Meeting Bonnie: a personal perspective about migrant life on Aboriginal land

Tanaya Joshi shares her learnings after a huge first: connecting with an Aboriginal mentor, Gamilaraay woman, Bronwyn Cochrane, and how it felt to see and hear about the real Australia.

I wiggle my toes in the dewy morning grass, eyes closed and basking in the warmth of the sun. Spring is just starting to show its first growth, barely green shoots and buds emerging, hesitant and unsure of whether it is time to leave behind the hibernation of winter. A crisp breeze, carrying with it the faint scent of lavender and hyacinth, brushes past. I pull my sweater a little closer and breathe in. Today feels special.

I’m surrounded by two dozen or so other people, spread loosely in a circle around a fire pit that contains the ashes of last night's campfire. Most of us aren’t looking at each other, though. Our eyes are either averted or closed as we use our sense of hearing more than sight. All of us are tuned in to the voice of one woman. 

Bronwyn Cochrane (or Bonnie, as she’s asked us to call her) is an incredible woman. I’ve only known her about 24 hours at this point, but I’ve made my decision on that one. She’s incredible. 

A proud Gamilaraay woman, Bonnie has come to act as a mentor for a weekend long leadership camp for students from Monash University. She is an educator and a business owner, and today she is talking to us about the importance of connection to Country. Speaking in a clear and bright voice that carries across the opening, Bonnie tells us about the lessons her father taught her. She describes a winding creek where she played as a child. It was here that her father used to fish, sitting in the tranquillity for hours on end. A young Bonnie would spend her time beside him, touching and playing with the trees and bushes that grew abundantly in north-eastern NSW. 

I have never been to her home, but I can picture the water flowing over rocks and pebbles alongside a sloping riverbank, the sun winking off the water where the eucalyptus and gum trees are bending their branches over and casting shade. It’s not hard to imagine the dark ochre ground with leaves, peeling bark and twigs littering its surface. 

Bonnie asks us to take a moment to feel the earth under our hands and feet, just like she used to. She asks us to listen to the life that thrums through this land, and to appreciate how that land nourishes us. Bonnie says her father had taught her both directly and indirectly to appreciate that each and every part of the natural world had life, had breath, and was interconnected and co-dependent. Learning this so explicitly at a young age was a part of her upbringing and has informed a lot of how she interacts with the world to this day. In fact, it has provided her with the ability to find connection and peace in difficult times.

At the age of 21, it’s the first time I’m listening to an Aboriginal person speak about their connection to Country in such an intimate setting. It seems absurd now, in retrospect, that it took more than ten years of living in Australia to have that experience. 

 

The first time I learned about Aboriginal Australians, I had already been in the country for more than a year. I’d moved from Mumbai to Melbourne in the middle of primary school and was learning that Australia valued cutting and pasting activities a lot more than India did. It was a blessing in disguise in my opinion, I’d narrowly avoided sitting the Indian board exams. 

My chipper-voiced homeroom teacher Ben had introduced me to ‘Aboriginal Australia’ in a grade five history unit. Back then, the significance of what I was learning didn’t really sink in. These lessons in school were a time to do “dot painting” and practice blowing into the musty smelling didgeridoo that was brought into the classroom. It was fun and novel, and I remember excitedly chattering about dreamtime stories to my mum. She took them in and nodded encouragingly when I showed her my haphazardly coloured drawing of the Rainbow Serpent.

I don’t think I even understood that Aboriginal Australia was the real Australia.

 

I instead exoticised and othered the images of bare-breasted Aboriginal folks in loincloths, likening their visages to the Adivasi tribes of India. I understood that the Adivasis in India lived in small villages and jungles, they wore jewellery made of teeth and bone and had little to do with the city life I was accustomed to. The black and white photographs of Aboriginal Australians in history books seemed more similar to them than they did to the “real” Australian people that I had met and sat in a classroom with. Never mind that the real Australians I was speaking to were an amalgamation of second or third generation British, Greek, and Chinese migrants. (Really, the amount of souvlaki and baos in lunchboxes should’ve given it away, but that’s neither here nor there). At the end of the day, I was going to school in north suburban Melbourne with nary an Aboriginal classmate, and I hadn’t seen images of Aboriginal people as the representation of Australia.

Instead, what I had in my head as a perception of the country was a combination of glossy brochure photos, top search results from when I had used my janky Lenovo laptop to carefully type ‘Australia pictures’ into the Google search bar, and my experience of a year living there (which didn’t go very far beyond my school, Eureka Skydeck, and my local Westfield). 

The time we’d spent with Bonnie had become a sort of catalyst of reckoning in my head, because to be honest, I was ashamed. From the time I had set foot in Australia to this day, more than ten years on, I hadn’t spoken to an Aboriginal person about the importance of the land that they held custodianship of. The only skirting interactions I’d had with Aboriginal history had been a brief Welcome to Country during my parents’ citizenship ceremony and watching Aboriginal people on TV during Kevin Rudd’s 2008 ‘Sorry’ speech. I couldn’t even count the barely thirty-second-long Acknowledgements to Country that my high school principals said at the start of Assembly. I felt an immense sense of guilt well up. 

This roiling guilt stemmed from the simple fact that I knew I was benefitting from Aboriginal land.

 

That’s what migrants come to Australia for, isn’t it? A chance at a better life, a better education (as my parents made me acutely aware), a better balance of work and leisure. The lucky country was indeed lucky for me - I’d had an incredible life here. Opportunities had been provided to me that my cousins in India could only dream of - trips overseas for studying, professional development and work experience placements, hell, even the fact that I could skip uni for a day or two and have reliable access to recorded lectures. I was setting myself up for a very comfortable life, and somehow, I was doing it all without realising that those opportunities were only afforded to me because they’d been stolen from the rightful landowners.

Even worse, I was able to do all of this while simultaneously being very aware of racial injustice and the idea of colonisation. How could I not? My grandparents were born in a time when India was still under British rule. I had been taught about Independence Day and celebrated it on 15 August each year in India, even retaining the tradition when I migrated to Australia. My childhood had its fair share of patriotic Bollywood movies that recounted the horrors of Partition, filled with gritty footage and sombre songs. I was cognizant that the years of horrific British Raj had left a gaping wound on my home country. India had never been free of violence, but her ground had been ripped apart in a uniquely vicious way by the British imperialism. The history books show pictures of trains full of rotting flesh being ferried across borders. They tell stories of families suddenly torn from villages where they had formed roots for generations.

Despite being intimately familiar with those stories, I had failed to recognise the irreparable ways in which the rusty ochre Australian earth and its original inhabitants too had witnessed similar horrors. I felt like I’d had the strangest cognitive dissonance of all time.

I had failed to see the parallels of land theft and genocide which impact the country to this day, and perhaps more importantly, failed to see the critical difference between the two countries. India was handed back to the people that more or less originally inhabited it; Australia was not.

 

India was given governing autonomy; whilst Aboriginal Australians continue to be alienated and oppressed on their own land and continue to be woefully under-represented in the Parliament that makes dozens of reconciliation committees without permanently incorporating Aboriginal voices. As an Indian migrant on Aboriginal land, I was getting an education, setting up a career path, and at the end of the day, profiting through systems that were built on theft and exploitation.

The schools that I had been educated at, the university which I had attended, and the workplaces that I had been a part of – none of them were led by Aboriginal people. None of them contributed explicitly to reparations or did anything to redress the massive benefits they gained from operating on Aboriginal land. Bonnie made me wonder if I was doing anything different than the colonisers who had come to my home country and used my land for their profit, at the expense of my people.

As Bonnie wrapped up the session of Connection to Country, I felt a little disoriented. My mind had been on a different journey, and I started suddenly at the image of the two dozen of us, loosely gathered around the fire pit containing last night’s ashes. 

I had to quickly gather up my belongings and shove my feet into my runners, listening to our course coordinator instructing us on where the next session would be held. I could see Bonnie speaking with one of the other students, smile on her face as she nodded at them. I wanted to go up to her and talk to her, ask her more questions, but I hesitated. 

She’d just spent an hour or so telling us stories of her childhood, sharing her trauma and triumphs, and it had already been an unexpectedly insightful morning. I almost felt as though Bonnie had helped dislodge a barrier that dammed up my experiences, and now that it had been removed, these thoughts flowed and rushed through my consciousness, nudging me to consider discrepancies that I would have to eventually reconcile. It was going to be a long process, I realised, one that would be ongoing for my lifetime. Likely, in fact, that I would be doing a decade of unlearning and reconnecting over the next period of my life. 

Instead, I felt that all I should do was thank Bonnie. I thanked her for sharing with me some tools that were going to help with that connection. The tools to touch the earth and feel the sun, to listen to the life that thrums through the land, and most importantly, to listen to the voices that have and continue to look after the land for generations.


Resources for the de-colonisation journey in Australia


Tanaya Joshi is a regular science and culture writer at SAARI. She is a Clinical Research Assistant at the Monash Clinical Research / Metro Pain Group. You can connect with her via LinkedIn

All images for this piece were created by photographer and illustrator Iain Soumitri, on Instagram at @soumitristudio

Permission to use the illustrations was received from Brownyn Cochrane. 

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