Lois Ralph

My family is Nyoongar. My grandmother on my mum’s side knew language brilliantly. She taught my older cousin, but she would only speak language in a whisper; she was brought up at New Norcia mission, where they were not allowed to speak language out loud. My grandmother didn’t know how to let go of that rule.

I was here until the age of seven. Lots of memories of York growing up, it was a very ideal place, full of freedom and sunshine. Where we lived was near the river so we would just venture down every day and swim in the billabong, and there were leeches all over you but who cares! We would get them off us and then turn them inside out with a stick and plant them along the river bank. There used to be a bridge where the old hospital is. It was shaped like half a horse shoe. Underneath

there was all this golden sand; we called it the Sandy. We swam there in the waterhole, jumping off the rope into the water, made sandcastles.

In summer we’d go down to the river, stick our hands in a hole and pull out gilgies; filled up a bucket with them and shared them with the family. We’d just stick them in boiling water and eat them. During the winter time, because meat was so expensive, we lived off lambs’ tails - just chucked them on the coals and ate them. We’d ask the farmers for them.

We lived down on the York reserve, with my mum, dad, grandparents, aunties, uncles and cousins on both sides – it was just one big family. It was just lovely, and it made you feel really secure. There was no fear in your life, like there is today. You could just walk up the road and see your gran, who lived five metres away. And all we ever did was hang out with our cousins. The houses weren’t that great; we had these little tin shacks. Grandmother made one. It was just a dirt ground, but they were made comfortable and secure so it was out of the rain and too much of the sun. But there was lots of love, and when there’s lots of love you don’t really recognise how people live.

At that time there were all these policies; we had to be home, off the streets at 6 o’clock. That didn’t include where we used to swim in the river though, which was behind the reserve, away from the town. Sometimes we would go to the pictures in York at night too, so occasionally we ignored the curfew.

By the time I was seven I was taken away to a mission in Wandering, so I was just repeating the cycle that my grandmother had gone through. When I first went there it was quite a different experience. The nuns didn’t dress normally, I thought they looked like penguins – with a veil and collar and just this face looking at you. For a seven year old it was quite scary. It was the first time I’d seen a nun. And they spoke German, so it was all so different. I was there for nine years and didn’t get to go back to York very often during that time. At 16 I left the mission and lived with my mother. I was happy to be with a parent but it was pretty hard because we had to get to know each other all over again.

I wanted to come home when I was an adult with my children. I wanted my children to experience the happy times that we had here as kids. When we first got back to York I went to look at the reserve area. There were no buildings on it, it was just flat. Some of the trees were still there – so we were able to pinpoint where our home used to be. It was good to be back - the feeling of belonging again, and seeing that many things here are still the same. The treatment of Aboriginal people in York has changed, but there is still a bit of animosity hanging around.