A sweet homecoming
Writer and artist Jade Sweeney describes how she reconnected with her Aboriginal family
If you looked at the colour of my skin, it would be unlikely that you’d assume I’m an Indigenous Australian. I guess if you were to describe me in white-Australian lingo; I’m one-quarter Aboriginal. However, that’s something that an Aboriginal-Australian would never say. They would never describe someone as full-caste or half-caste, half or quarter. Identifying as an Aboriginal is defined by individuals’ relationships with the indigenous community, not by skin colour. You either are or you aren’t. If you come from Aboriginal heritage and you identify as an Aboriginal, then that’s what you are.
Today, I would say I am proud to be an Aboriginal-Australian. But, if I were to be brutally honest – it has been (in the words of Guy Sebastian), a long and winding journey to get here.
These experiences are mine, and personal, but by no means unique. The more I get to know my family, the more I see that this similar story is repeated, time and time again.
I am sad to admit that, for a long time, I stuck my head in the sand when it came to my Aboriginal heritage.
My mum wasn’t around when I was young, so I was raised by my dad. On Dad’s side, his mum comes from a British heritage and his dad comes from an Irish heritage. I was raised as a white Australian, with all the preconceptions and opinions that that includes.
For my whole life, I knew that Mum was Aboriginal. I also knew that she was adopted at six weeks old and was raised by my grandparents, a white-Australian couple with British roots. Life was rough for her and she has been mentally unwell for a long time. I am sad to admit that, for a long time, I stuck my head in the sand when it came to my Aboriginal heritage. The rocky relationship I’ve had with my mum (since I was 16) caused me to, at times, shy away from her and her background.
The first words out of her mouth were “welcome home”.
Let’s fast-forward through years of counselling and God teaching me many things … in 2013 (when I was 24), I met my first Aboriginal, blood-aunty from my mum’s side. I will try my best to explain a moment that almost can’t be explained in words. I got out of the car and walked over to where she sat on the front porch. The first words out of her mouth were “welcome home” as she flung her arms around me and we both cried. It was very similar when I met my other three aunties as well.
As I began to know my aunties, I discovered that my grandmother (and her father before her) was part of the Stolen Generations. My grandmother’s dad was taken from his non-Aboriginal dad around one year old when his mum died. He was placed in the dormitories of the Brewarrina Mission.
My grandmother was the youngest of eight, and was very young when she and her siblings were forcibly removed from her family. She was put in a girls’ home in NSW. When she grew up, she had six children of her own, to six different men; my mum was the youngest. She adopted out five of the six, and raised the youngest. I don’t know the exact details, but I know that some of the older kids were forcibly removed. Skip to the next generation – my mum and aunties. My mum didn’t raise me and two sets of my first cousins weren’t raised by their mums.
So that’s four generations of kids who weren’t raised by their mothers. And these sisters were all adopted out, so they didn’t have any idea that the same thing was happening. I often wonder how that links back to the Stolen Generations – could the feeling of inability and incapacity be passed down through the generations? Could the atrocities that happened ruin four generations in one family?
The biggest reflection I can share with you is this: relationships matter to my Aboriginal family. Relationships have been ripped apart time and time again, so when someone is brought back into the fold, that’s it, you’re in, and they love you wholeheartedly. I have never experienced community like this before outside of a church setting. So, when I can, I spend time with them … just chatting, listening to their stories. I can’t say that I understand everything there is to know about our history and culture, but I’m learning, and that’s OK. What I’ve learnt is that they don’t expect me to know everything. I think the most important thing is to listen, without judgment. And try really hard to put yourself in their shoes.
Could the atrocities that happened ruin three generations in one family?
I love how the writer puts it when reflecting on when Brother Charles de Foucauld lived among the Tuareg in the Sahara of Algeria: “He made himself the kind of friend at whose door one may knock at any time of the day or night. Since there was only one room in the hut, he would have had no way, when at home, of avoiding even the importunate, had he indeed wished to avoid them; all anyone had to do was to open the door and there he was … nor was it merely a matter of practising hospitality, rendering service, caring for the sick. He gave himself much more deeply to them. He sought to penetrate the secrets of their language, their traditions and their customs, in order really to understand them … he had made it a matter of primary duty to enable himself to see into the soul of the people, and it was because he loved them that he wished to know them so thoroughly. The plane on which Brother Charles succeeded in establishing his relationships with the inhabitants of the Hoggar was the plane of friendship – friendship with a certain kind of equality, brought about by his love.”
I met this amazing Aboriginal lady a couple of years ago at a Christian Creative conference. Throughout worship sets, she would be down the front, painting. During one particular session, I watched on as she painted a traditional Aboriginal dot painting. As I watched, I became emotional and wasn’t sure what that was about. I approached her afterwards and asked her “what does this painting mean?” She began to explain the symbols to me – she was painting how she was believing for the Holy Spirit to sweep through indigenous communities.
In that moment I felt like I saw a glimpse of how God can use any culture. It felt redeemed. She was using her skill and culture to tell the God-story.
I think once again, it all boils down to the conversation. If you don’t understand, in humility; ask. And listen. Without judgment or assumption. Hear their pain and their stories. And share yours.