Because of Her, We Can: Remembering family histories, secrets, and stories

Professor Lynette Russell reflects on how this year’s NAIDOC theme connects with personal family histories.

This year’s NAIDOC celebrates Indigenous women. The mothers, grandmothers, aunties, daughters, nieces: the keepers of family, and tradition. The NAIDOC week is an exhilarating and exhausting week of celebration, commemoration, and reflection. This year, as the theme is Aboriginal women, and the promotional poster carries the caption ‘Because of Her, We Can!’ I thought I might offer a personal consideration and perspective.

It has been my great privilege to have benefitted from many Aboriginal women who have led the way forward, who have enabled me and many others. And while it is indeed because of them that I can, there is another person, now long since deceased that I think of when I read that slogan. My Aboriginal heritage comes from my father’s family, via his mother. My Nana was very circumspect about her background, keeping many secrets and harbouring myriad fears. Even though she died decades ago, I can still hear her voice and recall her anxieties. While I now understand how she chose secrecy as a means of survival, I cannot imagine the fears that dominated her life. She was terrified of the mental illness that had taken her own mother away from her for more than a decade. She was afraid that she would be seen as an unfit mother and the thought of losing her children to welfare persistently plagued her. However, she was also endlessly curious, a voracious reader, and a brilliant thinker.

If I want to picture my Nana I see her at her kitchen table reading, enviably with a cup of coffee, in earlier years it was also with a cigarette. She read everything, newspapers, magazines, and books, especially encyclopaedias. She was the only person I knew who would read a dictionary, much as others might read a novel. Her memory was phenomenal and she would recall facts that she had read and would always be able to tell exactly which page these were found on, and roughly where on that page. We called it her photographic memory and she was renowned amongst the family for it. More than once I have regretted that I did not inherit her memory but, alas, that was not to be. She was the only family member who valued education, despite her own ending at her thirteenth birthday. Her encouragement of me to study at university was at odds with the views of her husband, my grandfather, who not only thought education was wasted on women, but for whom the very concept of a ‘university student’ elicited disparaging comments about ratbags and radicals.

Over the past two decades I have had the privilege of working alongside many powerful, strong and courageous Aboriginal women. These women have been based in universities, community organisations, and in governments. They have generously taught me much about culture, belonging, and sharing. They have shown me that change – however slow in arriving – is inevitable, and while my grandmother may have suffered in silence, that silence has been shattered. In these contexts, I have also learned that my Nana’s story is not unique or even rare, as many of the women I have worked with have similar stories, of secrets and fears that shaped their lives and their histories.

Aboriginal women have been the keepers of family trees, of knowledge and of secrets. In a recent conversation with someone I have known for over twenty years, she almost casually mentioned a son that had been taken from her when she was a very young woman. Of course, it was not casual at all, and she spoke these words carefully, highlighting for me that even after two decades of friendship I had only recently been considered ready (or worthy) to hear this revelation. At different stages of life different stories are told. The stories told to children are elaborated as they grow older and more aware. I realised this when I was first doing research for Native Title claims and I would hear stories that seemed fragmented and disjointed but which would later have some of the blanks filled in for me. I was being told these stories in instalments just as they have always been told. I recall my frustration when it became clear that I was missing vital aspects of the narrative, it often felt as if sentences began in the middle and I was uncertain of their beginning.  It was clear that the iterative nature of history keeping and storytelling was an essential part of being in and of community and much of this was maintained by women. And thanks to those women I was eventually schooled in how to listen, and how to add to the story when required.

In this the NAIDOC week as we celebrate all the Indigenous mothers, grandmothers, and aunties, I also give thanks to the countless generous women who have sustained me intellectually and culturally. To some of them I am kin, to most I am not, but that sense of family that is wide and encompassing means that regardless of the connection we are all one. In the theme of the 2018 NAIDOC, I reflect that because of many women in my life I can, not merely survive, but thrive.

Professor Lynette Russell is the Director of the Faculty of Arts Monash Indigenous Centre at Monash University and President of the Australian Historical Association (2016-2018). Lynette’s publications include Savage Imaginings: Historical and Contemporary Constructions of Australian Aboriginalities (2001) and Roving Mariners: Australian Aboriginal Whalers and Sealers in the Southern Oceans, 1790-1870 (2012). Her historical focuses are far ranging – across the eighteenth to the twentieth centuries, from the Gunditjmara and Wurundjeri people of Victoria to the Smoki people in Prescott, Arizona. One of her major concerns is to develop an anthropological approach to history.

This entry was posted in Because of her we can, Issue blogs. Bookmark the permalink.