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Jackson’s Track Revisited: History, Remembrance and Reconciliation

Chapter 7

Aunty Gina’s Story

Carolyn Landon

“Why don’t they ever talk to us?” asks Pauline Mullett, daughter of Daryl Tonkin, who initiated the telling of the Jackson’s Track story by asking her father to break his silence. In this chapter, the historian speaks with Aunty Gina Rose, the Elder of the local Kurnai people. After an initial discussion of protocols and hierarchical arrangements that White Australians must try to understand and honour, Aunty Gina tells her story. Her narrative is supported by the testimony of other Kurnai people who lived and grew up on Jackson’s Track and remember the move into town that so devastated Daryl Tonkin. The way the Kurnai people see themselves has escaped the constructions White Australians have placed upon them ever since invasion.

Six years ago, not many months after Jackson’s Track was published, Pauline and I gave an Australia Day speech to the people of Drouin, the seat of the old Buln Buln Shire. The Shire had no idea that inviting Pauline to speak at such an event would cause her pain but, in spite of her strong political objection to attending a celebration of what to her was an invasion, she decided the book had given her a right to tell the people of Drouin who she was. She had never spoken to a large group of White people before, certainly not in the community where she had grown up. After I introduced her, she stood trembling with nerves before an audience filled with many people she knew: on the one hand school teachers who had punished her, school mates who had bullied her, police who had harassed her; on the other hand team mates who had helped her become a badminton champion, colleagues who had encouraged her, and others who had come to know of and respect her through her father’s book. She spoke clearly to them all:

I wonder if you realise that the Aboriginal people who have always lived in Gippsland are called Kurnai? We have always been here; we never left; we never returned; we have been here forever. I am proud to say I am Kurnai.

I wonder if you know that on the Lake Tyers Mission Station we were not allowed to speak our language or perform our rituals or educate our children in our traditions? I wonder if you know that our implements, paintings, sacred symbols – our past – were locked up in the museum and kept away from us?

But now we have the key to unlock our memories. It is like a beginning for us in that we are returning to our most important duty and that is the care of our land and our culture. You may know that the land is so integrated with the culture that you cannot separate them.

It may seem as if the culture is returning to us, when actually it has never been lost, only hidden. The elders have made it their duty to guard our culture, like a hidden treasure, passing it down to a chosen few who would keep the stories. The storytellers were invested by the elders with our ancient memories and so they have never been lost.

Now we are all learning our stories. We are remembering how important they are, and we are confident enough to let you hear some of them.1

I didn’t know then, as I listened to Pauline speak, that all she said was true. In fact I imagined that much of it was symbolic – until Pauline arranged for me to interview her Aunty Gina Rose.

Regina Hood Rose is the most important person in her group. She is the Elder, the head of the family. There are other elders in the tribe who are members of other branches of the family and she cannot do anything without consulting them and reaching consensus. However, the Native Title Claim for Kurnai Land, which covers most of Gippsland, is being made in Aunty Gina’s name and everyone in the group defers to her. She is Pauline’s aunt, Euphemia’s sister; she is the wife of Roy Rose and mother of Lionel. Roy Rose was from Warnambool – Framlingham – where Aunty Gina’s grandfather, Collin Hood, came from. Collin Hood was a Djab Wurrung man born in 1836. He left his country for Gippsland, of his own accord after certain tragedies and disappointments in the 1890s.2 After settling at Ramahyuck Mission Station, he married Helen, daughter of Kitty Perry Johnson. Kitty was a Kurnai woman of the Brabralung Clan whose country is ‘four days walk north of the ancient common corroboree site near Swan Reach on Lake King’.3 She was one of the old people who knew tribal law in that she walked the land her ancestors had walked for forty-thousand years or more. From Kitty the line goes directly through to Pauline – from her mother Euphemia and her Aunty Gina.4 When I think of this lineage and the importance of Aunty Gina’s role among the Kurnai, I wonder how those men of the assimilation era with their assumption of racial superiority could have looked her in the eye. One would think that this proud and dignified woman would have dashed to rubble any skerrick of superiority lurking in their poor whitefella frames.

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Aunty Gina

Photo by the author

Aunty Gina was born at Lake Tyers, lived with her mother and sister Euphemia near Dimboola for some time, then began to ‘follow the peas’ – seasonal vegetable picking work – after her mother returned to Gippsland. She settled at Jackson’s Track with her mother and father in the late 1940s and lived there as an unmarried young woman under the protection of her parents before she met and married Roy Rose.

I have learned by listening and watching that it is correct etiquette to introduce Aboriginal people this way, by identifying them through family and country. It is satisfying to read Diane Barwick’s explanation of this practice in her review of Philip Pepper’s autobiography:

Victorian Aborigines of Pepper’s generation were primarily defined by place of origin and family membership. To ‘place’ a new acquaintance they asked where he came from and which family he belonged to, not what jobs he did or what opinions he held.5

If I am to speak freely with Pauline’s family, I need to know how to behave and they need to know who I am. I am a gubbah or wadjiman both of which mean whitefella. The words are sometimes pejorative depending on when they are used and who might say them, but usually they are just generic. In this company, I am a whitefella and they are blackfellas,6 although outside the relaxed atmosphere of family they are Kurnai. Pauline seems to have created a place of trust for me here, primarily by allowing me to work with her father, and everyone in the family knows about the book and refers to it when they speak to me. It seems to demonstrate to them my interest in them, my willingness to learn, as well as my respect and compassion. I hope the atmosphere of trust will continue even if I still do not understand everything. Pauline is confident I do not have a hidden agenda: I do not want to convert anyone; I do not want to change anyone’s life; I do not want to exploit anyone; I am not judgemental. However, it takes frequent expressions of reassurance throughout my time with Pauline’s family to maintain their trust in me. Certainly, judging from the history I have so far uncovered, they have a right to wonder at my motives, to be doubtful of my intention to treat their stories with respect. They know what I am not entirely aware of yet: that my whitefella construction of their character and place in history may cloud my ability to see them for who they are.

Of course, I have been in Aunty Gina’s company several times before, but this is the first time I have ever tried to speak to her formally while recording her voice and taking notes. I am concerned that I am about to bring up painful events for her to remember and wonder how forthcoming she will be. I have met other grey-haired Aboriginal people who will not speak about times past for it is too painful; I know that the testimonies collected by the Koori Heritage Trust in Melbourne are tightly guarded to maintain confidentiality, for many stories are indictments of people still living. I wonder if Aunty Gina will be guarded and wary; I wonder if she will censor herself as she constructs her narrative to protect her family and to keep me happy. After all, I have already seen in the lists of Board records how her people allowed bureaucrats to misconstrue their identities and motives. Pauline has told me she will be on the lookout for such feints coming from her Aunty.

Foolishly, I think I know what Aunty Gina is going to tell me. From reading the records, listening to the narratives of Jensen and Flo White, and working intensively with Daryl Tonkin on his memoir, I have formed a strong opinion about what has happened in the past and how it has affected the Aboriginal people. I assume that they felt degraded by the scandal that seemed to encompass their very existence when they lived on Comber’s five acres out on the highway near the racetrack, the five acres that the Board called ‘the Camp’ and the League called ‘the Settlement’. I assume that they still have strong feelings of sadness and anger as a result of the insults directed at them in the public arena and the eventual breaking up of the community that lived at the Camp and on the Track. I believe that they have been in a state of shock for the last forty years for that is the state in which I found Daryl Tonkin when I began working with him, and certainly his memoir bears the scars of grief, regret and bitterness.

As it turns out, I couldn’t have been more wrong.

When I talk with her, we are sitting in Aunty Gina’s house in Drouin. It is a newish place and seems large and rambling. I think there are lots of rooms off the lounge room with people in them who come and go. That is one thing about Aboriginal houses: they are fully occupied all of the time.7 A large television is on in the lounge room and two young women with their boisterous children are watching it now and again. Pauline, Aunty Gina and I are sitting at a table near the kitchen. I have brought some cake and the children keep running up to grab pieces of it, fighting over it. I have all these sounds on audio tape: not only Aunty Gina’s voice, but also the mothers scolding the kids and doors opening and shutting in the background. Aunty Gina sits entirely composed next to me at the table and ignores it all, except when one of the kids jostles her – then she raises her voice at the mothers to control the children. She remains focused on her narrative throughout. She answers my questions thoroughly and deliberately.

First I ask her what it was like living at Jackson’s Track:

Well, it was really good being out there and being out in the bush life, like the old people used to do, I mean. We had a bark hut. It had a bark roof and a tent.

I think I was around sixteen then. We were in Dimboola and then we went to Bunyip picking beans and peas and then from there to the Track. That’s when Dad got us in there and we lived there ever since. There was plenty of work there for the men. Yeah. They were all getting paid. They were all getting wages...

We were all happy. There was just me and Euphie – the two sisters – and then there was me brother and me Mum and Dad, our cousins, the Austins. We all lived in the same area. We were up one end of Jackson’s Track and they were sort of down near Wattle Creek... That’s where the Austins lived down where all those fruit trees were and we were in the middle of Jackson’s Track just before McDonalds Road. You know where that next bit goes straight? We were living back in the bush there. That’s where we had those three huts. Hmmm. Yeah that’s right. And it was a good life there... My parents were there and Euphie... I wasn’t married then. I didn’t get married until I met Roy. He was out there. They were all out there at the time: Austins, Roses, Bloomfields – Freddy Bloomfield. They were all working. They were all cutting wood. [Freddy] lived with Aunty Vera Rose and her husband, Johnny, was there... And then there was Lionel and Norma and their son, Steven, and their daughter.8

This is the kind of answer I have expected and most of the information she includes is also part of Daryl’s story. I then ask her how she came to know the White people Daryl Tonkin called the ‘do-gooders’ and what kind of a relationship she had with them, but before she gives a direct answer to the question she tells me about how many whitefellas she has known, who she has worked for in her life and how she has been friends with many White people. I wonder if she is trying to make me feel relaxed in her company, but it seems her real motive is to let me know that she knows whitefellas and, in her opinion, they have no control over her. Once that is established she answers my question:

I sort of got to know [the Christians] through Mrs Buchanan. It started when she used to come out to the Track, you know, to bring stuff out to us like clothes. Yeah, she was my friend. I had a lot of time for her... Yeah, I trusted the Buchanans. I trusted the Jensens, too. You know I met them. We thought they were very kind doing what they were doing for us... They used to come down and visit us at the Track... They used to hold... well, we called them meetings in those days, out at the highway. Mr Jensen used to hold them.

I am impressed with Aunty Gina’s tone here. There is no wavering or misgiving when she talks of these people. She says she happily accepted their help because to her it was a practical matter of sharing rather than charity. She seems to have no sense that there was any motive or hidden agenda in the actions of the do-gooders. She completely overlooks that they might have assumed superiority over her. In other words, it seems that she accepted their friendship at face value and accepted their help ‘in the accustomed manner’9 as has always been done. It has been clear to me for some time that looking after one another in a communal sense is a cultural practice that Pauline and her people readily maintain and continue. Daryl discussed it in his memoir and I have seen Pauline acting upon this duty in many ways.

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Daryl and two friends building a bark hut

Photo courtesy of Pauline Mullett

Aunty Gina admits that she knew the do-gooders were preaching about Jesus and wanted her to believe what they believed, but she was unaware that they wanted to change her or uplift her. When I ask her if she ever converted to Christianity she laughs behind her hand and gives me a coy look. “No,” she says.

Pauline, who has joined in the conversation, laughs raucously. Just as Jensen said, I think to myself: Gina’s mum, Dora Hood, was the only one he managed to connect with. I ask if the Jensens or Buchanans tried to convince the people living at the Track that it would be a better life living in Drouin:

No, they never said anything like that to us. You’d have to talk to Mum and Dad [Dora and Stewart Hood] about that, see, ’cause I was only young. Mum and Dad were still with us then, and they could tell us. We all moved together when we left the Track. We [decided to move away from the Track] because uh, well, there was no work there. Daryl... there was no work. We lived there for so long... I can’t recall what year it was, but there was long... other fellas would come off and on, you know. There’d be a gap in work and they’d go then come back when there was work on. But the work ran out. They were only cutting wood for the Drouin factory – Daryl used to supply the factory. There was plenty of timber in those days, plenty of work, but when we decided to move away, the work was finished. We would have stayed on if there’d been work. There was no more wood. So Roy was put off. He had to take it easy because he did have a weak heart. The reason we left was to find work and we wanted to live closer to Drouin so the kids could go to school... No one asked us to move off there. We just moved on our own... Yeah, I was [sorry to move to Drouin away from the Track]. When I first moved to the highway, the kids were having colds all the time. I thought if it was different where we were they wouldn’t be getting sick. In those bark huts [on the Track] they were warm. [On the highway] they were getting colds and all the sickness going around... but then when we finally got used to it, it was good for us.

Again I am surprised at the tone of Aunty Gina’s story. There is no rancour, no bitterness or sadness, only a bit of regret, and the regret seems to have nothing to do with the do-gooders. It seems that Aunty Gina’s world is a practical one filled with essential issues like health, work, food and family. Her speech is full of verbs, which seem to indicate that she is used to actively managing her life in her own way, according to her own customs and beliefs and the needs of her large, extended family.

But the comment she makes about moving off the Track to find work and to enable the kids to go to school, sticks in my mind. It is too close to a letter in the archive from a member of the Welfare Board to the Housing Commission (probably from Mr Felton to Mr Harry Davey) requesting the building of a small house on the Wood Street block sold to the Board by Mrs Buchanan:

The Board wishes to have a small house built for an aboriginal family of two adults and seven small children now living in a humpy on Jackson’s Track. The Breadwinner of this family is able at present to obtain only intermittent employment and is in receipt of social services [organised for them by Jensen as he related] for the greater part of the year... The Board’s objective is to bring them nearer to possible avenues of employment and medical attention.10

It seems odd to me to speak of breadwinners in an Aboriginal family, as if their social organisation were just like that of White settler Australians, but it seems Aunty Gina is reflecting these attitudes in her narrative. I also remember a quote from Jensen in a news article. Explaining the purpose of the League, he says: ‘There are fifteen children in the four families and the League is keen to see them have opportunities for schooling as other children have’.11 Again, I wonder if Aunty Gina is reflecting whitefella attitudes she heard over and over again in the 1950s and probably still does to this day. Daryl remembered in his memoir that her son Lionel was notorious for wagging school, and Aunty Gina has a giggle about it herself when she begins to tell me how the kids got to school each morning. Did she really care if the kids went to school? Is Aunty Gina’s account of moving away from the Track really what she remembers? Or is my doubt here a matter of my giving too much weight to the machinations of the do-gooders and the Board? Do I lack faith in Aunty Gina’s ability to think and act autonomously?

It is not long before I am reassured. She looks at me in a kind of embarrassed way and says, “He [Daryl] had a different opinion to me about what happened”. When she follows this statement with a short, apologetic laugh, I realise she has been thinking about how I will react when she tells me her version of the story. I understand that she has determined to tell it anyway even if it contradicts Daryl’s version – which by now she knows very well, as does all her family – and even if she risks upsetting Pauline as well as me. I appreciate her candour, for it shows she has decided to be straightforward rather than to placate me.

At the same time I feel a jolt of confusion: I have so many doubts. It is as though my thinking has to be wrenched into gear. As I feel myself resist her story, I wonder if I have been sucked into the archival version of events? I wonder if Daryl constructed a similar version to the archives because he was bound by his social and historical context, no matter how much he wanted to reject it? It is difficult enough to recognise a particular mind-set let alone put it aside so we can be open to different kinds of understanding. Aunty Gina’s version of events makes me conscious that attitudes I began acquiring the moment I set foot on Australian soil thirty-seven years ago still persist in me, that I may have brought them to this project. As Beckett says, ‘unpopular ideas linger...’12 Perhaps I unconsciously fall back on the very attitudes I was exposed to over and over again in the late 1960s: the idea that Aboriginals are a static people, unchanging, unable to adapt, incapable of co-existence in the modern world, and that therefore they are a dying race. Do I want to see the Aboriginal people as victims to add pathos to my shame at the treatment my race has meted out to them?

Aunty Gina’s story shows me that she never considered herself or her people to be wretched, helpless, degenerate or depraved, despite Jensen’s ministry. Can I change my mind? Can I take it all in? Aunty Gina seems to realise I am struggling not to resist her story. She tells me why she thinks Daryl told it the way he did and why it was a tragedy for him. “I reckon he would have felt sad [about our move into town] because he missed us all, hey? We were good company for him, you know.”

Pauline agrees with her aunty: “Yes, Dad did miss the company. It was the company that blackfellas lived their culture for. I think that’s what kept them together.”

Neither of these women thinks that my struggle has to do with my idea of who they are. They see the story clearly in terms of human need and response. I try to clear my mind and think the way they do. When Stewart Hood moved away, Daryl would have known he was about to lose everything he loved. The shift of the Hoods and the Roses to Drouin, coming so soon after the shift of the Austin family to Neerim South – all orchestrated by Jensen – was, as we can see in his memoir, momentous for him. His brother had just died and as a consequence some business clients were lost and others felt they could take advantage of Daryl, the shy and awkward whitefella married to a Black woman. With his business in trouble, he had no means of keeping the Hoods and the Roses at Jackson’s Track. He told me about a great debt mounting at Pretty’s store in Jindivick where he kept a tab running for any of the blackfellas on the Track – all of whom he saw as members of his family – who might be short on money and supplies. He said it had reached £2000 at one point, an enormous amount in the late 1950s, ‘but we paid it all off okay’.13 Aunty Gina remembers, “We used to get credit at the store when we run out of food. You know. And he [Daryl] was there to help us.” Daryl’s inability to pay his rates for two years (1958 and 1959) before he got back on his feet again is further testament to his lack of liquidity just after Harry died.14 Unfortunately, this is exactly the time the League, the Welfare and the Christians became most active. Their presence on the property created arguments between Daryl and his old mentor Stewart Hood. Stewy, in deference to his wife Dora, was willing to listen to their talk and considered them to be good people. But Daryl must have known what was coming: the presence of White men on the property, walking amongst the blackfellas, giving them charity and food, must have been like a knife twisting in his heart.

When Daryl came out of his isolation after forty years and began to construct a narrative around these memories, he seems to have compressed what must have been a series of events into one terrible day. For that’s how it was to him, one overwhelming event. But it was he who felt the tragedy, not the blackfellas. Most of the other aspects of his version tally with the alternative versions I have heard. For instance, both Jensen and Aunty Gina tell me in their interviews that Jensen did take them all away on the back of a truck, just as Daryl remembers. That truck pulling away from the Track and disappearing down the road must have been a climactic moment for Daryl. It was a moment of righteous goodness for Jensen. For the blackfellas it seemed to be little more than a practical way to get where they were going.

And then there is the bulldozing. It is very hard to get a clear story from Aunty Gina about the destruction of the huts. Yes, she agrees they were bulldozed. No, she can’t remember seeing it happen. Yes, it happened very soon after they left. Did it happen on the same day that she left on the truck? Or did it happen long after the blackfellas had gone, in 1962 when Jensen and Cowden had become members of the Board Committee and had some authority? Whatever the answers, the bulldozing was such an enormous affront in Daryl’s mind that it obscured his grasp of the chronology of events. The bulldozing did ultimately become a symbol of destruction and loss for two generations of people since it meant there could never be any return. Yet, in spite of the bulldozing, the viewpoint of the blackfellas as expressed by Aunty Gina absolutely rejects victim-hood. Her story shows me that no longer can her family – the Kurnais – be depicted as the victims. They were resilient, agile, adaptive, wily; anything but victims.

I ask Aunty Gina if the move away from the Track turned out as she expected. I tell her that Hector Cowden thought it was a failure, that he was, according to his daughter, in despair about it. Aunty Gina expresses surprise at this:

I don’t understand why he thought our life at the highway was like that. The neighbours – the farmer up the road – they used to help us a lot. They were the Hornbys. We used to go get the milk off them, you know. And then we got to know a lot of people around Drouin. Men folk. They were good to us... They used to come to the place and all and they sat down to have a yarn and we would play the guitar and have a few beers. Everything was fine, I thought. You know we were all happy...

I tell her Jensen’s comment about the overuse of alcohol and how that alarmed him.

Yeah, there was [alcohol] too. Yeah, I suppose they [Mr Jensen] seen some of that... In a way they did drink too much, but as long as they were at home drinking and not disturbing anyone... They always used to come up home... There used to be arguments, you know, but it was all over in a flash. The men might have a little punch up but then it was over. It was the men who were doing the drinking, not the women...

Here is a hint of the dissipation and depravity people like Councillor Stoll of the Buln Buln Shire Council were so frightened of, but Aunty Gina doesn’t see it that way. In his memoir Daryl comments several times on the harm that drink can do. He declares himself a wowser and protests over and over that there was no alcoholism at the Track, but he never says there was no drink. As a matter of fact, he speaks fondly of a card game the boys had going on weekends as a way of winding down from hard work during the week. Gina seems to feel that this is how it was at the camp on the highway, as well. She passes over it lightly and continues:

Yeah, people say it was the best life... Our relations, they’d come for a visit. All those people who came would have been pea-picking. There was a farm out on South Road, there. He had peas and beans growing. That was seasonal work. They had their own tents... We lived in a hut and we built onto it. It was moved there. Built a veranda and a kitchen. Only a small water tank, but we had the pipeline running past... We used to drink the pipeline water, used to boil it before we drank it, but it tasted all right... Our houses were never filthy. They were clean. We never felt poor. We had plenty of food...

Aunty Gina’s memories are nostalgic: she is trying very hard to put paid to comments directed at Aboriginal people about their squalor. Daryl also spent energy trying to establish a reputation for cleanliness on the part of his family, commenting many times that his wife Euphie was the cleanest woman he ever met. The preoccupation with cleanliness also comes from the inspections the Aboriginal women had to endure in their houses at Lake Tyers Mission Station, inspections that made them vulnerable to shame and ridicule. When Aunty Gina says they were clean and well-fed, I believe her. But, I am not so sure how comfortable they really were at the camp, for she says:

I don’t know how long we were out at the highway. We were a long time until they moved us into town, but I wanted to move from the highway because the family was increasing and the little hut was too small. They moved me into Grant Street...

She pauses at this juncture, for all her memories of getting along well with White friends change when she and her family move into the town proper and face overt racism.

“I didn’t have problems with whitefellas,” Aunty Gina says. “They were friendly to us [but in town] we couldn’t make a fire and sit around a camp when we got to Grant Street. Yeah, I wouldn’t mind doing that again. But, yeah, when we moved into town, there were too many rules to follow.”

“There were still these attitudes from some town people that blackfellas are no good,” says Pauline. “People living in the towns had an attitude like they’d rather see a blackfella dead than see him walking around.”

“Yeah,” counters Aunty Gina, “I didn’t feel that... I just stayed away from them fellas. Oh yes.”

In the town Aboriginal customs and habits were scrutinised and brought into question; the people were expected to behave as Whites do. It was there that the assimilation idea fell apart, for neither group – the Aboriginal people nor the settler Australians – would change their ways for each other. Considering Councillor Stoll’s reactions to the possibility of having Aboriginal neighbours, it must have been assumed by the townspeople that any accommodating should be entirely on the part of the Aboriginal people. But there is no indication from Aunty Gina or Pauline that they or their people wanted to change or were even aware that they had to change. In their minds since it was whitefella policies that put pressure on Aboriginal people to move into town, it made sense that any accommodating should have been done by Whites.

Daryl’s story tells us what happened once the move into town proper took place: Aunty Gina does not want to remember those painful times. She pauses and then says, “I’d have loved to go back there [to Jackson’s Track] because it was a beautiful place. Yeah, yeah, the kids were happy then, but...” The regret she expresses at leaving the Track is in retrospect. She was perfectly happy at the highway with family all around her. By taking all events and developments into account she can now say that life at the Track was a happy time. Later, when I go back over narratives by other members of the family, people who were children when the shift took place and who remember both the Track and the Camp, I see that they have a difficult time differentiating between the two places. It seems that they have mythologised both and their voices change tone to one of nostalgia when memories of life on either place leap into consciousness. Since Aunty Gina’s family mingled freely with Euphie’s family, the children missed each other when the move took place. Dot Mullett remembers being perfectly happy to go to Drouin to live at the Camp with her mother’s sister when she started high school. She has many happy stories to tell about the antics she and her cousins got up to when they were kids. Murray Austin, who moved with his family to Neerim South, also spent time at the camp after the move. He tells humourous stories of his childhood with such enthusiasm that he loses his breath from laughing. I repeatedly interrupt him and Dot with, “Was this at the Track or the Camp?” for it is impossible to tell. Sometimes they can’t remember even though they maintain throughout the interviews that the Track was a more special place than the Camp.15 Does the Track seem more special because Daryl made it so with his memoir?

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Dot Mullett

Photo by the author

At the time, none of the Aboriginal families had any idea of the scandal raging around them and their lifestyle. When I tell Aunty Gina about the things that were said in the newspaper articles, her reaction is to shrug it away as if it were none of her business.16 Diane Barwick says that many welfare workers and would-be reformers only pay attention to the so-called hard luck of Aboriginal people, but do not participate in the community’s life sufficiently to understand its compensations of ‘tolerance, compassion, humour, and emotional warmth of personal relationships [and of] complete acceptance of belonging by birth and by right, what ever their follies or failings, their status or successes’.17 Daryl Tonkin had participated in this rich culture. No wonder he felt it as a tragic blow when his family left the Track. As a White and a landowner, he could not abandon his identity and leave it all to join his extended family. Having lost so much in his life, he found himself isolated in the bush and he chose to blame the do-gooders – Jensen, Buchanan and Cowden – for his grief. With my help, he painted a picture of the dispossession and victimisation of a powerless group.

As depicted by Aunty Gina, however, the move away from the Track was in essence an exchange between the do-gooders and the Aboriginal group. Stewart Hood must have decided to cooperate with Jensen and his cohort in order to get a lift for his family to the next destination. It was a reciprocal act: we will come to your church meetings, wear your hand-me-down clothes, sleep on your mattresses if you will find us a home closer to work. But as we can see from the accounts of both Jensen and Aunty Gina, once the move was made the cooperation was over. No matter how often the do-gooders visited the Camp, no matter how often officials from the Board or the Shire came to look them over and monitor their progress, the Aboriginal responses to these people remained coy and clever rather than open and truthful, and nothing would make them ‘change their ways’. Was their refusal to assimilate an expression of their dignity and integrity? Or was it a reaction to a terrible betrayal?

Daryl felt betrayed by the do-gooders when his family left the Track. He thinks that if the huts had not been bulldozed, his people would have returned in a natural cycle of movement and all would have been well. It is possible that the Aboriginal people felt the bulldozing as a betrayal as well. Aunty Gina re-tells a story Daryl tells in his memoir about her father, Stewart, going out to camp at the Track regularly because he missed the old ways and needed to look the place over. Is the mythologising of the Track – as a place that allowed freedom of choice and independence – symptomatic of deep seated but controlled anger at how people like Jensen in unwitting collaboration with the Board tried to steal from them their ability to shape their lives by taking it upon themselves to eliminate their choices?

Aunty Gina’s version of the story does not entirely clear up all the loose ends, but it gives a fresh point of view, forcing me to use my imagination in an attempt to see what she saw. She says that her life has been happy and full and, as I look at her, the central figure in this busy house, I see a woman who has lived her life practically and sensibly, with her extended family all around her. Aunty Gina, remembering her life selectively, has been untouchable. I can see her point of view. She never wanted to become a White person and she never did. The non-Aboriginal people trying to get her to assimilate or convert might call her intractable, recalcitrant, uncooperative, maybe congenitally stupid or lazy. They would be wrong. No matter how many conflicting pressures were brought to bear on her, Aunty Gina remained true to her customary allegiance to the group, the family whose members now number over three-hundred across Gippsland, all of whom call themselves Kurnai and defer to this old woman. Aunty Gina is what she is, a woman embedded in her own culture. There is no denying her culture is distinctive, no denying her Indigeneity.

image

Aunty Gina

Photo courtesy of the Rose family

After my long talk with Aunty Gina, I can look back to Pauline’s speech on that Australia Day in 2000 with new eyes. I understand that she was revealing something true to all those old White settler Australians in the audience, sitting there amazed at how articulate, confident, and positive she was. While I’m sure that not many of them understood any better than I did exactly what she was saying, her independent and proud tone of voice rocked them to the core. They understood the importance of what she was saying, but only she knew the truth of it, and now so do I. She was telling us that her people and their culture are living, adapting and changing, that it takes alertness and agility of mind to understand this world and get along in it while maintaining integrity. She was telling us that in spite of all the good the whitefellas have tried to do to her and her people, in spite of their preconceived ideas of who she is, her sense of herself has never been entirely lost. It lives in people like Aunty Gina and now Pauline, along with the stories and laws. And so her people survive.

It may seem as if the culture is returning to us, when actually it has never been lost, only hidden. The elders have made it their duty to guard our culture, like a hidden treasure, passing it down to a chosen few who would keep the stories. The storytellers were invested by the elders with our ancient memories and so they have never been lost.

Endnotes

1     Pauline Mullett, ‘Australia Day Speech’, delivered at Drouin Australia Day Breakfast, 26 January 2000.

2     Jan Critchett (1999) describes Collin Hood in Untold stories; The memories and lives of Victorian Kooris (pp. 95–106). Collin, described in the Warnambool Standard as ‘a very intelligent blackfellow’, was well known to bureaucrats – Alfred Deakin, Chief Secretary and Reverend Friedrich Hagenauer, Acting General Inspector of Aborigines – in that he was actively involved in the resistance to the closure of Framlingham. His story, that of dispossession and ‘pulled down huts’, very much parallels the story told by Tonkin, which happened sixty years later.

3     This information is part of the ‘map’ that Aunty Gina holds in her possession. On the map Swan Reach is denoted as the place where the Kurnai clans – Brataualung, Tatungalung, Brayakaulung, Brabralung, as well as, Krauatungalung and Biduelli – came together for common ritual meetings.

4     This research into ancestry was done for the Hoods by Jan Critchett (1999), some of which is included in her book Untold stories; The memories and lives of Victorian Kooris.

5     Barwick (1981, p. 78).

6     In her Doctoral thesis for Australian National University, Barwick (1963) says the Cumeragunja people who migrated to Melbourne after the ‘Strike’ in 1939 only use the word blackfellow in ‘bitter and self-deprecating’ jokes and that they use the word Kuri, meaning ‘the dark people’, in preference. This seems to have changed since 1963, or is quite different amongst Kurnai people. Aboriginal people in Gippsland refer to themselves as blackfella and avoid the word Koori, because, for the people at Lake Tyers, it is a word that was used to refer to invading tribal people who aligned with black trackers or native police working with Colonist settlers and caused grief for the Kurnai people. There are any number of oral sources to corroborate this: Aunty Mary Harrison, Paula O’Daire, Cora Gilson Waters, Alan West, Timothy Lee, Aunty Gina Rose, Pauline Mullett.

7     Barwick writes, ‘Because they enjoy companionship and wish to repay past obligations, many dark people continue to live in large households shared with relatives. This continued sharing and foster-rearing of children maintain close ties among a large number of relatives and encourage adherence to common norms and values’ (Barwick 1994, p. 28).

8     Interview with Aunty Gina Rose, Drouin, 24 March 2004. In this chapter, all direct quotations from Aunty Gina come from this interview.

9     Bain Attwood (1989 p. 61) cites a comment made by A. W. Howitt who knew the early Kurnai around 1880: ‘“There is a common obligation upon all to share food and to afford personal aid and succour.” This “principal of community”, he explained, was applied to Europeans and “the food, the clothes, the medical attendance which the Kurnai receive from the whites, they take in the accustomed manner”’.

10    B357/0 Drouin Wood Street Purchase; Letter from Aborigines Welfare Board to Housing Commission, 6 August 1958, from Aborigines Welfare Board to Housing Commission.

11    Warragul Gazette, ‘Housing For Aborigines’, 9 June 1959.

12    Beckett (1988, p. 195).

13    Landon, Carolyn. Notes from interview with Daryl Tonkin, 12 November 1997.

14    Buln Buln Shire Council Minutes, 30 September 1958.

15    Interviews with: Dot Mullett, Warragul, 20 April 2004; and Murray Austin, Drouin, 21 April 2004.

16    There is a series of newspaper articles in 1963 about the scandalous situation at the ‘Camp on the Highway’:

‘Aboriginal Settlement Again Under Fire: Council Divided on Closure’, The Gippsland Independent, 19 September 1963.

‘Aboriginal Settlement Danger to Health’, The Gippsland Independent, 20 June 1963.

‘Cattle are cared for but Aborigines are not’. The Gippsland Independent, 15 August 1963.

‘Drouin West Aborigines’ Camp: “How do we stop them living there?”’, The Gippsland Independent, 24 September 1963.

‘Further Scathing Report by Local Medical Officer: Foul Conditions Still Exist at Aborigines’ Camp’, The Gippsland Independent, 10 October 1963.

‘Letter to the Editor from Donald Thomson’, The Age, 23 May 1963.

‘Premier Being Asked to Close Aborigine Camp Near Drouin’, Warragul Gazette, 28 October 1963.

‘And from 1964:

‘Aboriginal Families Must Leave Huts’, The Age, 21 April 1964.

17    Barwick (1994, p. 27–28).

References

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

Barwick, Diane. 1963. ‘A little more than kin: Regional affiliation and group identity among Aboriginal migrants in Melbourne’. Ph.D. thesis, Canberra: Australian National University.

Barwick, Diane. 1981. ‘Writing Aboriginal history: Comments on a book and its reviewers, Australian National University’. Canberra anthropology 4 (2): 75.

Barwick, Diane. 1994. ‘Aborigines of Victoria’. In Being Black: Aboriginal cultures in ‘settled’ Australia, edited by Keen, Ian. Canberra: Aboriginal Studies Press.

Beckett, Jeremy. 1988. The past in the present; The present in the past: Constructing a national Aboriginality. Canberra: Aboriginal Studies Press for the Australian Institute of Aboriginal Studies.

Critchett, Jan. 1999. Untold stories, memories and lives of Victorian Kooris. Melbourne: Melbourne University Press.

Cite this chapter as: Landon, Carolyn. 2006. ‘Aunty Gina’s story’. In Jackson’s Track revisited: History, remembrance and reconciliation. Melbourne: Monash University ePress. pp. 7.1–7.19.

Jackson’s Track Revisited: History, Remembrance and Reconciliation

   by Carolyn Landon