Imagine a childhood where your cultural identity is forged against the backdrop of opposing forces.
This is how Tamara Graham grew up.
She is the daughter of an aboriginal father who was a member of the stolen generation and an outspoken advocate for native rights. Tamara’s non-native mother raised her in Canberra and sought to largely ignore her Aboriginal heritage.
Tamara has moved slowly, independently and resolutely towards identifying herself as a proud Noongar woman and has worked hard to establish a career in which she seeks to improve the lives of indigenous peoples living in the ACT and the surrounding region.
Tamara has agreed to tell HerCanberra her very personal story because she wants to illustrate the power of choice, education and self-determination as a native woman. She wants to be a good role model for her daughter and possibly others who read her story.
Now a clear and skilled senior official who has worked full time while taking herself through the university, completed a Bachelor of Business, Graduate Certificate in Criminology and Graduate Certificate in Indigenous Trauma and Recovery Practice, Tamara is Executive Branch Manager for ACT Government’s Office for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Affairs.
Her father is the prominent West Australian Aboriginal ex-official Phillip Prosser, who was removed from his family at the age of just six and sent to be brought up on Roeland’s Mission – home to more than 500 children from the stolen generation.
Phillip’s mother was born at the infamous government-run station to punish aboriginals, Moola Bulla, before she was removed from her family at the age of six and sent to the Moore River settlement.
Phillip was brought up in strict discipline and cut off from all aspects of his family and culture, according to official stories of his life and career.
The notion of the Army as an escape was not uncommon for survivors of institutional care outside the home, and Phillip enlisted in the cadets when he was released from the mission. He then enlisted in the regular Australian Army, served in Malaya and made a mission trip to Vietnam from 1966-67, where throughout his career he received praise for his leadership skills and for his practical operational skills.
Yet Phillip bore the bulk of overt racism both inside and outside the army, despite the sacrifices he made to serve his country.
Phillip met Tamara’s mother when he was stationed in Canberra at the Royal Military College Duntroon, but they separated and he later moved back to WA when Tamara was 11.
“We have always been close. We had a good relationship. So even though he lived on the other side of the country, we would still talk and communicate and he would fly me over there and then come back east to visit me,” Tamara recalls .
But in the early part of Tamara’s life, she felt clearly separated from her Aboriginal originality.
“Canberra was a very white city. I think when I was younger, and probably even until when I got married and in my mid – twenties, I was just … me. It was only after that that I started asking questions and doing research and building my connection to my heritage. ”
Understanding her father’s story and the tragic fragmentation of her ancestors was an important part of Tamara’s journey, and she carries the emotional weight of the intergenerational trauma, especially when she thinks about what her father and grandmother had to endure.
“It was just so wrong.”
For most of her school life, Tamara did not discuss her inheritance with her mother. But after leaving school and passing the entrance exam for the Australian Public Service, Tamara eventually found herself working in Corrections.
It was here that she found a new connection to the original justice and to her father, who later in her life had become a leading advocate for the Aborigines in the prison system. In 1988, he helped establish and operate the Aboriginal Visitors Scheme, which was initiated as a result of the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Deaths in Detention and involved sending visitors to local prisons and police lock-ups to provide advice to Western Australian Aboriginal prisoners. Phillip also ran cultural diversity training programs for the police.
“Whether it was the conversations we had had about my father’s work that piqued my interest, I just had this desire to work with people in the criminal justice system. And because native over-representation in the justice system is through the roof, I was suddenly exposed to everything I had been protected from by my mother. I think because I was older and had more confidence that I was able to ask my dad about it all.
“And when I asked questions about culture, of course, he was more than happy to share. When his story was published in a book, he would send me the book, or he would send me pictures. He has been in documentaries; he was in the Bringing Them Home Report, and was very involved with Aboriginal veterans and those in the justice system as well as Aboriginal youth. He achieved a lot. “
While her connection to country and culture took decades to be established, “because I was always told I was not a native,” Tamara decided that her own daughter born 16 years ago would know her roots.
“I remember my mother was a little excited when she asked me, after my daughter was born, if we had ticked the box to say she was a native. When I told her we had, she said ‘what did you do to Tamara?’ It was a bit of a blow.
“With my own daughter, I want to protect her from the negativity and build her up to understand who she is and be sure of that understanding. She has been brought up since day dot to acknowledge that she is aboriginal, and she should be. proud of.”
So far, Tamara has managed to ward off intrusive questions about how native she really is and “whether she gets special benefits”.
“She came home the other day and said a girl at school had asked her what percentage of the Aborigines she was. My daughter has fair skin and blue eyes and this girl said ‘Well, if you are a sixteenth or less, then it does not even count’. My daughter said ‘First of all, mother, I know it’s not her fault, she’s just saying what she’s been taught.’ And then she said she just smiled and left. “
Tamara says that people in Canberra can still show ignorance about both the history of indigenous peoples and current affairs.
“I’m just suggesting that people do not make assumptions, but educate themselves. We have books, we have the Internet, we have people who will tell you their story, if you can respect it. If you sincerely ask with the intention of hearing and learn, and do not reject what you are told, then we move on.In terms of identity issues, it is not up to anyone to assume what native percentage is ‘enough’ .It’s actually quite offensive. Either identifies I myself, or I do not identify myself, period. “
Meanwhile, on a professional level, Tamara is at the forefront of dealing with the consequences of ingrained discrimination and inconvenience to indigenous peoples.
‘The prison is heartbreaking. I think we are about 2.9 percent of the ACT population, but indigenous women make up 52 percent of the remand prisoners. It’s hard to see, the mothers without their babies, and to listen to the outcome of some recent consultations we conducted with women in custody. It’s pretty hard to hear their stories first hand. But it just makes me want to work harder. “
Tamara has no easy answer to “fix” the countless inconveniences Native Australians face every day, and wishes that real progress could be made faster.
“In my opinion, based on my own experience, we need to understand past practice and how it has affected generations in order to understand how indigenous people are today. These influences do not just disappear, and yet people say to me , that they do not understand how what happened in the past can affect the people today?
“It does, and it has, and it will continue to do so. So many intertwined issues need to be addressed, especially when we look at the justice system. So you can not work with anyone without understanding their entire history.
“I think understanding should be the very first step for anyone who really wants to know what it’s like to live as an aboriginal in Australia. Everyone’s story is different. I’ve had to find my own level of understanding for to reach this point of acceptance and pride in who I am and what I have achieved. ”