Me, Nanna and the Suits

Mumma Nan - Lugainville, Espiritu Santo, Vanuatu

This blog was inspired by and is a tribute to my nanna, Amy Gosney, a strong Aboriginal woman from Bundjalung  country. The Bundjalung people are the original custodians of the northern coastal areas of New South Wales. An area which includes the Bundjalung National Park and Mount Warning.

Mumma Nan - Lugainville, Espiritu Santo, VanuatuIf she were alive today, nanna would be blown-away by Australia’s fast growing Aboriginal culture industry and she’d be delighted and oh so proud that many of today’s travellers to her country enjoy unique experiences through a range of indigenous tours, art and music.

She would also be outraged that 35 years after her passing modern-day life remains harsh for her people who are part of the oldest continuing culture in human history. She would be disgusted and extremely sad that Australian social reform has not been equitable in ensuring human rights or in the provision of services to meet the basic needs of her people. She would be shocked at the inhumanity in the fact that much of indigenous Australia can still be genuinely considered third-world.

”That one of the most scientifically advanced countries in the world should tolerate the world’s highest rates of Dickensian diseases such as rheumatic heart diseases and preventable diseases, like trachoma – which causes blindness in children – is a disgrace. There’s no other word.” 

John Pilger  2013.

At some early period in her life my nanna stopped acknowledging her aboriginal roots. Not because she was ashamed but because her three children were stolen by government officials; removed from their family, torn from their country and placed in orphanages somewhere in Australia a very long way from home. They were part of Australia’s Stolen Generation.

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By the time I was born my nanna was in her 50’s, married to my maternal grandfather (a retired Welsh coal miner who was by then farming poultry in NSW). They were living in Port Stephens on NSW’s mid-north coast. Nanna had tracked her stolen children to the Hunter Valley. She left her mob up north and headed south to find and reclaim her babies. She found only one, the eldest. During her search she also found my grandfather.

In the 1950’s and 1960’s, I spent a lot of time with my grandparents. They provided a happy calm that wasn’t present in other areas of my life. The only disturbance to our calm were men in suits …

Whenever nanna spotted these men a frantic chaos ensued. I’d be whisked away and shoved under a bed or into a wardrobe. I’d be hustled down the backyard and hidden behind a large tree or told to run very fast and hide in the sand dunes (it was all a bit ad-hoc, there was never a stow-me-away plan). Whenever I asked nanna why I must hide she always replied “gov’ment people, gov’ment people stay there don’t move and keep very quiet or the debil-debil will get ya” (I was terrified of that Debil-Debil!). Depending on where I was stowed, she’d pull the quilt down to the floor to cover me or close the wardrobe door to ensure I was well hidden. It wasn’t until I was in early high school that I understood what the chaos was about.

To nanna, men in suits screamed “danger!” particularly if there was a child in her care. She was terrified that I would be taken from her just as her own children had been years earlier. Don’t get me wrong, nanna was certainly no a shrinking violet but when it came to kids in her care she was terrified of men in suits. I think it was the only thing she wouldn’t take on. 

I clearly remember those men entering our yard on numerous occasions. 57 years later I’m still wondering how many of them were actually government officials and how many were Jehovah’s Witness, Seventh Day Adventist or some other religious affiliation; not that men on a mission could always be trusted.  I suppose it makes little difference today who they really were.

I also wonder what my nan would have thought about me being one of  those “Gov’ment people” for many years of my career. I definitely know that she would have used it to her advantage, regularly giving me valuable advice about what was wrong with the system and how I should change it … landing full responsibility to change things on my shoulders “because the rest of them are Dingo’s … you can’t trust them”.  I have to say it … she sure got that right!!

A mother myself for some 30+ years now, I can’t begin to imagine what it must be like to have had children stolen, placed in alternate care and never told where they are. At the time, popular belief by white Australia said that Aboriginal children were highly disadvantaged and at risk in their own indigenous communities. It was an outrageous assumption that they would receive a better education, a more loving family and a more civilised upbringing by being stolen from their own families and dispossessed from their own country, adopted to white Australians or placed in government institutions.

As a white, Anglo Australian I for one can vouch for the superior level of care, attention and affection provided by one Aboriginal woman, my wonderful nan. Her children should never have been stolen … no-one’s children should ever be stolen. I only hope and pray that their lives in the care of others was as privileged and sweet as mine was in the care of their natural mother.

Well after my nanna and her children have passed, Australia continues to pay a high price for the policy that saw Aboriginal children dispossessed. Rabbit Proof Fence is one of the most controversial films about Australia’s Stolen Generation. It pretty much sums up what happened to my nan and her three children. It is a must watch for everyone interested in Australian indigenous history.

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©SoniaAnneEllem 2014 – All Rights Reserved

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