Marion’s Story: My Resilience

A number of factors have contributed to the development of Marion’s resilience and her ability to live successfully in two cultures.

The expectation has always been for Aboriginal people to assimilate and integrate into the dominant society. Many Aboriginal people have chosen to do so, while others passively resist white society.

Then there are those who have learned to live in two worlds: Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal. I believe this is what I have learned to do. However, I was often challenged for doing so, always having to defend myself and my culture to both Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people.

0I believe all of the above experiences, situations and events – My Country, My Family, My Identity, My Spirituality, My Culture and My Education – have played a major part in making me the resilient person I have become today.

There are other contributing factors, some I believe to be skills learned after experiencing adversity. I think it is important to acknowledge that, in order to be resilient, you must first experience adversity.

As a child, I believe I was resilient, as were my cousins with whom I grew up. However, I question whether any of the adversities we dealt with as children impacted our lives as adults. I have heard many people say most children are so resilient they tend to bounce back. Of course, most children do bounce back. However, are they going to be okay as teenagers or as adults?

I believe Aboriginals, as a group of people, have been and still are resilient. Having the oldest tradition in the world is certainly not achievable without resilience. So what made us resilient? Many would say a strong culture developed and adapted over the past 40,000 years (Eckermann et al., 2008).

However, the oldest tradition in the world was disrupted just over 200 years ago when our country was invaded and then colonised by European invaders (Eckermann et al., 2008). Such invaders had a very different world view and traditions.

‘When the colonists arrived, Aboriginal societies suddenly had to accommodate a group with a very different world view, economy and social structure. European society, on the other hand did not have to adapt to traditional Aboriginal Australia; it simply took over. Consequently, the onus fell on the traditional owners, the subjugated, to ‘fit in’, to find a new niche in their own country. This niche was, and still is, largely defined by the more powerful non-Aboriginal majority.’ (Eckermann et al., 2008, p 5)

The expectation has always been for Aboriginal people to assimilate and integrate into the dominant society. Many Aboriginal people have chosen to do so, while others passively resist white society.

Then there are those who have learned to live in two worlds: Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal. I believe this is what I have learned to do. However, I was often challenged for doing so, always having to defend myself and my culture to both Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people.

I remember when I was 22 years old having what I would call now, a very heated discussion, with an older male nurse who was English. This English nurse and his wife had spent time working in and around Kalgoorlie “Where the real Aborigines were.” Like many non-Aboriginal people who had spent short periods of time working with Aboriginal people in communities, he thought he knew it all.

For the first time in my life, someone was openly challenging my Aboriginality. I remember the anger I felt; actually it felt more like rage. He and I had many heated discussions. On reflection, I did not handle this man very well. I let my anger get in the way and he used this to his own advantage as he was older and wiser.

The way I dealt with such people in those days is very different to how I deal with them now. Since then, I have learned the importance of education and the importance of controlling my anger.

I believe it has been my attitude towards different adversities faced throughout my life that helped me to develop resilience, by:

  • Hoping
  • Adapting
  • Learning
  • Coping
  • Surviving
  • Humour.

Both my parents hoped for a better life for all their children and expressed their hope for us often. They endeavoured to do the best they could, living during an oppressive and controlling time.

I remember life in the ’60s when we as Aboriginal people had no rights. I still have memories of the rules and regulations, curfew laws and seeking permission to leave our town to go to Perth. Yet I remember the hope felt by many relatives on the reserve, none more so than my parents. Their positive outlook on life and making the most of any situation rubbed off on me.

I believed my parents insisted that we attend school because they feared us being removed to a mission. However, on reflection, this was not their main reason. We did not have to just attend school.

Our progress whilst at school was closely monitored by my mother, who then informed my father. We were supplied with all the necessary items uniforms, books, pens, pencils, school cases and bags. We had exactly what non-Aboriginal children had, sometimes we had more. Mum had an account at the newsagents; at times it would take her three to six months to pay this account.

If there were any issues at school, Mum sorted them out, often coming to school to speak with teachers and the Principal. School parent days were attended and if it was a parents’ night, Dad attended. I remember receiving an award in Year 10 at a parents’ night and both my parents attended.

Hope meant being positive and having a positive attitude towards life. I believe that when I have a positive attitude my self-esteem improves. I tended to doubt my abilities, always thinking I was not quite good enough. However, when I changed my attitude to a positive one, I was able to set goals that were achievable.

The ability to adapt is something I learned early in life, when at school. On reflection, I learnt some western ways of doing things. One of the most important areas was language. My Year 1 teacher would often correct my English and told me I needed to speak ‘proper English’. This led me to believe that the way my relatives spoke on the reserve was not ‘good enough’.

I also thought about this situation and my mother. My mother, being so well-educated, was constantly called upon to speak for different members of the community. These community members were not just from the reserve, many lived in town.

I learnt to adapt but to also keep my cultural ways and certainly my values. I remember sitting around the fire listening to one of my uncles talking. He kept saying the word ‘worser’. Such a word was used by many on the reserve, including myself. However, my teacher made it clear that there was no such word and I was to use the word ‘worse’.

I thought it would be good to educate uncle, so the next time he used the word ‘worser’, I corrected him. I knew by the look he gave me that he wasn’t impressed, nor was an older cousin who asked me sarcastically if I thought I was “white”. I immediately said, “No.” and dropped my head not wanting eye contact with either of them.

My cousin went on further to tell me, “Little girls want to remember what they learnt at home before they started school, and that was respect for older people.”

I learnt my lesson. Never again would I correct anyone especially an adult. Over the years, I learnt to adapt in many ways, but I always managed to keep my cultural ways and white cultural ways separate, becoming skilled at moving between the two.

Learning new skills or another way of doing things assisted me in being resilient. I believe accepting help from others was important, along with learning from one’s own mistakes.

At school, I was learning all the time and, although I was not top of my class, I learned from others. When I was in about Year 4, my teacher insisted that we know our ‘times tables’. She gave us a period of time to learn all the tables. I panicked as I only knew ones, twos and threes and I used my fingers to help count for these. I never had enough fingers for anything higher than threes.

I remember a boy who was constantly picked on at school. We got on well as we were both in the same situation. He explained that I just needed to memorise 4, 6, 7, 8, and 9 times tables. The rest were easy, he explained about 5, 10, 11 and 12. I listened to him and of course, it all made sense.

Following his advice, I learnt my ‘times tables’ and was one of the top five in the class to get them all right. I felt really proud of myself as I had shocked the teacher who marked my paper twice just to make sure.

I believe I always tried to conquer tasks. If I didn’t know how to do something, I learnt how to do it. So when this same teacher told me my reading was not the best, I did something about it.

My mother was my biggest supporter and I believed there was no-one more intelligent than her. Mum explained that reading out loud was one of the best ways to improve your reading. So I read out loud to whoever would listen, including Dad who could not read very well at all. Nevertheless, he would listen to me read at least one book a day.

Mum encouraged me to take breaths at commas and full stops, and to read with expression showing I understood the meaning of a question mark. She made me use a dictionary for the words I did not understand. Mum would underline words she knew I did not know the meaning. I had to then look up these and write their meaning. By the end of Year 4, my school report stated I was an excellent reader.

Mum was very proud of my achievements and gave me one of her ‘pearls of wisdom’. “Reading gives you knowledge and knowledge gives you power. Try and understand what you are reading, underline main points that you think are important; if you are unable to understand the information just keep reading it, giving yourself a break of a day or two. You will find after a break, when you read the information again it will make more sense.”

I remembered Mum’s advice well because she made me write it down in my first journal or diary which I named ‘Pearls of wisdom’. Not liking my childish writing, I rewrote this journal a number of times and added much more as I got older.

Whilst studying at University, I remembered Mum’s advice. There were readings I had for some units that made no sense to me. Rather than give up, I followed Mum’s advice.

I saw many students, Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal, get bogged down with difficult readings. Some would take the easy way out and leave or defer their studies, saying University is too hard. Others sought the help of tutors expecting these tutors to complete their work.

Learning for me was something I had to do. If I didn’t know how to do something, I learnt how to do it and I learnt how to do it well. If I made mistakes in life, I learnt by these mistakes and endeavoured not to make the same mistake again.

Some of us are much better at coping with adversities than others. These individuals are often called upon to work for those who are not coping as well. I have thought about the many occasions throughout life when I have had to cope with injustice, inequity, discrimination and racism. Being able to cope with such adversities is a major part of being resilient.

One of my coping strategies is to look at others who are suffering and how they cope with similar adversities. The following is an example of a refugee, seeking asylum in our country:

‘This visit turned out to be a sober lesson in what it was like to be a refugee or a person seeking asylum. I was in awe of this man, who could rise above the racism, discrimination and injustice of mandatory detention and work for those who were not coping as well as he was.’ (Mares and Newman, 2007, p 83)

I have coped with life’s adversities from a young age. I believe my success is due to the strength in my parents, who worked for those not coping as well as they were.

From a western perspective, the meaning of the word ‘survive’ is to continue to live or exist, in spite of danger or accident. Throughout my life, I have often heard the word survive within my family and community, and it was often in regards to food and shelter.

My mother often stated, “We’ll be fine, we will get through this, we’re survivors.” People often survived until payday or pension day, making the most of what they had or stretching their food until they received the next amount of funds.

My father was a seasonal worker so there were times when he was not able to obtain any work, work that he would be paid for in cash that is. It was times like this that he and my mother worked together. My father would often work for food allowing us to survive until he obtained regular work. My mother would seek work such as house cleaning and ironing often leaving home at 5.30 am to arrive at 6.00 am to commence work.

I remember these occasions as it was so unusual for Dad to be home cooking us breakfast and sending us off to school. He would even listen to us read, and sign his name in our reading books. Not being able to read very well he looked at the pictures to work out what we were saying. We survived such periods.

The major adversity for me as an adult was not poverty. I was working, earning far more than my Dad ever did. Racism was the major adversity I had to face and during my nursing training I dealt with it every day.

Sometimes, I would hear Aboriginal patients referred to by a racist term such as ‘Boong’ or ‘Abo’ throughout my shift. At times, I would let it go and did so to survive the day or the shift. Another reason I let it go was I believed the individual using such terms wanted a reaction from me. Not reacting was far more satisfying. I felt empowered because I walked away. I had already experienced such feelings at school.

Like many Aboriginal people, I have countless experiences of racism, far too many to discuss. However, as I reflect on such experiences, I remember how I dealt with some of them and I must ask myself: Did I just survive these experiences of racism?, and If I did just survive these experiences, would I be where I am today? I think not.

I, my parents and other family members are where we are today not because we just survived or existed, although there were times when we were doing just that. It was because we had hope, were able to adapt, cope and learn. We also laughed at ourselves and made the most of the situation we were in.

I forgave people’s ignorance. Being able to forgive was letting go, not holding on to the negatives, just as my father had explained when I was only five years old. Letting go enabled my family and I to face and then conquer adversities we faced each and every day.

One of the best coping mechanisms for many Aboriginal people is humour. When faced with adversity we, as a people, can laugh at ourselves and others and I believe we do this quite well. Having a good laugh is considered to be healthy and I have often heard the old people refer to it as ‘good medicine’.

As kids we laughed at each other or I should say ‘with each other’ in a teasing sort of way. However, a lot of the time we laughed at the oldies. Of course never within earshot, we knew better than to do that. Low levels of education made it even more difficult for many to say certain words. As pointed out earlier, it is disrespectful to correct an older person. So humour was a way of coping.

One of my aunties would often tell us to go and ‘repair’ ourselves rather than prepare ourselves. After having his appendix out, my Dad told everyone his appendix ‘erupted’ rather than ruptured. Another aunty explained that she had a ‘urinary traction infection’. Another common term was ‘Arthur-itis’ rather than arthritis.

Some kids at school liked the idea of having an Aboriginal name. One boy was given the name ‘Goona Cart’ meaning ‘shit head’. He dropped the word cart but proudly kept the name ‘Goona’. On parents’ night he won an award and the teacher presenting the award referred to him as ‘Goona’. My Dad was still laughing months later.

On another occasion, my oldest sister’s partner Steve, a Koorie from Melbourne, took it into his head to steal a prized blue ribbon turkey from a house on the way to the reserve. He wrung its neck, brought it home and told us kids it was Christmas.

Known to have quick fingers, Mum sensed he had stolen the turkey and had a back-up plan. The turkey had been plucked and was cooking on the stove when she saw the police arrive on the reserve. The turkey, pot and all, was hidden in a wardrobe in Mum and Dad’s bedroom, the pot was well covered with clothes.

The police came straight to our house where turkey feathers lay everywhere. Steve and the police were well acquainted so they asked Steve, “Where is the turkey?” His reply was, “What turkey?”

Turkey feathers lay along the road leading to the reserve and our house. We were playing with the feathers on the front lawn when the police arrived. Only finding the feathers and not the bird, the police had no choice but to leave without charging anyone. People in my family still laugh about the ‘Blue Ribbon Turkey’ to this day.

> Conclusion