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Jackson’s Track Revisited: History, Remembrance and Reconciliation

Epilogue

Brabuwooloong Woman

Carolyn Landon

In this epilogue, the story changes from one of History to one of Identity. Once the previous stories about the effect of assimilation policies on the Indigenous people of West Gippsland have been told, the weight of whitefella intervention into the lives of the Kurnai seems to lift. There is finally room for Pauline Mullett to begin her story. Now that Aunty Gina has set the scene, Pauline wants to talk about herself as a Brabuwooloong woman. She knows that the listener is finally ready to hear her words about country, family, culture and law. She knows the harsh reality is that her future, and that of her family, largely depends upon White Australians understanding who she is.

While I am still gathering the information for this book, Pauline, who understands better than I do the meaning of my endeavour, begins to tell me what she knows. She reveals for the first time that she has been given stories from her mother and Aunty Gina that will help inform the future for her people and for all of us. As I have said, until I spent time with Aunty Gina, I was not ready to hear Pauline’s revelations. Now when Pauline tells me that the elders have kept much knowledge and they are passing it down, I am ready. I understand that because this knowledge is living in the mind, growing and changing yet being maintained generation after generation, the wisdom of someone like Aunty Gina has hardly been tapped by White Australians. Inside her must be a cornucopia of stories.

Inga Clendinnen talks of a cultural place where ‘steepling thought structures – intellectual edifices’1 keep traditions and truths intact through memory and ritual – story, song, sacred design and dance. Paul Carter says it is a simultaneous four [at least] dimensional knowledge.2 Now that I have spoken with Aunty Gina I know that this cultural place exists in her, and now Pauline tells me that she too holds knowledge. All along Pauline has been challenging me to use my imagination to see through the darker water, as Inga Clendinnen puts it,3 in order to understand the whole of a complex unfolding story. Until now I have been able to hear little more than guilty stories of wrong doing: stories of racial superiority, cultural incomprehension, baseless assumptions, unacknowledged cruelties, boundless ignorance and an absence of love.

At last Pauline has decided it is time to take me into the culture that she owns. She begins to tell me things I have never heard before, things about herself and her identity. Our talks together intensify. We meet for a quick coffee at one of the little places on the main street in Drouin and stay all day. Our conversations are animated, full of laughter, and sometimes anger and indignation, but mostly our words are in earnest. By getting to know me as well as she has, Pauline has been able to figure out through my reactions what we gubbahs don’t know or comprehend and she alters her forms of expression to accommodate. Since talking to Aunty Gina, I can see clearly how much my understanding of Pauline has been a result of pre-constructed ideas of who she is. Now that I am tuned into this, Pauline works hard to deconstruct my Eurocentric mind-set and bring down the barriers between us. I concentrate and try to help her. As we stretch our imaginative faculties to encompass each other’s worlds, we interrupt each other with expressions of new understanding or utter confusion. It is a reciprocal arrangement based on respect and friendship.

This is a long way from my first contact with Pauline in 1992 when I realised I needed help with the task of teaching her children. Pauline had only just started as Koori Educator then and was surprised at my request for help, but we hit it off immediately. After our first meeting I asked her if she would visit my classroom to teach Koori studies to the classmates of her children once a fortnight. She said yes, she had lots she could teach the students. But I remember that she also suddenly became coy.

“And there’s lots more I could tell ya, but I won’t,” she said.

I wasn’t sure what she meant, for I still believed then that most of the culture of Victorian indigenous people had been lost. “Why not?” I asked.

“Shame,” she answered.

At the time her answer made me unbearably sad. I was also ashamed because it pinpointed my ignorance: it seemed to me that I must have blundered badly to force such an answer. Now when I remind her of that incident she laughs loudly. “A lot has changed since then,” she says. Now I see that back then she had not meant, as I initially thought, that she was ashamed of her stories. She meant that there was no way I could have understood her, and so she wasn’t going to try. She also might have thought it was not worth telling me because I would laugh and not believe her. I was not ready. She laughs now because I have come a long way.

I ask Pauline for a formal interview so I can use it in this project. Even before I ask her a question, before I can turn on the recorder, she begins talking. She wants to talk about Identity. Not so much about history anymore as Identity. This is the new story my project has been making way for: Identity. It is my place to listen. She slaps her open hand on her chest and says, “I am walking on the land. I am living. I am cultural history. I am the first person. I am the descendent of the people from here. My people have been walking for thousands of years on this particular bit of land.”4

She shows me a description of her ancestors, living near Ninety Mile Beach, written in 1797 by Hugh Thompson, a mate on the ship Sydney Cove:

We this day fell in with a party of native, about fourteen, all of them entirely naked... on this part of the coast [they] appear strong and muscular with heads rather large in proportion to their bodies. The flat nose, the broad thick lips, which distinguish the African, also prevail amongst the people on this coast. Their hair is long and straight, but they are wholly inattentive to it, either as to its cleanliness or in any respect. It serves them in lieu of a towel to wipe their hands as often as they are daubed in blubber or shark oil, which is their principal article of food. This frequent application of rancid grease to their heads and bodies renders their approach exceedingly offensive. Their ornaments consist chiefly of fish-bones or kangaroo teeth, fastened with gum or glue to the hair of the temples and on the forehead. A piece of reed or bone is also wore through the septum of the nose... Upon the whole, they present the most hideous and disgusting figures that savage life can possibly afford.5

Pauline is excited by this description of Kurnai men, which is a confirmation for her of their existence in her country before Europeans made maps, and she tells me how she feels a direct line from them to her. She thinks that since this description is made on paper by an old wadjiman, non-Aboriginals will see it as validating her own existence. I see something else and try to explain to her how the idea of the Aborigine was constructed in the mind of the European. When he describes the Kurnai people as hideous savages, Thompson, who in his own mind represents civilisation, is confronting not just ‘untamed nature’, but notionally the very beginnings of civilisation itself.6 The Kurnai man then becomes the representative of the stone-age man in an ancient land meeting civilisation and progress in the exploring European man; for Thompson the one is doomed to give way to the other. For Thompson, the Kurnai is no longer a Kurnai, possibly not even human, but the symbol of an idea. This picture of an Aborigine has guided the definition of and management of Aboriginal people from the time of the invasion.

“Oh!” says Pauline. “For sure that Thompson didn’t even know where he was or whose land he was on. Aw, gubbas know nothing!”7 Pauline works hard to explain things to me. She articulates her ideas in her own fashion, struggling to find words. She finds it hard to realise that I don’t know things about country, family, culture and law that she takes for granted as universal, but she struggles on. She knows it’s important to try to speak her feelings because the harsh reality is that her future and that of her family depend upon whitefellas understanding who she is:

My culture to me is Land. And anything on it to do with us. And spirit. Spirit is with the land. Spirit. Spirit can come in many forms. It can come in small signs of significance, you know, signs that... willy-wag-tail is a spirit form... and just signs of spiritual connection, the sun for instance... And it’s also connected with the land. There is no spirit without the land. And we become the land... we become one with the land and its spirits.

Oh, yeah, yeah, deadly, hey.

It’s a good feeling to know that you could have walked freely for centuries and in a tribal way... I mean we’re a very common ground of people. I mean we were great warriors. Let me tell you, the Kurnai were the fierce ones and I believe that, too, you know, because Gippsland would have been very isolated from a lot of the other countries and our people were stern and strong, you know. So, I am very connected with my culture. I love it. And only because I discussed it... As I grew up, I learnt it more from Mum and her being a full-blood. It’s because to me, black was beautiful, but her culture was passed on, and I didn’t know who was related to who until she told me and she told us about the dooligahs and nargans and she was the one who told us about spiritual things coming in different forms. She talked about things generally that she’s associated with her lifetime. And her Pop, her Pop would tell her what happened in his lifetime. Like, nobody today wouldn’t know what a nargan was! People today wouldn’t know if they saw a dooligah and you know they exist! They really do.

I said to the parks and DNRE [Department of Natural Resources and Environment], “You people are destroying one of Australia’s most ancient living artefacts walking around here!” And I meant the hairy things walking around here.

And they were looking at me and they’re saying, “What do you mean? What do you mean?” you know.

And I said, “we called it the dooligah and you people are so out of tune with Aboriginal people and how they feel connected to their own land, you just don’t understand.”

They’ve got to put themselves in me to understand what it is like to be an Aboriginal. Only until you understand the history of this country and what we have suffered from...

As she continues to talk, I realise that she is taking me into her Archives. Unlike the huge monuments to ourselves we Europeans have built to enclose our histories, her archive is in the hearts and bodies of her people and in the country upon which they walk. We non-Aboriginals walk there too, but, as Pauline says, we don’t know where we are and we don’t see as she sees. Back in 1996 when I asked Daryl Tonkin what it was about Stewart Hood he most admired, he answered “His eyesight. He could see things in the bush minutes before I could... He could follow a track that I couldn’t see and pick up the slightest clues as if by instinct.”8 I understood then that Daryl was speaking literally, but now I see he was also speaking figuratively. He was speaking of a place in the mind.

“Whitefellas call your history ‘pre-history’,” I say to Pauline, “because it’s not recorded and so they find it very difficult to comprehend.”

“Pre-history, my arse!” is her response, and then, as always, she laughs.

I give her a synopsis of what whitefellas think history is – that our history is about the record and how we interpret that record, and that the record is the written word. Greg Dening says the job of the historian is to re-text the texts.9 “Whitefellas,” I say, “find the traces of history – like you find it on the ground, and in the trees and with the birds and with the weather and the seasons and in your own identity, in your own self – on paper. And those traces go back thousands of years but there came a time when for historians those were the only traces that whitefellas counted.”

“We [find] it in story telling, symbols and the land. The land tells the story,” says Pauline. I understand that what she is saying is that Country is who she is, her identity and her history. The land tells the whole story – the first and the last story. What I hear her saying is that that is what makes it sacred. When we non-Aboriginals put our traces into buildings like the Archives they too become sacred places where anyone can go, but which only a few people know how to use. Her Archive is her country and anyone who knows how to see it, knows how to walk on it, will know who they are. When the Aboriginal people were moved from Jackson’s Track to Comber’s five acres on the highway, it was not so traumatic for them as it might have been – as I and perhaps Daryl assumed it was – for they were still in Country, and they still knew where they were and who they were. The Kurnai are people who, unlike many, have never been moved off Country. When Pauline says it is her life’s work to walk her country and look out for traces of her identity, she means she is carrying on a tradition that has never been broken in Gippsland. I have travelled many places with her in her country and have listened to her tell stories about events or incidents that happened here and there. She points out landmarks of cultural and historical significance constantly. Wherever we are in Gippsland, as long as it is part of Kurnai Country, she knows where she is.

I mean it’s just... you feel it. There’s a sense of... like I went to Tarwin Lower the other day and I just couldn’t believe how I felt at home. I don’t know, I just thought, ‘Oh, I love South Gippsland. I just love it; I love driving along there...’ Only because my grandfather is associated with Port Albert and the connection to Brataualong and he’s... it’s just the... only for my mother passing on those types of information we wouldn’t know. That’s what’s maintaining and continuing the culture on.

It seems to me she is telling me that walking on Country still happens in south east Australia, that it is a continuing cultural habit that has not been broken. We have assumed that Aboriginal people stopped walking their Country by the end of the nineteenth century, but according to Pauline it still happens. The people who lived at Jackson’s Track, but who came from different Country, often disappeared from the camp for days, weeks or months on end. Aunty Gina’s husband Roy was often absent ‘on business’. Pauline says he was walking his Country in the Western District. When Stewart Hood left the camp, Pauline, who described him as a strong, active, political man just like his father Collin,10 believes he was walking Country: “Yes, Pop had this itchy foot, as they used to say, hey, where they’ve just got to go back into the country.”11 It seems that when Pauline takes me here and there, she is introducing me to her Country and showing me how to belong.

“I am a Brabuwooloong12 woman,” she says, “a clan of the Kurnai Tribe. I know my ancestors, Kitty Perry Johnson and Larry Johnson, and the lineage from them to me. This gives me the right, according to custom, to claim my identity and connection with Country. I know the laws and customs and I have observed them all my life. They have been handed down to me from my mother and Aunty Gina. Now that my mother is gone, Aunty Gina is the elder. She holds the maps and designs in her possession. I am the messenger; I carry the message stick. Aunty could use the phone to ring people, but it is part of our tradition, shows more respect, if she sends a message through a messenger to the other elders. I am the messenger. I can’t tell you any more, but I know all of it.”

I ask her if she has read Howitt13 for I wonder if that is how she knows the stories she is telling me. Bain Attwood talks about Alfred Howitt in The making of the Aborigines. He was hop farmer in Gippsland, who hired many Kurnai men to work for him, in particular a man named Tulaba, who allowed Howitt (at that point an amateur anthropologist) to record the Kurnai rituals and stories at a ceremony or jeraeil held at Lake Victoria in 1884. As a consequence, Attwood writes, ‘the traditionally oriented [Kurnai] men and women did not effectively pass on their tribal law to the mission [Lake Tyers] Aborigines, but conveyed it instead to Howitt and so into European anthropological discourse (where it remained alienated from Aborigines until they recently began to seek the riddle of their identity in his ethnographic texts)’.14 When Pauline says, yes, she has read Howitt, I ask her if she knew the stories before she read him. She answers, yes, she knew all of it and more.

“More?”

“Yes. From my mother.”

“Can you tell me?”

She looks at me for a long time. Her expression shows that thoughts and feelings are streaking through her mind. I hold my breath. Have I got her over a barrel and are all the stories that are just now coming out about to retreat back to the dark?

“Spirits. They are about spirits... spiritual things. Mum told me. Aunty Gina knows. I know. I can’t tell you. But I know things and I know who I am.”15

And she keeps talking. Not for the first time in all this history of collecting the stories, I sigh a sigh of relief.

She tells me that the things in Howitt may not be entirely correct. She knows that Billy (Tulaba) McLeod’s family now resides in New South Wales and that she is not entirely sure he is the Kurnai man Howitt thought he was. She says she knows that some of the people in the famous photograph of the jeraeil of 1884 are not Kurnai. She says that naturally, the men told Howitt only what the elders allowed them to, performed only those parts of ritual permitted to be seen by strangers.

“And it is only what the men told. Howitt only talked to men. The things I know are about women.”

Of course! Once again we come up with that perennial problem of recorded history – androcentricity. “I know the things my mother handed down to me,” Pauline continues. “In every family someone gets chosen to receive the law and the history. My mother told me things. Howitt never asked my female ancestors anything. But I still know what my ancestors knew even though he never recorded a thing.”

image

Pauline sharing her stories

Photos by the author

Pauline is saying – once more, over and over, but I am listening now – that her ancestors did hand much of their knowledge down. Pauline insists it is still here. She no longer feels that she has to hide the fact that she has knowledge, and she now has the confidence to act on the authority that knowledge gives her. To me, this is an indication of how far the stories she wanted to hear, starting with those of her father, have taken her.

Pauline has often expressed concern that I, a migrant, have left my country: she has made it her business to introduce me to another. She explains that it is part of the Kurnai culture to accept strangers into their midst. Pauline’s great grandfather, for instance, came into Kurnai country when he was quite old and met his new wife Helen, daughter of Kitty Perry Johnson, at Ramayuck Mission Station. Once he had married into the clan and accepted Kurnai as his country, he then had to abide by the customs therein and cast aside his identity as a Djab Wurrung man. Pauline seems to be acting on those principles with me: our friendship entails trust and loyalty. Of course, there is nothing formal about my introduction to her country, and so I have no responsibilities to carry out other than the responsibility I take on to never betray Pauline’s trust. The responses of many other historians introduced to Country by their Aboriginal friends have been similar to mine. Peter Read reports that the historian Heather Goodall has deep connections with far north-west country in New South Wales after 25 years of profound engagement with Aboriginals there, particularly with her friend Isabel Flick.16 For Goodall, as for me, the landscape is not enchanted, although she recognises that Country is mythologised and spiritualised for her Aboriginal friends. If Pauline and I drive past a mrartchie [spirit or ghost] place I can see her tighten up and feel the cold whereas I am left only to wonder. However, as Goodall says, she’s felt “enough of the power of memory of places not to feel a need to [understand the spiritual].” She goes on, “I appreciate, but do not understand... I have an understanding of its emotional force. There is no single set of meanings. All of our understandings of the land are cultural.”17

What I have understood about Pauline’s country is that there are extra layers there to treasure, that her map is different from mine, that it is an ancient map of the mind that, begun as it was in deep history, is overlaid many times over with legendary events until it reaches the present. Jackson’s Track is now a place on the Kurnai map that people travel to, where they can feel the spirit of the community that lived there. My map, until Pauline taught me to look differently, was roads and fences and towns. Now I have a strong sense of Pauline simultaneously holding herself in dimensions of past and present, and I can feel it too. Tom Griffiths feels, as I am beginning to under Pauline’s guidance, that “awareness of environmental change and Aboriginality add to my sense of place... Aborigines and environment: these are the two great revolutions of our generation. Writing both into Australian history allows you to reach back beyond the moment of invasion and draws you into deep time as part of our own inheritance... Belonging to deep past implies nurturing deep future.”18

Stuart Macintyre, in the introduction to his new A concise history of Australia, says that this new, finally recognised, Aboriginal presence confronts and challenges those of us who are trying to put our Australian story together.

The idea of history as an unfolding of a necessary past no longer satisfies the imagination. The idea of Australian history as a story of national fulfilment succumbs to arguments of attachment and membership. The idea that this country has followed the path of the West... is challenged by alternative routes and destinations. The idea of an objective and universal record of the past exactly as it happened yields to myriad interpretations of a disposable past. The idea of the historian as an impersonal, unselfconscious narrator is replaced by an appreciation of the historian who is present in the story. Time and memory are re-worked in the history that is now found to have commenced so much earlier. The traditional knowledge jostles with new discoveries to re-define beginnings.19

People like Macintyre, Griffiths, Goodall, Attwood, Reynolds, Read, Clendinnen, Beckett, and Sansom are at last talking with and listening to Aboriginal people, recognising their stories and understanding them.

To Pauline I would like to say this: “Through them and me you will at last be written into our Archive in your own voice, and we will be able to recognise you.” But as I write this I think, why would this impress Pauline? Her archive is so much bigger and older than that of the whitefella. Perhaps also, containing spirits and myths and magic as it does, it is more complete.

It is the first story and the last story.

image

Pauline

Photo by the author

Endnotes

1     Clendinnen (1999, p. 59).

2     Carter (2004, p. xiv).

3     Clendinnen (1991, p. 275).

4     Conversation with Pauline Mullett, Drouin, 2 April 2004. All quotes from Pauline in this epilogue are from this conversation except where otherwise stated.

5     Austin (1974, pp. 20–21).

6     Beckett (1988, p. 194).

7     Conversation with Pauline Mullett, Drouin, 5 January 2005.

8     Landon and Tonkin (2000, p. 42).

9     Dening (1988, p. 2).

10    Stewart Hood along with Eugene Mobourne, both men from the Track, served on the Council for Aboriginal Rights to ensure Lake Tyers became an Aboriginal Trust. They believed the land was theirs as the place ‘where previous generations had lived and died’ (Attwood 2003, pp. 238, 240). Stewart’s father, Collin Hood, worked with John Murray, MLA for Warnambool, to secure 500 acres of land for the exclusive use of Aboriginals (Critchett 1998, pp. 98–102).

11    Interview with Aunty Gina Rose and Pauline Mullett, Drouin, 24 March 2004.

12    All previous spellings of this word in the text have been based upon the spelling in A.W. Howitt. Now that Pauline is ready to tell her story, she wants to use the spelling that her Uncle William “Jock” Hood used when he named the five Kurnai Clans in the family map that he passed down to Euphemia, her mother. Pauline chooses to identify as Brabuwooloong, the clan of her ancester, Kitty Perry Johnson. Her great grandfather, Collin Hood, was Bratowoloong and other members of her family are Brayakoloong. The families in these three clans overlap according to her Uncle Jock.

13    Howitt (2001).

14    Attwood (1989, p. 79).

15    Conversation with Pauline Mullett, Drouin, 16 December 2004.

16    Flick and Goodall (2003, xvi): ‘Isabel had known me a long time before she decided I could help her with her book. She had advised me in my earlier work in researching the history of Aboriginal people in their relations to land across New South Wales. She had also called me in to work on the documentation of the Aboriginal cemetery in Collarenebri...’

17    Heather Goodall speaking to Peter Read (Read 2000, p. 173).

18    Tom Griffiths speaking to Peter Read (Read 2000, p. 183).

19    Macintyre (1999, p. 5).

References

Attwood, Bain. 1989. The making of the Aborigines. Sydney: Allen & Unwin.

Attwood, Bain. 2003. Rights for Aborigines. Sydney: Allen & Unwin.

Austin, K.A. 1974. Matthew Flinders, on the Victorian coast, April-May 1802. Melbourne: Cypress Books.

Beckett, Jeremy. 1988. Past and present : The construction of Aboriginality. Canberra: Aboriginal Studies Press.

Carter, Paul. 2004. Papunya: A place made after the story. Melbourne: Miegunyah Press.

Clendinnen, Inga. 1991. Aztecs. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Clendinnen, Inga. 1999. True stories. Sydney: ABC Books.

Critchett, Jan. 1998. Untold stories : memories and lives of Victorian Kooris. Melbourne: Melbourne University Press.

Dening, Greg. 1988. History’s anthropology: The death of William Gooch. Maryland: University Press of America.

Flick, Isabel; Goodall, Heather. 2003. Isabel Flick: The life story of a remarkable Aboriginal leader. Sydney: Allen & Unwin.

Howitt, A.W. 2001. The native tribes of south-east Australia. Canberra: Aboriginal Studies Press. [originally published in 1904 by Macmillan]

Landon, Carolyn; Tonkin, Daryl. 2000. Jackson’s Track: Memoir of a dreamtime place. Melbourne: Penguin.

Macintyre, Stuart. 1999. A concise history of Australia. Melbourne: Cambridge University Press.

Read, Peter. 2000. Belonging: Australians, place and Aboriginal ownership. Melbourne: Cambridge University Press.

Reynolds, Henry. 1990. This whispering in our hearts. Melbourne: Penguin.

Sansom, Basil. 2001. ‘In the absence of vita as genre: The making of the Roy Kelly story’. In Telling stories: Indigenous history and memory in Australia and New Zealand, edited by Attwood, Bain; Magowan, Fiona. Sydney: Allen & Unwin.

Cite this chapter as: Landon, Carolyn. 2006. ‘Brabuwooloong woman’. In Jackson’s Track revisited: History, remembrance and reconciliation. Melbourne: Monash University ePress. pp. 9.1–9.12.

Jackson’s Track Revisited: History, Remembrance and Reconciliation

   by Carolyn Landon