Nana Hilda was born a bush baby, a proper bush baby, who took her first breaths of life as a child of the Wuyaliya clan and Groper Dreaming around 1920 on Yanyuwa country at Manankurra on the Wearyan River. For eight years, her mother Polly a-Manankurramara and the Yanyuwa country of her birth held her close and showed her what it meant to be li-anthawirriyarra She was called Jarman by her Yanyuwa family. Nana Hilda was never quite sure why, but she thought it might have been the Yanyuwa way of saying “German”—she never knew her white father. When the police came, they wrote her name down as Narma. “It never was!” she declared and shook her head as she stared at me straight on, “It seems white people’s ears are not too good” . But white people could see well enough when they wanted to, and they saw that Nana Hilda was light-skinned. In line with official government policy in the Northern Territory at that time to forcibly remove, segregate and control Aboriginal children of “mixed descent”, they labelled her a “half-caste” and the policeman stole Nana Hilda from her family. They took her away on horseback from Burrulula on a very big journey to Kahlin Compound in Darwin. Her mother Polly cried and cried, she never stopped looking for her little Hilda Jarman to ride into town and return home. She was only a small eight-year-old girl and spoke Yanyuwa when she was taken; but Nana Hilda would never see her mother again. The trauma of being a Stolen Generations child never left Nana Hilda, and she fiercely watched over her own family each and every day until the very last.
Listen properly now
“Give him here to me”, she smiled and held out her arms to hold my baby boy. While his brother Max was at school and his father was at work, Hamish and I would often visit Nana Hilda to have a cup of tea and say hello; she and I both took ours white with two. She loved to talk stories of now and then, here and there, and I treasured these moments together.
“Look at his beautiful curly hair!” Nana Hilda said as she began her routine inspection of him. Bending forward, she placed a kiss on top of his head and breathed in deeply, closing her eyes in the bliss of his Johnson baby shampoo. She frowned slightly as she gently rubbed the soft skin on his bare arms exposed by the white bonds singlet I had dressed him in.
“When was the last time you put him outside in the sun?”
I shook my head. Hamish’s skin was the fairer of my two boys and while I was always worried about him getting sunburnt, Nana Hilda worries were different.
“Well, you listen properly now, make sure you put some oil on his skin next time to brown him up. We don’t want anyone thinking he’s white you know!” she said with a dry laugh.
I turned to look at her. I saw in that moment that the shadows which I sometimes saw flit across her face were now permanent stamps on her body, mind and spirit which screamed an anguish and pain so profound it took my breath away. Nana Hilda was worried that her great grandson, a “half-caste” just like her, might be stolen by the white authorities for being light skinned too. Underneath the mask of amusement she bravely wore, her words were intended as a serious warning to me of the clear and present danger that white-settler-colonial processes, and privileges still played in and over her life—and Hamish’s life. The body, mind and spirit of the boy’s father, Nana Hilda’s grandson, carried the same permanent stamps as her. When our two boys were misbehaving, I would often hear their father say—half-teasing, half-threatening, and half-terrifying—that they’d better just settle down or welfare might come around and take them from us.
Upon hearing Nana Hilda’s cautionary advice, my “white people’s ears” began ringing noisily and nonstop. It was my white-settler-colonial culture which chose not to hear and took children away after all. I wanted to tell Nana Hilda that I was listening to her, listening properly now with my white people’s ears and I had heard what she had said. I wanted to tell her I promise to make sure Hamish is “browned up” and that I will never let any policeman steal him from me. That “browning him up” means he will always remember he is her great-grandchild, the great grandson of Hilda Jarma Muir. That “browning him up” means nurturing him to be a strong Yanyuwa man and to call proudly himself li-anthawirriyarra. That being “browned up” means I will return to him all of the gifts of Yanyuwa language, ceremony and culture that I have been given. That being “browned up” means I will try to be the best white-settler-colonial-non-Aboriginal mother in relationality with a Yanyuwa son I can and that I will never dress him in a white bonds singlet again.
Bringing the children home
Today on National Sorry Day, I remember her and sense Nana Hilda still watching fiercely over her family, smiling and reaching out to hold Hamish in the same way she did 17 years ago. Today I hope she felt her loving embrace returned by a proud young Yanyuwa man whose great grandmother’s language now falls freely from his mouth, browned up good and proper with red ocher, and dancing with bare feet for the opening and closing of the National Sorry Day commemoration ceremony at the local Sherwood Arboreatuem. Today Hamish wasn’t wearing a white bonds singlet. Today I saw him smiling and reaching out right back to her—with every move closing the circle and bringing the children home.