Aunty Ellen Trevorrow is a Ngarrindjeri elder from Camp Coorong living and working with her family there and a Ngarrindjeri Cultural Basket Weaver.
She is currently working towards many exhibitions and she is a dedicated worker with children teaching basket weaving at Camp Coorong along with other Ngarrindjeri women.
“Everything made by the old people served a purpose and it is an honour for me to be doing it today” ~ Aunty Ellen Trevorrow
“This is one part of our culture that the land provides for us. Take away our land, destroy our land and it will destroy our freshwater rushes for our cultural weaving. The land is already salting up, and pesticides are ruining the rushes. We have to travel a long way today to collect our freshwater rushes……………..” Aunty Ellen Trevorrow
Below she tells her story to Bill ‘Swampy’ Marsh.
I’m a Ngarrindjeri woman from on the Murray River, not that far from Wellington, near where the river and Lake Alexandrina meet. That’s where I’m actually from. That area. Then I grew up in a Fringe Dwelling Camp at what we call Murrungun. Murrungun’s seven mile out of Tailem Bend, just down past the Wellington ferry. We were in the Seven Mile Camp there, then there was the One Mile and then there was the Three Mile Camp. The One Mile was just out of Tailem Bend on the edge of the cliff and the Three Mile – have you ever seen the native pines when you come in to Tailem Bend – well, that’s where the Three Mile Camp was. All those camp areas were full in my time. We were big families; close-knit families. We didn’t want to be put in to any of them mission places like Point McLeay.
I was born in ‘55 and I was brought up by my grandmother from the age of five till I was about eleven. Nanna really had two households to look after. She had her own four girls and one son and she also had us five grandchildren and she was a worker too, making sure we all got a good education and things like that. Nanna was a great woman. She made sure we got to school through the hard times and the good times. To get to school, I always point it out to our children how we had the long haul of walking out to the road before we caught the bus the seven mile into town. And we had to get on that bus or else. One time we missed the bus and we were made to walk all the way in to Tailem Bend, to just teach us a lesson. That’s how strict they were about it. ‘You should’ve been on that bus!’ There wasn’t any wagging of school back then.
I left Tailem Bend at the end of Year 5 and I came back to live with Mum in the Fringe Dwelling Camp near Meningie. Even then I had to walk two and a bit miles from the camp out to the road to catch the bus. Then after school, the bus would drop us off and we’d have to walk home again. It was a long day. You had to be fit. But we were young. I don’t think that homework was much set out for us kids back in the late 50s, early 60s. I think everything had to be done during schooling, which was just as lucky for us. The teachers were all good. A couple of them that taught me in Year 5 are still around the area and with families of their own. But school was hard and we were made to work hard, or else. I’ll tell you a bit of a story … I just got through Year 8 by the skin of my teeth and the warning I got was, ‘No sport if your grades don’t pick up’. So my grades pretty soon picked up, I can tell you.
I can’t remember having that many problems with the white kids. I often talk to my children about how I had some non-Aboriginal friends who I was closer to in many ways, I think basically because we were all battlers. It definitely wasn’t an easy road but we managed through it somehow. I was just lucky, I suppose, that I was a netball lover and I was very good at it, so I was accepted in the team. I also became Class Captain and I was House Captain when we won the shield for the first time.
Weaving was all around me as a child but my education always had to come first. Then about thirty years ago an elder Aunty showed me the weaving and I haven’t stopped since. I come from a line of traditional basket weavers that goes back through my mother and her grandmother and her great-grandmother and her great-great-grandmother. That’s as far back as I know. My great-great-grandmother was known as Queen Louisa and she was living on the land near Wellington when the European people first come. I’ve got an old photo here, with weaving her baskets. Look, that’s her there. That photograph was taken in 1915 and under the photo it says she lived from 1821-1921, which means she lived till a hundred. And that’s her daughter there and that’s my grandmother – Nanna – but they’ve got the names around the wrong way. That one’s supposed to be Ellen Brown. Then that’s my mother and myself and I’ve got one daughter and a granddaughter and they’re all weavers. So it’s a long line of weavers and it’s not only on my side. The weaving’s on my husband’s side too.
I first met my husband, Tom, when I was seven years old and straight away I told his mother I was going to marry him. Then, when I was fourteen, I met him again. But, with all my raising from Nanna and then my mother, it was always made clear how education was important, so Tom had to wait for me to come out of school. He was very patient and he waited till I finished my Year 12. I was the first Ngarrindjeri person to ever do Year 12 at Meningie Area School and once I’d done it, the door was opened up and others followed. You could call it a stepping stone for our people. That was in 1971 and then, Tom and me, we got married and we started having our family and we’ve had three of our boys do Year 12 and we’ve now got a granddaughter in Year 11 and she said to me just the other day, ‘Nanna I’m going to do Year 12, just like you did.’
But I do worry for the kids. In this day and age you can get them through to Year 12 but then what’s out there? That’s the worrying thing. Where’s the employment? Where do they go from there? It’s all about strong leadership and that has to come from the men. Up till a while ago it was us women who took on the responsibilities of the children and life. But things changed from the traditional times when men were the head of the family. A lot of them used to go away for shearing and work like that. Also, back before the referendum of ‘67, Aboriginal people were being harassed by the police and so many Ngarrindjeri men were in prison for being caught under the influence of alcohol or in possession of it. That was twenty-eight days jail time and it sort of took the men away from the women. So it was the women who had to fend for their families; to do the hunting and the gathering of food. Then the men would come home again and they’d go back to the drinking and they’d get into arguments, get in to fights, and they’d end up back in prison for another twenty-eight days. And just you think, all of that was seen by the kids. So what happened was, the strength of the Ngarrindjeri man – as well as the men in other Aboriginal groups – was taken away from the family. But now that’s all changing and the Ngarrindjeri man is taking his position back and speaking for his family, his children, the nation, and it’s really important to have the menfolk out front with us womenfolk along side of them. I believe it’s powerful; very powerful.
So there’s now a change going on there, and that’s good change. But then there’s the environment. That isn’t so good; like the changes to the land, the fish, the bird life, the water. Like I mentioned, I’m from where the river and the lake meet and we were able to drink the water. You can’t now. We didn’t have a water pipeline or anything like that. We just had the river as our water source and the river is also linked to weaving because it’s where the rushes grow and when the rushes aren’t there you know you’ve got land and water problems. And weaving is very important in our lifestyle because it’s about bringing people together. It wasn’t only women’s work. It was men’s work too. And for the kids, it’s really important for them to be able to work alongside the men with the weaving and share stories with them, to build them up.
There’s lots of different types of rushes but we mainly use the fresh water rushes. They’ve got a three prong top. When we pick them for weaving we dry them out for two to three weeks then we soak them again for about half an hour to make them flexible to work with. It’s that cycle. And with the weaving, everything they made they used. It was a survival base. They made the fish nets, fish traps, fish scoops, the baskets to gather food, the big mats to sit on, back warmers. Everything they made they used; even scoops to scoop the swans’ eggs out of the nests. That’s so the swan didn’t bite you and that the snakes didn’t get you. Oh yeah, the old tiger snake, he used to curl up in the nest with the eggs and the swan sits on them and they don’t know the snake’s there. The snake doesn’t go for the swan. He’s in there keeping warm till the swan-chicks are being born. Nice and comfortable, and so if you put your hand inside the nest to grab some eggs and the old tiger snake grabs you, you’re gone.
Yes, so the change is also with the rushes. That was the sign the water was changing. I reckon it was about twenty five years ago that Mum took me back to the old spots and there wasn’t much good reed around then. And down here on the Coorong, where I used to pick sixteen years ago, there’s nothing there now. Even down around Marks Point, we used to go around there picking rushes and there’s nothing in that area anymore. And, see, through picking the rushes you’re also helping them to grow, and by throwing the seeds back you’re helping too. But then, within a couple of years, down here on the Coorong nothing was happening. So we’re sort of looking for new places. We call it ‘good picking’ and ‘hard picking’ and we’ve just gone back to Masons and we got a nice lot there, but we’re worried that it wont last for long. Even if we get this water that the government’s promised, I still don’t know how long it will last. I just don’t know. It’ll take some time to heal and I believe there’s a lot of healing to do. Environmental healing.