Diana Ross

Indigenous Registered Nurse 5th May 2004.

On a river bank under a birthing tree of the Kaanju tribe of Cape York, a baby daughter was born to a tribal woman and a non indigenous male.

This child was my mother Trixie.

For the first few years of her life mum was kept hidden from the authorities (police on horseback who were employed specifically to keep checking on the aboriginal tribes and their behaviour).

Her family used crushed charcoal to blacken her fair skin and would take her to other family members whenever they knew the authorities would be in the vicinity of the tribe. They eventually caught her and her mother when she was four years of age.

Both mum and grandmother were sent to Yarrabah mission, south of Cairns. Here they were separated into two separate dormitories.

After a week or so grandmother was told her child had died and the young girl who was taking care of mum was told grandmother had died. This is how they were separated. Grandma was sent back to Cape York and mum was sent further south to Palm Island mission.

Mother grew up in a dormitory and never had the opportunity to return to her homeland or have any contact with her family. This was the era of the Protection Act where aborigines were not allowed away from the aboriginal mission where they were placed by the authorities. Mother died at 42 years of age.

Dad was a Juru man with tribal connections extending from the Burdekin river to Bowen. Mum told me they would talk to each other through the high wire fencing until they had permission from the Superintendent to marry. His family were also incarcerated on Palm Is for minor misdemeanours.

I was born on Palm Is and it was four years before we were allowed to join dad in Ingham where he had been sent to cut sugar cane for six months of each year from the age of thirteen.

This was very hard work which eventually took it’s toll, I remember his back pain and how the smaller children would walk up and down on his back as he lay on the floor. Most of dad’s wages was sent back to Palm Island to be managed by the Superintendent on behalf of the Government. This continued for many years after we joined dad in Ingham.

None of that money was ever recovered.

The separation of the family for such a long period of time was another attempt of at genocide to weaken the family structure, cause stress and health issues, but the family survived this inhuman attitude that many aboriginal people had to endure, although mum did pass away at an early age.

During my life I never heard my parents speak badly about any of the atrocities that occurred in their lives, perhaps this treatment was the normal expectations in their life. I will always remember their gentleness and love for others and wonder how could anyone treat another human being they way my parents were treated.

When the cane-cutting season was over, dad would supplement the family income by hunting for wild food and maintaining a huge vegetable garden consisting of long beans and peanuts especially for the children. I loved the long beans.

Mum insisted that we had a good education so we were sent to the Roman Catholic school where the nuns and the parish priest took us under their care. They were extremely helpful with second hand clothing, books for school and often boxes of groceries.

I was in primary school but I will never forget their kindness and guidance especially during that period of schooling when there were only a few aboriginal families in Ingham at the time and we were subjected to taunts of nigger, nigger, pull the trigger, bang, bang, bang,

When I was about ten years of age, mum took us down to the shopping centre to buy school shoes, all our other needs for school were second hand given to us by the church. At the shopping centre a police officer stopped us and spoke to mum who passed him a sheet of paper she had in her bag. He read it and allowed us to continue on our way.

After mum died, I found this document she had kept safe during her life. It was the family’s Exemption Paper giving permission to live on the mainland away from the Aboriginal Mission of Palm Is. It also stated we were not allowed to associate with other Aboriginal people.

Dad referred to this paper as the `dog tag’.

At the age of twelve I worked every Saturday morning scrubbing wooden floors and washing clothes for a wonderful old couple. They were constantly trying to fatten me with food but had very little success at the time. I continued to work on Saturdays to supplement the household income until grade twelve when I had to attend school on Saturdays.

I continued to visit this old couple for many years until they both passed away within six months of each other.

The church continued to support me through high school studies until I graduated. I still have contact with the aged parish priest who is in a nursing home in Brisbane. He often asks other past students about me whenever they visit him and when I phone him he remembers those years as our parish priest and always talks about mum and dad. I have been very fortunate to have such wonderful mentors during my life.

After graduating with extremely high passes in business studies, I applied for many positions and was guaranteed the job until I presented for the interviews and the colour of my skin was evident.

After many disappointments I applied for a position as a trainee nurse after I was informed there was a shortage of nursing staff at the local hospital.

The first six months was horrific with racism rife and deliberate demeaning acts to endure, but I persevered with the priority of family income support as my focus.

The caring aspects of my life, prior to this nursing position was a loving family and helping to take care of the baby and younger sibling.

When mum was sick my older brother and myself would take turns walking the floor most of the night with a teething baby. There was no teething gel in those days, sometimes salt was rubbed on the gums or a cloth covered wooden clothes peg was used for baby to chew on to help the teeth come through the gum.

The good Lord must have been watching over me when I was guided toward nursing with no other prospect of work in the horizon.

After the initial six months of nursing, I found enjoyment, acceptance by patients and staff and work which became a great love in my life.

Working as a nurse made me a better person, it helped me to look outside the square we often live in and gave me a better understanding of other cultures. I even learned to speak Italian in this community with many older Italians who could speak very little English, this gave the older patients a great thrill and also helped me to understand their culture and needs.

The ability to speak Italian also helped to decrease their stress levels and anxiety as there is nothing worse than the inability to communicate with others.

I transferred to the Townsville General Hospital, returning home to Ingham every time I had days off. We often worked 12 days on and 4 days off which suited me fine as I was starting to become home sick for the family.

After settling down in Townsville, I met and became good friends with another aboriginal girl Patricia, who worked as an assistant nurse at the Mater Hospital. Through this friendship I met and married my wonderful husband Ralph. His mother was also one of those children taken away from her homeland of far north Queensland and his father worked on a sugar cane farm until he died from appendicitis at forty – two years of age.

After his father’s death Ralph’s family moved to a hut on the bank of Plantation Creek because the older boys were not old enough to work the farm. The hut had dirt floor and hessian bags for walls, according to Ralph’s older brother. They lived on the bare essentials as there was no pension in those days, his mother worked cleaning pubs to feed the family.

Ralph was two when his father died and his sister was born a few weeks later.

I cannot imagine how his poor mother and the children lived and survived. Life certainly tested this family. I thought I had it hard but at least I had my mum and dad around during my childhood.

After we married I was forced to leave my job as a nurse, this was the hospital policy in those days.

During the first ten years of our marriage we had many disappointments with ten miscarriages before our son was born. Ralph was on cloud nine with our two sons Ralph and Langford and when our daughter Peta was born, our world was complete. She was daddy’s girl, the light of his life.

Mum had passed away with renal failure a few years after we were married and dad needed support with my younger brothers and sisters, so we travelled back home every weekend. Ralph would take off with dad, they both loved fishing and I would help with the washing, cleaning and ironing in preparation for the children to attend school the following week. This continued until the youngest was in high school and they could manage to take of themselves and the household.

Years later when dad retired, the family moved to Townsville. This was good for everyone as dad and my siblings were very close to Ralph, he was much more than a son-in-law and brother-in-law, he was a good mate to dad, a bungy and dadda to all members of the family. They still refer to him as dadda

During the children’s primary school period I studied first aid and became a member of St John Ambulance. The boys had started playing football and I was concerned about the risk of injury.

This was 1984, and each Saturday from 7.OOam to 5.OOpm Ralph and I would start preparing for the day, picking up little children for sport. The car would be packed with boxes of football boots, socks and shorts purchased from Lifeline as well as a large esky for drinks and ice.

We also had a first aid kit available.

Daughter would spit the dummy having to sit in the car with all these boys every Saturday.

One day on the way home from football and everyone was very tired, Ralph asked me to pull into a hotel driveway and buy him a six pack of beer to take home. The young attendant who was serving us was staring at all these children with different coloured skin and one with blonde hair and another red hair.

Every time I looked up he would look elsewhere until I finally realized what he was seeing and thinking, so I said ` No love they are not all ours, we’re just taking them home’.

I can still see these dopey-faced tired and hungry boys sitting in the back of the car. Ralph stated, `We better keep an eye on those boys or we’ll have no groceries left by the time we get home’

Sundays, Ralph and I indulged in our own sport of cricket and touch football or sometimes travelling to other towns to watch rugby league.

During the week Ralph played darts representing Townsville and NQ on many occasions and Peta played basketball so we certainly had a hectic sporting life, today I get tired remembering it.

When the children started primary school I decided to do voluntary work at the Aboriginal and Islander Health Service in Townsville. Each day I worked until one o’clock so I would be home to meet the children after school.

This continued until Peta started high school and one day she asked me if I would like to go back to nursing full time, stating that this would be alright as we now had a telephone and she could ring me when she came home from school.

Hence the restart of my working career began.

I studied dental nursing while working in the dental clinic and graduated with honours but after a few years became bored as I wanted to do more. I needed to study so I enrolled in chemistry and science at the Heatley High School studying at night. At the end of the year I sat for the QTAC exam receiving a pass and an offer from James Cook University School of Nursing.

Ralph was now retired from work and I was working full time as a health worker. I had applied for a scholarship prior to the QTAC exam and I was not confident of success with this application, so I was surprised when I received notification of the scholarship grant.

The family thought I was nuts to want to put myself through all the stress of university studies at my age but they supported and encouraged me through those years of hard work.

Ralph would often come down stairs, where I would be still studying l or 2 am, a few mornings a week. He gave me so much support while his own health was slowly deteriorating, always keeping his health problem to himself.

At James Cook I teamed up with a couple of students in my age bracket, we studied together and supported each other. There were no semester breaks for us it was all work and no play for three long years. Two of us survived and still remain good friends continually supporting each other.

During those years I received a great deal of support from the School of Nursing Staff. They gave me advice with assignments, study technique, tutoring when needed and moral support. This will stay in my memory for the rest of my life, unless I develop Alzheimer’s before I depart this world.

Unfortunately the staff could not protect me from the racism and xenophobia I would encounter during those years and later in the workforce.

Racism is still alive and well today, very little has changed over the last 200yrs. Unfortunately, the colour of your skin still dictates your level of education and ability according to many small minds even in indigenous organisations where non indigenous managers have a great deal of control.

My wonderful husband lost his battle with leukaemia six years after I graduated but I know that the love we shared, his spirit and guidance will be with me for the rest of my life.

Eighteen months prior to his death he found his father’s grave in Ayr, he had been searching for his dad’s grave for many years, without success so when he eventually found it, he made me promise that I would put him in with his dad.

He said he also wanted me with him when my time came and remarked `What about my daughter and sons? I replied `Dad, how big do you think that hole is, we can’t all fit in there’. He smiled and we both started laughing.

I will keep my promise to him and the children will be near by.

Today I continue to work for St John Ambulance as the Nursing Officer and have received the award of Sister of St John Australia, presented at Government House by the Governor on behalf of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth.

I am also on the Qld Nursing Council Tribunal, work part time as clinical nurse at the Townsville Aboriginal and Islander Health Service and Part time at James Cook University as a Student Support Officer for indigenous nursing students. I want to see these students succeed for their own future and the survival of our people.

I will always remember the pain and suffering my parents and other family members endured in the past. These memories will always be a very sad part of my life but I will continue working in the health area and do whatever is necessary to help our people gain some dignity, self esteem, equality and some hope for the future.

My life has been so full and wonderful, filled with love and care. Mum and Dad, other members of my family, Ralph and his family, who would ask for anything more. They have always been there for me. The many wonderful friends and acquaintances are unbelievable. I may not be rich in monetary values but I have more than money can buy.

Diana Ross.

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