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Remembered by Heart
By Sally Morgan
Fremantle PressCopyright © 2014 Sally Morgan
All rights reserved.
My grandmother's skin was concealed when she was a small child. I am of my grandmother's skin. Her skin leads to my mother's skin, and my mother's skin to mine. My skin is olive and supple. Cuts do not heal quickly but dissolve slowly into raised scars devoid of pigment. The scars last. They show. But this is not the skin I am talking of. I was reunited with my skin when I returned to my grandmother's country, Miriwoong country. Jalyirri is my skin. It is how I am placed. It is my skin of reunion. My grandmother was placed by her skin, Nangarri, and then taken away to a place where her skin meant nothing more than colour.
A dissecting black border was ruled north–south through the Kimberley, slicing my grandmother's country in two. It cut its way along Empire-red maps dividing the northern frontier into federated Western Australia and the Northern Territory. White people had been in my grandmother's country less than twenty years when she was born. The Europeans saw these countries simply — pastured or rocky, fertile or infertile, inhabited, but from where they stood, under utilised. They saw only two seasons in the East Kimberley, Wet and Dry. The Dry is seen as hot and dusty. The Wet is even hotter, but the heat is broken by the rains. The Miriwoong identify four seasons: Rain, Cold, Windy and Hot. Come the Rain season the country sings into life in rich greens, reds and purples. There is plenty of food and it is Law-time; time to catch up with the mob and rejuvenate the land. The ground is always damp, and can become one vast glass-like flood plain when the afternoon rains thunder down.
Tracks are harder to follow come Rain time. In the Windy season it is cooler and there is no rain. Life swells around the larger water supplies where there's food and business. Tracks last a long time in the dry red earth and the nights are clear and fresh. But the ruling guddia saw the world only as wet or dry, black or white. Within a world of 'Empire' they marvelled at their clinical brilliance. They had reduced the world into discrete, simple particles of matter. But it is not so simple. My grandmother's skin had held the story of over two thousand generations of her people's life in their country and then the generations of others. She was born of the crossing of this vertical black line. It cut through her country and into her life.
My grandmother was broken down into 'authentic' parts, half white, half black, but never seen as wholly human. She was the product of the Colonial Frontier to be mapped, traced, labelled and categorised. They called her a 'half-caste'. They thought they had her pegged. But then they didn't know what to do with someone who didn't fit within their neat lines of demarcation so they decided to remove her from their picture. When they took her away they thought they were solving a problem. They thought they were setting the picture straight, clean of their own sins, free of imperfections. They did not see the hole they were tearing. They did not see they were taking someone's daughter, someone's grand-daughter, someone's sister, and someone's future mother. They studied my grandmother, but they did not see her and they did not see the chain of events they were setting in place. They did not think she would remember what had happened to her, or that others would share in this story. They did not think we would one day be leafing through the personal files they created about our grandmother, watching back, as her life was tracked and controlled across those pages for almost half a century. Cuts leave scars. Scars leave tracks. Tracks can be followed.
Lake Argyle stretches the walls of what was once the giant Ord River valley. Tourist brochures boast that it is the largest man-made lake in Australia, containing nine Sydney Harbours nestled neatly within paperbark-covered hills. It is classified as an inland sea, an unnatural version of the ancient sea that 'explorers' had coveted and mythologised as they searched in vain through an imagined landscape. In reality it is neither a lake nor a sea. A concrete and rock dam wall wedged in a gorge on the Ord River tenuously holds back this enormous body of water.
Today, beneath the massive lake's surface the land lies transfixed, cold and silent. Like the hull of a giant sunken ocean liner, my grandmother's country lies trapped in time, holding the memories of thousands of lifetimes, and a moment of disaster when the waters flooded in. If you turn south at the ruins of the old homestead though, and search along the silty floor, you will pick up a trail. These are my grandmother's tracks leading silently out of her country. Although it is dark beneath the silent waters and the tracks are very old, look carefully and you will see them leading all the way back to a place called Wild Dog.
Friday 29 June 1906. Wild Dog Police Station. Before they took her away my grandmother's name was Gypsy. She had been taken off a cattle station called Argyle. My grandmother's older half-brother's name was Toby. He had been brought into Wild Dog from the Ord River Cattle Station, which was further south. They waited together. Gypsy was recorded as being five years of age and Toby as being six. They could have been older. They could have been younger. Over the years their ages would fluctuate across the pages of the files that were created about them as figures of authority took wild guesses about their beginnings. For certain, they were too young to be away from their families. They were two small children being held over by the Kimberley police pending their removal. It was all matter-of-factly noted in the Police and Aborigines Department files. The lean sentences, tidy phrases and abbreviated words of bureaucracy were used to begin their story. A simplistic system was in place to decide their future. Although the sentences might be spare, reading these records is like deciphering a code. To be chained and dragged a hundred miles was described as being 'escorted'. To live in a camp with your family was deemed to be 'neglected'. To have fairer coloured skin than your mother meant 'suitable for removal'.
Government enquiries into the removal of children use dates in their calculations of the numbers of Aboriginal kids taken away from their families. The dates coincide with the passing of legislation when this practice was proclaimed legal. However, these official dates are arbitrary and misleading. From the time the guddia first entered this country Aboriginal children were taken. To really understand what happened, and how it impacted on the lives of Aboriginal communities, you have to listen to stories that have been handed down.
I passed around my grandmother's photograph in the park in Kununurra, the one of her soon after she entered the Mission. In the photo she was a chubby little five-year-old. When she smiled her eyes were all squinty in the sunlight. She was short for her age, fair skinned, big hipped and skinny legged. She had a big birthmark on her left thigh, and a head that was too big for her body. She was a funny-looking little kid, and she was a long way from her home. I wasn't sure if it was permitted to show the photograph so widely, but Nangala said enough time had passed for cheeky spirits not to be a worry. The photo was of great interest and all the women had cooed and sighed, and laughed too, at the sight of my grandmother dressed up in mission clothes.
My grandmother and her brother Toby were some of the first children taken from the East Kimberley by government authorities, but not long after them the yearly toll started to rise. Many of the women sitting in the park had experienced the trauma of having their children taken away. Some of them were younger than my mother and had had their children taken from them as recently as the 1970s and 1980s, when they were sent as babies to Princess Margaret Hospital for treatment, and once there were adopted out without the women's consent. I think this is one of the reasons why they were so welcoming; it was not just about my grandmother, but about every child that was taken away. I could come back and be placed because missing children and their stories are not forgotten. One aunty told me she is still waiting for her son to come back. It is the same in the south, where too many older women waited their entire lives without ever being reunited with their children. This is our community history and an unresolved daily reality for many Aboriginal families.
The Swan Native and Half-caste Mission had been operating in the village of Middle Swan for at least seventeen years when my grandmother and her brother arrived. On the morning the SS Bullarra docked at Fremantle, the children were met at the wharf by the missionary Miss Jenny, who ran the Mission along with her sister, Effie Mackintosh.
Perhaps given a coat or something warmer to wear, the children were taken by steam train on the long journey to Midland Junction. I can't imagine what they made of the train, of its steam, its size and its thunderous noise.
Built on a pastured ridge, in cleared bushland, the Swan Mission grounds sloped gently towards Jane Brook, which swelled with paperbarks and reeds. Beyond the brook, hidden by the paperbarks and accessible by a muddy track, were the much more substantial buildings of the Swan Boys Orphanage and St Mary's Swan Parish Church. Although possibly the first establishment at the site, the Swan Native and Half-caste Mission would always be the poorer of the two institutions, hanging on at the fringes and beyond view.
It was winter in the south when my grandmother arrived, and she and her brother were placed in the dormitory with thirty or so other children. Being infants they were able to stay together for a time. It was Mission policy that when boys reached the age of seven they were transferred to the nearby Swan Boys Orphanage with the white boys. The girls remained at the Swan Mission House.
The children at the Swan Native and Half-caste Mission had come from all areas of the state, and their removal to the Mission coincided to some extent with the colonisation of Western Australia. As the colony spread from the South-West through the Midlands to the Gascoyne, out to the Goldfields and eventually into the Kimberley, the names of children being removed from these areas reflected this expansion. Children were renamed Cue, Gascoyne, Linden, Argyle and Menzies. The names were registered at the Mission in parallel with the growth of towns and stations of the same names as white settlement spread and more children were scooped up by the police. With the rapid expansion in the north, from 1905 onwards the population of Swan Mission was increasingly made up of Nor'wester children like my grandmother.
Gypsy from Argyle Station, along with her brother Toby, was given a new name. The baptism was a ritual of renewal as well as destruction. Their older names and skin names were replaced with English names and they were forbidden to ever use their language again. Gypsy was renamed Jessie Argyle. Her brother was renamed Thomas Bropho.
Children who were removed from their families learned to form special bonds with other Mission children, bonds that were to last a lifetime for my own grandmother. Separated from family, country and homeland culture, the children of Swan Mission survived by adapting as best they could. But that isn't to say they lost all sense of an Aboriginal framework of belief, respect and belonging.
Where you came from and who your people were became especially important to children taken thousands of miles from their homelands and people. In your own country, rules of belonging were clearly defined and understood. With the disruption to this constancy the children held all the more defiantly to their sense of country. Skin defined you within your own culture, and as the missionaries worked to wipe any sense of skin from the children's minds it became even more important to know where you were from and who else was from your region.
Out of the pain of removal, Mission children learned to claim as extended family people from country in the same general direction as theirs. Skin was replaced by a sense of your country, and those from similar country became your countrymen. In broader terms the children divided themselves into Nor'westers and Sou'westers. It was a system the missionaries tried to replace with a sense of belonging in the church, but while some children no doubt acquired a sense of the God of the Christian church, they were also aware of other spiritual and cultural belonging linking back to their homelands.
Nor'westers were kids from Carnarvon and further points north, including those from the Goldfields to the north-east. Sou'westers were mostly Noongar kids from the south-west who had been removed from their specific homelands but still remained within Noongar country.
My grandmother was taken from the new world order of the guddia in the East Kimberley to the new order of the missionaries in the south. Children from different Aboriginal countries were forced together under a singular fixed ideal of a Mission education that was supposed to equip them for a world of servitude and piety. They were influenced by their home cultures, by other people's home cultures, by the church, by their removal and by the situation they found themselves trapped within.
The Mission was supposed to be their new family, their new homeland, their new culture. It was supposed to be a place of Christian teaching and obedience. It was this, but with the addition of the children's own different senses of belonging, the culture of the Mission became far more complex, dynamic, and even contradictory than the missionaries were able to realise. The children might have prayed to Jesus daily, but at night they feared spirits that dwelled in the fertile Noongar country outside the dormitory windows.
Swan Mission received subsidies from the state government on a par with other white institutions of the time, marking it out as unusual compared with the New Norcia Mission to the north, which received far less for the children in its charge. Nevertheless, the children still had to contribute to the working life of the Mission to make it a going concern. When Thomas Bropho (Toby) turned seven, he and my grandmother were separated. He was sent across to the Swan Boys Orphanage to sleep and to receive schooling, but would return after his three hours at school to help with the chores around the Mission. The same went for Jessie (Gypsy) and the girls who lived their entire day at the Mission House. The younger girls had to learn to sew, cook and serve dinner and, as they became older, to care for the younger children. They had to tend the orchard, milk the cows, feed the stock, collect the eggs, and generally help run the place.
After a long day's work the children were locked into the main dormitory. Single beds stretched in rows down either side of the long red-brick building that cut west from the main Mission House where the missionaries slept, meals were prepared and lessons were carried out. It was a place of planned repetition designed to breed well-mannered, hard-working, obedient children who would take their place — and that was never expected to be too high a place — in white society. They did learn, but not beyond what they had to know to be good workers. They ate well when the Mission was doing well, and sang for their supper, literally, to raise funds to keep themselves afloat. The place was small enough not to be overwhelming, but large enough for the children to separate into groups of Nor'westers and Sou'westers.
It was the kind of place that was greatly affected by the staff who ran it, and for some of my grandmother's years there, there were some staff members who were particularly good. Sadly though, for some of those years there were staff members who were particularly bad.
The children soon became attuned to the regular rhythms of a Mission life of work and prayer, and within a short time of James and Letitia Jones' arrival, escapes decreased. In that period the new girls' dormitory was also completed. Photographs were taken of the sturdy new walls lined with iron cots down either side of the corridor of highly polished jarrah floorboards. It looks like a hospital ward. Kapok pillows sit on crisp cotton bedspreads with neat tassels that the girls would have sewn and embroidered themselves, and you can just make out the high and wide, heavily barred windows separating the neatly hung pictures of Christ.
The Joneses allowed the children to head bush on Sunday afternoons to hunt, cook food in hot ashes and scout the country. The inmates loved this chance to get out into the bush. It seems to have been some kind of recognition by Mr Jones of the children's culture, and they appreciated it. Beyond Mr Jones' desire that the children really understand the Bible, and that they really embrace Christ; beyond the repetitious rhythms imposed by these desires, the children were also operating from their own rhythms — watching for jennuks (bad spirits), and checking out each new inmate to see where they belonged; to see if they were from their home country.
Excerpted from Remembered by Heart by Sally Morgan. Copyright © 2014 Sally Morgan. Excerpted by permission of Fremantle Press.
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Table of Contents
ContentsSally Morgan Foreword,
Stephen Kinnane Tracks,
Alice Nannup Life in Moore River,
Hazel Brown Growing Up Around Needilup,
Alice Bilari Smith In Those Days,
May O'Brien My Story,
Jukuna Mona Chuguna My Life in the Desert,
Joan Winch My Mother,
Lola Young Growing Up With Family,
David Simmons Hiding,
Eric Hedley Hayward Opportunity,
Rene Powell Mission Days,
Sally Morgan A Black Grandmother,
Tjalaminu Mia Boorn — Taproot,
Kim Scott Of Aboriginal Descent,
Bronwyn Bancroft Crossing the Line,