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This morning I read the transcript of Marion Scrymgour’s very moving Charles Perkins address. I was struck by the tragic story of her recently-departed father who was taken away from his parents. He passed away never without ever knowing who his mother was.

As I read this transcript, I got a phonecall from my mum who asked me about whether I’m coming home for Christmas. She lives in Perth. The juxtaposition of these two things made me revisit questions I often ask myself, “Where is home and how do I know that it’s there?” A question I get all the time that I struggle with it is “Where are you from?” Sometimes here in Sydney, I’m able to give a dismissive answer, “Western Australia”, and hope that the person asking the question doesn’t realise how big WA is. But really the question is not so easily dismissed.

Many times Aboriginal people have asked me this question as well. In recent years it seems to be getting progressively more difficult to answer. When I first went to Wadeye, I was able to say with some confidence, I’m from the Kimberley. I certainly felt like I was from the Kimberley. I still do, but the longer I stay away, the question of where I’m from becomes more difficult.

In some ways I am envious of Aboriginal people. Their relationships to country are not only powerful and profound, but they’re definable. For Murriny Patha people it is the patrilineally determined conjoint responsibility for certain totemic sites within a clan’s estate that gives people the right to claim the totems as their own, the estate as their own, clan membership and with it the right to both speak and own the language. For Kija people it is a patrilineally determined link to a ‘horde’ country within the Kija speaking area that gives people the right to claim the language as their own, and define themselves accordingly as ‘Kija having’.

‘I am Kija’/ ‘I speak Kija’

For other groups like Jaru it seems the place of birth may be more important. I wouldn’t know if this is true for all the country, but for many groups people believe that their spirit comes from certain sites within the country (a ‘spirit home’) and will return their to reside after death, hopefully to be reborn into another person. That people’s spirits reside in the country surely underpins Aboriginal people’s need to remain connected with the country, even at the great personal cost of poverty and disadvantage.

I guess it’s in this that lies the true tragedy of the stolen generation, or part of it at least. I can’t really begin to imagine to tell you the truth, and I don’t pretend to. But the theft of children from their parents, really amounts to much more than a theft of land, language, culture and kin (as if that isn’t enough). It really amounts to a theft of identity. Not knowing who you are must be a hell of a cross to bear when you know that other Aboriginal people tend to define themselves in terms of the very things that have been stolen from you.

I propose the following perhaps controversial question. Could it be that it’s difficult for White Australia to come to grips with our theft of Aboriginal identity, because we don’t really know who we are ourselves? How are we supposed to define ourselves? The flipside of this might be that if we don’t try to define ourselves, will we ever come to understand those who do?

My ex-wife is a whitefella who grew up in an Aboriginal town. From when she was an infant she was told stories by old Aboriginal people about country, ‘her country’ they told her. Many of those old people were and still are artists, so they talked about the country that they painted. She too is a great artist, a printmaker. The questions I’m asking are ones that we used to talk about a lot. How do you reconcile being a (knowledgeable) whitefella, in an Aboriginal town? How do you deal with the fact that knowledgeable elders have bestowed their stories upon you about their country; which they’ve also pointed out is your country, because it’s where you were born and where you have kin who are buried. What therefore are your rights and responsibilities? These are far from straightforward questions. And if you are a non-Aboriginal artist who grew up in the most incredible and inspiring country, influenced by great Aboriginal artists, how do you produce work that is your own, that is about country, that doesn’t appropriate other people’s belief systems. This is something she did particularly well, by producing what she called a ‘landscape of the soul’. It kind of tapped into a sort of universal landscape that would ring true for whoever saw it. It wasn’t identifiable as any particular tract of country yet was recognisable as ‘your’ country, no matter where ‘you’ came from.

Her situation is perhaps easier to define that my own. It’s not easy, but at least the question of where she comes from is not an issue. I spent the first 2 ½ years of my life on a central Kimberley cattle station. But 2 ½ years, what is that? I went to primary school on the south coast of WA, high school and uni in Perth. Then I lived in two Kimberley towns (one in the east and one in the west), before moving to Sydney to start a PhD. 2 ½ years in the Kimberley as an infant was enough that when I later went back some 26 years later I felt I had ‘returned’, whatever that means I don’t really know. So where is home? The Kimberley is definitely somewhere that is really special to me. But if the Kimberley is my home, where exactly? East? West? Central? I used to have a house in Broome, not any more. Gradually my friends in the towns I lived in move on, or pass away. The connection gets less and less each year. It’s always great to go back and visit, but that’s all I can do – visit. I feel like a tourist.

Will language help? It’s a defining characteristic for Aboriginal people’s identity, so maybe it will. I used to be able to be able to converse in a couple of East Kimberley languages but now I can hardly string a sentence together. And I know that language ownership is determined (in that area) by patrilineal descent, so that doesn’t help me. What about English? What about the fact that I say ‘bathers’ rather than ‘togs’ or ‘cossie’, will that help me work out where my home is? Ha ha ha.

Perhaps I can work it out from my totems? Well what are they? My motorbike???? Maybe I should get more serious about football. Football teams are supposed to have a spirit home, of sorts.

Sometimes I think the only way I’ll be able to work out where home is, is to leave the country. Then when I’m overseas, the answer will be easy, ‘Australia’, nuff said.

I dunno what all this is about, but I know I’m not unique. How do other people know where their home is? Cause that’s where they live? Cause it’s where they own property? Cause it’s where their family is? Cause it’s where their mates are? Cause it’s where their job is? Cause it’s where they were born? Where your parents were born?

Anyway this is why I’ve decided to stay in Sydney for Christmas. Not that I’ve got big plans, I’ve just never done it before. I’ve realised that Sydney will never become my home unless I have a go at making it my home. It might not make the question of where I come from any easier to answer, but it might help me to work out where I’m at, at least for the time being.


Thanks Joe- I have just been rereading 'My Place' by Sally Morgan and thinking about many of the same things. I am lucky in a way that I came from a small community for a lot of my young life and along with many of my friends feel like it is 'where I am from', both culturally and geographically...

I think the question you ask in there is really insightful. I don't pretend have an understanding of the complexities of the relationship between land and identity in Aboriginal cultures, but I have often wondered in NZ whether the hostility some Pakeha show towards Maori land claims (and the indifference shown by many others) is related to a feeling that if Maori define their identity by the land, and the land is really theirs, then Pakeha don't get any identity at all.

Our parents' and grandparents' generation still defined themselves as "European" to a large extent, and saw their heritage and identity as bound up in England and Europe, but I don't think younger Pakeha NZers do any more. Rather they want to define themselves in relation to the land they grew up in, but don't know how to do this, and maybe even feel guilty for trying. And rather than interrogating these feelings, people often find it easy to blame them on the way Maori are trying to "claim back all the land". (I wonder too if this was maybe part of the reason why tensions ran so high over the Foreshore and Seabed Act protests. If there's any part of the land that Pakeha tend to feel relates to their identity, it's the beaches, since that's where most people's childhood memories (Christmas, holidays, etc) are tied to.)

And if moving around is all about 'feeling in control' of one's life, how come I feel I have absolutely none?!

Sorry - I wrote this response, but it seemed to get et, and the above comment was an after thought to it.

Great post, Joe. I can relate to so much of what you wrote - but most specifically to the whitefella side of things, having lived in six different Australian states and four different countries. I have no idea where my 'home' is. Even my parents have moved on (twice!) from 'homes' I used to share with them.

And I don't have any answers. Though it did occur to me reading your post that moving around has made me really good at doing it and adapting to the whole process, but it also becomes the opposite skill set/mindset required to really feel 'at home' anywhere.

Sometimes I think that 'home' is about having less agency, having to surrender to somewhere. Whereas moving around is all about agency and being in control of where you are and how you define yourself: what lifestyle or geography you 'choose'. And surrendering is achieved through acceptance. And one has to *choose* to accept... So yeah, home is where the heart is.

Joe, it sounds like your totem really *is* your motorbike.
Of the four essential issues facing Australia listed by Richard Woolcott in Undiplomatic Activities, the first is "The achievement of genuine reconciliation between immigrant Australians and indigenous people they dispossessed." I like the term "immigrant Australians" because it captures the whitefella identity-geography question so succinctly. To accept that you are an immigrant is to understand that where you come from and where you have settled are to some extent separate concerns. The identity of an immigrant is defined by the journey between places rather than the places themselves.

Ha ha! so I suppose if my motorbike is my totem and totems are a factor, that would make Hinkley (UK) my spirit home. Perhaps I should go on a pilgrimage.

Piers I take your point, but I’m not sure that the term ‘immigrant Australians’ allows for anything more profound than the most fleeting or transient experience of a place.

I think Bulandjan is really right. Home is where the heart is. In that light, I’m sure I know where mine is, roughly. And I know that because I can pin down a feeling of dislocation that disappears when I go to the Kimberley. But where exactly, and how to explain it are difficult. And just because I can’t put a finger on it, doesn’t mean it’s nothing.

The Native Title and the Land Rights Acts require Aboriginal people to not only name particular tracts of country, but to establish the claim on the basis of a ratified system of traditional land tenure. This is an onerous enough task for people who have lived all their lives in their own countries and speak the languages etc. but gets more difficult to prove when people were taken away etc. etc. When the tables are turned, explaining the mechanism for why home is ‘home’ is really tough. Yes. Home is where the heart is. That is the bottom line. I guess I’m just glad I don’t have to prove it in a court of law.

Thank you for asking these questions, I believe they are important questions. They are huge and impact on us at multiple levels. Identity is a complex thing and informed by many aspects of life. 'Home'- We as non indigenous people may see it as the house we currently live in or the house/place that we grew up in or maybe it is a landscape that fills us. Home for me is as complex as my thinking about identity. Yes, home is where the heart is, but I believe it is more then that. I say this because I know where home is – well my ‘spirit home’. It is not in the town that I grew up in but out of town, a place that I have some stories for, but more then that, a place that when I first went there felt like it was part of me and I part of it. This is my ‘spirit home’ but it is not a place that I can live – well not in the way I want my life to be, so at the moment I call Perth home. Perth is not the place my spirit will return to. Perth is the place where I met fabulous people who support me to be me, differently to those in my spirit country. Home is about community as well. Community is important to our sense of self, connection to place, to people, to identity.

You make a great point in asking do we have trouble coming to terms with our theft of Aboriginal Identity because we don’t know our own identity.

Who are we as Australians? What do we look like? Where do we come from? Where is home?
We are largely a migrant nation, which in itself has an interesting influence on identity. We come from many nations of the world, culturally and linguistically diverse.
And we all live on Aboriginal Australian country – within Australia hugely varied from one Aboriginal nation to the next.

For me I am a whitafella who paints about country – my country, my spirit country, my internal country.

I concur. Great post, Jungurra.

It's certainly a question that goes to the heart of one of the fundamental differences of culture. As a society, non-indigenous Australia, by which I mean Anglo-Australia, is built more on immigration rather than any strong sense of links to land. Ironically though, we seem to have forgotten this and have closed the borders to any 'other'.

Of course many would claim that they are heavily 'linked to land' when it comes to 'loving Sydney's nightlife' (if possible) or 'protecting Cronulla', but I think that's a rather thin, and dangerous (in the case of the latter, at least), form of parochialism.

The truth is, any large-scale transitory population has lost that deep, multiple-generational association with one's ancestral lands, for obvious reasons, but it's made all the more worse in a colonial setting, because others get displaced to make room for the new arrivals, as Mary said above. So in losing our own sense of belonging (through constant moving about and colonisation) we drag others down with us.

I occasionally get jealous of Indigenous Australians, especially those who are fortunate enough to still have strong ties to country, as it's something tangible, permanent and unchanging that you can identify with. I however, can't think of a single location for which I have anything more profound than a fond memory.

Far out, this is getting poignant!

And I wonder whether we might be giving ourselves an overly hard time about this 'lack of attachment to place(=home)'.

I've heard it said that Australian(ist) linguists are marked for their excessive use of maps when presenting data (particularly in presentations and handouts). So, maybe we are more connected to place than we realise.

Alternatively, maybe we feel so *lost* that we constantly need to orient to a frame of reference?!

Actually, I'm not saying that just because we move around that we can't have an attachment to place. Quite the contrary. And for many of us, not only 'can', but 'do'. Mary Anne is right, your 'home' and your 'country' are not necessarily the same thing. Your home is a special place, but you can make it it anywhere. In fact I think that to make a place your home you may have to work at it. It may require some investment. Having put in some investment you can definitely make a place for yourself where your heart is.

However, your country, your 'spirit home' if you like, might be somewhere else – where you have longstanding connections of a different sort. That's the place you miss even when you are at home. I think your country is where you ARE from. It's the place that taps into your quintisential sense of self, that can't change just because you roll up your swag and move on. Maybe some of us don't have such a place. But some of us do, and it's real.

I don't know whether this is something that gets more developed by being in the bush. I think a lot of people who have grown up in the bush have very strong feelings for country that is legitimate and undeniable. I'd like to think it needn't encroach upon, or be incompatible with, an Aboriginal sense of belonging to country. It's surely not the same, but it's surely not that different either. I mean a lot of white people in rural areas spend a lot of time with Aboriginal people. So? Well the point is that they share many of the same values. Country and kin are core values for Aboriginal people. Well they may be differently construed, but they are also core values for (some) whitefellas too. This is stuff that Aboriginal people talk about and god damm it rubs off on you, even if you never had it before. I can still hear an old man in Halls Creek say with fierce pride "Dijan kantri bin growemap mibala" – this is the country that raised my people. How can you argue with that? He may have been talking about Jaru people but I can still identify with it. It says it all.

There's another way to think about this question. In the NT(Bible) somewhere, it says that we need to think about how we're going to die not about the past. OK this is a moral dictum - but is it any different from a person wanting to go back to their country (wherever it is) to die.
I was born in East Melbourne hospital miles from where I grew up and, as a city kid, my sense of place always seems ephemeral compared to my country cousins. But I can say where I want my ashes spread or bones buried and the answer, if it's authentic, informs my way of behaving in the present. Of course I'm assuming that identity and morality are overlapping constructs. A Noongar person still has to know how to die even if they know where.

Hi Joe,
I am truly a blast from your past. I too struggle with these issues. I moved east to be close to my mother in her last year or so,knowing that I would not be able to return to the west for financial reasons. Ihave a great bond with the Sydney I grew up in,butnot with today's city. Although on the Manlyferry I forget that. In Perth I longed for the Sydney climate. In Ulladulla I long for my Perth friends but also for the freedom to be myself, not pigeonholed as I am here by my sister who doesn't know who I think I am. So for me it not only where your heart is but where the identity you have grown to recognise as yourself is affirmed; internal and external validation are both components. Best Wishes,Ann

Raised some interesting points, Joe. I'm from the Gen Y with family links who experienced in a number of generations the effects of past removal policies. I grew up in the Territory.
As for the question about 'home', in hindsight in recent years I've felt more aligned as not quite 'Aboriginal', and not quite 'not', but somewhere in between. I identify as 'Aboriginal' becuase of the strength of my mother (and other factors), but I don't equate this with broader perceptions in terms of social norms. Others in my situation don't prescribe that view, but every person is different and to me I probably feel more comfortable within that spectrum of inter-dependant norms (how we as Australians are inder-dependant, and what is the dominant perception, and even how Aboriginal inter-dependant opinions are formed and their dominant perceptions which, in my siuation, relate to opinions in close proximity to the geographic location of where I am).
For me it's not useful conceptualising 'home' around material things or even property, but to aspire towards a greater goal and to feel sanctity in that. I empathise though with many Indigenous people who have experienced directly or have generations before them the forced removal policies, principally because of the psychological obstacles, especially around perception of 'self' and 'identity'. At the same time, I empathise with those Australians who have the firm view that they are connected to this country, and in some part feel an affinity that perhaps an Indigenous person is, to a degree, supposed too. It is by no means the same affinity, but it is self-acknowledgement and can be a genuine feeling nonetheless.
And then there is the more complex subject as to what pre-colonial and post-colonial perceptions and beliefs of country entail, and how these differences impact across a range of other social, economic, emotional and spiritual aspects!

Please come and see us all in the east Kimberley again one day. My son Janama says so too. Sydney was once my spirit home. I think the spirits from here are winning.


Hey Joe
I am a couple of years behind! Em's sister Nagarra found this blog in Perth and liked it, wanted me to read it, so i could enjoy it too. I relate to everything. Once again I am full of Kimberley stirrings for rain, family, country, language- January has never been the same again in the south. Wanting to be in two places all of the time. I think all my homes are in the middle- might be something, might be nothing. Like mirages, if you look too closely for definition and focus and the exact location, they disappear. Like a rainbow, when the conditions come together, when you are standing in the right place, looking the right way, your home appears. Like a painting. Like living water, always there whether you are.

Thanks for sharing your ideas, too good.


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