By KIERAN FINNANE
I have recently kept the company of a remarkable group of people, Aboriginal people from these central parts, many of them of mixed descent, living at the vanguard of adaptation to the massive changes thrust upon them by the European invasion of their lands.
They have passed on now but not so my venerable 89-year-old guide, Kanakiya Myra Ah Chee, who brings them vividly to life in her memoir, as told to Linda Rive, Nomad Girl, My life on the gibber plains and beyond, published this month by Aboriginal Studies Press.
It’s not always that you can say, even of books you enjoy, that you feel like you have met the people portrayed in their pages, and further, that you are really glad to have met them. This is how I feel about the Taylor and Ah Chee families, Myra’s family by birth and her family by marriage, and, in particular among them, the wonderful Dick Taylor Jnr, Myra’s father, and Mary Taylor (later Forrester, then Briscoe), her big sister.
A person can be wonderful, lead a life worth remarking upon and yet, in a written work, not come off the page. So credit first of all to the partnership of Myra and Linda, working over many years, to bring so effectively to a general readership this intimate portrait of Aboriginal family life in little known stretches of desert country, across the last century and into this one.
The story is told almost entirely in Myra’s voice, Linda remains offstage, but the warmth and trust between the two is evident in the tone of the reminiscence and its expansive detail. You wouldn’t get an account like this without deep listening and interest. You also wouldn’t get it without a phenomenal memory, which Myra’s clearly is, not only for events and names and places, but for their character, including the character of Country – as it was before the environmental onslaught of settlement and ‘progress’ that remains underway.
Her descriptions of its sweep – as the family travels on remote byways from Oodnadatta to Alice Springs and far and wide in between – have a simple poetry, but what springs to life is its feel beneath her bare feet, its taste as she and her siblings gather its foods, its seasons and changes, and the sense of being fully at home there.
The family was on the move, as the book title indicates; their hearth was the camp they made each night. This wasn’t so for Myra’s first eight years, when they were settled on the outskirts of Oodnadatta, her father often leaving for long spells to take up stock work. Myra vividly evokes the atmosphere of this tiny town, including the rich fabric of its social relations, from her child’s eye perspective.
It all changed dramatically when her mother, Molly Niningaya, died, from an unnamed illness which had led to her having an arm amputated in the year before her death.
This was in 1940. Niningaya, a Yankunyajatjara woman, had met Dick while she was working as a ‘house-girl’ at Lilla Creek Homstead. Dick had a white father, a cattle man, who recognised his son, giving him his own name, but he was raised by his mother Ruulta and her husband Charlie Apma, Pertame Arrernte people. Myra writes of this childhood “deep inside Apma’s traditional Black-headed Snake Country” as having made her father “the Law Man he became”. Later they would join Dick Taylor Snr on Bond Springs Station, where he was manager, and young Dick began picking up the skills that would enable him to earn a living in this new economy developing right through his traditional lands.
He and Niningaya had eight living children at the time of her death, with the youngest, Mavis, still an infant. Mary, the firstborn, was married, with three young children of her own; the older boys were away, Harry working on stations, Alex and Willy in Quorn, going to school. This left Myra and her two little brothers, Sam and Peter, as well as the baby, still in need of close parental care.
Dick didn’t want to stay in Oodnadatta, too many sad memories for him now, but there was no question for him of leaving his youngest children – for instance by finding homes for them with relatives. He had learned how to handle a camel train from Afghan cameleers, and this was his solution. They would travel the country together by camel, with Mary and her then husband Harry Forrester joining them, along with their children.
Dick Taylor Jnr with his grown daughter Mavis, and her daughter Christine, at the Gap cottages, Alice Springs.
Dick would pick up work where he could and as a man of many skills this wasn’t hard; with Harry and Mary doing likewise, they kept the children by them the whole time. Only the infant Mavis was put into the hands of her father’s cousin, Kitty Merrick, living at Horseshoe Bend. Myra eventually realises that her father’s thinking was also that in this way the children would get to know their traditional estates and kin, their languages and cultural obligations – their grounding for life.
These chapters, for me, were the most fascinating and moving. What emerges from Myra’s telling are fine portraits of her wonderful (as I’ve said) father and sister: in ever-changing surroundings and circumstances, and with endless hard work, they provided for the children a wonderful sense of safety and stability, the love and nurture that allowed the little band to grow and flourish in the vast freedom of their big Country.
Much else emerges alongside. The family crosses paths with a number of the major and minor figures of recorded central Australian history. Every bit as interesting if not more so, are their interactions with people hitherto unknown to most readers, especially people in their large family networks. In this way the memoir offers a captivating insight into everyday life at a time of intense change in the hybrid small communities of the desert.
This history necessarily intersects with some of the big events and developments of the times. In Myra’s extended family there were several instances of heartbreaking child removal. Dick’s cousin Kitty, who brought up Mavis, had had her own daughter taken; not surprisingly, she cleaves to Mavis, and refuses to let Dick send her away for schooling. Dick’s second wife, Maggie, cousin to Niningaya, had also had a baby daughter removed (by the Strehlows at Jay Creek), not to see her again until towards the end of her long life.
Myra writes that her father was “acutely aware” of this threat of removal which could impact on his own children, being of mixed descent: “As each child was born he must have thought, ‘What is this child’s life going to be?’” In her observation it was the daughters who were vulnerable to being taken. The sons, like her father, “were kept to do the work for the pastoralists and make them rich!”
Myra’s sister Mary (right) with their great friend, Nancy Brumby Barnes, early 1960, Balingall Street, Alice Springs.
Myra’s clever big brother, Alex, wanted another life, as his father did for him. He duxed his high school in Quorn, and then joined the RAAF when World War II broke out. As with so many, he came back a changed man. Although he was instrumental in his siblings’ getting a Western education, and was active in campaigns for Aboriginal recognition and rights, his own life was thwarted by what would probably be recognised now as PTSD.
So there are some wells of sadness in Myra’s story but there is also a lot of adventure and humour: a terrific passage, in Dick’s own words, tells of a memorable droving trip that took him right into the centre of Adelaide; a very funny account relates how Mary and Myra tried to keep women away from their handsome widower father; another marvellous account is of Myra’s own first trip to Adelaide with her determined and resourceful father and younger brothers.
This was the journey that marked a huge turning point in her life. At the Colebrook Home in Eden Hills she gained the Western education and social skills that would take her away from the life of her nomadic girlhood, though the connection remained as the strong core of her being. There were other young Aboriginal people on similar trajectories, among them Lowitja (then Lois) O’Donoghue who became a close friend (and later her bridesmaid); and the young man who would become her husband, Fred Ah Chee, who was studying to qualify as an electrician.
The Ah Chee strand of the story is just as engrossing, though it is a loss to posterity that Fred died before he had time to record more of it, as he apparently intended to do. His Chinese grandfather Cherry Ah Chee and grandmother Minnie Bell, an Alenjerntarpa woman from the Charlotte Waters area, were hard-working and entrepreneurial, running successful market gardens and delivering their produce to stations around Oodnadatta. They passed these qualities on to their children.
Fred’s father Arthur and his wife Urrpunta Rose Naylon, a Wangkangurru woman from country around Birdsville, moved into Oodnadatta township for their children’s education. When Myra was a little girl there, she knew the Ah Chees as the “elite” of the town, one sign of which was to have Marmite in the pantry!
Myra marries Fred, 1954, in Magill, Adelaide.
When as a young woman she started “keeping company” with Fred, she was employed in the household of Dr Charles Duguid and his wife Phyllis. They too are an interesting study, committed to Aboriginal ‘advancement’, kind, warm and generous, if from today’s perspective, also somewhat paternalistic. They hosted Myra’s wedding reception in their home (Myra reproduces the account of her “Dusky bride’s” wedding that was published in the Australian Woman’s Weekly) and invited the young couple to live in their holiday cottage in the Adelaide hills until they got on their feet.
Four years later Fred and Myra returned to central Australia, with their little son Paul in tow. Fred found work with the government, eventually becoming “chief at the Alice Springs Power House, the main man with all the electrical works.” Myra quotes him as saying “By gee, I’d be somewhere today if I’d painted myself white!” He experienced racism yet there he was, a black man in a senior position in the 1970s and ‘80s, no doubt with white staff answerable to him, and at the same time a “wati”, an initiated man, absolutely committed to his responsibilities to Law and Country. What extraordinary cultural agility. As Myra says, “Living two ways isn’t easy. White society is very dominant.”
Myra suspects that Fred’s exposure to radiation at Maralinga contributed to his early death. He worked there during the British atomic tests for several weeks at a time, over about seven months – on the engines of the aeroplanes that flew over the mushroom clouds. She also suspects that the exposure may have contributed to the stillbirth of their second child.
Fred died of reported heart failure in 1987, not much more than four months after their son Paul had married Donna Murray. “I had thirty-three years of happy marriage with Fred,” writes Myra.
These milestones in her life are by no means the end of her story. She had already had a lot of interesting work experience, particularly as an interpreter and translator, in her beloved mother tongue, Matutjara Yankunytjatjara Luritja, “the primary language spoken around our campfire”, as well as in Pertame Arrernte. The book is rich with the vocabulary of these languages and Myra’s comments about them.
Above: Myra with Linda Rive, earlier this year, at her home in Alice Springs.
She would go on to develop other interests, including her own distinctive style of painting, enjoying its creative satisfactions for many years. This vitality accompanies her through the inevitable further losses that come with age. She has outlived all her close family and many friends, yet has remained deeply attached to life and its purpose: “How wondrous it is … Each one of us has been put on this earth for a purpose. Everything. Even insects. We must stop and think, and treasure everything. Nothing is on this earth for nothing. Everything has a purpose, even though some of us are yet to find it.”
And in her “Last words” she rightly assesses the significance of the story she has told: “My family pulled all their strengths together from the bush life and from school education. We have shown how it is possible to be successful in life, bringing all sides of our cultures into line. We managed to do it. We just got on with it and said, ‘Right, this is how it is going to be,’ and met everything that came to us.”
Photo at top: Dick Taylor Jnr with his second wife Maggie and their son Robert, Myra’s youngest brother, at Titjikala, 1957. Unfortunately there are no photos of Myra’s time travelling with camels, more than a decade earlier.
All photos from the Myra Ah Chee Collection, with the exception of the photo of her with Linda Rive taken by Kieran Finnane.
Note: In the interest of transparency, Kieran Finnane did some editing work on this publication.
Nomad Girl was launched last Saturday at Red Kangaroo Books, Todd Mall, Alice Springs.
Last updated 1 December, 4.50pm.