Australian Biography

Charles Perkins - full interview transcript

Tape of 12

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Could you tell me about your mother? What was her background, and what kind of a person was she?

My mother was a very strong willed, highly principled person. She was an Arunta woman, an eastern Arunta woman and she was born at a place called Arltunga, which is east of Alice Springs about 180 ks. It was the gold mining area in the early days. before the turn of the century. and she was born there and brought up there, and her mother was Errerreke Nellie, which means ... and Errerreke means 'the sun' in Arunta. And, so she was brought up in that sort of environment and it was pretty tough. She was working in the gold mine ... in the gold fields there when she was about twelve [or] thirteen, and she had to cook and look after everybody as well, so ... because everybody had to ... because it was pretty tough to survive in those conditions out there - with the heat in the summer and the cold in the winter. But she was very, very much a person of the land, she was very much a person of the culture and her mother kept an eye on her. And she had a lot of children of course - my grandmother. But Hetti, my mother, was the strongest one. You know. she looked after everybody - kept an eye on everybody. And my father, well he was a Kalkadoon man from north-west Queensland and they are a warlike tribe that fought the white people and finished up being just about annihilated at a place called Battle Mountain just near Mount Isa. A few survived and their descendants live around there today and he's one of them. So, it was a combination of two strong tribes. The Arunta is [not] warlike. Their more peaceful, more introspective, more deep into the culture and the other, the Kalkadoon people, are very strong and warlike and really never take a backward step on things. And so that's where my father came from, and a combination of the two - well I think it's a good mix.

Do you see anything of your father when you were a child?

Never met my father at all until just before he passed away. And my mother never told me about him until I was about thirty-five-forty, and by that time he was getting on a bit. And it was really sad that, you know, I never knew who he was. I never really asked too many questions either. Didn't really want to know at an early age, because you're living a life and doing all sorts of things when you're a young bloke. But then later on you think, well you know where did I come from, where ... what stock do I belong to, and I think that's the lot of a lot of Aboriginal people today. You know, different fathers, different mothers, and it's good to sort of find out where you're roots are and then to make a connection, because there's a lot of family at the end of the line, in terms of your father. You find out they've got brothers and they've got sisters and so therefore you've got more aunties and uncles and then you've got cousins and then you've got brothers as well and sisters. So I had a whole family there waiting for me to discover them all and I discovered them all late in life and we're pretty close now. But it was a bit unfortunate I didn't know [them] earlier in life. But my father came to Alice Springs and had two children: one was my younger brother and the other was myself. And I was told he left me standing on the table when I was about two years old and he walked out of the house and I never saw him again. And I think that's the way it is in Aboriginal Affairs. It's a bit tough.

What had brought him to Alice Springs?

Oh, you know Aboriginal people they chase employment, work all over the place. You know it would have been very difficult in those times for Aboriginal people to get any sort of job, apart from being stock men and you know stock men's wages were fairly low anyhow. You know, tea and sugar and a few bob in your pocket but you work seven days a week from sun up 'til sun set. And so, you know, wherever you can chase employment even if it was that hard, well you went for it. And so Aboriginal men, particularly, moved all over the countryside you know and had relationships with Aboriginal women or other people, and that happened in my case.

Did you have brothers and sisters?

Yeah, I had eleven brothers and sisters. And most of them have passed away now. But they were much older than me and they were all into various things. Some were in business. Some got into business. They were all pretty smart, quite frankly, and none of them had an education - not a skerrick of an education really. And it's unfortunate, you know, because they were really smart people in their own right - the girls and the boys, and if they'd had that education goodness knows what they would have done. And my eldest brother, of course - the eldest one he set up his own contracting firm in the Northern Territory. The first one. He used to build stock yards and run transport companies and put in wells and bores and so on and he couldn't even write his own name. My other brother managed a cattle station for nearly twenty years: managed it and he couldn't read and write either. And just imagine if he'd had an education because he was a very smart man and he still is and he's still alive. And the others, well we just took our chances. My sister and my youngest brother, well we had a reasonable education but what education you got when you're brought up in a ... as I was, born in a police compound, just outside of Alice Springs and I couldn't read or write until I was about ten, so it's not a very significant start in life from an academic point of view.

Yes tell me about that place where you were born. Where was it, and what was its story?

It was just about a mile north of the current Alice Springs. But the original Alice Springs, where I was born, and there was a spring in fact in the creek bed of the Todd River ... now it's called the Old Telegraph Station but before that we used to call it the Bungalow. It was a compound that was controlled and patrolled by the police and we all had to live in there and we weren't allowed to go out of there except on a Saturday night or a Sunday morning but we all had to be back by sunset. We weren't allowed in the town of Alice Springs. As the sun was going down we had to be out. And we weren't allowed to go anywhere outside of that compound unless by police permission. I was born into that, in a dormitory, and of course in my early life I was always in the women's dormitory all the time with my mother, and my younger brother, and my sister. And so all we knew was dormitory life. The men's dormitory, the women's, the girls' dormitory and that was the sort of situation we were confined to that, and this is Australia. Not South Africa.

Was your grandmother there too?

No my grandmother was not allowed to come near the place.

Why was that?

Well that was the rule. That was the law. They separated everybody. Separated the part-Aboriginal people from the full blood people and they weren't allowed to mix. Part-Aboriginal people weren't allowed to speak the language. You weren't allowed to participate in the culture and, you know, the white people had those laws at that time. The welfare system operated and it divided families. I used to go and see my grandmother down at the wood heap a lot - you know, outside of the compound, and she was a woman of the bush. She could live in the bush no problem at all. She lived in the bush and was comfortable in the bush, but she used to want to come and see us. And she used to come and see her daughter, Hetti, which is my mother, and I can remember she used to sing out from the hills: 'Hetti'. I could hear that voice coming across the hills, calling out for Hetti, and my mother used to go and see her there. Sneak out and go and talk to her you know, and then have to come back.

And she had to sneak out. She wasn't allowed out?

Oh well, that was against the law. Sometimes she'd go and see her when she was obviously there, but didn't want to hang around too long because the police would have you ... would have her removed and you would be brought back to the compound. And as for me, well I used to just watch it. I was so young I really didn't understand it all. But you know, she used to come along and look at me, and look at the other two, and she used to know who I was. But she wasn't allowed to pick me up or talk to me or hold me or anything, my grandmother. It was against the law.

What's your earliest memory of that place? Can you remember the earliest thing that happened to you, or that you recall from that period of your life.

Well, I can recall you know being brought up there up to about seven or eight or nine, whatever it was, and I could remember the big spring in the water hole, that was created as a consequence of the spring in the Todd River. And we used to swim in that. That's where I first learned to swim. And we used to ride donkeys up and down the creek bed. I used to remember the dormitory we used to sleep in all the time. It was locked at night. You were locked into the dormitory at night. And I could remember the food we used to eat, which was pretty basic stuff. There was dripping, syrup on damper, corned beef - very elementary foods you know. Potatoes. And I can remember the army trucks coming past on the highway. We used to sneak out sometimes and go and watch them. I was a bit too young, but they used to throw tins of food off the army trucks and we used to pick them up and eat them. Like tins of jam. You know, they'd cut open a tin of jam and toss it to us and we'd eat half a tin of jam, or bully beef or what ever it was. I can remember all of those things. And I can remember, you know, having some fruits we weren't supposed to have and they used to give us a spoonful of olive oil. Line us all up. I can remember the army trucks that came and took away big numbers of the young people to Darwin, when the war started, when the Japanese were starting to come into the Top End. And they were all taking them. As ludicrous as it may seem, they were taking them to the war front. They were taking them from Alice Springs up to Darwin where the Japanese where landing or supposed to [be] going to land, and it just boggles the mind when you think about it now. I can remember them going off in the truck and I remember giving my pen ... I had a pen, and I gave it to one of the boys on the truck by the name of Joe Croft, one of the men, one of the young men. I told him, 'You can have the pen provided you write me a letter or something'. Well of course he never wrote a letter. Kept the pen, but I met Joe later on in life, and he's a relative of mine and so on, and most of us were relatives in that compound. And so those are the only memories I have. And the big date palms that are in the compound there I remember those - eating a lot of the dates. But it wasn't too bad an existence. You know, I was protected because I was a young child and everybody used to carry me around all over the place or look after me, as was the ... is the custom amongst Aboriginal people: you look after the young. The young never get left alone. They've got to be looked after and if they're not looked after and they get injured, well then you get injured for not looking after them. And that still is a custom today and it's a good one.

What contact did you have with white people?

Well I used to always be frightened of white people and I'm still a bit frightened of them in a sense. Not so much that they scare the daylights out of me now but I still have some ... I'm apprehensive of them and I've a sort of ... They unsettle me sometimes. I don't know how to handle them. And because the white people used to come to the place. They were mainly government officials and they used to be dressed all in white: white shorts, white socks and black shoes. And that was a standard dress. They used to think they looked magnificent. Well they did, they used to scare the daylights out of me. As soon as they come, we all took off. We went around and hid. Got out of the road in case they were going to take us away to prison or remove us from our mothers or do all sorts of things. And we just didn't know because people kept disappearing from the compound for one reason or another and we never saw them again. Maybe there were good reasons, we don't know. But ... and so everybody said, 'Look out. The white people are coming again'. And so when that signal went up, everybody disappeared and went and hid somewhere and so did I.

What sort of schooling was available there? Was there any?

Oh, there was a school. There was one room and I often go back to the old place now and have a look at the school - the room that was the school. But all I remember about the school, and in the early days there was no pre-school of course, when you've supposed to have some education when you get to grade one or two ... well I never had grade one or two, even though I was in the room for schooling. All I could remember is that the teacher being chased around the room by some of the bigger boys and people throwing things around the room, and some people scribbling things on the board, and me just walking in and out, as other people did. So schooling was just non-existent and we just learnt nothing there. There was a facade of course and nobody got any education at all. I think that the principal or the teacher might have tried but there was no discipline and nobody really cared. You know, the authorities didn't care. I mean they were able to say to other government authorities, 'Well look, we've got a school in the compound'. It was called the Bungalow actually, but there was nothing.

What sort of things was your mother teaching you?

My mother was in charge of the whole compound, in terms of the men and the girls, you know. She was a sort of ... the real strong person and could keep the discipline amongst everybody, particularly amongst all the women and the girls, you know.

How did she do that?

By strength of character and she could fight. You know if any one wanted a fight, she'd say, 'Right'. Men or women - she'd strip off to the waist, get a nulla nulla and they'd get into it, men and women. She didn't care. And she could fight and she was that sort of a person. She'd say, 'If you want to talk about it that's all right. If you want to fight, well let's fight'. But once it's all over, well everybody makes up and that's good about Aboriginal people. We all sort of have our disputes but we usually make up afterwards. And I think it's a good Australian trait quite frankly. But she was the one that was sort of like a matron of the whole area. She organised the meals and cooking. She organised discipline in the dormitories, cleanliness and all of that and really ran the place for everybody. Didn't get paid for it. Just got food and looked after us as well. But she was a very principled person - never drank or smoked in her life. And never really ... to my knowledge, never did anybody any harm. Always did them a good turn in preference to doing them a bad one.

Was there any particular lessons for living that she passed on to you?

Yeah. 'If you're not too sure' she always said to me ... Well you know, she used to sometimes put money on the table. Later on in life she'd put a penny on the table and that penny's got to be there, next week, the week after, the week after that. If it's not there, then you've stolen it. Well why do you want to be a thief? Just leave it. It's not your money. And, don't take what doesn't belong to you. And the other one she used to always work it out and I'll paraphrase her in this sense, she used to always say, 'If you're not doing the right thing you must be doing the wrong thing'. You know, that sort of stuff. And she always said to me, 'Well you know, you got to always speak your mind, say what you think'.

Was it a problem for you that you didn't have a father around, as a young boy?

Yeah I think it is a problem when, you know, boys don't have a father figure or some father round the place, or somebody, you know, apart from the women ... you know, to have some man around the place that you can relate to a little bit more, and I think you feel that effect later on in life. You know, and I think it's important that you have ... that people can have a father in the home, well it's a good thing. You don't want them if they're going to cause problems and so on, but if they're reasonable then I think it's a benefit. And I felt all my life that ... you know, that I would've liked to have had a father to relate to and I'd had nobody. And, you know, the only people I'd had to relate is to boys the same as myself, and who were struggling to find answers to all sorts of problems and growing up and we all grew up together and helped each other. But when you're seeking advice and consolation and guidance from your peer group well it's not real good because they're making the same mistakes as you. And, you know, when you've make some mistakes some of them are fundamental and there's no going back. And some of the boys, like in the boys' home I was with, they made them and it took them right up the track and it's easy to make mistakes which can cost you your future. And I think with a father in the home perhaps those opportunities to make those sorts of mistakes are not very frequent you know. You're put on the right track early.

Were you very close to your mother particularly close?

Yeah, yeah. My mother and I were very close, always, on everything. And that's why when I was sent down to ... taken down to Adelaide, to the boys' home down there, you know I think she really felt that very much, you know. Because she was in academic sense uneducated. She didn't have any skills apart from cooking and, you know, looking after house and washing clothes, and cleaning up house. They were the skills she had, in an employment sense, and you know, she was finding it very difficult but she felt she wanted to give me an opportunity for another life, you know, another situation. And so she denied herself my brother and myself, so as to help us get on the road [and become] much stronger and take opportunities she never had.

Can you tell me how that came about ... (cough) Can you tell me how that came about - that you came to leave your mother and go to Adelaide?

Well, you know, she was often thinking about it because she used to work in the cafes in Alice Springs you know. And at the picture theatres there and so on and a lot of the troops used to come in, and I was only a babe in arms in a sense, just a little kid walking around. But I used to sleep under the table when she used to be doing the cooking. And then she'd carry us, my brother and I, back home after it all. We'd walk. She'd carry one and the other walking. And so it was a pretty tough life and, you know, we [were] sort of bought up in that environment, living in Alice Springs with her cooking and cleaning and then us going to this tumbled down old house in the middle of Alice Springs.

This was after you left the bungalows. Perhaps I should ask you, how did you come to leave the bungalows?

Well, the bungalow was ... They sort of started to close it down and then we were allowed then into Alice Springs. And we were allowed only into a certain part of Alice Springs which is called Rainbow Town, which is just about a mile out of Alice Springs. As you go through Alice Springs, it's on the ... it's through the gap, through the Heavitree Gap into Alice Springs. The cottages, as they used to call it, was on the right hand side. They don't exist anymore, and that's where we were and the rest of the town was about a mile further up of course. And we weren't allowed into town again. But then gradually that was relaxed and you know more and more people allowed into to town to work and other things, but basically we had ... we all lived, all the part-Aboriginal kids of all colours, and that's why everybody calls it Rainbow Town - the white people as was well as ourselves, because we were all colours living there, on the outskirts of Alice Springs, in what they call the cottages. And they were just big cement houses, you know, and so we allowed to go there. And then later on we were allowed to go into Alice Springs more and I finished up being put in the hostel, the Church of England hostel in Alice Springs, with my brother, and that wasn't too bad, but it was, you know, an institution. And that was the beginning ... not the beginning but that was a different type of institutionalisation that I had to endure. It was okay, but my mother felt that was doing us a lot of good by being in that sort of a place. Then the Church of England priest, Father Smith, asked us to ... asked my mother, would the two boys like to further their education down in Adelaide, at a home he was setting up down there. And of course my mother thought it was a good idea and we thought it was a good idea but for other reasons, you know. We thought we'd go and have a look at the sea. I didn't think it was going to last any more than a week and I was going to come back again, which was a very silly thought in my mind. But I wanted to see the sea. I wanted to see a boat. But my mother said, 'No that's okay, let them go down there', and perhaps they can, you know, have more opportunities in life than she had. And so that's how we finished up down in Adelaide.

She saw your future as being with the white people. She felt that she really couldn't give you an Aboriginal heritage and so it was best for you to be educated for the white life. Was that how she felt?

No not so much. You see, the law was still strong then about being ... speaking the Aboriginal language, mixing with the Aboriginal culture. You know you just weren't allowed to, you know, the law was there. The restrictions were still there. The police were dominant. And they were then taking part-Aboriginal kids away from their mothers all over the place, you know. So the police were the power in ... as far as Aboriginal people were concerned. And they would just exercising that power at their own discretion. And so, she felt that, well, there would be opportunities down south and there wouldn't be so many in the Alice Springs. Because the only opportunities we had in terms of work was wanting to be a stockman, or be a railroad worker, and you know perhaps she thought there could be something else. And so that's why she allowed us to go down. And well, we didn't know any different. We thought, fine we'll go down there you see. And it's good in one way and bad in another. It took us away from our home, even though we didn't have a father in the home we had a mother, and that was good enough for me. But, you know, to move from Alice Springs to Adelaide, well there was for and against, and people have argued about it, and I've thought about it often, and I've asked my mother a lot but she said, 'No, it's a good idea. It gives you a chance for a good education'. Nothing to do with Aboriginal culture. She thought, I could pick that up later on. It's always there for me. It's part of my heritage anyhow. I can pick up whenever I want. I never lost it by going away from it because when you come back it's yours for the taking.

So who took you to Adelaide?

Oh, Father Smith, the Church of England priest, took a lot of us down there, you know, and established the boys' home. First of all in Adelaide in Norwood there, then later on down at Semaphore, in a big place that was a grand old hall and we called it St. Francis House, or he did. And the Church of England set up the big boys' home there. But much to our regret, Father Smith left after a couple of years and other people took over and then the Church decided they would close it. They didn't have enough funds to keep it going. Which was a real tragedy because it was producing some good results from a lot of the kids that went down there, even though you know they were separated from family and home. It did give them an opportunity to gain employment skills and education, which they wouldn't have got in Alice Springs. So that was all the ... that was one way of looking at it and the other was that they were separated from family and home.

What was it like for you?

Well, in any institution for any kid it's not very good, black or white. And, you know, all my life I've lived in institutions, been brought up in institutions, so I'm not part of the Stolen Generation in terms of physically being wrenched from my mother's arms, but the same thing: the principle is the same. You're taken away from your family, you're disorientated, you've got to sort of fend for yourself and we really had to fend for ourselves down there, and we had to fend for ourselves in the other places too, that we were in. But in the boys' home it's tough. You know, you've got people in charge of you. Some of them were good, some of them were bad. I mean I used to get a flogging with a rubber hoses, small chains, big sticks and all sorts you know. Once ...

Is this Father Smith?

No, not him so much, not him, but the other ones. And they were priests, and others were not priests. They were just men of the church you know. And they used to ... Well I used to get a lot of hidings. I don't know why, but I used to say things and do things that they objected to. And ...

Is that true that you don't know. What kinds of things? Were you fairly cheeky compared to the others?

I was. I used to say things to them and I never ... you know, I used to never cop any shit from them, and they used to object to my attitude. I always said things to them that they didn't like, you know, and nor did their wives. I wasn't submissive as they wanted me to be, and I really didn't want to be submissive. I wanted to sort of be my own person, and say what I wanted to say without trying to be discourteous to them, and it just got me into a lot of strife. I often regret that. [But] well I thought that was inevitable - that had to happen, you know, and that's the way things were. They finished up ... at the boys' home, at the end of it all, at about fifteen and a half, or yeah, about fifteen-years-old, they put me out on the road with a suitcase. No money, nowhere to go and they told me to get, to get going down the road. And I said to this priest, I said, 'Well where do I go?' He said, 'Well we don't want you here, you're too cheeky, too smart, you won't ... you're too disobedient. We don't want you in the home. You're causing problems'. And so I started walking down the road with me suitcase: nowhere to go. Very hard. But in the home itself, you know, the food was sometimes very bad, the common sleeping, well you can sleep and that was okay. But in all institutions there's no sort of great sort of comfort about it, there's no sort of privacy, there's no ... certainly no luxury. It was as institutions always are: very basic.

Did you get enough to eat?

Well, when I first went down, I didn't. I used to wander the streets of Adelaide, eating stuff out of the gutter. I used to pick up grapes and half eaten apples and I used to go through the bins. Seems strange, doesn't it? And some of the other boys used to do the same. You see, they give you a good meal at night but it sometimes is only a plateful, and when you're a growing lad, you eat a lot. You know, when you are a growing lad you can eat a hell of a lot. And I used to be hungry after that, and I used to just go down the street and look for food. Well I had no money so I used to eat what I could find, wherever I could find it. I used to steal fruit off the trees in back yards, or if I see it in the front garden, I'd steal it and take off. Mainly nectarines and apples and oranges, or whatever. And if I see bread on a front verandah, I'd steal that as well. I used to do that and not many people know about that. But that's how I used to sometimes get full, because I was very hungry. I never used to complain to the priest in charge, but that's the way it was with me. It's very funny to eat a ... grapes, you know, like people had thrown in the bin or on the gutter. You go and wash it and it really tastes quite nice, especially when you're hungry.

And you were often hungry?

Yeah, I was hungry a lot. Yeah.

What was the ... what was the difference for you as a bunch of part-Aboriginal kids going to an institution compared to say ... I mean a lot of white kids are sent away to boarding school and so on. What was the difference with your experience, coming down from Alice Springs to Adelaide as a group of Aboriginal kids?

I think it's tough for white kids in boarding homes, in institutions. I think it's basically the same I suppose. But for us we had that additional factor of, you know, we were sort of identifiable as being different. And, you know, and coming from a place with family and friends, down to another place like Adelaide where we knew nobody, none of the kids. But when I saw the sea, I walked into the sea, I thought this is lovely, I like to see a big pool bigger than a swimming hole up in the Alice. I thought the sea was a big pool. I don't know what gave me that idea. And I walked into it with me shoes on, and I tasted it and it was very salty, and I said, 'This is not a swimming pool. This is ... This smells'. It had seaweed all over the place and it stunk, you know, and the water was very salty. I was disillusioned right from the word go and I thought, now the only thing I've got to see now is a boat and I'll go home. Well I was down there for a bit longer than a couple of days, and I ... It began to dawn on me later on that, you know, I was there for quite some time. And so we started to sort of fit in as much as we could. We went to school there. But I remember one time, I was walking down the street, with a couple of lads, and I heard these young white kids behind us say, 'Let's get the niggers', and I thought, who are the niggers? Must be somebody else around the place. What's a nigger, you know. And they started throwing stones at us and I heard the same again, 'Let's get these niggers', you know, and I thought, that must be us. And then we started to run because they were big boys and they were throwing things at us and everything, and wanted to belt us up and so on. So we took off and that's when I realised that I was pretty different to other kids, and we all were, and we've got just to be careful. But that was the first time I heard the word 'niggers' and I was bit astounded by it, and when I realised I was the one that's being chased it was a bit of a shock. And from then on I thought, well, you keep an eye out, and watch people. And like the girls at the school, when we used to go to the schools and we used to meet the girls at school and so on ... and the primary schools ... and we used to have girlfriends, you know - boyfriend and girlfriend and so on. Well they were not boyfriend and girlfriend to me, and for some of the other lads in the daylight, but only in the pictures, when the lights went out, you know. They would only sit with us when it was dark because they didn't want to be seen with us in the light, which is a bit sad when you think about it. We didn't mind of course, because we enjoyed their company and so on, but as soon as the lights come on they'd walk away from us and we'd have to walk away from them.

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