Dr Margaret Bromley, an invited speaker at the recent Hidden Stories event (September 2016), shares her story.
Professor Maggie Walter and I were invited to The Indigenous Literacy Day Symposium Hidden Stories to discuss the continuing silences that surround white peoples’ acknowledgement of Aboriginal people and their culture.
Maggie is a Pairrebeene woman from the north east of Tasmania. Maggie told of her travels to the country of her Aboriginal matriarchal family in the Bay of Fires area. When she asked a shop keeper what was known about the local Tasmanian Aborigines in the area Maggie was told “I don’t think there were any around here”.
Evidently the shop keeper’s knowledge of local history was restricted to that of the early European pioneers and she had no idea of the origin of the name of the place where she lived.
This resonated deeply with my experience of the ways in which Australians work hard at not knowing their family and local histories: what Maggie refers to as “the epistemology of ignorance”.
My family emigrated in 1967 when I was a teenager from London to Gulgong, New South Wales: to Wiradjuri country, the home of largest inland Indigenous culture of Australia. The signage in the Gulgong Pioneers Museum informed us that “There were only a few small tribes in the area”.
Recently I spoke with the current operator of the museum. Decades later the sign was still there and he reiterated this popular history when he told me that the gold diggers were the first to inhabit the district. “There was not a tribe here because there was not a river”. Clearly, he had not read Bruce Pascoe’s Dark Emu, which tells how Wiradjuri people managed the landscape and stocked their waterholes. The place name, “Gulgong”, is Wiradjuri for “a deep water hole”.
I was told that Gulgong was “…not an Aboriginal area. It was not a good place to be…as…it was a bad luck area for Aboriginal people”. My response was that it probably was a difficult place for Aboriginal people because white people were so harsh to them. According to the museum proprietor there are no Aborigines living in nearby Mudgee. He obviously hadn’t noticed the flags of the Mudgee Local Aboriginal Lands Council office in the CBD.
When my mother was still living in Mudgee, I said to her “Do you realise that the ancestors of your solicitor, Mr Cox, organised massacres and put arsenic in the flour that they gave to the local Aborigines?” To which my mother replied “Oh, I hope you’re not going to make trouble for these local people!”
This was an amazing response to me. Mum was still an outsider in that rural community, a migrant woman, a divorced single parent, working as a community nurse. Clearly she didn’t want the silences to be disturbed by this knowledge. According to Maggie Walters, my mother’s fear of “making trouble” expresses an underlying white fear, the legitimacy of being there, or the fear of the exposure of a difficult past.
The Hidden Stories Symposium revealed a strong interest from the audience who stated that they were motivated to find out more about the place in which they live. Some parents’ curiosity had been fired by their children’s teachers and Tasmanian Aboriginal cultural educators. Exploring and exposing the hidden stories has the potential to elicit respect and pride in the heritage of our local areas whilst being a powerful tool in the construction of Aboriginal identity.
Tasmania is certainly not the only place where Aboriginal heritage and the history of displacement are silenced by local communities; a silence which validates the invisibility of Aboriginal people and their cultures. However, Tasmania could be a leader in Australia in telling those hidden stories. The robust discussions held in Hobart to celebrate Indigenous Literacy Day on September 7 and 11 were a significant step to breaking the silence of the past.
Dr Margaret Bromley
Australian Capital Territory
Australian Capital Territory
Editor’s note: Margaret’s contributions to Hidden Stories were significant in setting the scene for this valuable two day experience and I reiterate the sincere thanks of the CBCA Tasmania and the Tasmanian Writers Centre for her participation.