I was born in a land which does not belong to me. And yet it is a land to which I belong, for it is the place of my birth which contains the memories of my past and the essence of my soul.
Growing up in Sydney in the 1960's, I never questioned the concept of whether I belonged to the place in which I found myself. I played in the scrubland surrounding our house, climbing the sandstone rock castles and inventing expeditions to places filled with fearsome animals; I splashed in the sea on our visits to the beach, relishing the frills of salty water tickling at my ankles. I loved the landscape of my childhood - its colours and light, the sounds of the birds, the view from our back verandah of a gallery of gumtrees which allowed me to forget the suburban setting of our home. There was no doubt in my mind that I belonged in the places in which I played and foraged in my imagination.
Throughout my childhood I was reminded that the threads of my family connected me to landscapes far beyond the scope of my experience and which I had never seen. My mother had grown up in another State and, despite the fact that her life was now based in Sydney, it seemed that the foundations of her being remained in the land of her childhood. She carried with her a longing, sometimes of cloying intensity, for sunsets over the sea and intense summer heat and places with unpronounceable names that I was never sure really existed. In particular, she felt an affinity for the great north west of this continent, where she had been conceived and spent the early years of her life, and where her father and grandfather had been early surveyors.
Of course, as a child, the philosophical and political aspects of land and its ownership were of little interest to me. The bush land park behind us, although not technically ours, belonged to us children as territory to be explored and enjoyed in every free moment. Whether I belonged to that piece of country was never a question I asked myself; indeed I doubt it was something I would even have understood.
Nor did I really comprehend it until I left the city environment to live in the space and light and colours of the Central Australian desert. Only here have I begun to unravel some of the fabric of our collective past and to confront on a personal and fundamental level some of the unquestioned assumptions of my childhood.
The beginning of my understanding began with a journey, one of those events in which your view of the world shifts fractionally, setting you on a course different from the one you have lived to that point.
I drove with a friend to the Kimberley, to finally visit the country which held a piece of my mother's soul. It was, in a sense a pilgrimage for my mother, who had died. As well, my grandparent's had in 1922 been two of the first people to drive in a motorcar from Wyndham to Derby via Halls Creek. My grandmother was twenty, and the only woman on that journey, which must have been a remarkable experience - travelling across country, sometimes with no roads or even horse tracks to follow. The landscape imprinted itself on her and inspired her to begin a successful career as a writer. In turn, it became a part of my mother's heritage and thus also mine.
As we drove, in one of hundreds of four wheel drives traversing the magnificent landscape on well formed, although corrugated, roads, I tried to imagine what my grandparent's experience must have been. "After battling hard for three days, we had journeyed nearly seventy miles!" They were explorers, testing the land to determine what was needed in order to make it more accessible. I read my grandfather's autobiography as we travelled and his recollections of the journey create a vivid picture of the experience of white people coming to turns with a remote and rugged country, which is beautiful yet formidable and unknown.
However, his references to Aboriginal people, 'the natives', disquiet me. I understand, of course, that my grandparent's social and political milieux were vastly different than mine, and the relationship between white people and the traditional owners of this country was in 1922 other than it is today, or than in 1960, when his autobiography was published - at a time when Aboriginal people were not even counted in the census. But I was brought up to believe in principles of social justice, and it is hard to accept the patronising tone of his language and the underlying assumption that their role was to serve - as guides who can push the cars through the rivers or cook and clean at the homesteads.
Worse still is his tacit acceptance of their oppression.
"I noticed (the son of a station manager) playing prisoners with the native boys; it amused me to watch him manipulate his gangs, chained leg to leg with dog-chains, exactly as he had seen the troopers bring in cattle thieves and such, to the Hall's Creek gaol." I struggle with his words, his apparent lack of humanity. This man whom I loved and who loved me, and whose child was my mother
"Native ways and customs are very different to ours."
As part of our journey we visit an Aboriginal community where my friend had lived and worked for several years, thus forming close relationships with the women there. In the entire community of several hundred people there are only a handful of white people, and the predominant language is not English. When we arrive we go to the shop and I sit outside in the car, waiting for my friend. School is just out, and the area is filled with kids running around and playing and their mothers talking with each other; there are perhaps thirty people there. And everyone is speaking Kukatja, the local language, and everyone is black. I look at the Western Australian number plate on a car parked next to ours and find it hard to comprehend that I am in Australia, because I feel as if I am in a foreign country. For the very first time in my life I experience (on other than an intellectual level) the fact that I am an interloper in this land.
We spend three days with a few of the women, who are happy to share with me some of their wealth of knowledge about the land. We drive cross country, stopping to dig for karnti (bush potato) or look for goanna or to build a fire and boil a billy of tea. There is no rush, we hunt and walk and visit places where only women can go. These women know and cherish the landscape, the stories of its creation and the ways it can provide for you if you care for it. As I listen I become aware of the enormity of my ignorance about the culture and knowledge of the traditional owners of this land.
And one of the women recollects from her own childhood:
"Kartiya look for Tjampitjin, my uncle. Kartiya bin say my uncle steal bullock...That kartiya gettem chain and handcuff. Puttem chain on neck. Draggem all the way. They bin beltem all the way.... ...Whipem, whip....whip..."
And I feel the pain of her words.
I was born in a land which does not belong to me. And yet it is a land to which I belong, for it is the place of my birth and my heritage. And some of this heritage is distasteful to me, but it is mine. I love this land, for it is my home, yet I understand that long before my mother told me stories of her childhood, or my grandmother wrote her books, or my grandfather carved out roads upon which I have driven, or his father walked across mountain ranges to mark them out on maps, since long before this and even longer ago, this land, my home, has been the home of its owners who know it and respect it in a manner beyond my comprehension. And I understand the bond my mother felt to this land, and I see the connection of these women to their country and I realise that reconciliation is a journey thorough time and place, and it is a journey for all of us.
"The Turning Wheel" Paterson Brokensha Pty Ltd, Perth, 1960 pp184
ibid, pp 193
Napanangka, T. F. et al
"Yarrtji: Six Women's Stories form the Great Sandy Desert"
Aboriginal Studies Press, Canberra, 1997 pp 95
In 1885-6 my great grandfather, Frederick Slade Brockman, surveyed the telegraph line between Wyndham and Halls Creek, in Western Australia and a few years later the country east of the King Leopold Ranges.
His son Geoffrey Drake-Brockman, my grandfather, was in 1921 appointed the first Commissioner of the North-West, a position he held for five years, and which entailed "travelling through the country and generally living the life of the country, so as to understand the conditions and particular difficulties surrounding life in the North." My grandmother was Henrietta Drake-Brockman, a well-known Western Australian author. Their daughter Julia was my mother, a woman of passion who never lost her love for the West.
On my journey to the north west I travelled with Sonja Peter, who had worked in Balgo Community for several years, including recording the stories of several of the women there. Some of these stories have recently been published. Tjama Freda Napanangka was one of the women who shared with us some of her knowledge of her country. 'Kartiya' means 'white person' in Kukatja.