David Carline, Queensland Regional Meeting
I realised at last that I was an educator when I was 50. I got a job as a researcher working at the University of Queensland. We produced a little journal called The Aboriginal Child at School. What I thought everyone knew about Aboriginality it turned out they didn’t, but I was on the right track and was carrying the tradition. I found I knew a lot more than everyone else in the unit. My whole Aboriginal upbringing I had until then just taken for granted. I didn’t realise it was not that common to really know your heritage.
Mum, whose name was Jocelyn Carline, always encouraged me to be very independent. I had travelled the world, to Ethiopia, South America, and many other places. I was a cook/steward on merchant ships for 20 years. I got deported from Aden when they were throwing out the British. It was a mercy in disguise, because I came home to see my mother and she died three months later. She was so tired, she had been worked to death.
Mum was from the stolen generation, nine or ten when she was taken. When she started looking for her people, by good fortune there was one of the Aunties in Brisbane who told her she looked like someone down at the Tweed Head camps. She turned out to be my grandmother, Emma. However, otherwise Mum never really connected or bonded with her own blood family.
I was brought up in the Brisbane city camps, where we shared everything. Mum learnt traditional ways from the Aunties at these camps so she could look after us. She would go and pick medicine from our bush environment so we had never been to a chemist’s shop. There was a lot of traditional knowledge being passed on. We had an old Uncle, Willie McKenzie, who visited from time to time, known as the “last of the Brisbane Blacks”. He’d show us how to make fire rockets, use boomerangs and taught us to make spears. We’d use green saplings and shoot those spears at a thick door and they’d almost go through.
Neither Mum nor I learnt our language. . . by that time it had been lost. We use some Aboriginal English up here, and we have some words that we still remember. Dad was an American serviceman, he went back after a couple of years, at the end of the war. I don’t remember him of course, I was born in 1944. I was very premature, and then I got very sick. But Mum said even though I was born a little old man I just wouldn’t let go of life. The Great Spirit has looked after me all my life, I have always had a Spiritual leaning.
How did we avoid the authorities? Mum was very clever. We would be on the move, ducking and diving, until she got a job with a good white family. Judge Webb was the Australian representative at the war trials in Japan, very well respected. Forever after, if people caused her trouble she said, “I’m going to tell Judge Webb” and they would leave her alone.
I had to drop out of school during Grade 6 at the age of 13 so I could work, picking strawberries, tomatoes, shelling prawns. Kids are very nimble with their fingers. There were only two of us children; I have a sister ten years older. I did try once to find Dad in my teens, but no luck. I wrote to the Red Cross in Switzerland, I didn’t even know where that was then.
Much later I was on the board for the Independent Murri School in Brisbane. At that time they couldn’t get Aboriginal teachers so we gave direction about how we wanted our children to do their learning. So I was engaged in establishing curriculum guidelines on a day-by-day basis. Murri kids are notoriously difficult and teachers can’t cope with them for too long. It is the result of the policies and practices of the past. The family expectations regarding education were not great. Low attention spans were part of it. A family history of drugs and alcohol didn’t help many kids, for example foetal alcohol syndrome really affects their ability to focus and study. That discipline of learning in a classroom is not a natural thing. This goes on all the time. They’ve got brilliant recall, kids. They mostly learn by doing.
I came here to Cunnamulla with a leading to work with my own people, the Kooma/Gwamu. The old Aunties in Brisbane paved the way by connecting me with my own Kooma people. I am still under this leading. I ended up having a little school. I bought some shops that provided the building, and there was money from the National Numeracy and Literacy Programs, and our program was aimed at kids who were expelled or suspended for being disruptive. The regular schools often wouldn’t bother to find out why the children were having trouble. One boy was in the room when his father committed suicide, so he was very disruptive. The Catholic Education Department organised the teachers and such, a few books and furniture. We had computers, and there was a program called “Successmaker”. Each child was required to spend half an hour on numeracy and half on literacy each day. The program was great, it allowed you to enter wherever you are and then ramped you up. Those were our minimal academic requirements. Not too much book learning.
The other activities we did were very hands on, living skills: I showed the girls how fix up fibro walls that had been smashed in, and do other carpentry, and the boys how to take up their jeans. We provided transport in both directions to make sure they came. Cooking breakfast and lunch was a big thing; the kids needed feeding, and there was no shame because we all ate the meals. We were a community, about 15 of us altogether including the teachers. We had a lunch roster where each student was responsible for preparing a lunch for the whole school by themselves. If a student could produce a lunch for under $15 for everyone then they would be able to have the leftover for a Coke. Soon they were teaching each other how to make nutritious and affordable meals.
We did a lot of travel, and the kids raised the money: cake stalls, car washes and QSA helped us. We went to Taronga Park Zoo in Sydney, we were treated like royalty. There’s a platform where you can walk up and look into a giraffe’s mouth. We couldn’t get them away. When we came onto the Harbour Bridge, one boy said “Holy shit, look at that!” They loved the ferry. These are kids who would have gotten lost in Toowoomba. This was seeing the world. I think it stimulated a natural curiosity for a whole lot more. There was an elder in Sydney called Uncle Max Eulo, he’s from up around here. Lots of the kids were related to him. He arranged a minibus, Aboriginal hostels, everything we needed. It was terrific to have that connection and the children felt really special for a change. That was a new thing for many of them.
We started with the Outstation Movement, and we had the Kooma Corporation for land. At that time there were many different new initiatives. Our property is now called MurraMurra and Bendee Downs, and our company is Gwamu Enterprises. This protects Kooma traditional owners from liability. It is a company that does agisting, and we have recently purchased our own small flock (600), which enables us to run a shearing school. We’ve got a third of the land protected under the Indigenous Protected Area Program (IPA). We employ a ranger, run a vehicle, and maintain the fences. We can have stock on the land for a limited time, depending on the rains. The stock are useful to keep the weeds under control. There are over 30 ephemeral lakes in our IPA, which makes it a distinct and fragile natural environment. This attracts much interest as there are many cultural sites of a wide variety.
I am a Recognised Elder and was acknowledged by the community as NADOC male Elder of the Year for Cunnamulla. We haven’t got any towns in the Kooma/Gwamu lands. We got our native title for some of our land last year, this is something I’ve been working on, with others, for 20 years. That was a great moment.
We have Emu Fest that goes on for a week. We’ve got three kids out there now. Kids who need to get out of town, we take them out there. If they are playing up at home or school, or mum needs a break, we get them out in time before things get out of hand. I would take kids out on the land, show and explain to them our cultural sites, work with emu feathers, beading, art and craft programs. Spiritual practice is also shared during these times.
The Ngarrindjeri people come up from Adelaide, since we are at the top of the Murray Darling, and we perform ceremonies together every couple of years. They then follow the river down and conduct ceremonies along the way to its mouth. This water is very sacred to us, it is our blood in our veins. To see what has happened to this river makes us nearly weep. The dry means the water holes don’t get flushed out. The weirs and dams just stop the whole natural flow of the river, and it gets so polluted. We talk to the young ones so they realise that everything that is living is sacred. You don’t kill for fun. If you kill it, you eat it.
Another branch of my educating life grew when I took on fostering Rhys, who is 22 now. He came to me when he was 14, and I was his 150th carer. I taught him about his Aboriginality, and living skills. Lots of educating there from every angle. I learnt a lot of patience in the process, it put me in touch with reality. There are a lot of kids who’ve got all this baggage. I’m glad he came into my life. It made me realise what a lot of women are putting up with. He’s doing quite well at the moment. He’s got a child and he’s being a good father, he’s really trying. He had some hard knocks along the way, but fortunately he’s bounced out of those rough times.
AF: So, it seems learning runs in the veins of Aboriginal men and women who are close to their roots. It is a responsibility, part of embracing who you are already. You don’t really belong to your country until you can share its wisdom, its secrets. The emphasis is as much on respecting that identity as demanding transformation. “Live the skin you’re in”, we might say. It sounds like a great way to think about any kind of education, leading us to be true to ourselves. Without facing that truth, our capacities for violence, for peace, for love and being loved, to allow ourselves to belong, we are lost. Would you agree there, David?
DC: Yes, honesty to yourself is at the centre of it, no matter who you are.
Caption: Examples of AKA, Aboriginal Kitchen Art, produced by young people in the Cunnamulla community to practice and build their confidence in painting.