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Hear Our Voice

Luisa Mitchell

Luisa shares how a cultural trip with relatives turned sour one night when two police showed up at their caravan park with questions.

What does it mean to have your voice heard – truly heard? Why is it important that our communities are the heart of decision-making and leadership for outcomes that will affect us? This October 2023, Australians will be asked a simple question: should we recognise Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in our national constitution? As we head to the polls and the campaign heats up, we wanted to ask both Indigenous and non-Indigenous people why they will be voting Yes. In this collection, diverse storytellers came together to share their personal and real-life experiences that is motivating their support for the proposed Voice to Parliament. No matter what happens at this referendum, whether a majority of Australians vote yes or no – their voices continue to be a call for change. A call for a better, more just future… For an Australia that celebrates and recognises Indigenous sovereignty. 

This story was shared by Whadjuk Nyungar descendent and writer Luisa Mitchell. Luisa shares how a cultural trip with relatives turned sour one night when two police showed up at their caravan park with questions. She produced the Hear Our Voices project and is a coordinator at Centre for Stories.

This story was recorded at Centre for Stories in September 2023.

More about the storyteller…. Luisa Mitchell is a descendent of Whadjuk Nyungar and English colonial settlers. She is a writer, filmmaker and producer living and working in Boorloo/Perth but is originally from Broome in the Kimberley.

Hear Our Voice was made possible with funding from the Australia Communities Foundation.

Liked this story? Donate to support our future storytellers here.

Copyright © 2023 Luisa Mitchell.

Photograph by Duncan Wright.

This story and corresponding images have been licensed to the Centre for Stories by the Storyteller. For reproduction and distribution of this story/image please contact the Centre for Stories.

This story was originally published on 5 October 2023.

Where Are They Now?*

“After completing a hot-desk writing residency at Centre for Stories as a young university student, the biggest highlight was the friendships I made with their staff and fellow writers. I was delighted to be offered a job there in 2022, first as Events Program Coordinator and then later Community Development Coordinator. Working at Centre for Stories has allowed me to step outside of my comfort zone and become a better public speaker and facilitator as I now run storytelling workshops for community groups and creative writing classes for young people. I even shared my own story for Hear Our Voice collection, putting my words to use in the fight for self-determination for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. I love working in an industry that provides such rewarding moments of human connection, growth and inspiration. Supporting people to share their stories is an honour and a privilege I don’t take for granted and I’ve been able to use my storytelling skills to support mob in other contexts, such as place naming with Noongar Elders through Community Arts Network or co-founding the First Nations Writers WA program with Casey Mulder. It’s also helped me remember the inner writer and storyteller within and I have returned to practice my old passion of writing fiction and poetry. I’m pleased to have had multiple career successes so far, being short-listed for the Richelle Prize for Emerging Writers 2023,  Liquid Amber Press Poetry Prize 2023 and receiving the ASAL / Copyright Agency Writer’s Fellowship 2023. Walking through the doors at Centre for Stories and seeing how stories uplifted not just me but so many others certainly changed my life for the better.”

– Luisa Mitchell (2024)

*Where Are They Now is a series of testimonials given by storytellers who share the personal impact telling stories and working with Centre for Stories has had on their lives and careers.

View Story Transcript

 LM: I grew up in Broome in the Kimberley, which is a small town in Western Australia, a small tourist town full of history of pearling and mixing of different cultures. Aboriginal Malaysia and Japanese, just to name a few. Ever since I was a young child, I always knew that our family had Aboriginal heritage. But my father only found out about his heritage when he was around 40 years old. So quite late to the game. It’s a long story, but basically it’s also quite a short, simple story about our family history, tied in with the hidden generations, a generation of people who were able to hide their Aboriginality in the 20th century due to their lighter skin and assimilating into white Australia. So for that reason, for this secret that my great grandfather hid from my grandfather and my father, we didn’t know about Aboriginality until my dad was 40, but for me I was pretty young when that information came out, so I always knew who I was.  

And yet in so many ways I had no idea. But when I was 19, I moved to Perth to begin my university degree in film and international relations, and it was only when I moved to Perth that I began to ask more questions about where our family had come from, what our history was, why it had been a secret for so long. And this particularly came out because I had always been proud of being Aboriginal, but without the details of knowing who I was, the conversation was always cut very short. The two essential questions and those two questions I couldn’t really answer.    

So I was in this lost hazy point when I started to realize that I needed to build those relationships. I needed to go out and to learn more culture and connect with people so I could truly place myself on Nyungar boodjar. Luckily for me, my Aunty Louise was born here in Perth, and unlike my dad, who had moved up to Broome to be with my mum, she hadn’t spent her whole life here, so she had a long time, a much longer time to find other Noongar family and situate herself in this community. 

So one day when she sent me an invite to attend the Ballardong Bidi, my interest was definitely piqued. Basically, the Ballardong Bidi is Ballardong mob going out on country once a year to connect and learn culture and feel more grounded in who they are on country. So it was literally the perfect answer to all my prayers and all my questions that had risen up, and this desire to truly get to know country and culture. 

So of course, I said yes, absolutely. And I got started to get really excited for this trip out on country, which was going to be a two or three day trip from memory. Camping out in the caravan park and spending the different days driving around to certain sacred and significant sites and learning as much history and culture as possible. 

I also had a cousin. I have a cousin, sorry, Lizey, who is in the same situation as me. She grew up in Perth, unlike me, but she had always felt the same lost and and wanting to know more. So together we kind of decided to band together and go out on this road trip and be each other’s support because it’s quite scary going out by yourself.  

So we decided to get into my little clown car, which is my Suzuki Ignis little blue tiny thing. And we decided to drive out to the starting point, which was going to be in Guildford on the river there, and that’s where the elders were telling us that this is the starting point where the river marks the point where Ballardong country begins and separates from one country. 

 So the next few days were just beautiful. We, as I say, we started out in Guildford, we introduced ourselves and said hello to the Waagyl in the water through by throwing out the sand into the water. Bits of our DNA and our skin and our spirit floats down to the depths of the beeliar and that is our way of saying hello to the spirits, the ancient Waagyl spirit and to country as well, which are intertwined. There were young people speaking in fluent Nyunger, and that was so inspiring to see culture so strong and so alive.   

We visited certain significant and sacred sites, including caves that had paintings from knowing our people from thousands of years ago, which was actually situated in the back of a farmer’s farm property, I guess, which he had a good relationship with Ballardong elders and would, quotation marks, allow – the irony – give permission for mob to visit the cave sites whenever they want. 

But there was also burial sites that you just wouldn’t know unless you had been let there and guarded there and given permission to say. And finally, last but not least, in fact, it was the most beautiful thing for me was just the people themselves. And this is what I had been craving was, you know, getting to know people, to introduce myself, to find that I had all these cousins and points of connection with different people. 

And yes, it continued to be daunting at certain points, but for the most part we felt embraced and that people were just excited to share culture with us as newbies. So we finished the first day, a full day of all these incredible sights and connecting, seeing the rivers, seeing the country in a caravan park in one of the small towns out there in the middle of wall, and as we rolled in, there was quite a big mob of us, maybe 15, 20 cars, lots of us all at once arrived at this caravan park and began to pull in and we had a booking there. 

Of course, this had all been organized months in advance, so we pulled up into the caravan park and immediately I noticed that all the wadjelas, all the non-Indigenous white people who were also staying at the caravan park began to step outside of their tents or the caravans and just openly gawk at all them all arriving… and not just for a few seconds. They stood there out there in front of their caravans with their arms crossed, openly, kind of mouths almost hanging, jaws almost dropped, staring, and not in a particularly friendly way either. It wasn’t, there was no sense of going up to introduce yourself or ask questions, ask who we were. They just stood there and stared for a very long time and it felt quite intimidating actually. 

And we were all beginning to get quite angry. And I think someone might have even have said, do you want to take a photo, it’ll last longer, kind of thing. And eventually they went back inside and went back to their business. As we gradually started to unpack and set up our tents and prepare for dinner for the evening, which was a beautiful kangaroo stew and damper, and I think we might have had some pasta as well. 

And so all us young people were cooking dinner and we had to serve the elders first before anyone else could eat. So, we were running around and bringing plates of food and cups of tea to all the oldies. And there was a beautiful fire someone had set up in the pit. And we all began to gather in a circle around the fire and begin to share stories. Some funny, some more serious. But mostly we were just having a great time and connecting. And as the night wore on, more and more people started to disappear. They went to bed, they went into their tents, or some people went to the local pub, which was kind of glowing like a firelight out of the middle of the darkness. The only kind of brightness in that tiny little town was the pub and our fire, which we were all still sitting around. And so finally it might have been around 10:30. There were only eight or nine of us still around the circle, including Aunty Louise and Wardong, my uncle, who was kind of leading us all along, he had organized the trip, and he was still telling lots of his stories and were having a great time and laughing. 

And occasionally we would laugh too loud, but then everyone would shush someone, you know, around the circle. We’d go, no, people are trying to sleep, so we’d quieten down a bit, but for the most part it was very relaxed and we weren’t disturbing anyone.  

Then we saw the familiar blue and red lights of a police car begin to round the corner and in a small town like this, it was very odd. They weren’t just driving around anywhere. They had specifically come out to this caravan park and immediately everyone around me, all the little mob, just kind of groaned and went, “Oh, I wonder what they’re here for…” Knowing full well why they were here. And the cops did a kind of lap around the caravan park, almost as if pretending that they weren’t here for what they were here for. 

But eventually they did come and stop right next to us, next to our little, little party of friends gathered around the fire. Two men got out. Now they were very different men. One was short and fat. An older man, he walked over quite quickly, quite aggressively, I would say. He kind of had his chest puffed up and his eyes were kind of fiery as well. And he looked like he had lots of stuff to say. The second man was a young man, might have been in his late twenties. He was tall and sturdily built and a lot more gentle, and he moved over quite slowly. They moved over together and began to ask us questions, specifically asking what questions if we had that there had been a noise complaint from someone else here at the caravan that we had been making too much noise and that potentially we might not have a booking here. 

 And of course they could see immediately that we weren’t making too much noise. That kind of was immediately clear because there was only a few of us enjoying a quiet chat around a fire. So, we weren’t partying, we weren’t playing music, that wasn’t an issue. But because of that, they then started to interrogate the other line of thinking, which was, you mustn’t have a booking here. 

Are you even allowed to be here? And Wardong politely and calmly kept saying, Well, we do have a booking here. And then they demanded that they, and when I say they, I mean the older, shorter man kept demanding to see our booking. Wardong said that he didn’t have it on him, but that he’d arranged the whole camping through the local shire president. 

It had all been arranged if they wanted to call her to confirm this, they could, which they eventually did. And quite embarrassingly, the woman on the other line, who was herself mortified was saying, yes, of course they have a booking and clearly we knew her or Wardong knew her quite well. So the cops began to twitch uncomfortably. They had thought this story was going to go a certain way and it clearly wasn’t going to go the way that they thought it was. 

And yet the older fella, he couldn’t help but get angry. I could see it building within him because even as Wardong stayed calm and quiet and didn’t raise his voice, the older man kept getting louder and louder and demanding to see the booking and asking us why we were here. And eventually he wanted to get Wardong’s details – his birth date, his address, and find him and look him up on the system, presumably to see if he had a criminal record. 

And it was kind of basically like he was looking for some excuse to lock him up or to do something with it. I don’t know why else he would have been looking for Wardong’s details on their records. And then tensions just kept getting higher and higher and the old man started pointing his finger at down at my aunty, who was a very small woman. She’s, you know, five foot one, barely. And he started getting very aggressive to her and speaking condescendingly. And she was just not holding back. She was just going, this is intimidation, this is not okay, this is blatantly racist, which it was. That was very clear the way that they were behaving and treating everyone.  

 And then the younger fella, I was paying attention to him as well. The young cop, because he was in talks with one of my mates, a young Aboriginal man who was also getting quite fired up and passionate. But what I saw there was an exchange between the two of them that was quite amazing, which was that my mate was telling this young white cop that, you know, there’s a reason why we don’t want to just give you his details or give you the booking, because it’s a point of principle, right? Like, we shouldn’t have to do this because it’s not fair. You’re doing this because we’re Aboriginal. And the young cop wasn’t getting it, but he kept asking questions quite calmly and he was saying, okay, but why don’t you just give us a booking? Like if you just give it to us, we can leave, we can go. And the young, the young Aboriginal guy was saying, well, we actually have a history here. There’s a reason why we’re getting upset, there’s a reason why we’re getting defensive, there’s a reason we’re not acquiescing to your requests. And that is because of this history of Aboriginal people’s relationship with police. It’s an incredibly traumatic, violent history that is still felt today, that there is this fear, legitimate fear of the police. And when he said this, I could see the young man taking it in and I could see that there was more dialogue happening in that space between the young cop and the young Aboriginal man than there was between the old white cop who was just huffing and puffing and just trying to find some way to take someone away or have us be punished for what crime? I still don’t really know. But eventually they got quite embarrassed and realized there was nothing they could do. And that of course, you know, the conversation with the shire president had kind of revealed that we did have a booking, we were supposed to be here and we weren’t being disruptive.  

So they left. They drove away, didn’t apologize, of course, but they left. And immediately after all of that, one of the girls, one of the cousins, turned to me and said, “There you go. There’s your cultural experience. That’s what you came here for, right?” And I realized that she was right in some ways, that I had come here for the good cultural stuff, right? I had come here to learn the stories, to feel more connected spiritually, to boodjar, to meet family, to go to the sacred sites. But there’s another side to living culture in this contemporary Australia, and that’s dealing with this kind of racism and judgment and stereotypes and honestly, blatantly a justice system that feels intent on locking Aboriginal people up. 

After all of this, when the weekend was over and Lizey and I started to drive back home to Perth, we both felt strange. We drove in silence for a while and finally when we started to talk we shared that we were both feeling quite heavy and exhausted and lucky and grateful and all of the above at the same time. And it’s been an amazing weekend, but it had also been a really eye opening weekend because we don’t have to deal with this kind of racism as white-skinned Aboriginal people. So after all of that, I knew that I had seen a side of Australia that not many people get to see, not many people believe and or take seriously. 

But until you see it with your own eyes it all, it becomes all too real and too obvious that something is wrong with this kind of broken system, a system that is inherently racist. When I was thinking about sharing this story, I asked my Uncle Wardong if I could share it, if I could have permission to share this experience publicly. And his first response was yes, yes, yes, yes, please share it, which was great. But he also said to me, you know, you don’t have to ask permission because this is your story, too. You were there as well. You had a role to play. And I thought a lot about what he meant by that or what I thought he meant by that. 

And I wondered what my role was in that experience. And there were a couple of things that came to mind. One was that and this was something that Wardong and the others had said as well afterwards was that whole experience had gone very, very differently because there were white people around that fire and it had actually taken the cops off guard.  

And I could see that, too. When they first got there, they had kind of launched up to us and run up to us almost very aggressively and had kind have been taken aback by seeing all these white faces amidst the black faces looking back at them. And I knew that he was right, that our white privilege had in some way changed the course of the event that night that had made the cops be a little bit more respectful, be a little bit calmer and not just think they could get away with anything. 

And that was a pretty scary thought to think and a pretty uncomfortable thought to think. So I think for me, there’s a few things that we can all learn from this story and recognize that we all have a role to play, that whether you’re there as a witness or whether you’re not, whether you’re you hear these stories and choose to turn a blind eye that we simply can’t do that anymore, that we need a future where people recognize these injustices are going on, whether it’s in the justice system or just racism in any other kind of space, any other sphere in Australia, in schools, in health, this is what’s going on. People are making a blanket judgment or stereotypes about Aboriginal people. And that started that night from the people in the caravan. Someone in that caravan park had made that call to the cops and had wanted us out of there and accused us of being disruptive or in some way criminal. You know that we were breaking some rules by being there. 

And then it began and finished with the cops who turned up and kind of aggressively tried to find something against us. And when I say us, I mean the black people around that fire, not the white people. So I think when I think of us going into this referendum and whether or not we need a Voice, it’s very clear to me that these kind of stories, these lived experiences, there’s so much out there and that my story was just a is just it is just a drop in the pot. And it’s coming from a very privileged background, stepping into this space. As the young woman said, here’s your culture, right. Like this is what the culture is. So I think we need more truth telling. I think we need more sharing of these lived experiences in order for something to change. Because if people keep thinking the system isn’t broken, then they won’t try and fix it. 

And I think that’s what the Voice will lead to. I think having a permanent Aboriginal Voice speaking on these issues will lead to truth telling commissions and it will lead to more positive outcomes for Aboriginal people based on lived experience that quite frankly, too many Australians know nothing about. So that’s why I’m voting yes for the Voice and I hope all Australians will join me in voting yes for the voice. 

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