellerberrin I will meet a friend and we will make a performance together, if the local people permit, on the Kellerberrin hill.
I don’t pretend that by walking I will ‘become Aboriginal’. I don’t think I possess any innate knowledge because of my Aboriginal family. I don’t think I have a special spirituality that connects me to this place. I don’t claim any of this land as mine. Knowledge, spirituality and land must be taught, learnt and practised.
But I do believe I have been profoundly affected and, yes, damaged, by the suppression of my Aboriginal history – as Australia damages itself by suppressing its Aboriginal history.
I want to be claimed. I want to feel the land with my feet, my body. I want the land to be written on my body, even if it’s just pain in my knees. I want to know, in some way, this place I might have known already had my life been different, my family been different, the history of this country been different. To walk as if I belong to this place.
- Wardandi: the Aboriginal people living between what is now Bunbury and the Blackwood River in Western Australia.
- G Deleuze and C Parnet, Dialogues, Athlone Press 1987.