Interview with author Gladys Milroy
by Marjorie Coughlan*
Gladys Milroy is an Aboriginal elder and storyteller from the Pilbara region in Western Australia. She was
born in 1927 and was taken as a young child and placed in the
Parkerville Children's Home. Her people's country is the Palkyu
country of the eastern Pilbara in Western Australia.
Gladys is the co-author/illustrator of the
children's book Dingo's Tree, with her daughter Jill Milroy, currently Dean of the School of Indigenous Studies at the University of Western Australia. Her story is told in her daughter
Sally Morgan's book My Place (Fremantle Press, 1987).
Gladys lives with her daughter Jill and her two dogs in South Fremantle, Western Australia.
What is your background as a storyteller?
I’ve always been a storyteller – it’s quite traditional in Aboriginal families. When I go and visit relations up in the country, you walk in and there’s always a storyteller, there’s always a story to tell. Ours is an oral tradition and the stories were all handed down – so that was the culture we had. There’s always a good story. I mean, we gossip like anybody! It’s great when you go and sit round the old fire in the bush. The old people want to tell you all about their stories: “I’ve had a memory” - that’s what they call it, a “memory”. And it’s just wonderful.
I think as a child I was always interested in telling stories. Then it was the most amazing thing when I started to read. It was the best thing that ever happened to me – because I loved stories. I loved books; I loved looking at pictures of animals… But I had a lot of trauma in my life and I turned off my childhood, wiped it out of my memory. Then later I went through a very bad time when I lost my husband – he’d been a prisoner-of-war and he died young. When my daughter wrote a book about our family [Sally Morgan’s My Place] and it started coming back, I turned to writing poetry and stories and to painting, and I found that very healing. Since then, I’ve just kept writing and writing, writing stories, especially children’s stories to make them understand and get them on the right path - I suppose most of my stories have a bit of a moral.
So I’ve always loved telling stories. I think with Aboriginal people there seems to be a gift - I sometimes dream stories in that early morning half-awake, half-dreaming time. They are really just given to me and I love telling them to children because we believe that everything is alive – the animals, of course, but also the rocks, the trees, everything – so often, these little stories have a lot of meaning for children, especially children who maybe have threats in their lives.
Where did the idea for writing The Dingo’s Tree come from?
You might have heard about all the mining happening in the Pilbara region of Western Australia. Mining has destroyed many of our Aboriginal sites and stories. Soon there won’t be any of the amazing carvings left to show people and we’ll have lost the stories that go with them. In any other country you wouldn’t be allowed to touch them but in Australia the mining companies are running everything and there’s nothing you can do. It’s very sad. Now they’re talking about exporting uranium from Australia and I find it very disheartening. We don’t want the mining - it’s against our Aboriginal laws.
You also wonder about how many animals are killed because the mines have trains running 24 hours a day, seven days a week. You can’t tell the animals they can’t cross the railway line as the lines go through their food lines. I’m worried that we’re losing so many species of animals and I needed to say something to try and make people aware. I wrote the book to appeal to children to start with and then to their parents. Parents need to bring up their children to ask questions about the world they live in – and I’m hoping children will ask questions about mining because of this book. Maybe children asking questions will start to go some way towards letting them know what world they’re going to inherit.
I think Dingo's Tree is a book for people of any age so I’m hoping adults will read it too. Kids get a book and adults read it to them – and then will maybe tell somebody else about it: “You really need to read this book – it’s got a message in it.” So we’re hoping that going through children is a way to get into people’s lives - also because it’s lovely being read to. I love people reading to me. So yes, I think it’s a book that everyone should read or have read to them. It might be a bit of a wake-up call.
The story is quite apocalyptic, which is an unusually strong message in a children’s picture book. It does end on a note of hope but that’s because the people have all gone. Was that intentional?
We need to realise that everything is happening so fast and nobody is stopping it. The animals and their habitats are disappearing. We’ve lost 90% of our old growth forest. Some of these trees take hundreds of years to grow. How many of my great grandchildren will be able to hug an old tree? All the trees planted now will be the same age - and how can we know they’re going to survive anyway without the help of the old trees that are their family?
We are actually the guardians of the land – we don’t own it; and that’s where it hurts so much because we feel we haven’t looked after something and it gets destroyed. Then we feel it’s our fault because that’s what we are here for, to look after the land.
When we were invaded by the British Empire, we comprised over 300 tribes and languages. Now we’re a very small part of the population, something like 3%, and we don’t have a say. Aboriginal life is disappearing.
Why did you choose the dingo as the main character?
Dingoes are the most beautiful animals. And yet, they are being destroyed. They’re still considered vermin in some parts of Australia. The government used to pay ten shillings for a pair of dingo ears. Dingoes would sometimes kill sheep so they were just about hunted to extinction by pastoralists. Now they’re trying to breed pure-bred dingoes in zoos.
Please tell us about the illustrations because they’re really beautiful.
When you write as an Aboriginal person, you’re put in a set. It’s still traditional to show Aboriginal people and animals like they did in Victorian stories and we look awful! I like them to look sort of intelligent! So it was a shot in the dark – you know, we said, oh well, we can’t get anyone else to do them so that was it…
My daughter said, “Come on, Mum, let’s give it a go” but I’ll tell you what, it was painful! You look at some of these amazing illustrations you see of animals in books, and you think, “Oh, I wish I could draw like that.” Anyhow, we had a go. It was hard going because the only time I’d done a bit of painting was when I was going through my healing process and Jill had never done any.
So did you and Jill work together on both the story and the artwork?
Yes, we both did both. I generally get the germ of the stories then we go over them together. We think this, that and the other until we get them right. This is the first time we’ve done an animal story.
Before, we’ve done stories for little children who are just starting school – and that’s mainly to get Aboriginal children to want to read books. They’re only little books so that children won’t lose their concentration. I’ve found these stories work well with animals as an extra ingredient – stories about looking after them and how they live. I suppose I also want to write about animals because they can’t talk up for themselves. If nobody talks up for them, they’ll never be looked after – but if you start with books, if you start with children because they may want a pet themselves, then children will learn to look after little animals.
At the back of the book, in the Authors' note it says the basis of your work is “the birthright of Aboriginal children, and all children to be born into stories.” Could you say a bit more about that?
You’ve got to be born in the right story. I was born in the right story as an Aboriginal child: I had family, I had culture, I had my name; I knew where I belonged. Then I was put in the wrong story, which meant I was put in a Western upbringing. I lost my culture; I lost my family. I belonged to the government, so they became my guardians. I ended up with nothing, actually – stripped of everything I had. I had no rights – nothing at all – so by that I was put in the wrong story. I searched for years to be in the right story. I never found a family, I never found a country, I never found language or culture or anything like that till I was in my fifties. So I say to Aboriginal children today, listen to your parents because they can tell you the stories of your family: where you come from and where you belong, so that you also know where you’re going. Children need to listen to their parents and grandparents’ stories so that they can pass them on to their children. That’s what it means to be in the right story.
What happened with us was that our Aboriginal culture was taken away. They took children away from the 1904 Act right up until the late ’60s. So it was generation after generation: the Stolen Generation. They did not know who they were; they didn’t know where they belonged. What is so sad about the Stolen Generation is that we became nothing; we became another name in a book. They transfer you somewhere else and you’ve got to grow yourself up, and that’s very hard, because you’re not tied to anything. People are still searching and they’ll never know where they came from. I was lucky. I was able to find out where I was from and to go back and find family.
Kids are travelling all around the world these days but if they know where they belong, they’ve always got that there with them: they carry it with them and they can hand it down to their children. Some of our people will never know and that’s why it’s important that parents talk to their children. Don’t cover it up or be ashamed. Let them know what their background is so they’ve got those bonds.
The idea of being in the right story does give you a sense of surety and knowledge. Australia is my spiritual home. If I went to live somewhere else, that would be my country too but this is my spiritual home. Aboriginal culture is a very spiritual culture. It’s very important to us to have that knowledge, spiritually as well as physically. We believe we have two bodies, one physical and one spiritual and you have to look after the spiritual body. If the spiritual body gets sick then the physical body goes. It’s like in the book when the tree cries because the animals are leaving and Dingo says, “We will be here with you in spirit.” We have a very strong belief in spiritual things and the tree would know that they were always there in spirit.
Have you taken this book into schools?
Oh yes, I’ve been to two schools with it so far. What I love about kids is that they ask questions. They have so much they want to ask me about, they don’t want me to go! Maybe it’s because there’s this huge amount of knowledge that children have never heard about. Most of them have never met an Aboriginal person.
We are the first people on the planet and we have our roots in the oldest country in the world. We have so much knowledge and so many stories – just about in every rock or every mountain there’s a story – and we have the songlines and the stories that go with them. That’s quite exciting for kids because we’re talking about the country they live in, that they didn’t know anything about. I think that’s why kids are more interested and really every child - not just Aboriginal children but all the children of Australia - has a right to know the history of their country.
Did you have any pets as a child?
I was taken away from my family when I was two years old and I remember in the orphanage there was only ever one dog. I always loved this little dog; Timmy was his name. It’s a memory that’s always stayed with me and I’m 85 now. I always said that I would get a dog one day.
I remember one day I was walking to school and I saw a stone in the bush. I thought it looked like a dog so every morning on my way to school I would pat the stone and say, “Hello, dog.” Until one morning I was running late (and of course, you got the cane if you were late), so I just ran past my dog and forgot to say hello. Then I thought I heard a dog barking. I thought, “Oh my, I didn’t say hello!” so I rushed back to my dog and said, “Hello, dog.” And so, oh yes, I was late for the bell. Then on the Saturday afternoon, I thought I’d go and visit my dog and make a little garden. So I set to building a little garden round the dog. I found an old bone in the bush and I put that in the garden and then I sat down against the rock dog and it was all nice and warm …
So when did you get your first (real) dog?
Well, apart from the rock, once I got married and had my first little one, I thought, “I’m going to get a dog.” Kids have got to have a dog! I’d never had one and always wanted one – so that was probably 60 years ago. I’ve had quite a lot of dogs since then – fourteen in all.
What have you got now?
I’ve still got two. One’s sixteen; the other one’s ten. We lost a little puggy dog last year. That was heart-breaking… so we’ve just got the two now. And the 16-year-old is getting on. They’re great little mates. I couldn’t imagine having a house without a dog. You come home and they’re just so pleased to see you. Even if noone else is talking to you, they’ll come up to you and want to be cuddled. They’re great companions. They never get cross with you. Sometimes it’s just as well they can’t talk– still, they don’t need to – you just know what they would say!
You’ve had a long career taking stories into children’s lives – are you going to carry on?
Oh, yes! I want children to ask, “Well, where are those animals that I read about?” and to notice the destruction that’s gone on. I’ve written some other stories for older readers. One is another story about the dingo and how they’re endangered and what’s happened to them.
Aboriginal children are all given a totem and the idea is that you then protect whatever is your totem. For example, with a totem of a kangaroo, when you go out hunting with your tribe, you make sure they don’t kill more kangaroos than they’re going to eat and you’re not allowed to eat any of it yourself – you’re not allowed to use any part of a kangaroo. You’re there to protect the kangaroo. That way kangaroos will survive. This is part of our philosophy, and I think that’s very hard for people to understand. It’s the same with trees, with everything.
So my story is about the dingo and how they are hunted, and then there’s a little boy who is given the golden dingo as his totem. He has to be their guardian and look after them but they keep disappearing. It’s actually based on what’s happening to animals in Australia but told as a story: how our native animals are disappearing at a very fast rate.
Humpback whales will be next because they want to build a big gas hub up in Kimberley in the whales’ breeding ground, the whales’ playground. Kimberley is amazing country. It’s almost the last wilderness in the world; there are dinosaur prints and sacred sites but they want to destroy it. That’s the biggest thing now on our Australian horizon. It’s all about growth, growth and more growth – well, when does the growing stop? The only time it’s going to stop is when there’s nothing left.
Anyway, I’ve finished writing a couple of books. I need to do the illustrations but I probably need to take a course for that. It’s easy enough to do the story but thirty-odd illustrations is hard - you’ve got to get the faces all the same all the time! So yes, if I get round to doing the illustrations, then getting a publisher, I’ll have to send you a book!
*Marjorie Coughlan is PaperTigers Editor
Posted December 2012
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