The old women taught us how to find ngarrii (bush honey) in trees and in anthills (ground sugar bag) and we would race each other to see who could find the most and the cleanest (least amount of bark in the honeycomb). They taught us how to fish and which trees or shrubs could be used for bush medicine. We would go digging for mowndoo (ochre) and watch the old girls paint with it hours later. I remember how excited I felt whenever I was around the old women; they had the most incredible amount of knowledge.
My gungai (grandmother) would tell me stories around the fire about her life growing up on the station. I loved hearing her stories about how women were forbidden to work ‘man’ jobs, such as mustering. She cut her hair and dressed like a man because she knew she was just as good. I would ask her to tell my favourite Ngarranggarni story about the crocodile and the bat. The story showed how a friendship and trust was betrayed because of lies told by other people. It showed that honesty is a personal choice and that just because people gossip, you shouldn’t believe everything you hear.
I remember getting painted up for dances to celebrate my first communion and during times of lore. During community corroborees, all of the girls and women would gather together and paint each other up. The women would give us explanations of the different dot and stripe designs we would use. I always felt very noble and honoured during the preparation phase and felt really connected with the story we were telling.
I loved to run. It was second nature to me, and growing up in Warmun you either had to learn to run or live with the consequences. The children in the community would always be racing each other to the community store or to someone’s house. There were always cheeky, mangy camp dogs that never seemed to remember me no matter how many times I walked past them. I knew I had about a twenty-metre head start before I had to sprint as fast as possible. Secretly, I enjoyed knowing that I could outrun any mangy dog in the community.
Most of all, I remember how free I felt to be related to almost everyone I went to school with. To this day, I have never felt such a sense of belonging as I did during those years.
There are also the memories that I wish I could erase. The situation was different with alcohol then because there was the new ‘dry community’ focus. Community member wardens would search entering vehicles for grog. Most of the wardens were older people who could see the damage alcohol was doing to their sons, daughters and grandchildren and were determined to stop it. Despite their effort, grog always managed to find its way in, either through drinking outside the community limits or ‘sly grogging’, when people would come and sell grog secretively to the community. I hated how grog would transform those I loved into monsters and rob them of trust, self confidence, love and faith in a matter of minutes.
I remember family disagreements and the effects they had on the community. I watched my younger brother being run over by a car driven by a drunk, who had just finished arguing with another relative. The driver was so pissed off that he didn’t even see or realise that he’d left my brother lying bloodied and limp on the dirt road just outside the community office in Warmun. I heard the terror in my mother’s scream as, in an attempt to save him, she threw herself in the path of the car only to be hit herself. The anger among some families remains to this day.
I learnt quickly that any rumours of physical abuse were usually true. I remember lying in bed one night during the wet season, when a major storm was on the brink of finishing, and I heard frantic knocking on our front door. I jumped out of bed to see what was going on. It was my aunt and she was crying. I overheard her say that my pregnant cousin was probably dead. I remember being at my cousin’s house earlier in the day and asking why one of the doors was locked. My ‘niece’ told me that my cousin was being beaten. Her partner would lock the door and turn the television up loud to mask the sound of him beating her; to hide the sound of her being thrown against the wall and to cover the sounds of her cries for help.
My mum left with my aunt, who was carrying a gurrdurru (a traditional war stick, made of solid wood, about 1 metre long), and told me to stay at home. I knew that my aunt wanted justice and was going to serve the only punishment she could see fit; to deliver the pain she knew her daughter was receiving from her partner. I don’t know what happened next but I remember seeing my cousin battered and bloody, but alive, at great risk of losing her unborn child. As the ambulance took her away, I promised myself I would never let harm come to anyone I loved.
I have felt the hate that comes with knowing someone you love has been sexually abused and feeling so powerless because you don’t know what to do, what to say or how to feel. The community knows that this happens all the time, and there are some who are in the mindset that it should be dealt with traditionally. Before any police lived at Warmun, there was a man who had been found to be messing around with little girls. When the community found out, he was taken out the back of the community, speared and left.
I remember finding out about a family member who was caught and charged with sexual abuse of children. I knew many, if not all, of those who were affected. Other than being banned from the community for a certain period of time, nothing more was done to this person. The situation has changed in the community since that time, but in cases such as this, the situation might not have changed for the better. People need to be brave about exposing the truth about what’s going on.
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