Her name was Ivaritji.
She was the last one left.
The last member of the Kaurna people who inhabited the area where today’s Adelaide and its sprawling suburbs are situated.
There is a photo of her in the Aboriginal Culture Gallery of the South Australia museum – one of the finest ethnographic displays in the world, thanks largely to the pioneering work of one of Australia’s greatest anthropologists, Norman B. Tindale.
The photo of Ivaritji was taken by Tindale in 1928 shortly before she died…
Shot in black and white – there was no colour film then – shows an elderly woman wearing a cloak made from wallaby and possum skins. The cloak is wrapped around her like a blanket. Only her face is visible. She has short, snowy white hair plastered down against her dark, deeply lined face. She is glassy eyed and her mouth is thin lipped and clenched. She looks sad and serious.
She was posing for a photo at a time when few people had a camera. In real life, she was known for her sense of humour. ‘She laughed like a magpie’ Tindale commented.
Rich praise indeed. The song of the Australian magpie is one of the most beautiful birdsongs in the world.
A block of text under the photo reads:
‘Ivaritji was the daughter of Charlotte and Ityamaitpinna, also known as King Rodney. Ivaritji’s name meant ‘gentle, misty rain’. In the early 1900’s, anthropologists considered that Ivaritji was the last person alive with detailed knowledge of Kaurna language and traditions. Ivaritji saw the alienation of Kaurna lands and the effects of disease and mistreatment of her people.’
Ivaritji was born some time during the 1840’s – about ten years after the first white colonists arrived. These British pioneers bought their land in London. They did not care that the land was occupied by someone else. Didn’t even occur to them. They were superior and the indigenous inhabitants were on the lowest rung of their racist ladder.
Around 1850, ‘Rodney’ and ‘Charlotte’, and their young daughter Ivaritji and the remnants of their tribe moved out of Adelaide and head south. For a few fleeting years, Rodney’s tribe wandered the hills and the southern coasts in a doomed attempt to escape white settlement. They weren’t the only wandering Kaurna clan. There were others and at various towns, ration stations were set up for them. The rations were white man’s tucker – white flour, sugar, tinned meat, tobacco and tea. These were unhealthy and very inferior to the traditional aboriginal fare. Photos and accounts of the first settlers underline the point that when the whites arrived, the aborigines were in excellent physical health.
That didn’t last long.
For thousands of years, Rodney’s people had lived in The Dreaming by following the footsteps of their ancestors. Suddenly they found themselves living in a world where none of their ancestors had ever lived.
As more white immigrants appeared, wave after wave of them, all of them hungry for land, demands went up to ‘settle the aborigines’.
White farmers didn’t want the aborigines crossing ‘their’ land.
Conveniently for the whites, Ivaritji’s people began dying because of contact with the diseases introduced by the whites – including the common cold, bronchitis and flu, as well as measles, smallpox – and oh yes, syphilis. White man germs were very much more effective than guns. They reinforced the dominant mentality amongst the whites of the indigenous people being inferior and, doomed to extinction: survival of the fittest and all that.
Rodney and his wife died before the final disaster befell his people. We know nothing about how they died.
There are no graves and no official records of their deaths.
Suddenly orphaned, young Ivaritji, was adopted by a school teacher named Daly and his wife who lived in a small town named Clarendon about 20 kilometres south of Adelaide. These days Clarendon forms the hub of an ever expanding suburb. In the 1850’s, when the orphaned Ivaritji was taken into the Daly’s, it would have been a small, remote English town with a simple stone church, a few wood slab houses and shops, and a pub; beyond that would have been a few farms, a mixture of open fields and bush.
The Daly’s did their best to give Ivaritji a good upbringing. They treated her as one of their own children. They were decent people. It was the Daly’s who began calling her ‘Amelia’ or sometimes ‘Princess Amelia’. She was dressed ‘neatly in print dresses that came well below the knees’ and taught to read and write and sent to church and ‘taught to conform to the habits of the whites’.
Little ‘Amelia’ was obviously very intelligent. After a few years of living at the Daly’s, she learnt to read and write English. However, it seems as if the benefits of civilisation were not enough to make her want to assimilate into white society. In her teens, she ‘went walkabout’ – she joined a group of other indigenous survivors who were wandering the hills and the coasts and trying to hang on to old ways.
They were refugees in their own country.
A country rapidly becoming unrecognisable.
It was filling up with farms. Most of the natural bush was being cleared. The prudish, morally upright Victorians, who were offended by the aborigines’ nakedness, thought nothing of chopping down every tree and bush in sight. The only trees permitted to exist were English trees – grown in perfectly straight lines.
The destruction of the indigenous people went hand in hand with an environmental apocalypse. For them, the land and all its plants and animals and creatures were sacred, the subject of their song poems. They were the custodians of an earth bequestered to them by their mythological ancestors.
For the whites, the land was a place to be ´developed´; cleared, fenced and used for crops and grazing. Wildlife was shot for ‘sport’ . Today the land is soaked in pesticides and worked with huge computerised machines. White settlement led to entire species of plants and animals and insects vanishing forever (the process continues today unabated and unchallenged).
Clarendon lies on the upper reaches of the Onkaparinga River.
In the late 1800’s, the Onkaparinga would have had a lot of water in it and been flowing for much of the year (during the Great Depression in the 1930’s a huge dam was built at its source reducing it to a trickle). It was a conduit carrying water out of the hills towards the coast, where it fed into a massive tidal swamp which banked up against a long line of high sand dunes. The swamp was fed with fresh water from one end and, on high tides, seawater from the other. A wealth of fish, crustaceans, seals, dolphins, water birds, migratory birds, marsupials and reptiles thrived in and around the swamp. In the past, the mouth of the Onkaparinga river formed a natural food basket for the Kaurna tribes. They were highly skilled in making a variety of nets to catch birds and fish.
Archaeological excavations undertaken in the late 1960’s, before the encroachment of the suburbs, confirmed that the mouth of the Onkaparinga formed, to quote one archaeologist, ‘one of the largest swamp areas in South Australia and a place where the Kaurna camped, lived, fished and hunted.’ In the dunes, aboriginal skeletons and the remains of aboriginal campsites and stone tools were found; the dunes served as a graveyard as well as a camping spot offering protection from winds.
There is no record of where Ivaritji and her accomplices went when they left Clarendon, but there can be little doubt that they would have followed the Onkaparinga to its mouth. Ivaritji would have first visited the swamplands during the 1840’s with her parents. Today this same journey would take one through a monotonous maze of suburban streets and along kilometres of busy highways.
One of the important mythological beings of the Kaurna was Tjilbruke, a half ibis half man, who was associated with sources of water along the coast south of Adelaide. The song poem devoted to him tells the story of how one day he received the news that his nephew had been speared to death for breaking a taboo; stricken with grief, he gathered his nephew in his arms and carried him along the coast, crying as he went. Where his tears fell, water holes and billabongs were formed. The Kaurna moved from the hills in the winter to the coast in the summers – and during the hot summers, water was crucial for their survival. The song poem of Tjilbruke, a king of lyrical map, was passed on from generation to generation and guided the Kaurna to sources of water.
There they were, Ivaritji and her friends: a motley band of survivors, dressed in ragged white man clothes, vainly trying to hold on to the old life, to redeem the ancient tryst with their Dreamtime beings.
At the swamplands, the little group would have camped for a while and feasted on the natural abundance of marine life, birds and marsupials.
How did they feel, what kind of thoughts went through their heads, being alone in a sacred place which for thousands of years had echoed with the voices and the songs and the ceremonies of Kaurna tribes?
Following Tjilbruke’s sacred trail along the coast, they would have scoured the reefs for shellfish and crustaceans, camped in the dunes and drank the tears of Tjilbruke: the last Kaurna to do so.
What was Tjilbruke thinking when he looked down and saw what had happened to his people?
Surely he must have felt grief at least as great as when his nephew was speared for breaking a taboo?
But his tears had nowhere to fall.
He, like his people, was reduced to being a memory.
Eventually Ivaritji was forced to settle on a mission station, where it was expected that she would succumb to a white man disease and hence share the fate of so many other indigenous people. The whites were convinced that eventually all of the indigenous people would die out. All very convenient.
But Ivaritji didn’t die.
She lived whilst those around her died and by the early 20th century, she was the only member of her tribe left who had lived the Dreaming and experienced the traditional tribal life.
In 1920 she married an American black man. They were both in their 70’s. He was born in South Australia and had spent his life working in a mining town called Moonta a good 200 kilometres away from Adelaide.
We know nothing about him.
How did his parents come to South Australia?
In the early 20th century, Australia, let alone South Australia – let alone Moonta – was at the end of the world. Further.
Questions, unanswered. History can be a frustrating place.
Ivariji and her American companion were married in a church in Adelaide. It is still there today.
They eked out a bare and rough existence in a small dwelling at the outskirts of Moonta: it had ‘two rooms and was built of limestone and pug with dirt floors and a galvanised iron roof’: not exactly a palace and God only knows what summers must have been like in such a dwelling.
In her own way she lived her culture: she spent much of her time weaving matts and selling them on the streets of Moonta. As a child she had learned to weave nets and baskets. Traditionally they were woven from reeds. In Moonta she walked around farmers’ paddocks gathering up discarded lengths of twine, which she took back to her hut and used to weave her mats.
People interviewed in 1990 who had lived in the Moonta had vivid memories of the old aboriginal woman tracking around the farmers’ fields and selling her mats in Moonta. They also remembered that she was cheerful, polite and ‘bore no ill will towards the whites’.
For years she and her husband lived in dire poverty.
Then one day, Ivaritji was suddenly hauled out of obscurity.
In 1927, the Curator of the SA Museum heard about Ivaritji and took the train to Moonta. What he found was a woman in her ‘80’s who was remarkably active, fully cogent and with a deep knowledge of the Kaurna language and customs – and, thanks to the Dalys of Clarendon, absolutely fluent in English.
A few weeks later, a reporter from the Adelaide based newspaper, The Advertiser, visited Ivaritji´s hut and found:
‘…an intelligent woman and although well advanced in years, is possessed of all her faculties, and is exceptionally active for her years….she walks into town several times a week, in addition to working in her home.’
Ivaritji was invited to come to Adelaide and meet the members of the South Australian Anthropological Association. The museum paid for her train fare and accommodation in Adelaide. It must have been a long trip for a woman in her late ‘80’s, this at a time when travel on a train would not have been too luxurious.
It was at the museum that she was introduced to a young man named Tindale. Ivaritji and he made a curious couple: she, old, small and dark, and he a tall young white man dressed in a suit.
History was at a cross roads.
The indigenous people of Australia who had experienced the traditional life were fast disappearing. At the same time, there were white people who did not share the indifference of their fellow countrymen towards indigenous people and their culture.
Tindale was one of them. He was a man with a mission.
Tindale asked Ivaritji about Tjilbruke.
A monumental moment in the history of Australia was about to unfold…..