Silence ran in my family like a dark underground river.
If I can symbolise this silence as a river, it would be the river Lethe that, in Greek mythology, is the river of forgetting. But perhaps this would be too kind, too distant, and too academic. Qualities that also run in my family
The silence was personal, it affected me personally, it ran through my family; but it was also cultural and historical, the silence was a tributary of the river of cultural amnesia that ran through the colonial culture of Australia, as it runs through the cultures of colonies around the world, and their metropolitan centres.
Recently I have been writing about the experience of finding out about my secret hidden grandmother and the affects of the impacts of discovering her after several decades on this planet, that I was never told about my real family history.
As I am writing this I am flying at 32, 000 feet in an Air Canada jet flying back to Sydney from the international conference on mothers and history: histories of motherhood, that I attended as a delegate, in Toronto.
I gave a paper* on this very experience.
And my mind and body are full of the dialogues and conversations and impressions and powerful thoughts and words and actions of that conference, most affective of all the stories of the (Canadian) Aboriginal women and their oppression, subjugation and struggle for identity against the official policies of assimilation. That astounded me as so similar to Australian stories. I had not even known that indigenous women people in Canada refer to themselves and are referred to as Aboriginal (as if that were only an Australian term). This alone showed me the shared connectivity of the struggles of indigenous aboriginal people across the world, aboriginal women struggling for their identity and sense of self, against the ‘dominant patriarchal culture’ that has subordinated and subjugated them as historically and none more so than mothers, especially ‘illegitimate’ mothers, mothers who have children as a result of the underground strategies of ‘assimilation’; there was in some cases secret love, but sadly there was more often rape.
But Identity and the struggle – for mothers- to regain a sense of self against loss of awareness of identity through trauma and circumstances was a major theme that I detected and picked up on in the conference,
In Art, in reports on health, activism, and in matricentirc feminist theory; the focus in ‘third wave’ feminism and matricentric feminism is on diversity, the majority of papers I heard were from diverse voices of indigenous mothers, immigrant women, women who are doing the hard work of cultural and psychological healing in their art, working through losses and traumas of childhood experiences of contexts of ‘illegitimacy’, the so-called ‘absent mother’.
Juxtapositions or points of comparison
Listening to the stories and research findings of the women at the conference, made me realize that in some ways we are better off in Australia – and in other ways worse off. How we are better off is to do with the -seemingly- more egalitarian, less rigidly class segregated society in Australia, and the health system which allows poorer citizens subsidized access to health care.
Why I say seemingly is that scratch the surface and the egalitarianism falls away. There is nothing egalitarian about the ongoing Northern Territory Intervention. The Racial Discrimination Act had to be suspended to put this racially prejudice act into being, and keep it there years later. And who is racially discriminated against? Aboriginal people, the First Australians. In the Northern Territory traditional homelands, which after a century of assimilation policies, or rape and breeding out a sense of identity has –hardly surprisingly to a rational human mind- created massive personal and social problems of shattered identity. In this way the assimilation polices have sickeningly ‘worked’. Now what? We all have a huge problem to deal with- of curing the diseases caused by these policies – they were not there before white people landed in Australia.
Yet the river of forgetting is far more pleasurable and easier to bathe in than seeking to tackle the apparently insurmountable problems of Aboriginal disadvantage and destruction.
Here the way forward is to be positive and to see what Australia does have in its favour, over other colonial countries That is that at least in Australia aboriginal mother are not blamed overtly in the media and society for the behavior of their children.
However they are punished by the policies that suspend their centrelink payments if their children don’t go to school.
What is perhaps, thankfully, lacking in Australia is a harsh media voice that points the finger of blame at Aboriginal mothers.
But in the Australia way of the river of silence, this is done silently, covertly, by the withholding of benefits and punishment, by silencing.
As if by not drawing too much attention to “the problem”, it will just go away.
And as if what’s implied these people –US – are not worth writing much about in terms of identity.
That strategy of silencing and denial has not worked; it has got us to where we are now, a situation of unacknowledged apartheid.
We who live in Australia and ‘call Australia home’ have to all take responsibility for this situation, we have to all take it upon ourselves to become aware and conscious of the appalling life situation, facing OUR aboriginal people in OUR culture and society, and start to activate, actively do all we can to help those who are not only our fellow citizens but who are in far more families than will admit this, are also our (too long hidden relatives), our family. And welcome each other as all part of the human family, as mothers and sisters and daughters and fathers and brothers and sons and grandparents going way back, in the human race.
© Copyright Ruth Skilbeck, 2012
I will post passages and images from my paper and the trip, on The Skilbeck Scrolls in the near future.