…I apologised to my grandfather for not being all that I thought I should be. I’d not grown up in the place that our mob called home. I’d not learned the Law/Lore and I’d not learned our language. I had felt at that age, that I was a huge disappointment and that my place in my mob’s world was not one I could lay claim too.
My grandfather was a wise man and I now know one thing for certain: he had incredible foresight! To grow up in the Country he knew; under Australia’s and Western Australia’s law (or lack of law) at the time – controlling Aboriginal peoples and decimating their ways – he continued to step through his Law to the highest level. He helped hide his language and rituals from those looking to smother it with Christianity and a God that had no notion of his place in Country. His was a changing world – as it was for others – but it was his world and, in being so, it was also ours.
He continued to care for Country, passing on knowledge and meting out punishment as was the ways of the people he was of. He knew he was living in a Culture and Law that was retracting and that the Country would one day be hurting. He knew people would lose their way. He knew that the grandchildren would no longer hold the same languages that he did. He knew that the rituals and rites of passage would change forever. He just knew and he kept the faith – he held true.
But he never stopped being the man he needed to be and the truth is; I was in awe of that, I didn’t understand why at the time, but I – like so many others around me – knew that before me was a man of incredible strength. You felt it as soon as you came near him – his care and compassion for his peoples seemed to me to be endless and – looking back on it now – whilst he might not have been saying goodbye to his entire Culture – he was definitely lamenting it’s passing and those times he once knew as a Cultural Man – in his Country.
It was 1982 when I apologised to him. 15 years after the Australian Referendum has been passed – granting Aboriginal and Islander peoples the right to be counted in Australia’s national census. Two states opposed this referendum with a majority vote of over 70%. One of them was Western Australia (the other was Queensland). This might give you an insight into the world that existed about the place I now call my home.
My grandfather (like many of my other grandparents – a lesson I will share with you all at another time) was brought into his Country at the turn of the 20th century. In 1901, Australia formed a Nation under the Commonwealth. In 1905, WA passed an Act that set about to lock in the damage and trauma you now find in our communities and this has changed our worlds for ever.
This Act was one that saw my mother being taken when she was 5 year old, sometime after the Second World War. This Act had many of her mother’s and father’s removed when they were younger too and this act robbed several generations of a peoples of their right to know of their sense of place, in their own Country, under their own Law/Lore and in plain sight of their own spiritual beliefs and connection to Country.
This law removed so much more than a multitude of children from their mothers. It robbed a living landscape of one of its primary cultural anchors: its connection to its peoples! This law didn’t recognise our peoples and their place in the wider scheme of things about us in our uniquely Australian landscape and it didn’t value their presence upon their Country. Instead it made our peoples aliens in their own environment – criminals in waiting – guilty of persisting in a land that had become so much more than just their home.
What was my grandfather’s response? He patted me on the forearm the way he did, when he wanted to reassure you about something and simply shook his head.
“No my boy,” he said. “You might not have grown up in your Country. You might not have the language and the Law/Lore. Your mother was taken from us you see, but she gave you something else. Your mother is teaching you about the new things. Your mob will need you later – you wait and see.”
In being raised by my caring parents to have a foot in both worlds, I had begun to develop a grounding in the world that was going to be and that – he said later to me – would be my main responsibility. That awareness and knowledge would be what our peoples would need, in the many years to come.
I remember my grandfather’s face when he told me this – like it was yesterday. I remember how his hand felt on my arm and I remember the gentleness in how he reassured me and gave me a little of ‘myself’ back on that day. I didn’t fully understand all he was telling me then – but I knew it was important and I felt a hint of the ‘bigger world’ of which my grandfather’s mind seemed to be mostly anchored in – in his Country. I miss him – and so many of my other grandparents too – between them all, I like to believe they did the best they could to balance an already unsteady world about our extended family.
Today – much of what my grandfather told me then – has come true. What I could never have really understood at that time though, is the incredible need across Australia for our peoples – ALL of our Australian peoples – to come to terms with this immense cultural change.
I’m not sure how you mark your place in this world. I’m not sure what you anchor yourself in and I’m not sure how you give value to those you hold dear about you. But I’m sure of one thing – wherever you go to from here, whatever you become, whatever you create – you must do so with compassion and care – for all of those around you.
Our politicians today – driven by certain members of our wider society and their ever present paranoia – could certainly have learned a thing or two from people like my grandfather.
Shame that didn’t happen eh?!
Belongum – Out!