Because of Her, I Can; A Reflection on Aunty Cheryl's Thesis and How It Influenced My Understanding of the Truth of Our Ancestry
I recently enrolled at university, and one of the questions asked - at various stages of the application and enrollment - was: “Are you of Aboriginal or Torres Straight Islander descent?” I ticked the YES box with a passionate flourish. It’s the truth! I am! However, when the same bureaucratic process asks if I am Aboriginal or Torres Straight Islander, I have to tick the NO box, with a big old weight in my heart. It is complicated. But, thankfully, I have some understanding of this complexity, the emotional and political messiness which comes with living with the consequences of colonial attempts to erase indigenous identity. And I have a better understanding of my personal relationship with this complexity because of the hard work done by my cousin, my Aunty, Murri woman, Cheryl Moodai Robinson.
[All quotes throughout this piece come from Cheryl’s book, based on her 1997 honors thesis in Social Ecology: “Surving Alientation; An Artist’s Journey of Family History and the Effects of Colonisation”]
“We have a fear of knowing ourselves - a lot of my relatives are afraid to know the truth. They can’t face up to it. This creates a lot of friction about our identity, our heritage, a lot of misunderstanding and isolation. For those who identify it’s worse because the others don’t want to talk to us. This continues the cycle of dispossession and dislocation. It continues to rub at the scars that Mary, my great-great-great Bargie (grandmother), had as a result of what was inflicted upon her. Each generation has inflicted the psychological scars onto the next generation. This is why I am writing.”
Growing up, I was largely disconnected from my father’s troubled family, which I now understand to be as a result of many layers of unresolved inter-generational trauma. A few years ago, when I was about 28, I went searching for more information about Dad’s family, a vague idea about uncovering more information about the occasionally hinted-at Aboriginal ancestry, googling the names of my grandfather, my uncles, following leads found in excerpts of books available online, coming across archived articles and newspaper clippings, and, nestled in an old edition of the Koori Mail, I found Cheryl. For this I will be forever grateful.
Cheryl is a descendant of my great-grandmother’s sister. She is an artist, a wise woman, a grandmother living in NSW, and she worked tirelessly for decades to reclaim knowledge that was denied her. No other of our ancestors were forced to feel such shame about their identity as those who were Aboriginal, and in a colonial nation built on white supremacy, we both feel that we owe the Black truth to ourselves, to our children, to our grandchildren, the spirits of our ancestors and the broader Australian psyche, especially in the face of assholes who would still see us deny its importance.
“Our connections with our birthright - our culture - have been decimated: we - my family - live in a cultural void, neither black, nor white. We were a disjointed, un-united, fragmented, culturally neutral family… Our relatives had been hidden from us.”
Coming across Cheryl’s book was a major turning point in my own journey towards understanding - and learning to heal - the pain that came to me through my paternal lineage. I’d like to tell you some of that story. There is not enough room here for the entire story. There is so much more to say, so much I am glossing over in the following paragraphs; the blind obedience to white men, the passing down of hard-learnt lessons about survival in the colonial situation, the colonial situation itself, massacres etc, but that will come later, in later written works, in later visual works. But for now, I will focus on the lasting effects of the “importance” of skin colour, and how language and culture was taken away from my family line. Assimilation. What has happened in the past is relevant to the present.
My great-grandmother, Doris Hagstrom, was Aboriginal. Doris was the granddaughter of Hannah, who was born in 1845 on the banks of the Narran River, in Southern Queensland. Her mother was a “pure-blood” Aboriginal woman known only as “Mary” in the records, and her father was a British man who may or may not have been a convict, from one of the first waves of white people to “explore” the area. First contact kind of shit. Hannah, my great-great-great grandmother, was a “half-caste”. She had children with an English man, and those children would have been considered “half-caste”. One of those children, my great-great-grandmother, Annie, married a Swedish man who fathered Doris (sister to Cheryl’s grandmother), and Doris, even as late as 2010 in this article about my great-uncle Kevin Palmer’s memoirs, was referred to as “half Aboriginal”. Three generations of half-castes.
This leads to my grandfather, Terry, son of “half Aboriginal” Doris (who, according to oral history recorded by Cheryl, may not have actually been aware that she was “half Aboriginal”) and a man of British descent named Grafton. Terry, may he rest in peace, had fair skin, looked a lot like his white father, and he and his siblings had limited access to their large extended Aboriginal family in the Maranoa region of Southern Queensland, especially once they were put into institutionalised care following the death of Doris. He was fair enough to be white passing. From what I understand, the truth of his Aboriginality was shameful to him.
”Assimilation meant to my Numbardee (mother) and her brothers that they had to be the same as everyone else. My Numbardee was absorbed into mainstream Australia which effectively exterminated her cultural heritage and her identity became invisible.”
My grandfather married a lovely white woman who birthed their babies, one of them being my father. They moved away from Queensland, first to the Northern Territory, then to Western Australia, following mining industry work. My father, with his fair skin (very easily tanned), hazel eyes and black hair met my mother - a white skinned, blonde haired, blue eyed daughter of Dutch migrants - in Kalgoorlie, which lead to me being born in Perth in 1987 with lily-white skin, hazel eyes, and a shock of black hair that became blonde by the time I was walking.
I knew all about my mother’s Dutch heritage; I spent a lot of time with my Dutch grandparents, ate their stinky, salty food, learnt some of the language from boisterous card games with their Dutch friends, but I was raised with no awareness or appreciation of where my dad’s family came from. In fact, I remember being told there was Spanish in there somewhere, to explain the swarthier features present in Dad’s side (I have since searched through many generations on all sides of Dad’s family and have found no Spanish ancestors). I had all the privileges (and propensity for ignorant bliss) that comes with looking the way that I do in Australia. I remember being around 7, being friends with a Noongar girl from down the road and asking her if she was Indian. I had no idea. I was completely disconnected, because the truth, if it was even known during my childhood, was hidden from me. I didn’t know anything about it until I was a teenager.
”To understand ourselves we must know where we’ve come from, what our culture and identity are within the realms of our society, not the society that was forced upon us by another culture.”
When I was younger, I used to stare at myself in the mirror and feel guilty about having white skin, knowing that I escape the treatment given to my darker skinned extended family, purely because of skin tone and facial features. It always brings a bizarre feeling when I’m told by strangers that I look “exotic” (more common when I dye my hair dark), or when friends have squinted their eyes and say “yeah I think I can see it” when the subject of my ancestry comes up, but still, I escape racism because I am extremely, extremely white passing.
I am absolutely convinced that children like my brother and I were EXACTLY what old Australian governments had in mind when they talked about breeding out the black, those people who used a pseudo-scientific racial hierarchy to justify their positions of power in colonial settlements built on invaded, stolen land. We were classic 90's “Australian” kids, slim and blonde, running around, climbing trees, playing t-ball and kicking the footy on the sports ovals all over the grimy eastern suburbs of Perth, not knowing a thing about the fact that our Aboriginal ancestors were forcibly removed from their lands on the other side of the arid inland and treated like dirt because they were viewed as inferior.
“I may have been born into a Western society and I may not look traditionally aboriginal but my genetic makeup is Aboriginal. It has not been bred out and I believe cannot be bred out. The Colonisers believed that the indigenous skin colour and an indigenous mind would eventually be bred out, and indeed in our family we no longer carry black skin. However, Holland (Rhonda Holland, “Aboriginal Mental Health Through the Eyes of a White Mental Health Worker, Redfern, 1991) believes, “you may be able to erase the black skin, but you cannot erase the psychological make-up.”
‘Recent scientific research in to highly dilute solutions verifies that reducing a substance to a minute quality, such as a single atom, intensifies the need and capacity of that atom to bond with others and to imprint its own energetic qualities on the surrounding shell of different molecules. In 1976 a council of Aboriginal tribal elders proclaimed that as their racial blood becomes increasingly diluted in the engulfing oceans of white blood, the spiritual essence of Aboriginal blood will increase in potency and cause the consciousness of the Aboriginal race to re-emerge.’
- Robert Lawlor, “Voices of the First Day: Awakening in the Aboriginal Dreamtime” 1991
My own family line did not suffer the fate of many others, in that children of our line were not forcibly removed from their Aboriginal mothers (unless you count the death of my grandfather’s mother and his resulting placement in a Salvation Army Boy’s Home as forcibly removed), and I think this is largely because Hannah, my “half-caste” great-great-great grandmother, signed a piece of paper known as an exemption certificate, which signed away her indigenous identity so that she and her husband could live in town like “regular” people. She spoke five languages, but would only teach one - English - to her children. I learnt this because I decided to continue Cheryl’s research, went to Queensland, hooked up with a genealogist and scoured the state archives. I saw that old document, with the list of white male signatories from the town stating that the couple are cool or whatever, and suddenly so many problems made sense.
That document made me realise that this assimilation process was done for survival. How could Hannah have known that despite raising her children to be members of white society, their skin colour would prevent them from ever being accepted as equal in the colonies, in the towns, in the cities? How could she know that their skin colour would determine what jobs they were allowed to do, and whether or not they even got paid for their labour? Whether or not they were allowed to give birth in a hospital? Whether or not they were buried in marked graves? She signed a piece of paper that she thought would prevent her children from such worries. She could not have known how far the pain of suppressed cultural identity would travel through future generations.
“To commence my own healing and dispel the anger I had regarding the colonisers and their affects and atrocities on my family, my artwork became my solace, my refuge.”
Cheryl went out on to the land of our ancestors, explored the tracks they made post-dispossession, she learnt traditional making practices, and she incorporated them into her art work as a way to make peace with ancestral pain. She explored her spiritual ties with the land and the stories of our ancestors and thus opened up a pathway for me to explore the same. It was through reading her book, and then conversing with her, that I finally felt a sense of permission to do what I do without shame, with the deep knowledge that, yes, I have a right to claim this heritage, and yes, I have the strength to face this. I will one day go to that country too, because she has shown me where to find it.
Sometimes it is difficult, more difficult than I can ever express. To sit in front of a canvas I have painted, a painting borne out of a spiritual need to create an image that tells something of the story, their story, my story, my relationship with the Noongar country that I was born and again live on, my relatonship with my ancestors’ country that I have never seen, both Australian and European… it can be an incredibly emotional experience, at times powerfully sad, something that I can all too easily disassociate from. And it is not confined to painting; writing, photography, film work, almost everything I’ve created in the last four or so years has deep ties to this process of exploration and connection, and it is something I usually find hard to talk about, let alone share, even with those closest to me. Sometimes I am overwhelmed to the point of inertia.
But as hard as it is, this is my healing, and the emotional and spiritual shift I felt once I started exploring my identity and my relationship with "Australia" in my art was immense, and I am certainly much stronger, and more focused, because of it.
In the early days of my identity-exploration, back when I was more engaged with political activism, my sometimes-mentor Richard Bell told me that he reckons there’s gotta be at least a million “White” Australians in a similar situation, with their family’s black histories all but erased through denial, through hiding, through ignoring. Imagine if we all claimed our heritage, imagine if we all felt and understood the Black truth of Australian history, and imagine if we and our allies all voted accordingly… I tell my story now not just for me and my family, but for everyone else to learn from.
If you’ve got an inkling that your family is hiding something, go searching. If you know that history is there, fucking claim it. It’s hard, and potentially alienating, but using story-telling to save ourselves and our descendants from the cultural and spiritual void left by racist colonial brutality is something I think is pretty fucking important. Possibly the most important.
“Aboriginal memory preserves the unwritten black history of colonisation, which has been emerging in the public arena in the form of life stories of Aboriginal women. Aboriginal memory is transforming public perceptions of the past in post-invasion Australia.”
Anne Brewster, “Reading Aboriginal Women’s Autobiography”, 1996
Thank you Cheryl, from the bottom of everything that is my entire being. Because of you, I can.