Posted by: Lisa Hill | July 9, 2022

If Everyone Cared, by Margaret Tucker

Cultural warning to Indigenous readers:
This post contains the names of people who have passed away, and in quoting the author, uses some terminology which may offend.


For context, all readers are requested to read my previous post
Decolonising a Blog… a work in progress #2:
Learning about the emergence of Indigenous life writing.


So… having explored the place of If Everyone Cared in the emergence of First Nations life writing, what do I think about it?

Reading Tucker’s story from 1977, it soon becomes apparent that it has a different tone to Indigenous memoirs published in more recent years.   For a start, like any other author, she sometimes uses terms that were in use during her era but not in ours, such as ‘full-blood’ and ‘Stone Age people’.  Also, she quotes words in language — which was ground-breaking in her era — but she doesn’t name the language as is more common today. From her mention of the ‘Ulupna Tribe,’ I suspect that these words were Yorta Yorta, (see Wikipedia) but I have no way of knowing for sure.

(Decades ago I had a small red ‘Aboriginal Dictionary’.  Like its publishers, I thought then that there was only one Aboriginal language.)

But besides these elements in the book, there is a more intriguing difference, a striking contrast to the unapologetically forceful tone of contemporary First Nations activists telling Australians confronting stories that they haven’t always been willing to hear.

Perhaps influenced by her religious faith, Tucker seems to have an optimistic interpretation of European Settlement and is occasionally gently critical of the anger and behaviour of younger activists.  Although her autobiography acknowledges her own personal losses as well as those of her people, she does not dwell on them and identifies some changes which she implies were benign. Today, her criticisms of the way her people were treated seem rather restrained, in the context of the catastrophe which befell them.

There was carelessness, thoughtlessness and unkindness in the administration of Aboriginal affairs in those days, which is a great blot on the history of Australia.  We seemed to be just like guinea pigs — for experimental purposes.  The government I suppose did not know what to do with us.

The missionaries were very kind, when you think that life for them was pretty tough too.  One thing is certain.  Our race should never have been allowed to dwindle, either through disease or through exploitation. (p.29)

The descendants of those Aborigines no matter how light-skinned they now are, are of Aboriginal blood, and have made the earth richer in this land of Australia which God has given us all.  There is plenty of room for everyone. (p.32)

Recalling the tales told by her mother’s grandmother, she writes that she did not realise their significance at the time.

They told of the white explorers travelling down the Murray River.  The Aborigines watched these men from behind the bushy gum trees, and ran silently from tree to tree as the men rowed down the river.  My people were filled with awe, so we were told, and thought the explorers were Spirit Men.  The red handkerchiefs they wore around their necks were thought to be a ring of blood.  The tribe were keeping watch as they always did for strange tribes, friendly or otherwise.

When the squatters came to the district, the Aborigines had to get used to them. The squatters brought their sheep, fenced the land, and the kangaroos and emus disappeared.  Our food supply diminished.  But the squatters must have been kindly people, for they soon enlisted and trained our women and younger men to be of use on the homesteads and sheep stations. I can remember some of the names of these stations—the Ulupna, Puckawidgee … but many have disappeared now, like the Aborigines and pioneers of those days.  (p.45)

As part of her recollections of a happy childhood, she writes about starting school, where she was…

…taught by missionaries, who we loved.  I have memories of their selfless giving. They received no salaries. (p.57)

Nothing was too much trouble for the missionaries.  They often shared their food with us, and helped our families when they were ill. In turn the Aborigines shared whatever game or food they had with the missionaries.  When their time was up to leave the Mission, there would be much crying and sorrow. One of the few who could write would be called on to write to headquarters to ask for the missionary to come back.  My mother was often called on to do this.  Bless them.  It was at their table that some of the older children learned what mayonnaise was, and other white-cooked food or milk-cooked food. We liked their sort of food and the left-overs that Mother brought home when she worked at the homestead.  (p.58)

We can’t read these passages today without feeling confused.  We think of the Yorta Yorta people who have not ‘disappeared’ but are very much present along the Murray and beyond.  We have learned to our shame that ‘kindly’ squatters were complicit in the massacre at Lake Barmah in 1843 — which implies that rather than getting ‘used to it’, there must have been some Yorta Yorta resistance to dispossession.

We read about this family subsisting on leftovers when their mother should have been paid a proper wage and we feel outrage.  We know that the men and women trained to be of use at that time were usually not paid for their labour and subsisted on rations.  As Tucker reveals later on, even in the 20th century, it was also common for wages to be ‘banked by the government’ and for domestic servants only ever to receive ‘pocket money’.  (You can read more about this injustice in Not Just Black and White by Lesley Williams and Tammy Williams.)

It’s difficult to make sense of this account of benign missionary activity, compared to Marie Munkara’s bitter sarcasm in A Most Peculiar Act (2014).  To say nothing of what we’ve learned in Royal Commissions about widespread accounts of physical and sexual abuse in these missions.  And yet, in Loving Country, a Guide to Sacred Australia by Bruce Pascoe and Vicky Shukuroglou, (see my review) we are cautioned not to make assumptions:

In their recollections, some Elders round the country ask that we are careful if we speak of the missions as they describe the good old days and genuine care they experienced.  Others are still battling with impacts of much harsher experiences. (Loving Country, a Guide to Sacred Australia by Yuin, Bunurong and Tasmanian man Bruce Pascoe and Vicky Shukuroglou, Hardie Grant, 2020 (p.60)

None of the confusion I’ve outlined above is intended to criticise Tucker’s account or to invalidate her experience — not at all — but to wonder why it is framed the way that it is.  Taken from her family when she was 13 and sent to the Cootamundra Domestic Training Home for Aboriginal Girls in New South Wales, Margaret Tucker knew only too well what that domestic service was like.  As she goes on to detail in the autobiography, she was abused by her first employer, ran away from her next placement, and was then sent to a sheep station near Walgett for three years. Margaret Tucker was a woman of agency, and from the list of her achievements as an activist, it’s obvious that she wasn’t naïve. Why then does she write about some issues with such restraint?

My initial impression was to think that she was influenced by religious beliefs about forgiveness, or perhaps by a pragmatic desire to promote harmony. But I looked for other reasons too.  Was she perhaps self-censoring in order to make her story palatable to a white audience?  Or did an editor or some other gatekeeper have a hand in it, with or without Tucker’s knowledge or compliance? (I can’t remember where I read that this has happened in the past, and still happens sometimes today.)  Did she just want to direct the focus to discrimination and abuse still current where change was possible?

Or, was it just too painful to revisit those historic events and mourn them in the pages of a book?

In Writing Never Arrives Naked, Early Aboriginal cultures of writing in Australia, (2006) Penny van Toorn explains how some Indigenous authors have a different conception of audience to the print-based sense of the reader as a white stranger.  It seems to me that Tucker addresses different audiences within this autobiography in a sophisticated, strategic way.  Sometimes she uses an intimate, almost protective tone when addressing her own people — who already know and understand the Black History of Australia without the need for painful retelling.  To her God, she uses a confessional tone.  To younger people whose behaviour she deplores she tries to reach them in the tone of a wise Elder… and to the administrators she tells it straight because she wants change:

The lack of care and the lack of understanding of our people in those years from my childhood upwards—some people called it paternalistic, but it was less than that. There is still paternalism amongst our administrators.  Please forgive me, but I write with a view to helping the thinking of those who are administrators.

A lot of years have been wasted, but with a new spirit, a new sense of purpose, a Stone Age people [sic] who have lost all could learn to live straight and give something to the whole of humanity.  (p.203)

Though she expresses this last thought using a term we would never use today, Margaret Tucker’s vision of learning from the world’s oldest living culture is becoming a reality.  Australians are learning all kinds of traditional knowledge such as bush medicine and fire management, but the most important IMO is learning to listen to confronting stories about our history so that we can move on together.

If Everyone Cared is also reviewed at the Koori History website.

Margaret Tucker was born in NSW of Wiradjuri and Yorta Yorta descent.


I read this book for First Nations Reading Week 2022.

This post was written on the traditional land of the Ngaruk-Willam clan, one of the six clans of the Bunerong (Boonwurrung or Boon wurrung) saltwater people of the Kulin nation.

Author: Margaret Tucker
Title: If Everyone Cared
Publisher: Grosvenor Books, 1983, first published in 1977 by Ure Smith in Sydney.
ISBN 0959262202
Source: Personal library, OpShopFind.



Responses

  1. I’m following all your posts for First Nations Reading Week with interest, Lisa. These are fascinating, though I don’t feel qualified to discuss them, being on the other side of the world and with limited knowledge. But they certainly are expanding what I do know and they’re so interesting. Thank you for doing this.

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  2. I appreciated your discussion of Margaret Tucker’s restraint, especially when you consider she must be of the same generation as Charles Perkins for instance.

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    • This comment from you popped up just as I was listening to a special NAIDOC week discussion on the ABC about the Uluru Statement. The program shows that as you might expect, there’s a continuum of opinion about how to proceed from here. They had a number of wise and thoughtful speakers but they also had the Greens senator from Victoria rubbishing the Victorian government’s steps towards a treaty and insisting on national treaties with all the different mobs before having a voice. (The Greens seem to have learned nothing from sabotaging the Rudd government’s carbon abatement scheme in 2009). I really hope they don’t sabotage the referendum with a new version of the perfect as the enemy of the good.

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      • They are (or seem) always on the edge of it. We’ll see how they go with 43% too. Albanese is determined not to deliver (in the first year anyway) anything other than what he promised – including, sadly, tax cuts for the wealthy.

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        • Yes, I hear you, and I bet there are rumblings within the caucus about all that. I’d love to see an entire restructuring of the tax system (which makes me greener than the Greens and is probably why the ABC’s Vote Compass always tells me to vote for them — ha!)
          But there is a problem with trust in government, and that lack of trust lies at the heart of so many of our problems, here and around the world. I think that rebuilding that trust over the next three years is the most important thing that needs to be done. Bring on the ICAC!!

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