As Told to Elli Jacobs
In Ngemba language, the word Gunnebthukun (pronounced geni-ki-koon) is Mother Earth, the provider of all living things. Through the diversities of my life, this connection has been my healing, my only way forward.
I was born in the north-eastern NSW town of Gunnedah, to an Aboriginal mother descending from Gulargambone and a white father from Coonabarabran. I spent the first 12 years of my life in a small town called Rocky Glen, near Coonabarabran. My dad and a couple of his brothers worked their own saw mill in the scrub and when they could afford it, they bought a truck and began cutting grain and carting it to other farmers in the area for extra cash. My mum took care of me and my brother, as well as three of her nine siblings when my grandmother suddenly passed away. My dad was also from a family of 15 children, so I grew up surrounded and sheltered by lots of family.
To make ends meet, we all had to pitch in and do chores. Work involved logging and barking trees to sell for fence posts or walking for half a day along the main side of the road, collecting aluminium cans to cash in for pocket money. We were extremely poor, but at that early age, I remember always thinking that my childhood was perfect. Whenever we went away from Rocky Glen, I would cry to go back. My favourite memory is bushwalking with my mum for hours upon hours to collect bush fruits and helping her make bush tucker for our big family dinner parties by the fire.
A DIFFERENT KIND OF LIFE
When I turned 13, we moved to Gunnedah so I could attend St Mary’s College. For the first time, I felt that life was challenging. For some, a redheaded, freckle-faced girl was not black enough to be Aboriginal and then for others I was too Aboriginal to be white. I didn’t disclose any of the bullying I was experiencing at school to my parents. They were still struggling to make a living for us, and I didn’t want to seem ungrateful, so I buried a lot of emotions through those years.
To escape from everything that made me feel sad, I began borrowing our neighbour’s horse to go for rides. Initially, I taught myself how to ride, but when I joined our local pony club and it turned competitive, I got my own horse, which we saved from the dogging yards. I eventually began to travel each weekend to compete in barrel-racing and I ended up winning a lot of championships. In 1991, I was chosen by the Gunnedah pony club to travel to New Zealand to compete for two weeks. It was one of the most awesome experiences of my life.
When I returned, I found out my parents had separated, which was completely unexpected. They argued occasionally but I didn’t know it was to the extreme that mum wanted to leave. My dad drove us to Sydney to look for her. When we found my mum I was left there with her. I hated it. For a country girl, city life was a big culture shock. For two years, I travelled back and forth to Gunnedah and my horses, but I eventually had to give up my passion for riding because Mum couldn’t afford to maintain the horses in Sydney.
I decided to follow in my mum’s footsteps and become a nurse. I enrolled at the University of Sydney through the Indigenous programmes, but after working for two years I realised nursing wasn’t for me and I quit.
I became the Aboriginal outreach worker at Wesley Mission in Sydney’s inner city, which was an even greater culture shock. Homelessness and drugs were things I had never seen before. But during that time I found the passion and the compassion to want to help my own people.
I was 19 years old when I met an Aboriginal guy from Brewarrina. He was a traditional dancer and artist. We got married the same year and a year later I became pregnant. Unfortunately, he was stillborn. I named him Ngukirri, meaning “to live”. I spiralled into post-natal depression and quit my job. It was only months later that I began working on the bush tucker business I had begun before our loss. Reconnecting to the foods of my culture helped me feel better again.
Just over a year later, I became pregnant with my daughter Kirralaa, meaning “star”. She was born on my birthday, which made the connection special. Two years later my son Maliyan, meaning “wedge-tailed eagle”, came into our lives. Having them, changed my life, but every time I went through a pregnancy the fear of losing a child increased my depression and I ended up with high blood pressure.
We moved around a lot because of my husband’s job. Sometimes he would be away for months on end and I would be raising our kids alone without family close by, which contributed to my depression.
In 2004, when he returned after performing for six months in Alice Springs, he became physically violent. I kept hoping it was just a one-off thing and our lives would go back to normal, but when it began happening more frequently, I planned to leave him. When he figured that out, he snatched the kids from school. It took the police two weeks to locate them and return them to me. He continued harassing me and even threatening to kill my horses. He was determined to do everything possible to make my life miserable, until he ended up going to prison for nine months after a major violent attack.
When he got out, he continued playing mind games and seeking revenge for his time in prison. Out of fear I would stay awake at night thinking he would try and break into my house.
When he realised that if he didn’t stop he would end up back in jail, he moved back to Alice Springs and eventually left me alone. In the meantime, my depression had escalated but with my mother’s support I once again found solace in my bush tucker catering business and I began rebuilding my life.
A FRESH START
By the time I was 36 years old, my father had passed away and I was divorced. I felt it was time to get back in touch with the things that made me happy – bush foods, living in the country and riding horses – so I moved with my kids to Mudgee. There we began performing traditional dance together again which has been a big part of my healing journey.
In 2013, my business Indigiearth, which involves using the native resources from Mother Earth I used to collect as a child to make retail products, won me the NSW Business Leader of the Year award; the first for an Indigenous business owner.
My future is now all about family, my kids’ health and happiness, and sharing the health benefits of bush foods.
Through the struggles of my life, I have always found myself searching for the things in my childhood that made me happy, to enable me to move forward. That search kept leading me directly back to my memories of living at Rocky Glen and how connected we were to the earth and our ancestors. I can now look back over my life and see the full circle that I have travelled.