An Aboriginal place
A farming family and Indigenous elders join forces to recognise a special site on private land
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I was splitting firewood late last winter when I received a call from my friend Dave Johnston, a blackfella archaeologist and heritage manager with 30 years of experience.
“Vinnie, good news. I just spoke to Matilda House. She’s keen to visit the site.”
“Who’s Matilda House again? Some kind of bigwig?”
“Bloody oath. She’s the one who greets the Queen when she comes to Canberra!”
Aunty Matilda House: I knew her look, if not her name. When the Ngambri elder led the first ever welcome-to-country ceremony at an opening of federal parliament (on the eve of Kevin Rudd’s 2008 apology to the Stolen Generations), she did so wearing a cloak of 35 brush-tailed possum pelts. It was February. “Must be hotter than a gorilla costume in that thing,” scoffed the tradie I was working for.
It’s cloak weather on the August morning that Aunty Matilda visits my family’s cattle farm, half an hour’s drive from Canberra, but today she’s wearing a high-vis hoodie and a woollen scarf. After tea, cake and the revelation that she declined the offer to open the 45th federal parliament “because Pauline’s there”, Matilda, Mum and I get into Dave’s LandCruiser.
We drive into the hills, winter grass slippery under our tyres. Our first stop is an ancient yellow box gum tree with a scar at its base, thought by Dave and Matilda to be left over from a coolamon (carrying dish) carved perhaps 200 years ago. But we admire it from a distance. The scar stands 4 metres outside our farm’s southern boundary on the property of a grazier who, when my dad phoned in advance of today, said she didn’t want any Aborigines on her land. It’s a stark example of the mistrust that still exists between many farmers and Aboriginal people; Matilda tells Mum ours is only the second farm she’s been invited onto.
There are more than 65,000 Aboriginal heritage sites – from middens to missions – registered in New South Wales, but officially there are only 11 Aboriginal Places on private property. These receive legal recognition and protection from the state minister for the environment, as they are declared to have or have had “special significance with respect to Aboriginal culture”. An Aboriginal Place is one that “can have spiritual, historical, social, educational or other significance or could have been used for its natural resources”.
Today we’re taking Matilda to what we hope will be the twelfth.
Four months earlier, while Dave was undertaking an extensive archaeological survey of our 650-acre farm, I took him up the ironstone outcrop that my family calls Bald Hill. Something caught his eye.
“Holy moly, Vinnie, a thumbnail scraper!”
Blunted with age, and the size and shape its name suggested, the stone tool had been fashioned long ago to mine ochre the colour of dried ketchup from the hill it now lay upon; further investigations by Dave and archaeologists from the Australian National University found hunks of loose ironstone from which the ochre had been mined, gouges running helter-skelter across each rock’s surface like knife trails in butter.
Ochre was traditionally rubbed on skin in birthing, coming-of-age and bogong moth–feasting ceremonies. Most of the region’s ochre quarries are now buried under Canberra’s suburbs, so, after finding this one, Dave encouraged us to seek its listing as an Aboriginal Place.
But we wanted to do so in collaboration with the quarry’s traditional owners. The first visitor was Carl Brown, a softly spoken Ngunnawal elder whose gleaming white sneakers were soon caked with red mud. After examining the gouges (he thought they looked more like rotten teeth or corrugated iron), Carl became reflective.
“I think about all my family before me and how things were, and I get really upset about how people were treated, you know what I mean? I have a really strong belief in my culture. [This is] such a nice place. I’m proud to be here today.”
In the dappled shade of some nearby scribbly gums, Carl pulled out his phone and showed me a black-and-white photo of his great-great-grandfather: a muscular, bare-chested Aboriginal man in his 30s with a full beard and twirled moustache. A breastplate hung from his neck; the caption, painted in white cursive, read “King Andy Lane”.
“Andy’s a whitefella name,” said Carl. “Our people called him Audi.” As Carl explained, the term was both a name and an adjective. “If you were audi it meant you were a deadly fella.”
The next day, Ngunawal elder Wally Bell and his son, Justin, fossicked through the rocks scattered across the site. Ochre like this, Wally told me, would’ve been used in initiation ceremonies at Ginninderra Falls, half a day’s walk to the south-west. Pigment washed from a boy’s skin into the rushing water below symbolised his transition to manhood.
Wally said that for a long time a “barrier” has prevented non-Indigenous landholders from inviting Aboriginal people onto their land: the belief that in doing so they might lose it. Wally had teased me about this when I suggested he and Justin come inside before visiting the site. “You’re going to invite us inside for a cuppa?!” I saw it from Wally’s perspective: I was wearing my wide-brimmed Akubra and RM moleskins, not usually the uniform of bleeding hearts.
Alighting at our next stop – another scar tree, dead and supine on the banks of Murrumbateman Creek – Matilda gently takes my mum’s hand. Two Australian women: one, a grazier’s daughter, educated at an exclusive Melbourne school; the other, one of ten children born on a mission in Cowra and sent to the infamous Parramatta Girls Home when she was 12. If our herd of Black Angus stood in the background it’d be the stuff of a corny Meat & Livestock Australia ad.
“Imagine how excited you would have been,” Matilda wonders aloud, “crowded around this tree as the scar was made.” Dave and Matilda think the scar, which would have taken hours to cut by skilled hands, is what remains of creating a flotation device used for carrying eggs, bulbs or even a baby. Before this creek was turned into a drain by land clearing and overgrazing, it would have linked a chain of ponds supporting birdlife, fish, turtles – and large family groups of Aboriginal people.
Matilda makes us all feel the ridges of the tree’s scar, the once-sharp cut of a stone axe burnished smooth by a century or more of weather. Her voice falters.
“That’s the part that makes me go all funny. I can’t believe it. It’s just so magnificent!”
I ask Matilda about her cloak, and she immediately becomes defensive, assuring me she only uses feral possums imported from New Zealand. But now that I mention it, did I have any spare kangaroo teeth for a necklace she’s making?
There’s a kangaroo carcass caught in the fence across the creek, and I squelch through the mud to loot it. By the time I catch up with Matilda (a fox beat me to the roo’s head), she is atop the ochre quarry with Mum, taking in the view across 30 kilometres of grassy woodland to the slow-motion wind turbines of Ngungara – Lake George.
“What a beautiful place to camp.”
I don’t know if Matilda means today or 10,000 years ago, and it’s this elasticity of time – the realisation that I don’t have to write about the Aboriginality of our farm in the past tense – that makes me go all funny.
On another day, while visiting the quarry with his dad, my five-year-old nephew, Billy, asked Dave, “Are these cows Aboriginal?”
“That’s a good question, young fella,” Dave replied, hands on knees as he crouched to Billy’s height. “These cows aren’t Aboriginal because they arrived – or not them exactly but their great-great-great-grandpas and great-great-great-grandmas – with the first people who sailed ships from England to Australia, more than 200 years ago. The people who the English and their cows met when they arrived – my great-great-great-grandpas and great-great-great-grandmas – they were Aboriginal. As am I.”
Billy looked unconvinced. “Is this bug Aboriginal?”
Back at the house, a filmmaker is gathering footage for a documentary about the quarry. Matilda insists on being interviewed while sitting beside my mum. They’re mudjis now, Matilda explains. Good friends. As the filmmaker sets up, Mum asks Matilda if she’d like a pillow. “My arse isn’t that big!” she replies. Would she at least like to take her insulin in the privacy of my parents’ bedroom before the interview? “I thought I’d just shoot up in front of youse,” joshes Matilda.
While Matilda explains on camera how newborn babies used to be rubbed down with ochre, connecting them to Mother Earth in a way that those born in hospitals no longer are, Mum nods along like those dorks beside politicians do at staged policy announcements. It’s very cute.
Matilda says that she and my mum have learned a lot about each other today. “If we can keep doing things like this, we’ll bring an understanding of what reconciliation really means.”
“There’s no secret,” says Matilda, “to Aborigines and their past.” Nor, I would add, is there anything to fear from listing an Aboriginal Place on a whitefella’s place. My family loses nothing through this process: not the property title, not access to Bald Hill, nor even the right to graze its slopes. Instead we gain a better understanding of our country and a cultural connection with people who care as much about it as we do. It’s this type of acceptance that Wally says he’s after: the recognition that his people were the first inhabitants of this area.
All parties are in agreement to have the quarry nominated and hopefully registered as an Aboriginal Place. Irrespective of the outcome, Wally has agreed to give the quarry an Aboriginal name, and my family has agreed to allow access to the Ngambri, Ngunawal and Ngunnawal communities whenever they want it. It’s a hill to us, but in Wally’s words “the use of the ochre is allowing us to make that reconnection to country”.
In the event that our application is approved, the traditional owners will host my family and theirs for a ceremony at the quarry, where its ochre will be celebrated and used for the first time in generations.
I hope Matilda wears her cloak.