Aunty Averil Dean: Rich rewards from family, culture and country

Aunty Averil Dean (née Williams) is a proud Cultural Elder with strong spiritual beliefs and connection to the land, especially the Stirling Range (Koi Kyeunu-ruff). Born in 1939 at Gnowangerup, Averil shares important insights about Noongar life in the communities of Gnowangerup, Tambellup, Cranbrook and Albany. In the late 1950s, Averil nursed in Broome, met her husband and started a family, before moving back to Tambellup. Here’s Averil’s story from the heart.

Aboriginal readers are warned that this story contains images of deceased persons.

I was born in the bush at the mission and lived there until I was about nine or 10. I discovered my Aboriginality by just being a kid with freedom to embrace the land, which was important to me because that was where my heart was; that was where my feelings were; and that was where I discovered a lot about my culture and myself.

As a Menang and Goreng Elder, I have a strong cultural connection to the land – it is part of my spirit, part of me. I have strong connection to my Dreaming and my cultural obligations, which include educating the wider community about the importance of Noongar heritage.

I had the privilege of being able to experience the spiritual strength of our old people who shared a strong connection to the land. Their spiritual strength shone through them with their relationship to nature and gave them the power to overcome adversity and go forward with pride in their cultural beliefs.  

At the Gnowangerup Mission, Brother Wright discouraged the use of cultural practice and language because of Christian learning, and many Noongar people embraced that because it went alongside their own spiritual beliefs.

Averil’s Mum and Dad, Elsie and Len Williams, with her brother Jack, ready for the Gnowangerup show
Averil’s Mum and Dad, Elsie and Len Williams, with her brother Jack, ready for the Gnowangerup show. Image: courtesy of Averil Dean.

My Williams family didn’t speak much Noongar language to us as kids because they wanted us to learn the English way — they spoke a lot of words but they didn’t speak the language fluently in front of us. I think the biggest thing that we lost in our lives is the language because language is culture and culture is you.

Brother Wright, who formed and ran the mission, fought a lot of red tape and government policies to have the families live together, and he won that battle. He helped the Noongars make their own little houses and we lived together as families — we didn’t have that separation of being taken away.

I come from a really strong family and as a protected young child I experienced happiness in my home life and didn’t see the oppression that older family members were experiencing with the loss of their land and cultural practices.

When the Mission School was first built it was only a little shelter and the kids had to sit on kerosene tins. They only had school up to Year 3 and if the kids wanted to go on with education, they had to repeat. As the years progressed, when I came into school, the learning was more advanced but our schooling was pretty flexible and it was a happy place because we were all Noongar kids together and didn’t have to worry about whether we could fit in anywhere.

Gnowangerup was a very racist place, so the mission became like a safe haven. When Noongars went into town to shop, they had to wait outside until white people had finished their shopping. If they went into town, they had to be out by the six o’clock curfew or the police would come. Police were supposed to be the protectors but they were the instigators of a lot of violence and oppression that was shown against Noongar people. Our people lived by permits. For example, they had to get a permit to go outside the mission to work. At that time, Noongar kids weren’t accepted in state schools.

Averil’s father Len Williams with her brothers Hartley (left) and Jack on their way to work
Averil’s father Len Williams with her brothers Hartley (left) and Jack on their way to work on a farm. Image: courtesy of Averil Dean.

My grandfather always said he was a Menang person from Albany. He and his family, including my dad and brothers, my dad’s brothers and their sons, earned their living working long hours, with little pay, clearing the land, burning up, grubbing poison plants and fencing the farms. But it was Noongar land for goodness sake.

When the mission started to close down, our family moved to the Tambellup area, working on farms and camping in the bush. We went to school in Tambellup, catching a school bus. It was very different attending a white school as an Aboriginal child. You always felt you were being judged by what you wore and how you acted. At the school we suffered racial comments like ‘niggers’ and ‘boongs’.

Averil Dean in photo with her Noongar brothers, sisters and cousins heading to school in Tambellup. All standing in front of school bus.
Averil with her brothers, sisters and cousins heading to school at Tambellup. Front: Garry, Sam, Ruby, Patricia. Middle: Gwen, Warren, Treasy. Back: Mervyn, Averil, Glen. Image: courtesy of Averil Dean.

At the school one day, I met two little kids and the boy said, “Oh, look, there’s a nigger now”. And I went up and slapped him — that was our only defence. No one wanted to listen to us. No one cared about what happened. He didn’t say it again.

But I made some great friends at Tambellup school – they are still my friends, my wonderful friends. You tend to grow above the racist comments when you meet people who have good hearts and you look for those sort of people in your life. At Tambellup school we started to get our learning together with the help of some teachers. I had a teacher who looked after me, so I was okay.

My dad said to us as children that this is no longer our land because these people have taken it over. He said that the only way that you can be successful and compete with them at their level is through education. For somebody who’d never had formal education, he was a very learned man. And he had this insight into what was the important thing for us in our lives — education. So we were never allowed to miss school.

The Welfare (Department) made regular checks on Aboriginal kids’ progress at school and singled out kids they felt would benefit from going away to school in Perth. The idea being to breed out the Aboriginality and teach them to live like white people and get rid of the bush culture that was part of their lives.

They focused on me and my brother in Tambellup school and asked my dad if we could go to school in Perth. He was adamant that “No, he wasn’t going to send his kids anywhere”. They persevered and in the end my dad relented, and he said, “Alright, I’ll let her go if you take her sister with her”, and so that’s how me and my sister Treasy went to Perth.

We stayed in Alvin House, a hostel, in Mount Lawley and went to Girdlestone High School. We wore a collar and tie and a beret and pleated skirt. Being dressed in full school uniform was, at first, a cultural shock. I think they hoped we would forget our Aboriginal culture.

Averil (far left) at Girdlestone High school in Perth with (L to R) her sister Treasy, Ethel Birch, Verna Morrison and Margaret Mippy.
Averil (far left) at Girdlestone High school in Perth with (L to R) her sister Treasy, Ethel Birch, Verna Morrison and Margaret Mippy. Image: courtesy of Averil Dean.

One day my dad came up to the school — he came down to the back gate to attract our attention at the school lunch break. Treasy and I went down to him and he was dressed up in his old suit pants and his old coat and they were all clean and he was this Noongar and we were dressed up like white kids, you know. And I felt such a rush of love for this person. He was the most important person in my life — I felt such a rush of love. And I think that’s where my pride in who I was and who I will always be came to the fore. I was just so proud to be part of his life.

In the hostel, all the Aboriginal girls were taught how to adjust to life in white society — they made us polish floors and do other domestic chores. If the work was not done to their satisfaction, we had to redo it. Near the end of our school life, they put us in a factory to work while waiting to go into nursing aide training at Royal Perth Hospital.

Averil nursing at Royal Perth hospital with Curly Gillespie in about 1958
Averil nursing at Royal Perth hospital with Curly Gillespie in about 1958. Image: courtesy of Averil Dean.

After our training at Royal Perth, they offered the trainees a position in Broome Hospital because of short staffing. So me and my friend Verna took the plunge and said we would go. Two little Noongar girls on their first plane ride, not knowing anything about the local cultural protocol or the language, or how the people would react to us — it was scary.

After our arrival, on the first night, I had to go on duty by myself at the hospital. That scared the life out of me because I didn’t know enough then. Verna was more outgoing and soon made friends with Aboriginal staff who worked in the hospital. So we got to meet the wonderful Aboriginal people in Broome who welcomed us into their community as family. I met my husband, Kenneth Dean, and he became an important part of my life. We had three to four years in Broome and got married and had two children.

Averil with Cecilia Bennett in Bidyandaga, near Broome — displaying the special quality of friendship.
Averil with Cecilia Bennett in Bidyandaga, near Broome — displaying the special quality of friendship. Image: courtesy of Averil Dean.

But I was missing family and feeling homesick, so we moved back to my country. We lived out on farming properties and he worked with my dad and family clearing land. He learned how to shear and became part of a powerful working family team.

I pay tribute to my mum, Elsie Williams (née Hayward). She was a great lady. As kids, I guess we all tend to take our mums for granted, and don’t think about the impact they have in our lives. My mum worked incredibly hard, helping to clear the land and do the tasks that men do, and yet she still mothered us eleven kids. She would sit all day on a dam bank, washing clothes and boiling them in a kerosene bucket to keep the whites white. I didn’t realise, with admiration, the role that she played in our lives until I got a bit older.

In the late 60s, Kenny got a job in Cranbrook, so we moved our family and that became our home for 12 years. Because of his strong work ethics, he earned deep respect from the people of Cranbrook. It was like going to a different place because they accepted us and our children as part of the community. So life there was good.

The opportunity of a housing loan saw us move to Albany because we felt it would be beneficial to our children. We settled in Mount Lockyer and put our children in Mt Lockyer Primary School. Soon after, my brother Jack and his wife, Joan, also moved to Albany.

Husband Kenny with Averil, daughter Sandra and mother Elsie Williams attending Sandra’s graduation from the WA College of Advanced Education – Mt Lawley Campus, 1986
Husband Kenny with Averil, daughter Sandra and mother Elsie Williams attending Sandra’s graduation from the WA College of Advanced Education – Mt Lawley Campus, 1986. Image: courtesy of Averil Dean.

There was a teacher at Albany Senior High School, Will Richards, who was putting out feelers for Noongar speakers to do cultural studies with the Year 9s. So Jack and I started there in about 1972. We were joined shortly after by our sister Treasy.  We used to go once a week. We took all the students on excursions to sites around the districts of Gnowangerup and Tambellup and Jack would talk about the significance of the sites and what they meant to us as Noongar people. I still work with the schools as a cultural teacher.

Averil doing a cultural lesson with students from Spirit of Play Community School, Denmark
Averil doing a cultural lesson with students from Spirit of Play Community School, Denmark. Image: courtesy of Averil Dean.
Averil and her brother Jack Williams on country at Anderson Lake sharing their cultural knowledge
Averil and her brother Jack Williams on country at Anderson Lake, sharing their cultural knowledge. Image: Amanda Keesing.

Many years after working in the high school, I went to Perth and I was in the Westpac bank in St. George’s Terrace, waiting to be served, when I was tapped on the shoulder. I looked around and there was this young white man. He had a suit on and a pink tie that stood out. He was a handsome young man. And he said to me “Oh, you’re Averil?” And I said, “Yes”. And he said, “You won’t know me, but I was in your class in Albany Senior High School and did your cultural learning”. “You know what” he said, “out of my whole school learning journey, yours was the best.”

That was my reward.

Averil doing Welcome to Country at the launch of the Yarrabee restoration property, east of the Stirling Range (Koi Kyeunu-ruff), 2007
Averil doing Welcome to Country at the launch of the Yarrabee restoration property, east of the Stirling Range (Koi Kyeunu-ruff), 2007. Image: Deborah Badger.
Averil & Kenny Dean graduation
Averil and Kenny Dean: pride in Kenny’s graduation. Image: courtesy of Averil Dean.
Averil Dean with her children at her grandson Daniel's wedding in Leeman, 2016
Averil with her children (L to R): Geoffrey, Sandra, Patrick, Glenys, Brenda, Lindsay and Leonie at her grandson Daniel’s wedding in Leeman, 2016. Image: courtesy of Averil Dean.

WARM THANKS to Aunty Averil and her family, including Sandra Brogden for assistance with photo captions; the photographers; and Bill Bunbury OAM for recording the original interview. Gondwana Link’s Marg Robertson, Keith Bradby and Carol Duncan assisted with the story’s development.

This story was first published in the May 2023 edition of the Southerly Magazine – with thanks to editor Wayne Harrington.

Further reading and listening:

The publication ‘NGULAK NGARNK NIDJA BOODJA: our mother, this land‘ (2000) includes rich oral history accounts by Averil Dean, Leonard (Jack) Williams and other Noongar Elders from the Great Southern and Wheatbelt. It’s published by the Centre for Indigenous History & the Arts.

A conversation with Jack Williams and Averil Dean: stories about country‘ is available here on Heartland Journeys. It’s drawn from a 2004 recording.

‘Boola Miyel: The place of many faces’ is a small book containing a story by Jack Williams and Averil Dean. Published in 2007 by Batchelor Press, the book comes with an audio recording of the story in Noongar language (ISBN-13: 978-1-74131-107-5).

Boola Miyel book cover

A conversation with Jack Williams and Averil Dean: stories about country

Jack and Averil are brother and sister. Jack was born in Gnowangerup in 1933; Averil in 1939. At about age five or six, while living on the Gnowangerup Mission, Jack ‘had the privilege of seeing the last corroboree ever performed in the Southern Region by Noongar people.’ [6] Jack lived and worked in the Tambellup area for over 40 years and now lives in Albany. Averil also lived on the Gnowangerup Mission before moving to Tambellup. She went to high school in Perth and completed Nursing Aide training, which took her to Broome. Averil lived in Cranbrook for 12 years before moving to Albany over 20 years ago. Their grandfather went through traditional law in the Corackerup Creek area.

Notes: The text is largely drawn from a talk recorded at the SCRIPT Regional Forum at the Stirling Range Retreat, 6/04/2004. For further history and stories recorded by Jack Williams and Averil Dean, see Ngulak Ngarnk Nidja Boodja; our mother our land (2000), published by the UWA Centre for Indigenous History and the Arts. Jack’s insights are also available in Changing Channels: Reflections on the Frankland Gordon River (2004), published by the Frankland Gordon Catchment Management Group.

Averil: It is a privilege to talk to you and to let you not only hear just what the land means to us, but to feel it as well. That to me is one of the most important things: if you feel what’s in our hearts, about our love and our heritage and our feeling for country.

Jack: I feel that there is strength and power in the land, especially the Stirlings. Every time I come down here I am feeling sick, you know, after I had that stroke, the moment I land here it is like a new life to me again and it’s the spirits. I couldn’t explain in words just how powerful it is to me, like the Anderson Lake and the ochres and the colours – you’ve got to see it to believe it, it is so beautiful.

Averil: The Aboriginal culture is based on spirituality. We believe very strongly in the spirits and our connection with the spirits. Bluff Knoll to me and to my family is one of the most important sites in the whole of Noongar country. In our culture we were taught to believe that when any of our Noongar people in the whole of Noongar country died, their spirits come back to Bluff Knoll to the master spirit, and from there they pass on to the great beyond. Whenever there’s a heavy cloud sitting on the Bluff, Noongars always said that was when somebody was going to die within the Noongar community and they never used to come near this area – only special people used to come, like the ‘clever people’.

Bluff Knoll’s Noongar name is Boola Miyel. Miyel is your eye and it means place of many faces and eyes are looking at you, and if you look at the rocks you can sort of work out the facial features of the rocks. Once you know about that and you get there and you look, then you start to not only see, you start to feel. This is the sort of thing that Jack and I try to get people to experience a feeling of because that is what is in our hearts and that is where we come from, that is our life. Our being is feeling the feelings of love for country, and we have a special relationship with the birds. Traditional stories say that it was the birds that made a path through the Stirlings and connected to the Porongurups.

Jack: There is another hill there, Mubarnup. The ‘clever’ Noongars used to go there for their power. The one opposite is Warrenup – that’s no good to go there. That is what they believe.

‘Clever people’: this is the doctor man. He had special stones, little black stones that they rub into their body: give it one rub and it’s gone, give another rub and they will come out. They used to sing for the rain, the ‘clever’ ones, and there wasn’t too many of them around and they are special people.

Averil: Our grandfather was one and he would be sitting on the side of you and you could hear this tick, tick, tick, tick.

Jack: ‘My old grandfather Eddie used to tell us many, many stories when we were young and out hunting with him. At night he would be sitting around a big fire and we would all sit around the fire with him and he would be telling us stories about where we had been and what had happened that day. He would tell the story in song. All the kids would be sitting around in a big circle when it just started to get dark, but the later it got at night, the closer we got around him, because we were frightened of spirits.’[1]

Averil: Nightwell used to be one of those places where the water only came at night.[2]

Jack: At daylight breaking the next day the water would disappear.  My grandfather would tell us there is a spiritual snake, they call it the mardjit. Well, he put a curse on the tribe and people were dying all around and the old bobtail, uren we call him, he went looking for the mardjit and he brought him back to the watering hole and he forced him in there. When he got him in there, he put a rock in behind him to lock him in there and that is why the water only comes at night: when he moved his tail trying to get back, he let the water through.

Averil: We are here to pass on some of those stories to just let you know that this to us is very important. We would like to share it with you to have you help us care for it and to make sure it is kept there for everybody to enjoy.

Nature tells us everything that we want to know about when food is ready to be harvested and when animals are at the prime time to be killed, like when the sheoak tree is in bloom with the brown blossoms, then it is time to go out and hunt the kangaroo because that is the time when they are fat.

Jack: At Christmas time when the Christmas tree blossoms, when it flowers, the tammar and brush wallaby are fat.  According to the animals, the time they get fat, that’s the six seasons I am talking about. ‘Noongars never used to eat anything out of season.’[3] ‘They’d move around in a cycle sort of according to the seasons. They never stayed in one place.’[4]

‘The fish used to get fat when the blossom on the paperbark comes out, then you’d know the mullet fish were fat and ready to catch. The blossom on the paperbark was called yaurll in Noongar language. When the white flower on the paperbark (it is the same colour as the fat on the mullet) blossoms, then it’s time … Fish traps used to be used for the mullet and this was done down on the King and Kalgan Rivers, where those rivers join up together.’[5]

You knew the salmon was running when in March you’d see like a cloudy, smoky sky and that is when the salmon are ready. Aboriginal people used to train the porpoise to bring the salmon into shore. One man, he was a ‘clever man’ and he used to sit out there on the beach and sing, he’d have a fire going, and sing ‘choork, choork’, and you would see the porpoise start to work, he would come around the school of salmon till he beached them and then he would say ‘come along, collect your harvest’ and they used to go and collect so much salmon and let the rest go.

Averil: We never ask for much; we don’t go around destroying anything. We just want to keep alive the ability to pass on our culture and we can only do that through the bush – pass on our culture to our youth and for them to pass that on to theirs.

Acknowledgements: A contribution by Greening Australia (WA) to the SCRIPT South Coast Regional Strategy for NRM and the Gondwana Link project. Editing by Margaret Robertson and Keith Bradby. Special thanks to Jack Williams and Averil Dean for sharing their stories, and to Kelly Flugge for his assistance. Thanks also to Stephen Mattingley for proof-reading, and the Department of Environment and Margi Edwards for preparing the interview transcript.

[1] Leonard (Jack) Williams in Ngulak Ngarnk Nidja Boodja; our mother our land, UWA Centre for Indigenous History and the Arts, Perth, 2000.

[2] Nightwell is north-east of Borden.

[3] See note 1.

[4] Jack Williams in Changing Channels: reflections on the Frankland Gordon River, Frankland Gordon Catchment Management Group, Cranbrook, 2004, p. 7.

[5] See note 1.

[6] See note 1.