Shannon Foster: Resisting assimilation

In BlogX, Identity by Nat Cromb

Author: Shannon Foster

Share this Post

SHANNON FOSTER IS A SYDNEY D’HARAWAL SALTWATER KNOWLEDGE KEEPER, EDUCATOR AND ARTIST AND HAS BEEN TEACHING HER FAMILY’S STORIES TO A RANGE OF AUDIENCES FOR OVER TWENTY YEARS.  SHANNON IS CURRENTLY UNDERTAKING HER PHD IN THE CENTRE FOR THE ADVANCEMENT OF INDIGENOUS KNOWLEDGES AT THE UNIVERSITY OF TECHNOLOGY, SYDNEY RESEARCHING AND DOCUMENTING HER FAMILY’S NARINYA STORIES (LIVING DREAMING).

It was a beautiful, crystal clear, summer day.  We were sitting around listening to my auntie’s stories on the top of the hill at La Perouse looking out over the bay. My father was catching up on seventy years of family life listening to my aunties laugh and tell stories of growing up with La Pa mob, running with the pack of kids around the community, living with my great grandmother, the aunties, uncles and cousins. My father turned to me with tears welling in his eyes and said “I missed out on a lot not growing up down here didn’t I?” and all I could do was agree. It was not long after that I had to look into those same eyes – eyes full of pain, sadness and loss – and tell my father that all of the events that he had believed were just happenstance and fate were actually deliberate acts of assimilation imposed on him and his family by a government intent on wiping out his people and their cultures.

My father was born into the Aboriginal community of La Perouse on the shores of Kamay (Botany Bay) during the 1940’s. My grandfather was a D’harawal snake man and performer, and I have been told stories about how he and my great grandfather were both cultural men who performed ceremony, song and dance. My grandmother, however, was not Aboriginal, she was a white woman, which meant that my father and his siblings were considered “mixed blood” or “half caste” according to the 1937 Aboriginal Welfare “Initial Conference of Commonwealth and State Aboriginal Authorities” where it was decided that:

“this conference believes that the destiny of the natives of aboriginal origin, but not of the full blood, lies in their ultimate absorption by the people of the Commonwealth, and it therefore recommends that all efforts be directed to that end” 

The conference resulted in the implementation of varied policies of assimilation, and my father and his siblings were key targets and at great risk of being stolen from their family. It also didn’t help that like many families in La Perouse at the time, my father’s did not have fixed housing, but instead lived in makeshift housing like bush shacks or a tent that my father remembers would flood when it rained.

Dad (front) with his siblings

In the hope of greater safety and security my father’s family moved to a reserve on Salt Pan Creek in Herne Bay (Riverwood). From there, people were being “generously” allocated Housing Commission homes (Goodall, 2009) which had an internal bathroom, kitchen, separate bedrooms and living areas, electricity and running water. This was a very attractive offer compared to the housing on the missions with no electricity, running water, bathrooms or kitchens.
What the families didn’t know though, was that if both your mother and father were Aboriginal, you were allocated a Housing Commission house in the western suburbs of Sydney (such as Blacktown – initially named The Black’s Town for this reason). If, however, one of your parents was white, your family was allocated a Housing Commission house in a “white” suburb with the intention that, separated from your Aboriginal family and community, you had no choice but to assimilate into the white community. This was known as the “salt and pepper” or “chequer board” technique of assimilation (Goodall, 2009), and this is how my father’s family came to be the only Aboriginal family in Narwee surrounded by white people – and all of the extreme racism, abuse, prejudice, ignorance and exclusion that comes with it.

My father and his brother and sister out the front of their Housing Commission house in Narwee

After a traumatic childhood living in Narwee, my father eventually met and fall in love with my mother, a local white woman, and they had us kids – all with fair skin and green eyes. In the eyes of the government, their assimilation policy had worked; they had bred out the black. What the government didn’t understand though, was that you could breed out the colour in our skin, but you cannot breed out the culture in our hearts and minds. My dad had kept our culture alive telling us stories and showing us what he knew so, in many ways, nothing has changed except, in some circumstances, the colour of our skin.

Dad and I

Our story does more than just highlight the government’s assimilation policies, it also interrogates the dichotomy of the Aboriginal experience that says you either grew up on a mission or you were Stolen Generations. There are other lived experiences made up of mission refugees, runners, and those swept up in the policies of assimilation, in the hope of a better life for our children. We created our own communities forged by the intended destruction of that which we would not allow to be destroyed. My father was not stolen from his immediate family, he was stolen from his community of origin, but he created another one around us, drawing in the love and respect of an extended family of wonderful aunties and uncles that helped him preserve culture and pass it onto us just as our Ancestors have done for generations before him.
My father’s life, with all of its suffering, hardship and pain may have been orchestrated by the government with the intention to wipe him, his people and culture out. But for our family, the government didn’t win. While my father and his children live on, our culture will never die, be silenced or erased. We have not come this far on the frontline of the war against colonisation to now bow down and surrender because our skin is the wrong colour. It’s going to take more than that to forget what my father has been through and the fight that he has fought. I will honour him and the warriors that came before him – everything they did, they did so we could be here today and say that we are the D’harawal Saltwater people of Sydney, and we will not ever let anyone take that away.

Share this Post

Liked it? Take a second to support IndigenousX on Patreon!