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Awaye audio program transcript
Awaye! program on ABC Radio National, 27 August 2007
Presenter: Daniel Browning
Producers: Daniel Browning and Kerrie Jean Ross
Listen to Ken Colbung interview (MP3 audio)
(Duration: 23:34, file size 11mb)
Transcript of interview between Daniel Browning and 75-year-old Noongar elder Ken Colbung
DANIEL BROWNING: To say that the Noongar elder Ken Colbung had a terribly sad start in life would be an understatement but, like so many of his contemporaries, Ken found both great spiritual and practical strength, going on to have the very full life that you would expect of a self-confessed maverick. Ken, who is nearly 76, has been one of the public faces of campaigns for black rights in Western Australia and nationally for many decades. Just recently he became one of the storytellers in the book Speaking from the Heart: Stories of Life, Family and Country. Ken Colbung is with Awaye!'s Kerrie Jean Ross. It is 75 years ago, and a young woman called Eva is out walking with her sister.
KEN COLBUNG: The circumstances were that I was with my mother at the time down in Beaconsfield near Fremantle, and it was in that area that I was conceived. This young white fella came along. My mother was a beautiful young Aboriginal woman. She and her sister went out on the hill there. Because they'd been working all night, their mates had told them that they could get the sea breeze there, and that is what they did. They were out there getting the sea breeze, cooling off, and this young white fella came past and saw my mother there. He said, 'Oh, beautiful young chick, this one,' so he decided that he would approach her. He approached her in a very abrupt way. He knocked her down, and I was conceived on that spot then.
They found the young fellow. The police tracked him down and then found that they couldn't very well charge him because here was a young Aboriginal native girl on the hillside and he went past and him being a white fella, a young one, they just couldn't worry about who it was. So he knocked her down to the ground. It is what they call statutory rape today, but at that time it was seen that she had induced him because, being a young Aboriginal girl, she shouldn't have been out at that time because the curfew was on. So she was confined to where she came from which was the Moore River native settlement up in Moora. He got off. That was it. But my mother had to take the brunt of it all, charged and sent back to the Moore River native settlement, the little 'boob' they had then. She was confined to the boob. She was sent back there to cook and when she left the cooking she was locked up at night-time in what they call the 'boob' [sort of prison shack].
KERRIE JEAN ROSS: So your beautiful Mum Eva, she gets charged after being raped; she gets taken back to the Moore River native settlement; and she is made to work very hard in the kitchen.
KEN COLBUNG: She was judged not by her peers but by people that were in charge, government workers that were there. Any public servant could judge you and carry out whatever action they required.
KERRIE JEAN ROSS: So after you were born and Eva has been working very hard, she dies shortly after your birth?
KEN COLBUNG: I was born in September, and she died in February. Then her body was dispatched, I suppose they call it then, at the Moore River cemetery.
KERRIE JEAN ROSS: In Speaking from the Heart you talk about this blanket which became very significant to you in the events surrounding your mother's burial. Tell us more about that blanket, Ken.
KEN COLBUNG: The blanket was a government blanket, and it was given to my mother to use as a shawl. The thing was that when they took Mum to the cemetery, they just slid her off the blanket and into the hole but kept the blanket and brought the blanket back to be washed.
KERRIE JEAN ROSS: This was a blanket that your mother Eva had only got part-way to paying off, so the blanket was to be kept.
KEN COLBUNG: It didn't belong to us, it belonged to the government, and so the government held on to it. The government got their blanket back.
KERRIE JEAN ROSS: Ken, I guess that everybody has some metaphors in life about what has happened and about reality. Is that blanket one of those continuing symbols for you, something that you have never forgotten?
KEN COLBUNG: Oh yes, it is, it is something that I could never forget because it was a part of me and my mother. My mother went to do the cooking and when she came back at night-time we shared the blanket.
KERRIE JEAN ROSS: Many, many years later, Ken, when you were an adult, you got to meet your father, didn't you?
KEN COLBUNG: Yes, I did. He worked on the wharves, and I by this time had been across to Sydney and came back. It was in the early 70s. I had been in the army; I had been overseas; I had had a taste of life; and I knew what's what by that time.
KERRIE JEAN ROSS: Getting to meet the man who had raped your mother all those years ago and who was your father, was -
KEN COLBUNG: It was something. I never strived to find out where he was, but it somehow became revealed to me. It finished up that we were in the shift that was cleaning out the bilges, and the bilges are right on the bottom of the ship. It is very dark down there. We just had to work in the dark. My Dad at that time was working there also, and I had this premonition that he was down there. I thought, 'Now I will fix you, you bastard.' I had a streak of vengeance in me and I got a message from my Mum, 'You don't go near him. You leave him alone. It wasn't his fault. It was the people where he comes from. If you've got an argument, you have it with them.' I actually wanted to kill him, but my mother came to me in my spiritual form and told me, 'No, don't you dare do that. You keep yourself on the right track,' see.
KERRIE JEAN ROSS: It is such a difficult unimaginable situation when you say, Ken, that some part of you wanted to kill this fella, but this fella for whatever reason is also part of you, isn't he?
KEN COLBUNG: Yes, and I learnt to reason out later in life, because my mother had stopped me from doing it, and found out that in actual fact he wasn't a bad person because he was part of my framework.
KERRIE JEAN ROSS: All right then. So after Eva your Mum dies, you are with your Mum's people but you are not allowed to stay at Moore River -
KEN COLBUNG: No, I was told that I couldn't stay there any more. I then had to be dispatched to another section of society, and that was when I was sent down to Sister Kate's home. One of the reasons was that I was a bit more lighter in colour than the average Aboriginal of the day.
KERRIE JEAN ROSS: Sister Kate's home at Queens Park - very well known to people from the west, I guess, but Sister Kate was an Anglican nun and she ran what we would call the cottage system for kids. There was a feeling that Sister Kate wasn't such a bad woman. Is that a fair assessment?
KEN COLBUNG: She was very good and understanding. She was a humanist. One of my roles was that I had to go down to Perth on a Saturday morning and pick up cakes and things that were left there. I had a very trustworthy job as a young boy to pick up cakes and not touch one.
KERRIE JEAN ROSS: Did you fulfil that trust, Ken?
KEN COLBUNG: I did because I always thought in the back of my head, 'I wonder who has counted these up.' I hoped he was a bad counter, but he wasn't. So I had to then be an honest man. One way of teaching honesty is to be in charge of it.
KERRIE JEAN ROSS: You say that Sister Kate was a hard but fair woman.
KEN COLBUNG: Oh, yes.
KERRIE JEAN ROSS: I think it was after Sister Kate left that institution that there were some reports of abuse that came to light some years ago. Am I right there?
KEN COLBUNG: Oh, yes, that was right. There were kids that came from all over the countryside in Western Australia. And some of them were treated quite badly by paedophiles that had sneaked their way in by this time, because Sister Kate wouldn't allow it.
KERRIE JEAN ROSS: Ken, already you're a very hard worker, and I don't want to go too much in the cakes but you are a man of honour. At age 11 you are actually on the Canning Stock Route. How does that happen?
KEN COLBUNG: Then I was taken from Sister Kate's home, as one of the older boys there, by manpower into the work force because there was a work force controlled by the manpower scheme there. I was taken from there and sent up on the stations as a house boy.
KERRIE JEAN ROSS: Uncle Maitland was on the Canning Stock Route, was he?
KEN COLBUNG: That is right, yes, he was on the station up there. I met up with him there but also -
KERRIE JEAN ROSS: Nulla Thompson.
KEN COLBUNG: Nulla Thompson. Nulla was my old great mate. He ran the stock plant. He'd go out and do mustering and delivering sheep and cattle to different stations and then bring them in to the railhead at Meekatharra.
KERRIE JEAN ROSS: I was interested to know that Nulla Thompson had a horse and it was called Nulla -
KEN COLBUNG: Bung.
KERRIE JEAN ROSS: Nullabung - a joint project there.
KEN COLBUNG: I was the house boy but at the same time I helped him in mustering and also keeping the cattle on the road. So he said, 'I will give you something. When the Kalgoorlie Cup comes up I will name this young horse I've got. We'll call it Nullabung. You'll be put into history if it wins.' I don't know to this day whether it did win because, if they win, sometimes the bookies don't tell you, do they?
KERRIE JEAN ROSS: All right. Now many, many years later you enter the army. You are out there on the stock route. You are working hard at Sister Kate's. You know hard work from the early age. Was the army something you always had in mind that it was a way out of this?
KEN COLBUNG: Well, it was. The army was a direct route out into the world. You were able to prove yourself by the work that you do. I could be the colonel in charge or I could be one of the privates, and most of the time I chose to be the private. But they acknowledged that I did have some things about me that made me into a person that could be treated as a leader. So I was made a non-commissioned officer.
KERRIE JEAN ROSS: You also fought in the Korean War right there on the 38th parallel.
KEN COLBUNG: On the Imjin River, that is right. It was a static line, as they call it, the Kansas line. It was a line that was there to hold the defence so that North Korea wouldn't go forward, and we had to keep the peace between both sides. Now who was north and who was south, they didn't have it printed on their forehead but we had to define, if someone was coming up to shoot us, whether he was a North or a South Korean.
KERRIE JEAN ROSS: How did you do that?
KEN COLBUNG: How do we do it? Shoot first and ask questions later. That's what I have always been decreed is the policy but I didn't know. You don't shoot first. You define whether or not they are, and in that space of time you could probably be shot yourself. You had to be quick off the trigger.
KERRIE JEAN ROSS: You have said that your time in Korea taught you a lot for the future when you were learning how to be a protester and how to organise protests.
KEN COLBUNG: Yes.
KERRIE JEAN ROSS: You learned about the role of civilians, what did you mean by that, Ken?
KEN COLBUNG: We were not there to sabotage but at the same time to establish that we also were human beings, which is the way we could do it through the gun or the pen or the mind. We thought if we could convince them that we were decent sorts of people they would then decide that we were well worth having on their side. Because the thing is that, if you are a minority, you are always going to look for somewhere where you can seek protection and that is in with the majority in some way or another.
KERRIE JEAN ROSS: So you are saying there that you learned that, to get support, somehow you have to endear or show that you are real to the people who are there and the analogy is then with potential non-Indigenous supporters. Am I getting it, Ken?
KEN COLBUNG: That is right. When I went to Sydney we were able to gather together with the teachers union, and that is where we used to meet. They were our full support. That is the same – we did the Gurindji protests there also.
KERRIE JEAN ROSS: When you ended up in Sydney and you were very active in the 1967 referendum campaign, you were still in the army. What did the army think of that?
KEN COLBUNG: I was in the army until 1965 and then I was in the provincial army after that. So I was able to do things there that I couldn't do when I was in the regular army.
KERRIE JEAN ROSS: When you were in Sydney you start to work for the Foundation for Aboriginal Affairs and you become a field officer.
KEN COLBUNG: That is right, yes.
KERRIE JEAN ROSS: For Charlie Perkins.
KEN COLBUNG: Yes.
KERRIE JEAN ROSS: What did you do?
KEN COLBUNG: I used to travel around the state more or less talking to citizen groups that were around, such as Rotary, and seek assistance for the local Aboriginal people that were there. When I went up to Parkes and around that area at Cowra, they had things there that needed to be looked at. Aboriginal kids were being fed methylated spirits by drunken Aboriginal people. It's a bit similar to what we have today in the Northern Territory. Whilst they didn't bring in the troops and they didn't bring in the police so much, they brought our people in like myself to talk to the different groups and try to bring them together to found out the reason why Aboriginal people were on methylated spirits. They were on there because they were treated as lesser citizens than the others that were around them. You could do that in the country, you know.
KERRIE JEAN ROSS: Did you feel, Ken, that you were able to actually make some real changes?
KEN COLBUNG: Oh, yes, we did because they decided under our direction that they would colour the methylated spirits, because before that methylated spirits was quite clear so you could mix it with anything and people would drink it. They were doing that with the petrol, and they were colouring the petrol. We did the same thing with the methylated spirits and made it distasteful to drink. So that kept the people off it - not for long though, but at least it was a start towards looking at this sort of thing. We are no further ahead in life outside in society than we were then. So we can't say that we have advanced. We haven't advanced; we have marked time. I think that we have to be able to be now coming together. One of the only ways is going to be able to treat ourselves as citizens, every one of us, and not say, 'Well, I'm an Aboriginal so it will be expected of me to be like that,' or to say 'I'm a white person,' and that's it. It's to say, 'I'm a human and as a human being I acknowledge that I need some training as well.' I don't mean to say that other people who are less fortunate than me and haven't had the advantages should be treated any more or less. So when we start looking around to put more money into the society, it should be into the younger ones that are coming up.
KERRIE JEAN ROSS: Are you almost saying there, Ken, that there is going to be a lost generation?
KEN COLBUNG: Oh completely. There has been a couple of lost generations. If you took the advantage and gave it to the people on the ground there who are right close up on the site and give them the opportunity to be able to heal their own.
KERRIE JEAN ROSS: Have you ever had to look at your own drinking, Ken, or is that?
KEN COLBUNG: Oh, yes, I went down the shoot a couple of times. The army at the time and the thing with the army was that you would never knew if your next day is going to be a bullet in your head or what. So what you did was you drank to make sure that, if it did come, you at least were comforted.
KERRIE JEAN ROSS: How did you stop yourself, Ken, from, as you said, going down that shoot?
KEN COLBUNG: I took on a different role. I had established the person that wasn't a hale fellow well met and all this sort of thing but a person who would carry on a job and at the same time seek my brothers and sisters' assistance in formulating a group stronger than the group that was going down with the drink. Because when you got on the drink, you're weaker not stronger. You feel stronger but you're not.
KERRIE JEAN ROSS: I want to talk a bit about when you came back west, having been operating in Sydney and other places for some years.
KEN COLBUNG: I set up a black power base in the west, because our people were starting to feel disintegrated here in the west. So I thought I would bring them together by the use of a word and the word that I used was 'black power'. The concept of black power at that time was the power of yourself. You could also later on induce white people to fill the same role.
KERRIE JEAN ROSS: Was it a hard job to convince your mates and supporters that you were not necessarily talking about this black power which was scaring a lot of people overseas?
KEN COLBUNG: Well, it scared the Aboriginals more than it did the non-Aboriginals, especially in the west.
KERRIE JEAN ROSS: Did it?
KEN COLBUNG: Oh, yes. They said, 'No way in the world. We are just starting to come together with the white people, and you want to break us apart.' I was scorned upon for using the word 'black power' then.
KERRIE JEAN ROSS: Ken, you haven't always been at one with elders and committees?
KEN COLBUNG: No, I haven't. I can assure you - and they can too - because I was, to use the term, the black sheep of the committees. If you have been droving cattle, sheep or things like that, as I did, what you did if one of the animals was shooting off on its own, you brought that back into the mob, you didn't allow it to stay out there and the rest of them would follow, you brought them back into line.
KERRIE JEAN ROSS: Are you easy to bring back?
KEN COLBUNG: No, very hard, I tell you. I am a hard head.
KERRIE JEAN ROSS: What has a hard head given you?
KEN COLBUNG: It has given me an opportunity to be able to look at myself and to be able to seek the advice of my spiritual elder, which is my mother. I was leaning a lot on her until an ABC group went and took me up to her cemetery and I found her again there. She said to me, 'Now you're on your own, you're not going to lean on me all the time.' So I was able to branch out then and start to do my own thing rather than to be sort of following in her footsteps.
KERRIE JEAN ROSS: Did Eva say to you, 'Ken, break it down a bit'?
KEN COLBUNG: She did, she said, 'Don't start. You're attacking the whites too much. Why? You've got part white in you and you're coming at them as if they're mad bulls.' She told me to tone it right down otherwise I'd finish up down with her before too long. She said, 'If you want to carry on your mission and you have a mission because you have the dual bloodlines there, you have a mission to bring together our own people, the Bibbulman, and also the non-Aboriginal people who are friends. There are a lot of friends in places that you probably don't know about, but they are on your side and they have the same role that you have. They want to be able to bring together humanity and have us all live peacefully on this earth.'
KERRIE JEAN ROSS: This is the final thing that I would like to talk about: one of your big campaigns that took many, many years was the return of the warrior Yagan's head from Liverpool in England. Why did you do that?
KEN COLBUNG: I had another visionary role that came to me. It didn't come from my mother; it was one from my elders here. They were all talking about Yagan and they said, 'Yagan was a great man. We should have him here again.' They said to me, 'Now you're in the army, when you get across there to Sydney you tell them that we want Yagan back here.' I thought, 'Yes, that's a simple job.' I didn't realise how much it was going to be. It took me some years to be able to follow the line of where Yagan was.
KERRIE JEAN ROSS: And Yagan, of course, was -
KEN COLBUNG: I found that out later when I got to Sydney that Yagan was not there. He was in England. They said, 'Well, go there.' I said, 'Wait a bit, I am confined by the army. I can't do anything.'
KERRIE JEAN ROSS: Yagan had ended up in the Liverpool Museum, a colonial trophy, and Yagan had been murdered in 1853. You actually fronted John Howard once over Yagan, didn't you?
KEN COLBUNG: I did, yes, when I went to the park. They were doing a thing on the Australian troops -
KERRIE JEAN ROSS: He was in Liverpool.
KEN COLBUNG: Yes, John Howard was there at this little park. He nearly fainted when he saw me.
KERRIE JEAN ROSS: Anyway, it was the day of Princess Diana's death that you were actually given -
KEN COLBUNG: That we came home. We were in Liverpool and we were supposed to go the next day down to the Liverpool Town Hall. The lord mayor, which was a lady, said, 'I would like to present you with Yagan's head to take back to Australia with you.' They had it all boxed up. We took it back to Australia with us. We actually it in a box, because it's the same as today you had to sneak these things on. The crew of the Qantas plane that we brought it back on knew exactly what was happening and we were told not to say that there was a body or any part of a body there. So we kept quiet. But we had one fellow with us that was part of our team and he kept saying, 'We have Yagan's head up there and I've got in charge of it.' He was drunk as a skunk. He couldn't be in charge of himself, let alone have that sort of a job. But anyhow we did bring it home. There have been so many arguments over it since we brought it home that we should have left it there. He would have been at peace there at least.
KERRIE JEAN ROSS: There have been many arguments among elders about what should happen now but I believe, Ken, that you are close to agreement; is that right?
KEN COLBUNG: Yes, they are close to an agreement. They have decided that there should be a time but they still have to go back to the people in the west, the Bibbulman and Noongar groups and the others to which he is associated. Another year or so and we should be right.
KERRIE JEAN ROSS: Ken Colbung, thanks very much for joining us on Awaye!.
KEN COLBUNG: Thanks very much. It's been very good for you to invite me to come along. I have been here for 75 years and I've got an invite now from one of the new residents to share our lot together. I hope that we can do this a lot more often for society outside and then we can teach the world a lot of being together.
DANIEL BROWNING: That was Ken Colbung. Ken's story called 'The spirit has more strength' is in the collection Speaking from the Heart: Stories of Life, Family and Country, edited by Sally Morgan, Tjalaminua Mia and Blaze Kwaymullina and published by Fremantle Arts Centre Press. I am Daniel Browning and you are listening to Awaye! Indigenous art and culture on ABC Radio National.
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This is an edited transcript typed from an audio recording produced by ABC Radio National for its Awaye! program. The National Museum of Australia cannot guarantee its complete accuracy.
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