By Ali Murphy-Oates.
A few years ago, I drove with my Dad to Dubbo in central-western New South Wales for a corroboree and to visit the graveyard where we thought my grandmother, his mother, had been buried. My grandmother had passed away when my dad was two years old, and he and his brother were sent to be raised by their whitefella paternal grandparents in Cronulla, South Sydney. It wasn’t until recently that I even thought or realised that we might not know where my grandmother was buried, because everyone gets a grave, right? My maternal grandmother and grandfather are right next to each each other, I almost tripped over them when we said goodbye to our great-uncle last year. But hers is unmarked, possibly shared with others, and relegated to the section of Dubbo cemetery where the poor, the unwanted, and the Aboriginal people were buried. A bare grassed strip of land with a plaque on a wall standing guard in the centre – all the names that could be remembered or found again. I don’t think she’s there.
I’ve been in London 6 days, and have 3 days until I fly home again. In this time our group has seen and done some incredible, heartbreaking, confronting, humbling and uplifting things. On our first day we found street art on Brick Lane that addressed both the colonisation of Australia and the current hysteria over our (lack of) refugee intake. We wept over a shield at the British Museum, a moment of first contact, first conflict, frozen behind glass and forgotten. Placed in a hall with thousands upon thousands of collected memories from other colonised countries and presided over by a bust of Joseph Banks. Thousands more from that time, that place, stored away from public eye. We poured over the notebooks of William Dawes at the University of London, recordings of words written in Sydney language, conversations half written that we can almost hear. Missionary reports on the devastation and extinction of the Aboriginal people, printed proper with an addendum of desperation scrawled over the top. Lake Macquarie people, so close to my home. We performed a smoking ritual for the guests of the opening night of the Origins Festival, and I sung my guts out in Darkinjung language. They are some of the only words I know from the country I was born on. And finally realising, through conversations in the museum, at the university and with people on the tube, how distant and disconnected the history and the current state of our people is to the life of the everyday person in the UK. They literally hold our history, and they don’t even know it.
My relationship to my culture has sometimes felt like my relationship to these objects. Locked away, but on display. Other people tell me what it is. Sometimes there’s a fire in my belly, but more often it’s a gentle stirring. A yearning for more. It’s right there, I know, but somehow just out of reach.
Yesterday in the In The Balance: Indigeneity, Performance, Globalisation conference we found ourselves in a debate over the ‘loss’ of language and culture. The implication (accidentally made) of loss upset some of my colleagues, quite rightly. Others proposed the term should be an ‘erasure’ of language and culture, which I agreed with. But the words that have stuck with me since then came from Yorta Yorta woman Deborah Cheetham, someone whom I was absolutely star struck by and could not believe I was in the same room as. She asserted (and I paraphrase) that our culture is not lost, not erased. It is still there. It’s with our old people. It’s in the land. In our songs and our rock carvings. We just have to listen and look. We just need to reconnect.
Back at the cemetery, after wandering around for while and indulging in a morbid fascination of the ageing tombstones, I eventually found my dad under the largest tree in the row that borders the strip of grass. He’s lying down and looking up through the leaves.
He’s found her.
He’s talking to her.
I lay down next to him and looked up myself. And I knew. She wasn’t lost. She was always here. We just needed to listen and look. To reconnect.