Marion’s Story: My Family, Father’s Side

Marion learnt a great deal about her culture, land and spirituality from her father and his side of the family. They had lived in York and surrounds for generations.

One of my earliest memories involving my grandfather was sensing his fear on seeing a white car. Welfare officers always drove white cars. He would gather us kids all up and place himself between the person driving the car and us. I don’t remember him ever greeting the officers. He would just tell them, “You’re not taking any of these kids”…

My father’s family traditionally is from York and the surrounding areas. We have always identified as Noongars but are from the Balardong language group.

My great, great, great grandfather, ‘Cowitch’ was an Ejanok tribesman. The Ejanok were a small group of Aboriginal people living in and around the York area and were recorded as such by the first settlers in York (Villiers, 2001). This coincides with the oral history of my father, only he refers to the small group as his family ‘us Kicketts’ when in fact their tribal group was Ejanok.

Cowitch was my great, great, great grandfather’s traditional Noongar name. He was referred to by the resident magistrate Revett Henry Bland (Controller of Natives from 1841–1846) in January 1842 by his Noongar name and was mentioned as ‘working for settlers in the York (Avon) district’ (Colonial Secretaries Office January 1842).

According to Villiers:

‘There are some fourteen references to him from 1848 to 1868 in the CSO Records and ‘the Inquirer’ newspaper.

Mr John Drummond, the head of police at York, used a man named Cowits as a tracker. He was the first native police assistant in York and was employed by the government for nearly 20 years. He appears in the records as ‘Native Constable Cowits’’ (Villiers 2001, p 13)

Although Cowitch worked as a Native police assistant it is unlikely he tracked his own people. These beliefs are drawn from the oral history handed down from generation to generation: ‘Aboriginal people would not track their own for fear of pay back from others in the family.’

My great, great, great, grandfather Cowitch assisted with a number of expeditions taking on the all-important role as guide. It is obvious that he was well-liked, being referred to as ‘an excellent fellow’ by Henry Maxwell Lefroy (Lefroy, 1934).

Cowitch accompanied an early settler named Walkinshaw Cowan on his visits from York to the Williams River and back. In his diaries, Walkinshaw Cowan spoke very highly of him and reported that Cowitch died of influenza in 1868. From these records, it is obvious that my great, great, great, grandfather Cowitch not only had the ability, but was successful in adapting to the new way of life.

Notably, the documentation on my great, great, grandfather, Cowitch’s son, refers to him by a non-Aboriginal name, being Thomas William Kickett. ‘The father of these brothers was Thomas William Kickett, a full blood of York. His father was Cowitche/Cowitch/Kowitch/ Cowits supposedly born in York in the 1790s.’ (Villiers, 2001, pp 12).

Although there is no written documentation referring to him by a Noongar name, I have been told his Noongar name was ‘Noongally’. However, it is possible that he may have been at times confused with one of his sons known as Billy Noongale Kickett! Although he was not referred to as ‘Noongally’, Thomas William Kickett had one daughter and three sons: Mary-Jane Kickett, Thomas ‘Doogar’ Kickett, Billy ‘Noogale’ Kickett and my great grandfather, James ‘Yombich’ Kickett.

I was informed by my father that the early settlers were unable to pronounce Cowitch’s name correctly. So many Noongar people at that time were given English names as their first and middle name. The traditional Noongar name (or something sounding close or similar) was used as a surname. Hence, my great, great, grandfather’s name became, Thomas William Kickett. Kickett being used rather than Cowitch.

What must be acknowledged is some traditional Noongar names have survived not being changed at all. Obviously such names were easier to pronounce by the early settlers. An example of this is the well-known traditional Noongar name of ‘Winmar’. Such a process assisted non-Aboriginal people to connect family members with the same surname. It was also a form of imposing their European cultural ways on to Aboriginal people.

Nevertheless, the name Kickett has stuck, being one of the largest and oldest Noongar families today.

As noted earlier, my grandfather, named after his Uncle Thomas Doogar Kickett, moved to York in the early 1930s and stayed permanently on the York reserve with my grandmother until his death in 1967. My grandmother would have spent at least 50 years on the reserve and died in 1971.

Many Aboriginal people have told me that my grandfather was a bit of a trouble-maker with some even saying he was a nasty character and he thought he owned the reserve. The latter comment is one I heard most often.

Records in my grandfather’s Native Welfare file certainly show he argued with many people, often threatening them in one way or another. I think of my grandfather as having a strong spirit, someone who would fight for his rights and certainly fight to protect his family. My father and his brothers and sisters were never removed to a settlement or mission.

One of my earliest memories involving my grandfather was sensing his fear on seeing a white car. Welfare officers always drove white cars. He would gather us kids all up and place himself between the person driving the car and us. I don’t remember him ever greeting the officers. He would just tell them, “You’re not taking any of these kids”, or sometimes he would ask, “What do you want? Why are you here on our land?”

Such memories are quite strong, as I remember feeling just a little frightened hearing my grandfather telling such individuals they were not going to take us kids. Thinking back, I believe I became fearful because I sensed my grandfather’s fear, even though he always displayed a certain ‘toughness’ when confronting individuals in white cars.

My father, although not born in York, often told me of the places he stayed as a child. My grandparents stayed on the move in order to keep all their children together. Due to the fact that more and more bushland was being taken and cleared for farming purposes, they were forced to move closer to townships.

My father had stayed on the reserve many times with his parents moving on when the authorities harassed them. He was 12 years old when his parents decided to stay permanently in York. It was the year he started work at a poultry farm in York owned by a Mr Mercer. He worked for food, not money, and supplied his family with the occasional chook, but mostly cracked eggs.

One of my aunties often told me how, as a little girl, she would be hungry. Her mother (my gran) would tell her, “Don’t worry you won’t starve, you will have something for supper. Your big brother is out there working for us right now.”

My aunty explained how she and her sisters and little brothers would wait for my Dad to come home with something for them to eat. Aunty often told me, “It was enough for him to see us eat and be satisfied going to bed with full bellies. That’s just how your father was and all of us knew, only for him we would have starved.”

My father helped his parents raise and support his younger brothers and sisters during the 1930s and 1940s through the hard times when they never received any government funding. He and his younger brother worked together with their father, not giving the authorities any reason to remove them to a mission. However, they were threatened with removal many times.

Many Aboriginal children lost their lives due to different diseases and illnesses. Today, a major problem for many families is the financial cost of burying a family member.

In his early 30s, my father married my mother; she already had four children of her own. This was during the early 1950s. My father provided for my mother and her children. They had five more children raising all of us on the York reserve until the early 1970s after the death of my grandmother.

I have both positive and negative memories of living on the reserve. However, I believe the positive memories of the reserve far outweigh the negative.

I grew up knowing my grandparents very well. I also knew all my father’s sisters and his two brothers. There were many, many cousins both old and young, as well as people coming and going from the reserve. Many of my father’s family came to visit; some for the day, others for a week, and then there were those who stayed for months at a time.

I knew them all and if I couldn’t remember them, they always knew who I was even as an adult. Two of my father’s sisters were unable to have children. One of these aunts was what is today termed ‘mentally challenged’. This was my aunty who I remember running to when I had hurt myself. Wanting at least some attention and certainly more sympathy, I would go to aunty. She always made me feel special and fussed over my cuts and bruises.

She had wonderful ‘coloured stuff’ that was much better than what Mum had. One could not see the flavine (yellow in colour) that my Mum used very well on my skin. But for me, it was important that everyone knew I had an injury and with Aunty Joyce, I had a choice of red (mercurochrome) or purple (gentian violet). These colours stood out.

Sometimes my wounds were so well-dressed one of my uncles laughing asked me, “Which war have you just come home from?” Of course, on going home, my mother would assess the situation and tell me, “I would live.”

Fortunately, I lived at the time when my grandparents were eligible for a pension. Hence, the wonderful term ‘Pension Day’. This was a happy day and most people were in high spirits, which brought great joy to us as kids. Gran supplied us every fortnight with lollies, cordial and biscuits. Items we very rarely saw.

Another memory was a Mr Whippy ice cream van coming to the reserve. The old people called him ‘Mr Trouble Maker’. I remember my father doing a deal with Mr Whippy ‘The Trouble Maker’. The deal was he would come once a month to the reserve on a Sunday afternoon during his seasonal visit.

I remember always getting an ice cream as my father was rarely out of work. Other kids seemed to do all right though, as every adult on the reserve managed to, as we called it, ‘patch up’ for an ice cream, ensuring most kids got one or shared half of someone else’s. Times were hard and it would be fair to say that I lived in poverty. However, looking back I had a great deal of love and I felt very safe and certainly very secure as a child.

There were of course the negative times on the reserve. Being a reserve, any Aboriginal person could visit. My grandfather and father had the say as to who could stay on the reserve and who could not.

There are accounts of sexual abuse. However, as children, most of us reserve kids had a strong sense of intuition or a gut feeling. We also took care of each other and always stayed playing together in groups, never allowing one child to stray away from the others. If anyone did, one or two kids would run and let a parent or parents know. It was the responsibility of the oldest child to care for the younger ones.

I remember once a man arrived to stay. He spoke kindly to us but I had an instant dislike for him. My instinct told me there was something ‘not right’, the way he watched us kids made me feel uncomfortable as I was not accustomed to being looked at in such a way. He coerced one of my cousins to take a walk with him down to the river. He had a bag of lollies and some chocolate. She was the only child he offered lollies. Something I found strange, as most adults on the reserve always made us share such rarities.

My older cousin followed them towards the river and another cousin and I instinctively ran back to our mothers. Our mothers ran towards the river and collected my cousin and the others, taking us all back to our homes, where we remained until my father arrived home. This particular man left immediately and I heard my father say to him, “Be glad you’re able to walk off this reserve, the others are not home yet and my father is an old man.”

Living conditions were harsh on the reserve. Issues such as overcrowding, alcohol abuse, aggressive and violent behaviour and domestic violence occurred every one to two weeks depending on who was on the reserve at the time. As children, we became accustomed to these issues and in a sense learned how to cope. We had our strategies to deal with such behaviours.

One strategy was to leave a group of people when their voices started to rise. We were constantly on guard and had learned to read body language. One particular uncle always took his shoes off when he was ready to fight someone. So when his shoes were off, so were we. We knew to move away when adults started physically fighting, as things would be thrown and kids who got in the way were never considered especially by someone who was drunk.

I remember when I was about 20 years old and was nursing in a country town in the south-west, I was asked to assist in the immunisation of a group of Noongar babies. After a very busy morning, I sat down to have lunch with who I thought was a very old and tired looking child health nurse who was retiring the following week. Like many before her, she asked me where I was from.

I told her York. She replied, “It is such a small world.” Then she asked me, “What’s your name again?” On hearing my name, she said, “You’re one of the reserve kids, aren’t you?” I nodded. She went on to say, “No Kicketts ever lived in town.”

I was then told how she used to visit the many babies on the reserve and I was one of them. She remembered my mother well. Also my grandfather, who she considered ‘a nasty old man’, as he had cracked her unexpectedly a couple of times with his walking stick whilst she removed equipment from the car. My first instinct was to defend my Pop, but I let it go as I thought about her age and her ignorance.

Finding it difficult to comprehend that I had not only survived living on the reserve but was here working alongside her as a nurse, she continued to tell me a number of times that the reserve was a horrible place. It was a breeding ground for crime, violence, disease and sickness, making her job very hard.

My mother stayed in her memory because she was such an educated woman. I was informed how this was very uncommon, a woman “Aboriginal or not” with such intelligence living of all places, on a reserve. I felt so proud when she admitted that during her ten or so years of working in York, my mother had taught her a thing or two about babies, and would often correct her, quoting from articles she had read in different books or magazines.

Even though she spoke in such a condescending way, praise was given to my mother for the way in which she cleaned the toilets on the reserve. She went on further to tell me my mother did an exceptional job on the reserve, as well as raising her children.

The conversation ended with, “I shouldn’t be too surprised that you’ve made something of yourself even though you lived in such a wretched place. Your mother was an exceptional person. I also have only ever heard good spoken of your father, and what a hard worker he was.”

The reserve was approximately six kilometres out of town. In 1971, my parents moved into a housing commission house the same distance from, but at the other end of town.

I lived all my life in York. I knew who I was and who I was related to, such knowledge passed down by my grandfather and father. I know I am one of the fortunate ones who have life experience as an Aboriginal as many of my elders tend to say, “You have lived it.” When talking about Aboriginals such as myself, an Aboriginal person made the following statement whilst being interviewed on ABC radio:

“I had to know the history, to know where I came from and to be really knowledgeable. There are a lot of Aboriginal people that wouldn’t know what I know, although they know it in a different way than I do. A lot that I know is from books, but they know it because they lived it or their father or their grandfather lived it and it’s been passed down that way.” (Bowden and Bunbury, 1993, p 17)

> My Family, Mother’s Side