Words || Avni Bharadwaj & Jodie Ramodien
Each issue Grapeshot uses the ‘You Are Here’ segment to shine a light on the quirks and foibles of a particular suburb. In this special First Nations’ edition of the magazine we wanted to learn more about the traditional custodians of the land on which Macquarie University is built.
Merrilee McNaught, a Darug elder living in the Hornsby Shire, answers our questions.
In its Acknowledgement of Country, Macquarie University pays respects to the Wattamattagal clan of the Darug nation. What does it mean to you to hear an acknowledgement country?
It depends on the context. Sometimes it’s respectful, but sometimes it’s just tokenism, and tokenism doesn’t have any substance. The people who are saying it are doing it for show and have no idea of what they are actually acknowledging. But, when it’s done properly and with respect then I really appreciate it and it moves me greatly. Unfortunately, it’s now seen as something that has to be done, and it’s lost its value.
Do you identify as belonging to a specific clan or language group from the Darug nation?
Because I’m a part of the Stolen Generation, I was not brought up in Aboriginal tradition. I know I am Darug, I can trace my ancestry back to Maria, who was the original elder, mentioned in Governor Macquarie’s letters and in a lot of the early teachings. She did some amazing things if you investigate Maria. She was my great-great-great-great-great-grandmother but I don’t identify as a particular clan because Darug nation was split into many-many-many parts in the Stolen Generation.
The Maria referred to here is Maria Lock, daughter of Yarramundi, known to Europeans as ‘Chief of the Richmond Tribes,’ he belonged to the Boonooberongal clan of the Darug people. Alongside her father and clan, Maria was present during the first meeting between Governor Macquarie and the Aboriginal peoples of the Cumberland Plain in Parramatta on December 28th 1814. She was the first student of the Native Institution, which Governor Macquarie established with the aim of educating, christianising, and assimilating Aboriginal children into colonial society. The foundation of this institute facilitated the first government policies that led to the Stolen Generations.
How do you stay connected to your Indigenous heritage?
Through Facebook mainly, and through research, and through keeping in contact with people who are of my family, the Lock-Webbs.
In Annette Salt’s book Still Standing you mention your desire to teach Aboriginal stories and songs to your children. Which stories and songs did you choose to pass on to them and why?
By the time Annette contacted me my children were both married and had their own children. So I never had the opportunity to do that but I always had Aboriginal stories in the bookcase and I still use Aboriginal tales when I’m teaching younger children at school and I teach them some of the songs in the Darug language that they relate to like ‘Kookaburra sits in the old gum tree,’ which has been translated into Darug and a few other folk-songy things where they know the tune and we put it into Darug. I also have a couple of Pitjantjatjara songs that the kids like singing.
Growing up how did you discover these stories and songs?
Research. I’m an educator and I’m very good at research and sourcing out things—there was a book in the Penrith library which was written as The History of the Darug Nation and it’s still available in the Hornsby library and every library in the State. And the acknowledgement by the Department of Education of my clear Aboriginal heritage did help me in establishing the fact that I could talk to other Aboriginal teachers, plus I was in the (NSW) Teachers Federation as a councillor and I met a lot of Aboriginal people who were involved with the Federation.
In Salt’s interview, you mention that you were taught a historical narrative that excluded Aboriginal people, that you were brought up in a very “white world.” As an educator, and with the experiences of your children, do you see a shift in this depiction of history?
I have seen a distinct shift since the Aboriginal consultations in the late 1980s where Aboriginal teachers were brought together to talk to teachers about incorporating Aboriginal influences in their consultation, in their teaching with the older children, and with the younger children. We have to have an Aboriginal perspective in everything. It also made the other teachers aware that they could still learn something about their own heritage. Let’s face it, not many teachers are of Australian heritage. There are people from all over the world, thankfully, we have such a wide variety of ethnicities within the Department of Education and every one of them brings a unique perspective on their cultural heritage but most of them are really keen to learn about their new country, the origins of people in this new country, and people will ask questions, they really-really want to know. Teachers in particular want to know and they’ll come to me and say “how can I put an Aboriginal perspective into this?” There are a lot of materials put out by the Department of Education, and publishers now, which also give an Aboriginal perspective on many topics.
Were the experiences of you and your sister different due to your differing appearances? Were you treated differently?
She was very dark and she always claimed Italian heritage if anyone asked her. I was very fair, no one asked me about Aboriginal heritage. So I was given a lot more freedom I guess to be myself and to grow whereas she tended to be judged a little because of her dark colouring and dark hair.
Are there places that have a special significance to you in Darug country?
I know when I’m on Darug country. The land I walk on tells me and I can tell when I walk into another country and I don’t know how to explain that but the Darug land has a particular feel to it under your feet. It’s just Darug country. Most of the country that my people came from is the lower Blue Mountains, Penrith, St Marys. In fact, quite a few of my relatives live there still.
There is a feeling, as an Aboriginal, you do know your own country. There’s no special place but when you’re not there you know you’re not home. It’s not a house, it’s not an area, it’s a feeling that: this is my country.
Do you speak the language (or alternatively languages) of the Darug nation?
They have managed to recapture a lot of the language but it’s very rarely spoken because most of my generation and the next two generations are the stolen people. My children had no interaction with other Darug children, not that I didn’t want to but that we were scattered so far and it’s very hard to get back together.
There is an interesting thing though, I’m acknowledged by other Aboriginal people without having to say “I’m Aboriginal.” I was on a train one day and these Aboriginal women were fighting. There were a couple of other people who said “come on, let’s get out of here,” and I just looked at them and said, “they’re not hurting anyone.” They turned around and said “thanks cuz.”
Aboriginals are not a unique tribe, they are people, who happen to have a particular heritage just like everybody else has a unique heritage that is unique to you… I think you need to acknowledge that Aboriginal heritage is unique. That we are blessed to be Aboriginal people. To live in a land that is so blessed and originally they talked about our country, our Australia, as if it was the Garden of Eden because it is such a blessed country—forget about bushfires and droughts, we won’t mention those—but you need to realise that we are normal people. There are high court judges who are Aboriginal, we have a lot of footballers, unfortunately, most of them my cousins, we have a lot of people who are lawyers, we have a lot of teachers… We are all just people who are still striving to achieve in a strange world. It’s not our land, it’s not our country but it’s where we belong and when you talk about Aboriginal people you need to acknowledge that we are unique, as you are unique, and that our heritage is of the country just as your original heritage is to the country of your ancestors and respect the fact that we do love our country probably a little bit more than you, just a little.