Tapestry series no. 72

Date contributed: 10th October 2000

Contributed by Lorraine McGee-Sippel

Dinah was born on 8th November, 1906, in Moulamein, New South Wales. She was the fourth eldest of eleven children (both parents were aboriginal and of the Yorta Yorta tribe) living on Mooncullah mission, outside Delinquin, with her parents, grandparents and large extended family. (Her birth certificate records her name as Jinny: however, she was always known as Dinah and that is the name on the marriage certificate.) I am the eldest of Dinah’s 50 grandchildren.

Moonacullah was a small close-knit community. People shared what little they had. Yorta Yorta people also lived on Cummeragunga mission about 50 miles away. The Yorta Yorta, Wemba Wemba language was spoken amongst the adults at Moonacullah: however Dinah’s parents were discouraged from using it, consequently it was never passed on. Despite this, much of the language survived and was later recorded in a Wemba Wemba dictionary and Yorta Yorta CD by some of the elders.

Dinah’s father, grandfather and uncles worked on nearby properties as farmhands, shearers and boundary riders. They were well respected and much sought after, but particularly her grandfather who was the eldest of his people. His funeral would be one of the largest Barham had ever seen, attended by black and white alike.

However, being held in high esteem made no difference to the Aboriginal Protection Board as my grandmother and family soon found out.

While the men were at work and the children at school, an official car pulled up outside. Three girls from one family were forcibly taken that day from the little mission school and put on a train to Cootamundra Girls Home. They were Dinah’s extended family; all lived together under the same roof. Moonacullah was never the same again.

They moved shortly after from the mission to the small town of Barham, and were successful in growing flowers and vegetables on the land they were trying to buy. It was around this time that Dinah met her soon to be husband. He was white, but accepted and got on well with her family. They married in 1924; Joe was five years older than Dinah.

A couple of years later her beloved grandfather died. My grandparents left Barham shortly after the funeral in their horse and sulky with their eldest child (my mother). Then disaster struck. Aboriginal people were no longer allowed to own land. The law had changed. Soldier settlers took priority. Her family lost everything.

She saw none of them again, except for brief encounters with three of her younger sisters. Her life had changed. She was no longer surrounded by a large family network, but alone a lot of the time while her husband moved from place to place seeking work, whatever was available to support their ever growing family.

The fear of losing her children was constant, especially with my grandfather away working. Removal of aboriginal children from their families was government policy; it was happening all over the country. Altogether they had 16 children; four boys died in early childhood.

On their 50th wedding anniversary Joe and Dinah, who were now living in North West new South Wales, celebrated and were entertained by some of their children and grandchildren. Singers and guitarists abounded in the family. They also renewed their wedding vows, then caught the Indian Pacific train to Perth, a gift from the 12 surviving children.

In October 1981, my grandmother had a surprise reunion. Her first grandchild, the one she’d loved and named but lost through adoption, returned home. Her love for me never diminished.

This gentle wonderful lady had watched over me throughout my troubled childhood.

She was also an important link for two of her nephews, who visited every chance they got. One of these nephews is a well-known entertainer. Dinah was the last surviving member of her family; most of her siblings married into the Aboriginal community and because of poverty and social inequality they died prematurely. Some also had children taken away.

Dinah died in 1987, a few weeks after her 81st birthday.

My Grandmother never talked about her Aboriginal heritage, her voice silenced long ago. A silence that said more about a nation, uncomfortable with its black history, than it did about my grandmother.

As her eldest grandchild, I felt a responsibility for taking her spirit back to Moonacullah, Barham, Cummeragunga and all those other places along the Murray and Edward Rivers where she and her family had roamed for thousands of years.

On the journey we met Aunty Gerry who grew up with Dinah in the same house on Moonacullah. She was a Yorta Yorta Elder and extended family member. It was her three sisters who were forcibly taken that day. She filled in the missing parts of our history, with warmth and generosity.

“Stay right there darling” she said as I stood on the footpath outside her place. “You’re so like your grandmother. We didn’t know what was happening to her after she left that day in the sulky with your grandfather and baby. I’m so pleased you came.”

Hopefully, my grandmother was too.