As a young adult I began searching for the truth behind the missing birth certificates on my family tree. I was not the first of my family to do so. Like those who had tried before me, my search hit dead end after dead end. White records were designed to erase Aboriginality and they do that very well. Hoping for clues in the oral histories, I travelled to communities all over the country, asking strangers if they knew my family. I wrote to Aboriginal corporations, AIATSIS, community Arts Centres, departments of births, deaths and marriages. I left my job so I could devote more time to searching. I found references to my family in Wangaratta, but nothing concrete. I kept looking.
After years of little progress, I was taken in by the Warlpiri in Lajamanu. They offered to help me look for my missing Aboriginal ancestry, although they were sure I’d fail to find it. I was formally adopted into the Patrick family by senior elder Jerry Jangala and given a skin name and Warlpiri ‘bush’ name. A group of ladies (Myra, Agnes, Sonia, Judy, Lily, Biddy and Kitty) took me hunting and showed me how to identify plants. Their influence on my art practice is significant – my work doesn’t look like their beautiful paintings, but it’s underpinned by a world-view they helped me see.
There are kids in Lajamanu that I’ve photographed every year of their lives since they were born. I’ve worked with the Warlpiri to create Aboriginal suicide prevention apps, to repatriate historical photography collections to Lajamanu and on other cultural projects. I have no biological connection with the Warlpiri, but they’ve always treated me like family. They’ve become the family of my heart. I’ll never be able to fully express what this has meant to me.
It was after I’d given up that I received an email from a Bpangerang elder from the NSW Riverina. He’d found one of the hundreds of letters I’d sent to Aboriginal corporations, and had recognised some of the names. I got in the car that day and drove five hours to see him. I don’t pretend to have all the answers now, but the photographs and records in his possession gave me certainty, for the first time, about who my ancestors were. Since then I’ve uncovered much more about my lineage – things I’d never have found without help from the community. I trace my ancestry to the peoples of the Murray River in the NSW/VIC border areas. They are known today as Bpangerang or Gunaikurnai people.
I have the permission of the Bpangerang to publicly identify as such, and I contribute to community on a regular basis. However, when I’m asked about my ancestry, I usually reply that I’m a descendent of the Bpangerang-Gunaikurnai people. I do that, not to deny my connection with Bpangerang or Gunaikurnai people, but to differentiate myself from those who have grown up in that culture. My world view has been destroyed and rebuilt by embracing my Indigenous lineage. But I recognise that coming to Aboriginal culture as an adult is very different to growing up in community – and that difference should be respected.
Anyone who has seriously tried to piece together their erased Aboriginal ancestry knows how deeply painful it can be. Not everyone wants the past exhumed– you face opposition from within your own family, as well as from external parties who politically benefit from obscuring history. If you are lucky enough to find clear written records, you might end up belonging to two cultures. But in situations like mine, where the records are scant, and so much remains hidden, it’s more likely you’ll belong to neither culture – illegitimate in black culture, and self-evicted from white culture.
I have deep and abiding ties with the Warlpiri. They are the ones who befriended me without judgement, who held my hand when I was lost, who’ve walked beside me for so long now I can’t imagine life without them. I use the skin name Nangala at their request– and to honor them. Many tribes of the southern states, including the Bpangerang and Gunaikurnai, lost their skin names with much of their history and culture during the genocides in Victoria and NSW. Over recent years I’ve built a valuable relationship with the Bpangerang. I can’t say the ghosts in my family tree are entirely at peace, but they are certainly quieter now.
It’s important for me to disclose these facts as an act of truth-telling. My background is one of privilege. My paler skin has shielded me from a lot of racism – certainly not all racism, but it hasn’t been part of my everyday life. Because of this I have never, and will never, apply for grants, funding or opportunities that are earmarked for Aboriginal people. I’m not telling others in my position what to do, but I’ve personally committed to not benefitting financially through those schemes.
Nevertheless, my connection with culture has shaped who I am. It has oriented and directed my life, my work and my friendships for almost twenty years. My ongoing effort to clarify my erased Aboriginal ancestry underpins my writing and creative work. When I speak of culture, it’s my own personal story – a story of my relationship to Country and to individuals on that Country. I am not telling stories that belong to others.
Identity politics is a complex landscape, and I’m doing the best I can to navigate it with honesty and empathy.