Growing up Indigenous and not knowing your culture leaves a hole in your identity. (Supplied: Alexis Moran)
Freak find buried in old book helps unlock missing piece of Indigenous language puzzle
Growing up Indigenous and not knowing your culture leaves a hole in your identity.
My mum describes it as a puzzle — and we were searching for the missing pieces.
Like many other families, mine struggled to map out our family tree. But we could only go back as far as 1788 — to the time of colonisation.
We knew my grandmother and grandfather had separated when my mum was young.
Djiringanj Yuin knowledge-holder Warren Foster explains the sacred significance of Mother
And my mother, Jean Moran, knew her father’s immediate family, who came from the Dunghutti region of New South Wales, around Kempsey and South West Rocks.
In her 20s, “he passed away with no cultural knowledge to pass on to me,” she said.
Little did we know, that was all about to change.
The long lost pieces of her identity
In February last year, mum’s paternal half-brother notified her that there was a “big native title meeting happening” in Nowra.
“All the Moran’s” were going, he exclaimed. Intrigued by the opportunity, she registered for the event.
Some two months later, mum received a call from the Native Title office in Redfern. Our family tree had arrived, they said, and she and my aunt were asked to come in and collect it.
We knew my grandmother and grandfather had separated when my mum was young. (Supplied: Alexis Moran)
My mother wept when she held the piece of paper in her hand, finally faced with what had been thought as long-lost pieces of her identity.
For the first time, we as a family were able to see when the first Aboriginal person in our family was recorded in writing — after the first fleet arrived on Australian shores.
But most importantly, it showed us which tribe and land we belonged to.
The earliest recorded name on our family tree was Lelitia Nimebur, a Yuin woman from the south coast of New South Wales.
Doreen May Barber, my mum’s grandmother and my great-grandmother (right), pictured on Cherbourg mission. (Supplied: Alexis Moran)
Her last name was believed to be tribal and would be handed down to her daughter Jenny who was born in 1823 at Broulee.
Jenny went on to marry an English convict from Kent by the name of Richard Piety.
Dispossession and trauma
On my nan’s side, however, it was a different story.
My mum knew exactly where her mother’s ancestors came from — or rather, where they were placed during the Stolen Generation.
It was through this mass dispossession that my family was unable to pass down traditional knowledge and language.
And we still suffer from the effects of intergenerational trauma today.
Born in 1928, Doreen May Barber — my mum’s grandmother and my great-grandmother — was a strong Wakka Wakka woman who grew up on Cherbourg mission in south-east Queensland.
But she never had the chance to learn about her culture.
“The welfare protection board made sure of that,” mum said.
And on her mother’s father’s side, he “entered Kinchela boys home on the northern New South Wales coast at the age of 18 months old, along with his 3 big brothers.”
He too never had the chance.
Bound for Yuin country
Though the roots of our family tree were fragmented, our newfound discovery gave me hope that, maybe one day, we would be able to put the puzzle back together.
And knowing where our earliest family member, Lelitia Nimebur, came from could just be the missing piece.
Then, an opportunity presented itself.
I was invited to work on the ABC’s This Place project after telling my Indigenous colleague, who was also Yuin, about my newly discovered ancestry.
The project aims to teach Australia about the original place names of certain landmarks Captain Cook had listed in his diary when he first arrived.
We set out to discover the story behind Mount Gulaga, or Mount Dromedary, as Cook would call it.
And so, I was bound for Yuin country.
‘Like a mother, she gives you strength and guidance’
After a six-hour drive from Sydney airport, we made it to the south coast.
A wave of emotion came over me when stood on Tathra beach at sunset.
A wave of emotion came over me when stood on Tathra beach at sunset. (ABC News: Vanessa Milton)
How could we have come from somewhere so beautiful and not known about it for all these years?
Much of the land remained untouched, with national parks overrunning the country roads.
A place where still, blue lakes meet the roaring ocean in the middle of dense mountains. And where native wildlife roams freely.
Much of the land remained untouched, with national parks overrunning the country roads. (ABC News: Alexis Moran)
I was there to learn, and pass on any little pieces of knowledge I could to the rest of my family, and yet I had underestimated the sense of power, of connection, that I would feel on returning to the land my ancestors had known before me.
“When we see her, we know we’re almost home,” says Uncle Warren Foster, a proud Yuin man from the Djiringanj tribe of Wallaga Lake.
“Just knowing that she’s there helps us spiritually. Like a mother, she gives you strength and guidance.”
I was there to learn, and pass on any little pieces of knowledge I could to the rest of my family. (ABC News: Alexis Moran)
‘Our DNA is in the land’
Uncle Warren’s knowledge of Yuin land and traditional lore runs deep: it has been passed down for thousands of years through the same language his ancestors spoke.
He’s worked as a cultural teacher and tour guide for many years, and is founder of the Gulaga Dancers, a traditional men’s dance group.
Uncle Warren’s knowledge of Yuin land and traditional lore runs deep. (ABC News: Alexis Moran)
We had arranged to meet him at Merriman’s Local Aboriginal Land Council. Its CEO, Terry Hill, was kind enough to give us a tour, and we soon discovered that we had a family connection.
Do you know the meaning of the Indigenous place names where you live? It’s time to find out. You can also share the story behind your community’s place names. Watch some on our YouTube channel or visit our latest stories:
Armed with a copy of our family tree, we were able to a find a shared ancestor a few generations back from the Bolloway family.
Afterward, Uncle Warren told us the story of Gulaga — the mother mountain — and how sacred she is to the Yuin people.
We too had a relation through the Bolloway linage line, and somehow, I felt even more connected to his storytelling.
He proceeded to tell us how our old people used to live — their initiation ceremonies, teaching practices, and their extensive knowledge of the land and native animals.
He is careful to not tell us too much that we cannot know because it is sacred knowledge.
But most important to me were the dreamtime stories.
Uncle Warren told us the story of Gulaga — the mother mountain — and how sacred she is to the Yuin people. (ABC News: Craig Allen)
“Gulaga means mother mountain, she gave birth to all the Yuin people,” he said.
It’s also women’s teaching place with few areas that men can go.
I was seated at that table in awe of every word he said; this man was laying out my songlines right in front of me, teaching me lost knowledge I thought I would never learn.
I had found the creation story of my people and why they are so connected to the land.
In fact, my great-great-grandmother was born in Tilba Tilba, at the foot of the mountain.
“We don’t own the land, the lands own us, because we evolved from the land,” Uncle Warren said.
“Our DNA is in the land.”
I had found the creation story of my people and why they are so connected to the land. (ABC News: Vanessa Milton)
Fear of the pelican
Eden was the first place Captain Cook “discovered”, Uncle Warren told us, and he settled the Endeavour off the NSW coast for a few hours as a reprieve from the rough sea.
“Our people didn’t understand what it was at first … the only white thing we saw sailing on the water is a pelican,” he said.
Uncle Warren told us how our old people used to live — their initiation ceremonies, teaching practices, and their extensive knowledge of the land and native animals. (ABC News: Alexis Moran)
“We have stories that go right back to the ice age [that talks about] megafauna roaming the land, so when they saw the white sails, they thought maybe he was a big pelican returned from the dreamtime.”
But they soon became worried, Uncle Warren explained.
Pelican’s are known to be greedy and will steal fish without a second thought, “so you have to watch him”, he remarked, “just like we watched that boat”.
After our old people became concerned at the sight of Cook’s ship, the young warriors “started to light fires at each headland point all the way up to Botany Bay”, Uncle Warren said.
They were sending a smoke signal to warn for danger, as the headlands would only have fires during ceremony times.
Eden was the first place Captain Cook “discovered”, Uncle Warren told us, and he settled the Endeavour off the NSW coast for a few hours. (ABC News: Alexis Moran)
It was a warning that “he might come in” — a fear that the pelican would come and scoop the people up.
“Little did we know that eventually, he would come and take everything away,” Uncle Warren said.
‘Now it’s time to walk in culture’
Through Uncle Warren, I learnt about the roles Yuin men and women played in pre-colonial times, and why knowledge was only passed down when people were considered spiritually ready enough to receive it.
Because of this, he explained, dreamtime stories may seem like children’s stories from the outset.
They are first told to us in their most basic version, but they have complex layers that are revealed over time to the people who have the right to bare it.
I felt immense privilege being the first in my family to learn about our culture, but also a sense of guilt that my mother hadn’t learnt it before me.
As tradition tells us, it should have been passed down from generation to generation.
“I felt so proud that my daughter’s generation is not going to miss out, and now her identity is complete,” mum told me.
“[Now] my children and grandchildren will have a better knowledge of who they are and where they come from than I had.”
And we’re both planning for our journey back soon.
For my mum, the next journey of her life will be learning Yuin culture.
“I’ve learnt to walk in colonisation for 49 years,” mum said.
I felt immense privilege being the first in my family to learn about our culture, but also a sense of guilt that my mother hadn’t learnt it before me. (Supplied: Alexis Moran)
“Now it’s time to walk in culture.”
As for me, I will be dreaming of Yuin country and Gulaga every day until I return.
The National Museum has partnered with ABC Regional and Local team to produce a series of 13 videos shot at 7 different east coast locations, featuring Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people sharing the original names of the places Captain Cook renamed on his voyage of the east coast.
Walking Together is taking a look at our nation’s reconciliation journey, where we’ve been and asks the question — where do we go next?
Join us as we listen, learn and share stories from across the country, that unpack the truth telling of our history and embrace the rich culture and language of Australia’s First People.
More stories from Walking Together:
Credit: Source link