Dust floats like deep sea plankton on the tide of light, as the morning begins to filter soft and hazy through my bedroom curtains. The sound of little feet tiptoe down the hall. I lift my blanket and curl my daughter up into bed. As we lie together, we listen to the sound of wurguluhm. The family of magpies that live in our yard serenade us every day, and I teach my daughter to listen to country. We are descendants of Bundjalung women, but she only knows Darkinjung land and I, Bidjigal. Our country is far, but we have been taught to listen and care for every place where we lay our feet. Since the first sunrise, our people have strived to parent together as a community. Since invasion, we have fought to parent as an act of sovereignty, as the ultimate resistance. Anthropologists, social workers and the like, view our ‘experiences within a mechanistic biomedical framework, which fails to take account of sociocultural explanations of various human experiences.’1 That is to say, we are often viewed through a white lens of deficit, one that fails to see the strengths and protective elements of our culture and resilience.
This piece could give you endless research on Aboriginal families, our parenting practices, and the practices of other First Nations. But instead, I give you the voices of Blak mothers, who are at the forefront of raising children, whose very existence is a resistance to the ongoing colonial project of Australia. I am a descendant of the Stolen Generations. My Nan was removed from Mallanganee when she was only ten. Now, almost a 100 years after she was born, I fight every day to give my four-year-old daughter what was stolen from us. I try to parent her properways. To give her my knowledge. To educate her with the wisdom of Aunties, Uncles, Cousins and Chosen Sisters. Because to me, Aboriginal parenting, however it looks, is the revolution.
Kindled by blood memory
Bridges fall in the wake of our boiling terror
Their embers glisten in dry riverbeds
Where once we washed you
We rise together as the sun and we pull tides as the moon. We bleed rivers and seas. Our words coloured by country. First Nations parenting is often communal. It is a reclamation of our identities and an exertion of our sovereignty. It is revolutionary. To you, we have aunties who aren’t our aunties, and mothers who aren’t our mothers. We shared and continue to share the responsibilities, hardships, and thrills of parenting.
But how has colonisation impacted our parenting? And where does the myth of Blak parenting meet the realities of 2020? I spoke with five Blak mothers who have raised, or are raising, our next wave of resistance. This is a piece by us and for us.
It highlights the work and the passion of our parenting. You’ll hear from: Tully Devries, a Gamilaroi artist, dancer and mother of two; Peppa Reid, Gamilaraay mother of seven and disability advocate; Melissa Lucaschenko, Bundjalung author and mother of two; Elizabeth Close, Pitjantjatjara and Yankunytjatjara artist and mother of three; and Lorna Munro, Wiradjuri and Gamilaroi artist, poet, activist and mother of one.
When we look at Aboriginal parenting, we must consider the fact that we, as Blakfullas, come from different cultures. We cannot speak to pan-Aboriginal culture, as this does not exist. However, there is often a kind of pan-Aboriginal experience, in life and so in parenting. Lorna Munro sees Blak parenting as breaking generational trauma and toxicity, and she notes that Aboriginal parenting has a wide range and scope, while existing both inside and outside of a colonial context. Though it may be influenced by colonisation, our efforts today are about trying to honour the kind of nurturing that existed pre-invasion, without the trauma, racism, and structural oppression. These thoughts are echoed by Melissa Lucaschenko—that we have the responsibility to keep this very, very long chain of parenting and nurturing going, while navigating daily racism– both structural and personal. Kids and babies need comfort, especially considering how we are viewed in this world as Blakfullas. As Peppa Reid puts it, ‘kids fucken first’. If anyone gets in the way of kids first, you can expect a flogging from one of Peppa’s Nans.
Full of spirit
We weave you closer
Each stitch pulling tighter at our breast
But that was before
Sacred rivers grew thirsty
Our homes boarded up
People outside of our community like to mythologise Aboriginal parenting, as if it had a magical Disney element. For most of us, Aboriginal parenting isn’t all just cultural practices and connectedness. Lorna told me she’d been in the horrors, as we just watched Minneapolis burn, after George Floyd was murdered by police on camera. She lives in Redfern Waterloo, where police have gotten away with murdering Blak kids and men for years. We must navigate so many parts of this world that didn’t exist 250 years ago. Melissa worries for her kinship grandsons; she says they are often targets for cops, security guards and even their own teachers. It’s something you have to think about in a way that white parents will never have to. Colonisation has changed the way we are forced to look at safety, and even at each other. If we are trying to honour what parenting looked like prior to 1788, one of our protective measures, and strengths as Blak parents, is that many of us are weaving culture into everyday life. Elizabeth Close believes culture goes hand-in-hand with close relationships, with nurturing and being child-centred. For Tully, this means teaching herself and her children their language. The confidence that comes with learning language is something Tully has seen as a protective measure in her own child. Last year her eldest child was told to ‘shut up and speak English’, that her language didn’t matter because Aboriginal people were ‘all dead savages anyway.’ Only the strength instilled by culture can manifest the confidence in a primary school child to stand staunch and refuse an empty apology in such circumstances.
For a lot of us, especially East Coast mob who faced the first waves of invasion, parenting becomes an act of cultural reclamation. For Melissa, that meant growing herself up as an Aboriginal person with the help of community, at the same time as trying to grow her kids up. This scenario is familiar to me. I grew up knowing I was Aboriginal from the beginning. The protective secret my Nan held to keep her kids was let out when I was very young. So the journey of cultural reclamation has been long, and picked up pace as soon as I had my daughter. Elizabeth says that her identity as a Pitjantjatjara and Yankunytjatjara woman is central to her personhood, and therefore an important tenet of her parenting. Her children are very connected to culture, family, and country even though they are living away from their ancestral homelands. Tully didn’t grow up traditional per se, in the sense that her mother didn’t know much about her culture when she was a kid. Tully has made it a point to learn as much as she can, so her kids can grow up knowing they’re Gamilaroi and Maori and know their cultures. For Peppa, her kids also have a stronger understanding of their culture and where they come from, because she’s drummed into them the idea that they are good Gamilaraay people, and that they should hold their Elders and culture in very high esteem. This journey of embedding culture into parenting is a tough one for Stolen Generations mob; Melissa found she was Aboriginal when she was 14, yet her children were part of a Blak network and community long before they were born. She understands that since the Stolen Generations inquiry, there have been shifts in the community, as there is so much more understanding around the complexities of our stories.
Now we spew water from our mouths
Relearn stolen tongues
Desperate to quench the cry
Of desert riverbeds
Where you once played
When people theorise about Aboriginal parenting, they speak to the tradition of communal parenting. Our family and kinship structures are traditionally built on this concept, extending to entire communities rather than just immediate family. We have Sister Daughters, Brother Cousins, and many more complex connections depending on the mob and associated culture. Before Peppa’s parents separated, she experienced a much more cultural upbringing, with strong connections to her whole extended family and country. After the separation, her white mother decided that the connections to Moree and the Aboriginal side of her family weren’t as important. She mourns the loss of this childhood, and even now, living hours away from her homelands and mob, she’s had to build her own community on Darkinjung country to even attempt a semblance of what she had growing up. Lorna sees communal parenting as something we talk a lot about in our communities. It is something that we know to exist pre-invasion. It’s something to remember and hold onto, but realistically does not happen naturally. Lorna spends a lot of time loving and nurturing other people’s children, and her nieces and nephews, but it’s not always reciprocated.
Trying to recreate cultural practices, while still decolonising our minds from the individualistic and capitalist way of thinking that was forced upon us for generations, is more than challenging. In this way, communal parenting is complex. It is because of the tradition, and perhaps even the ideal behind it, that Melissa talks about being cautious of the myth around it. She sees what can sometimes look like the abuse of traditional practices to the detriment of certain mothers and aunties. For example, Tully grew up in a large family with many foster siblings, and both herself and her mother often turned to the communities of the Aunties when things became difficult. Tully prides herself today on being there for Blak kids that aren’t biologically her own, but when times got tough for her, the knocks on the door kept coming. When the father of Tully’s children passed, she saw firsthand how culture and communal parenting can turn toxic, when reciprocity isn’t found alongside these practices, when calls from community continued asking her for support, when she needed support herself.
The colonial project of so-called Australia has impacted the way we, as Aboriginal mothers, parent our children. There has been irreparable damage to our communities and traditional ways. For Blak families today, there are a lot of unhealthy and unrealistic pressures applied to female members. This is clearly a residue of colonialism; Lorna tells me straight up.
The churches, and in turn the missions, played a large part in the destruction of the Blak family. Lorna explains that churches and Christian missionaries, having discovered the beauty of our matriarchal cultures, were involved in coercing Aboriginal men to beat Aboriginal women in order to assert dominance. Western gender stereotypes were enforced on our people to align with Christian values. These toxic values often remain current where generational healing hasn’t yet come full circle, and Blak mothers are left to pick up the pieces. Peppa speaks of the fear that comes with parenting while Blak in a colonised country. As a home-school mum, she knows that her parenting methods would be considered ‘alternative’, but Peppa knows there are no culturally safe spaces in mainstream education. We are questioned at every turn, especially when we are engaging in traditional practices with our children. When Elizabeth’s first baby was six months old, she took them home to country. She sat with her baby and Elders eating traditionally prepared kangaroo tail. Her child, being of an age where they were ready for solids, also participated. When the white Child Health Nurse found out that Elizabeth had allowed her child to eat kangaroo tail, she accused her of putting her child’s life at risk, of choking and malnutrition. This is a practice that white parents now dub ‘baby-led weaning’, and it is heavily supported by the same Child Health Nurses who accused Elizabeth of negligence.
Full of song
Calling to coolness of the dawn
We tear at the scalps of churches
We taste their blood
Still they come in waves
Unlike the sea with all her love
Never ending torrents
Until woven stitches loosen
From our breast
Among all of this, we wade through the noise to try and build a changed world for our children. One where they can be celebrated, and their fears belayed. Do we see these acts as revolutionary? In some ways, yes. Lorna was brought up in what could be considered the golden era of Blak radical parenting in Redfern. To Lorna that was the peak. Black women banded together to start groups, schools, and support organisations. She was raised on a diet of protest and grassroots action. For Lorna, showering Blak kids with love is revolutionary. There are so many basic things that our kids don’t experience out in the world. Creating a space for Blak kids to create something new, to make mistakes and be surrounded by love and celebration, is the most radical way you can parent. Peppa told me she raised her kids on Blak culture and punk music; her eight-year-old wants a Harley and to start a coven. She told me they run their own race. She teaches her babies to stand their ground, that is their right. My four-year-old has already been to several protests. She can be heard chanting in a sing-songy, pre-schooler way around the house, ‘no justice, no peace, no racist police’ because I taught her. We, as Aboriginal parents, are actively fighting. We are pushing back against the deliberate acts to disrupt our cultures, families, and language. Above all, our existence is resistance, and that is the ultimate revolution.
We sit in dust bowls
Thoughts spin on willy-willys
Lomandra tangled mind
Loose threads pulled from the brackish
We blessed you
Full of dance
With that salted skin
In shades innumerable
We share each remembered stitch
To settle our blood memories
To heal our hands
Repairing Lomandra woven hearts
That now fill our chests