Though my mission home on the eastern Cape York Peninsula, where I grew up in the late ’60s and ’70s, was materially poor, I was aware from an early age that my family and community were in fact the source of great wealth. Even while I read, by the light of a kerosene lamp in our small fibro house, the only available literature – the Holy Bible, books about Martin Luther and tracts prosecuting his cause (which was, of course, now the cause of my community, my father’s cause and indeed my own) – I knew I had it good. Even though all there was to eat on most days was green tripe, fresh out of the bowels of bullocks my father slaughtered for the local butcher shop, or a thin soup of fat, onions and bones with small strips of meat and gristle, which we would gnaw desperately out of the crevices, I thought I had the best life as a kid.
When we went for visits to the hospital in the white town of Cooktown on the back of the mission truck, we would observe the unofficial apartheid and follow my mother and the other women down to the park next to the café, where we could have lunch away from the main street. The contempt and paternalism of the whites, and the deference and humiliation of adult people who happened to be black – at the mission to some degree, but more so in the world outside – disturbed my young soul. But I took it as the natural order of the world outside my home.
The world outside my home was a daunting place, promising episodes of shame and humiliation. One of my brothers had explicitly warned me about it before I went away to college. People at home told joking stories about their experiences among the whitefellas, and, though they laughed about it now, these incidents were obviously not so funny at the time; the laughter was a way of dealing with the pain and anger that would otherwise have crippled people.
I was most unhappy as a child when people I knew and loved, my friends and relations, were made to feel humiliated in their relations with white people or ashamed of their material poverty. But despite their material impoverishment, the 500 or so people in the mission with whom I grew up – today, the population is close to 1000 – had families and a community. They had golden things and I think they often knew it.
Growing up in a tight-knit community of extended families – dealing with upheavals and fights from time to time, enduring the gossip and sharing a history – enabled me to see families in action and to see how community worked.
I have been both an active participant and an observer of my community for all of my life. If you come from Hope Vale Mission you talk about Hope Vale Mission, you analyse the people and the politics of Hope Vale Mission, you complain and swear bitterly about Hope Vale people, you laugh about and mock Hope Vale people – as they say, you run them down to the lowest and you lift them up to the highest. Wherever two or three are gathered together in Hope Vale’s name, there will be endless hours of gossip, the most trivial, but far from mundane, political intrigue, despair and hope.
My home town taught me one thing about families: there is no ideal model. Families have their own traditions that vary widely and wildly, and are particular to the people involved. Some families are essentially serious. Others are notoriously comic. Some produce roughriding rodeo show-offs, meathead bullies when they’re drunk but with sentimental hearts nevertheless. Some families are quiet, others loud and brash. Some patient, others not so. They all carry a genetic and social history.
I can see in a young Rosendale, or a young Jacko or a young Darken, the character of a deceased grandfather I knew when I was a kid or about whom I have heard. When you live in a community like this, you can see the Old People, long dead, living in their descendants.