After the referendum of 1967

GRANITE DOWNS – INDULKANA, 1967 – AFTER THE REFERENDUM             A Story of Change

I was on the Ghan travelling north.   I was a medical student, and hoped to work for the flying doctor in the future.   But first I had a holiday job as a governess. This journey was a sort of pilgrimage to a distant past, echoing in my soul.

It was the end of 1967, and I was thinking about the amazing year it had been.   More than 90% of Australians had voted for a change to the Australian Constitution to give Aboriginal people a better deal. Jessie Street had led the way in getting things changed.  She was the wife of a respected High Court judge, who could have enjoyed life as part of the establishment, without making waves.  But she saw injustices all around her, and worked to make things better for everyone.  She had met Faith Bandler, daughter of Pacific  Islanders forcibly brought to Australia for cheap labour on the sugar plantations.   Jessie Street started the Australian Women’s Charter movement in the 40’s, with a core principle of advancing the status of Indigenous Australians.  She presented the Anti-Slavery Society submission on the situation of Indigenous Australians to the United Nations 10th General Assembly in 1955.   Faith Bandler, inspired by Jessie and Pearl Gibbs, founded the Australian Aboriginal Fellowship in 1956. Jessie arranged for the launch of a petition to change the Constitution, at a fundraiser for the Fellowship in the Sydney Town Hall in 1957.  This started the 10 year campaign for change (“Women of the 1967 Referendum”).

In the meantime, William Cooper began the Aboriginal Advancement League, in Victoria.  The Freedom rides exposed segregation.  The Wave Hill walkout exposed exploitation.  Jessie helped to keep these things before the public’s attention.  And in 1967 so many Australians voted for a change, in the hope for a better, fairer future for the first Australians.  Huge numbers of black and white Australians belonged to at least one organisation working towards equality for all.

My political activism was an embarrassment to my family, as Jessie’s was to the ‘establishment’.  I had a shameful history.  My birth mother was too young, my father “unknown”, and my skin colour provoked questions.  But for me, my greatest shame came from being adopted into a family of the British Army who came to Australia from India.  The men believed in their superiority, as British, as white and as men.

In the 1930s one of the family members owned the pastoral lease called ‘Granite Downs’, some 160km from Oodnadatta.  His wife’s family owned ‘Lambinna’, the adjoining lease, closer to Oodnadatta.  They bred horses to send to India.  They had Aboriginal stockmen and house help, and the aunt’s writings show a paternalistic relationship, with some affection and respect for the original owners of the land, but not as equals.

The original owners of the land were able to carry on their ceremonial life as long as the select few appeared for work, well dressed and well spoken!   Children with mixed heritage from the properties around Oodnadatta, were taken to the Colebrook home.   Probably the best known is Lowitja O’Donohue, who was born on Granite Downs when her father Tom was manager.  Her mother remained working for the family.

Maise Chettle recorded the family history in two books, Jim Robb, about her father’s life, and Just Me, about her own life.  Maise showed respect for the knowledge and abilities of the Aboriginal people who ‘came with the land’.  As different pastoralists tried to make a go of cattle stations, the Aboriginal people who ‘came with the land’ had knowledge that was continuous, even if often untapped, or unheeded.

Chettle (1996 P.149)  records:

“A half-caste head stockman, Jimmy Woodford, who was the proverbial ‘Treasure’ also came with the station.  He was as black as any full blood but his ancestry was known.  He was a short stocky figure with the curved legs of a life time horseman, as reliable as the sun with a wide white toothy grim and an infectious laugh.  He prefixed every speech with ‘My golly eh!’  Under Jimmy there was a team of native stock boys of widely varying ability but all willing triers.”

The stock boys were of course, men.

After the flood of the Alberga, when the river flowed through the homestead, taking all their possessions towards Lake Eyre, Chettle says:

“The manager, his family and a travelling saddler had spent two days high up in the boughs of a gum tree where they had climbed to safety.  Later, we learned that they had been warned by the natives that ‘Big fella water was coming; more better they go ground high up’ but they had not heeded.  The natives had made their way to Mt Chandler, where in a high cave were their sacred Churinga stones.” P.165, and

‘The salvage expeditions by the native workmen were remarkably successful.  They came back grinning with triumph carrying on their heads pieces of iron bedsteads, wooden cupboards, kitchen and dining room tables almost intact and sundry household utensils, camp ovens, bread tubs and washing tubs only a bit dented.’ P.166

There was a  long standing custom that cattle on their way to Oodnadatta for trucking, would stop overnight at Molley’s waterhole.   When the new manager of Todmorden station refused to allow this custom to continue, it was the ‘stock boys’ who helped out.  ‘One of the oldest, Wintinna Mick, who came to Jim with a tale he had heard from his grandfather that “Long time back, that same fella waterhole belong Lambinna station; not belonga Todmorden’”.  When Jim enquired about this, it was found to be accurate. P.184

Chettle went on to teach at the infamous ‘Bungalow’ in Alice Springs, and Broome (2010 p.137) records Chettle saying the 82 children, ‘all looked squeaky clean with hair combed and plastered down; the boys in freshly laundered khaki shirts and shorts, the girls in blue striped cotton frocks.’   Chettle would have no doubt been pleased that assimilation was working so well.  ‘Half-caste’, or children of mixed heritage like me could be civilised!

 

But now in 1967, the properties no longer belonged to the family, and I was keen to see what was happening at Granite Downs.  My anxieties turned to nightmares when I arrived to find a sparkling WHITE property.  Even the new house was totally white:  white carpets, white tiles, white paint – ‘white is best in the heat’, they said.  The manager of Granite Downs no longer employed Aboriginal stockmen:  ‘Whites work better’, they said.

‘We’re not paying them the same as white stockman’ he said.  ‘They don’t do the same work.  They are not reliable.  They turn up when they want to, go walkabout when it suits them and even leave horses saddled, so we lose the saddles as well as the horses.’

‘So what happened to them?’ I asked.

‘The Government took some of our land to make a reserve for them, it’s called Indulkana: just over the other side of the Stuart Highway.’

‘This new law was stupid,’ he went on.  ‘We used to give them clothes and food in return for their work, and allow them to roam where they liked.  Now they have nothing except a small piece of land which is useless to work, and they have no jobs.’

 

We went to visit the nurse (superintendent – I think she was called), ‘in charge’ of Indulkana.  I took photos through the car window of the horrors I saw.  Housing consisted of old cars, iron and tarps draped over poorly constructed bush wurlies.  When we arrived Dot told me Aboriginal people did not allow photos to be taken, and I should destroy the film.  She showed us the wonderful house provided for her.  In response to my questions she mentioned with pride the huge warehouse shed, which had been erected for the provisions for Aboriginal people.  But she did not show me inside.

I returned to Adelaide later and was told by my church we were sending playground equipment for the children.  I queried if this was what the community wanted, and they assured me, ‘Dot said so’.  ‘But they have nothing’, I said in despair.

What had happened?  What we people in the big cities thought obvious solutions to Aboriginal disadvantage were not solutions at all.   Obviously Aboriginal people should be citizens in their own land.  And they should receive equal pay for equal work.  But who thought about the consequences of them being unemployed?  And who decided a nice little reserve with a playground would be the answer?  What use is dole money where there are no shops?  Who could survive this system, whatever colour their skin?   Is this ‘self-determination’, without the means to determine anything?  These questions have troubled me ever since.

I have friends who were born at Granite Downs, or their parents were born there.  People who were removed to the Colebrook homes.   People who are still trying to locate their extended families, with whom they now have no language in common.  Some are glad to reunite, and some are unable to relate to city people who grew up white and never came home, so they refuse to acknowledge them as family.  I see such sadness.

I found a book in the library which helped me understand a little of the power relationship between Aboriginal people and white invaders, ‘White Flour, White Power.’  The title alone called out to me.  I know we are all being poisoned by white flour and white sugar now, but how much more so for Aboriginal people who went very quickly from an ideal diet to one of flour sugar and tea?    I was poisoned by white flour, and sugar and cow’s milk as a child, before a doctor diagnosed the allergies and associated depression.  But this book opened my eyes to so much more about the ration system.   The author, Rowse talks about the dependency built up by the ration system, as a method of controlling Aboriginal people.

Life in the desert was hard, especially during long droughts.  European animals had polluted waterholes and interfered with the habits of native animals.  Traditional hunting methods failed as animal habits changed.  White people were a source of white food.  Rationing through ration stations was used to control where Aboriginal people would live.

What I saw at Indulkana, were people reduced by the invasion and appropriation of their land and by the ration system.  They had been separated from their culture, by trying to integrate into the cattle industry.  Then the cattle industry rejected them.  Yet in this same year, the people of Australia expressed a wish for Aboriginal Australians to get the same fair go as everyone else hoped for.

It was obvious to me then, that the future for Aboriginal people would not be improved by members of the medical profession fixing physical problems.  A western trained doctor has no medicine of use for dispossessed people.  I knew from my own experience, healing of the heart and soul is needed to keep people alive.  I wondered how I could live a useful life, knowing that I understood so little, although I cared greatly.  I destroyed the photos, but I never forgot the images.

References:

Broome, R 2010, Aboriginal Australians A history since 1788, Allen & Unwin, Crows Nest, NSW.

Chettle, M 1996, Jim Robb, Seaview Press, Henley Beach, South Australia

Chettle, M 1997, Just Me, Seaview Press, Henley Beach, South Australia.