ABORIGINAL ELDER, Bob Randall's story is part of the rich tapestry of Australian history. Son of a white station owner and a Thungawa Aboriginal woman, stolen from his birthplace in east Uluru, raised in Crocker Island Mission, adopted by the Iwaldja tribe in Arnhem Land - this songman is well placed to be a bridge builder between black and white. The book, Songman is not just an autobiography. It is a story about how a mixed-race man straddled between two worlds during one of the darkest periods in Australia's history. It is also about spirituality.
Tracing the identity of his mother and father is a remarkable story in itself. But in the telling of his story, one gets a window into Aboriginal family structure: that a child could have a number of 'mothers', 'fathers', 'aunties' and 'uncles', 'brothers' and 'sisters' without strict reference to biological links. For example, a mother's sisters are also a child's 'mother'. Sisters of one's wife are also regarded as 'wife' and the husband's brothers regarded as 'husband' to the wife, without having to assume that intimate relations necessarily occur. And since the culture does not recognise divorce, when one takes on a new spouse, it just means additional spousal responsibility. It makes sense. Aboriginal culture is focused on the group, not on individuals. Uncle Bob explains: "In our culture we just continue to add family members and no one is ever eliminated."
One can see not only the extensive range of the Aboriginal family network but also their close-knit relations way beyond the nuclear family. Furthermore, 'family' has a spiritual dimension. One of the things Uncle Bob learnt is when Aboriginal people make contact with the spirit world through singing, the songs indicate their relationship to the universe, that is, everything is part of the 'family system'.
Songs in Aboriginal culture, writes Uncle Bob, play a vital role in teaching their people creation story, sacred sites, dreaming tracks of ancestral beings and the path of ceremonial knowledge which is passed on by ceremonial leaders to the young. In other words, ngura (country, place, home) is central to Aboriginal people's spirituality, culture, origin and identity, and sense of belonging.
His life vocation of teaching and bridge building seems to have started with a song, "My Brown Skin Baby" dictated, according to him, by the spirit of his mother while he was travelling in a plane. This song which refers to his being stolen bore much fruit. Two films were produced stimulated by interest in the story behind the composition, one of which, My Brown Skin Baby They Take Him Away won an award at the Cannes Film Festival. Another film about identity crisis entitled The Mixed-up Man was produced by the ABC. Many songs later, the Commonwealth Government commissioned an inquiry about the stolen generation leading to a report in 1995, Bringing Them Home.
At last this Australian story is out in the open. Being confronted with the tales of 'stolen children' revealed varying perceptions. Uncle Bob mentioned that some white people saw themselves as caregivers for mixed-race children who, they argued, were 'neglected, dumped and unwanted orphans.' From an indigenous perspective, the kidnapping of mixed-raced children resulted in their uprootedness from their Aboriginal culture, untold suffering and maltreatment. The government sponsored removal of mixed-race children from their Aboriginal families stemmed from racist attitudes which left many Aboriginal children divided and confused. The so-called 'half-caste' children were made to believe they were smarter than full-blood Aboriginal children. Some mixed-race children explained their reluctance to associate with the 'full blood': 'We are coloured people, not Aborigines.' Uncle Bob's observation of the effect of this segregation reveals the Australian establishment's agenda setting: one that would have created a class, a caste, or an informal apartheid system amongst Australians. Fortunately for us, resistance from Aboriginal people such as Bob Randall ensured that such a system does not prevail.
Paradoxically, having been 'stolen' has enriched Uncle Bob's life experience. His life story is one big case study of Australia's race relations and of interactions between Christian and Aboriginal spirituality. But it is one thing to talk about spiritual values, quite another to see how these values are lived. Based on his readings in the Bible, Uncle Bob recognised that Aboriginal teachings were similar to Jesus' teachings. However, some missionaries did not practise what they preached. He saw that they had the best food and locked it up instead of sharing it the way their families would have done. They made huge profit out of the food supplies in stores sold to people in the reservation. He saw certain contradictions like punishing boys who engaged in sexual activity while they themselves (some of the married missionaries) were having affairs with Aboriginal women.
On reflection, Uncle Bob arrives at the idea of a 'Oneness of Godness'. He sees links in the teachings of Christian, Aboriginal and Tibetan Buddhist spirituality. He builds a bridge between spiritual learning and common sense. He asks himself, what is the purpose of learning? We have general knowledge, ceremonial knowledge, knowledge that you cannot talk about but only experience. What is it for? Is it for good or bad? While we struggle with understanding the complexity of diverse cultures and spiritual practice, Uncle Bob boils such questions down into something as practical as: 'will it make things better?'
If one applies this idea of 'lived spirituality', Uncle Bob observes that it was initially the Quakers' public awareness campaigns that mobilised recognition of Aboriginal people's human rights, not the other churches; that the law that required equal pay for equal work done by stockmen on cattle stations worked against Aboriginal workers instead of improving their living conditions; that direct negotiations by traditional owners with mining companies, rather than going through government, had created an opportunity for them to be partners in projects that were mutually beneficial; that some of the difficulties Aboriginal children had in schools were related to hearing and eye problems such as trachoma - health issues tied up with their living conditions - and had nothing to do with them being lazy or intellectually inferior.
I see Bob Randall's book, Songman as an attempt to tell his life story as he experienced it. He shows how events are viewed differently by white people and by Aboriginal people. He shows what actually happened as he saw it and leaves readers to judge for themselves what the motivations and attitudes were of these 'actors' that shaped our Australian story. In summary, it is a book that tries to show walytja, our connectedness with each other (the broader family system), how important kanyini (caring/responsibility) is in nourishing kurunpa, our collective spirit, how essential it is for all to understand our connection to ngura, land and our overall connectedness with Tjukurrpa which is associated with the Creation Story and the Law that governs us all.
It is a book both simple and complex for it serves multiple functions: storytelling, teaching culture, spirituality, history, politics and race relations - each of which touched the life of Uncle Bob Randall from about the mid thirties to the present.