By Tor Frømyhr
Many wander through life unaware of the real story that led to their existence and the course their lives have taken. Is it important? For many, not really. For me, vitally important.
For as long as I can recall, I wondered why my mother grew up in the small village of Mongarlowe, a mere 14 kilometres on a road to nowhere from the small NSW country town of Braidwood found between Canberra and the south coast of New South Wales, the country of the Yuin Nation.
I have travelled through the area several times over the years, always stopping at the war memorial to stand silently by the war memorial where my three great uncles, casualties of the First World War, are listed. Their surname was Seidel, after my German great grandfather, Johan Gotleib Seidel, who was a free settler. His wife, my maternal great grandmother, was Ellen Bryant who one could reasonably assume, knew her parents, Margaret and William Bryant.
The government records failed to record the essential details that could give a full picture of who in fact were Margaret and Ellen Bryant. Ellen’s birth certificate lists her father however lists mother as “unknown” while William Bryant’s death certificate lists his spouse as “Half Caste”. In stark contrast to NSW Government records of Indigenous people, the Braidwood Church kept accurate Baptismal records listing Ellen’s parents as being Margaret Bryant (nee Chapman) and William. The history quickly falls into place with Margaret Chapman included in the NSW records as the last Aboriginal woman in the Braidwood district to be granted a NSW Aboriginal Protection Board land grant for her exclusive use for as long as she lived. This land was taken back, re-stolen, after Margaret’s death. Margaret was the daughter of Sally Gundary of the Gundary people of Moruya NSW south coast and Henry Chapman.
Thus, my story? Hardly, not even a chapter of my story, however it was a major turning point in my perception of who thought I was and how I now see myself. It was the catalyst for significant introspection of how life may have been had this knowledge been a factor from the beginning. It wasn’t, of course, and life proceeded allowing opportunities of inclusion that would likely not have existed had I been known as “Aboriginal”. I suppose one could suggest that I am an example of what can happen in life and community if racism is not in the picture.
I have lived most of my life and have been fully engaged in what I consider the “mainstream”. I have not been relegated to working in the “Indigenous space”. I have previously been fully accepted in life and work for who others thought I was. I have no intention of changing what I have been doing very successfully for 48 years, as a university teacher in classical performance practice. I have no intention of stopping my career as a concert violinist having performed as a soloist and leader of several ensembles in many of the great halls and cities of the world. I am now in a position to show that if I can “do it” being Aboriginal, without “labelling”, anybody can do it in whatever space they wish and not be relegated to Indigenous areas amid historical the perceptions of capability.
Where does one start? I have started. My children, all five of them now fully informed of their Indigenous heritage, have embraced the wonderful values and sense of belonging to this country that the knowledge has given them. With six convicts, a German free settler and my father, a Norwegian Navy engineer who met during and subsequently married my mother after the Second World War, the embracing of my Indigenous heritage through the direct matrimonial line of my mother has finally allowed me to feel that I belonged to this country. A great moment of acceptance for me was when the famous Yuin elder Uncle Ossie Cruse, said in the presence of witnesses at my workplace, The Australian National University, “You are Kin” when he identified that we were connected through family and that as a child he had lived with my Yuin relatives. Uncle Ossie Cruse has written the documents confirming my family’s Yuin ancestry.
This short essay tells only part of my story, a small however life changing part. It does not tell why my wonderful and devoted mother kept so much within herself. Racism was rife in this country and on many levels, still is. My mother knew this only too well. To relegate First Nations people to work exclusively in the Indigenous space and not the mainstream could be construed as a passive form of racism.
This essay does not tell the story that in 1982, my sister designed and carved the Indigenous story and symbols into the official Commonwealth Games baton, now held in the Queensland Museum, which was sent to the heads of all Commonwealth nations and carried for the Commonwealth Games of that year. It does not tell of why I only knew of my Indigenous grandmother’s three brothers who were killed in Belgium in WWI, when in fact she was one of twelve children whose parents only married in Mongarlowe after all 12 children were born … at the time of the beginning of the “Stolen Generation”.
One day, I may start writing a book. Perhaps I already have …
Tor Frømyhr, Head of Strings and Senior Lecturer in Performance (Strings) at the ANU School of Music, has toured extensively nationally and internationally over many years with chamber ensembles including Rialannah String Quartet, Australian Contemporary Music Ensemble, Queensland Piano Trio, Ensemble I, Australian Chamber Orchestra, Melbourne Chamber Orchestra and Alpha Centauri Ensemble. He has performed as soloist, conductor and concertmaster with a number of Australian orchestras and in festivals throughout Australia, Scandinavia, USA, Germany, France, UK and Italy. Performances have included many world and Australian premieres including works of Larry Sitsky, Peter Sculthorpe, Henryk Górecki, Leanne Bear, Andrew Ford, Pēteris Vasks, Michael Smetanin, Colin Brumby, Richard Mills, Steve Reich et.al. Important orchestral positions include Associate Concertmaster of the Queensland Symphony Orchestra, Principal Viola of the Queensland Philharmonic and Canberra Symphony and 12 years as Concertmaster of the Canberra Symphony. As one of Australia’s leading pedagogues, his extensive teaching experience has included Faculty of Saarburg International Summer School in Germany, the Tasmanian Conservatorium, Melbourne University, University of Queensland and the Queensland Conservatorium.