Rodney Carter is currently the Manager of the North West Cultural Heritage Program, Swan Hill. His story and his knowledge of the Jaara people (Dja Dja Wurrung language group) are captured in this edited transcript of an interview conducted by Delsie Lillyst, Catholic Education Office Melbourne, in October 2000.
Rodney, can you tell us a little bit about the history and the significance of this area to your people and your family?
Yes. In reference to my people, we're talking about the Dja Dja Wurrung language group amongst our own mob (group) which are Jaara people. My ancestral link to that area is through my grandfather's country. He eventually married into another clan group that I've predominantly identified with, which was the Yorta Yorta people. It was just through my own development, hearing stories of the old people, that we learnt that this fella actually came from the Dja Dja Wurrung area. I guess in more recent family history research for the clan group, that we were able to ascertain that the Jaara people were heavily decimated because of the gold exploration that took place in the area.
The fact that the Dja Dja Wurrung people survived was due predominantly to the women, who learned through their domestic-based jobs how to integrate with the mainstream community and survive. One of the last main lawmen actually was accused of murder and was locked up in the old Melbourne Gaol in Melbourne because he was still a main lawman figure. I guess that put a real fear in the Wurundjeri people at the time and they decided to actually leave the Melbourne area because that chap was locked up, and they feared bad luck would happen to them. I guess for cultural reasons as well as the area of human rights and native title and so forth, we have heavily investigated information received, then put source documents together and this has impacted on my identity in terms of being a Jaara or Dja Dja Wurrung person.
You talk about Jaara and Dja Dja Wurrung - are they of the same group or are they two different clans?
Yes, they are the same group. The best way to probably explain it is that Dja Dja Wurrung is actually the language group name. If you were asked what language you spoke you would say Dja Dja Wurrung, but if someone said what mob or what group are you from you would say Jaara. It's the same with the Yorta Yorta people. Yorta Yorta is the language group, but all the Yorta Yorta people are called Wongis, that's part of their identity.
In terms of identity, which group do you like to be identified with? Do you have a preference?
That's a really hard question. In terms of the knowledge base that I have, the more I've learnt about my Jaara ancestry the more I felt like a Jaara person than a Yorta Yorta. I'm getting older, sort of mid thirties and I've got a bit of experience in skilled management practices so I feel I'm better able to contribute to the concerns of Dja Dja Wurrung or Jaara people. Therefore I'm more sort of slanted that way, but it's not that I still don't have a close affiliation say with the Echuca/Barmah areas - the Yorta Yorta group.
Rodney, can you tell me about your family? Who or what plays a part in the Rodney Carter story?
I'm married to a Wemba Wemba woman. Our totem structures fit in well in that we didn't conflict with traditional laws, my wife being a pelican and me being a crow. That relationship has worked together really well, and we have three children with ages ranging form 15 months to 10 years.
What do you know about the life and times around this area before colonisation happened and how did you come to know this?
Geographically, the area around Bendigo was and still is quite unique. You have the plains area and elsewhere it can be quite hilly. I guess the landscape itself was unique with the different vegetation types that could be found there, which was the box and ironbark timbered areas that were then offset with some quite significant grassland areas that are nonexistent today. I get that information through my work role, as well as following up my own cultural interests. I started sightseeing and revisiting places within the area, as well as having the benefit of being able to access documents through historical journals.
Rodney, how did government policies and practices impact on your people and were some of the policies and practices more destructive than others?
Yes I tend to believe, and it's my own interpretation, that from my people's perspective, certainly around the Bendigo area, it was the gold exploration that heavily impacted on my people. If you look through the records, Bendigo at one point in time was the centre of the world in terms of people actually wanting to come to Australia with the idea of mining for gold to increase their wealth. So a lot of the policies and procedures were a bit complementary to our people, for example, the setting up of food depot systems and what they also called the 'ivory correspondence depots'. These places became the focal points for our traditional mobs (people) to go and still be able to get food and have some sort of decent lifestyle. The mission reserve system didn't heavily impact on our people because they never set up anything locally. A lot of our people were moved to Coranderrk Reserve at Healesville, near Melbourne on Wurundjeri land. Some people were moved to the Lake Boga Mission at the time, which was set up in the Swan Hill area. Once that happened, and with that dispossession of the people from their traditional homelands, then an option in terms of survival was to become part of those mission /reserve structures.
Do you know the names of the families who are originally from the Bendigo area? Do you have any knowledge through oral traditions of where those families are today?
A lot of the oral tradition wasn't really passed on and I guess it was because of certain groups becoming more of a majority. I always knew and understood that I was a Yorta Yorta person. It wasn't until I became older and looking at family albums and hearing people talking about stories and like, they might mention 'Pop Henry' and you ask the question, 'which mob is he from?' He wasn't a Yorta Yorta person, he was a Dja Dja Wurrung person. So that's how that information came about. The research we have done has turned up about 1200 to 1400 people alive today that are descendants of principal Jaara ancestors. My ancestral link is with the Nelson family and there's the Kerr and Morgan families, the Dunolly's and so forth. They are key families from this area who are Dja Dja Wurrung (people).
Are there some men or women who represent for your people some outstanding leaders, and why?
If I go right back in time and refer to my great grandfather Pop Henry Nelson, I see him as a key person from way back, in that he participated in the 'scholars huts', which were set up at the Cummeragunga Mission. I guess he was an Elder or Aboriginal person that came from a different area, but he was identified by another ancestor of mine called Thomas Shadrack James, who was surgeon. He (Thomas Shadrack James) actually married into our mob and identified key people in that group that had the skills to learn to read and write and be able to discuss issues relating to the mob, and so forth. So I see him, Pop Henry, as being probably a key ancestral leader at the time. He also challenged the Board of Protection about the way interviews were being held at Coranderrk Reserve. He was very forthcoming in his criticism of the way Aboriginal people were being managed. He himself became autonomous, getting his own horse and wagon and became a person who delivered things around the area.
Police records report that he left Coranderrk (Reserve) illegally with his horse and cart and proceeded to travel around central Victoria, back to Bendigo area, over to Lake Condah and Ebenezer missions. As he went along the way he changed his name, so it became very difficult for the police to actually catch him. After about 3 years the police basically gave up trying to catch him. So I see that as being very resilient at the time, given what was happening to our people. I guess one of the main people that I would really recognise today (as a Jaara person) and someone I'm not directly related to, is a lady called Nola Kerr. She has always resided in the area and has always maintained her ancestral links to Jaara country. She's a very proud sort of person who participates in public and community events and is seen as a quiet achiever too.
Your mother, Aunty Fay Carter, is very active in the Melbourne Koorie community. Are you willing to share that information with us?
My mother, yes she probably doesn't get the kudos she deserves. I have a remarkable relationship with my mother in that we're really good friends and that doesn't normally happen, I guess in terms of a parent / child relationship. When she separated from her husband a number of years ago I decided to stay with my mother and my sister decided to stay with my father. I have always greatly respected my mother. I knew how hard she always worked and how humble she could be in a mainstream environment and still be very proud about who she was and where she's come from. She has instilled those values in not just her own children, but also in her grandchildren, nieces and nephews and so forth. My mother would be the first person to tell you that she never had a very high academic-based education and she taught herself to be able to do a really high level administrative and management type skills and so on. Yes, I'm very proud of my mother. Sometimes you get looked at a bit funny for promoting your own family - saying that they're so good, but she is very well respected in the Aboriginal community and the wider community for what she's done. I think she's done really well with her life.
Yes. I think from an Aboriginal point of view, it is great to see Aboriginal people who struggled to achieve against all odds, especially a women of your mother's calibre, so quiet and gentle yet very strong, being there for us younger brigade of women. The establishment of the ACES (Aboriginal Care for Elders Services) is testimony to her dedication and strength and that of other Aboriginal Elders. That was the reason why I focused on your mother, it wasn't just a family thing. It was to highlight the achievements that she, as an Aboriginal woman, has done in a time when there was really not a lot of recognition around for women, let alone Aboriginal women.
Yes that's right. My mother initially worked with the Aborigines Advancement League when there used to be four staff. There was a management position, 2 field officers and a part-time bookkeeper. Those four people used to cover all of the state of Victoria and go into New South Wales. There were a lot of people in our community that were really struggling, and that really opened her eyes to the situation that our people were in. If my mother saw that Aboriginal people were going through bad times and something needed to be done right away to relieve the suffering, she just did it. Didn't worry about money, if she could help in any way she did. It's pretty well known that ACES doesn't receive much money beyond the main caring side of the hostel activities. She works there basically on no salary at all and there are not many people in our community today that would do that type work for next to nothing.
Rodney, what do you want most for your children and grandchildren who will live most of their lives in the first century of this new millennium?
I guess what I want them to be able to do is, if I could use the example of the relationship between my mother and myself, is that as they grow, they have confidence to speak and do something about the things that matter to our people. I have become more outspoken the older I get and my mother is amazed that I actually knew more than she did at a young age, in terms of our lifestyles, practices, traditional aspects of making things (Aboriginal tools and so on). I've learnt these things myself. I am probably the first person since contact in Victoria to make a reed spear. Carving was a tradition that disappeared among Aboriginal people and it was through my work at the museum that I learnt about that.
I guess now I've got the added benefit of being able to use administrative or management practices to store information chronologically so that my kids can pick up on it and take it to another level in terms of who they are, and their ancestral links. I want them to take pride in this country or more specifically, the Aboriginal idea of the nation of Australia. I would like my children to be active participants and represent our people, given that we are a minority group within our own land, and to also be really proud of who they are. I grew up, particularly at secondary school, being the only Koorie person in the school at the time and I found that really hard. People were pretty hard on you and would say hurtful things and it was even more difficult being a fairer skinned Koorie person. I was always being challenged because of the colour of my skin. People would say, 'You can't be what you're telling people'. They didn't believe that I was Koorie.
As I've grown up it doesn't worry me that people challenge me now. It doesn't worry me on any level how I'm challenged in terms of my identity because I can speak (about) aspects of my language and so forth, and I have knowledge of traditional culture. Even regarding Aboriginal art, where there's a misconception that in south-eastern Australia our people don't have art any more.
My kids may decide to work in mainstream jobs. I've always focussed on working in the area of cultural heritage, previously with the Museum (of Victoria) working with their objects (Aboriginal artefacts) and learning more about them, and now I am currently working within the landscape, on the land itself. The bottom line is that I would like my kids to at least know what I know and I'm pretty sure that information will hold them in good stead on whatever sort of journey or path they go on in their own life.
And finally, the North West Cultural Heritage Organisation, tell us about the role you play here.
There was an opportunity through the Aboriginal Registered Corporation to auspice funds to run a cultural heritage program in the North West region of Victoria and travel the area bounded by the South Australian/Victorian borders and south to Bendigo, nearly all the way to Melbourne near Seymour. I manage the program. We have 3 staff and they're spread out amongst that region and we're predominantly focusing on, say, the protection and preservation of the landscape. There are Aboriginal sites that sit within the landscape that you could call archaeological sites. Our role is not to undermine the clan's rights in relation to the management of, and the decision-making process of those sites, and to ensure this works. We've got a very inclusive Board structure of 15 members. We do acknowledge the rights and ideas of traditional owners but we haven't excluded people who have chosen to reside in the area because they might have ancestral links to it. Every Aboriginal organisation in the region has a place on the Board. So I believe it's pretty visionary, the way it's been set up compared to the other structures around the state. We've pretty much left a door open for everyone to be involved.
We see our community as 'clients' and I know sometimes that be seen as a cold word but anyone is more than welcome, whether it be individual people, family groups or Aboriginal organisations, they can approach us to provide a service for them. That's what we're funded to do and we like to think we do it in the most inclusive and culturally appropriate manner possible. We've got access to technology and we have a lot of skilled staff and Board members. We've have a massive task where I believe we're really playing 'catch up' in trying to protect our sites and landscape.
The sites we've afforded the most protection to are our burial sites or, to use mainstream terminology, our cemeteries. We do actually call them 'cemeteries' now, because a lot of our sites get desecrated and the remains have been removed. We have a listing of death certificates of those of our people who went through the process of getting a death certificates. The plots where people are buried were never really acknowledged as proper cemeteries and, for that reason weren't fenced off, and they were never given proper head stones. So over the next couple of years we're going around to all those sites, with the intention of finishing off 'unfinished business'. We believe that in trying to look after the living we also have to pay respect to the dead and fix things up that haven't been finished before we can move on.
Rodney, is there anything else you'd like to share with us for the purpose of the website that would enhance the understanding of the wider community of Aboriginal issues?
This. I heard one of my nephews say, that if mainstream people could just learn that we're people just like them, you know, we get hurt when people say bad things about us and so forth and all that. I guess what we want the wider community to know is that certain bad things have happened to us. We've got on with our lives. I guess we just want to be respected for that and a little bit of acknowledgment (that) some of that stuff has happened. We are a minority and need mainstream assistance to achieve what we need to in our lives, to become more active I think in that idea of 'nation'. If we can educate people regarding that idea, I think we've come along way and that's just reconciliation I think.
I was going to say, what's your view on reconciliation?
Yes, I think reconciliation is a lifelong thing. It's something I think that as humans, no matter what cultural group you come from, we need to have a bit of understanding of each other. I mean you don't have to like other people's practices or what they do, maybe you don't have to like them personally. but if you can at least try and appreciate or understand that that is their business, the way they go about things. Then we'll become a bit more understanding and accepting towards each other. That's just sort of the way things are. A lot of people don't look at the world the same way that we do in terms of our mind set or whatever, but it doesn't make us any less of a person or people than them. I guess we could say, we all have our different ways of doing things and we may not like the way that mainstream Australia does things in a lot of cases. It will be something I think our children, our grandchildren will inherit and that's just the way it is. I honestly believe that.
All right then, with that we'll conclude this session and thank you very much Rodney.