My next patient is a young mum with a backache from carrying her chubby baby. “A bit under-supported, are you?” I ask gently. She bursts into tears. I let her grief travel through my body and ask the earth to take it out through my feet, as I’ve been taught by a Native American mentor. There is a white stone on my window sill. It is from my ancestors’ country in Walcha, New South Wales.
In the year after Alice Springs, I became a mother. My son was bonnie and (both of us) heavy. I went to an acupuncturist with my grabbing, aching back. A needle inside my wrist lifted a black cloud of gloom which had dogged me for years. “It works, it’s legal and it’s cheap,” I thought. “I want to learn more about this.”
I had met Aboriginal healers in the desert. I wanted to learn more about plants and healing. But my family kept me anchored at the coast. Studying acupuncture, I hoped, would expand some of the old Aboriginal knowledge inside me. Maybe I would make a living, too.
Traditional Chinese Medicine fascinated me. The sages of that tradition perceived and manipulated waves and channels of energy, which formed and coordinated the body. They connected these stories and experiences with seasons of the year, characteristics of food, unusual weather, emotions and thoughts. It resonated with my experience as a masseuse. Acupuncture work was easier on my arms and hands, too. Precisely placing needles could be more effective and less painful than digging in thumbs.
My acupuncture clinic was a partitioned booth in a shop shared with an osteopath and a podiatrist. GB built and painted a sturdy sign and helped pay the shop rent. Patients paid me with the little money I requested, supplemented with gifts of produce or garments they’d sewn or recycled. The cantor’s wife had half a dozen children — she made us huge cakes.
While I worked at the clinic, one day during my lunch hour, I sat on a green slope with the sparkling resonance of Sydney Harbour in front of me, warm earth under me, and grass between my fingers.
I whistled: three lilting notes, one rising, one falling, one flattened. It was the way Grandad had taught me to call the black and white birds when I was eight.
“You are Thunghutti and your meat is the currawongs, the magpies and pee-wees, all the black and white birds. You know what your meat is, that’s your totem. Which is funny because it’s what you’d never eat.” he said, as we walked slowly to the shop. “I know what a totem is,” I said, feeling my small hand in his.
We approached a magnificent, ancient gum tree. When Grandad whistled up into it, invisible birds responded melodiously.
As they did to me that day at the Sydney Harbour, twenty years later. It occurred to me that not everybody, necessarily, knew how to call the birds. I knew then I had to go to Walcha.
Twisted white-bodied eucalypts soughed in the wind as I searched for my roots and relatives in Walcha. I strained to listen. Currawongs and magpies warbled and led me on. Aboriginal people will be there at the Bowling Club, I thought. The women like a game of bingo. I joined the game and won a bottle of green cordial and a frozen chicken — it was gonna be a good day.
I met Aunty Opal there, and she had a lead. Listening carefully, she said, “I think I know who you’re related to.” We approached the barwoman, whose face kept something close inside. The barwoman murmured with Opal, then said: “Your Grandad woulda been my dad’s cousin, same mum. Come to my house after work. I’ll show you photos.”
Opal smiled, brown eyes narrowed, delighted that another piece of the Wagga blanket was stitched together. “You’ll be right,” she said, patting my hand.
I left the Bowling Club and drove out of town, up a winding mountain road. My Aunt had told me that Grandad spoke of a rock with a cave and a tree — I was looking for special places, trying to read the energy of the place through the car window. I didn’t see any cave. Plenty of rocks.
Walcha is surrounded by steep country with dramatic gorges and weathered boulders of soulful stone. Each boulder is an ancient being that will talk to you if ask respectfully. The mountains there are part of the spine that travels down the east coast of Australia. I stopped the car to smell the air and listen to the soughing of the trees. I sang to the bush in my made up language because I didn’t know Thunghutti.
When my mother and her sisters were children there was danger in knowing Thunghutti language. Fair-skinned Aboriginal children were often removed from their families and taken to institutions (“homes”) to be indoctrinated in the dominant culture. All mum’s cousins were so taken, so was her grandmother — all the better to be stripped of their birthright.
Nana and Grandad were older when they became parents. They were canny. They fostered many children before and alongside their own — they knew the system. They kept their daughters by hiding parts their daughters’ identities, even from the girls themselves.
So, without Thunghutti, I made up my own language to sing to the land. At my feet was a piece of milky quartz. I could make out the shape of a head and some kind of body — a fierce bird. Asking permission, I dug the stone out. I committed to keeping the stone — a guide and a responsibility.
Back in town, my cousin the barmaid’s house was tidy. The living-room wall was stacked with movies but her photo album interested me more. She and her sisters had fair skin and broad faces. “You’re all fair, but I can see you’re Goori. You look like my family,” I smiled.
“That’s the thing,” she said. “We never knew we were Aboriginal. Mum was English. Dad was dark. They always said she picked him up in the Islands on the boat on the way. Never knew where he was from, really.”
I sighed. “Here you are living half an hour from sacred sites. I’ve come looking for you and I know more about you than you do?”
“Just finding out now in my fifties. Thanks for coming,” she said quietly.
This is the second installment of a series of biographical posts. A slightly different version of the series will be published in a chapter of the upcoming book Shattering Stereotypes by Dr Aleeta Fejo and Dr Christine Fejo-King on the journeys of Indigenous Doctors through their training.