Author’s note: For Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, this essay contains images of people who have died.
Real enlightenment is something rare in life, I think.
When you are sitting down with somebody who has a life that might have been lived over 150 years ago, enlightenment happens.
It happened to me on Friday and I still can’t get my head around it. It was a game-changing hour and a half.
In my job as a regional journalist, I cover about every kind of story.
When it comes to capturing individual stories, I sit on the floor to find the eye level of children who have just mastered conversation, or share time with people creeping up on a century with a life history to tell.
In all those moments, the shared human experience, regardless of age, race, education, employment, seems to shine through the exchange of question and answer and dialogue arising from the interview.
But sometimes, there is a revelation.
A few weeks ago, I spoke to two teenagers about the fact of being an adolescent and bad relationships in 2015. We discussed the role or cell phones and social media as proponents in the issue, and I had this moment of clarity.
“It occurs to me,” I began, “that you two would not even know what life would have been like before mobiles, and before Facebook or Snapchat.”
“I wish I did,” one of the girls replied.
“It sounds really cool. A simpler time.”
Wow. That was my time. My parents’ time.
That was a generational reminder if there ever was one. It was a minor revelation. Maybe more about me, though also about a life-experience lost forever, lived out through these two young women.
But on Friday, I spent over an hour with a woman nearing 90, and during the conversation, I had a dawning of realization that figuratively set me back on my haunches dropping my jaw like a child making sense of a meteor shower.
It was like talking to somebody through time.
Gamilaroi Elder, Aunt Elizabeth Connors was born on January 4, 1926. I know Aunt Elizabeth, and have met or spoken with her numerous times. One of her daughters stopped into the paper and asked if I would write the story.
In the past several months, I have twice interviewed Aunt Elizabeth specifically because her great-grandfather, Henry Harrison, was one of the last transported convicts from England.
Aunt Elizabeth was working with the Inverell Reconciliation Group to restore Henry’s gravestone, and I was following the story’s development. the stone was unveiled on November 28 to a large crowd.
Henry was in the final British transportation, sent off for allegedly stealing a handkerchief, and ended up in an area called Wellingrove, not far from Inverell. There, all on account of a scrap of fabric, he set himself up as a businessman, owned and operated a sawmill, and Henry integrated himself into the Aboriginal community.
He was a white man, and so I knew that part of Aunt Elizabeth’s story. I knew she was a matriarch, she lost her husband in a car accident many years ago, and of course, as a revered Gamilaroi Aboriginal Elder.
Recently, I learned she was supposedly delivered by Aunt May Yarrowyck, one of the first Aboriginal midwives in New South Wales. That was pretty special.
Writing a profile of anybody crowding up toward 100 usually comes with expected questions on how life used to be. Living in the country comes with its passel of specifics, like travelling long distance via horseback or cart, men lost in the War, how children wiled away their summer afternoons.
Most women, and they have all been women, I’ve interviewed getting to that age talk about how hard life was in the early days without power, the long days of chores and big families. Men worked very hard and women even harder, so all the children were expected to chip in.
So in my mind, I thought Aunt Elizabeth’s life would include some of these stories, but as an Aboriginal woman, I also knew life would have been tougher.
Since my tenure at the newspaper, I’ve gotten to know many people within the Aboriginal community around the district, and each time, I come away schooled in something new.
Being an Indigenous Australian is a galaxy away from my own middle-class, white, American upbringing on the fringe of Chicago’s west side, so I listen, and I learn.
When I pulled up to Aunt Elizabeth’s house, I excepted to hear about living on stations, about relatives living at Tingha and Goonoowigall where people lived out of sheds, water tanks and make-shift shelters. I knew that area was and continues to be especially significant and sacred to the local people.
There would be stories of family living on the flats at Tingha.
I also felt certain I would hear stories of Stolen Generations, because every Aboriginal person I know or have met has that history somewhere on their family tree; those stories where children were removed from their parents for any number of fabricated nonsense created by white people up until the 1970s.
I was taken off my mum as soon as I was born, so she never even seen me. What Welfare wanted to do was to adopt all these poor little black babies into nice, caring white families, respectable white families, where they’d get a good upbringing. I had a shit upbringing. Me and [adopted brother who was also Aboriginal] were always treated different to the others … we weren’t given the same love, we were always to blame.
–Confidential evidence 657, New South Wales: woman taken from her mother at birth in 1973 and adopted by a non-Aboriginal family.
The removal still takes place today, all the time.
Plagued and leveled by illnesses like heart disease and diabetes, statistics are against longevity in the Indigenous communities. To reach 90 is an accomplishment.
Aunt Elizabeth is a tall, stately woman on the cusp of 90. She playfully swatted my arm when we went out onto the veranda to take her photo, and packed weight in that swat. There is still a lot of life in her. It is amazing when you consider the story.
She was born at Bassendean to Alexander Williams and Nellie Munro. This is where she would have been delivered by Aunt May.
But Alexander’s name was not Alexander. She was told he was an Indian with a given name like Baba Khan.
Aunt Elizabeth then bowled me over with the information her grandfather Munro had been a sugar slave from the Pacific Islands. He would have been one of about 50,000 people imported to do the backbreaking work between 1863 and 1904, long after the US abolished slavery.
He had either extricated himself from the labor or escaped from the Queensland cane fields. That detail was a little staggering. Where in the United States, we talk about slavery, this woman’s grandfather had either volunteered then been delivered into slave labor, or been kidnapped to work in a godforsaken job in a country far from his native land.
So that was the first startling thing. I didn’t know about the imported islanders, and here was the grandchild of one of those men.
We talked and I learned early on, after the death of her father when she was nine and her mother at 12, she and her nine siblings were living with her orphaned cousins at a mission in Tingha.
She told me about the day the government people came to take her and her siblings and cousins away.
They were walking out the door crying, her cousin clutching the youngest, an infant, and it was only the intimidating tactics of her elder brothers that frightened the government people away. Thankfully, they never returned, but the family never knew harmony and peace. Life was terribly hard.
The brothers worked in the tin mines and contributed what they could. Adult relatives were plentiful, and helped as they could, but nobody would have had any money. While the white people dominated their former land, Aboriginal people were left in their devastating wake.
Some removed themselves to the bush, and lived on and off the land.
Others, like Aunt Elizabeth and her cousin were paired and sent as station staff. She did not have the choices of the white young women her age. She was denied those choices.
She was a housemaid in her very early teens, and her cousin, a cook. Together, they traveled across the district, assigned to jobs by the mission, working at some of the largest properties.
It was seven days a week, with Christmastime off.
I asked Aunt Elizabeth if when the siblings were able to see each other again, if they exchanged stories of working on the stations and she laughed and said oh, yes they did.
I can see the Gragin Peak from my house where the once sprawling Gragin Station was located. Aunt Elizabeth met her husband Darcy Edward Connors there, a Bigumbal man from the NSW, Queensland coast.
Aunt Elizabeth’s daughter Linda presented a photo of Elizabeth and Darcy from sometime before 1960 it seems.
They are the same height, both gaze steadily at the camera, and Darcy has his hand firmly placed around her waist. She has a flip of dark hair, he has an impressive brow. They are an imposing and handsome couple.
Aunt Elizabeth tole me they’d had a couple children before the Aboriginal Elders in Tingha said they must marry, and so they did.
At the time, the women would follow the men as they worked, so wherever that took them, they traveled. They were moving far from the strong cultural sphere that kept families firmly tied to their land and each other to an itinerant life in cramped homes, passed from working family to working family.
It was all part of the disintegration of thousands of years of human history in one fell swoop.
She talked about living with several other people in a small cottage near the railroad grain silos in Delungra, my closest town. She said the townfolks called it ‘the yellow shed’ because of the indigenous families who routinely lived there.
Aunt Elizabeth never had a formal education, never had a chance of being a doctor or teacher or to own her own business. She spoke of family whose children were all taken away. One couple lived out of a water tank at Goonoowigall and both died not long after the kids were removed.
She believes, as the rest of her family does, they died from broken hearts.
She raised her brother’s children at Guyra when he lost his wife, and when he married again and the second wife dies as well, she raised them, too.
Along with her daughter Barbara, she raised 15 Aboriginal foster children.
Aunt Elizabeth must be a master at mothering, for all these kids grew to be strong adults.
As the story unraveled and draped around my mind in images and thoughts, I had several quake of revelation.
This woman never shared a life experience of any white woman counterpart I’ve ever spoken with.
Her father worked in effect as a slave and she put in many years without parents, without the security of love and certainty as a young child or teenager.
Their land removed, their language last, their culture under attack from settlers, Aunt Elizabeth and thousands of other Aboriginal people were forced to work in jobs they did not want to make a living in a white-dominated world.
Hers is a story of survival that should not have to be in a 20th century country free from fascism, yet you could say upon Indigenous Australians, fascism acted, well and truly.
I suppose though the details of Aunt Elizabeth’s life on their own seemed unsurprising if you have any grasp on Aboriginal history since settlement.
I’ve heard some of the very worst. I know about the massacres, about the discrimination, the killings, the societal burdens of substance abuse, incarceration numbers, crippling socioeconomic issues, educational inequity, domestic abuse, employment deficits.
So much of this relies upon the destruction of an entire population by white people.
I have the knowledge, I witness the impacts across the region every time I’m in town, but those things translated through Aunt Elizabeth’s mouth after nearly nine decades of life, it was shattering to me. It was a while different thing.
Put all together, I felt that I might have been sitting with a strong, proud woman who had lived through US slavery in the mid-1800s. How I saw my questions was through a different lens than that which her answers came, though she had the advantage.
She can span these two cultures because she has had to do so for a lifetime.
Aunt Elizabeth endured this life. She lost too many relations I could count, two children, her husband in a tragic accident with other family.
She copped the racism, the pure unfairness of life because her skin and community were different to the white people who made all the rules. Aunt Elizabeth deserved the exactly same rights as any other woman, as any other person, but she would have been routinely denied these rights.
This woman had been transported from the life to which she was rightfully born, witnessed it torn from her and her family and friends, and had to reassemble the bits to make a brand-new life with its own set of difficulties and prejudices to confront.
I was honored to hear the story of her life.
It taught me yet more about the Aboriginal community, and really emphasized the inequities of our world, and the microcosm of this neck of this neck of the woods where people still choose to hate or reject knowledge, and those, like Aunt Elizabeth, who have the capacity to survive and excel against the odds.
-The featured image is, of course, Elder, Aunt Elizabeth Connors on her veranda in Inverell, NSW. Aunt Elizabeth passed away in 2020 at the age of 94.