Free at last
From No Long Down Under by Mike Brown
Something was not right at the barbecue, though at first glance it was what an Aussie 'barbie' was all about – chops sizzling over small fires, kids kicking a football, beer tinnies coming out of the 'esky', groups scattered under gum trees lining a River Murray lagoon. Many of the party had just been to church in a country town in northern Victoria: solid dairy-farming families whose hard work and self-reliance are almost a trade mark.
Yet there was an undercurrent of grievance. Being handed around was a petition to the Victorian government aimed at blocking State legislation which could prevent the land they were sitting on – the Barmah State forest – being used for cattle grazing. 'Greenies' were half the problem. But more ire was reserved for the Aboriginal community just around a bend of the River whose claims on the land were seen as a threat to the local grazing industry.
Apparently unaware of the subterranean tensions, an Aboriginal woman sat on a folding aluminium chair in the midst of them. Her large frame was diminished with her 70 years. Her sentences were often broken, incomplete. She greeted the few who came to speak to her with warmth. But most of the time she sat lost in thought, almost not there. Ironically, the barbecue was in her honour.
Margaret Tucker (or 'Aunty Marge' to those who knew her) was 'up from Melbourne' on probably the last visit of her life to this land where she was born. An elder of the Ulupna people, her tribal name was Lilardia.
She had been invited by a high school teacher in nearby Numurkah who, had he not been the trusted friend of many locals, might have been regarded as a 'stirrer'. When chops had been thoroughly chewed, he called the 60 or so present into a semicircle around Mrs Tucker. Her opening words could hardly have been more politically astute. Yet she spoke them with a sincerity that could not have been calculated.
'I love this land as you all do. It means so much to me...'
Her words hung for a moment, as she rocked slightly in her chair and scanned the faces of those sitting on the ground before her. Framed by white wispy hair, her face spoke volumes even before any more words were uttered. Broad rounded cheeks gleamed with the rich brown of her race, like polished stones in a clear stream. As memories welled up within her, her large brown eyes brimmed with joy. Or was it tears? 'Oh how we loved to fish and hunt wild duck right on this lagoon, we children... and those wonderful campfires by the River. They were happy days then and we pang pang gooks (children) spent much of our time looking for witchetty grubs, quandong, the sweet chewy gum from the trees and pollies from mistletoe.' The memories flowed: goanna oil was 'a mighty cure' for colds and boiled stinging nettles a cure for festering sores. In those days the Forest swarmed with bird-life: swans, heron, emu and quail, ibis, egret and, the Ulupna's totem, brolga.
Then, in mid-sentence, that rich-lustre of her skin clouded, as if those stones had been taken from the water and dried dull grey. Any joy in her eyes vanished. Just a mile or two down the River, she told us, 'a policeman and Mr Hill, the headmaster, came into the schoolroom.' She spoke slowly, pausing between vivid images of that day in the Moonahculla Aboriginal reserve when she was 13. 'I looked out the window and started to cry. There were 40 to 50 of our people standing silently, grieving for us. Then Mr Hill demanded that I and two other girls leave immediately with the police to be taken to the Cootamundra Domestic Training Centre for Aboriginal Girls.'
Three girls, including Marge's sister, were removed from the community that day. Her father was away shearing, unable to protest. Her mother, on 'domestic duties' at a homestead in nearby Deniliquin, ran two kilometres when she heard the news and followed them to the police station. 'My poor old mother... I heard years later how after watching us go out of her life, she wandered away from the police station along the road leading out of town. They found her next day, moaning and crying. Uncle heard sounds and thought it was an animal in pain. She was half demented and ill. They gave her water and tried to feed her, but she couldn't eat... She slowly got better. But for weeks she wouldn't let Geraldine (a younger sister) out of her sight. And at the sight of a policeman's white helmet coming round the bend of the river she would grab her little girl and escape into the bush, as did all the Aboriginal people who had children.
'I often wonder how many black children were taken like that,' said Marge.
Except for a few brief supervised visits, neither Marge nor her sister saw their parents during the next nine years. 'We were trained as servants in white people's homes. I grew to feel that a drudge was all I was good for.' She was kept by a series of families in suburban Sydney. Some treated her reasonably well; others, used and abused her. Her legs still bore scars from the beatings she was given, she said. Desperately lonely, sometimes starved into submission, she had twice tried to run away. She told those farming families how, once, she had taken 'Ratsack' poison to end it all... but had vomited it up.
Her eyes flashed with fire: 'Often I felt I would like to "kidney-fat" someone, as my people long ago used to say when they were angry.'
Then, just as suddenly, the spring of anger subsided and that face etched with memories relaxed. The cheeks regained their lustre. 'We have all been hurt,' she said gently, 'but we have learned from our suffering and mistakes. And we are still learning as we are still making mistakes. Whatever colour you are – black, brown or brindle – right is right and wrong is wrong. If I'm wrong, please tell me.'
No-one had anything to tell her. Those at the barbecue left without any confrontation. The editor of the local Numurkah Leader published a full-page interview with Margaret Tucker, calling her 'a great human being... the embodiment of sincere humility. It is a tangible feeling which slowly envelopes you as you talk with her.'
Many have responded to her in similar ways. Once entertained to tea by a Prime Minister's wife at the Lodge, she was asked – with a touch of patronage – whether this was her first visit to Canberra. 'Oh no,' answered Marge enthusiastically. 'I was here three months before I was born. Yes, my mother was pregnant with me when she was on "walkabout" with my people at Black Mountain...' (just across Lake Burley Griffin from the PM's Lodge) 'and, did you know, that's why they call it "Black Mountain" because the blacks used to camp there?' The Prime Minister's wife did not know. And became noticeably less patronising.
In 1958, with amazing grace for one whose life bore the scars of colonisation, Marge stood before the Governor of Victoria and was awarded an Member of the British Empire.
Some younger Aboriginal activists may have regarded Marge Tucker and her contemporaries as too pliable, affected by years of enforced submission. But her generation suffered and struggled as much as any. Indeed, across Australia, there is a veritable tribe of warriors who advanced the cause of their people when they themselves had no voice, no legal rights. Pastor Doug Nichols, for instance, who rose to become Governor of South Australia, had been taken away from his family in Cummeragunga as Marge Tucker was. The fact that so many emerged with qualities of leadership and courage is testimony to their strength of character, not a vindication of the system. A much greater number of broken men and women tragically did not make it. Their bitter heritage fuels the ongoing social dysfunction of many more today.
Marge Tucker, for her part, had respect and vision for today's generation. 'Young Aborigines have taught me a lot. They have great courage and can give to our country in many ways... Some of us are afraid to open our mouths, and others who do are "radicals",' she told a national conference in Sydney.
She is too modest to say so but, at an early age, Marge herself was regarded as a 'radical'. In Melbourne, where she lived with her infant daughter during the War years working in a rope factory, she had joined the first Aboriginal organisation formed in Victoria – the Aborigines Advancement League – and became its treasurer. 'We had very little money, so I didn't have much to do as treasurer,' Marge used to say with a chuckle. A new generation of white managers was then in charge of Aboriginal 'Settlements' like Cummeragunga, many of them autocratic and arrogant.
'They were desperate days,' wrote Marge in her autobiography If Everyone Cared. Aboriginal men had fought alongside white Australians during the War but returned home to the old discrimination, unable to get jobs. The white Settlement managers regarded them with suspicion and hostility. Marge's cousin, Jack Patten, had served with the AIF in the Middle East. But when he returned to Cummeragunga at the request of its residents, he was branded a 'black bastard' and was barred by the manager. In protest the residents walked en masse off the reserve, crossing the border into Victoria and camping on their old tribal grounds at Barmah forest. Through their action they denied themselves the dole, their only means of survival. Down in Melbourne, Marge and friends 'walked our shoe leather thin, cadging food' for the protesters from managers of city markets. Then, packing it all into the taxi of a man Marge had 'sucked up to', they drove north to feed the 'striking Aborigines'.
The years of struggle in the cause of her people forged in her a different militancy. 'Every day I wonder why we Aborigines cannot get through to the thinking of governments and administrators,' she wrote in her book. 'Then I realise it is because we have no clear-cut answers. Bitterness clouds our mission, often splitting us into little groups working against each other.
'I'd like to "do the wild corroboree" when I feel angry, but this anger diminishes when I try to understand and care for people... I don't forget what has happened since Captain Cook landed in Australia. But what is the use of remembering with bitterness? I say let Captain Cook rest...
'We may not forget; but we can forgive. Call it what you like but deep in my heart I do believe in the Holy Spirit – the Good Spirit, that has neither hate, bitterness, class or creed. It is not the colour of one's skin that matters, it is character.
'A lot of years have been wasted but with a new spirit, our people who have lost all could learn to live straight and give something to the whole of humanity... We need to put aside our grievances and think positively how to put right what is wrong in Australia today, to forgive past mistakes and to create a leadership that can help Australia help the world. We can do it together. Think bigger from our hearts.'
Margaret Tucker spent her last years in a nursing home in Shepparton, not quite in this world. Her spirit and mind, perhaps, were already mingling with her spirit ancestors exploring her Dreaming, running free among the ibis and brolga on the sparkling waters of her childhood. She died in 1996.