Wanamurraganya: The Story of Jack McPhee

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Sally Morgan, Wanamurraganya: The Story of Jack McPhee, 1987: Fremantle Arts Centre Press. 196 pages.

West Australian writer Sally Morgan has done it again! I wondered how she was going to follow up her brilliant first book, My Place.  I’m certainly not disappointed with her second offering, Wanamurraganya, the story of her tribal grandfather, Jack McPhee.

The book is extremely dense covering a startling array of ground. Jack was born round about 1905 and from that year to their present there has been both enormous change and very little change for Aboriginal people.

One of the greatest changes has to be the rejection by the contemporary Aboriginal movement of terms such as half caste. From reading this book it is easy to see why. Jack’s mother was a  Ngayarda banjujutha  person, a person from the Pilbara region whose ancestry is entirely Aboriginal. Jack, on the other hand, is a Mardamarda person, meaning someone of mixed Aboriginal/European ancestry. That Jack was born Mardamarda had a profound influence on his life. Jack himself describes the book as 

“…the story of a working man…the story of Wanamurraganya, the son of a tribal Aborigine. Then again, it’s the story of a man who is fighting with being black and white. A man who chooses not to live in the tribal way, but who can’t live in the white man’s way because the government won’t let him.”

Dealing with the sort of controls and restrictions imposed on Aboriginal people by the so called “protectors” is a theme which runs through out the book. As a teenager Jack was a virtual slave, an indentured labourer given to a station owner as a piece of property to be used as the boss pleased. Throughout his life he was  frequently  ripped off by bosses who employed him for months and then refused to pay him. He later had to get permission to own land and stock; permission which was denied because at the time he didn’t have a certificate exempting him from the provisions of the Aborigines Protection Act under which all non-exempted Aboriginal people lived. Maternity allowance was not granted to Aboriginal women, unless they had an exemption.

Only Mardamarda people could be granted an exemption certificate and then only under extremely strict and cruel criteria. So even the granting of an exemption certificate didn’t end Jack’s woes! The damn thing could be taken away at the drop of a hat; especially for associating with non-exempted Aboriginal people.

The deliberate policy of assimilating Mardamarda people by separating them from their people and their culture had the clear goal of cultural genocide. Wanamurraganya  is the story about being caught in the middle of that policy. Jack puts to choices clearly when he says: 

“It seems that you had to choose one way or the other, no one would let you be both. The problem was if you chose to be a Mulba [Indigenous person from the Pilbara region – Ed] you and your family never had any rights at all and you could kiss any hopes of getting on good-bye. Yet if you chose to be a white man, you had rights, but you couldn’t mix with everyone. It was very, very hard.”

Jack describes the hardship faced by Aboriginal people in a very matter of fact way throughout the book. The rape of Aboriginal women by squatters and police became almost a way of life.

“Sometimes, the women would be jailed overnight for no good reason. It was so the policeman could have a go. You couldn’t do much about that kind of thing in those days. Who were you going to complain to, the police?”

AJ Neal, the Superintendent of Moore River Settlement, where Jack lived for a while, regularly and blatantly raped women. Aboriginal people weren’t allowed to marry unless they had official permission from the Aborigines department. Superintendent Neal was the first stage in the process of getting a marriage approved. Neal would say to women who wanted to marry 

“‘Well, you’ll have to have a long talk to me about it.’ Then he’d take them into the storeroom where they kept the bags of flour and have them in there. I’ve seen the girls coming out myself with flour all over their dresses. He was very shrewd that way because any kids that came along ended up with someone else’s name, not his. He always pressured Neville (the Chief Protector of Aborigines) to approve the marriages of the girls he slept with.”

Another thread running throughout the book is work. The Pilbara region is rich with minerals. and when Jack wasn’t doing station work he worked in mining. Jack is proud of the fact he is a hard worker and that he was always able to get work. Right up until his retirement Jack engaged in extremely hard labour. 

The Pilbara is built on the backs of people like Jack McPhee and his cousin, Clancy McKenna, one of the leaders of the Aboriginal station worker’s strike in the 1940’s. Jack and Clancy were close but trod very different paths. Unlike Jack, Clancy refused to go for an Exemption or Citizenship. Jack recounts conversations with Clancy about the strike. Jack would tell Clancy that he agreed with the aims of the strike—decent pay and improved conditions for Aboriginal station workers—but goes on to argue that  he approached the issue his own way which is why he went for his Exemption and Citizenship, to get something better for himself and his family. Clancy replied:

“That’s all right for Mardamardas, but no good for the other Mulbas, they got no rights, they got to fight for them. The only thing they got is their labour, the only way the squatters will listen is if we walk off and they left with no labour. They’ll be in a mess then.”

Jack is roughly 84 years old now and lives in a pensioner unit in Port Hedland. He reflects:

“I am, old, and good for nothing, and what keeps coming back to me? Dances, singing, stories the old people used to tell. Every night I lie in bed and sing myself to sleep with all my old corroboree songs. I go over and over them and I remember that part of my life. They’re the things I love, they’re the things I miss.”

So what of Sally Morgan’s role in all of this? In the introduction she tells of the long involved process that went into slowly piecing together this book. She first met Jack in 1983, while researching My Place and commenced work on Jack’s story in 1984. Wanamurraganya is a brilliant collaboration combining Sally Morgan’s incredible writing, research and artistic talent with Jack McPhee’s amazing memory. This book adds important new insights in the process of documenting the Aboriginal history of Australia.