In 1954, and for the first time, the children of the few fullblooded Aboriginal families who lived in Gwalia, and a number of half-caste kids, were accepted into the state schools. While they were not actively denied a place, there were no Aboriginal children at the local convent. I couldn’t work out what it meant when I was told the Aborigines were pagans and could corrupt our Christian souls.
The Commissioner’s power to remove children was abolished by the Native Welfare Act, 1954; however, he remained the legal guardian of all indigenous children. Even those children being care for by a relative or friend could be removed if maintenance was not being paid, regardless of the circumstances under which the child was living. Fullblooded children considered in any medical danger, or living in a health threatening environment, were separated from their parents and placed permanently into the care of the United Aborigines Mission at Mount Margaret, a Christian establishment founded in 1921 by the Rev. Rodolphe Schenk and his wife Isobel, a typist who taught crafts to the women on the mission.
Schenk was notorious for the many savings he implemented in the mission’s operating budget. Beria didn’t mince her words.‘Everyone knows he’s a crook. He’s making a fortune out of the black fellas.’The Rev. Schenk’s unsympathetic and fundamentalist interference with traditional practices attracted strong criticism from visiting anthropologists, and resistance from Aboriginal elders. Aboriginal mothers were denied access to their children, the majority of whom were converted to Christianity and taught to speak only English. Their ancient heritage was ignored.
We came face to face with Aboriginal mission children once a year when they arrived on the back of a truck to compete in the inter-school sports. Several were exceptionally fine athletes, who easily beat their competition. However, from time to time there seemed to be confusion about their age. Some of the 10and 11-year-old boys against whom we raced seemed to be showing signs of growing a beard. Relationships between Aboriginal women and white
men were frowned upon. Alberto Bernardi lived with an Aboriginal woman in Leonora in a run-down camp near the convent, at the back of Lewie and Jean’s house. He was referred to as a no-hoper, and no one in the town had much to do with him. Aboriginal women were called ‘gins’, and white men who had a sexual relationship with them were ‘gin jockeys’. There children were ‘half-castes’ and, if the relationship ended, any kids were forcibly and permanently removed from the mother’s custody and placed in a State or religious institution.
The mine didn’t operate on Sundays, and it was a day of quiet in Gwalia. Even the steam whistle was silent. Bob Mazza was having a nap before lunch and was startled by the sound of two-gunshots and a woman screaming. He went to investigate and discovered it was coming from the house opposite the mine mess, where Davies, a white man, and Jedda, an Aboriginal woman, lived in a permanent and often volatile de facto relationship. A friend, McConaughey, was also living with them. As they did every weekend, the three were drinking and arguing when Davies learned of Jedda’s infidelity with McConaughey. Davies tried to shoot Jedda who managed to escape with a grazed arm. Before turning the gun on himself, Davies shot McConaughey, fatally.
The black fellas in Gwalia were Wongi people, whose original country is around Maralinga, the remote spot in South Australia where the Federal government granted the British permission to conduct a series of nuclear tests throughout 1956 and 1957. For a couple of years there was an old Wongi whom Beria used to feed. Three or four times a week he would come and stand at the back gate. He never called out; he just waited patiently till she spotted him. Steve would say to her: ‘Eh, your boyfriend’s down the back.’ He was tall and skinny, and always looked so sick. He never had shoes, not even in the winter. Beria always gave him hot soup, meat and bread, and some tea and sugar in a brown paper bag. All he ever said was: ‘Thank you, Missus.’ I used to watch him as he wandered off down the back lane. One day he stopped coming. When I asked Beria why she said: ‘I don’t know, Ronnie. He probably died, poor old bugger.’
There were two full-bloods in the town, Billy and Nina. They lived in a makeshift tin and chaff-bag shelter under the old pepper tree down behind the railway line, not far from the football oval. Their skin was black as pitch and Billy’s hair was matted and tied back with a red scarf. Nina always wore three or four dresses and walked a few paces behind, followed by a couple of kangaroo dogs with clearly visible ribs. They wandered around the town collecting food and clothing. They never caused trouble; nor did they speak to anyone.
My sister Joan was about four, and scared stiff of them. From the back door Beria would call-out, ‘Billy, Nina, you can come and get her now.’
It was enough to send Joan rushing to her room, crying hysterically. It was a torment which amused Beria, Lewie and Jean, and they laughed at her terror. I watched without saying a word when Joan ran and hid under her bed. She had to be physically dragged-out, rigid with fear, and fighting and screaming at the top of her voice: ‘No, no!’ Beria had to calm her with promises it was only a joke. And Be Home Before Dark is available from:
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