who is your mob?

July 13, 2014


This week has been NAIDOC week in Australia. NAIDOC stands for National Aboriginal & Islander Day of Celebration. It’s so big now that it’s not a day but a whole week, but no-one has changed the name. It’s probably the busiest time in Indigenous’ people’s calendars. There are a lot of events for children and families in the wider community to highlight Indigenous culture.

“Who’s your mob?’ is an Aboriginal English term for ‘who are your people?’ Aboriginal people ask “who’s your mob?” and in the next breath “where’s your Country?”.

In traditional times in Aboriginal Australia, knowledge was transmitted through song and dance and story and art, for survival. Australia has a very harsh landscape and how people survived here for 60,000+ years is testament to their ingenuity and determination. Although I think that the term “songlines” came into popular use through the British writer Bruce Chatwin and his 1986 book ‘The Songlines’, as I hadn’t heard it used before then, it is a term that Aboriginal people have claimed as their own. Our songlines have been erased or broken, and there are people now who are working hard to try and piece them together. Much of that piecing together has been aided by caring and diligent whitefellas who took the time to learn about Indigenous Culture and Language and write it down.

I met a young Aboriginal woman this week who knows her family group’s stories and totems. She knows her Culture and her family history. She can read the scarred trees and tell you what type of food is about. She can read the land. She participates in women’s business and gains more knowledge with each ceremony. There is no mystery, second guessing, or confusion for her, it is all laid out, an undeniable sense of belonging to Family, Culture, and Country. It was both wonderful and sad to have met her. Wonderful that she knows so much and is receiving and participating in Culture. Sad that many Indigenous people fumble around trying to regain something of what has been lost to them, many not even knowing which clan they are from. A colleague of mine went with other urban Indigenous people to Uluru to attend an Indigenous coneference. She said the Elders at Uluru called them “the lost people”. She said “they saw straight through us”.

I worked with a Maori man a few years ago. We did foster carer training together. He always started each new group by introducing himself as to who his people were and the Country he came from. It was beautiful. I have been told that when Maori people introduce themselves on the marae they recite who they are through genealogy and talk about their associations with different tribes and canoes (from the ‘first’ ones to arrive).

A few years ago, I watched a television series called Faces of America (2010). The show was written and hosted by Dr Henry Louis Gates Jr. Dr Gates traced the family history of twelve well-known Americans. Dr Gates acknowledged his own anxiety, disappointment, and confusion about not being able to identify his great great grandfather, a white man that his African American great great grandmother never named. Similarly, there was grief and loss over the inability to trace his African heritage. The pastor at my local church recently said that he is deeply moved by the gospel songs of African American people because as a group they have truly suffered from enslavement, apartheid, and discrimination over hundreds of years and their songs communicate their faith, hope, strength, and persistence.

Dr Elizabeth Alexander was one of the guests on the series. Her white heritage was traced back to King John I of England and Charlemagne. Her African heritage is lost to her, and she expressed this as a sadness and an “eternal longing” for so many black people. Although tests on her DNA revealed that she has 66% white European heritage, her skin colour and appearance designate her as an African American.

Eva Longoria, who expressed pride in her Indigenous Mexican heritage, found that her ancestors were primarily Spanish. Mike Nicholls, from Jewish heritage, and Dr Mehmet Oz, from Muslim heritage, share the same ancient ancestors. Yo Yo Ma is 100% Asian and due to the Chinese people’s meticulous record keeping can trace his ancestors back a long way. Some of the guests spoke about knowing within themselves, in their bones so to speak, about unspoken aspects of their heritage. Meryl Streep said “I am the sum of all these people”, meaning her ancestors and their journey.

The show resonated with me. My mother always told me that her grandmother was black. I will never know who my great great grandfather was, except to say he was a black man. On my great grandmother’s birth certificate are the names of a white man and a white woman, her mother married a white man and gave birth to a black child. The line ends there, with a great big STOP sign. My great grandmother’s four siblings, born after her, were white. There is not a single photograph of my great grandmother, despite my mother living with her for the first six years of her life. I do however have a photograph of my Aboriginal many-times-great grandmother on my father’s side from the 1830’s. One of our Aboriginal Elders in Western Sydney often says that if you have ancestors who came over in the early history of white Australia (from 1788) then there is every possibility you have an Aboriginal ancestor because there weren’t many white women on the prison ships. He says “shake that family tree and a blackfella might fall out”.

I am interested too in the journey as Meryl Streep mentioned. In narrative therapy, practitioners talk about the ‘dominant storyline’ in people’s lives and in the stories of their family. The dominant storyline is not always a good one. In the type of work I do, I can help people trace their disadvantage through their family tree. It helps people to make sense of themselves and their circumstances. We record medical history, mental health problems, separation, trauma, etc., experienced throughout the generations, a technique that I have borrowed from Dr Judy Atkinson who has Aboriginal heritage. Trauma and sadness can have a cumulative effect. Many of us have free will, but we are inclined to follow the patterns set by our ancestors, often without being conscious of it. I like to record the strengths on the genogram also, as that is the ‘alternate storyline’, the one that can provide hope and change.

In my own family, I can trace the transmission of trauma on my father’s side back to my great grandfather serving in World War I at Ypres in France. Photographs of that battlefield reveal it as no less than a hell hole. He lasted seventeen days, and returned as damaged goods, setting a pattern of dysfunction and poor mental health that had a ripple effect through subsequent generations.There is a strong focus on Indigenous people at the moment, but if you think about it, trauma and tragedy has affected all of the people’s of this world. If you try to name all of the conflicts and natural disasters that have occurred in the past 100 years, you will have a very long list.  When I was in my twenties I worked with Cambodian refugee children. They were a deeply traumatised people, the stories the children told were incomprehensible. How could people be so cruel to their own people? Thirty years later we are receiving refugees from the Sudan and Syria.

Identity is a complex and intriguing phenomena, and so it seems is the history of our families. People who don’t know their heritage, suffer from loss, a sense that they don’t belong. The need to belong is very strong in people. People who do know their heritage, and who have the time to analyse it, can see how their ancestry plays out in their own lives. It is interesting to reflect upon. With Western society’s emphasis on individuation we can sometimes forget that our family history, the trials and tribulations, the journey of our ancestors influences us in a myriad of ways.



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6 Comments on “who is your mob?”

  1. michaelwatsonvt Says:

    I love that you have fleshed out your thoughts.Not knowing with certainty is indeed a troubling, and often marginalizing experience. I take heart in knowing it is very much a part of Indigenous experience under colonialism, a strategy of displacement and erasure.

    So is the “one drop” rule. In the US, for centuries, if you had any African or Native blood, you were defined as Black or Native. Now, one has to have “enough” Native inheritance from one tribe to qualify for Federal status. This is also a trick of colonialism, a form of genocide.

    When common folks (mostly men) fled the genocides in Scotland and Ireland, they frequently married Native women. Both sides knew the suffering of outrage and ethnic cleansing. Both communities knew PTSD.

    Now the entire world seems crazed with taking, rather than giving. Fortunately, there are ones, such as yourself, who remind us that our complexity is a blessing, and open arms to enfold us.

    I have reblogged this marvelous post. Let me know if that is not OK.

    Great warmth.


    • tree girl Says:

      Hi Michael

      Of course it’s OK. Thank you.

      It has been and is the opposite here, which I find interesting. I wonder why the difference? In the past, if an Aboriginal person had a drop of white blood he or she was taken from the birth family and placed with a white family to be raised as a white person. There was no thought that this would cause trauma, grief, and loss, after all the child was being done a favour and should have been grateful for the opportunity!

      These days, Aboriginal people are almost expected not to behave like a white person. There is now a romanticised perception of traditional Indigenous life. But society has forgotten that the very culture they are now idealising was decimated by policies that regarded Aboriginal people as savages that needed to be tamed and civilised.

      I sum it up by saying “in the old days you couldn’t be too black, and now days you can’t be too white”.

      But we are now free to claim our heritage as we like, and that’s a good thing.

      Thank you as always for your comment.


      • michaelwatsonvt Says:

        Hi! A good conversation on both blogs. Here, too, there is idealization of us Natives, a demand that we not change from how we used to be when we were “real Indians”, and a lot of racism towards folks who actually look “Indian”. There is also for us that opportunity to recover heritage. That part is good.

  2. michaelwatsonvt Says:

    Reblogged this on Dreaming the World and commented:
    As those of you who follow me closely know, Tree Girl is a frequent contributor to the conversation. Her’s is a rich and important voice in the conversation about identity and story. This blog post is rich, indeed. Happy reading!


  3. Beauty Along the Road Says:

    There is so much complexity in our racial/ethnic/cultural make-up, some of it associated with painful memories and trauma. And yet, from the beginning of human history, we have migrated and intermingled and evolved into the different races we are today. Through my first marriage to an Afro-Caribbean man and becoming the mother to a bi-racial child in the US, I have been interested in race and culture and identity from the time I was a teenager. Despite being a blonde, blue-eyed European, I consider myself a multi-cultural person and feel most comfortable with others who have travelled and lived among people different from themselves. I am always fascinated by the indigenous traditions that are surviving in this world. I was deeply touched by a recent visit to Arizona and immersion into Navajo culture (http://beautyalongtheroad.wordpress.com/2014/06/02/canyon-memories-the-lost-art-of-storytelling/) as it reminded me again of the rootlessness and disconnection so widespread in our modern culture that is blanketing much of the world now.
    You have written a very thoughtful essay, thank you.


    • tree girl Says:

      Thank you Beauty Along The Road,

      It is a fascinating subject – race, culture, identity. I was first introduced to the concept of ‘white privilege and power’ in 2010 by an American, Dr William deJean. Wow! That really rocked me.


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