Portrait

Redfern Wiradjuri woman Donna Ingram By Sarah Price.

Redfern’s Aunty Donna Ingram

“I am Aunty Donna Ingram, a Wiradjuri woman,” she tells the group. “Redfern is my cultural home.”

The tour begins in a courtyard filled with brilliant sunshine, behind the gates of the National Centre of Indigenous Excellence in Redfern. The audience, a group of women from Amnesty International, listens silently, attentively. Redfern was the black capital of Australia, Aunty Donna says, where the political movement started, where the services started. “It’s here that we lead the way for change. We know what we need and what we can do. We’re proud of that.”

Leaving the centre, the group passes a juvenile gum tree. A knitted sock, banded in the ochre shades of the desert, covers the entire trunk. Waiting for his teacher, a young Aboriginal boy stands near the tree. He’s visiting from the Northern Territory, and he likes it here, he says, flashing a smile that would melt the hardest heart.

The first stop is Redfern Jarjum College, a primary school for Aboriginal children, where the outside mural reads: be deadly. “It’s about reconnecting kids with community and culture,” Aunty Donna says. Coming from a family that was political, she grew up with resilience. “Mum said, ‘Just say you’re black and you’re proud of it.’ I was very lucky that I grew up in community. A lot of kids don’t have that.”

Next door at the church is a statue of Mum Shirl, an Aboriginal woman who raised dozens of children, whose Redfern home was a place where people sought refuge. “We just grew up with her,” Aunty Donna says. “Sometimes you come here now and there’s a bag of lollies or a piece of fruit at her feet.” Mum Shirl assisted in setting up Redfern’s Aboriginal Medical Service and Legal Service in the ’70s. “We couldn’t get legal help, we couldn’t get medical help. The underlying reasons these services exist is because of racism.” Though Aunty Donna tries not to let racism affect her now, “when I go into a big department store I walk up the middle of the aisle, because I know they think I am going to steal. I still do that now, at 52 years of age.”

The group moves on, stopping at Birri Birri cafe, then at the corner of Redfern and Regent streets, at a contemporary art installation inspired by the bowerbird, where blue images are set into the paving of the footpath: a yabby, a rabbit, and a goanna, which is Aunty Donna’s totem. “There’s a lot of history here. A lot of Aboriginal people came to Sydney to work on the railways. This was a gathering spot, a place to stop for a yarn. It’s where we used to meet for Aboriginal land rights marches.” She points down the road: “We’d go that way, and march all the way to Town Hall. We were brought up on that activism.”

Standing outside Redfern railway station on Gibbons Street, Aunty Donna talks about the building opposite, once the Redfern RSL. “Coming home from war was a kick in the guts. Aboriginal people were not allowed to drink in the RSL with their mates.” A few years ago, she tells the group, “we were famous for karaoke in that building. But when the development company took over, they said: no karaoke for 12 months, because it attracts the wrong clientele – meaning us. It’s all part of the gentrification, like they’re trying to push the working class and the black people out. But it’s not working. We are very protective about what people do or say about Redfern.”

From the station, the city’s jagged outline appears in the distance. Murals run the length of the railway bridge: animals, a rainbow serpent, an inscription that reads: “40,000 years is a long, long time, 40,000 years still on my mind.” Another mural celebrates the Redfern All Blacks victory in 1974. “The boys couldn’t get a run with other teams, so they created their own.”

Crossing the bridge, Aunty Donna points to the Aboriginal Housing Company, from where The Block is managed, and where a painting of Pemulwuy covers the two-storey wall. Pemulwuy was an Aboriginal resistance fighter in the early days of the colonies, she tells the group, shot so many times they thought he was a ghost and couldn’t be killed. Eventually they caught him, cut off his head, and sent it to England for testing. Despite pleas and petitions from the Redfern community, it’s still over there, “in a box or museum somewhere”.

“So many stories, where do I start?” says Aunty Donna, directing the group down Little Eveleigh Street. “We got tarred with all that bad history, but there’s reasons behind it.” Back in the day, the area was very social, she says. People would sit outside and drink and have a yarn. “You didn’t go to the pubs or nightclubs, because you didn’t get in. You could be stone cold sober with the best shoes, and they’d say, ‘You haven’t got the right shoes on’ – to disguise their racism – it was always about the shoes.”

We need to work together to move on, she tells the group. In her Welcome to Country, Aunty Donna tries to make non-Aboriginal people feel included. “I say, ‘You live in the country that has the oldest living culture in the world. You should be proud of that.’ ”

Enclosed by a high wire fence is vacant land earmarked for development. Beyond it is the Tony Mundine Gym, where the Aboriginal flag covers the entire outside wall. “That, for me,” Aunty Donna says, “is the symbol of Redfern.” Rows of terrace houses line quiet streets surrounding the park. Above the community centre, Aboriginal, Australian and Torres Strait Island flags hang side by side. In gardening plots near the centre’s entrance, flowers and vegetables have been planted by children. Above them, a bird’s nest, wired intricately with wood and soft metal, dangles from the limb of a tree. “This is where we watched the apology, where we saw that bit of history,” Aunty Donna says.

“My nan was taken from her family. Then, when she was 14, she ran away and found her way back to Redfern. She went up to a bloke and said, ‘I’m looking for Maudie Murray.’ He ran home and said to his mum, ‘Muriel is up the street.’ That bloke was her brother, and she didn’t know him.”

After many years, Aunty Donna says, her nan had made it home. “She just knew to come to Redfern.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Dec 17, 2016 as "A long, long time". Subscribe here.

Sarah Price
is a Sydney-based writer.

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