|Interviewer: Robin Hughes
Recorded: November 16, 1995
This is a transcript of the complete original interview conducted for the Australian Biography project. Each transcript page covers one videotape (approximately 35 minutes). There is also QuickTime video of the full interview available. To play the video, click on the icon in the right hand column. In addition, each question in the transcript is linked to the video. Clicking on a question will play the video from that point. (Help with this feature.) Optionally, you can download the video file for offline viewing (approx. 10MB).
The interview has been left it in its original state so that you can get a sense of how the conversation developed. The repetition of some questions, or a question followed by another question, is often due to the end of a particular tape or some other interruption, and has been indicated at the appropriate place in the text. There has been minimal tidying up of the text so that the flavour of the encounter has been kept.
What did Uncle Ernie, the wuyun gali, tell you about the Dreaming?
Well, he told me that we were totemic people and I ... when the first settlers came here they never understood that Aboriginal people, we had our own Gods and that, you know, our own spirituality and stuff like that. But they classed us as heathens and vermin, you know, they thought we were Godless. But our Dreaming, in white man's concept of religion, you've got that God created heaven and the earth, and he worked for six days and rested on the seventh and that all life formed, evolved from Adam and Eve, or from the sea, you know? Well, in our religious beliefs, it was before creation time, when the earth was flat and the great spirit forces moved over the land giving it its physical form, creating the mountains and valleys, the rivers and streams and everything in it that is. The animals, birds, fish and insects, and setting down the laws and rules for Aboriginal people, the world's oldest surviving people, to live by. This is our Dreaming, and it's as valid as any religion — Catholic, Protestant, Methodist, you know. That's our version. And this is what Uncle Ernie was teaching me, you know.
And the bush animals, where did they fit in?
The bush animals he taught you about?
Well, we were animals, birds, fish and insects, before we became human beings. That's our Aboriginal spirits out there. You know? That's where we come from. And when I die, I'll become a willy wagtail, or my tribal name which is ginibi, I'm a big old bird, you see. Ginibi is black swan, and that's my tribal name, so either one of them, I have a choice of what I'll come back as, okay? 'Cause we believe in reincarnation and we are reincarnated as our totems, you know?
If I say to you, what's your name? how do you answer?
My name is Ruby Langford Ginibi, but proper name, Ginibi. My Auntie gave me that name when I ... in Lismore when I was doing a lecture for International Women's Day, and I said to her, ‘Auntie, please pick me a good name, a tribal name, I want a tribal name.’ And she said, ‘I will, niece,’ and in front of all these people that had come to hear us talk, me and Pam, she calls out halfway through my lecture, ‘Niece, I got a good tribal name for you. It's Ginibi,’ she said. Then my sisters, they talked to me when they fly over and I bust out crying in front of all these people. Hard to give me my tribal name while I'm in the middle of a lecture! Oh, dear. I thought it was beautiful, isn’t it?
You're writing a book about your son, Nobby. Tell me about him.
The only sore point in my life has ever been that my son has never been free of the brutal jail system and police brutality in this country. Through wrongful conviction when he was only 17-and-a-half years of age. The charge was firing at the police to escape lawful apprehension, and attempted murder, although nobody was murdered or maimed. But my son did six years jail for that, you know? And whilst there, there was a breakout and he was amongst the breakout. There was about seven of them. One prisoner went along and opened up all the cells and they all run, tied bedheads and jumped a 30-foot wall, Long Bay Jail, and my son was the last one to be caught. After three weeks on the run. And this was all happened when he was only ... when he was still a kid, teenager.
While he was on the run did he come to see you?
Yes. I wrote about it in Don't Take Your Love to Town. He was only there quick and gone. But, he always did say that he'd want me to write his life story. And with the way things are, with Aboriginal people, you know, we're not quite two percent of the total population of Australia, yet we're the most incarcerated people in Her Majesty's jails in this country. There are 6,430 Aboriginal men, women and juveniles incarcerated in this state alone, New South Wales, and I get these statistics from Pam who works in the prison system, you see? She's a teacher, an art teacher in the jails. So it's all true, you know? But I wanted to write his story and so I thought, what better way with the 19 years of incarceration he's done, on and off, which stems from that wrongful conviction way back then. My son's not a bad, evil man. He's done some stupid things and been easily led and stuff like that, but we're all human, but nobody's been murdered or maimed, and his continual fight to just get justice, you know? And Aboriginal people don't have justice. How can we be the most bad, evil people in the whole of this now multicultural Australia when we're not quite two percent, as I said, of a total population which now stands at 18 million? You know?
We don't have any justice because Aboriginal people always had to conform to the laws of the invading powers of our country, because we were never allowed to be ourselves. We had assimilation forced on us, had to give away language, identity and become like white people. And even today, governments do not classify urban Aboriginal people with a degree of Abo ... caste of, you know, caste in us, like half-caste, quarter-caste, you can't say that today. You're either Aboriginal or white, but years ago it used to be you were half-caste, quarter-caste, full-blood, three-quarter-caste, one-eighth-octoroon, you know? This is how they defined us. But even today the governments of Australia define us, urban Kooris of mixed blood, as not real Aboriginals. The only real Aboriginals here according to them are the traditional tribal ones out in the desert sitting on a rock with a spear in his hand. You see, this is how they've always defined us, but we define ourselves as the children of the Indigenous people, you know, the ancestors of the Indigenous people, and we're sick of other people telling us who we are.
And where we come from, and forever having us under a microscope because every time they dig a bigger hole we've been here longer, type thing, you know? And I say to students, when I'm lecturing sometimes, you know, ‘The last carbon dating of Aboriginal people on this continent was not 50,000, it was 60,000 to 100,000 years ago. And compare that with 207 years of European migration to this country, there's no comparison, you know?’ And I thought, to write my son's life story, I will incorporate Aboriginal deaths in custody in his life's story because there has been nothing written from our side of the fence, you know? About our people being the most incarcerated. And nobody seems to give a damn, you know? It's the biggest shame.
As mother and adopted mother to a lot of boys who've got into trouble, you've often had to protect them and hide them when they've run from the police?
Tell me some of those stories.
Well, my adopted son, Allan, was in Maitland in jail. No, not Maitland, Cessnock Jail, and he used to write letters and that to me, you know, and this is how I came to meet Patrick, the other adopted son, who gave me the money to buy the car so Nob could take me on research, you see? They were in the football teams up there and they went jogging and they never pulled up until they hit my house in Green Valley and I never knew, for about a month afterwards, that they had escaped. I just thought that, naturally, that they'd been discharged from prison and let out, you know? And I could've been ... I could've been pinched or put in jail for harbouring them myself, you know? Because come there and raided my house and I was away at Dianne's at the time and they took them from there back to jail again. I didn't know that they'd been jogging and they ended up down home ... [laughs] ... Aw, true, some things I've had to do. Once there was a young kid out there run past my back door, and he said, ‘Mrs Langford, can you hide me, the police are after me,’ and I hid him up in my manhole. And my washing machine was right underneath it, you know, and next minute the police come past and they called out, ‘Did you see a young fella running past here?’ I said, ‘Yes, he went that way,’ you know? And here he was up here in manhole. Aw, but it's a terrible thing to have to do, but it makes you so sad you've got do something to help them, you know?
Well, you see, quite a lot of women would say what you should've done, for their own good, was to turn them into the police, but you wouldn't do that. Could you tell me why?
Well, I guess it's from what's happened to my son, you know. And I mean, our people are still being brutalised in the brutal jail system in this country and nobody gives a damn, you know. With the Royal Commission that they had into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody there were recommendations on 99 deaths that they did hold at that commission, and there were ... 339 recommendations of change and not one of them have been implemented as yet. And, you see, with the research that I've been doing, I feel that not only the police and prison officers, the whole judiciary and the lawyers and everything, need to know about Aboriginal dispossession and how it has left us, so then they will perhaps be a bit more understanding of where we're coming from, you see. They see an Aboriginal person drunk and staggering down the street, they say, ‘Oh, they're all like that.’ This is the stereotypes that we've had to live with. They never look or think or the reason why our people like they are. Why they drink. It's hopelessness, you know. We don't have a voice, we don't have any human rights in this country of ours. Why, there are some Aboriginal communities that don't have fresh drinking water and our people are dying of curable diseases and are the most incarcerated people in Her bloody Majesty's prisons, you know? Big shame, Australia. That's what I say. Big shame. And it's disgusting.
What hope do you have?
I have hope that we'll ... Aboriginal people will get the recognition that we are the first people of this land, the Indigenous people, and input. We want to have input with everything else that goes on in this country. Why are we forever being excluded from white social enclaves? We have always been locked out. We've always been like that proverbial ... what was the bird on the biscuit tin. On the outside looking in. And never allowed to, you know? And this year we've got Paul Keating saying that there's going to be, with the new social justice change, three seats for Aboriginal people in parliament. Why the hell didn't they put Aboriginal people in parliament years ago? We don't have a voice there because we still have a white minister speaking on our behalf. We have ATSIC [Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission], which is Aboriginal commissioners from all over the country, nationwide. Their chairperson is Lois O'Donoghue and if they make decisions about funding for this and that, it's always got to be taken back to the white minister and that is still governmental control and that is not self-determination for my people. There's still governmental control, which they have always had. And I mean, for instance, Maori people have been sharing parliament with the Pakeha for over a hundred years. They had a treaty and it was not honoured, that's why they're still fighting. See all the horrible fighting going on about land rights over there? We have never had a treaty.
Aboriginal people have never seceded this country to no foreign power, it was cultural theft, you know? And in fact, we are forever being blamed for what they have done to us. That's why we are like we are. There has to be acknowledgment of Aboriginal people as the Indigenous people of this country and there needs to be change in the constitution which states that, too. Because when the referendum in '67 ... giving us the rights to vote and be real people because before that it was terra nullius, you see, and nobody here, which is a damn lie. The other great lie was that Cook discovered this place. It was the Portuguese, the Dutch, the French, the Germans, that came long before he came and graced our shores, but they came and they went. They never came to dispossess my people of their land or their Dreaming. And this is truth. We've been lied to enough, you know. And this country's been lied to enough and I feel that people want to live and migrate into this country, they must know the real history of this country, and that's from the black perspective, a Koori perspective, you know.
At the individual level, with somebody like Nobby, your son, what's your hope for him as a person now at this moment in jail. What do you think will save him?
Well, his art is the only thing that saved him. Because, as I said before when I spoke about him, that being a child and growing up and me being the only black connection he's got to his culture, and never ever meeting a tribal person ever. And for him to paint and do the ... he's found his true spirit, he's found his identity, you know? And he doesn't need anything else. He's got his art, his creativity, and he's a very good human being. To meet him, you wouldn't think that this man has given 19 years of his life to that brutal penal system that still exists here, you know, in this country with my people. You wouldn't think he's the same person. He's, he's the biggest clown, fighting, wrestling, going with the kids, stirring all the grandkids up and then running and leaving and getting them to chase him. You know. Can you imagine what it was like with me? I won a fellowship to take him home to write his life story and just me and him in a car travelling, going back to Bundjalung country, me and him, and I used to sneak sideways glances at him to see if he was really there in the car 'cause I haven't been in a car with that son of mine since he was damn eight years of age. And he's a 40-year-old man, you know? So that story is, you'll pardon the expression, I'm going to knock them on their bums with it. Yeah. Because I don't hold anything back with what I'm writing, you know? And that's the only sore point in my life, is that he's never been able to live free of that police brutality that still exists in this country with the jailings of our people, you know?
Do you ever regret leaving Bundjalung country?
I'm sorry that I ever left home. I should have stayed home. I wouldn't have had all these dramas, would I? To contend with. And still contending with, I might add ... [laughs] ... I'll have to have a good lie down when I finish all of this ... [laughs] ... I told you I got no sleep last night. This was just like bringing back all the hurts again, and it was like reliving the deaths of my kids. It was like reliving that terrible life. People must think that I'm quite an idiot to be laughing it off, you know, after going through such trauma, but the laughter is the only thing that's kept me going. Because without it, I surely damn well cry. You know? But as I said, my story is not only mine. There's a lot of other black mothers out there too with kids, I'm only one.
You learned to laugh to get through the hard times ... it seems also that when you were younger you were too ready to feel ashamed of yourself ...
Could you talk about that? About how that sense of shame was put into you?
Well, it was ... it was shame ... well, it was a shameful thing to be an unmarried mother. In those days they really looked on you as a tart, you know? Like you were a low-life, you know? And that's what made me feel ashamed.
Were you made to feel ashamed of being Aborigine?
Yes, yes. As I said, I know what it's like from both sides of the fence because I lived with two white and two black men, and I had children to all of them. So in other words, like both sides of the fence. Yes, I know what it's like to be refused entry to places where only white people can go. And with the way I was brought up, I didn't think this was fair because with all this talk, my father used to stand us girls up before we were going out anywhere and he'd say, ‘I've got to look at youse to see if youse is dressed right.’ This was when we lived in Great Buckingham Street when we was only teenagers, you know, make sure everything's all right. We got so much going against us that we have to dress and prove that we're upfront the same as everybody else. That stuck to me all my life. I might get around here without my shoes on, perhaps not even my false teeth in my head, but when you guys come I got to dress up properly, eh? Put the war paint on. Be upfront. This is where it comes from. He passed on a lot of great knowledge, you know?
When did you learn to stop feeling ashamed of yourself?
Oh, when I get with my kids, I think to myself, when we're all together, they call me ... I talk a lot. When we're all together I shut my mouth and just let 'em go. Because I wouldn't trade places with the Queen of England for what I got in my backyard. You know. She could never have as much fun than what I can have with my children alone and this ... they're always there for me, you know? Their fathers might be gone, their own ways in life and doing what they want to do, but I've still got my children's love and respect and that means more to me than any mad love affair, you know?
You've had quite a few honours heaped on you, haven't you?
I tell you, I'm a bit intimidated by honours. I'm just me, and a bit wary of things like that.
I don't know, it's a bit intimidating. I don't like accolades, I'm just plain old Rube, you know?
Do you feel you might have to pay for them?
Well, let's put it this way, I don't know whether it's a logical way of thinking, but I went through life once with a happy state of mind and everything in my garden was lovely, and bang, bang, bang, my kids are gone, my world fell to pieces. And I'm frightened. I'm frightened of getting so high and happy that it's sure there's got to be something else to come and knock me on my bum again. That's what life's taught me, not to be sure of anything. Live for today. And that's it.
How do you keep the laughter going?
It's my sense of humour. I got a good constitution, I guess, but I like to laugh and I like people. I don't reckon it's love that makes the world go 'round because there isn't enough of it. I think it's just people like you and me. ‘People who need people,’ as the song says, ‘are the luckiest people.’ That's my way of thinking.
Is it the Aboriginal way?
Yeah. We hac the most democratic form of government before white men ever come and stuck their noses into our affairs. We had family clans, all one people, no kings or queens, that's only white men's concept. We had Elders, the lawgivers, you buggered up in tribal society, you were either banished ... I mean, not for a couple days ... go, for good. If you broke the marriage vows, you got stood about in the flat there and they threw spears at you until you were dead. Gone. There's justice. Aboriginal man was a social father to all the children of the clan, and Aboriginal woman was a social mother to all the children of the clan. And the Elders and the children were the most loved of our society. The Elders always got the choicest cut of some meat, and the children were spoilt. They settled their disputes in their own ways, you know? If two men had a dispute, they'd throw a spear or something and when blood was drawn, it was quashed, finished, you know?
You don't think from your point of view now that it would have been a bit harsh to spear someone for breaking a marriage vow?
What could be more harsher than what I've gone through in life, you know? There's time I wished I would've been dead and gone, too, but you just fight back up and get up and go. Ah, the will to win and not to let anything beat me, and I had that instilled in me from when I was a child, you know? Yeah, go back to then.
What date were you born?
I was born on Shame Day. We called it Shame Day, 26th of January, 1934, Australia Day. We called it Shame Day. I call it Shame Day. This was the day we were dispossessed of our land. And our Dreaming. When we were invaded and nothing's been the same since. But we're good adaptors, we've had to be. But we've always had to be the ones to conform to other people's standards, laws, rules, because we were never allowed to be our damn selves, you know?
What are some of the accolades that you've been given?
A human rights award for that first damn book, Don't Take Your Love to Town. Take me places I've never been, and then some. And human rights ... the only reason why I took that award was, I thought, ‘Boy, they're opening up doors for my people to come in.’ Because there were four Aboriginal awards given on that night, and it was the 10th of December, 1988. And I was thinking, you know, we really don't have no human rights in this country. However there are some Aboriginal communities that don't have no fresh drinking water and stuff like that. We really don't. But I thought, I'll go and take it, and I said to my kids, I threatened them, actually, I said, ‘Don't dare come with jeans and thongs on, dress up, dress up, the Governor-General'll be there and all this mob, you know. We got to be upfront.’ So my girls came in stiletto and high heels and stockings, the whole lot, and they looked gorgeous, you know?
And there were four awards being given, two for Aboriginal newspapers and the other two was Kevin Gilbert and then me, and Kevin Gilbert was getting his award just before me. They called out his name and he stood up and said, ‘I wouldn't feel good about taking this award, because there was bits and baubles and stuff like that was given to my people to dispossess us of our land and our Dreaming. I don't want it.’ And sat down. Left the Governor-General with his mouth wide open ... [laughs] ... And I whispered to my kids, I said, ‘Gee I could go out in favour with him,’ and they said, ‘Mum don't you dare, we got dolled up and everything to come and see you get this award.’ And so I thought, ‘No, I'll take the award because they were opening up doors for us to come in, and you'll be accepted into their communities and their enclaves and whatever,’ and I soon found they can slam the door just as quick in your face, as well as open it, so it's just a token gesture for me.
How did you find out that?
How did you find that out personally?
That they could slam the door?
Well, I've had the door slammed in my face lots of times, you know? I mean, I was the first Aboriginal author invited into the Ministry of Arts. To judge the writing. And there's Aboriginal authors that have been writing for longer, and look, Jack Davis, about 55 years, I don't know, it's nearly 40 years, Kevin Gilbert, 30-something, I think, and Mudrooroo nearly 40, easy. Why didn't they ask some of them to go in and judge? And I said to them, this sounded a bit tokenistic to me, why haven't my people been invited into your white social enclave before, and they said, no, no, no, we want to right that great wrong. And I said, yeah, yeah, you know, and the next year, this is 1993, The Year of Indigenous People [The International Year for the World’s Indigenous People], that this happened. [In] 1994 there was not [an] Aboriginal author on that panel, so it was a tokenistic gesture, you see. They're screaming out for reconciliation with Aboriginal people and they're cutting us off at the legs at every turn we take, you know? So how are we going to be one nation when we're so divided, and split apart and torn asunder — how? How do we go about fixing this up? I don't know. It's not for want of trying on our part, I know. I'm sick of banging my head up against a brick wall all the time.
With some of your ... with some areas now, Aborigines do have their own arrangements and their own services, like medical services and dental services. Does that work well for you?
Well that's hard-earned. Plus they've done those things for themselves against great odds, you know, to establish these places like the medical services and such like that. This building is owned by Aboriginal Hostels Limited, but it's leased by the Aboriginal Medical Service and yes, they train Aboriginals in at the medical service. They have a portable there where they're instructed under a doctor and a nursing sister and they do a 12-month course which gives them a second year nurse's certificate, which they can go into mainstream nursing or whatever, or back to their communities and take that expertise back there, you see. We need our people to get the expertise and take it back to the communities to lift the communities up, you know what I mean? Yeah.
Tell me about your relationship with your mother?
My mum, yeah. My mum's name was Evelyn May Sue Ellen, she told me that my hair used to be auburn and ginger like hers when she was a young woman. She was a very beautiful woman, my mum. But as I said, we never got to know her until we were teenagers and brought down here to the city. The other two girls, Gwen and Rita, never forgave her for leaving them, but they were only little children, you know? And it had a lasting effect on them, having no mother. But I loved her.
Did you ever get to talk to her?
Oh, yes. When I was writing Don't Take Your Love to Town, I used to go and shanghai her. She had Parkinson's Disease, you know, and she was a big solid woman, bigger than me, she was taller, and she shrunk up to a little old lady with white hair, and I used to go and pick her up and bring her into Henderson Road where I used to live when I was finishing off the book, and I'd prop her up in my bed, brought her cups of tea and I said, ‘Mum, I'd like to talk to you about you and dad's marriage and where you were married because I know nothing about you fellas,’ you know, and blah, blah. And so she started to talk. And her voice with the Parkinson's was very soft and that, you know? And she told me about how her and dad were married on the mission, and it was Mrs English [sp?], the manageress, who made the wedding cake, and she walking across the common, and the common was, as I said, the shortcut into town from the mission, where water laid heavily after, heaps of water, you know? And she's coming along carrying the wedding cake and she went down in one of the holes of the water like this and she's holding the wedding cake up there and I couldn't help busting out laughing, I said, ‘What? She wet the ... the cake got wet in the water?’ She said, ‘No, no, she was wet but the cake wasn't. She was holding it up’ ... [laughs] ... And I asked her who was best man, and she did say the name, I can't remember now, but the wedding went on and everything. And I found out later on, not from mum because she never told me this, and from one of the Cowans, Uncle Jackie Cowan, he said, ‘Oh, I remember your father and mother getting married in that little church on the mission there,’ he said. ‘You was about six months old,’ he said. Yeah ... and I'm all ears for this, you know? And he said, ‘Your mum and dad was getting married and they were having the words said over 'em, and all of a sudden you start crying up the back of the church, and you were crying and making such a racket your mum had to stop the ceremony, come back, and give you a suck of titty and shut you up and go back to finish the marriage,’ And I burst out laughing ... to live that down, I shouldn't even be telling you that ... [laughs] ...
[end of interview]