I was born Lavinia Kate Connell in May 1950, almost exactly in the middle of the twentieth century. Nothing extraordinary about that fact. But some of the things I have been through in my life might give you a better understanding and an appreciation of what it’s like to be born an Aboriginal female in this place the world calls Australia.
I have to start with my parents because without them I would not be here. My mum was born in 1910. She is a Binjarib woman, a direct descendant of the original Nyoongar people from the Pinjarra area in the southwest of Western Australia. A Binjarib Nyoongar. We consider ourselves coastal plain people and we have a strong spiritual and cultural connection to both fresh water and salt water.
Fresh water because we lived right near the bilyah, the river which flowed down from the hills to our east. Salt water because within walking distance of where we lived, the river emptied first into the estuary, then the ocean to the west. It was the perfect location for hunting and fishing throughout the year.
Our mob are the Binjarib traditional and custodial owners. Our ancestry can be traced through both our oral history and the recorded history of the wadjerlar [white people] colonists since settlement. It was Mum’s people, my ancestors, who were killed by white soldiers at the massacre which took place in Binjarib country at Pinjarra in 1834.
Our stories and songlines, our sacred and special sites, and our very cosmology are deeply imbedded in our Binjarib language, land and cultural knowledge. My mum taught us her Binjarib Nyoongar language, but insisted we never spoke it at school. To the white authorities our language was the devil’s own. We risked being taken away from our families if we were ever heard speaking it.
We loved listening to the yarns Mum told. She made us so proud that some of our people had survived the 1834 massacre. How our ancestors had come up against wadjerlar soldiers on horseback, with guns and swords when our maaman only had spears, koondees and boomerangs. Yet despite the overwhelming odds, with many of our people dying, there were those who had lived to pass on to our own children and grandchildren the stories and language for us to share the truth of what happened.
My mum was a very special woman. She was born in Nyoongar Boodja — Nyoongar country — the only sister with five brothers. Like my mum, my uncles passed the Binjarib stories on to their children. Of course, their recollections were from a male perspective, but the outcomes all tallied. Each one of her brothers loved Mum and treated her with utmost respect. I have never known any of my five uncles to say even one angry word to their sister. Ever!
Mum was the keeper of our Binjarib history and stories, a very strong-minded woman, much loved and respected by all her family. Not even government policy could break the family bonds that existed between Mum, her husband, ten children and all her brothers.
One particular policy that really irked Mum related to the citizenship rights papers, as they were referred to among our family at the time. Those Aboriginal people who were given the papers were allowed to enter pubs and buy alcohol. They were also permitted to be on the streets before the six o’clock morning curfew and after the six o’clock evening curfew. It gave them quite a bit of freedom to go about their business and they were seen as “white citizens.”
On the downside, anyone granted those papers was not allowed to interact or socialise with other Aboriginal people. Family members included. If caught doing so, they would lose their papers and face jail.
As Mum told us, “I would never apply to get those papers. I have spent too much of my life being separated from my brothers. First, in New Norcia Mission, and then I was put in Moore River Native Settlement. My brothers and their families are worth more to me than being classified as a white person. I love my family so the government can keep their papers.”
Dad, too, was born in 1910, in the springtime. At least, that was the year the authorities estimated he came into the world. Dad was not a Nyoongar man. His mum, my paternal Nanna Mary, was a Palyku Mulbpa woman from around the Nullagine area. His father was a wayfaring Irishman.
Dad was born in the Pilbara on the banks of the Shaw River at Hillside Station. The homestead was not far from Marble Bar, about seventy miles southwest of the small goldmining town, but it was more than 900 miles north of Perth. He was taken away from Nanna Mary and sent to Perth when he was very young, about eight years old.
Dad always told us that he first met Mum when he was living in Moore River Native Settlement. Mum had been sent to the same place from New Norcia Mission as a fourteen-year-old when she was deemed old enough to go out and work on the stations.
Although they were never sent to work at the same place, Mum and Dad told us it was really tough working on the stations. He cleared the land, put up fences, broke in horses, rounded up cattle and fixed windmills on the stations where he worked. Mum worked in various homesteads as a housemaid. She kept the homes clean and cooked all the meals for the station owners and their family, sometimes for ten or more people.
The hours were long, from sunrise to sundown, and they were paid a pittance. But my mum and dad were survivors. And they always caught up with each other whenever they were sent back to Moore River Native Settlement if their work ran out on the stations.
As it turned out, government and religious rules proved to be hurdles to their plans for a long-term relationship. Back then, if Aboriginal people wanted to marry, they had to apply to the government, and their respective churches, for permission to do so. When my parents finally married in 1934, after years of red tape, they shared a whole lot of love, mutual respect, appreciation and tolerance for each other, and it endured over their years together.
As Dad often told us, “I met the love of my life at Moore River Native Settlement when I was fourteen years old, back in nineteen twenty-four. From that day onwards, I knew your mother was the only one for me. I have never regretted marrying that beautiful girl.”
Theirs was a love story that lasted more than fifty years. Right up until he died in August 1992, many years after Mum, who passed away in 1975, Dad still proclaimed his love for her.
Apart from his own children and our mum, Dad had no other immediate family living around Pinjarra. From time to time he was visited by our people from up north. And though it was usually very late when they turned up, Dad always walked to our fence line to talk with them. Mum warned us kids not to stickybeak when we tried to sneak a glimpse of them standing out in the moonlight talking with Dad. From what I could barely hear, the men spoke in a language I couldn’t understand. Mum said it was “men’s business.”
I realised later that us kids were multicultural even in our own country: Binjarib Nyoongar, Palyku Mulbpa and Irish. When tracing our family tree, very early mention is also made of an American ancestor who sailed here and married a Nyoongar woman from the Albany region. Another interesting fact Mum often told us was that her great-great-grandmother was of Chinese heritage. In the features of some of my siblings there is definitely a strong Asian influence.
Ancestry aside, to the Australian government back then we were classified as Aboriginal. Since colonisation, our people had been through some traumatic times with very limited freedom to do what we wanted. Even when we were adults, government policy dictated everything we did. The rules applied to everyone, and authorities made sure they were diligently enforced. Our people had to be strong just to survive.
In those days, as long as I had my mum and dad, a feed and a bed, I was okay. But I have to tell you, there were periods in my life as a young Nyoongar girl that I found really hard going. To some I know it may sound petty, but back then it bothered me, especially when I got to an age where I began to notice things happening around me and I overheard comments by family and friends.
For instance, when people talked about who was the prettiest in our Connell family — and there being six sisters — my name always seemed to be last on the list. My older sisters with their pretty faces, perfect brown skin and long jet-black hair have won beauty contests. Rightly so. They were very beautiful. Glamorous photographs and huge beauty competition trophies attest to those facts.
My youngest sister, Hannah, much like our oldest one, Janie, has a natural Nyoongar and Asian-influenced beauty, with her black hair, dark doe eyes and smooth unblemished olive skin. But me? With my very pale skin, honey-blonde hair and hazel eyes, thanks to the genetic traits I inherited from my Irish grandfather, I seemed destined to miss out on the compliments. Especially from other Nyoongars.
When my brothers wanted to be extra mean to me, they said our mum had brought the wrong baby home from the hospital. I hardly ever got any compliments. Oh, I sometimes received a mention, but mainly because I was very good at sports and smart in schoolwork. But as a young girl I always felt I missed out when the really pretty faces were handed out in heaven.
I know Mum loved me and she always said, “Lavinia, it’s not what you look like on the outside. It’s whether you are a good person on the inside that counts. God is watching what we do, not what we look like. He already knows those details. So you remember that’s how He will judge us. By our actions. Who cares what other people think? They are just ordinary humans.”
My mum’s words eased my mind. Still, at the time I always thought maybe I should have been the one called Jane. In my mind it surely was a match with me being plain.
There were other tough things about being a Nyoongar girl. And knowing how to fight was one of them, and it was going to come in useful throughout my life. When my four brothers had to fight five other boys, I always fought the boy who was about the same age as me. No hair pulling, biting or scratching like girls fight. It was stand back, shape up and punch each other. Queensberry Rules boxing, Dad said. Maybe if I wasn’t such a tomboy and hadn’t belted them up, those boys might have called me pretty.
Though I was never — and I am not now — a vain person, there were times when people commented on my appearance in a really spiteful way. It was so hurtful to be told, “Lavinia, you wanna know something? From a distance, yeah, you looked gorgeous. But up close? Nah. Nah. You don’t even look Nyoongar. Are you sure you’re Aboriginal? You are so white.” Then the laughter.
When I was thirteen, this was said to me in front of a group of my peers. My two best friends got so angry with the person who said it, they wanted to punch into him. At the time I retorted by telling that bloke to get nicked. He apologised only because he was scared my friends wanted to hit him, but I could tell his apology was fake. Besides, his words were out and they couldn’t be taken back. It stung. I realised later that I was angry for two reasons. One for being called ugly, but also it hurt more to be challenged about being a Nyoongar just because of the light colour of my skin. Thanks, Grandfather!
Another time, I was asked by an acquaintance if I was truly an Aboriginal and whether I should be talking about Nyoongar people. I turned and walked off, but not before I told him to go fornicate with himself with the old Queensland bush medicine, a big prickly pineapple.
I told that mean-mouthed bastard in both English and Nyoongar. Fortunately, that second time I was no longer a teenager. I was in my mid twenties, yet it brought back a reminder of the days when I was younger and more vulnerable to mean comments like these.
Another painful memory as a youngster relates to government policy and its impact on our people. At any given time, it wasn’t hard for the authorities to keep track of us Nyoongars. Especially those six families who owned land and were permanent residents in the town, like our family and Uncle Levi’s.
Because our land was near a big swamp, the police identified us as the “Swampies.” There were also about seven other Nyoongar families living in the area, but they had all set up camps on reserved government land. They became known as the “Reserve Mob.” They had found steady work on the farms and with government agencies, like the public works department, and settled with their families in Pinjarra. In all, there must have been close to eighty Nyoongars in the town who had no intention of moving away.
Then there were transient families who only came to town for seasonal work and moved on when that ran out. They usually stayed with relatives for the duration and sent their little ones to the same state school we went to. Sometimes when that happened, the number of Nyoongar kids in the classes almost doubled. Some families also enrolled their children in the local Catholic school. Strict government rules said it was compulsory for all young Nyoongar kids to get educated. Rain, hail or shine.
If we missed even one day, there had to be a note from Mum or Dad or one of the older sisters who had already left school. If there was no note, the police could be, and often were, contacted by the school and sent to check why we hadn’t turned up.
There was one cardinal rule for every Nyoongar, whether you were transient or a permanent resident. If you were moving into town or leaving the place, you had to report your movements to the police. Failure to comply could mean jail for the parents and the forced removal of their children.
I remember when my first cousin Gertie, who was some twenty years older than me, had her six children taken away from her. Her oldest child, Margie, at eleven, was only a year older than me, and Nina, the youngest, only six. Yet they were unceremoniously placed in a Catholic mission because she could not account for why her koolungahs were not at school.
It didn’t matter that Gertie was heavily pregnant and needed help with other serious health issues. Or that her husband, Dan, had to travel away for weeks at a time shearing sheep for farmers in other towns so he could earn some money for his family.
Her children were attending the local Catholic primary school, so maybe they were under even closer scrutiny and monitoring by the convent nuns. More so than those of us at state school. I don’t know the reason. I do know that it upset a whole lot of people in our Nyoongar community.
Those six kids were an integral part of our family group. Everything changed when they were taken away by the government. Everybody grieved for them, it was so sad. We missed them terribly. It took a long time, especially for everyone in our close-knit families, to adjust to not having them around.
Even though they were allowed to come home during the summer for the school holidays, it was never, ever the same. Most people seemed to understand why their mother, after delivering her seventh baby, turned to alcohol to blot out the hurt of not having all her kids with her. Luckily other family members helped to rear the new baby. But as a one-year-old, that little boy was taken away too. It was a terrible time for everyone, especially us kids. Their departure hurt even more because we kids had spent a whole lot of our lives growing up with them. Then suddenly, they were gone.
We had all gone bushwalking together, hunting for kaardas (big yellow speckled goannas), rabbits, parrots, koomools (possums) and wild ducks. Picking wild berries. Pinching mulberries from the big tree in the middle of the wadjerlar neighbour’s farm, running through the paddocks and being chased by big angry cows and bullocks.
We would spend nearly all our summer months together at the river swimming, fishing and catching marrons — freshwater crayfish. The river sustained us in so many ways. We not only had our bush tucker, but pinched the juicy grapes and ripe stone fruit — apricots, nectarines and peaches — from the orchards that grew near the river. As a last resort, there were always the nuts from the pine trees that grew alongside the Anglican church. Mum didn’t like us eating those because it was said they caused rickets or some illness like that in kids.
And I remember a big mob of us kids crammed together on the back of my dad’s old Model T Ford going to the estuary, crabbing and camping out. We rarely went alone, with other family members in their own vehicles forming a mini convoy of winyarn, rickety old trucks and motor cars heading out.
I clearly remember being taught what we could and couldn’t eat from the bush, and all about our medicine plants. Making sure we tossed some sand into the river to let the spirits know we were there before we cast our fishing lines. Learning from our oldies about our culture and using our own language. We felt so special, having our own Binjarib words. Like some secret code that only we would know. Being reared in the mission, Mum and Dad would have never, ever allowed it, but in secret our older girl cousins taught us our Nyoongar swear words.
At home we were taught our Nyoongar language and culture. We learned that unlike the wadjerlars, who only had four seasons in a year, we had six. Biruk — when it is very hot in December and January; Bunuru — still hot but with the promise of cooler days in February and March; Djeran — cooler weather with signs of early rain in April and May; Makuru — when the heavy showers come down in June and July; Djilba — a time of new growth and flowers everywhere in August and September; and Kambarang — warmer sunny days around October and November. Our Elders explained that our bush medicines and our food supply depended on and varied with each of our seasons.
We were taught what signs to look for when hunting kangaroos, emus, goannas, possums and rabbits. The one thing our family was never allowed to eat was the booyaiy — long-necked turtle — because that was our totem. We spent so much of our time honing our bush skills. To us it was childhood heaven.
Sometimes we even packed some bread or damper and cold meat from home and took it with us, along with a flagon of sweet black tea. That way we would stay at the river nearly all day. If any of us kids happened to have some money, we’d chuck in and buy a loaf of bread, chips, tinned meat or polony and a bottle of cool drink to share. There were even times when Mum let us book up at the local grocery store and paid the account on Dad’s payday. Whenever that happened, a couple of packets of Granita biscuits was the favourite with all of us.
Things were tough at times, but we rarely went hungry or thirsty over summer because we all shared what we had. While in primary school, I remember reading about the adventures of Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn. Those two may have had the mighty Mississippi but they had nothing on us lot. We had the pure, clear waters of the Murray. It was like God himself had given us Nyoongars this special gift out of nowhere. Serendipity. •
This is an edited extract from Louise K. Hansen’s Smashing Serendipity: The Story of One Moorditj Yorga, published by Fremantle Press.