Elena Govor, My Dark Brother, Sydney, 2000




About the author


Contents and excerpts


National Biography Award nomination

TV documentary


The Ngadjon people

Мой темнокожий брат


The invasion of a virtual reality


In September 1910, when choosing three blocks of ‘primeval tropical forest’ on the map in the Land Office, Nicholas and his sons were not aware that its primeval appearance was misleading. It was permeated by another reality — an Aboriginal one. For millennia it was home to the Aborigines, their country, all of which was covered by the tracks of travels by their mythological heroes and their own hunting, gathering, trading, and ceremonial routes. Two different worlds, two different realities — of the whites and of the Aborigines — had their fragile coexistence on the same territory for several decades but remained closed to one another. The Illins discovered this other reality only after a while. They could hardly suspect that the day would come when this virtual reality would become a part of their life and, years later, include them. The first encounters, according to Flora, were very peaceful and humorous.

            ‘Aboriginals came with no trousers on them, lot of them had no clothes then, and my grandmother said to Romelio, “Oh, look, give him a pair of trousers to put on and tell him to wear them all the time when he comes here”. So he put them on, he’s walking around with them, with the trousers, he went away back to the camp where they were. The next time he came, he’d got the trousers hanging over his shoulder.’18

            At that time, a quarter of a century after the European invasion into this area began, Aborigines were considerably reduced in numbers but their traditional life-style was not completely destroyed. The area around Butchers Creek, adjoining the forbidding Bellenden Ker Ranges, was their last refuge. The first settlers in the Malanda-Butchers Creek area would see occasionally an Aboriginal group travelling from one camping site to another, the naked men covered with initiation scars holding fire-sticks in their hands and carrying picturesque weaponry including big decorated shields and heavy swords, and the women carrying all the household items, with babies either on their shoulders or sleeping quietly in cane dillybags hanging on their backs attached to a band round their foreheads. Some new settlers discovered that their ‘primeval blocks’ were already occupied by the Aborigines — there were bora grounds and big dome-shaped huts; on the paths and in the river-beds they encountered skilful traps for animals, birds and fish. The most observant of them might notice that the huge mounds in which scrub turkeys laid their eggs were marked with a broken branch by the Aborigine who found the nest and who took from it a regular supply of fresh eggs in reasonable quantities. Neither the Land Office nor the settlers worried that they were encroaching on someone’s property. The Ngadjon-ji Aborigines, previously feared as cannibals, by 1910 had learned their lesson. According to Edgar Short: ‘Massacres such as that at Bones Knob near Tolga and Butchers Creek between Peeramon and Boonjie, as well as numerous smaller encounters, had taught the unfortunate natives that it was suicide to oppose the white fella.’

            In the best cases the Aborigines were tolerated and given handouts of food by some farmers. In the worst cases their resistance and alleged cannibalism were regarded, according to a local Boonjie miner, as a ‘definite proof of a degree of savage inhumanity which put the Abo quite beyond the pale, revealing their barbarous and cruel nature, and making them fair game to be shot down like animals at any time.’19

            The white bearers of ‘civilisation’ could not comprehend that ‘the blacks’ had had their own sophisticated civilisation — a unique model of human organisation perfectly adjusted to the surrounding land and nature. In a way Ngadjon country was a state with its own territory, borders and tracks, with its own language and laws, with sacred places and abundant natural resources that had for millennia seemed inexhaustible owing to wise use. The Ngadjon-ji’s territory covered 500 km2, spreading between the upper reaches of the Barron, North Johnstone, Russell and Mulgrave rivers on the Atherton Tablelands. Before the whites’ invasion the Ngadjon-ji, according to David Harris’s estimations, numbered 750. In comparison with the rest of the Australian tribes, the Ngadjon-ji had a very high population density (1 person per 0.67 km2, similar only to coastal communities), which was made possible because of the fertile basaltic soils of the Atherton Plateau, its abundant vegetation and plentiful sources of water.20

            As soon as the Illins, following the bed of Butcher Creek, reached the back border of Nicholas’s block they discovered that it adjoined dense scrub hiding the crater of an extinct volcano. This was the Rainbow Serpent crater. Water in the tributary creeks running from its tree fern-covered slopes to Butcher Creek seemed dark-golden. Using axes, the Illins climbed up but they had no time to enjoy the feeling of being first discoverers when they stepped onto the well-beaten path which led them into the Aboriginal camp. The women were grinding nuts with stone mills, the men polished spears with pieces of broken glass (it had already replaced sharp crystals of volcanic quartz). The children were sitting around the fire waiting for a mapi (tree kangaroo) to be baked in the ashes. They rushed to the huts to hide but they gradually re-emerged, attracted by young Hector, who participated in the ‘expedition’. When Hector tried by himself to explore one of the paths leading into the scrub, he was stopped by the older Aboriginals. The path led to the sacred place, to the bora ground: corroborees were still being held. Nicholas, by now a distinguished old man with a grizzled beard, was soon recognised by his Aboriginal neighbours as trustworthy and admitted to see the corroborees. How different they were from the long, melodic peasant songs in his native Ilinka or from the passionate, nocturnal ceremonies he had seen in Central Asia.

            These Aborigines whom the Illins discovered in their ‘back yard’ were a unit of the Ngadjon tribe. In the precontact period the tribe was divided into ten or more communities (or ‘bands’), each numbering around fifty people. Every community occupied a defined part of the tribal territory, splitting at times into family groups numbering six-to-eight people. Jessie Calico, who lived in the traditional way with her family as late as the 1930s, recalled: ‘When I was little we had about seven or eight of us all together. The older ones used to go hunt, come back with a big eel, a big one ...’. During the dry season, in winter, the men would go on hunting expeditions to the edge of the scrub on the neighbouring territories. At the end of the dry season and the beginning of the wet season (November–January), when food was abundant, people from different communities would gather in big camps. Women erected huge dome-shaped huts that protected them from rain. At that time they gathered and cooked walnuts, which provided sufficient food for these big gatherings. It was a time for settling conflicts (usually about women) by fighting corroborees, and a time of social entertainment. Sometimes they had visitors from neighbouring tribes. Visits were arranged by messengers who brought the invitation in the form of message sticks. As the wet season continued and the amount of food dwindled, people separated to smaller communities and the yearly pattern was repeated.

            Along with this socio-economic organisation, the Ngadjon were divided on two patrilineal totemic halves (moieties) and members of one half had to marry members of another. According to L. Sharp, one half was associated with water and the other one with animals. Members of each had a number of totems and these local patrilineal clans were responsible for totemic control rites. They considered themselves to be descendants of their totems and had to care for them. The Ngadjon-ji had an interesting specific feature: in some cases the whole community, whose members might belong to different totems, would care for a particular totemic sacred site on their territory:

            ‘Among the Ngatjan ... scrub turkey (kupar) may be increased at a tabu area known as Scrub Turkey Hole (Kupar Kolka) established by a scrub turkey ancestor in country near the Butchers Creek gold-diggings owned by the clan which numbers scrub turkey among its totems. The rite, consisting of stirring up the hole and throwing earth out in all directions, is conducted whenever turkeys are scarce by any man or woman of any clan who has been properly introduced to the site and ceremony by those already initiated.’21

            That explained to me why Glenda Illin, Kitty’s granddaughter, had the impression that ‘whole of the Ngadjon tribe takes the totem of scrub turkey’. Certainly, this was not correct but this misapprehension had a reasonable explanation: the popular memory of Glenda’s relatives preserved a recollection of the most important totem of their particular community, the totem for which all members of that community cared, as they owned the sacred Scrub Turkey Hole. Jessie, indeed, was a scrub turkey — ‘I can remember growing up and the elders used to say: “You are a turkey”’. However, she knows that other members of their community had different totems — Emma Johnston, for instance, was a native bee, and there were people belonging to the totem of possum. Jessie and Emma are both related to Flora, as second cousins, in a line descending from the children of Barry Clarke. According to Flora, her grandmother Emily, Kitty’s mother, belonged to the rare totem of black cockatoo.22

            Memory of the totems has survived up till now, and this turns out to be the strongest feature of the complicated Ngadjon social organisation. Totems have an amazing dual nature, sacred and pragmatic, through which people express their belonging to their land as well as their responsibility towards it. When I came with Flora to Ngadjon country, Flora — who, as it might seem, had grown up in isolation from her traditional culture — could express to me the most essential element of Aboriginal relationships with nature, something which she had imbibed with her mother’s milk.

            ‘I can remember that. The other dark people that was around. You did not kill a bird or break a limb of a tree unless it was for a purpose, unless you were going to use it. But if you did it for nothing, just to be destructive, you were in trouble, you’d get roused on. Not like white people that break the tree down and nothing is said. Dark people couldn’t do that. They never allowed that, not even little kids. You have to have respect for your land, for your surrounding. That was a sin — to go and kill more and then throw it away. You couldn’t go taking the lives of anything around unless you were going to eat it.’

            Jessie supported her. ‘When they used to go hunting they just caught enough for the day. Just for tomorrow. But they never killed more than they needed. They’d never waste it.’23

            At that moment they both were proud of their Aboriginal past, of their Aboriginal philosophy, which only seems simple on the surface, and which white people still have not learnt to recognise and understand.