Inside Story

Ancestors’ words

Extract | A research project is exploring an extraordinary trove of Nyungar letters in Western Australia’s Aboriginal archive

Blocked: petitioner John Parfitt and his wife Lottie. Margaret Culbong

No one was surprised when the WA government put a blanket ban on its recently decommissioned Aboriginal archive in 1977, even threatening legal action against researchers. The archive was a ticking time bomb: the dutifully documented words in its files exposed for the first time the extent of the despotic powers wielded by state governments over Aboriginal people during the twentieth century. They show how racism, denial of rights, segregation, incarceration and breaking up of families structured and institutionalised the Aboriginal problems of today. And they speak directly to the Uluru Statement: they “tell plainly the structural nature of our problem… the torment of our powerlessness.”

Many archive collections are stored away and forgotten, but there was no rest for Western Australia’s Aboriginal archive. A.O. Neville, the chief protector of Aborigines from 1915 to 1936 and commissioner of native affairs from 1936 to 1940, was their principal creator. He turned the disorganised set of records he inherited into a finely tuned apparatus of surveillance and control. Installed in his office at 57 Murray Street, Perth, the wooden drawers and filing cabinets crammed with cards and files were a reassuring presence for Neville, signifying the expanse of his knowledge and the reach of his control over Aboriginal people. Armed with these records, Neville enforced the 1905 Aborigines Act with ferocity.

For Nyungar people in the south, this was catastrophic, threatening their independence, freedoms and way of life. Neville’s actions diminished their livelihood by controlling employment and wages, enforcing segregation, “civilising” their children in institutions, deciding where they could live and even whom they could marry. With the endorsement of his peers, Neville engineered a scenario of spiralling poverty that rippled out across the families and down the generations, causing broken spirits and arousing anger that spurred protest. As Elder Cliff Humphries explained in For Their Own Good, “We were a bunch of cast-offs in our own country.”

Families were a major focus of Neville’s duties and of his record system. As Mick Dodson wrote in 1994, Aboriginal kinship and family structures — the “fulcrum and the map of Indigenous law and power” — were primary targets of state intervention. Knowledge is power and the records were complicit in the “systematic violation” of families’ rights to remain together and to pass on Aboriginal knowledge and culture down the generations. Capturing this knowledge shifted authority on family matters from ancient Aboriginal lineages to government officers. The expanding family genealogies that calculated fractional degrees of Aboriginal descent constituted a “racial archive” as detailed as any of Francis Galton’s eugenic charts.

Paradoxically, once the records, now censored, were reopened in the 1980s they became a resource for Aboriginal people passionate to know more about their family histories. Administrative files were useful for general background on treatment and conditions, but Neville’s “personal files,” created to micromanage individuals, were brimming with the minutiae of their lives. Only direct descendants could access these files. They became tools of recovery connecting places and people, reuniting individuals with families, and adding details to family memories.

From the 1980s, writers negotiating between the archive and family stories produced major works combining both. But the records were also painful to read. Researchers struggled with the cold bureaucratic language, the all-pervading injustices, prejudice and racism, and fumed at the factual errors and gaps in information. Many wondered how useful these records, created by a punitive bureaucracy, really were. Author Stephen Kinnane used his grandmother’s personal files when he wrote Shadow Lines (2003), but explained in the book that it would have been “preferable” if the files and “the culture that created them also did not exist.”

Fortunately, this archive also captured treasures of ancestors’ words that are unmediated by colonial values and bureaucratic rules. These words speak out from deputations, interviews and testimonies, but the most treasured of all are the ancestors’ letters, which are the heart of our Australian Research Council–funded project, Ancestors’ Words, based at Curtin University. Searching through the administrative files, we locate, copy and respectfully return the letters to Elders of the writers’ families. In our yarning sessions with the Elders and in family and community gatherings the letters release new stories and memories to share.

We have identified over one hundred letters, and there are more to be found. They cover a broad range of topics: Aboriginal rights, complaints of mistreatment, surviving poverty, and family life. The letters’ visual power is striking. Some of the words are scored into the paper, made in haste and anger; others are in perfect script. In some you can almost hear the writer’s voice. In some cases employers wrote letters that the ancestors signed with an X.

Bearing in mind the power of the authorities, the tone is often polite and formal, sometimes confident and persuasive — but distress and anger always hover. James Kickett, Darryl Kickett’s great-grandfather, wrote indignantly to the “Aboriginal Protector”: “I would like to know if the police are justified in coming in by a back way, and going to my camp and shooting our dogs when we were absent, as I can prove the dogs were chained up… He shot three dogs altogether.” He signed another letter, “please be prompt and see I get justice.”

A distraught father, whose descendants we have not been able to identify, used the neatest handwriting and most respectful composition to appeal for the return of his son: “I have as much love for my wife and chuurldines [sic] as you have for yours. so if you have any feeling atole [sic] please send the boy back as quick as you can.” The response, allowing the boy’s return, was a roughly scribbled note in blue indelible pencil. The official correspondence provoked by the letters is a gift from the ancestors: written in file margins, police reports and official correspondence, it is tangible proof of the injustices perpetrated by their tormentors, inscribed in their own words.

Our project works closely with Nyungar people and respects Nyungar family and cultural law and the authority of Nyungar Elders. It is participatory and draws on Nyungar knowledge frameworks, histories and cultural protocols. Darryl Kickett follows genealogical connections to identify and contact the Elders. Their meetings become yarning sessions: telling stories from living memory, refiguring the records as their own knowledge, and setting their history straight. Discussions can be lengthy and passionate. A telegram in 1907 from a man named only as Chucky, asking if the local constable had “any right to take away my Rifle cannot kill kangaroo refuse to give it to me,” set off an hour of group discussion and storytelling across time and place: how the rifle was Chucky’s livelihood; how there was no work for him to support his family; how these actions undermined men’s authority; hunting in the old days; police abuse of their powers, then and now; and, finally, condemnation of the Northern Territory Intervention.

An important deputation letter from 1948 — the year when assimilation policy was introduced in Western Australia — was retrieved from a mammoth 200-page file. Written on faded ruled paper, it was signed by ancestors of the main Nyungar families in the Great Southern region; one of them, Elder Hazel Brown, who co-authored Kayang & Me (2005) with Kim Scott, is still alive. The letter was written by Walter G. Penny and protested against Gnowangerup Mission becoming a children’s institution after it had provided a home for Nyungar families for decades.

In August 2017, descendants of the signatories (many of whom grew up in the new mission’s dormitories) attended a community meeting that grew into two days and nights of storytelling and reminiscing. Our project team presented them with a copy of the letter, which is now displayed in the Gnowangerup Aboriginal Cultural Heritage Centre.

Responding to requests from Elders who had received their ancestors’ letters to visit the archive to view the original letters and learn how to access the files, we organised a workshop in Perth in October 2017 with the State Records Office. This generated discussion about negotiating community access and control of the records and how to develop training and resources for Elders and young people to use the archive.

These issues mirrored the finding of the 1997 Bringing Them Home report that the archives contain vital knowledge for the healing and survival of Aboriginal families and the recommendation that they should be returned to them according to human rights principles of self-determination, non-discrimination and cultural renewal. The Elders were also keen to learn how to make their own archives and performances by drawing on the letters, given they are the legal and moral copyright owners.

The issue of Aboriginal rights was a hot topic at the workshop, and the subject of more than half the letters recovered by the project. Aboriginal people were legally British subjects from the foundation of the colony in 1830 and Australian citizens from 1948, but were dealt with under the state’s discriminatory regimes. Neville rigorously implemented the 1905 Act without consideration of any other rights or entitlements. When William Harris and the Native Union publicly criticised Neville in a deputation to the premier in 1928, he responded by questioning their right to represent Aboriginal people. Exemptions remained the only way out, and they were rarely granted.

In this context, the controversy over politicians’ dual citizenship raging in the media in 2017 prompted some fiery discussion among workshop participants about their rights as citizens and First Peoples, and the unfinished business of a negotiated treaty that would uphold their rights.

Darryl Kickett interviewed Margaret Culbong in January 2018, and discussed a letter from the archive written by her grandfather, John Edward Parfitt. Margaret’s thoughts and memories, and the copy of her grandfather’s letter, are shared here with her permission. The insights from this exchange help us begin to appreciate the riches of storytelling that flow from working with the ancestors’ letters and their descendants. Mr Parfitt’s letter is only a few lines, but it speaks volumes about the origins of “the torment of our powerlessness” in the Uluru Statement.

Bridgetown August 29 1910

To the Inspector of Aborigines

I want you to grant me a permit to go into a public house because I am well liking in this town and I want you to grant me a Permit to go into a Public House. I am well liking in this town. I am ask you to Grant me a Permit. I am a half cast and I am a footballer and the chaps all way like me to go in with them to have a drink with. I all ways have work on hand and I am belong to the town.

Yours etc

John Edward Parfitt

Darryl and Margaret were sitting in the front yard of her house in the cool shade at the table where she welcomed family and friends to sit and chat. Margaret began by saying that she really appreciated receiving her grandfather’s letter and felt very proud of him for writing it. But she was also sad to see in the file that he wasn’t recognised for his skills and abilities or as a valued member of his hometown of Bridgetown. She knew her grandfather was born there and was a good sportsman and his football photo had been mounted on the wall of the Bridgetown Hotel. Margaret then shared background family details about John Edward Parfitt and her relationship as his granddaughter.

John Edward Parfitt was born in Bridgetown in 1888 and he was buried in Narrogin in 1957. It seems that, at some stage, he moved from Bridgetown to Narrogin and stayed on there. He married Lottie Humes, the daughter of John Levi Humes and Ada Bennell, in 1942. How they found each other is not clear to Margaret. They had fourteen children and the eldest was Esther, Margaret’s mother. Esther married Lindsay Culbong and they had nine children, with Margaret being one of the eldest.

John was the son of Robert Parfitt and Lucy Ryan, an Aboriginal woman born in 1868 at Bridgetown. Robert was the son of Captain William Parfitt, an Englishman who married an Aboriginal woman, Marie. It is likely that she also belonged to the Bridgetown area. These strong connections to Bridgetown suggest the depth of emotions when he wrote in the letter that he belonged to the town.

Margaret has treasured memories of her grandfather from when she was growing up in Narrogin. He worked every day at the Trefort farm (now Hillside) out on Cuballing Road, riding to work bareback on his horse named Donald. Every afternoon, Margaret and her Aunt Sally ran to meet Grandfather as he rode down the hill and they’d fight over who could ride the horse the rest of the way home. Grandfather also had a kangaroo-dog named Speedy, which provided kangaroo meat for the family. The family camped on the Cuballing Road, just south of the Narrogin town boundary, on what Margaret thinks was crown land. The land bordered Trefort’s farm and the Fowlers’ property, where the family bought eggs and milk. They drew water from a well dug by Grandfather on the block. Margaret recalled that many attempts were made to shift Grandfather to the main native reserve in Narrogin, which was right next to the town rubbish dump. Grandfather held firm for years until a house came up in town.

Aboriginal people could not make decisions about how they lived, Margaret said, because government control over their lives was very strong. They just copped it. Poverty and racism were major problems for Nyungar families. Margaret remembered that her grandfather would help diffuse trouble between his adult sons and the police from time to time. She was so proud that he had set up the first community relations committee in Narrogin. He was well respected by everyone and was a very strong leader. He was also a valued farmhand and labourer and worked on Trefort’s farm for over ten years.

Margaret mentioned again how proud she was of her grandfather for writing the letter in 1910. This reminded her of the archives workshop in Perth and how much she enjoyed seeing the old files and letters. She believed the documents tried to define how the lives of Nyungar people were lived. She did not believe that they kept a true record of the families. The Native Welfare officers mixed up family relationships and incorrectly recorded first cousins as being married to each other. She had noticed this when she worked in Native Welfare in the 1960s, but when she challenged the information she was banned from reading the files.

We discussed how her grandfather’s example inspired Margaret, and how her father, Lindsay Culbong, who could not read or write, demanded that the department find a scholarship for her in Perth. The Kondinin Country Women’s Association supported her and she embarked on a nursing career that grew from nursing to leadership positions in Aboriginal health, promoting the establishment of many Aboriginal medical services. Margaret was also a member of the National Aboriginal Conference and acted as the chairperson for a time.

After this discussion, we turned to Mr Parfitt’s letter. We looked at it closely. We noted that it was handwritten. When I asked Margaret if this was his own hand she explained, “Yes, he would have written the letter as he was grown up by farmers in the Bridgetown area and he was taught to read and write by the farmers.” This was significant: Aboriginal literacy was rare then, and to be taught by the farmers suggests their respect for him. We noted that he wrote the letter in Bridgetown, that it was dated 29 August 1910 and was addressed to the “Inspector of Aborigines.” He was twenty-two years old. We discussed the points he raised about why he wrote the letter:

I want you to grant me a Permit to go into a Public House [hotel] I am a half cast

Why would he need a permit to enter a hotel and why did he call himself a half-caste? Margaret wondered. We sketched out the reasons: it had been prohibited to supply alcohol to “Aboriginal natives” in Western Australia since 1843, but the 1905 Act extended this to “half-castes” as well. All the other sections of the Act also applied to them. The minister could exempt from the Act those who achieved “a suitable degree of civilisation,” but this was rarely granted. Mr Parfitt may not have known any of this. The government did not inform Aboriginal people about their loss of rights under the 1905 Act; they learned when they broke a law and were punished.

Next we looked at the responses to Mr Parfitt’s letter from the file. We noted that they were sent from the Department of Aborigines and Fisheries in Perth. We saw that the chief protector of Aborigines interpreted the letter as a request for exemption, and that he believed that “half-castes” supplied “full-blooded Aborigines” with “liquor.” Mr Parfitt made no mention of exemption and only requested to enter the hotel to “have a drink.” There is no suggestion that the chief protector checked his status as a “half-caste” under the Act, being “any person with an Aboriginal mother and other than Aboriginal father.” He followed the procedure of requesting a report from the local police. His letter to the officer-in-charge at Bridgetown Police Station, dated 12 September 1910, prejudged Mr Parfitt and predetermined the constable’s negative response:

Unless you can give some very strong reasons why Parfitt should be exempted from the Aborigines Act I shall not for one moment entertain his application, as most of the trouble in connection with the full-blooded Aborigines being supplied with liquor comes through the half-castes.

Constable David McLean also assumed that the application was to obtain alcohol:

I am of the same opinion as yourself and cannot therefore recommend the application. I have had an uphill battle with local half-castes having blocked the hotel keepers from supplying them with strong drink and this is only an endeavour on their part to defeat me.

Neither man assessed the application on its merits. Instead they dumped Mr Parfitt into a generic category binding “half-caste” with “liquor.”

“After making due enquiries I cannot see my way clear to grant your request,” the chief protector wrote to Mr Parfitt on 28 September. The process discriminated against Mr Parfitt at every step. There were no procedures for establishing facts, for informed decision-making or for checking outcomes, as would be the case today. The government officers deliberately overlooked the information he provided about his good standing in the town, in explaining why he wanted to go into a hotel:

I am a footballer

The chaps all way like me to go in with them to have a drink

Margaret repeated how the photo in his football outfit was on display in the Bridgetown Hotel until recently, even after extensive renovations, showing that the community remembered him as a popular champion player. Not bad for someone who was refused service in the same hotel from 1910 after the police “blocked” supply and he was refused exemption from the Act.

This is just one of many files documenting how Aboriginal people who were eminently worthy of citizenship in any country were refused their rights solely on the grounds of race. Along with Margaret’s stories, it also shows how punitive controls and demeaning poverty made it impossible for families to achieve the necessary “suitable degree of civilisation” to escape the treadmill of discrimination.

The Nyungar population in 1901 was around 1200 people, thousands fewer than when the British arrived seven decades earlier. By 1936 it was counted at 2616. Only around 200 exemptions had been granted in the whole state by the early 1940s, as the authorities continued to regard them as “permits to obtain liquor” rather than legitimate claims to the applicants’ rights. Margaret said that throughout his life her grandfather remained a dignified person and did not allow the injustice he experienced to damage his spirit. She recalled that her grandmother, Lottie, and uncle, Peter Parfitt, were granted exemptions during the 1940s. This might have been after the war, when there was growing public support for Aboriginal rights led by Aboriginal men, this time returned servicemen, who were still campaigning to have a beer in a hotel with their mates.

Before, Margaret’s grandmother’s exemption was the one bright memory in the gloom of negative oppression that the 1905 Act created for her family and all the families of Aboriginal nations spread across Western Australia. Now, she also has all the feelings and memories that came from reading her grandfather’s file. The government responses to the letter clearly outraged Margaret; but the letter and responses also brought her a deeper understanding of the source of injustices she saw as a girl growing up with her grandfather, and then happening in her own life.

In her grandfather’s actions she saw the germ of her own life of protest and activism. The letter also helped Margaret to get to know her grandfather in profound new ways, and confirmed how important he still is to her.

Margaret has shown us the power of Nyungar ancestors’ letters, captured for so long in the archive and now set free to rejoin their descendants, and how this coming together honours the ancestors and Elders. The letters and the conversations spun around them, like Margaret and Darryl’s yarning, are gifts of revelation and generosity. Through stories and shared feelings they teach about the “structural nature” of problems raised in the Uluru Statement and how these came to be, how the exercise of power festers without integrity and accountability — and about the strong words and courage that helped Nyungar people survive.

This is the beating heart of the Ancestors’ Words project. •

This essay first appeared in Griffith Review 60: First Things First.