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My Bundjalung People, by Ruby Langford Ginibi.

August 6, 2012

My Bundjalung People, by Ruby Langford Ginibi.  St. Lucia, Qld.: University of Queensland Press, 1994.

A fascinating history of Aboriginal people living along the northern coast of New South Wales written by one of their own.

Ruby Anderson Langford Ginibi writes history in a style I have never encountered. By doing so, she has introduced me to a different way of looking at the past. Instead of arranging her information in a chronological or topical manner, she takes readers on her journey collecting it. We go along as she and her driver/photographer/adopted daughter return to the region, the “real belonging place” where Ginibi grew up and left years earlier. With them we interview friends and relatives, stop for meals and petrol, and gradually amass stories about people and events from the past. The book is packed with names and family relationships. Political topics important to Indigenous people are put forth. Whites, past and present, are attacked. Ginibi is determined to educate both her own people and the rest of us about the pain her people have suffered and the importance of their contributions to the Australian nation. Her book is important because we so seldom hear the story the way she tells.

As I read this book, I was reminded of descriptions by Alexis Wright in Carpentaria and Plains of Promise of people who learned songs that allowed them to find their way on sea and land journeys. I felt as if Ginibi was giving us her “song” of her travels and what she did and what she learned along her path. That is not how I read and write history. I am not sure of the accuracy of some of her generalizations and know that I do not share all Ginibi’s values. But I loved experiencing the past from yet another angle. African-American Elsa Barkley Brown suggests that we learn to pivot into the experience of those unlike ourselves and then pivot back to our own place with enlarged understanding. Sheri Stone-Mediatore writes of how we need to read the accounts of marginalized people because they will force us to create new categories of thought. Ginibi’s history of her people offered me exactly that experience.

Ginibi was born in the mission station at Box Ridge, but left there as a small child, growing up in small towns nearby. She has written two autobiographies about her childhood and her years in Sydney where she raised her large family. Ginibi, her tribal name, means Black Swan. She uses it instead of her family name as part of a protest by Indigenous authors against the taking of their peoples’ land. Her return to the places and people of her childhood seems to grow out of her sense of the importance of land as part of her identity. Many of those she seeks out are her own relatives, an ever-expanding circle. She interviews white ranchers who had employed and respected their ability and hard work. She learns more about her grandfather, a famous cricket player. But her pride in his accomplishments is tempered by her realization that he was “a commodity that could be handed around from one white man to another.”

A sense of responsibility to her people motivates Ginibi’s research and writing. She sees her book as history “begging to be told… the journey of those people and places long gone who are still needing their stories told. The dead do keep crying for justice.” In part she intends to correct the mistakes which whites have made in telling Indigenous history. A repeated theme is that the Indigenous people were not lazy and stupid as many whites thought, but that they were skilled and industrious contributors to the growth of Australia. She has little respect for academic historians who she claims write “big books and make big bucks, but they are stealing our stories from us and they are full of goonung [shit] anyway.” The stories she is collecting are almost all that her people have left, and she intends to use them to educate both blacks and whites about a past that has been ignored.

While Ginibi is openly critical of injustices her people have suffered, her research trips are also full of the joy and reunion. Old people reminisce about “the good old days,” the good times they shared even when oppressed. And her account of the past emphasizes that Aboriginal culture is not dead and irrelevant, but “a living, surviving and spiritual culture”.

The story that Ginibi tells is not the only story, any more than the ones told by Anglos are. At times I missed her exclusion of what I consider basic information. Why does Ginibi refer to both the Koori and the Bundjalung as her own people? Are the Koori a smaller group within the larger whole? What did Ginibi mean by the “caste system”? Is she referring to the distinction whites made between those with only Aboriginal ancestors and those with white fathers? I wished I had a clearer understanding of the various legislation that the Australian government had passed in their attempts to regulate the Indigenous people.

In her fine review of this book, Yvonne Perkins (at http://stumblingpast.wordpress) notes its importance:

Without the bigger picture, the full story as remembered by Aboriginal people, a non-indigenous historian can easily overlook the significance of just a couple of sentences here and there. This is the value of Aboriginal oral history. This is how Aboriginal historians can help us gain a better understanding of our own history. For the interactions between Aborigines and settlers in the past is a shared history – the bad as well as the good.

I couldn’t agree more.

I highly recommend this book, not only to Australians, but to anyone willing to explore the world from an unfamiliar perspective.

9 Comments leave one →
  1. August 8, 2012 9:34 am

    A good review, Claire.

  2. August 14, 2012 12:00 pm

    Thanks. This is marilyn

  3. August 15, 2012 6:50 pm

    Thankyou Marilyn for a thought-provoking review. It demonstrates the importance of us reading histories of different places and cultures to our own. “African-American Elsa Barkley Brown suggests that we learn to pivot into the experience of those unlike ourselves and then pivot back to our own place with enlarged understanding” – that notion encapsulates the experience of reading this book beautifully.

    Having read your review I see more clearly how Ruby Langford Ginibi was writing for an Australian audience. The things that puzzled you are (or should be) assumed knowledge for Australians. However, Ginibi’s writing has captivated an international audience – something I suspect that she never expected. She wrote this book because there is a desperate need for Australians from a settler/immigrant background to learn more about indigenous Australian history. We have lived side by side for over two hundred years yet many Australians know very little about Aboriginal history and quite often what is known is a very distorted picture. This ignorance of Aboriginal history affects indigenous lives today.

    The word ‘Koori’ refers to the Aboriginal people of south-east Australia, ie it is based on the region that an Aboriginal person comes from and includes a number of different tribes. The Bundjalung people are a tribe who share a common culture including language and dreamtime stories. You might find this website this website helpful in explaining issues of Aboriginal identity.

    Regarding the laws that affected the Aboriginal people since settlement you could start with this overview by the Australian Law Reform Commission. Keep in mind that until Federation in 1901 each colony operated independently with respect to legislating about Aborigines. To understand the references in Ruby Langford Ginibi’s book you need to look at the legislative history of New South Wales. All the colonies followed the same approach as outlined in the Australian Law Reform Commission page about historic policies towards Aborigines, but the laws were different in each colony.

    My review of this book can be found here here. (Your link to my blog will work if you add .com to the end of the URL).

    • August 16, 2012 1:06 pm

      Thanks for taking the time to explain Australian history and to give me such useful suggestions. And thanks for telling mt about this book in the first place.


  1. Book Review: My Bundjalung People by Ruby Langord Ginibi | Stumbling Through the Past
  2. Are we letting them down? Indigenous women writers « Australian Women Writers Challenge
  3. 2012 AWW Challenge Wrap-up: History, Biography, Memoir « Australian Women Writers Challenge
  4. Reviews from Indigenous Literature Week at ANZ Litlovers 2013 | ANZ LitLovers LitBlog
  5. Are we letting them down? Indigenous women writers | Australian Women Writers Challenge Blog

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