State Library of Victoria > La Trobe Journal

No 43 Autumn 1989

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Living As A Koori In Victoria

A talk recorded in 1988 by the Koori Oral History Program, funded by the Ministry for Planning and Environment and based in the State Library of Victoria.
INTRODUCTION by Wayne Atkinson, Director of the Koori Oral History Program.
The Koori Oral History Program was officially opened at the State Library of Victoria in August 1987. The Program grew out of the need for Koori people to record their knowledge of their history and culture so that it could be kept for future generations — thus ‘Keeping It For The Future’ was the appropriate theme chosen for the Program.
Since its beginnings the Program has steadily built up a wide array of oral source material. This ranges from interviews with Koori people, particularly Elders, to recordings of important events such as Koori Elders’ Camps, cultural activities, bicentennial highlights, and talks given by Kooris. Good quality audio, video and computer equipment is being used to preserve the information gathered, and to ensure that it will remain accessible for years to come.
Access to, and use of, the information will be possible under the Conditions Agreement which is presently being formalised. The bottom line of the Agreement is the recognition of the individual Koori people as the rightful owners of the information they provide, and their permission will be necessary before it can be accessed or used. This will apply more strictly to information deposited as ‘secret-sacred’ than to that made generally available for public education and cultural awareness.
When interviewing people, we prefer not to use standard questions or methodology. Being flexible and able to adapt to various situations are essential skills. Sometimes video and audio equipment are both used during interviews. The plan of approach chosen for each situation comes from a thorough practical knowledge and understanding of Koori cultural values and aspirations rather than from formal training. The most important skill is to get people to tell their story in their own way and to realise that what they have to say is just as important and valid as what anyone else says.
To give readers an example of the type of information being recorded, its value as a source of knowledge, and the Koori style of oral history, the following is a transcript from a talk given by Albert Mullet at an Aboriginal Perspectives Day at the Catholic Diocesan Centre in Melbourne on 4 August 1988. Albert is a descendant of Victorian tribal groups — the Gunai (Kurnai) of Gippsland and the Gunditjmara of the Lake Condah region in the Western District. He has worked for many years in Aboriginal Affairs as a Cultural Officer teaching Aboriginal culture in all levels of education, is a former member of the Aboriginal Arts Board, and is actively involved in the development of Aboriginal Education policy and programs in Victoria. Albert is presently the Community Councillor with the Aboriginal Studies Program at the Gippsland Institute of Advanced Education. Here he tells his story about ‘Living as a Koori in Victoria’.

Albert Mullet (left) being interviewed by Wayne Atkinson in 1989.

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My life has been very exciting, I suppose, in many ways. I've a very large family of eight children and eleven lovely grandchildren, a very beautiful wife that speaks her own language, an Aboriginal language, and I have a very, very enormous family of thousands.
I'm a descendant of the Gunai (Kurnai) people of Gippsland, which was a nation long before European people came to Australia, numbering between three and a half to four thousand people in that area. It was made up of five tribes in the Gippsland region. We were people that lived along the low coastal area, very close to the water, because of the abundance of food in that area and the very specialness of that old Gippsland region and what it has to offer. So I come from a very proud nation of people in that area, very fierce fighters, and that's on my grandmother's side.
On my grandfather's side I come from the Portland area, down the Condah area, the Gunditjmara mob. My grandfather, then, in the late nineteenth century, was moved from Lake Condah to Coranderrk. To my knowledge, and it's been recorded, my grandfather used to teach at the old Condah mission in 1886 as an Aboriginal teacher. So I'm still doing it. There's five generations of my family alive, and most of my family are involved in that area, in educating people about Koori things, and the struggles that we've had in the past and what we're still having today.
At the first world war, my grandfather went over and fought for this country like every other Australian, he was a light horseman … He came back from overseas, and in 1918, 1920, they were shifted to Lake Tyers, the settlement down there. Lake Tyers today is still in existence It's a total Aboriginal community of about 150 people, some wonderful things happening there, and the community is certainly thriving in many ways.
During that time, moving into the 30s, the welfare people got very severe on our children, taking a lot of their children away from their families. My mum and them lived on Lake Tyers but we had to move interstate because the welfare people were taking part-Aboriginal children away from their parents, another devious way to try and destroy the family structure. So a lot of us in that area of Gippsland become like wetbacks1, they'd transport us over the border into New South Wales with our family over there for a month or two months or six weeks, and then they'd move us back again when the welfare got pretty severe over there. Now the way they used to do it — there was a bloke who used to have a fish run, and fish truck, his name was Snowy Fountain, and he used to have the fish run from Moruya right through to Melbourne, picking up fish all the way down. So he had a policy with his drivers that any driver that didn't pick up an Aboriginal person that was on the road hitch-hiking, they would get the sack. So it was very convenient for our people's transport because a lot of our families are married in along the coast with Kooris up in that area, Eden, Wallaga Lake, all through that area. There's a couple of missions up in that area as well. So our families keep going just like the rainbow serpent all around the coast.
And so during that time in the 30s there was a lot of us that were moved by the policies of the government to remove us from the settlements, a lot of our families lived on the fringes of white society. And that sort of gives us land rights in them days, in the late 30s. The land they offered us was near rubbish tips, near the gravel pits where they used to dig out the gravel for maintenance of the road, so it was very nice places that the coucil offered us where we could live.
During those years I found it very hard to come to terms and to understand what was happening, why people had such an attitude towards Aboriginal people. Because those times and places you couldn't go into a cafe and sit down and have a meal, you couldn't go into a theatre, they'd put you right down at the front stalls, and in places that still existed up till about five or six years ago in our area, most Aboriginal people had to be out of town by sundown. So these things, when you're a child growing up and living on the fringes of white society trying to understand what's going on around you, it sort of starts to leave scars on you. So as you grow up you get a bit harder and a bit harder and a bit harder, and you attempt to go to school, and you walk into the schoolground and you get called all these nice names by kids, and teachers not having any understanding, not having any understanding about Aboriginal people whatsoever. So their attitude has been embedded pretty well in them by their parents and their parents and their parents. So there's no real understanding about Aboriginal people, their family life, their culture.
In those very late 30s and early 40s there was a little bit of time I did go to school. I started to understand what was really happening out there. Because I was very fortunate to go to school in Fitzroy in 1939 and 1940 with Sister Molly Dyer and a few more of them, Winnie Quogliotti. So we went to school in Fitzroy at just the start of the second world war. And so we become very tough Kooris, you know, because we had to, no other way of surviving.
As time went on, moving into the end of the second world war, during that period a lot of our people come from around the country and especially a big group come from Lake Tyers in Gippsland. There was one platoon to come from Gippsland to fight in the second world war, and most of those were me uncles. And, if you ever see that film, Lousy Little Sixpence, you see a clipping of the soldiers there, most of those are me uncles, the big bloke, Uncle Chook Mullet, he was a very famous Aboriginal singer, he used to perform down here at the Tivoli …
During those war years living in Melbourne, a lot of our people were in Melbourne from around the
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country, working in the ammunition factories, and in the armed services, and we become once again a big family living in Fitzroy and Collingwood. And I can remember there at 119 Victoria Parade, opposite the old Carlton Brewery, there was ten families living in a two storey place, the Fitzclarences, Edwardses, Thorpes, O'Rourkes, Stuarts, Peppers, Hayeses, a few more there. We lived there during about 1941, 42 We had that experience of seeing the Yanks come over and be part of the city during the war years. They used to turn all the lights off and have these air raid sirens going, so we were part of all that
Then in 1945, 46, we moved back up to Jackson's track out of Drouin. There were about 200 of us Kooris living in that area, where Lionel Rose, our world champion, and Harry Hayes, our Australian and Commonwealth champion were born. So we lived in those areas and Uncle Doug used to come out and have church every Sunday with us, but also when we were in Melbourne, we used to go to church in Uncle Doug's, Uncle Doug Nicholls. But there was a bit of opposition. There was a lady called Sister Alice, Salvation Army lady, she used to have church, also of a Sunday evening, so all us Kooris used to see where the best feed was, some would go there, you know, a matter of survival. So we'd patronise Uncle Doug's this Sunday and if Sister Alice had a good feed on the next Sunday, we'd all go there.
But it was a way of surviving in the city, and when you live in a little built two-room in the city it's like living in a little cardboard box. But we lived through that, and like I said, when we went back up the country, living around Jackson's Track and Drouin, I went to school there for about five weeks in Drouin Primary School in 1945/6. That was a very nasty experience, the first time they'd ever seen a black person, I think. They used to look at me all the time, and I found that very hard to come to grips with. But I lasted there for a little while, and said no, this is not for me, can't handle this, so I went bush and started to reach out and want to learn from the Elders, and the uncles and aunties, and so they become my teachers, and will always be my teachers. So, during those years there in the 40s we come a big family in Jackson's Track. Kooris come from other areas and other states, parts of Victoria, Dimboola, Purnim (Western District), up around the Goulburn Valley area, old Uncle Wagga Cooper and a lot of the Wandins were already embedded pretty well in that area, the Markses, the Austins, the Roses, they all came down to that area at Jackson's Track in the 40s. And so there was a lot of intermarriage with the families. Those days living on the Track were something that will always stay with me. I was there when Lionel Rose was born, and Harry Hayes, and we set up the first Koori boxing troupe in Jackson's Track, with a bit of sawdust on the grass, and four posts, and a bit of wire strung around it. We had our boxing gloves made out of socks and jumpers, and we used to get in there and make out we were all these

Albert Mullet (Photo: M. Cox & A. Flint).

famous Aboriginal boxers. So these years were happy years of my life.
Then towards the end of the late 40s, we went back home up to the Orbost area, and a lot of the people living in that area lived on the fringes of white society. They were hard working people working in the bush, working in the railway doing seasonal work, picking beans and peas and carrots, and doing corn during the winter. And my father and mother were part of that, and I've worked in the bush most of my life for forty years, in the timber industry, sawmills, log-feller and sleeper-cutter, I've been there and done all that. So I know a little bit about hard work.
Moving up the track, in the 50s I got married, my childhood sweetheart, my wife, we've been married for 36 years, and still very strong. On one side of the family, the Mullet side, the male is very strong, so I have nine grandsons, the oldest grand-daughter is 16, and the youngest grandson is 5 months. So all during that time, you know, I've been involved with our fight and struggle for our people, at the local level, more so, in the early years, the middle 60s into the 70s. We were very much up front many years ago when Lake Tyers was handed back to the people in Gippsland. But all the time trying to rear eight children and feed them and clothe them, and give them an education, no money around. The wages in the 60s were about 48 dollars a week, so it was a really hard battle … There was no government support around them days, you had to work for everything you got and there was nothing given out. And there wasn't enough hours in the day to earn enough money to feed your kids. But we've survived, we've done pretty well, they're all healthy, and that's the main thing.
Then we come very much aware of what was happening in education, there was very little happening towards any sort of Aboriginal studies programs or culture programs in education in government schools or private schools. A lot of little token gestures by various people, governments and people in education, but there wasn't enough being done. So, like an old wombat, I came out of the bush and said I want to get in here and make sure these people are going to make things happen. And that's where I've been for the last seven or eight years.

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‘Wetbacks’ is a term for Mexicans who enter the U.S.A. illegally.