I was born in Launceston Tasmania in January 1956, the year the Korean War ended, the Olympics came to Melbourne and the Melbourne Demons won the AFL Premiership. Following the death of Truganini in 1876, Australians had been convinced that all of the Tasmanian Aboriginals had died off and that there were no Aboriginal people living in Tasmania. We now know that is not true but, at the time it created an environment that fostered the belief, among some mainland Aboriginal people, that their light-skinned, mixed-blood children could be passed off as immigrants rather than acknowledge their Indigenous heritage.
My paternal Great-Grandmother, Laurina Drew was the eldest child of George Drew, a Dhungutti man from the Macleay River region of NSW and Laurina Hotson, an Englishwoman who is thought to have been a maid or convict who made her way from Sydney to the Macleay River settlement. George and Laurina’s relationship foundered around 1875, just before the birth of her second child Ellen.
Laurina Hotson next appeared in official records married to George James who was a prominent businessman in Maryborough. Together they had another child Edward and subsequently relocated to the gold mining town of Mount Morgan. The James’ business in Mount Morgan prospered, with both girls marrying and Edward taking over the business upon the death of his parents.
Young Laurina, my Great-Grandmother, coincidentally married a young man who shared her step-father’s name; George James. Young George was an English immigrant from the Isle of Wight. They had three children Arthur, Laurina and Florence between 1892 and 1896. It is not known when they relocated from Mount Morgan to Tasmania, but the family verbal history suggests that Florence (my Grandmother) was only two or three years of age.
George and Laurina established a general store in Brisbane Street Launceston and lived above the store until George died in 1950. Laurina’s chidren had grown and moved on by this stage and “Little Nanna” as she was fondly called, moved to a small property in Georgetown, at the mouth of the Tamar River. I have vague memories of visiting Little Nanna between the ages of four and six, when she too died. I remember she was always very particular about covering up if she ventured out into the sun and was particularly harsh on my aunts and uncles if any of them didn’t cover up or, allowed any of us young children to play in the sun.
From my earliest memory onwards, I only ever felt safe, or comfortable, in Little Nanna’s presence until I began making friends at Primary School. Oddly, every one of those friends had Tasmanian Aboriginal heritage or, their Aboriginal parents moved from mainland Australia to escape persecution. My parents openly disapproved of my friendships and many of them were short-lived.
For many years, until 2005, I felt that something was missing in my life, my identity did not align with how I felt as an individual. In 2005, I happened to have a conversation with an elderly aunt who made mention of “Yellow George” as a name for my Great-Grandmother’s father, for the very first time. When I pressed her for information, she simply stated that “Little Nanna’s dad was called Yellow George and he lived in NSW somewhere.”
Curiosity got the better of me and I searched the NSW Government Archives for any reference to “Yellow George”. The one and only reference was in a text about the Dhungutti people living in the Macleay River region and described a man of that name who was granted 26 acres of land on Pelican Island and who fathered two children.
After 49 years of knowing I was different but not knowing why, I had finally stumbled upon a possible explanation. But Aboriginal people have no written language and their history is passed on in song and story. How on earth was I going to find the answers I so desperately needed? I contacted the Aboriginal Land Council in Kempsey and as luck would have it, the brother of the author of the text I had found, Gary Morris, was one of the founder of the Booroongen Djugun Aboriginal College and living in Kempsey.
I contacted Gary and he provided me with a full verbal history of the Drew family from Yellow George’s father on to Laurina Hotson’s appearance and subsequent departure. As it transpires, Gary and I are cousins by marriage and his contribution to my growth as a Dhungutti man is priceless.
I understand why Laurina and family wanted to NOT be Aboriginal, yet I feel frustrated and humiliated that my family could be ashamed of our heritage. I do not blame my forebears for hiding our Dhungutti heritage, in fact I feel sorry for them because they have not had the opportunity to enjoy the close bonds with our wider family or, our connection with our land. I have visited my ancestral home and walked on the land my Dhungutti ancestors did for centuries. I feel that bond and that closeness but am still incredibly angry at the close-minded bigots whose attitudes and prejudices stole my heritage and denied me my identity for so long.
Sadly, none of my siblings wish to acknowledge their heritage and have effectively eliminated me from their family because I choose to be who I really am. My Indigenous family, Dhungutti, Kamiloroi and Dugun people alike all recognise and embrace my Dhungutti heritage and freely give their love and support in my efforts to learn more about my real culture, not the one that was forced upon me.
We are finally making some inroads into redressing some of the wrongs done to the First Australians but please, I beg everyone, think also about the generations of light-skinned Aboriginal people whose identities have been stolen simply because of the colour of their skin.