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Jackson's Track Revisited

History, Remembrance and Reconciliation

Jackson's Track Revisited by Carolyn Landon
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In Jackson's Track Revisited Carolyn Landon returns to the story told by Daryl Tonkin in Jackson's Track (Penguin, Australia, 1999) – the tale of his life in the great Gippsland forest living among Aboriginal timber workers. Just as his family hoped, Tonkin's memoir has created the space for more stories. In Jackson's Track Revisited, the voices of Aboriginal people who lived at the Track mingle with those of the White Australians who tried to 'improve' their lives in the 1950s, the era of assimilation. An exploration of the historical factors surrounding Tonkin's story leads to discussion of the Victorian Aborigines Welfare Board, the Victorian Aborigines Advancement League and the policy of assimilation that was so prevalent in mid-twentieth century Australia.

This concise book contains many surprises. The new stories take complex twists and turns as Landon explores the motives of all the players – and this involves revisiting Tonkin's own memories. As Landon seeks others' interpretations of events, she also analyses her own changing understandings, uncovering the prejudices she, as interviewer, researcher and historian, has brought to the project. The testimony of one Aboriginal participant is particularly unforeseen and forthright. It shows that the way the Kurnai people see themselves has escaped the constructions White Australians have placed upon them ever since invasion.

Finally, Jackson's Track Revisited focuses on the friendship between Landon and Pauline Mullett, daughter of Daryl Tonkin. Mullett leads Landon into her existing culture – a culture which many White people believed no longer existed – helping Landon to find meaning in all the stories.

About the author
Carolyn Landon is co-author with Daryl Tonkin of Jackson's Track: Memoir of a Dreamtime Place (Penguin, Australia, 1999). Born in the USA, she came to Australia in 1968 as a traveller, hitchhiking by small aeroplane throughout the far north. A teacher in Australian state schools for almost thirty years, she has written and published several musical plays with her husband, Larry Hills. Landon has a Masters degree in biography and life writing from Monash University. She has just finished writing a biography of Bette Boyanton, Cups with No Handles (forthcoming).

Monash University ePress; Read online
Title: Jackson's Track Revisited
Author: Carolyn Landon
 
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Excerpt
Imagine a shack that looks more like a pile of weather beaten timber than a standing construction. It is in the middle of a windswept paddock on the edge of the great Gippsland State Forest, which sweeps down from the Baw Baw Ranges. Imagine that inside this building two people sit at a cleared table that is covered with clean newspaper. One of them, a bushman of eighty years who would rather be outside on such a good day, is talking, and the other, a woman half his age, is listening and writing. They are oblivious to the wind and the weather, to flies buzzing round their heads, and to snakes and rodents lurking about the house. Together they are writing down a story that will change the lives of many people in their local community and the minds of many more people in the greater Australian community.

It is March 1996. The old man in this picture is Daryl Tonkin and I am the woman who is drawing a story out of him with careful questions, taking notes while he talks. Later I will shape the old man’s memories into an accessible ‘yarn’ that I will read out to him at the beginning of our next session. During the eighteen months that this process lasts, the old man tells his version of events that he remembers happening between 1937 and 1962 in what I identify as the era of assimilation. It is the story of his life at Jackson’s Track, where he and his brother owned a timber mill and 880 acres of forest. For over twenty years, people, mostly Aboriginal people from Lake Tyers, came to live and work there. It was at Jackson’s Track that Daryl met and ‘married’ Euphemia Hood, a ‘full-blood’ Kurnai woman, and lived with her and their children for most of the rest of his life. It is a story of hard work, happiness, betrayal, racial prejudice, false assumptions and, ultimately, in Daryl’s view, tragic dispossession. Under my influence Daryl’s story becomes a life story in the Augustinian sense, written ‘pro vita sua (that is, as a defence of one’s own life)’ and it is plotted as a classic tale with beginning, middle and end – ascending action, climax and denouement. It is published in 1999 as Jackson’s Track: Memoir of a Dreamtime place and is received by a wide readership in the Australian community.

That was six years ago. Daryl Tonkin and I would never have met, nor would his memoir ever have been written, were it not for his daughter, Pauline Mullett. Although her father is Anglo-Australian, Pauline’s identity lies with her mother, Euphemia Hood Mullett, a woman of the Brabralung Clan of the Kurnai Tribe. Euphemia handed down to her precocious daughter the knowledge of tribal culture that her own father, Stewart Hood, had handed down to her. Stewart’s knowledge, in turn, had come from his grandmother, Kitty Perry Johnson, one of the ‘old people’ who remembered back before white settlement. Pauline understood the cultural importance of keeping her mother’s knowledge and eventually handing it down to her own daughter when the time came. However, she was also curious about the recent ‘history’ of Jackson’s Track, a tract of country in the foothills of the Baw Baw Ranges in West Gippsland, deeply forested with giant mountain ash, silver top, and stringy bark and covered with the pink and white blooms of boronia each spring. It was there that Pauline had grown up with her eleven brothers and sisters. The sound of saws whining at the mill and of axes ringing in the bush were a constant part of Pauline’s life as a small child, but she had been born too late to remember the place at the time when her extended family also lived there, when it had been a thriving community of ‘blackfellas’ all of whose livelihoods depended on the timber mill run by her father and his brother. She knew that only her father could tell her about his life there and about events that occurred before she was born, events about which she had heard rumours all her life. She wanted to know that story so she could hand it down to her own children and tell it to others in her community. She also suspected that the wider community might be ready to hear these stories, that it might be the right time to give recognition to a whole group of Aboriginal people whose history was part of West Gippsland. And so she asked her father to tell his story.

Reluctantly, the old man sat down with ball-point pen and a pad of lined A4 paper he’d bought at the news agent and began to pull his memories together into a narrative of life in the timber mills on Jackson’s Track. After he had completed twenty-five pages, he considered the task done and gave what he had written to Pauline, who was eagerly awaiting his chronicle. As she read the pages, however, it became obvious that the old man had left most of the ‘history’ she was looking for out of his story and she was momentarily stymied.

At that time, I was a secondary school English teacher at one of the schools where Pauline was Koori Educator. I was not only a colleague but also taught two of her children, and so a tentative but ultimately enduring friendship developed between us. When Pauline realised she needed help to goad her father into telling his stories, it was natural that she would call on me. She told me what she wanted, handed me her father’s handwritten manuscript, and left me to decide what I would do.

I read the pages with some trepidation, for as I deciphered her father’s old fashioned copperplate hand on that flimsy paper I felt I was being asked to look over something quaint and steeped in the kind of old clichés of Australian bush life that settler Australians – at least those who still live in the bush – are weened on. Here were mostly campfire yarns about the heroics and foolhardiness of the characters involved in the timber industry in West Gippsland. I assumed he knew a great deal more than he wrote since Pauline was so anxious for his story to be told, but it occurred to me that these might be the only stories the old man knew how to tell. It was hard to take his pages seriously. Out of respect for Pauline I read on until, at last, I came upon a key passage Daryl had slipped in at the very end of his narrative:

"A group of Christians [who] were white people didn’t understand blackfellows [sic] ways and bush living. They dogged the blacks for years trying to change their ways and give up the bush… They held a meeting in Drouin and decided to separate the blacks away from each other and the only way was to move them away from the bush and to destroy their homes then take them away in trucks and separate them away from each other in different towns… So they came out to Jackson’s Track and went around the homes telling them what was decided for them. The blacks said they would not shift away from their homes but were told the bulldozer was coming to push their homes down and would be burnt. They were told to gather up their belongings or they would be burnt. The bulldozer arrived with the trucks and pushed all the houses down then put a match to them. The blacks were told to get on the trucks and were taken to the block of land near Drouin… The Christians had wrecked the blackfellows lifes [sic]… They drowned their sorrows in drink which affected their health and they died one after another."

This unsentimental and concise description of a tragedy convinced me to spend as much energy as it might take to help Pauline with her father’s story. It was clear that if we could get Daryl Tonkin to talk, every word would be worth listening to. This passage became the centre of all my questioning and continued to drive my curiosity as Daryl’s story widened, and expanded to other participants in events he finally related to me. From the moment I read that passage, I found my life deeply entangled with Pauline’s life, that of her father and with the lives of those, far and wide, connected with his story.

As soon as Daryl and I began to work together it was evident, from his reluctance and his occasional tears, that the process of drawing out the old man’s story was laden with pain and danger for him. Ever since he had fallen in love with and begun to live with an Aboriginal woman back in the late 1940s, Daryl had kept details of his life private and hidden. From that time on, his instinct had been to camouflage himself in order to remain invisible to his European compatriots, as his new extended family had always been forced to do. Consequently, I found working with this old man fraught with difficulty. It seemed that after almost forty years of keeping quiet about so many things in his life, the task of telling his story was almost overwhelming. But Pauline’s encouragement and strength of purpose gave him courage, and he found a way to answer my questions until a narrative was formed and the book was made.

As Daryl’s story took shape, I began to realise what Pauline already knew: that something bigger than all of us was evolving. But of the three of us bound together by this project, only I was concerned that we were standing, like three innocents in an epic tale, at the portals of a huge Victorian edifice called History. In my mind it was akin to the Victorian Parliament looming at the top end of Bourke Street in Melbourne with broad stone stairs, Doric columns and many tall doors with heavy, brass fittings leading to a labyrinth inside. The edifice was hallowed and sacred, yet political and profane. The door we were entering was called Memoir, a portal that led the uninitiated into a hall of mirrors where it is difficult to tell truth from fiction. We were naïve enough to be ignorant of the complexity of the path we were taking and so, ignoring the switchbacks, false lanes, steep ascents and treacherous curves, we stumbled on – telling, listening, questioning, writing – until a manuscript was completed and a book was published.

If I had had a better idea of what it meant, in terms of historiography and methodology, to enter the labyrinth, I might have been overwhelmed and called a halt. Thank goodness for my naïveté. Daryl was even more naïve than I. In his mind, if he thought of it at all, the edifice we were entering must have seemed a simple structure built by simple truths. He indicated time and time again that he was telling the ‘true story of Jackson’s Track’ once and for all. Nothing could have been further from the truth.

Pauline’s vision of our project was different again. It didn’t take me long to realise that she did not see a Victorian edifice, as I did; that her idea of history was much more fluid than mine. At first, rather than pay attention to her ideas, I remained comfortable with my own limited assumptions. I was slow to understand that she was wary of how I was going about the project, that my unconsciously Western way of thinking about story – especially ‘life story’, which in the European tradition is ‘no natural or eternal form’ as I then thought it was – was clashing with things she knew about history, identification, family, story telling and song. To her there was no edifice that could hold these things. She watched me closely, and slowly, slowly she brought me towards an understanding of a way of being and a kind of knowledge that most White Australians know little about.

As a migrant to Australia in 1968, I thought I would find Aboriginal people to be part of the mix of the culture in Victoria, the state in which I live. Instead, all I found was a blank space and little interest in Aboriginal culture or pre-history from the settler Australians around me. The first thing I was told was that there were no ‘full-blood’ Aborigines left in Victoria, that they were a dying race, that their culture was extinct. In rural Victoria, these beliefs prevail and in the early 1990s, when I began to enter Pauline’s world, there was very little evidence to the contrary. While an indigenous presence in popular Australian culture was emerging, none of it seemed to be Victorian. It turned out that for more than three generations, very few of us had been paying serious attention to Pauline’s world. Through her father’s story, Pauline hoped – perhaps subconsciously, at that moment she impulsively asked him to tell it – to lay the groundwork for a new awareness of her culture. She hoped that its complex hierarchies, cultural imperatives, traditional assumptions – as labyrinthine to her as that Victorian edifice called History was to me – would be revealed as another way of seeing. Her instincts told her that in the 1990s, with the reconciliation movement on the way, White Australian society might be ready to learn her way of seeing. I was her tool. She was hoping that more stories, the hidden stories of her people – stories from her mother and aunty in particular – would follow her father’s memoir as part of this process.

It came about that once the book was published, Pauline’s hopes began to materialise. It seemed as though almost everyone in the Warragul-Drouin district, where Daryl lived and where the story of Jackson’s Track took place, read the book and spoke about it to one another. Because the book revealed a happy, independent and active Aboriginal community, it pushed local people’s imagination to the brink. First the local newspaper proclaimed its shock that an Aboriginal community such as the one Daryl had described existed at all. Then, in another issue of the paper, local historian John Wells confessed at length that he had been caught unawares. The book forced local people to think about the make-up of their community and to confront their assumptions about the Aboriginal people who, unbeknown to many, lived amongst them. It created an atmosphere of acceptance and a new curiosity. It also seemed to give the Kurnai people the confidence to emerge from the shadows in which they had been living for more than forty years and begin, tentatively, to take their place in the community. The book’s popularity among Australian readers gave Daryl’s life story a kind of celebrity status and a legitimacy that enabled citizens in the wider Gippsland area to change the vision they had of their community. As Michael Frisch expressed it in an essay on his experiences of the impact of oral history, Daryl’s story forced the citizens to ‘re-imagine how the past connects with the present and the possibilities this vantage suggests for the future’. Just as Pauline had hoped, her father’s story seemed to create the space for more stories to follow.

Pauline was more concerned with the stories of her own people than of those of the citizens of Daryl’s generation who took part in and were, according to him, responsible for the tragic events he related at the end of his book. Over the eighteen months that Daryl and I worked together, Pauline and I had become increasingly aware that his memoir was only one version of events. I had come to realise that it was not the ‘history’ he proclaimed it to be, but merely an example of a new kind of engagement with history that was gaining momentum and had, over the last twenty years, challenged many of the assumptions of conventional scholarship. It was the kind of history that comes ‘from the bottom up and from the outside in to challenge the established organisation of knowledge and power and politics that rest on it’. For this reason, while Pauline was waiting for her people to find the courage to speak up, I was waiting for the pillars of our community to begin screaming foul play at how Daryl – and by association I – may have perverted the facts to serve our own ends. However, the popularity of Jackson’s Track, and the fact that it was a story of tragedy and reproach, left those citizens still living who may have taken part in some of the events Daryl recounted – people who had served on the shire council, had been policemen, welfare workers or evangelists – unwilling, at first, to speak out. Nevertheless, I waited, knowing that one day someone would say something.

And finally this happened. In 2002, through the Reconciliation Group in Warragul, I came to know Janet Cowden. Because she was such a quiet, seemingly timid woman, who rarely spoke, it was almost a year of attending meetings with her before I really began to notice her. She dressed in a fairly conservative manner, as if to divert attention from herself. At the meetings she sat with a straight, self-contained posture, taking notes, but in writing so small it was impossible for a curious person to sneak a look at the words she wrote. Some of us wondered why she came to the meetings and what she could possibly be gaining from the process.

For some months in a row Janet brought along to the meetings a large cloth bag with something heavy in it, leaving it unopened each time. Finally, at the last meeting of the year, she sat directly across from me at a small table and, as proceedings began, she took a very old cardboard box with a lid on it out of the bag and carefully placed it in front of her on the table. She must have had some purpose in doing this, but she did not look up to give us a chance to ask her about it. I was intrigued. Finally, as the meeting drew to a close and people were leaving, I could contain my curiosity no longer. I asked Janet what was in the box. People paused to see what she would say. She seemed to blush deeply when my attention centred on her, but she summoned up enough courage to take the lid off and show the group the contents. She carefully began to explain that her father had been the secretary or treasurer, possibly both, of the local branch of the Victorian Aborigines Advancement League. Those who were still at the meeting returned to their seats.

Janet handed me a piece of paper that had, in carefully inked columns – blue ink penned with a fine nib on yellowing, lined paper – a list of the members of the Neerim branch of the Victorian Aborigines Advancement League. Even before I passed it on to others, I realised I was looking at something vitally important to Daryl’s story. I recognised many names on the list. Some were from well-known local families and all were Anglo-Australian names (with the exception of one Dutch name). There were no local Aboriginal names that I could see. At first I thought that the list might be non-denominational – indeed even secular – because it included the name of a now retired local doctor known for his left-wing ideas. But when Janet pulled out the minutes of the branch meetings it became clear there was a strong Christian flavour to the proceedings. Janet said her father was deeply religious, as was she.

At that point, I had no clear idea of what the Victorian Aborigines Advancement League was. The word League was dated and quaint to my ears. But I was fully aware that foremost among the names on the list were all the people Daryl Tonkin had called ‘the do-gooders’ in Jackson’s Track – those he had described in his hand-written notes as ‘Christians [who] had wrecked the blackfellows [sic] lives’. I was certain Janet knew what I knew and I wondered if she could sense my excitement. She dug into the box to show us that she had in her possession correspondence, treasurer's reports, receipts, and some of the minutes of the Neerim Branch of the Aborigines Advancement League throughout the mid-1950s to the late 1960s. My eyes widened. These were exactly the years most discussed in Daryl’s memoir. It turned out that Janet had worked for many years for the Summer Institute of Linguistics in Darwin as an archivist, and so she was fully aware of the uses to which her documents could be put. Indeed, if she hadn’t the habits of an archivist, she may have burned the lot long ago. As it was, she had systematically gone through her parents’ papers after her father had died, sorted them and recorded them for posterity. Now that they were open before us and it was obvious that they were intimately connected to Daryl’s life, she must have felt it was a confirmation of her effort.

Others at the table were interested in the papers, but they seemed not to be aware of their significance. They began to make moves to leave, but I remained in my seat, as did Janet and another woman, Margaret Baton. As the night wore on, the three of us scrutinised the contents of the box thoroughly. Finally, Janet carefully began to gather up the documents and return them to the box. But before she replaced the lid, she gave me permission to use the material to find out as much as I could about the League, the history, and her father's part in it.

“Yes,” she said to me when I asked if she would be willing to open up and let her father's side of the story be told. “My family is willing to be exposed in that way.”

The word exposed revealed what an act of courage it was for her to let me see the contents of the box. It indicated how sensitive I would have to be with her and her family as a listener/researcher. If the process turned out to be at all confronting or uncomfortable, she, unlike Daryl, might cut and run. I expressed my gratitude to her, telling her I thought she was helping to open up the way for other stories to be told at last, stories from people such as her father Hector Cowden (as remembered by his daughter Flo Cowden White, Janet’s younger sister who remembers the Track better than she does), and from Alwyn Jensen, another very active member of the League who spent much time and energy with the people at Jackson’s Track and who, Janet informed me, is still alive and waiting to reveal his version of events.

In turn, Pauline informed me that new information would be coming to light from her Aunty Gina Rose, her mother’s sister, who was willing to tell her version of the story. Aunty Gina is a respected Kurnai Elder and remembers living at the Track and the League’s involvement in her move away from it. Dot Mullett, Murray Austin and Gary (Chock) Mullett, all of whom grew up at the Track and moved off it into the town with their parents, were also willing to tell what they remembered. These new versions would stretch out Daryl’s story, add new dimensions, possibly even conflict with his memories of what happened for they would be told from different points of view. They would add texture to the story already told and give us an even more dynamic sense of what it might have been like to be at Jackson’s Track in the late 1950s. . . . . .