Terra Populous

Terra Populous explained

Speech given by myself as a part of the formal story telling time during the Terra Populous event held at Poatina on the 27th January 2019. Terra Populous is a collaborative event between the Village of Poatina and local First Nations Elders to reframe traditional Australia Day celebrations that were a part of the village of Poatina’s traditions.

Terra Populous day 2019
Terra Populous Day – Poatina 2019

Using the termTerra Populous acknowledges the fact that Australia was populated with many people before colonization by the British. It also acknowledges that many nations had sovereign rights which were ignored and deliberately made null and void but the use of the term Terra Nullus – land of no people. The people who populated this continent where given the descriptor aboriginal – a term used for all indigenous people globally. By lumping the people into one name this also took away the claims of the many nations that occupied this continent now called Australia. It is estimated that over 800 language groups existed on this continent at the time of settlement. Thus we can conclude 800 plus nations. For this reason I both use the term: First Nations and name the individual Nations of peoples I have lived among as mentioned in this story.

I also warn that the names of First Nations peoples who may have died are referred to in this story. I do this for they are real people whose are lives I crossed. For the same reason I have not sought to change names but use them with all respect.

My Story

I am Russell McKane of Clan McKean of Ardnamurchan, driven from our land in the Scottish clearances and forced to settle in Northern Ireland. In doing so displaced the local Irish that led to a centuries long conflict still bearing fresh wounds. I was not there but it has shaped who I am.

Tartan McKian of Ardnumerkan

The kilt my Dad and I made

Tartan is the McKean of Ardnamurchan.

I was married in this kilt.

I am a descendant of a third fleet convict Samuel Craft, who settled in the Hawkesbury, who was deported for an injustice, ripped from his own family and friends. Granted land he took over generations long yam farms to grow English crops. He was no doubt was involved in the ‘dispersion’ (read massacres) of local people groups. Samuel was the first white person to be rescued in a natural disaster on this continent. I was not there but I have shared in his inheritance, and it has shaped me.

I am a descendant of Irish orphan Bridget Hartigan, who was bought to Australia to populate the vast land with like for like. Ireland had enough potatoes to feed its people during the famous potato famine. But its wealth class just exported them and left the locals to starve. Another injustice that has shaped my history and who I am.

Irish Orphans Australia

Memorial to Irish orphans Sydney Barracks – Photo 2001 with our daughter Kirsty.

Early years

Born in Western Australia in the desert Town of Merridin, on the land of the Njaki Njaki Nyoongar nation. The first-born son of a minister in training.

Mum and Dad met and married in Alice Springs. Mum was court stenographer for one of Albert Namatjira’s trials. He signed a slip of paper for mum, we have it still. Mum was passionate about the injustice served in this case. Mum and dad also ran a little shop out of their lounge room for the people of Ernabella part of the Pitjantjatjara nation. It was possibly one of the very first indigenous art stores serving local people. It has shaped me and I am proud.

My first memory was of my first cup of tea. Seated in a circle at the back of a country hall near Esperance WA. Seated in a large circle of indigenous girls. I must have been aged 3. I had never been allowed to drink tea, Mum was inside, I was offered, I said yes, and enjoyed the sweet milky warmness. Sharing in this illicit act I did not know that the girls drinking with me were the stolen generation. They were being given a holiday at a mission run holiday camp. Tea is my blood.

Wave Rock, also known as Katter Kich by the Noongar Nation

My sister and I at Katter Kitch then known as Wave Rock a.1963, Land of the the Noongar Nation. Near where we lived at Kondinin WA.

Ignorance was grown.

When eight in the town of Narrogin WA, land of the Gnaala Karla Boodja Noongar Nations. There were some aboriginal boys in my class who played together on the oval, ostracized by the other kids. They came from the reserve. I asked mum what was the reserve? Mum with panicked tone simply said I shouldn’t play with them. Puzzled I figured it was something bad. I didn’t know that the reserves were that eras equivalent to our refugee camps, people herded together to be controlled.

I get Educated

Fifteen years later the small town of Dareton, NSW was my next point of contact. Home of the Barkindji, Barindji and Kureindji nations. I had become an artist and an educator. It was my first teaching job. Here slowly over three years I truly came to see and know discrimination and racism in action. This was a fringe dweller town. I did not know how at least 50 of my students lived, until the morning the health inspector ordered in the bulldozers to knock down their shanty dwellings and instantly 50 of my students were homeless. I vowed to be less ignorant. The incident features in the fourth episode of the TV series Women of the Sun.

My painting of river Gums at Dareton NSW
River Gums at Dareton NSW (my painting)

Over time the indigenous kids felt safe in my art room. One Monday morning I heard the Tailor twins talking in excited and hushed tones about the bones at the Perry Sandhills near Wentworth. I stopped and listened, stunned then asked.

The Massacres have contemporary impacts

They told me they had been taken by their grandmother to see the site of the massacre, over 200 people they said, bones, human bones lying bleached in the sun. Their Grandmother was there at the time, a little girl, who had escaped. I calculated it must have been in the 1930s. It remains unrecorded. These boys were truth tellers of oral history.

Some months later their father was dead. Killed due to racially motivated criminal medical neglect. I could use harsher terms. At this time, I learn what our First Nations people mean by sorry. Not a white man’s sorry, the glib excuse given to mum to avoid a smack. No sorry of the soul, lamentations strong sorry. This is the sorry I mean when I say, in this context I am sorry. This is not an old ancient scar of injustice this is a now pain, and present.

At this time I married Suzanne and am now proud father of three children and 4 wonderful Grandchildren , the youngest just 4 days old. But in the next part of my story I have gained a much bigger family.

My Skin

I am Jakamarra of the Evelyn mob of the Walpiri Nation, named because of relationship, welcomed into the Yuendumu community, given a place, and included in community.

Yuendumu park 1990's
Terra Populous
Yuendumu Park 1990’s

My skin name was because my sister worked there, my place in the nation because I was a teacher at Mount Evelyn Christian School. MECS was the first non-indigenous school in Australia to teach an indigenous language. MECS students have travelled in a pilgrimage each year and as a result I sat on the veranda and talked with old man Jumpajimpa Darby who was the last known survivor of the last recorded massacre at Colliston NT in 1930. Capstone College would not exist as it is without the vision and training I received at Mount Evelyn. I have not even begun to plumb the depths that being Jakamarra means.

I am proud to have designed and taught indigenous study units to many young people and helped them to understand their heritage. This includes the now indigenous lawyer who was the liberal candidate for Sydney. (Geoffrey Winters) He is very thankful for my teaching.

Yolngu Nations

In 2014 we lived in the land of the Yolngu peoples, A group of 17 nations on the northeastern tip of the Northern Territory. There Miriki, a fellow principal, showed me her tree. The one she planted as a young girl with her father in the grounds of the school at Yirrkala where she was then principal, A proud bilingual school where for the students English is a fourth or fifth language. Then I saw her silent and deep pain as I sat with her in a meeting where the then government announced closing the senior secondary part of her school, and to take away its bilingual status. To force English on students all because NAPLAN results did not bear testament to nor test the cultural richness these students had in their own languages.

Miriki's Tree Yirrkala School grounds

Miriki’s Tree -Yirrkala School grounds 2014

A Place of Shelter

This was only five years ago. I did not get see it play out. But found myself here, in Poatina, A place of Shelter. It is home now for Suzanne and I. We came as artists in residence, and stayed to start a school. In seeking to know this place and paint its trees I found myself walking among ancient Cider Gums, ancestors of the big river nation. These gums represent a rich cultural history of this place in Tasmania as a place of meeting, of festival exchange and celebrations; A place of the meeting of the First Nations of this land; A place of Terra Populous. I have walked that place with Aunty Patsy here and continue to learn at the feet of the elders.  

Even though older myself; I am still so ignorant of the richness that we all have inherited because we call Australia home. Because I have lived in 5 of the seven states and territories, I no longer feel State divides and jealousies. I am where I live. This is my land. Australia is my home. Tasmania is my home. I am Tasmanian, I am Australian.

One thing I have learned. Deeply learned.

We are one people of many nations and one nation of many peoples. We are and always have been Terra Populus, this is my story, my people, my place, and I am proud.

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