Thursday, January 22, 2009

Mum Shirl (thanks Louise!)

I think I'm researching another person without a definite birthdate. Well, she definitely has a birthdate. I just don't know if anyone knows what it is. Lord Wiki doesn't know. The Green Left says her birthday is November 22, 1924.

That's my birthday! I'll just imagine we have the same birthday....whether it's true or not.

Mum Shirl's other name was Colleen Shirley Perry. Once she got married, she became Shirley Smith. And then at some point, she became Mum Shirl.

She was born in Cowra New South Wales. That's about four hours west of Sydney, and it's not too far from Bathurst. Mum Shirl was part of the Wiradjuri people. and she was born at the Erambie Reserve.
Lord Wiki says that the Wiradjuri were the largest Aboriginal group in New South Wales.

Their language pretty much died out by the 1980's. For the most part, this can blamed on government policies; the push to assimilate Aboriginal people. The awesome thing is people are working to actually bring the language back!

 In New South Wales, the government decided all their schools would offer classes on the language. It's open to both indigenous and non-indigenous students. I think it would be cool to learn it. This video has Head Shoulders Knees and Toes in Wiradjuri, but the didigeridoo makes it hard to hear. Here's a brief lesson, but he talks a bit too fast for me. Now this guy is awesome. He might be my new best friend. I LOVE free educational materials. I wonder if Jack would be interested in learning this with me. It would be an awesome homeschooling project.

Back to Mum Shirl....

The family moved to Sydney in the 1930's.

She had epilepsy. Lord Wiki says there was no medication for it back then. It seems from this Epilepsy website, that medications weren't really available until 1939. Wait. No. Phenobarbital was created in 1912. But I'm not sure how effective or readily available it was.

Lord Wiki says Mum Shirl couldn't read or write, but she did know sixteen Aboriginal Languages. I think that's pretty impressive.

Mum Shirl's brother went to prison and she'd visit him. She found that the other prisoners benefited from her visiting them as well. She did that; and then expanded her services to accompanying indigenous people to court. She would guide and support people who were unfamiliar with the legal system. Officials would ask who she was in relation to the prisoner. She'd say I'm his Mum. And that's how she got her nickname.

At one time, she was given unrestricted access to prisons in New South Wales. She did a lot of traveling from one side of the state to another. Then later her pass was revoked which made her prison work pretty much impossible. Who revoked her pass. And why?

Mum Shirl didn't just help prisoners. She helped children. If she couldn't find them their own parents or help them find new ones; she'd take them in herself.

Mum Shirl and some friends (including Fred Hollows) were involved with several important Aboriginal projects. They established the Aboriginal Medical Service, the Aboriginal Legal Service, the Aboriginal Black Theater, the Aboriginal Tent Embassy, the Aboriginal Children's Services, and the Aboriginal Housing Company.

She was a committed Catholic.

She didn't ignore white people. She would visit Caucasian schools and communities; try to educate them about Aborigines.

She was Aborigine of the Year in 1990. The National Trust put her on their list of Natural Treasures, and she was honored with Queen Elizabeth II's Order of Australia thing.

A few months after she was listed as a living treasure, she died. That was in April 1998.

I'm done with Lord Wiki. I shall move on to other things now.

I think first I'll return to the Green Left website.

I love what this website says. That is why it is sickening to hear some whites speak as if time of itself should erase the past, particularly when they have done nothing to ease it.

I strongly agree with that.

A few weeks ago I unlocked one of my old teenage diaries because I wanted to read about something that had caused me a lot of pain. What shocked me is within a couple of days I seemed pretty much over it. I seemed relatively happy. I seemed so strong. I sounded brave. I was impressed with my teenage self. How resilient I was! But then I realized two things.

1. I still sometimes feel the pain twenty-one years later. It still effects almost all my relationships.

2. I hadn't been expressing my true self when I had written in my diary.

I remember my childhood and teen years. There was always that push to move on, get over it, and be happy. So, what's what I tried to do. And in my diary, I played the part well. In real life, I did less well.

The incident involved a betrayal and a loss. I was never really given a chance to deal with the anger. I was never really given the chance to mourn. Time was supposed to heal my wounds. It did somewhat. I'm still a functioning member of society...although some might debate that. But I still believe I would have been better off if I had given the chance back then to be sad and angry. I would have been better off if I had been given genuine apologies and sympathy.

I often hear from people (about other incidents in my life) Why do you keep bringing that up? When are you going to get over it? I think I would have stopped bringing it up if I witnessed remorse and received an apology. But regarding these incidents, I usually either get outright denial, accusations of exaggeration, or the trivialization of what happened.

So, when people complain that Indigenous Australians, African Americans, or Jews should get over it. I say how can they get over it when so many people are not even sorry. And what happened to them is MUCH worse than what happened to me. If I can't get over my past pain without apologies, how can they?

The Green Left website says, But shame is another matter. We must in all honesty and shame admit that none of the benefits that we now enjoy were acquired except at the horrific expense of massacre and unbelievable grief and starvation, including snatching of children of Aboriginal people in the past and selfish grabbing of entitlements from Aboriginal people today.
I think people often ask why they should be sorry when they didn't personally cause the mass atrocities. Should I be sorry for the slavery of Africans in my country? Should I be sorry for what happened to the Native Americans?

I didn't personally have any slaves. I didn't steal any land....well, at least not in this lifetime. Not even my ancestors were involved. I think we've only been in this country for about three or four generations. But I live in a land that was pretty much stolen from others. I enjoy the prosperity handed down to me by earlier generations knowing that other people were not given the same chance to prosper. I enjoy more than my fair share in a world that's not fair.

Back to Mum Shirl....

 In 1980, there was a Conference of Catholic Social Workers. Mum Shirl was Catholic but not invited. Can we guess why? She and some friends got together and crashed the party. They tried speaking to the guests but they were ignored. Mum Shirl and her friends got everyone's attention by pulling table clothes off the table. That's a bit rude. But it sounds kind of fun. And it's definitely a way to get attention.

Here's the kid's ABC website again. I like these pages. I'm going to read it.

Mum Shirley had thirteen siblings. Wow. Her parents found taking care of all those children exhausting so they sent Mum Shirley to live with her grandparents. Her grandfather was probably a powerful influence. He said, You have to love yourself first, and pass it around.

One of the things Mum Shirley would do for prisoners is track down their families for them. This is very nice!

This website is from a church in Redfern. It has some information about Mum Shirley.

We're back to my birthday again. On November 22, 2000 an exhibit opened about Mum Shirley.

I'm wondering about the dates. Did Indigenous Australians have birthdays back then? I'm doubting they kept track of time in the same way we did. But maybe by the 1920's they did. Is it a matter of them not adapting the white folk's calender so they don't know specific birthdates? Or did they know their birthdays and the white folks lacked trust in them? Yeah. They say this kid was born on November 22. But what do these people know? Don't take their word for it.
The church website has a speech from Williame Deane. I guess he spoke at the opening of the exhibit. I love what the man says here: Some of you may be wondering why I am opening this Exhibition when there are many people here who are much better qualified than I to speak of Shirley C Smith - Mum Shirl. The best response I can make is that I was invited and am greatly honoured to be here. In other words, any complaints should be directed to the management. There's something sweet and humble about that.

He says later down the line, If, as I profoundly believe, the ultimate test of our decency and our worth as a democratic community is how we treat the most disadvantaged and vulnerable of our people, Mum Shirl made an absolutely extraordinary contribution towards helping us pass that test.
I think that's very true. You know what it reminds me of? It makes me think of that dating advice. If you want to know if your date is decent or not, worry less about how he/she treats you. Pay attention to how he or she treats the waiters and waitresses at the restaurant. Does he show respect for them? Is he patient with them? Is he understanding? Does he lose his temper if they make a mistake? Is he friendly?

Oh! You know what I think would make another great test? Stick a piece of spinach in your teeth. I think this would really give you a good idea of how good a boyfriend/girlfriend you date would be. If he doesn't say anything, he's one of those people who avoids conflict. They'll lie and keep things from you. If he acts disgusted or disappointed in you (or never calls again) you know you're dealing with a superficial asshole who can't tolerate mistakes. If he politely tells you with a twinge of humor, then you know he's a guy who's honest, helpful, and accepting.

One quote I keep seeing in reference to Mum Shirley comes from the priest Ted Kennedy. He said she comforted the afflicted and afflicted the comfortable. She worked for the Aboriginal community in two ways. She helped them the point of taking them in and giving them a home. She also worked to raise awareness of their issues in the non-indigenous communities. She was a nurturer and an advocate. I was about to say being two of those things is rare. But I don't think so. Once someone starts taking care of those in need, I think it's quite common for them to become an advocate. It would be very hard to personally witness suffering and not speak out against it.

The speaker uses several terms to describe Mum Shirley....About her generosity; her selflessness; her understanding; her outspokenness; her anger; her humanity. And her love.

All those terms have very positive associations except one. Anger. She was angry. Some people are against anger. They label it as unattractive. They label it as shameful. They label it as worthless and unproductive.

But is it? Is anger always bad?

I don't think so. I think it gets us up off our ass. It makes us take action.

Lately, I've seen a trend that I find somewhat disturbing. There's this idea of avoiding people who bring us down. It reminds me of some of the advice in that book The Secret. If you want to be happy, be around happy people and think happy thoughts. If you want to be thin, avoid fat people and think thin thoughts.

I've heard people say things like I don't need more drama in my life or I'm going to surround myself with happy and emotionally healthy people.

I don't know how many times I've seen people apologize on their blogs because they wrote that they felt sick, or they wrote that they're feeling unhappy. I'm sorry my entry sounded so pissed off yesterday. I'm sorry I've been whining so much. Then there's the very common, I shouldn't be complaining. So many people have it worse than I have it. But you know what? THOSE people are probably writing the same damn thing in their blog.

Why do we have to be like this? Why do we have to be happy all the time? Why do we worry that if we're not a barrel full of laughs, all our friends will abandon us? Maybe it's because we ARE sometimes rejected for our negative emotions. We see t-shirts that say Save the Drama for Your Mama. We see terms such as negative energy vampires. We don't want to be the drama queens. We don't want to be vampires! How sad and angry are we allowed to be until someone calls us a vampire?

I'm not discounting the fact that there are annoying drama queens. I'm not discounting the fact that there are people so negative that it's uncomfortable to be around then. We all know people we'd like to shout out. Oh! Come on! Do you ever smile? Do you ever laugh? Stop feeling sorry for yourself already. There are people who never let any light into their life. It's sad. But should we completely abandon them? Should we say you bring me down so I'm no longer coming around?

Is this what Mum Shirl did? No!

I think whenever we have a choice whether to be there for someone or desert them, we should do the old WWJD. What would Jesus do? And I don't even think you need to be a Christian to ask yourself that? For those of us who aren't Christians, we can say what would that mythical character named Jesus do?
Most of us can't be as good as Mum Shirl and Jesus. I know I can't. I'm selfish. I can handle extremely negative people....but only for a very limited period. Then I need to get away. I think that's fine. But imagine. If we all gave a little bit of attention to negative people, then maybe they'd feel less deserted. And we can still give ourselves enough space that we're not dragged into their cyclone of depressing doom.

Okay. Here's a man I'd find a hard time loving. Father Gerry Prindi-ville. He's the priest at St. Vincent's in Redfern. His predecessor was Mum Shirley's friend Ted Kennedy. When Kennedy and Mum Shirley were around the church was one that spoke out for social justice. And it provided comfort to those in need. The Catholic Hierarchy wasn't happy with Kennedy. Then Kennedy died and the Hierarchy had the opportunity to replace him.

The new priest hasn't been very respectful or mindful of the Aboriginal churchgoers and/or inhabitants of Redfern.

One day, some angry people drew a mural in the church. It featured Aboriginal totems and a quote from Pope John Paul II. Your dreaming is your own way to touching the mystery of God's spirit in you and in creation.
Father Prindi-ville was furious about the mural.

And it doesn't end there. He stormed out of a service once because he felt it was too political. He removed photographs of Mum Shirley and Ted Kennedy that were behind the alter.

Kennedy's sister says, Ted used to reach out to the Aboriginal people. These priests don't even want to meet them. They're only interested in evangelizing.
Last February, the was a ceremony led by Clover Moore to introduce new lights in Redfern and honor Mum Shirl. There was some angry confusion, because plans to revitalize Redfern included removing her commemorative bench. But then a new memorial to Mum Shirl was unveiled. Moore said, The Mum Shirl Memorial has now been restored and historical buildings and memorials along Redfern Street will be highlighted with environmentally sustainable lighting. That sounds good to me. The memorial is going to be near the gates of the park. I wonder if it's there yet. Maybe I'll look out for it.


  1. Can't beat the internet for finding free educational sources.

    Mum Shirl sounds like she was just an amazing woman through and through. So many people were helped by this woman. She was a very rare breed that the world needs more of.

    And there will always be things that are difficult to get over. I know their is benefit to getting up, dusting yourself off and jumping back on the horse but sometimes we do it to soon. I have also written things on my blog where I was really upset and trying to figure some sort of past pain out and then said later,"why did I write that?" And felt like I should apologize to my readers like you mention. But should I be apologizing? I lean toward no.

    Past traumas that are not resolved, hang around and can cause all sorts of pain and troubles in our lives. There is indeed a great deal of unresolved pain between the the Aborigines and non indigenous Australians. Things like the stolen generation can't be forgot but should not stand in the way of making a better future.

  2. Ricardo,

    I agree with you. I think we can dust ourselves off and jump back on the horse WHILE dealing with the pain. We can be angry/sad and at the same time do something productive.

    I don't think denying our pain and pasting a smile on our face helps.

  3. She's a much missed figure around my part of the woods

  4. Mistress B,

    For a second I thought you said "She's a missed figure in the woods."

    I was wondering why people in the forest missed her so much.

    And I kept picturing sad little tree nymphs and elves.

  5. hey dina,
    you will be (hopefully) very excited about this. i am reading through your blog and you have all this amazing information - and guess what, i was baptised by father ted kennedy in that church in redfern. my parents were (despite many faults) lefty social justice catholics. i haven't finished reading through all your info but father teds church has now been taken over by horrid conservative catholic priests appointed by the horrid conservative sydney archdiocese and they are destroying everything father ted had set that church up to be. he would be turning in his grave.
    alright, enough from me. just wanted to let you know that i am now paying attention! you are now officially more expert on australia than most australians.
    love michelle

  6. I had to pop in and read your blog when I saw the title.

    I had no idea that I was living the dream...

  7. Michelle,

    The Ted Kennedy thing totally makes up for you failing to be related to Missy.

    It's very disappointing about the church.

    That reminds me.... Yesterday Tim was watching the Daily Show. (Do you get that in Australia?) Anyway, they had a Bishop on. I had walked in on the middle of the program. John Stewart talked about how crowded the inauguration was. He made a joke about the Bishop saying it must have been really hard for you since you can only move diagonal. It was a cute joke. Then the bishop said something like don't forget there was also a queen on the board.

    I didn't get it and then Tim told me he's the first openly gay bishop.

    I was totally in shock. I was so confused. I really did not think Catholicism was so progressive. But then Tim told me he was Episcopalian. I don't know. I thought that was funny.

  8. Frogdancer,

    I think we're all living someone's dream.

    Well, no. That's not true.

    Some people are living other people's nightmares.

  9. hi dina :) mum shirl just seemed to have an amazing capacity for loving people and I think she was the only person every given an open acess to all prisons until it was revoked.
    an amazing lady!