Old women’s business

MY PARENTS, OR 'your parents' as we siblings call them, had very conflicting ideas on child rearing.

My dad's idea was to feed us, smack us and send us out to play. He trusted us to grow up without too much help. I remember going to work with him as a young child. He sat me on the back of a truck in a tangle of rope. 'Undo that rope for me will you,' he said, and walked into the shed. I felt so important untying those knots that I didn't realise until he came back that he'd tied me to the truck so I couldn't fall off.

Mum corrected our English, taught us manners, ensured we were kind to animals and other people, and measured us against charts and books on child development. She believed that good parenting and educational opportunities developed great intellects. And she always believed us, no matter what lies we told.

We grew up in a remote community, so we also had adopted Mayali parents. Our Mayali mother, Albadjan as we called her, was quick with a slap or scornful tease for any humbug or annoying behaviour. But she trusted us. She believed that a spirit had come from a sacred place in the earth and became us. That we were each a fully formed human from the moment we were born, one that had lived many millions of times before and was perfectly able to make decisions for themselves. She was confident that all we needed was to be reminded of the laws and sacred places, only needed to hear the stories and myths to remember how to live properly on the land.

The only thing these parents of mine had in common was their belief in the power of story.

Our dad told us stories of floods and cyclones, of people getting thrown off horses and breaking their necks, of the idiots who thought that Fords were better than Holdens. We heard about heroes who swam crocodile-infested rivers to take a child to safety or kept an engine running with a length of tie-wire to save a family from death in the desert. We heard about children who were stolen by winds or tides, sucked into drainpipes or fell into mineshafts where they struggled, their cries unheard, they drowned alone, their bodies never found, their families wailing and cutting themselves with grief.

When Albadjan found us playing in the cinder-dry long grass during the fire season, she told us about the cheeky debil-debil that rode a dingo in the long grass when it was drying. That debil-debil had great lengths of curly red hair – the colour of drying speargrass seeds. With her massive nostrils, she could suck in all the air and taste it for blood. 'Might be wallaby, might be man or dog, but more better children,' she'd tell us. And when the debil-debil found a child, she would send a song around it to cover up its cries. Then steal it and eat it, her sharp teeth ripping the flesh from the bone. That story definitely kept us out of the long grass when it was dry waiting to burn.

Mum was a great storyteller too. Each night she'd put on one of her classical music records and tell us stories. We loved it. We would lie there on the floor, big kids playing with little kid's hair or tickling their backs to keep them still, and we'd wallow in the sound of her voice.

One night she was telling us the story of the Ugly Duckling. We were at the point where the little ducking was out in the cold, nearly dying, when my baby sister scoffed, 'That's gammon. You can't die from being cold!' We had no concept of cold. In our country, it rarely gets below 20 degrees. We knew you could die from heat. We'd all suffered dehydration and sunstroke. But dying of cold? What a joke.

So Mum stopped the story. She got up and changed the record to Grieg's 'In the Hall of the Mountain King' and, sitting down again, waiting for the music to take hold of us, she told us about when she was a child. How, when the Japanese invaded, she was evacuated from New Guinea with her mother and little sister while my grandfather stayed behind.

How, when they got into Australia, my grandmother was classified as a single parent so her children were taken away. My mum was six and her sister four. They were sent to live in an old stone convent in Adelaide where the floors and the walls were made of black ice.

Mum wasn't trying to tell us a story about pain or suffering, she was telling us how it feels to be cold. Through her story we came to understand cold, not just the physical cold that cuts through your skin and makes your bones so brittle they shatter when you run, but the cold of loneliness, desperation and abandonment; the real story of the Ugly Duckling.

Unlike the story of the Ugly Duckling,which made no sense to us – ducks are something you eat, not feel sorry for – this was a story we knew instinctively to fear, not cold, but of being taken away from your parents. Of being subject to a power much greater than yourself. We understood without experiencing it ourselves, the coldness of being alone and shunned. It's a deep knowing that sits with me still.

Recently, I met up with Albadjan and some other old ladies in Darwin. We'd been at a meeting about the federal government's intervention (Northern Territory National Emergency Response Act 2007). It wasn't a consultation, no questions were asked. It was a day of listening; statistics, directives, blame and guilt. Men hung their heads in bewilderment. Women bristled with anger.

After the meeting, we collected children and grandchildren and went to the beach. There we spilled from the cars, doors left ajar, and spread out along the sand hunting and fishing. Children squealed as they rushed to kick and splash in the water.

As each woman caught enough to eat, we gathered around a fire. Albadjan made tea, thick and sweet. The billycan passed from one to the next as we sipped in turn from the brim. Stories, gossip, laughter and criticism floated around me in Mayali and Kriol.

The sun sank into the ocean like an orange balloon, sucking the colour from the sea. The kids played in the shallows, their bodies sparkling with seawater as they cartwheeled and back-flipped, silhouetted against the great expanse of pink and purple sky. The air was moist with the smell of fish and crustaceans cooking on the fire.

Suddenly there was a noise. Oooooo. Ooooo. Is it a curlew? An owl? I looked up searching the trees and the open forest. Behind me a scream brought the children rushing back.

All the woman were huddled around the fire, terrified, whispering to each other.

'What's the matter?' I asked.

Their faces turned away from me.

'What's wrong?' me again.

'The Poinciana woman,' someone whispered.

'Don't say that name!' another voice growled.

'Who? What is it? A ghost? Should we go?' I ask.

I'm ignored.

Albadjan and the other oldest lady are arguing formally in Mayali.

'She's all right,' Albadjan is saying. 'I grew her up. We can talk in front of her.'

'But she is white. Will she be ashamed? Our history is different from hers.'

'We come from the same country!' Albadjan is determined.

'Please tell me,' I say. 'I will understand.'

The oldest lady straightens her shoulders. With a curve of her hand she tells the children to move closer and stay quiet. A finger orders a young girl to put more wood on the fire.

'Long time ago,' she starts the story. 'When white people first came to our country, they came hunting for pearl shell. In those days they had no plastic. They used pearl shell to make combs, buttons and earrings. Collecting pearl shell was a profitable business. No royalties then. They could take everything they wanted from our country. They didn't pay us for anything.

'These men came in boats. They went diving deep into the ocean with helmets on their heads. At the bottom of the ocean they captured pearl shell, put them in the net bags and brought them up. On the boats they scrubbed the pearl shell and packed it into huge bags. They sent the bags of pearl shell back to the King of England.

'But cleaning the pearl shell was hard work. The barnacles cut their fingers and the hot sun burned their fair skin. So, they come ashore with their guns to hunt for Aboriginal families.'

She stopped and looked at the children, their faces bright in the firelight.

'You know this story,' she tells them. 'You remember the station time stories. How the white people used to hunt Aboriginal people and kill them. Collect the bodies and burn them. Same thing here in this country. But this story is different.

'These men hunted for Aboriginal people. Footwalking. They didn't have horses.

'When they found a family they surrounded them. They shot the fathers, the mothers, the grandparents, brothers, uncles…little children too. But they didn't kill everyone. They kept the young girls. Your age now.' She points to a girl of nine or ten. 'They wanted them for slaves to clean the pearl shell and pack it in the bags.

'And they wanted them for wives.'

She sits for a moment to let the information sink in. Then she asks us all, 'Why did they want young girls? If they wanted wives or slaves, why didn't they take older girls? Or women, who were strong and knew how to enjoy being married?'

'No. They chose young girls deliberately. They wanted to break them. To make them forget their families and the songs of their country. They only wanted the shell of a woman.'

She sits back now, swallowing the emotion in her voice, her arms folded over her breasts and belly, her white hair glowing in the light from the fire.

'The young girls worked hard,' she continued. 'They had to be wives for many men. They screamed and tried to run away. But the men tied them to the boat so they couldn't escape. They fed them grog to make them forget who they were. When they got used to it the men untied them and kept them as slaves.

'One day a young girl is taken,' the oldest lady continues. 'But she never gets used to it. She stops crying and fighting. After two moons they take the rope from her leg and they don't beat her now. Or threaten to throw her overboard when they see a shark. But she doesn't forget. At night the sadness washes over her like the waves. In her dreams she sings her families' faces to her, remembering them.

'Then one night, she looks across the water and sees a light. That's my countrymen, she thinks. That's a cooking fire on the beach. We must be close to the shore.

'She jumps up, runs and dives into the ocean.

'Behind her the men scream and shout, crocodile! Shark! But she doesn't listen. She swims away from the boat, out past the boat's lights into the dark water. She swims, and swims.

'But it is too far.

'And she drowns. And her body washed up here now,' the oldest lady opened her hand to say, this beach. 'Her ghost still lives here… That was her now calling out. Oooooo. Oooo… Every evening she sings out, crying to her families. Reminding us of our history.'


Slowly the children got up and left the fire to play in the sand. 'Don't go too far, crocodile there! Debil-debil there too in them trees!'


FROM THE SEXUAL abuse of this young girl all those years ago, the conversation turned quickly to the intervention. How the Little Children are Sacred report was a cry for more consultation. How it identified poverty and disempowerment as the main cause of child abuse and neglect. It asked for help. 'But what we got was the intervention,' one woman said. 'Shame, blame and more of the same,' another scoffed.

One woman told the story of Bob Collins, a former federal minister charged with the sexual abuse of young children in Arnhem Land. One of them was her nephew. She talked about how Bob Collins' court case was put off for years until he finally committed suicide. Suicide, everyone agreed, was a right way for him to die. Most of his victims had also already committed suicide. His early death meant his spirit could go back to the land and perhaps return a more decent man.

They talked about Nhulunbuy and other mining communities where girls as young as twelve are regularly sexually abused by non-Aboriginal miners. White taxi drivers act as pimps. How the report had documented this. But, 'They reckon it's the kids fault!' one old lady growls.

And they did. I remember being shocked at the official line in the report, 'the girls would actively approach the workers… The local police were aware of this "sex trade"…but there was little they could do because of a "culture of silence" among the workers…'


IT WAS DARK now and the children came back to lie in laps or in the sand, the firelight sparkling in their eyes.

A new pre-school and childcare centre had just opened up on our community to help transition children into formal schooling. I asked the little girl on my lap about it. Was it fun? What did they do there? Were there books and toys? 'Child care!' The oldest woman scoffed. She held her mouth in a stiff line for a moment then cleared her throat to tell another story.

'Not far from here, a girl child was born and the great morning star gave her its name,' she said.

'Gurrdji's mother and father loved her dearly for they had two boy children and longed to give them a sister.

'Gurrdji's brothers taught her how to read the stories in the sand. Her mother reminded her of the memory maps and legends of their people. And her father taught her to fear the great evilness that humans create out of resentment, and the devils that lurk in the darkness to catch children unawares.

'Surrounded by her family's tenderness and care, Gurrdji worked hard at her learning and was generous and kind toward other creatures.

'Then one day, a great hunger came creeping in from across the sea. Like the wind that lifts the sand from the tips of the dunes and buries the rocks below, the hunger crept into the adults' minds, settling deep in their thoughts, hiding the ancient stories and maps they had always known, unsettling the love and tenderness they had for their children.

'The adults became greedy. They worked to buy and accumulate. When the parents came home from work their arms were so full, they couldn't carry their children, their minds so hungry for more they couldn't feed them. When the parents left for work, the children cried. But their mothers turned their ears away. The little children tried to comfort each other. But their bodies were too small to hold enough love to share. So they fought and squabbled for the tiny bits of adult care that was available.

'Gurrdji and her friends grew tall and strong but inside them, instead of love and pride, instead of the songs and dances of their people and their land, there was a great hollow filled with want.

'One night Gurrdji felt so empty that she walked away from her home, up into the sand dunes. A handsome young man came. He smiled at her and stroked her hair. Gurrdji, desperate for touch, leant against the young man, accepting him. But as she held him she felt the invisible long hair that covered his skin.

'She jumped back and before her the young man transformed into Doolagarl, the hairy man. He grabbed her and held her tight. He wanted to take her for his wife. She screamed and fought but he was too strong. She couldn't escape. He hurt her so much her spirit lifted out of body, up into the air. She was floating. As she ascended, the pain disappeared. She felt warm and shiny. She became star.

'Gurrdji's mother ran across the sand following her daughter's footsteps, "Gurrdji," she screamed, "Gurrdji." She saw the tracks where the Doolagarl had grabbed Gurrdji. Then nothing. Her daughter had vanished.

'She fell to the ground screaming and crying.

'Up in the sky Gurrdji was shining and silver. She felt warm and peaceful inside. Below her she could see all the camps. All the people. Some waking up, some going to sleep.

'She saw her community. And her mother and father. Her mother was sitting on the ground crying, hitting her head, making herself bleed as if someone was dead. "My daughter. My daughter", she screamed.

'As Gurrdji watched her, her heart thickened, her throat swelled up and a silver tear trickled down her cheek.

'At once her body changed back into a human form. For stars can't cry. 'Slowly, Gurrdji floated down and landed by her mother. "Mum," she said. "I'm here. I'm not dead. Please don't cry."

'Her mother cried holding her. "My daughter. My daughter."'

In the silence that followed, mothers pulled their children closer and hugged them. Older children leaned against siblings, aunties and grandparents. I stroked the tiny child on my lap. She was my little grandmother (Skinway).


LATER THAT NIGHT I lay in bed with Albadjan and nine children. There were three bedrooms in the house yet we crammed the mattresses into one so we could all sleep together. Thinking about this, and the night's conversations, it occurred to me that we have completely different histories in Australia, and different storylines through which we interpret and understand the present. Negative stories about Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities sanctioned the federal government suspending the Racial Discrimination Act, and making legislation that specifically targeted families on remote communities. And they in turn often have negative views of mainstream culture.

I remember helping a woman prepare for a tutorial. She had drawn a picture to show the hierarchy in her community.

At the bottom of the page there was a narrow section with the words 'Elders / Country / Law' written inside. In the large section in the middle, she wrote 'School / Council / Clinic.' At the very top of the page, in another narrow section was written 'Whitefellas and Whitefella Law'.

'So are whitefellas and whitefella law the most powerful?' I asked. They were at the top of the page so…

'No,' she laughed. 'This is like the ocean. Our elders, our country and our law are the rocks at the bottom of the ocean,' she touched them with her fingertips. 'They are and always will be there.'

'The school, council, and clinic, are like the sea,' She placed her hand on the large section in the middle section. 'It feeds us, connects us, and regulates our lives.'

'And the Whitefellas and Whitefella law,' she said pointing to the top section, 'is like the flotsam and jetsam that comes and goes on top of the ocean, constantly changing, disconnected, and haphazard.'


STORIES ARE POWERFUL. My Mum and Dad's stories, like the rope I felt so important untangling as a child, were the threads through which I came to understand my culture and my place within it. Albadjan's stories exposed me to a completely different way of seeing the world and continue to remind me that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people have their own values and aspirations. That rather than understanding themselves as dysfunctional members of the mainstream, as we often do, they come from a different culture and have a different, just as valid worldview. Their histories and culture are grounded in story. I only hope that these storytellers and their stories are resilient enough to survive the negation and bombardment of the mainstream. And that through story they will be able to claw back some dignity after this latest intervention.

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