Carol Pettersen: Storylines

Narrator: Welcome to Heartland Journeys, and to the story of Carol Petterson, a Menang -Gnudju Elder.

Aunty Carol was born at Gnowangerup Mission in 1940 and raised in the bush around the Jerramungup area with her family. Carol has spent much of her life in the Albany area, on her traditional country.

This interview was recorded on a rainy day, by the ocean at Bettys Beach, east of Albany, so at times you will hear the ocean and rain in the background. Here is Aunty Carol’s compelling story of her connection to boodja or country.

The essential thing is the land, the Boodja. Because on the boodja, we’ve got our storylines, we’ve got the hills, we’ve got the rivers, we’ve got the flora, we’ve got the fauna. We teach about the totemic system, which is our religious belief. We then talk about the storylines with the hills, the creation of the landscape.

When an Elder says something, that’s what happened because it’s been handed down hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of years. I’m still a living memory of at least 200 years. So there’s me, my mother, my grandfather, and his mother. So, four generations of living memory, because we’re still handing these stories and there’s my children and I’ve got great grandchildren. So there’s you know, six, seven generations of living memories and living narrative of these stories that carry through.

Narrator:  For much of last century, an ever-present danger for a Noongar child was being forcibly removed from your family by the Government’s native welfare department, often with police assistance, and then being placed in a mission or institution. The generations of children removed under these policies became known as the Stolen Generations. The bush was a safe place to hide. Here’s Aunty Carol.

It wasn’t so much about being scared of the bush or bush fires or any natural disasters, we were actually scared of the police, we were surviving and hiding from the police and the native welfare department. So, yes, the bush was a haven and sanctuary, yep, absolutely. It was one of the most glorious times of my life. We learnt how to live with the bush, like mum and dad were shepherds, and even grandfather before them. So us children learnt to live all day long on our own, and we had to prepare our own food. We had to catch it first. And there were many times a snake came too close to the place and we were able to bail that snake up and take it away to where it belonged. And we knew how to prepare the fire. And we were taught never to come back to camp empty handed. We had to come back with something. And food was so bountiful out there. It was just so much food and we’d have to bring that back to camp. It was like a supermarket, you know. I was only looking at it earlier when we were doing a walk along the beach there. You imagine setting up camp there. You had the ocean for the fish. You had fresh water up in the hills. You had shellfish – you know abalones, cockles, we used to call them. Up in the freshwater there would have been eggs, either turtle eggs or duck eggs and, and there was an abundance of vegetables and fruit through the bush. So it was a sanctuary. And it was the most wonderful time of my life. And of course that was broken. And we then went to the mission and exposed to the cruelties of Christianity, as they called it at that time.

Narrator:  Carol describes life in the bush in those early years as being guided by nature the whole way.

We’d know the weather by the moon at night – mother would be able to tell us what sort of a day it was going to be tomorrow, and that sort of determined our movements. The weather was the first superior being. And then the flora, I guess, we were taught to look at how flora responded to nature. When it was spring, when it was winter, when it was summer, when it was going to rain, you know, all those different signs of the flora.

And then of course, the next one was the birds, the birds responded, because the birds then fed off the flora. And, of course, the animals as well, the animals moved with the abundance of flora, or whether the water holes had filled up from the recent rains, or whether they’d moved and we’d be able to see their tracks, the fresh tracks of the animals to know which way they were going. So if they were going that way, we would head in that direction, because we knew there’d be water.

But complementary to that, we had a well-rehearsed route of travel. And our people knew where the water holes were as well. And, and the thing is, in watching the birds, you’d know the water was still fresh. If the birds weren’t going there, we knew whether we’d have to go down and clean it out or something like that. So we were actually guided by nature the whole way. 

And so it’s that connection I guess – that connection that’s conditioned from birth – because mothers knew where they wanted their babies to be born to imbue them with the spirituality of that actual spot and then as we grew up, mother would say that’s your spot, that’s your place and only now since this movement of landcare has come into play I understand her words were to be that’s my place to take care of, it’s my responsibility. And so I in turn then tell my grandchildren about it, that special place, that’s your place. And that’s where the sense of identity and sense of belonging, is you’re born into it there.

We never knew anything about fixing things because there was nothing broken.If it was broken, nature and the spirits that nature left in charge deemed that that was their responsibility. So, for instance, if a tree fell down across our pathway, we wouldn’t attempt to move that tree because it was blocking you, you would walk around it or walk over it and then in 12-months-time you’d see the little suckers growing out of the tree so nature knew there was still some energy in that tree to be able to regenerate more trees.

It took me a while to work out what is this ‘land restoration’ because the land was okay as far as we were concerned. The hills were there, the rivers – you just had to keep everything clean and work with nature. Move when nature determined like when the fauna and flora move, we move with it, because then there was little impact on one particular spot. We’d move and allow that re-growth.

Our boundaries, our tribal boundaries are determined by our connection to flora. Like for instance, our family, we have the connection with the tallerack tree, the tallerack, wherever there are tallerack, we know we’re safe in country. And even now, I feel a little bit out of place when I leave the tallerack country behind. And even my grandchildren, one little girl said to me, Nan, I can’t see our tallerack tree. So that’s how the kids learn this recital that’s handed down over the years and of course the hills, the rivers.

My country does not go past the Stirling Ranges. The Stirling Ranges is a neutral territory and there’s a story with that one. No tribe owns the Stirling Ranges. And so we’re sort of just south of that. We could see it but always in tallerack country that hugs the coast and now our clan group were recorded as being called the Shell People. Even though we’re part of the Ngadju / Menang we’re still known as the Shell People.

Noongar way, we had our estates, and we had our land holdings. But there were no fences. There were probably tribal fences in that you had to ask permission. And so people asked permission to go there. And even today, our menfolk when they come to Albany, they still ask permission to go fishing. Because it’s not their tribal country. And they asked permission from our Noongar men down here, ‘Can I go fishing?’ And of course, the answer is yes. Because you’ve shown respect. When we travelled, you’d ask permission to go through.

Narrator:  There is increasing understanding by non-Aboriginal people of the ways in which Noongar people shaped their environment in sustainable ways. Aunty Carol describes the totemic system – a way of sharing responsibility for caring for different parts of the natural world.

We did have a sense of agriculture in that we did dig for yams and we aerated the soil and with that created little gutters for water catchments and things like that, so the plants were able to grow again. And the thing is, we never pillaged the land. We just took what we needed.

Then there was certain, like the zamia palm, the pod off that was very toxic when it was red and it was ripe. But you had to bury it for about three weeks in the sand. And I guess some of my people, the next morning, they’d get up and they’d dig up, but they probably left one behind, a pod. And so we can now track our camping grounds through these zamia palms that have grown up over the years.Our whole cultural activity was about caring for country, it was about maintenance and as I said, by that thousands of years of practice of letting nature take control of the landscape, we didn’t have to fix anything.

We knew there were certain places we couldn’t go to. And how did we know? Because this is a recital that’s been handed down, narratives that’s been handed down through storytelling thousands of years ago. And I think to myself now, those stories were about protecting that site, they didn’t want the impact or there was a certain plant or a certain fauna that was there. And only certain people could go there. And that’s why they came up with these stories – this is my belief – they came up with these stories that stop people from trespassing on that site there because it was a place that had to be taken care of.

So there wasn’t this huge impact on the land. And it allowed everything to regrow and continue growing without any damage, so as I said, there was nothing to fix.

The thing that comes to my mind is shared responsibility. With Noongar people, we had the totemic system, where we were only responsible for either one fauna or one flora. And thinking about my own, we had a little bird. There was a little bird that was supposedly the spirit of our grandmother. And that little bird would tell us where kangaroos were, it would tell us with bad messages coming through or it’d be happy, it would actually lead us to a honey tree.

And so other people then had, you know, turtles, others had emus and they were only responsible for that one. But in a holistic sense, everybody had that shared responsibility of looking after the land, looking after their totem and looking after the connection of that totem to the landscape.

Narrator:  Aunty Carol talks about the impact of European settlement and the broadscale clearing of the country.

Not only was the bush being cleared, but it was our sites that were being cleared. And then also the access to those sites that was being denied through the clearing because the fencing then came in and private property took over.

You know, we were sad that the fences cut our traditional routes off, and fences cut off our waterholes and all of that. But we knew the stories were still there. We were angry with the farmers because suddenly our waterholes were becoming salty, our swamps were becoming salty…

My view is that the settlers and the farmers that came in, they wanted to use the land as an economic base. And so they had to change the land and do this broadacre clearing, broadacre grain growing, broadacre sheep farming and all of that. Particularly in the Jerramungup area, and Gardiner River, when they found out that the land wasn’t suitable for that, well, that’s when the farms became bigger, and families became smaller, because they sold the farms off to holdings, one company would own three farms. And so slowly the people moved away. And of course, when that happens, you know, your school goes down, your bank goes down, your co-op and all that goes down. But in the wheatbelt, where a lot of this has happened, Noongar people never left the country. They never left and you know what’s not appreciated those Noongar people with their unemployed cheque and their pension cheques, they were the ones that kept the local service station going, kept the local hotel going, kept the local, small shop going with their pension, people didn’t appreciate that.

Noongar people were the backbone of development of this country, through the contract work of root picking. I can remember dam sinking, you know, using one horse with an old plough and having to get up to your knees in muck and fix the plough up and things like that. So Noongar people were the backbone of the development of this country and are not appreciated for their efforts.

Narrator:  Aunty Carol talks about bringing life back to country, particularly out at Nowanup, a property in the Gondwana Link near Boxwood Hill. The Noongar program at Nowanup, led by Elder Eugene Eades, has become central to a range of camps and courses focused on healing country and healing people.

I had no knowledge on how to fix the land because all I could see in front of me was continual ploughing and burning and fencing and whatnot.

And then when Nowanup came on the scene, and Eugene asked me to come out, that was an incredible feeling. And I think you know, when you go out there, you can look at some old pictures where there was just the bare landscape, and just the paddock and pasture, to see what it looks like now, it’s just incredible, in just a short time. Everything came to life, soon as you planted the trees, you could feel the land coming to life. You could see the birds singing, the kangaroos, and the relationship between the animals, the kangaroos were no longer timid, because they were playing together, they were doing what comes naturally for them. Because they had the environment.

I fully embrace what’s happening there. And I remember taking my great grannies out. And we worked with a group, there would have been about 100 of us, and we planted 5000 trees in one afternoon. And I took my grandchildren out and they felt like they owned the trees that they planted because they were little seedlings and all of a sudden they’re eight foot high trees, you know, in a couple of years’ time, but the greatest reward was seeing the return of the mallee fowls. They came back and they trusted us enough to start building their nest. It was wonderful, a wonderful connection to country…

Narrator:  This has been a Gondwana Link production with story development by Nicole Hodgson, Margaret Robertson and Keith Bradby, narration by Nicole Hodgson, and music by Rod Vervest. Our warm thanks to Carol Petterson and to audio editor and producer Kim Lofts of Blue Manna Studio. Thanks also to Frank Rijavec and Margaret Robertson for the original recording.