A river flows through my childhood. I dwelt in that particular suburb of heaven which is a country boyhood. When I was nine-and-a-half years of age I was kidnapped by my parents and brought to a city where I have sojourned for 65 years. Very quickly I learned to embrace my new home. Over time I have learned to forgive Melbourne for not being Leeton.
Every so seldom work calls me back to that riverine land. For the past three weeks I’ve been working in the blessed town of Cootamundra. Wide streets, unhurried citizens, verdant gardens, wide skies, a community without traffic lights, have nourished and refreshed me these three weeks. Road signs direct the motorist to nearby downs: this way to Tumut; close by is the drowned township of Talbingo; only two and a bit hours to Albury, where abides my oldest friend; down the road is Gundagai; turn right for Junee, railway junction to the entire state. Leeton (Leeton!) is not far; and down that road lies Wagga Wagga Wagga, so great they named it thrice.
The river flows through these parts. Its strong current could seize a body and drown it. It seizes me still and flings me backwards. Nostalgia is the practice of rejoicing in grief. It’s probably a malignant habit. But it reflects a truth, the truth of country, of homeland, a truth known to every territorial animal, including the human.
Sitting in my surgery I meet old farmers of a third or fourth generation on this land. Their attachment to country runs deeply, deep in struggle, deep in memory of drought and flood, in struggle to sustain family and to flourish. Their love runs deeper than mine, which is of the surface. Theirs is rooted in the earth. In Malaya they have a word for it: bumi putra – sons of the soil.
Wars have been fought here over territory. The professor of law who sits in my surgery tells me the local Wiradjuri fought the tribe that gave Canberra its name. The same professor declares, of course epidemics killed most Aboriginal people. The settlers spread them intentionally. They gave blankets to the indigenous, smearing them first with smallpox.Incredulous, I ask for proof.I can’t prove it. It’s part of Aboriginal narrative. Marcia Langton quotes it. Other historians too.
Drinking my morning coffee at Dusty Road Coffee Roasters I fall into conversation with a tall, pear-shaped woman of about fifty. She tells me she teaches in schools for the Red Cross.Do you teach the kids First Aid?No, cultural diversity. In particular, to accept and welcome migrants of all colours, from all places.Can you teach kids not to be racist?Yes, that’s not too hard. You can’t teach adults, though.I digest this for a while. The woman speaks again: Cootamundra Girls’ School was created to train stolen girls to be domestic servants. They were stealing girls as late as 1970. None of the girls came from this district. They were brought here as aliens. The old girls held a reunion here recently.The occasion brought together old friends, survivors together of loneliness, of seizure from country. On pain of physical punishment those girls were forbidden to speak in language. Coming together with old friends was somehow joyous.I ask our informant how long she’s lived in Cootamundra. This isn’t my country. My father’s people are Gunditjmara from near Warrnambool. My mother’s mother came from the Netherlands.The woman leaves us to go to her work, making non-racists.
The professor takes me to see the old girls’ school. It sits near the middle of town, a vast nondescript brick edifice on spacious grounds. Insignia on a placard inform us that a Cadet Corps uses the property. No sign of indigenous occupancy, no word or name to be seen , no-one would dream this is Wiradjuri country. The professor speaks: Many Indigenous people stay away from Cootamundra. Folk memory of this school is unbearable to them.I look around for signs of First People. Nothing here, nothing anywhere I’ve been these past seventeen days. I’ve run main roads and side roads, run to the cemetery, past the churches, past the handsome two-story buildings that house the banks, past the hospital, past the imposing old railway station, past the Council Chambers. I’ve lived across the street from the old Masonic TempIe. This is a town which honours its pioneer past. It honours the birthplace of Donald Bradman and preserves the little house that was his natal hospital. I haven’t noticed an Aboriginal Medical Centre, nor a Cultural Centre.
Until now I didn’t even notice the silence or the absence. So easy, so very easy, not to see, not to know, not to look or ask.
And this is Naidoc Week.
The river that flows through my childhood flows also through the entire time of European settlement. Those times are the recent shallows. The river we all claim, the river that claims us flows through all time and song and dance and story.