A year of loss, new life and Aboriginal stories and songs | Indigenous Rights


The river runs gently by, just as it has for millennia. Native birdlife sings melodiously overhead. A gentle breeze whispers through the gum trees as if passing on secrets from the distant past. And the tender fragrance of yellow wattle tinges the evening air.

This is the Yarra River, home of the Wurundjeri Indigenous peoples for thousands of generations. Today, the area is an affluent suburb of the city of Melbourne known as Warrandyte.

Fred Leone, a Garawa and Butchulla man from far-northern Australia, sits by the water and contemplates the natural beauty.

He also contemplates his mother, who passed away suddenly in February 2021.

“My mum to me was a fighter,” he says simply.

It was the day after her 69th birthday that Fred received a phone call from a hospital in Brisbane telling him his mother had had a stroke and was in an induced coma.

“I hung up and I just sort of glazed over for a minute,” he recalls. “I started crying and freaking out. Everything was just flashing before my eyes. I could see all these events from when I was little.”

Fred immediately flew from Melbourne to Brisbane to be by his mother’s side. A week later, his family would have to make the most difficult decision of their lives: to switch off life support.

“We had to make the decision to turn off the machine,” Fred recalls.

“That was pretty intense. You feel like you are betraying them. You think ‘she could easily fight her way out of this’.”

Fred pauses for a moment as a parrot flies overhead.

A cool breeze has picked up as the late afternoon sun begins to drop.

The waters of the Yarra gurgle as they flow past.

“And then I remember it was coming to that evening when we had to turn off the machine. And it was the most gut-wrenching thing.”

On the fateful night, Fred’s family gathered for the matriarch’s final moment and after her life support was switched off, Fred recalls leaving the room.

“I just broke down,” he says. “I couldn’t walk. I fell down. I saw my partner and it just hit me and I just bawled and cried. I went back in after she passed and whispered a few things to her.”

“That was the first time I’d ever felt just a deep, deep grief that I couldn’t comprehend just how deep it was. It’s your mother. You know here from the day you are born till you go or they go. They are just always there. I realised that’s what it means when they say ‘your heart breaks’.”

The keepers of knowledge

Known in his clan and community as a cultural songman, Fred is trusted with the stories, songs, language and ceremony of the people from whom he is descended.

Much of this knowledge he learned from his mother, Aileen Sandy.

A fighter as Fred described, she was also a survivor, passing on her culture and language to her children at a time when the Australian government was attempting to assimilate Aboriginal peoples and stamp out their traditions.

Aileen was raised on Cherbourg mission, in Australia’s far north, when the official policy was to remove Aboriginal children from their parents and send them to a mission or church orphanage to be raised by the white authorities.

The aim was to not only erase Indigenous cultures but to foster a class of Aboriginal servitude.

Children raised in these institutions were expected to be domestic servants, farmhands or labourers.

In the state of Queensland, where Cherbourg mission was located, this policy was compounded by what is now termed “Stolen Wages”; money that was owed to Aboriginal workers was instead put in a government trust and never seen again.

As such, Fred explains, his family grew up in intergenerational poverty.

“We grew up and we had no money,” he says. “It was imposed by the government to live in poverty and have that passed down.”

Yet Aileen continued to work and save, and managed to send her children to a good private school in Brisbane. She also survived an abusive relationship with Fred’s father.

“She just stayed strong and was always there for us and did what she had to do to survive all of that,” he says.

[Jawahir Al-Naimi/Al Jazeera]

His mother also told Fred all the stories of the history of the area, including his family and clan connections, and the massacre of his grandparents’ generation.

“Everything she told me I would just either write it down or remember it or record her, since I was a kid,” he says.

“I used to walk around with a pen and pad in my pocket. She would tell me stuff and I would just write it down.”

That the government had attempted to quash such stories and songs gives them even more resonance today and Fred has taken on the role in his clan not only to remember and perform such important cultural treasures but to pass them on to the next generation.

He says passing on this knowledge is vital, especially as the older generation, who are the keepers of such knowledge, are beginning to pass away.

“So I always talk to other song men or song women and elders about who they’ve identified in the community or what traits they are looking for in young people, making sure that they know [who to pass culture on to],” he says. “There is a constant urgency.”

A new generation

That generation may have just arrived for Fred.

While 2021 has been a year of sorrow, his life was also greatly enriched with the arrival of twin baby girls, an addition to his four other children.

Although his mother passed away before the twins were born, Fred and his partner were able to let her know that they were coming.

He recalls how when his partner arrived at the hospital in Brisbane, he put his mother’s hand on her pregnant belly “and tears just trickled down”.

“I could see [my mother’s] eyelids going. I knew she knew and I was glad she got to know,” he says.

Fred now realises that it is his responsibility to pass on the stories and songs he learned from his mother to the next generation, including to his twin baby girls.

“There was a song she used to sing to us when we were babies. And I sing this song to my kids all the time,” he says.

His mother’s death has also caused him to stop and reflect on the legacy that he will be leaving his children and the world they will grow up in, with particular regard to issues such as global warming and the continuing survival of his culture.

“How do I empower these two babies now and install all this knowledge into them so much that they are so strong and proud of who they are and where they come from that they will take on a leadership role to be able to fight for the whole planet. Because it’s the whole planet that’s going to suffer.”

“What’s going to be our legacy – what are we leaving behind? What lessons have we learned and how are we passing on those lessons?”

Yet while the magnitude of global issues such as climate change and the importance of passing on culture are both important and necessary, Fred also recalls advice his mother gave him that he will pass down to his twin daughters.

“She always just used to say ‘be proud of who you are, don’t ever let anybody tell you who you are’,” he says. “’Don’t let anybody tell you any different. You are who you’re meant to be.’”

Fred reflects once again on the gurgling water and the whisper of the wind and inhales the fresh scent of springtime nectar.

“I always held onto that,” he says with a smile.