Inside Story

The strange career of the great Australian silence

How a journey north from Adelaide led to Telling Tennant’s Story, the 2022 Political Book of the Year

Dean Ashenden 15 November 2022 3721 words

Where were the Aboriginal kids? Grades i–vii, Tennant Creek Primary School, 1952. The author is first on the left in the back row; his father is standing at the extreme right. Dean Ashenden

“The history I would like to see written would bring into the main flow of its narrative the life and times of men like David Unaipon, Albert Namatjira, Robert Tudawali, Durmugam, Douglas Nicholls, Dexter Daniels, and many others. Not to scrape up significance for them but because they typify so vividly the other side of a story over which the great Australian silence reigns; the story of the things we were unconsciously resolved not to discuss with them or treat with them about; the story, in short, of the unacknowledged relations between two racial groups within a single field of life supposedly unified by the principle of assimilation.”
— W.E.H. Stanner, 1968

By lunchtime on the first day we were in Melrose, a pretty town tucked up against Mount Remarkable in the lower Flinders Ranges. Lunch was a sandwich in the municipal park, and in the park was a billboard. “Paradise Square,” it announced, perhaps with dry humour. “The following is a list of known burials that took place here in the Old Melrose Cemetery between 1846 and 1872.”

And there they were, scores of names in alpha order, each with date and age of death, and a crisp descriptor. NOTT, Thomas Freedman, a surveyor of Melrose, died aged sixty-five on 5.12.1865. NOTT, Mildred, a widow of Melrose, followed her husband on 12.11.1869, aged fifty-five. Jesse Jones, a bushman of Melrose, went aged fifty in 1861. William Jones, storekeeper, went later (1868) but younger (thirty-four).

The dead of Melrose included carpenters, shepherds, a hawker, carriers and teamsters, a corporal of police, a bailiff, a surgeon, all men. The women were daughters, mothers, wives, widows. Then there were the children, so many children, aged three months or six weeks, or five years or nine years, an “unnamed son of Richard Saunders” who died on 3.1.1863 after just four hours of life. It was a touching record of another age.

In a reverie as I read the names, the dates, the lives summed up in a few numerals and a word or a phrase, I struggled to recognise a feeling that refused to surface. And then, it did: where are the Aboriginal dead? The first of the burials in the Old Melrose Cemetery was in 1846, just ten years after the colony of South Australia was declared in Adelaide, 430 kilometres south of here. Melrose in 1846 would have been on the frontier. Where were the Aboriginal dead?

It was the same in Quorn, less than an hour up the road. Lots of info about the Ghan and the movies that had been made in the district but nothing about Aboriginal people — who they were or how they fared when the inexorable frontier arrived. Beltana, a scattering of houses and ruins further on, dwelt on its overland telegraph station, long since passed from use. Nothing about the Aboriginal people there either.

I’d begun to take photos of the many markers of the past — the monuments, the plaques, the information boards, the billboards and museums — and to puzzle over them. What was going on? Some of what was going on was obvious. “History” was a boom industry fed by tourism. Melrose announced itself as “historic,” chiefly on the ground that it had been base camp for John McDouall Stuart on his many attempts to cross the continent from south to north and back again. Quorn was “historic” because on the old line it used to be the last stop for the Ghan before it headed out into the desert for Alice Springs, a couple of days away. Beltana was “historic” by virtue of its telegraph station and by being not much more than a collection of ruins. The old road, which followed the old railway line that followed the old Overland Telegraph Line that followed Stuart’s epic plod, was itself historic. It was now “The Old Ghan Heritage Trail.”

The first of these many markers of History had been installed in the 1960s but most were of more recent date. They were about an implied “us,” our Pioneers, our Settlers, our Explorers, our feats of endurance, engineering, discovery. This was winners’ history. Where were the losers?

The losers made their first appearance near Lake Eyre, 400-odd kilometres on from Melrose. An info board there detailed the many traditional and contemporary uses of ochre, mined nearby. This was the equal and opposite of the markers in which Aboriginal people didn’t appear; there was no mention of us. Neither the markers about us nor the markers about them reported when or where or what happened when we encountered them, and they us. The ochre info board and many to follow did a jump cut: one moment we’re in Traditional Times, the next, in the present. How did they get from then to now? Just don’t mention the war.

That remained the overwhelming rule for a thousand kilometres or more, although there were exceptions: reports of the terror provoked by the huge four-legged, hard-footed animals that appeared without warning in the 1860s, references to the disruption of Indigenous land “since the Europeans first permanently arrived/invaded,” info boards about police operations “to control cattle spearing by Aborigines on newly established pastoral properties,” an info board that dispensed with evasions about “arrival/invasion” and just called the spade a spade, even an angry denunciation of the “transnationals and colonialist governments… defying the natural order of things in their quest for material wealth.”

I photographed every one of these many markers and kept on puzzling. Eventually I realised what should have been obvious: the history wars then raging in newspapers and scholarly articles and books and on the airwaves had been going on out here for decades. We’d won the country and then set out to win the story as well. The struggle over what the story would and would not tell was as much a part of the story as the events themselves.

By the time I reached Tennant Creek, a couple of weeks after lunch in Paradise Square, the telling of the story had been added to my list of things to find out about. Eventually, it worked its way to the top.

I left Tennant Creek in 1955, aged thirteen. I had never been back and never wanted to go back. In fact, I’d wanted to not go back. I didn’t like it when we lived there and ached to leave, despite the fact that it was a kind of kids’ paradise. We’d thread our way through the spinifex to old mine shafts and chuck beer bottles down to see how deep they were, or lie on our backs inside the fence around the aerodrome and scare ourselves stupid as the DC-3, feeling for the runway, roared over us just a few feet above.

Out the back of our place was the Works and Housing depot, surrounded by piles of junk from the war, then only seven years away, including, inexplicably, an old Rolls-Royce limo complete with a screened-off passenger compartment and a speaking tube through which we’d issue instructions in what we took to be toffy tones. There were topknot pigeons to be shot at with air rifles, and old tins and jars to be blown up with miners’ lamp carbide.

We stood at the dam behind the pub where the night before a bloke had bet he could swim across, but drowned, and we pedalled out to the bend in the Peko Road where Mr Archer had killed himself when he rolled his Fargo ute. We swam in the waterhole under red gums at Seven Mile, and every Saturday night there were the pictures at the open-air theatre, Westerns mostly, in my memory anyway.

Sometimes even a kid could see the magic in the desert, the sunsets, the fresh and vivid world after rain, the brilliant stars that would light our way home after the pictures. But mostly it wasn’t like that at all, just the blinding light that flattened and bleached, and the heat, and the incessant moaning of the wind and the ugly cawing of the crows.

I now suspect that in developing something close to loathing for Tennant, I had been taking my mother’s part. She suffered in the heat and despaired at the red-brown dust that was forever blowing through the flyscreened verandas onto furniture, floors, ledges, shelves, everywhere. She became anaemic, teary and homesick. She missed her family and the soft green Adelaide Hills where they worked their orchards and market gardens, and where she’d grown up, and she missed her eldest son, who’d been sent to Alice Springs for high school. She wanted to leave, and so did I, but couldn’t. She fretted that her husband would apply for a transfer rather than wait for another promotion, and it would be her fault.

Her husband, my father, was in his element. For fifteen years he’d been a teacher. Now he was the head teacher, a member of Tennant’s public service elite. Our house was one of five or six identical government houses lined up along with the police station, the post office and the school at the southern end of town. At the other end were two general stores, the bakery-cum-cafe, the cool-drink factory, the picture theatre, and the pubs, the Goldfields and the Tennant.

It was only half a mile or so to the other end of town, and we went down there just about every day. We’d ride our bikes along the narrow bitumen strip between expanses of gravelly red dirt — the Alice–Darwin highway that doubled as Tennant’s main street, lined by dusty shanties with stamped earthen floors and push-out galvanised-iron windows, which looked as though they had slumped in the heat.

I’d visit Mum at the general store where she worked behind the counter or go to mates’ places or ride past the stinky din of the front bar of the pub and see inside as the door swung open or just hang around. It was wholly familiar, but mysterious. We knew that this was the real Tennant to which teetotal public service blow-ins had no access, but we caught glimpses and heard echoes in the stories Tennant told about itself.

These were the stories we told back in Adelaide three years later as reports from another planet: stories about gold that went missing after a couple of fellas came up on the Tuesday plane and went back down again on Wednesday, about cattle rustling or bar-room brawls, about mysterious deaths and fortunes won and lost, and of course the one about how Tennant Creek the town was seven miles south of Tennant Creek the creek because that’s where the beer truck had broken down.

To these we added stories of our own about a hundred days in a row over the one hundred mark, about the dust storms and the weekly bath in a few inches of increasingly brown water, about a diet strong on meat but light on fruit and veg, about the Barcoo Rot and the conjunctivitis from the diet and the flies, about Dad asking the police sergeant whether bush turkeys were protected and being told that they were and how to cook them, and about the New Year’s Day when Danny Brookes’s Rolls-Royce limo — he’d tracked down the owner and bought it for sixty quid, apparently — trundled past our place, draped with men and women in various states of undress, still carousing, did a stately U-turn then headed back to the other end of town.

What I couldn’t understand then was that we had returned from the frontier, the place that all of Australia was at one time or another. Some of it still is.

We’d hardly arrived in Tennant before we found out about the kids from the mission. We saw them every Saturday night at the open-air pictures. We all sat in a deckchair sort of arrangement, rows and rows of long horizontal poles with canvas strips slung between them. It paid to get there early because the canvas strips, permanently exposed to the elements, often ripped to cheers and whistles in the middle of a film, and the strips got shorter and tauter every time they were repaired.

Anyway, we’d all be settled under our blankets against the cold desert nights and waiting for “God Save the Queen” when the kids from the mission would file in between us and the screen, crossing to the far side to the benches reserved for them. After the pictures they’d climb onto the mission truck and head off up the road into the darkness while we walked home under that vast, glittering sky, in the other direction.

Apart from Saturday nights you could never tell when you might see them. Sometimes there was a Black tracker at the back of the police station. Once I saw four or five Aborigines a bit of a distance out in the spinifex that stretched away from our back fence to a distant horizon. I got close enough to see them squatting in the sandy dirt behind a low humpy, playing cards. Then one day they were gone. Sometimes when I visited Mum at the general store there would be several old Aboriginal men sitting, cross-legged, on the veranda. Perhaps it was them I saw one day on a truck rigged up to carry cattle, the mission truck I suppose. They were in army greatcoats, standing motionless and silent as the truck went slowly past.

There was a sports day at the creek. We all drove out from the town and they came down from the mission. We spread ourselves under the gums by the waterhole. They were across the other side of a dusty clearing where the races were run, adults as well as children. We were invited to Sunday lunch at Banka Banka, the nearest station to Tennant Creek. Seated at a long table, we were served by Aboriginal women who padded silently across the cool concrete floor.

One September holidays Dad loaded up his single-spinner V8 Ford Custom with camping gear and off we went to Darwin, where we saw the wrecks in the harbour and neat rows of bullet holes in the walls of the old post office, and gawked at the Aborigines who hung around the back streets. They were really black, we observed, not just dark like ours.

On the way back we stayed a night at the Mataranka Station homestead, already operating as a guest house. We swam in the warm bubbling spring at the head of the Roper River, clear as crystal. In the morning, at breakfast, the room was dominated by a noisy group a couple of tables away. They’re making a film, Dad told us. Among them, quite still, and very beautiful, was a young Aboriginal woman.

These were encounters as in a tableau. So far as I can recall I never spoke to any of these Aborigines, nor they to me. The only exceptions to this rule, and even more puzzling because of it, were three Aboriginal kids at school, the brothers Roy, Rex and Rennie Hare. How come they lived in the town and not out on the mission? Was it because they weren’t real Aborigines? Their father, Mr Hare, was the nightsoil man who collected the tubs slopping with shit and phenol and sodden strips of newspaper from the back of the drop dunnies. Mr Hare was white, but Roy, Rex and Rennie’s mother was Aboriginal. The Hares lived in one of those tin shanties, the very last one right up the other end of town.

The Aborigines were nearly invisible yet somehow always there somewhere; sometimes referred to, even discussed, but never explained. Our Grade VI Social Studies text recorded the feats of John McDouall Stuart, whose explorations prepared the way for the Overland Telegraph Line, which I could see just by looking out the schoolroom window.

I was in awe of Stuart. How could he have walked all that way from Adelaide? More than a thousand miles! Five times! I designed a kind of palanquin supported by poles carried by a horse at each corner that he could have used to stroll along in permanent shade. The Social Studies textbook told us about Stuart’s encounter with fierce Aborigines just a bit further on from Tennant Creek the creek. When we crossed Attack Creek at the beginning of our big camping trip to Darwin, there was a small thrill of excitement. Shots were fired, and spears thrown, here!

The space between that day in June 1860 and ours was filled by a vague sense of a vanished world. On one of our Sunday drives along bush tracks, we passed close to the bluffs of the gap in the range just north of the town. That’s Gins’ Lookout, Mum said, pointing to one of the bluffs. That’s where the “lubras” used to keep a lookout for the men coming back from the hunt. She told us that one of the old men who sat on the veranda of the general store was their king. Such a dignified old man, she said.

In the early 1960s I went to uni in Adelaide, to what was then generally regarded as the hottest history department in the country. In four years my cohort did no Australian history at all, let alone the history of relations between black and white. It was the fag end of the mental world of the Grade VI Social Studies textbook.

Elsewhere on campus, however, were signs of what was to come, including meetings and protests in support of “rights for Aborigines.” Scrappy little events like the two or three I went to turned into an uproar that subsequently rose and fell but never really went away — a freedom ride, a tent embassy, speeches and tracts and posters beyond counting, strikes, investigations, legislation and litigation, movies, books and docos, then Mabo, a semi-official accusation of genocide, and the ferocious history wars. All that provided the means by which people of my generation and demographic learned what we hadn’t been told and unlearned some of what we had.

For reasons that I can’t really explain but suspect don’t do me much credit, it was a long time before I started to connect all that national uproar with the one time and place at which my life had intersected so directly with the lives of Aboriginal people — and the people who kept them out on the mission, over to one side at the movies, out of our school and town, out of mind.

It wasn’t just that I didn’t know; I hadn’t realised how much I didn’t know. Thanks to all those Westerns, I could reel off a long list of “Indian” tribes, the Cheyenne, the Comanche, the Apache and the rest, but I did not even know that we had been living among the Warumungu and the Warlpiri. I didn’t know what the “mission” was or how the Warumungu and the Warlpiri got to be there or even where it was.

I began finding out, partly out of embarrassment but also out of curiosity. Who were they? Where on earth had a full-on policed and regulated apartheid regime come from? Where did it go? The more I read, the more there was to know and the more I wanted to know it.

That was a puzzle in itself. After a pretty slow start, why the obsession? No doubt it was the usual thing — the further you get from childhood the more fascinating it becomes — but it wasn’t just that. I was being carried along by a deep emotional undertow. The Aboriginal people and their relationship with the rest of us have become sites of proxy political warfare and synthetic emotions, but there’s real stuff there too, ranging from just feeling bad (in my case, whenever I think about those kids crossing in front of the screen at the Pioneer Picture Theatre) through to how everyone felt when Cathy Freeman won the big race. Against any expectation and all intentions, and with very mixed feelings, I decided to go back.

It was partly just a standard grey nomad kind of thing to do, and a chance to revisit what had been, after all, a burst of the vivid in an otherwise sepia-toned boyhood, but there were offsets too — the old aversions and a new one, the fact that Tennant had turned into Australia’s most notoriously dysfunctional town, something I had no wish to see. But I did want to find out where the Tennant Creek I’d lived in had come from, and gone, and thought (correctly, as it turned out) that I couldn’t unless I went there.

So, I set out for Tennant Creek to find out about relations between two racial groups in that particular field of life but didn’t get far — to Paradise Square in Melrose, at lunchtime on Day One to be exact — before there was something else to find out about: how the story of those relations had been told, and not told.

All the stories that the Tennant Creek of my boyhood had told about itself, and the stories we took back to tell our uncles and aunts and grandparents, they weren’t Tennant’s big story at all. By the time I’d made the last of three trips back to Tennant I’d learned that the struggles over whether and how to tell Tennant’s story were for a century and a half Australia’s struggles writ small, and intense. I found that among the protagonists were several of Australia’s intellectual luminaries and that not once but twice poor beaten-down smashed-up Tennant Creek had managed to make it onto the national stage, not in a starring role but in a big enough part to earn a place in the credits. Tennant, with and like Australia, had tried to tell the story. •

This is an edited extract from Telling Tennant’s Story: The Strange Career of the Great Australian Silence (Black Inc., 2022). For a 20 per cent discount, follow this link and use the discount code INSIDE at checkout.