When I think about the Aboriginal tribe I am descended from, I can feel the power of the Country.
The land encompasses cold, stony canyons in the far reaches of the Macleay River in northern NSW. There’s a place up there near my Grandad’s country where it’s said that the Rainbow Serpent, the gigantic mythic snake that created the hills and valleys in Dreamtime Australia, travelled down into the earth.
In the prosaic way of English names, it gets called Apsley Falls, named for Lord Apsley, the contemporary British Secretary for War and the Colonies.
Claudia and I visited the Falls one winter, on the road, when we were living at Uluru. At Uluru, the Rainbow Serpent had a nest of her eggs. It was interesting to feel and think about the connection between the red, dry nest at the Centre when we walked amidst the cool, dank mists and the umber, grey and green forests at the Serpent’s diving place.
From Apsley Falls the Macleay River tumbles down to the coast, creating wide fertile floodplains, before reaching the tribe’s country at the sea. Towns have grown in the bows of the river’s turns.
There are still Bunya pines, trees that have ancestry from the time of Gondwana—when the Australian island was still joined to Antarctica.
The trees grew where inland Dunghutti people—like my great-great grandmother—threw the remains of the bunya's tasty nuts as they walked towards the sea for food and warmth each year, away from icy mountain winters.
On recent travels to the coastal parts of Dunghutti country, I wondered about the meetings between the inland and the coastal Dunghutti people. How did the boundaries work between visiting families? What gifts did they exchange? What of the love songs and Dreaming stories exchanged and expounded over millennia? The travels of the children around Country?
I feel respect for the people of the tribe, those that stayed there in Country, those who were dispersed by the massacres and the mission system, and those who remain unconnected.
My family were of the diaspora. After the British invasion, many Dunghutti families travelled widely, mostly up and down the East of Australia—that is my impression—looking for Country that reminded them of home; looking for safety and recovery.
There’s a substantial town on the Macleay River now, Kempsey, where a combination of the most stalwart warriors of the tribe and perhaps the most damaged and defeated, held fast on Country, refusing to budge. They are a fiery, close-knit group. Those of us raised off-country now admire them. And fear them a little. They live hard lives, many of the people. They have achieved great victories.
Dunghutti (also spelled Dhanggati, Dainghadi or Thunghutti) territory extends from the mountains to the coast in an area around the Macleay Valley. My maternal grandfather, Ben Walsh, left the land when our clan was dispossessed in the early 1920’s. The story was that until then, there’d been a period of living cooperatively with an Irish family. As my aunty tells it, the Goori people (as Dunghutti people call themselves) and the Irish had plenty in common: they kept a rich oral history, including stories, poems, dances and songs, some of them enjoyed a drink. They found a common enemy in the British.
The way Ben told the story, there was a rift with his siblings when the people were removed from the land. He had more than a dozen sibs and only kept up relations with a few of them, so I suspect that there are myriad interpretations of the breaks in the family.
I went to Walcha, the little town inland near our ancestors’ land, mainly known for its stony boulders and icy winters, about thirty years ago, around a decade after my grandfather’s passing.
An Aboriginal woman I met there then remembered Ben, recalling the young man as a heavy drinker who always insisted on reciting poetry. It was not a favourable picture of my grandfather—I think she thought he was a bit of a nuisance—but I had no doubt she knew him.
By the time I knew him, when I was a little girl in the ‘sixties, Ben was fortified by many years of the love of my grandmother. He and Nana fostered many children and managed to keep their own three girls with them, so life had brought him a kind of wealth in love that the young man drinking brokenly in Walcha did not anticipate.
As a child, I was content to listen to at least some of Grandad’s stories (before my impatience got the better of me). The stories included the exploits of region’s bushrangers (which taught me about the geography of the region Ben had left), dramatic passages from the Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner (which taught me about loss, desolation and grief) or murmured political commentary about the arguments going on in the family.
Granddad drank too much, he snored fit to rattle the house and slept sometimes half the day. He was considered by many to be a bad example. But somehow most of the kids that got to sit on his lap felt embraced by Aboriginal culture and grew up feeling connected to the land, even the land he came from a few hundred kilometres away.
Up in the valleys of the Macleay River, the Dunghutti clan were the last in New South Wales to continue to initiate boys in secret, powerful ceremonies that continued well into the twentieth century (and probably continue now—as a woman, this is none of my business). The men of our tribe have a reputation for strength and ferocity. There are reasons for that.
Thirty years after my visit to Walcha, the language has been revived. On our recent visit to Kempsey, a young Dunghutti woman welcomed Claudia and me, speaking language, with reference to the ground, the mountains, the sea and the stars. We went to see her in a bush food garden in Kempsey. I was moved by it. Her life is not easy, but, oh, it is rich.
An important gain for the people was made by an esteemed Dunghutti woman, Mary Lou Buck, who successfully represented the Dunghutti clan in winning the first land claim on mainland Australia. The claim was settled in favour of Dunghutti people on October 9, 1996. In 2010, the tribe sold land at Crescent Head for $6.1million.
I went to Crescent Head as a young woman. I felt a powerful mix of emotions there. It is a beautiful place, with a sandy crescent of beach, a wild, commanding headland and a pebbly beach with rough rocks on the other side of it. I felt that there’d been conflict there. I felt disturbed spirits. As a nineteen-year-old, a bit of a disturbed spirit myself, I cried there then.
From the 1830’s to the 1850’s there were more than a dozen massacres of Dunghutti people in the Macleay River region as European invaders took their land. Oral historians tell that torture and terror, including the use of steel ‘mantraps’ and the capture of Aboriginal men in pits, occurred. Aboriginal women my grandmother’s age told of the tribe’s women stealthily taking food to men so entrapped. In 1846, about sixty Dunghutti people were shot at their camp at Dourallie Creek in the upper reaches of the Macleay River. The killings were said to be in reprisal for sheep stolen.
It’s not hard to understand then, that my grandfather’s mother Maude Roy, was said to have forbidden her many children to have children with other Aboriginal people. She insisted that her grandchildren have fairer skin.
Of course, love being what it is, at least one of her sons had a marriage and a child with a brown-skinned Aboriginal woman. The marriage and the child were kept secret from the matriarch. Thus families are broken. Thus people survive the unbearable.
Claudia and I returned to Crescent Head a couple of times recently. There is now a spreading village. Near the sandy beach are playgrounds, toilets and a surf-club. There’s a caravan park close to the paved foreshore and a golf course all the way to the base of the headland. Claudia and I sat looking over the pebbly beach and I found myself crying again. ‘The white people have really taken over here, now,’ I said. Then, ‘At least everyone seems to be enjoying it.’
It was true. The place was at ease. Surfers worshipped the famous right break on the beach there and dolphins came to swim with them. People sat and watched the waves, drawing comfort from their rhythm. Children jumped the waves and built mountains and castles in the sand. Aunty Mary Lou and the clan elders have done the spiritual and emotional work to help Crescent Head become an easeful place of good spirits. There has been healing there.
The power and beauty of the land survive. It is able to support and nourish the people.
Claudia and I had a few afternoons on top of the headland watching for whales and dolphins. People came and went, some bounding up with their dogs, pushing a bike. A frail elderly man with a stick climbed up the steep, grassy hill to watch over the cliff and out to sea below us for a while. Fisherman frightened us on the rocks below, hauling tailor out of the sea.
Back in Kempsey, the bush foods garden was created by elders with the labour of young Dunghutti people and their supporters. It provides shade, food, medicine.
In a time when the planet is subject to drought and floods, bushfires and earthquakes, such a place reminds us that the earth is our home, home for all of us.