Books and reading,  History,  Life: bits and pieces

All about stories – and identity: Reflections on Survival/Invasion/Australia Day, and Patti Miller’s ‘The Mind of a Thief’

For a long time now, I have been conflicted about the purpose and meaning of our national holiday, Australia Day, celebrated as it is on the day regarded by First Nations peoples as the beginning of the invasion by Europeans of their land. This year I was able to spend the day, and the evening before it, in a much more positive frame of mind, surrounded by reminders of the strength, resilience and richness of indigenous cultures. On the evening before the 26th January, I was lucky enough to attend a stunning show, Bungul, at the Sydney Opera House (shout out to my beautiful friend Anita for such a generous Christmas gift!)

The concert was a performance by musicians from Sydney Symphony Orchestra, and Yirritja and Dhuwa performers from north-east Arnhem land. The music was that of the late ‘Dr G’ (Gurrumul) Yunupingu, sublime and evocative music about his country, his people and his family. Along with the music was live dance performances and a visual backdrop of images from country, dancers, and seascapes. Mesmerising and moving. The joy expressed by the dancers as they performed was wonderful. It was an unforgettable experience and I think for the several thousand audience members in the Concert Hall of arguably Australia’s most famous building, a thought provoking way to experience the eve of Australia Day.

For two hundred years, Australian society has blocked its ears to the remarkable indigenous cultures that are our inheritances. As the urgency grows daily to find a more sustainable way to live with the fragile land that supports us, it is surely time to take stock and learn from the extraordinary cultures that have always been around us, cultures such as the Yolgnu. It is time to listen.

Nigel Jamieson, Director of Bungul

After the concert ended, my companions and I headed for Barangaroo, another spot on Sydney Harbour, named for a Gadigal woman who lived around the area at the time of the landing of the First Fleet in 1788. There we joined a vigil of Sydneysiders who had gathered together to experience a fire and smoking ceremony, listen to indigenous people sing, dance and speak about what the 26th January means to them. It was a beautiful experience although we missed the first part of the night due to the walk from the Opera House.

At the Vigil at Barangaroo, Sydney Harbour, 25th January 2020

On Australia Day itself, 26th January, I was surrounded by families, dancers, musicians, friends to reflect on and celebrate Australia’s incredible richness of culture at the Yabun Festival, a whole day celebration of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island communities, languages, music, dance and much else.

All in all, these experiences added up to a much more meaningful way to spend the national day, away from the sometimes forced and artificial sense of ‘nationalism’ which can accompany this occasion. I think there is much to celebrate about my country but also much that needs to be done to redress past and continuing wrongs. So a day of thinking about and reflecting on these and other aspects of Australia’s story, was most welcome.

Now, to the book I finished just before this experience: The Mind of A Thief, which explores some of these questions.

Published in 2012 (Queensland University Press), it is the second of Patti Miller’s books I’ve read.  The first, Write Your Life, is a ‘how to’ of memoir or life writing, the area for which she is justifiably well known. I have heard it said that Miller could ‘write about a blade of grass and make it interesting’ and after reading The Mind of a Thief I have to agree!

Not that this book is about blades of grass—or rather, it is about grasses, and rocks, and the sky,  a particular river valley in the central west of NSW Australia, the stories that come from there, and how identity is crafted within those stories and those places. Miller was born and raised just outside the town of Wellington, though she has lived in several other parts of Australia and in Europe since.

It was a hint from an Aboriginal elder, a Wiradjuri woman, that Miller herself might ‘have some blackfella in ya’, that set her on the path of thinking about and exploring the history of the town and its valley and her own family history. Through this she encounters a long running Native Title Claim for The Common. This is a section of land that was the subject of the first Native Title claim after the Mabo High Court decision (which recognised the right of all indigenous Australians to their traditional lands and overturned the doctrine of terra nullius that had prevailed since colonisation by the British.) The Wellington claim was bitterly contested by different local groups and partly, the book is about Miller’s attempts to hear and understand all sides of the story.

In doing so, she reflects on the colonists’ treatment of the Wiradjuri, a nation that stretched over a vast area of the state. She discusses how people were herded onto reserves, a process which mixed and muddied connections to country and language. Also, the children stolen from their parents, and the lack of control by indigenous people over their own lives because of laws that treated them differently from all other Australians.

However, the book is also about the author herself; her place in the history of the Wellington Valley, her connections to the land and its people, past and present. She writes that: 

There was something in uncovering the story of Wiradjuri and Wellington that … felt like a balm, quieting the restlessness… as if there were nothing else I should be doing.

p. 68

Among the most fascinating parts of the book for me were the quotes from the early English and German missionaries who came to live and preach in the valley. They hoped to convert the ‘Natives’ to their Christian faith. An especially telling quote is from the Rev James Gunther who, in the Wiradjuri-English dictionary he compiled in 1839, included this sentence:

Ngunguda nilla buranu ngaddunu; minyamminyambul ngumdiagirrin, which he translated to mean Give me that child and I will give you plenty to eat. (p.87)

Whoa. If ever there was a direct quote to illustrate the simplicity and horror of the theft carried out by the colonists of all backgrounds and motivations, surely this is it. Theft of land, of children, of family. Attempted theft of minds and beliefs and hope.

Another quote, from Rev William Watson in 1835, attributed to a Wiradjuri man called Gungin, who on being reprimanded by the Reverend for something, replied angrily:

What do you want here? What do you come here for? Why do you not go to your own country. (p96)

Indeed.

And later, Brother Johann Handt commented in 1832 that, when asked by Wiradjuri women why he wanted their children, he replied that ‘we desired to instruct their children, and to make them like ourselves, after which they replied that they had no children.’ (p.103)

Hardly any more needs to be said about the unwillingness of the Wiradjuri to see their children become ‘civilised’ in this manner.

Miller’s book explores this history within the context of her own ancestors’ culpability in the dispossession and oppression of the Wiradjuri. She discovers that one of her nineteenth-century ancestors was part of a group of leading townspeople who originally commandeered The Common—the piece of land that was, more than a century later, the subject of the Native Title claim discussed in the book.

Miller writes:

Whether we had Wiradjuri ancestors or not, the mere fact of my white ancestors turning up in the Wellington Valley on the currents of English criminal and colonial policy mingled our histories inextricably.
… It wasn’t just symbolic to say my ancestors took the land from the Wiradjuri in the first place. After all this time I discovered one of them, Patrick Reidy, really did take it.

pp. 123 & 166

I share with Miller an ancestry of British and German migrants to this ancient land: a mix of English convicts, and Germans leaving behind the political and economic upheavals of nineteenth century Europe in search of a better life. I am certain that some of these people, especially those who came in the early years of the colony, were participants in the dispossession of indigenous people as they gained freedom and were granted land—often large areas of land—in the Hawkesbury, the northwest of NSW and the Hunter areas, for example. This is an uncomfortable truth. I also feel a deep connection to this country of my birth, though it’s a connection that stretches back just over two hundred years, not many thousands as it does for those who were so dispossessed.

So, like Miller, I ‘come from transplanted people.’ Whether this makes us ‘grow a little crooked and ill at ease’ (p.145), I’m not sure. Certainly, there is discomfort, and a wish for my country to do things better now, recognise the First Nations of this land in meaningful ways, try to repair the damage done.

The Mind of a Thief does not have answers to these questions. But for me, the hopeful aspect of Miller’s story is best summed up by this passage:

I wondered about second chances and whether everyone gets them or not. Whether a whole country gets another chance to do things right and whether it ever makes up for doing it so badly the first time.

p.233

This is a beautiful book that asks some hard questions without giving glib answers. I am convinced that Miller can indeed write about anything—including blades of grass—and make it fascinating and thought provoking.

3 Comments

  • Andy Busuttil

    Budyari mullinawul gamarada. This is a lovely comment on what was a great night and day with two of my favourite people. ‘Australia’ day, for me, will never be a day of national celebration. There are only two events I will go to on this day: Maltese/Australia day where the contribution of my people to this county is celebrated. Of that I am most proud. The second event I will go to is the equivalent of Yabun or ‘Survival Day’ as it used to be called. I am proud of our Indigenous brothers and sisters. They have been so forgiving, so generous, and so unbelievable kind in their response to the terrible atrocities that have been committed against them in the past and continue to be perpetrated to this day. They are indeed an unbelievable race of people. On top of that they have not engaged in violent acts towards white settlers in this country who have taken their land and destroyed much of their culture. They have acted with grace and an embracing that leaves me bewildered by its desire and decision to move gently forward and continue to share their arts and culture with us freely and without expectation. But always with hope.

  • Carolyn

    Hi Denise — what a wonderful post, which I found via Patti’s FB post. You describe beautifully your (mine, too) conflicting emotions, the Australia Day events and Patti’s book.

    Thank you and I look forward to exploring your blog.
    Carolyn B.

    • Denise Newton

      Hi Carolyn, thanks so much for your message. I was thrilled when Patti shared my post, which happened as a mutual friend tagged her on social media on my behalf! I appreciate you taking the time to read and post a comment and I hope you enjoy future posts on my blog.

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