Unless you know me very well, I am unlikely to be the Aboriginal person that you expected.
How did a people who are constantly reported on and at the centre of Australian politics, if not the hot issue of the day, for one reason or another, and frequently as a result of a mash up of numerous issues of outrage become so misunderstood? How is it that I still encounter people who are unnerved to discover I am not ‘that sort of Aboriginal’?
I can help them with that.
I have cultural responsibilities, I feel responsible, and speaking as forthrightly as I can for myself, the absence of my responsibility would void my Aboriginality.
Of course I could still claim to be Aboriginal because of my heritage. Both of my parents are Aboriginal. I come from a community that accepts me as Aboriginal. They even know which graves at the local cemetery are my mother’s, my grandmothers’, my grandfather’s, and where, in the other cemetery, the unofficial resting places, my ancestors are buried.
But my responsibilities are alive and well. As I write, I am in Uluru – an observer at the Referendum Councils’ National Constitutional Convention, and the sense of collective responsibility is thriving. It is palpable. It is that rare thing, when Aboriginal people converge on a place, stand guard at the doors and discuss our business in privacy and security.
I write to record my life as an Aboriginal woman. I feel this responsibility most acutely.
My grandmother never learnt to read and write. She and her husband both shared a grim childhood moving between ration sheds and missions. After meeting, they for a time made their home in a two-bedroom house set up with the other Aboriginal station workers at the rear of a large homestead.
Education was not part of their rations or mission life.
They were slaves, who didn’t know the word. The Australian pastoral industry wouldn’t have gotten off the ground and spread out across New South Wales if not for the black people who were forced into building the infrastructure – the fences, the homesteads, the yards, the wool sheds – and then worked to build up stock, drove and shear the thousands of sheep that spread out and trampled the fragile flora into the ground with their tiny hooves.
As you’d expect, encounters with descendants of the owners of these once mighty sheep stations are awkward. They have either forgotten the free workers, the domestics who cooked and cleaned for them, the child minders and the wash house workers, or they choose to remember us more fondly as ‘family’. But we haven’t forgotten. They are not our family unless at some stage down the track, we married in.
When legislation granted free movements to Aboriginal people, they left – my grandmother and grandfather among them – to become barely tolerated fringe dwellers on the inhospitable outskirts of small country towns. The stations began to flounder with the need to pay their workers. Domestics and cooks became a memory because paying for so much help was no longer within a struggling farmer’s budget.
Despite the new freedoms, the payments to workers were still blighted by unnecessary interference, or what is now termed ’stolen wages’. Instead of receiving a full payment, part of it was skimmed off by the corresponding state government, and held in trust. Those monies never saw the light of day, and aging Aboriginal people, the ones to survive this regime, still wait to be adequately compensated.
I come from a long line of men and women who worked and expected to be paid for it. Those who benefited from free labour – the station owners and all hose others who basked in prosperity – have argued that this system drilled a strong work ethic into the Indigenous populations. I argue, no, it didn’t. It introduced a way of life that was heavily reliant on labour that was paid (be it a pittance) so Aboriginal people were able to survive, forced into humpies and tin houses on unserviced tracts of land.
The power was in the pen and paper. It was a mysterious power for those who couldn’t read. It quickly became obvious that those with the power to distribute rations, manage business transactions on the station, and police the purchase of food and groceries from the general store, were the ones who could read and write.
So this became a priority for my grandparents – their children would learn to read and write. This was a challenge in an era when education was at first denied, then slowly introduced: a year of schooling for all Aboriginal children, before commencing work as 12 year olds. That was a best case scenario, but many didn’t even reach this pinnacle of educational attainment.
My grandfather, like many drovers, taught himself to read from illustrated western paperbacks, by the light of campfires. My mother taught herself to read from a copy of Anne of Green Gables, which she hid in the trees from her younger siblings lest they tear the pages of such an unfamiliar object.
I have been encouraged to read from a very young age and had an upbringing that provided access to books and education in a plenty. But I can look back at old photographs from the 70s and 80s of my old aunties and uncles who didn’t have as much privilege, and see bookcases behind them sagging with books and photo albums.
Part of the awkwardness that surrounds us, black and white, when we meet, is what type of poverty and trauma I have overcome and how embittered I might be by the accumulated experiences over the generations.
What is missing in all of these contemporary narratives is the voices of the people who went before me. I can remember my grandmother, surrounded by children, managing a large family with loving support, but I can barely recall her voice.
I wish she could have told her own story. This is why I write. It is my responsibility to the people who come after me to read my thoughts, so I am not written about through the prism of circumstances, statistics and the cautious recollections of people more privileged than I, with generations of the written word to embolden their accounts.
This responsibility has ensured a life of compromise, as I navigate ways to unshackle me from other people’s perceptions of what kind of Aboriginal woman I am.
I write for the people who never could, and for the most disempowered – the women – in order to pursue power over my own life, because if you can read, you can write.
Image: Joshua Hibbert
Siv is a b-l-a-c-k artist who writes across genres and platforms, and outside dominant blackfella narratives. She has had articles and short stories published, won writing awards for fiction and nonfiction, and her blog ‘OnDusk’ was selected for preservation by the National Library of Australia’s PANDORA archives in 2015. She is Yuwallaraay and draws inspiration from generations of storytellers of her black soil country. You can find her on Twitter @SivParker