The Horne Prize: Ten More Days
It was cold, it was mid-afternoon, but most of all it was wet. The first hard driving rain of the year. A sign the season was turning. I kept my head low, concentrating only on my footsteps. Leaping over a puddle and through the gate, my eye was caught by the flagpole, or more accurately by the flag tied to it.
It was a Koori flag, hanging drably at half-mast against the dark sky and the incessant rain. It reminded me of where I was and why I was there. It reminded me I was in the heart of Yorta Yorta country.
Twelve days earlier, I crossed the river now known as the Murray. That river had been the lifeblood of my ancestors for generations. Its waters had filled their bellies, bathed their loved ones and ran through their veins. It was in a poor state now. The once free-flowing and untamed monolith of water that had in times past crisply reflected the faces of those who gained life from it was now no more than a series of ponds.
It no longer reflected anything. It took the sun as its own.
In the Australia of 2014, my Aboriginality was different to those of my forebears. Not better, not worse. Just different. I knew things they would have not and they certainly knew more than I or we ever will.
On country, if you knew how to look at the landscape, it could tell you its own history. Reveal its secrets. Secrets that had been cleared, levelled or trodden on by herds. I and those of my generation are basically illiterate when it comes to reading these tales. The elders who could help interpret the ’scapes were long gone, their knowledge and lore gone with them.
The languages once spoken in the places I grew up are no more. Only remnants exist. Often only as words pressed on rusty town signage. Euroa – Joyful. Echuca – Meeting of Waters. Omeo – Mountain. Wangaratta – Home of Cormorants. The invaders took the place names and then they took the places.
By the late 19th century, the traditional way of life of the Yorta Yorta, Bangerang, Taungurung and Way Wurru, the people who named the places, and who had lived and thrived in what is now known as north-east Victoria, had effectively been shattered and devastated. The devastation happened but not without a fight. Some of the fiercest but least-known battles of the colonial wars had raged long before it had become known as “Kelly Country”, after the infamous cop killer.
The survivors and the descendants of those who fought and died would be rounded up and concentrated in missions. These missions would “protect” those who remained. Their Aboriginality to be educated or ripped away. Rinsed off through the teachings of an omnipresent yet invisible white God. The survivors would take the names of foreigners: Briggs, Cooper, James, Onus, Nicholls. These people with these names would have to redefine their own heritage and their own future through a crystal prism of what is right and what is wrong.
These names would become synonymous with my ancestral land, the cradle of the modern movement, the fightback from dispossession, from near extinction. My people would help define what it would mean to be a modern Aboriginal. They would help define modern Australia.
Indeed, the actions and the passive resistance of these history-makers would help identify what it is to be Australian, whether Australians like it or not.
The men and women of Maloga and then Cummergunja missions, from their remote assigned patch, would be among the first Aboriginal people to hold a mirror to the colonisers, their self-appointed masters. But theirs was a special type of mirror: not one that merely caught the light of the moment, but one that would also capture the faint flickering of the past and project it into the future for all to see.
These leaders realised that to be born Aboriginal is to be born political. Aboriginality, since invasion, has been a political issue, seen as a problem that needed fixing.
These leaders knew that participating in the political debate was a choice; however, whether they were subject to the machinations of that debate was not. This was something the men and women of Cummergunja mission knew and the benefit of their actions are as much ours as they were theirs.
To be seen as nothing more than a problem undoubtedly has an impact on the collective psyche, making the strident charge towards true self-determination all the more remarkable. Eventually they would walk off that mission and forge a path towards social justice that has benefited people from all backgrounds, with Aboriginal people at the forefront, holding that mirror.
The water-sodden flag at Echuca hospital was a testament to the progress made by us as a collective. Little less than a lifetime ago, Aboriginal women were forced to give birth on the verandahs of that same hospital, forbidden inside its Victorian walls. Times had changed: nothing given to us, every concession fought for, and now, here in the 21st century, there hung our flag, the Koori flag, and it did provide comfort.
I was there in the rain to see my father, Billy James. He had passed away earlier that day at the age of 65. He had lived longer than his parents. It seems this, for the Aboriginal community, is the best measure of life expectancy, and for too long it has been too short a metric.
In his lifetime, through the tireless activism and the relentlessness of those before him, those he knew, advancements in the treatment of Aboriginal people had come a long way from the assigned patch of their land on the banks of the Murray.
He was Yorta Yorta through his father and Gunai/Kurnai through his mother, but to the average Australian he was just another Abo. This would be a label he and his brothers would try to shake for the rest of their lives.
By the time the James boys, all six of them, were able to converse with their elders, to learn what life was like on the mission – what a blessing it was when rabbits came along as a new and unending protein source for the mob, to find out what it was like to have to ask permission to leave the mission – alcohol had started its devastating charge through the culture and through the people.
Alcohol would stain and sanitise everything in its path. Its toxic tide would have a far more powerful bearing on the wellbeing and psyche of the people than the river it had replaced. It diminished the memory, clouded the judgement, silenced the discourse. Booze reduced the time spent with family and loved ones; it was greedy and it was ruthless. Connection was lost, culture with it. In some instances drinking would become the culture.
The James boys would have to hang on to any threads that were spun their way, and, whether they liked it or not, they would have to forge their own identity as Aboriginal men, just as their forebears had.
In 1960, their father, Rupert, told the Benalla Ensign of himself and his brothers: “We three have a little bit of ‘abo’ blood, but my grandfather came out from Jamaica and married a Tasmanian aboriginal [sic] woman.”
It was a lie.
One can only speculate why my grandfather held back the truth from the local paper. We know our lineage well. We are proud of it. We are proud to be descendants of the Tamil pastor and teacher Thomas Shadrach James. We are proud to be descendants of Aida Cooper, sister of William. We know this to be true; he knew it to be true. He told us as an old man over bottles of Schweppes in his caravan, his home.
So it was with initial bewilderment that I read his words in that starchy copy of his local paper. To understand, I would have to imagine myself in his position.
A black man in a white town, he and his boys weren’t considered humans at all. The Australia of 1960 was less tolerant than the country we know now, although many in 2018 would happily drag us back there.
He appeared in the Ensign because his boys were showing the same football prowess he had as a young man. That prowess had got him off the mission. Wangaratta Football Club, along with the Salvation Army, had organised a house for him and his young family at the junction of the Ovens and King rivers.
The river flooded regularly, which led to Billy contracting rheumatic heart disease, a condition that today exists only in remote Aboriginal communities up north. It is a disease that should have lost its battle against the First World, but shamefully it has not here in Australia.
Australia’s Indigenous game had brought him security and a form of celebrity he couldn’t have imagined as a boy swimming in the river and fishing for the other great but tasty pest introduced by whitefellas, redfin.
Football became a new form of cultural expression for Aboriginal men. Rupert’s father, Shadrach, was a key member of the formidable Cummergunja football team, a team that conquered all before it. Football gave the young men of the mission a sense of purpose and, most importantly, a sense of togetherness.
In a world where no one was prepared to do you a good turn, the idea that others had your back was empowering. But by 1960, the football prowess that had exalted Rupert had faded. Nobody had his back anymore, and if there was one lesson he could pass down to his boys it would be to stick together.
The referendum was still seven years off. Terra nullius was still accepted as a fact. Abo, boong, darkie and coon were all common and open descriptors of First Australians.
This was well before social media. This was when people in the street, at your place of work, or at the pub, would say it to your face, not a keyboard in sight.
Aboriginal children were regularly yanked from the arms of mothers, fathers, older sisters. The rates of this were matched only by today’s shameful standards. No wonder Rupert lied. He even gave the paper the wrong street as his address. He and his generation were still very much in survival mode.
It was about his children and the next generation.
Out of the rain and passing rooms full of freshly born babies in the adoring arms of mothers, I can hear the slight whispers and gleeful exhilarations of new life, generations passing themselves onto fresh hearts and minds. For those fortunate enough to be in those rooms, life was once again exciting, for life fundamentally exists to give new.
All these passing sights and sounds are in truth an echoic distortion, set under a blur of fluorescent lights. All I can vividly recall is meeting the nurse at the door to where Dad was lying.
“You got here just in time. We were about to call you. I’ll let you in.”
The man in that room was a Yorta Yorta man on Yorta Yorta country, a Vietnam veteran and a father. His generation was, on paper, part of the largest and most prosperous the world had ever known. By his parents’ standards, he had done well, but the double whammy of being born Aboriginal and the experience of war in all of its omnidirectional terror had taken a toll. He served his country, but his country had let him down.
As I stood at his bedside, the man I knew and the stories he carried were gone. The son of Rupert and Patricia, the middle boy, would be the second to join them. I was planted in that room, immobile and through my tear-stained eyes and beyond grief I knew I still needed him.
Not wanted, needed.
Beyond that, I knew that my generation needed his generation as long as possible, to pass down their culture and their wisdom. Of course this had been done throughout the years, in serious conversations, passing asides, and late-night inebriated phone calls. Billy never lost my number.
I have no doubt that, given the opportunity, he could have used 10 more days with his parents, and Rupert with his. The modern world has deprived us of much of that quality time, real time. Time like that is more important than ever.
If I had just 10 more days with him, 10 more days to learn about what it was like to be a black man in a white army. To be shipped to the most violent place on Earth, to face an enemy who never persecuted him or his people in the way those who sent him there did. How did that shape the man we knew him to be?
Ten more days to get any sort of insight into how it felt to have a fellow Aboriginal man from Commonwealth Employment Service fob him off once he discovered he was a Vietnam veteran. To be rejected by the broader Australian community was one thing; to be rejected by your own mob was something else.
The often brutal nature of community politics was beginning to be forged in the battle for political territory, as human nature dictates. Organisations would rise and fall, often as a result of this politics, and it would be the community that would either benefit or suffer as a consequence.
Ten more days and I would have had a chance to delve deeper behind the humorous anecdotes, to gain a deeper understanding of how humour in itself was a form of sustenance.
Who knows what I would have discovered about him, what I would have found out about myself. I, like him, like his parents, will have to forge an identity using the examples and principles set by those who came before us.
We’ve come a long way, but with statistics showing only marginal improvements or stagnation across all major socioeconomic indicators, there is still a long way to go.
To be Aboriginal is to be political. We can participate and help shape it. We will make our own way, as we always have. We have fought, we have died and we have survived. We are still here.
What it means to be Aboriginal is constantly evolving. The challenges I face today are different from the challenges of my ancestors. Australia isn’t changing fast enough to keep up. We require the ongoing leadership and empathy of Aboriginal people from all nations, to help foster the change Australia so desperately needs.
We owe those who are no longer here to be our best selves, to fly the flag. For me, I just needed that flag to fly at full-mast for 10 more days.
Daniel James is the winner of the 2018 Horne Prize, a competition founded by Aesop and The Saturday Paper, for an essay on Australian life. This is his winning entry, for which he receives $15,000.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Dec 22, 2018 as "Ten More Days". Subscribe here.