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“For generations my family wanted to conceal their Aboriginal roots. Our darker complexions, I was told, harkened back to Spanish sailor shipwrecked near Scotland, or invading Moors…The lie was only a few generations back, but it took me almost twenty years to uncover”.
Dr Judith Crispin, the 2020 Honorary National Library Creative Arts Fellow for Australian Writing, shares her journey to uncover the truth about her ancestry, and the Hidden Generations. Join us as Judith reveals how she came to write an imaginary biography in honour of her Grandfather’s Grandmother, Charlotte, informed only by entries in a ledger, a single photo, and the drawings of Charlotte’s countryman, artist Tommy McRae.
Dr Judith Crispin is a poet and visual artist with a background in music. She has two published poetry collections, The Myrrh-Bearers (Sydney: Puncher & Wattmann, 2015) and The Lumen Seed (New York: Daylight Books, 2017). Judith founded the poetry reading series at Manning Clark House and is currently poetry editor for The Canberra Times. Much of Judith’s writing is centered around the experience of searching for her Bpangerang ancestry, and her long-term friendship with Warlpiri people.
20210602 Judith Crispin
*Speakers: Marcus Hughes (M), Judith Crispin (J)
M: For those of you who don’t know me, I’m Marcus Hughes, Director of Indigenous Engagement here at the National Library. I’m delighted to be able to host a session this evening with Dr Judith Crispin who has become a dear friend and colleague. But from the outset I’d like to acknowledge Australia’s first nations people, the first Australians, as the traditional owners and custodians of this land and pay respect to the elders past and present and through them to all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. I’d like to acknowledge my colleagues today that are in the room, I’d like to acknowledge Judith and her remarkable work.
This evening we come together, we gather on the land of the Ngunnawal and the Ngambri to share, to learn a little bit about the world around us and to celebrate the business that comes from a week like Reconciliation Week. For many of us Reconciliation Week is a great opportunity for us to come together to celebrate but in that act of celebration there is a great sense of sadness and sorrow. We come together; we laugh but we cry. We support each other and that’s really, really important. In saying that we must acknowledge the devastating impact of colonisation on our peoples, the destruction of our knowledge systems, the loss of law and the incredible impact that it's had on our families and our family structures. We acknowledge the stolen ones; we acknowledge the hidden ones.
Tonight, we have the opportunity to spend some time with someone who has been researching, helping to unlock mysteries, helping to find the knowledges that are hidden, that are sleeping, that were stolen. Judith, thank you. Welcome.
J: Thanks Marcus.
M: So, Judith has been with us as an honorary research fellow which sounds proper flash and is and I’m really looking forward to hearing Judith’s voice as she shares with us her experience here at the National Library. But Judith, rather than read a series of bio data notes would you like to tell us who you are?
J: Sure. I’m a flaky artist and poet living in the southern tablelands with my family and my little dingo cross and a bunch of motorcycles out in the bush making art and writing and getting to spend some lovely time here at the National Library. Yeah, I mean there are boring things as well that I could say, I’ve had jobs, I’ve done degrees and PhDs and so on, but I don’t think those things really define a person.
M: But you're an artist, a visual artist.
J: Visual artist, yeah.
M: You are a poet. You have a degree in music.
M: What was that about?
J: Well see I spent a lot of time in music then I realised I wasn’t going to make any money that way, so I jumped to poetry.
M: A very wise decision.
J: No, I think creativity is a force that comes through a person and it can come out in a number of different ways and we spend a lot of time I think in the grip of this patriarchal view that a person has to be an expert, they have to pick a discipline, they have to stick rigidly with this discipline. It’s a kind of outdated European idea, really. If you’re a creative person it’s going to come through you one way or another and for me I just found that staying solely in music, because of the kind of music I was writing which was mostly orchestral music, I found that the only audience I had belonged to a certain socioeconomic elite. Gradually over time I ran out of things to say in that medium so I then moved into something that I thought would then reflect the things I wanted to say now, things about my own country and my own life circumstances.
M: Yet it’s still a very lyrical creative construct that you're working with.
J: Yeah, music informs everything I do. All the books follow musical structures, my poems follow musical structures, not poetic structures but then you think about what poetry actually is and its music. It’s got meter and rhythm, it’s got intonation, the way the voice rises and falls, it’s got layers of meaning. It’s very, very closely allied to music and it’s also, like music, its canvas is time. If you take visual art and you distil that then into a plane instead of time you’ve again got principles that are really similar to music. You can take everything that you learn from one art form and transfer it across to a completely different art form and find that you’re not necessarily a beginner there, you can bring certain things across. The important thing is I think to not get too rigid about the way that your creativity comes out or one day you sit down before a canvas and nothing comes.
M: Yeah and throughout this evening you’ll see some images. Some are by old fellow, Tommy McRae. Other images [we] 6:52 dispersed are by Dr Judith Crispin. But also have that same kind of lyrical quality to them so does that work with your visual arts practice as well?
J: Yeah. Part of me wanting to do this book looking at Tommy McRae’s work is just recognising this kindred spirit. He and I both obviously reached this point where you can grapple with all of the trauma and you can rant and rave about it all or you can just go and hunt a possum. I just reached the point where I wanted to sit under a tree more than I wanted to fight with people and you can see that in Tommy McRae’s things too. He’s living in this time of incredible conflict where his own people are being massacred and he could have been so bitter but instead he’s drawing these pictures of five guys trying to hunt one possum. It’s almost like that Swedenborgian sense of heaven and hell being in the same place and it just depends which one you’re focusing on at any given time, heaven and hell layered one over the other. I think that’s true. Without all that darkness there wouldn’t be the light either, so he holds both of them. There are obvious differences because we occupy different places in time but a lot of similarities as well. Of course, Tommy McRae would have been running around the same part of Victoria at the same time as Charlotte who I’m writing about so there’s that as well.
M: Oh Judith, thank you for that. So, do you want to tell us about Charlotte?
J: Yeah. A lot of it is in the writing, some of the things I’ll read you in a little bit but briefly I have a family tree that’s full of holes. I reckon most people in the room have a family tree that’s full of holes, it seems to be part of being Australian, that because of course if you were an Aboriginal person before about the 1960s you didn’t get a birth certificate. If they even suspected you of being Aboriginal, you didn’t get a birth certificate. So, when you go back and you try to fill in those holes you can find enormous obstacles. The record was there to preserve a record of whiteness and to erase anything that didn’t conform to that and so when you’re trying to find somebody without birth certificates, unless they were in a mission’s records of them – I looked for Charlotte for 20 years and I would not have found her had it not been for the fact that one of her descendants had been looking for the missing branches of his family tree at the same time and found me.
So with all my hubris of being a fantastic researcher I was still found by a semiliterate man who’d been looking for me three months, I’d been looking 20 years and found nothing. But I mean when I say found there really wasn’t much to be found, the existing records of her. There are some entries in a family Bible of her name, there’s a photograph, there are some anecdotes that have been passed down from person to person, nobody really knows how accurate those anecdotes are. We have rough dates. There are records of some of her children but not all of them.
So you come to the end of a 20-year search and you got a handful of things in front of you which does not equal a person and you have to decide am I going to devote the next 20 years to trying to make that pile this big instead of this big or am I going to just try to make it right in my head some other way? So this project was to create an imaginary biography for Charlotte, a biography that didn’t overwrite hers because firstly she doesn’t have one and secondly because I’ve placed myself in the biography so everybody can see immediately that this is me imagining this biography but in a way to flesh out this person, to create a little space for her in history. It's probably something that a lot of people in this room have had to do with family members.
M: So how was Charlotte explained away by the family?
J: Well there are various ways. My grandmother upped and moved the family to the other side of the country and then we had various narratives growing up about why we didn’t speak to the family members that were in Victoria ‘because they were all compulsive liars. It was mostly ‘because they were compulsive liars or they were drunk or even dead, we were told some of them were dead and they weren’t. There were things like that. Then anybody who was slightly darker-skinned in the family photo album, they were Spanish or Scottish, there were a lot of Scots because there were Moors that were pillaging the coast of Scotland and that must be where we all got our dark complexion from.
Part of the motivation for me looking was just that the stories about these people were so conflicting and with no evidence whatsoever for any of it. It was clear that either nobody knew, or nobody was saying. You know it’s easy to feel a bit judgmental about that but I think it’s really important to understand that even when I was born there were still kids being taken from their parents if they were an Aboriginal family so kids who only had a grandparent that were Aboriginal were still being taken. So there was a very real chance if you told people you had Aboriginal ancestry that your kids would be taken away from you.
M: That’s really important to remember that it wasn’t just about emotions of shame, it was fear.
J: No, it was fear.
M: Desperate, desperate fear.
J: Desperate – and that fear still exists. There are people in my extended family that feel quite nervous about the fact that I’m bringing a lot of this stuff out into the light and I think a lot of that fear is intergenerational, passes down. We know there is something to fear, we know that there is still enormous racism against Aboriginal people and so we’re a little bit silent. I addressed some of those issues in the book too, this sense that the narrative has changed. You're allowed to speak now if you’ve got pedigree papers that you can pull out so everybody can examine them and make sure that you are really Aboriginal enough to be doing that otherwise you’re not allowed to speak.
But then if you're a person and you’re talking about your Chinese or your French great-grandmother everybody just goes oh. There’s not the same sense of almost eugenics around it, that you have to make sure that you’re entitled to be able to speak whatever is true so don’t be speaking when you're just looking for somebody, you need to have found them and all their birth certificates and had a DNA test and all of this. It’s treacherous waters we’re in.
M: Absolutely. So, with your research period here at the Library what was that like?
J: It wasn’t what I expected it would be. I mean I came here expecting to write one kind of book. I was going to write a book about cultural erasure, I was feeling quite feisty about the whole thing, actually. I was going to point the finger and say look, there were all these massacres and you guys are all dreadful and I had it all planned and then I started looking through Tommy McRae’s sketch books and they were just so full of light. This is a man who has so much more to feel bitter or angry about than I do, so much more and yet he just chose to just show this such humour and light-heartedness in these pictures and it made me feel a little bit – I don’t know, meanspirited or something and I started to look at the material through this lens of these pictures by Tommy McRae. It really made me reframe the whole way I wanted to write, actually, and the things I wanted to focus on changed as a result of that.
M: Then there’s the relationship between Charlotte and Tommy.
J: Yeah, that’s right. I mean Tommy McRae was – we now talk about him as being Kwatkwat, but the current descendants of Tommy McRae identify as Bangarang or Gunaikurnai. Some of them identify as Yorta Yorta but it’s the group of people that lived in exactly the place that Charlotte lives and essentially, they would have been in the same community at the same time. So, what I found really interesting about that is I mean how do you write the biography of somebody who only exists in a photograph without a time machine? Well Tommy McRae was my time machine because he was drawing the animals and the trees and the activities of Bangarang people at exactly that time. So that suddenly created this possibility that I might not know her but I could reconstruct her world and it wouldn’t be a world reconstructed just from the white anthropological record but it’s actually a world that could be reconstructed through the eyes of Tommy McRae, somebody who she may have sat down and had a chat with at one point or another.
M: You’ve been in conversation with Tommy’s family.
J: Well just by sheer coincidence, and it really was. Uncle Freddie Dowling, he was the person who got in touch with me after my 20-year search and said hey, I think I know who your mob are and he is the direct descendent of Tommy McRae and for a long time was the person in charge of this collection here. I didn’t know any of this when I actually put in the application for this fellowship, it was only when I went to hunt down who Tommy McRae’s ancestors were that I realised that I already knew them, that it was Freddie and Rodney and Al, the people I’d already been speaking with.
M: It’s a strange world that we live in.
J: It really is.
M: We get pushed in those places by the old ones.
J: Yeah, I think that’s right. There’s this magnetic pull towards these things. Sometimes you just don’t know what you’re looking for until you find it.
M: So, what’s the next step?
J: Well these poems that have been written during the Library fellowship, they’re going into a chatbook of poems that are isolated out and that’s poems about Charlotte but some of those poems too are going into a larger work, The Dingo’s Knock Tree which is a book which addresses essentially how a person can form their own relationship with country. If you think about the problems a lot of people have now, particularly people with ancestry, being able to reconnect with their history, people in this land, whether they are white or black, are all struggling with this feeling of illegitimacy in the landscape.
But at one point in history if you go back far enough there was a time when people formed a connection with country and maintained that connection so if they did it, we can do it. So, the question then is how? How does a person? I don’t mean how does a person as a poetic metaphor but how actually literally can an individual walk out onto the land and form a relationship as though they were forming it with a person? It’s a rabbit hole when you start looking at that because it brings into the equation all these things about your own family history and blood and who is entitled or is everybody entitled and all of these questions. So, I’m hoping that both of those works will be able to come out at the same time, toward the end of this year.
M: Fantastic. Would you like to share any of that with us?
J: Yeah. I think over the course of the night I’d like to read three of these excerpts. They’re essentially prose poems so not too scary for people that don’t like poetry. The first one some of the poets in the room will have already heard and the second two probably not. The first one is called On Finding Charlotte in the Anthropological Record which is really a starting place for me for this book, it was the first poem I read for this book and it more or less begins at the beginning of the book.
“We meet on the surface of a photograph as a fish and bird might meet in a lake at a point of sky and the water’s plane. Charlotte in a book called The Aborigines of Northern Victoria sits jade black on earth, wind disarranging her hair. Trees obscured by falls of campfire ash, her nudity is covered by a blanket. I don’t know if her breasts are hanging, if her thighs bear designs or marks. A needlework of scars crosses her chest, repeated dots like patterns on a goanna’s back, like rain spat by goannas into dirt. Soon constellations will appear over branches on this night of 90 years ago, this never again night and she ask me where did you go, girl with your made-up history, your ever-whiter babies? This is what remains of record, of relatedness, scars to hold the memory of someone precious after they’ve died.
We begin by cutting skin, rub wounds with gum and ash, black and staccatorise the flesh. I remember them telling me don’t worry, this blackness fades with each generation. Charlotte is a map of a country stained by massacres, Skull Creek, Poisoned Well, Black Jim’s Leap, a geography of skin and land, maps for the returning, for those who speak only a murderer’s tongue, whose songlines are erased, who consulted Departments of Births, Deaths and Marriages, who stood beside rented Toyotas clutching photographs in a hundred remote communities asking strangers do you know my family? Can you tell me who I am? This moment an old light is crossing the boundaries of emulsion and I say to her, Charlotte, grandmother of my grandfather, I am Judith and these are my scars.”
M: Thank you. Are you up for another read?
M: Go on then.
J: Alright, alright. This is a prosey bit. It’s longer than I want to read tonight so I will stop before I reach the end of it.
The day that I found out that Charlotte was a possibility in the universe was in the same year that Cassini, the satellite, launched. Bizarrely, completely bizarrely the year that Freddie showed up in my life telling me who my family came from was the year that Cassini slammed into Saturn. I don’t know, I don’t want to read too much into that, but I am mentioning it.
“Charlotte landed like a comet in a letter from my uncle in 1997, the same year Cassini catapulted through cloud tops at Cape Canaveral on a blinding column of flame. He’d found her name spider-scrawled in the margins of my grandmother’s Bible, Charlotte maybe Clarke above a family tree with missing branches. If you’d a brain in your head, he said, you’d claim Spanish or dark-skinned Celt, whatever stopped them taking your kids. He drove to Beechworth or Wangaratta, met an old man, maybe better to leave woman off alone.
Cassini’s one-way trip to Saturn and my own journey began together. By mission’s end Cassini and her fledgling probe will have transited 7.9 billion kilometres between stars orbiting the ring world and its eri of ice moons 294 times.
I remember my grandmother’s house at Somersby Falls at five or six, my uncle reading Charlotte’s Web, his voice drowning in rain and the night vespers of frogs and how in half sleep I thought I glimpsed her black orb shining in the fold between pages.
There are spider strings, my grandmother said, connecting us to everyone we’ve ever loved. My uncle and I once climbed in darkness above the falls to watch Venus lifted by a rising son on her string of zodiacal light. When you see the extent of the light it takes your breath away.
We're Celtic, I was told, so Celtic if we went to Scotland, they’d give us a castle. Our dark skin came from Moors plundering Scotland’s coast in their blackness with their bright blades curving and that’s why they call me picaninny at school, because I’m so Scottish.
When you see the extent of the lie the entire fairytale shimmers and disappears, the Moors in their golden age of cinema ships are gone. At Somersby Falls a girl playing in the shade looks up to see figures ghosting under trees and they say to her maybe better leave well enough alone. Even if you find us you won’t belong, you’ll never belong to anything again.
The day my uncle died I dreamed he was suspended between earth and the satellites in a silken cocoon. There are spider strings like electric wires connecting us to everyone we’ve ever loved, to country, our mother, grandmother, mother ship. The day my uncle died Cassini turned above an extra-terrestrial ocean to watch a moon being born. Maybe I should try to write the word truth into this story, a strong word, a word like a pedestal to stand on, a word to cast me as a cultural heroin, restoring Charlotte to history, truth burning on my tongue like an immolating dove. But human beings can’t be divided into regions like lines on a map. Like others born to this age of colonial fallout I am a legacy of erasure, a comingling of incompatible bloods, this settler blood, this blood of a speaking land.
Nine thousand kilometres over Saturn’s cloud tops a gargantuan circulating vortex opens like a hurricane’s eye. Cassini through a break in the gyre watches a permanent hexagonal storm raging around the pole. Electricity vortices and convective clouds, plumes of ammonia and ice mist are carried out into the atmosphere on powerful winds and Cassini, her flanks silvered in nocturns of shifting starlight listens high above the storm to Saturn’s lightning.
When rain falls in the desert it disturbs the water holes. Mud and ochre begin to separate, the heavy clay sinks and millions of weightless light-reflecting particles spiral up to the surface. Maybe truth is like that, mud-bound and transcendent. After the tall ships we defined everyone by race. It’s more polite now. Nobody used terms like mixed blood, hybrid, part-breed, one drop, picaninny, race-traitor anymore but those with Aboriginal history like prized poodles still have to produce their pedigree papers on demand. All of our stories are overwritten by taxonomies of power. When you see how easy it is to dismiss a dingo as a mongrel or a wild dog so when you poison them, you're not killing a native animal. When you see their carcasses hanging on a fence or strung up in trees you fall silent, it’s dangerous to be noticed if you don’t have a pedigree.
Maybe truth is just something that separates when it rains, something falls as clay, something lifts and spangles. I am Judith of the Nowhere people and I’m not afraid anymore. My arteries carry the blood of Celts and Moors, blood from France, Armenia, Mali and the Ivory Coast, blood from the Bangarang of the Murray River. I am a mongrel, wild dog, hybrid and pickaninny. I am a dingo.
Have you ever wondered what it could mean to be free from all this culture? These stories of belonging, these beautiful names, seeds plants in our heads as children. If I could erase everything an authority has told me about how I should see the world how would I actually see it? An ancestor is not contained in a photograph. If you want to call the dead, you’ll first have to find the spider string that connects you. Somewhere 1.2 billion kilometres out in space solar winds stream from Saturn’s moons, sparking the auroras. Cassini only sees them in ultraviolet light when the poles are cold and dark.”
M: Remarkably strong messages. Where do your words come from?
J: I’ve no idea. I don’t know that any of us know that. I’ve no idea what I'm going to write until I read what I’ve written and then sometimes I don’t agree with it. I think that’s one of the great things about poetry, is part of the reasons why you're writing is to try to understand what’s in your head.
M: Yeah, do you have those conversations with yourself?
J: I have huge arguments with myself about it. I have to be really careful coming back and editing it because sometimes I’ll be really mean to myself and completely overwrite things then I’ll have to come back in a different mode and put them back.
M: Yeah. So, you have an image of Charlotte.
M: Does she speak to you through that?
J: It’s funny ‘because I talk about that in another part of the book. I’ll read that bit a little bit later but I almost see her in the same way and it was in the only stories that I really have of her and even those stories, they’ve been passed down through generations so nobody’s really sure if they’re right or not but I always see her alone with her kids and her dogs at the part of her life after she’s left Wangaratta and she’s walking along the Murray. We know that she was a domestic in the house of William Clarke, he was a rich person in Wangaratta. They’d call him the father of Wangaratta. He built a cathedral, did all kinds of very important white man things. One of the reasons she was so hard to find was because she was a domestic in his house, she didn’t get a corinder ‘cause she wasn’t in the mission, there were no mission records. Then because so many of her children were born while she was in that household, they then had his surname so it was unclear about who was their mother at that point.
We know that there was a point where she decided that all the advantages that she could have being a domestic were totally outweighed by not being on her own country and she just walked out and took her kids with her and spent the rest of her time walking up and down the Murray camping in between Echuca and Beechworth until eventually she passed away somewhere on that river. So, I always see her there in that place along that river.
M: Judith, thank you. Do you feel comfortable enough now to open the floor for questions?
J: Yeah. I will read the last little part here so that everybody gets a sense of what Charlotte was like and then let’s do the questions.
J: Yeah, this is just a little prose thing. It’s from the middle of the book. The book is an imaginary biography of Charlotte called Tracking Charlotte.
“In the photograph Charlotte wears a possum skin cloak fastened on one shoulder with a brooch of pointed wood, the same cloak a Bangarang elder wrapped me in years later when he found me. Her copper-coloured skin is marked with the kinship scars of goanna, her hair wiry like mine is decorated with pelican feathers tucked into a headband of twisted possum skin.
We know that Charlotte walked out of the Clarke household in Wangaratta in the 1840s or ‘50s following the tracks of Millewa Tongala, the Murray River, between Echuca and Beechworth. We know she died later of snake bite, that she was buried by her children in the river’s arms in a place no-one has found.
I see Charlotte in my mind’s eye sleeping under towering river gums by night followed by her children and dogs, her youngest carried against her breast in a woven pouch and she’s whispering to them in the old language, in the river’s soft nocturnal syllables like a call of wood ducks, like the splash of long neck turtles under water lilies. She’s telling them about an old lady in the everywhen who walked here in the company of three dingos dragging a digging stick behind her to leave a track and how a snake was hunting her, thrashing side to side in the darkness behind her, carving rivers into the land’s skin. As she’s speaking, she’s remembering this river in the time before smallpox, before domestic slavery was the only way to avoid the missions. Remembering travelling just like this with her own mother from camp to camp, following the river’s curve through saltbush and out into the mallee plains where her mother taught her to steep gum blossoms for tea, to grind seeds into fine flours for cakes.
She carries a memory of her mother’s last days sitting beside a midden of broken shells and ash smoking a pipe. If you know how to look even when the night is moonless you can find the old paths burned into the reeds here and reach the river. In this imagined night flight Charlotte is going there now, tracing those old paths back and the river will grow her children into its mud flats under trees of nesting fairy wrens where country still belongs to itself. No missions, no domestic placements in rich white houses. She will take back her name, Millewa, she’ll be free until country takes her back into its body and her children will cover her in saplings, in animal teeth and the claws of lobsters, her heels drawn up behind her back in a place of sighing water in the last ceremony grounds of that river snake.”
M: Oh Judith, thank you. So, do we have any questions?
A: Thanks Judith, I’m very much looking forward to the book and what’s in there but before other people get to ask probably more useful questions how did you come across the photograph and how’s it being kept and why was a photograph of a woman of that period taken, do you think?
J: It was literally in a book called The Aborigines of Northern Victoria which was sitting on the bookshelf of Uncle Freddie. He got in touch with me. I had written out all the names I knew in my family tree and sent them to all of the Aboriginal corporations in Victoria in this act of desperation and it was years before I got an answer and it was from him. He said come to see me in Jerilderie and I’ve got some answers for you, so I drove down there. He knew things about my family that he couldn’t possibly have known, and he pulled out this book and he said I wish there was more. There was a woman in the book, she’s not even named in the book. The person who took the photograph didn’t know who she was. They pieced it back together who she must have been because of the kids that were with her at the time were recognisable and they were known so they were able to work out that that was her.
As far as we know it’s the only existing photograph of her or at least it’s the only one we’ve found. My understanding is that the original version of that photograph is in the bowels somewhere of the Victorian State Library. Uncle Freddie’s sons are in the process of trying to track that photograph down at the moment, but we don’t know where it is. It must have been taken by an anthropologist.
A: Hi Judith. I’ve loved your talk tonight. I’ve got two questions; the first question is when’s your book going to be published? The second question is what was it like sewing spider’s legs back on the body of spiders?
J: The book, I'm hoping that the chatbook on Charlotte, it’s going to be out towards the end of this year. The larger book on connection with country’s taking a little bit longer but probably not too much longer than that so I’m hoping the beginning of next year.
It’s really hard to sew legs back on a spider, particularly when you’ve got old lady eyesight like me and you need to wear glasses to see anything but the thing is, glue doesn’t work, it just doesn’t really hold and also holding the body of a spider and the leg of a spider long enough to make it actually stick like that, it’s really not good for your mental health. You can do it quite quickly with cotton.
A: Judith, thanks very much for that talk, it’s great. I just wonder whether you can show us an image of Charlotte. You’ve talked about her, but can we see an image or have I gone to sleep in the middle of something? Secondly can you talk about the Nangala or Nangala, how it’s pronounced it – you have in your name?
J: Yeah. Unfortunately, I don’t have a picture of her in the slide show. I probably should have done that but there’s only one photograph of her, so I’ll put it up on my web page for anyone who’s interested to see it. I spent 20 years trying to unpick this. After my uncle said it’s pretty obvious, we’re not Scottish I started looking. I started looking in earnest after he passed away and I reached a point where I was just getting nowhere. At that time I was Director of Manning Clark House and a lovely Warlpiri man who some of you will have met, actually, Wanta Jampijinpa, Steve Patrick, was staying there and I was telling him all this whole sad story and he just said to me you’re never going to find her, you’re going to drive yourself crazy running around looking for this ghost. Why don’t you come back with me, come onto country, meet some of the old ladies there and just don’t worry about it, form your own relationship with country, stop trying to legitimise this relationship.
So over time I did that, I started spending a lot of time in Warlpiri country. I still do, I spend several months a year every year, except the last year because of COVID, I spent out there with the old ladies. I was talking to them on the phone today about the fact that I was coming here to talk to all of you guys. In Warlpiri community everybody has to have a skin name because it’s about kinship, you have to know what a person’s skin name is so that you know that you’re allowed to talk to them. There are some avoidance relationships. If a person comes into community and spends a lot of time, there or decades there as in my case you have to be absolutely certain that you don’t have to have an avoidance relationship with them. So Nangala is the skin name that they gave me which means the water that moves because I was running around trying to search for ancestry.
In a sense they became the Aboriginal family that I didn’t have in a lot of ways and then they gave me the strength to keep looking, they kept encouraging me and now there’s a little bit of a relationship they have with Bangarang people through me which I’m really happy about as well. So, I keep that name, Nangala, to honour them and to honour my relationship with them.
M: Just a couple of weeks ago you were up country.
J: Yeah. The Warlpiri, they really are in many ways the family of my heart, they’ve given me so much that means a lot to me but one of the greatest gifts they ever gave me was this mangy little halfdead dingo pup completely covered in ticks and fleas and bald. I remember ringing my incredibly tolerant and patient partner, Ben, and saying to him I’ve got bad news and good news. The bad news is I’m bringing home a dingo puppy and the good news is he has mange. Because I took him from country the old ladies said to me well if you’re going to take him from country you’ve got to promise to bring him back. You’ve got to give him all his dog commands in Warlpiri language, so he understands, and he’s got to come back to his land. So every year I take him back to country and I lose him as soon as I show up in Lajamanu, he goes into the house of one old lady or another and they all shout at him in Warlpiri which he understands because we shout at him in Warlpiri language at home as well. But this last trip was unusual ‘because I went up on the motorbike and put him on the back of the motorbike, so it was a little bit harder.
M: It rained and -
J: It rained and there were all the normal problems. But the great thing about that is, and being on a motorbike particularly, you really have this sense of being on the country. In a car you’re cut off from the country ‘because you’ve got walls and a ceiling and when you’re on a motorbike you really feel that you’re there, you’re in the country. When you're sleeping, you’re sleeping on the ground and you have that sense. When you’re doing that with an animal too, watching the reactions. He was completely indifferent to the whole motorbike thing until he saw the MacDonnell Ranges and then he knew where we were and he started barking and you just see that sense of – even he was saying I'm back, I’m in the country of my heart. I’m on my mother country.
M: While you were there – I hope it’s okay to share this – you caught up with an old fella.
J: Yeah. One of the very first people I met in Lajamanu is an extraordinary man, Henry Jakamarra Cook and when I met him actually I had just received a diagnosis that I had cancer and at that stage I didn’t know if I was going to live or die, I felt like Schrodinger’s cat, in between half alive, half dead. I’d done this trip out there into the desert and there’s an old man, was the first person I saw when I got out of the four-wheel drive and I just landed on him, oh I’m going to die. He was like oh my god, there’s this crazy woman. He says to me we’re all going to die; you might just get there a bit quicker.
Henry at the time was 101 years old and his leg was in plaster because the table he’d been dancing on had broken. He’s now 111 and I went to visit him in Rocky Ridge Nursing Home where they’ve put him. Henry is the last surviving eyewitness of the Coniston massacre. When you read about the Coniston massacre in depth, you’ll read about an Aboriginal man named Bull Frog who had a number of kids that were running around with him and Henry was one of those kids. So, he’s really the last person who can talk about what he saw at that time and not just present it in terms of statistics and historical reconstructions.
So, the National Library was good enough to send up a voice recorder so that we get him to tell his story again about running around with Bull Frog and all the things that occurred during that time of massacre. So, the Library’s got that here now in the Oral History so I’m really, really pleased about that.
M: It’s again another one of those wonderful outcomes that are delivered through programs like the research fellowships and it gives us greater knowledge to share with our communities, it gives us deeper understanding. I mean to be able to listen to Uncle tell his story, what an incredible gift that it is.
So, Judith, thank you for sharing with us this evening. Just before I wrap up, I was given some speaking notes and I’ve got a little message that I have to read. It goes like this. For those of you in the audience who are also creative writers or creative artists in any field you may be interested in applying for a creative arts fellowship yourself and the chance to immerse yourself in the National Library’s collection. Applications for the 2022 Creative Arts Fellowships will open on Monday, the 7th of June so the application guidelines are on our website. Please have a look and do consider what a four-week residency might be able to achieve for your cultural practice.
In saying that, Judith, thank you. Can we all –
J: Thanks, everyone.
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