When Gundungurra Aboriginal Elder, Aunty Val Mulcahy, describes her life growing up on a mission reserve, she’s not complaining, she’s merely telling it how it was. And neither will you find her feeling sorry for herself; she’s a fiercely independent and proud Australian woman.
I first met Aunty Val after seeking help with the cultural aspects of my new novel, Black Bones, Red Earth. Set in 1950s rural Australia, the story follows the life of Katherine, an English child migrant and her relationships with Aboriginal station hands. I never intended this novel to be about black Australia; it is, after all, the story of an English orphan. But I soon found similarities between Katherine’s story and those of the Aboriginal stolen generation, and that led me to learn more. As the writing progressed and characters emerged, I found it impossible to overlook the hardships suffered by Aboriginals as a result of government policies. As a result, the novel delves into a traumatic period in the lives of First Australians who were taken from their families and separated from their ancestral homes by British and Australian governments.
Eighty-four-year-old Aunty Val was born and raised under protection law on the Aboriginal mission at La Perouse, south of Sydney. After being taken to live on the mission, the Protection Board separated Aunty Val’s mother, Ida, and her children from her husband, Reg. He was arrested and beaten every time he tried to see his family. Val saw her brother ejected from the mission when he reached 18 years of age. Life on the mission was difficult, and racial prejudice rampant when the residents strayed beyond the reserve.
‘We had different rules to white Australians,’ Aunty Val told me. ‘We didn’t have freedom of movement. We didn’t have a vote. We weren’t allowed to go to see a doctor or go to the hospital until Thursday. If you were very sick and it wasn’t Thursday, you died.’
If you were sick and it wasn’t Thursday, you died
Aunty Val says that babies died in numbers on the reserve because of gastroenteritis. ‘Women were not allowed to breast-feed on the mission. Instead, they were given bottles of milk to feed their babies. But they didn’t teach them how to sterilise the bottles, so babies got sick and died. Schooling was inadequate. We got to paint pictures, listen to bible stories, and sing hymns. There was no reading or writing, and we were not allowed to talk our own language or talk about traditional ways.’
Aunty Val had no idea why she and her family had to live on the mission. ‘My mum told me we had to stay because we were special. It was only when I was older that I learned the truth and that we had been forced onto the mission. I was sent out to work when I was thirteen, and that’s when I discovered we were treated differently to white kids. Even at work, we had different rules; we had to give all our wages to the mission, and they gave us sixpence back.’
Despite coming out of the mission, ill-equipped for the world, Aunty Val vowed to gain a university education. She was fifty years old when she achieved her dream, studying at the University of Sydney for her degree. Aunty Val worked in Aboriginal health and services and is passionate about educating others. ‘Education is the key for our people if they are going to thrive. If you’re not getting children educated, they will always be disadvantaged.’ Aunty Val has seen too many kids coming out of school, unable to read or write. ‘They need jobs, but they don’t stand a chance if they’re not getting educated.’
My mum said I was special
Aunty Val was awarded the Order of Australia for her work in the community, but she says there’s so much more to be done. I asked her if she was bitter about the treatment she and other First Australians have suffered. ‘I’m not bitter,’ she says. ‘but I get angry at governments that refuse to move the country forward. We can’t change the past; what’s done is done. We’re not stupid; we know we can’t turn the clock back. But Australia needs to recognise the truth and admit what happened in the past. This land was not empty when the whitefellas came. It was our country and had been for thousands of years. What happened was an invasion, followed by genocidal attacks on our race, segregation and outright discrimination. The protection laws were brought in to breed out our Aboriginal blood. Until Australian history recognises what really happened, and until we start teaching it in schools, we can’t move on, and our people will continue to suffer. We need a treaty, and we need to be recognised in the constitution. Then, maybe, we can have a chance at reconciliation and start to heal.’
Aunty Val would be the first to say her story is unremarkable; she’ll tell you that every Indigenous Australian has a story to pass on and that there were a lot worse off than her. But after listening to her tales, and learning of her past and her accomplishments, I can say without a doubt that her mother was right, Aunty Val is indeed very special.