Noongar Elder revisits the land of his Avon Valley ancestors
By Sara Wlazlowski
ELVIS MOODY (right) is a local Yued Ballardong Elder raised in Toodyay.
He and I are walking along the Bilya walk trail from Toodyay to Redbank Pool, about one-and-a-half kilometres south of the town.
Redbank Pool is of great significance to Elvis.
He recalls stories from his mother who, with her tribe, used to walk to the pool daily from their camp at Boyagerring Brook to fish, dive for turtles, hunt for eggs, and catch ducks.
Elvis picks a stem of grass and makes a whistle out of it.
“This is what we used to call the ducks in,” he says, blowing it to make a duck-like quack.
I try it and make a rude raspberry sound.
“This must be secret blackfella business,” I say.Read more
A few metres along the trail, Elvis points to a spot on the opposite side of the river – Goomalling side, he says – where his mother and father used to camp.
“Matthew and Cyndy were babies, I wasn’t born yet,” he says.
“Woodartjis (little hairy men or spirit people) were calling to Cyndy, and Mum said she saw her crawling out of the tent.
“Mum grabbed Cyndy by the leg and pulled her back in.”
Elvis’ mother, Frances, was born in 1930.
Her grandfather James Gillespie, buried at Toodyay Cemetery, was of part Scottish ancestry.
James milked cows for Ted Hayes and lived to be 109.
In his later years James lived in a cottage which has since fallen down and is sadly now just a pile of rubble opposite the turn-off to the Toodyay District High School.
Frances, who now lives in Northam, was born in the era of Auber Octavius Neville, WA’s Chief Protector of Aborigines, or as he is still referred today by Aboriginal people, ‘Neville the Devil’.
During Neville’s reign of terror, from 1915 to 1945, any light-skinned Aboriginal child was at risk of being forcibly removed from their parents, placed in a distant mission, and forced to abandon their traditional language and culture.
As part of the children’s ‘education’ girls were trained to be domestic servants and the boys to be farm workers.
WA’s south-west missions were at Roelands, Moore River, Mogumber and New Norcia, 90km north of Toodyay.
Conditions were pitiful and the corporal punishment severe.
Children removed from their families were sometimes chained to their beds by the neck, strapped to beds and whipped, or made to hold bricks and whipped or deprived of food if they dropped them.
A plaque at New Norcia’s Benedictine Monastery apologises “for the physical, emotional and sexual abuse suffered in this place”.
Frances was light-skinned and risked being taken, so her father – also named James – kept the family safe by “keeping moving”, always one step ahead of Neville the Devil.
James junior had a horse and cart and was an itinerant worker.
“Grandfather worked everywhere, picking potatoes in Harvey, and other farm work,” Elvis remembers.
James junior took his family “all around” through Julimar Forest, Bindoon and Bullsbrook, and then through Guilford.
His daughter Frances was born under a tree near Narrogin on the way to the country of her mother’s people, the Wadendi from the Busselton region.
Elvis’s father Eric, a Yued man, was not as lucky as Frances.
He spent time as a child in the harsh New Norcia mission under the strict ‘care’ of the Benedictine monks.
Elvis’s paternal grandfather, also Eric, spent time in jail for staging protests to have his children released from the mission.
Eric junior was a woodcutter who cleared land for farmers and later worked for the Toodyay tannin factory.
He and Frances met near the Roelands Native Mission Farm at a time when Aboriginal families feared the oppressive regime of Neville the Devil and mission punishment for being ‘Aboriginal’.
Elvis’s parents tried to fit themselves and their children into ‘white’ society.
He attended Toodyay Convent, as did Frances, played football for Toodyay Football Club and attended dances at the town hall where he remembers being a very popular dance partner with the white ladies.
Elvis still loves dancing – it is part of his traditional culture – and he recalls big groups of Noongar men gathering in Northam to dance The Stomp, a 1960s dance craze that was banned by some shire councils.
Elvis was born in 1958 when Aboriginal people weren’t counted as part of the Australian population.
Those in WA were barred from voting in state or federal elections and most were paid only minimum wages, if any at all.
It was not until the nation’s historic 1967 referendum that Aboriginal people gained the same citizenship rights as other Australians.
Elvis’s father, Eric Moody junior, was the first Aboriginal person in Toodyay to buy his own home, in Goddard Street.
Elvis’s relationship with the Avon River as he grew up was more a practical one, spearing cobbler from the riverbank for food, diving for turtles, digging up jilgies from the riverbank and scooping up fresh water for drinking.
The river was also a refuge and a playground.
Elvis says he has always felt a special connection to it and was devastated when the Avon was bulldozed in the 1950s and ’60s as part of the ‘River Training Scheme” to prevent flooding, which he says ruined it.
When I ask Elvis about the Waugul or Rainbow Snake, he says he didn’t really learn about the Dreamtime Spirit until he was an adult.
Elvis married a Koori woman, Narrelle (dec.) from Narromine near Dubbo in NSW.
The couple and their six children spent many years working at Coolgardie’s Christian Aboriginal Parent Directed School.
Elvis and Narrelle were house parents and one of Elvis’s duties was to drive the students back to their remote communities at school holiday time.
He learned about Aboriginal lore, culture and Dreamtime stories from spending time with full-blood tribal men in remote communities.
In recent years, Elvis’s family in Northam has been involved with the establishment of that town’s Bilya Koort Boodja Cultural Centre next to the Avon River and a revival of local Noongar language.
Elvis is a bowel cancer survivor and has returned to his hometown of Toodyay to settle down.
He spends his time walking the river, carving emu eggs, painting fantastic art, making didgeridoos and tapping sticks, and illustrating children’s storybooks.
He makes frequent trips to Coolgardie, where his work is exhibited for sale at Judumul Art Centre, to yarn with full-blood Aboriginal people.
WA’s Protector of Aborigines – Neville the Devil – had a vision for the future of full-blood Aboriginal people.
Like many others of that era until the 1950s he believed they would die out from lack of food, as their traditional food sources were being denied to them.
The idea was “half-castes” would “assimilate” into white society and Australians would eventually forget that Aboriginal people ever existed.
But the world’s oldest living culture has defied the odds and survived as a proud nation with its own distinct languages, art, beliefs, traditions and identity.
This includes beliefs in ancient spirits such as the Waugul that created our natural waterways in the Dreamtime and which welcomes all of us to our country.
Elvis says “Kiya Wanju, Bilya Koort Boodja – welcome to the country of my ancestors, the river, the land, the heart”.
His book Where Wild Emus Roam is available at the Shire of Toodyay Visitor Centre in Piesse Street.