History in black and white

Title: The Mind of a Thief

Author: Patti Miller

The politics of native land title claims always seemed far too complicated for me to try to understand, but this memoir is a simple, clear explanation, wrapped up in a gentle, engaging and quite page-turning story of searching for identity.

Miller comes from Wellington, near Dubbo… "As a child, I didn't know I was growing up on Wiradjuri land."

She discovers the first post-Mabo land claim was made in the Wellington Valley. Suspecting ancestral connections through her own family line to the Wiradjuri, she's drawn back to the area to collect aboriginal stories and find out where she belongs.

She gets more than she bargained for as she begins to explore the history of the area from the aboriginal point of view, with the complications involved in their claim exposing deep rifts within the aboriginal community. She interviews key people to get their stories, and along the way finds her own white identity entwined more deeply in the area than she imagined.

She realizes her town has a whole other story of which she was unaware, caused partly by the segregation that created a parallel reality and history for the aboriginal people. There is a moment when Miller sees a photograph that turns her childhood memories upside-down… "Their stance, their gaze, made me realise, that, for them, we were the shadows, the irrelevant white folk on the fringe of their lives."

The characters leapt off the page, and I wanted to know how the deeply divisive bureaucratic policies and the entanglements of aboriginal tribal law worked out for everyone. I gained clear insight of how traditional laws worked, why and how the culture has broken down, and why it's so important to work with the elders on these issues.

She says so much with so little… "We chattered for a few minutes about weather and crops, establishing that we were living in the same world." In the missionary's dictionary of useful Wiradjuri language sentences to learn, was this translation: "Give me that child and I will give you plenty to eat."

I learned something of ceremony and attitude to country, and understood Miller's own deep affinity for the land where she grew up. As the fourth generation of a white farming family myself, I found this exploration of where both white and black people belong in Australian country today unexpectedly moving.

Books reviewed are available at the Book Warehouse in Lismore.

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