As Australians prepare to vote “yes” or “no” at next Saturday’s referendum on an Indigenous Voice to Parliament, one of my extraordinary friends, Yaegl matriarch and elder and internationally renowned Anglican Minister, Reverend Aunty Lenore Parker shares a story of love.
Reverend Aunty Lenore Parker was a nurse and educator before she become a pastor.
Lenore is an internationally renowned Yaegl elder and matriarch and ordained priest who served on the committee advising the Archbishop of Canterbury for nine years, the Anglican Consultative Council, and continues to advocate for peace and understanding.
Aunty Lenore recently invited interested friends to afternoon tea at Maclean Showground Hall, overlooking the Clarence River. Almost 100 Indigenous and non-Indigenous people turned up to hear Aunty Lenore’s stories from her childhood and discuss the Voice.
Her nephew played a didgeridoo to begin the event, then Aunty Lenore shared her faith in God as “the River of Life who unites all people through love”.
Here is a full record of what she said, shared with Aunty Lenore’s kind permission:
Aunty Lenore asked the audience to stand and “remember all our people, the ancient, the old and the new that have walked this ancient land, the old people who trod this land for so many thousands of years. We are still treading this land.”
“What is land?” she said. “It’s living. It’s pulsating. I can feel there’s a new vibration in creation, moving us and calling us forward. The Great Spirit of this Ancient Land wants us to be united, not divided.
“On behalf of all our beautiful old people who have gone before us, it’s an honour and a privilege to be able to share our stories of the past.”
Lenore spoke of the Clarence River, also known as Biirrinba, “that ancient river that never runs dry, it is running through us. It awakens us to do that new beginning, to walk together as one through life, body, mind and spirit…
“The mountains, the rivers, hills and the land, created for everyone to see, have been created in love. I want to acknowledge our people. Through their stories that they have shared with us … We are a part of the one story of this ancient land. The land unites us.”
Aunty Lenore’s story:
I am Lenore Parker, nee Randall. Lots of families lived on Ulgundahi Island.
When my mum brought me home from hospital, she said my grandfather and his daughter moved out of their tin shack so mum, dad and I could move there. My cousin told me all the kids were playing in the mud, and went to run up to give me a hug. My dad brought a bucket of water for the children to wash their hands. One by one they were allowed to give me a cuddle. My mum told me my first cradle was the top of the chest of drawers.
Mum also told me, the year I was born, a big flood came. The Government moved us from the island to Ashby, where we lived until my eighth birthday.
I remember being given an Ashby purple bike for my birthday. My two cousins got on the bike and rode it down the hill, where the Ashby sawmill is still. They went for their ride and came back home before they got into trouble.
We lived in a community of love and family. Our parents, grandparents and great grandparents watched over us. They protected and shielded us so nothing could hurt us.
When the government moved us from the island, in the Aboriginal Protection Board days, each family had a big army tent. When my family grew, dad and the others built a tin shack with mats on the dirt floor made of potato sacks. They would cut them open to put clothes in them to make quilts. Then they became the curtains, the doors, the windows and cover for us.
When we look back now over that very simple, humble beginning, we didn’t know who was rich and who was poor, because no one talked about money in those days.
In the wider community were the farmers, and our people would go and do the farm work and housework. Some of the women would walk from Ashby to some of the homes in Maclean to do domestic work. Sometimes families were kind; sometimes there was segregation and they told me that they couldn’t eat in the family home. They would have to eat outside and, afterwards, wash all their plates in a bucket outside.
As a child, I didn’t see black or white, just kindness. There was no Centrelink. Everyone who was able, had to go out and work.
Back to my eighth birthday. I had a dream of a big toadstool, or mushroom, and fairies. It was the mystery and wonder and delight of a child; a magical time for me, living over there with the aunts and uncles and grandparents.
In Aboriginal ways, my father was the youngest of the men. When his brothers and sisters had passed, it was his role to take over the father role. Dad’s sister died, so he took care of her family. Someone had to be a parental figure for them.
I started kindergarten in 1951 when I was six, and with all the other kids, would walk up from Ashby Mill to Maclean police station and there was a ferry to Maclean Public School.
My Mum wanted to find out what this school was like, because she hadn’t been allowed to go to the mainstream school. They had to go to the Aboriginal school on the island.
Seventy years ago, my Mum started going to the P and C meetings. Mum would be there, so shy. For the first time, she had left the place she called home. She walked up and said “I don’t know what to do”. Two beautiful non-Aboriginal women told her “you sit down here and have a cup of tea with us and have a chat about our kids”. Mum said she did that.
After we left Ashby in 1952, when my sister Elizabeth was born, they moved us back to the island, where the school had been partly damaged because of the floods. A few wooden homes and our galvanised tin homes were there, with a kitchen and bedroom. Outside, our families would make a toilet and laundry with a tank for our water supply.
There was a big billy goat that would frighten us kids. We’d run in screaming to one of the homes, with billy goat gruff after us.
My beautiful aunt, who was a great cook, would cook for the men as they left to go to work for the week in the canefields, where they would live in barracks. My Aunty cooked to set them up for a few days.
The men would come home, and other cane cutters from Cabbage Tree Island and Coraki. Everyone had work to do and something to bring home to their families, weekly or fortnightly.
These memories of the men coming home from a week of cane cutting, covered in black soot … Young men have no idea what work is!
Once a month the manager would bring important people to see us, like a nurse or someone else. They would give us medicines. They felt they had the right to walk into our homes and run their fingers over things to see if there was dirt; lifting up the bed clothes to see if there were clean sheets for the children to sleep in.
I didn’t realise what was going on as a child, but now as an adult, when I smell disinfectant, I remember our homes being inspected. A lot of our old people who have passed, they still carried the traumas. If they didn’t have a clean house, their children would be taken away. Their homes were spotless.
They only shared that with us when I was grown up. It was as if they were paralysed in fear, because of living under control of the manager. Our people tried to give him respect, but it wasn’t returned. We had no rights. They weren’t allowed to continue their language, their culture and ceremonies. They were stripped of their identity. You couldn’t marry who you wanted to marry. The manager felt he had the authority to choose who you could marry. Those who disagreed with him were banished from living on the island, and separated from their families.
There were five Randall boys on the island from 1917. Before that, they lived on a plot of land shared with them from the Australian Church of England, at Southgate, on a farm with my grandfather and grandmother. The earliest photograph I’ve seen of my people on the island was taken in 1904. Until 1962 we lived with restrictions that were placed on our people.
My grandfather and his second wife were married in the Grafton Anglican Cathedral, the first Aboriginal people to be married in that church. Grandfather must have been a man of great significance to have been accepted in this way.
Now I’ll talk about my school days. I loved school. Walking to school, my friends would all be waiting for me, calling “Lenore, Lenore” as I walked along the fence and I’d call “Carol, Christine”! We were excited to see each other, especially after the school holidays. Kids don’t see colour. They just see their friends.
When I started high school, we’d go by rowboat – with two women, with one paddle each, rowing the children from the island to Maclean, and home again.
I remember those days – fun memories of elderly people who showed us the way, the strength and the resilience. They would say to us … “one day there will be a time when we all will be free to come and go”.
There was always food on the table, wild duck from the swamp or another wild bird, a big pot of soup with dumplings. Families shared what they had. As our stories were shared by their parents, of what life was like on the island, our children still hold those stories which they now tell through art and dance and songs and theatre. I call Ulgundahi Island the sacred heartbeat of the Yaegl people, where we shared and lived life together as a family and as a community. It was a place of love.
My grandfathers, men of great integrity, were the disciplinarians of us all. It didn’t matter whose child you were, they could still catch you. The boys got into more trouble than the girls. With our grandmothers, these elders were seen as the leaders. There was very deep respect and love for them. They showed us how to live a life that was about caring and sharing. They showed us the rights from wrongs. They were our first teachers.
There were trailblazers, my older cousins… About 70 years ago, they left Ashby and went to Singleton Bible College, and to Burwood Bible College, leaving Ashby to go down to the big city. How scary that must have been.
They were the trailblazers for our beautiful young people, our role models for the gift of faith.
It was so great to see them when they came home to the island on holidays. We would have church together under the shade of a gum tree, sitting on a log. On my eighth birthday, I said “yes” to following God. I heard my uncle reading from the Bible, saying “for God so loved the world that whoever believes in Him will not perish but have eternal life”.
In the early 1900s, the emphasis of the church was on restrictions, but later, when we moved back from Ashby to Ulgundahi, after I was eight, the message of the church also came from beautiful lay people from the different denominations, including one of my uncles, and it wasn’t as restricting. They brought God’s love to his people.
Questions and answers
Q: Did the Yaegl people sing hymns in their own language?
Lenore: We didn’t know we were Yaegl. It was like when Jesus was stripped of his vestments to carry the cross. We were stripped of our identity, of everything our people knew. They weren’t allowed to do anything with that old knowledge, the old ceremonies. My grandfathers, even though they had restrictions on them, they still managed to show us the right way to live.
How rigid things were. In NSW, no one was allowed to speak language, not even on the way to school or with the other children who were there. All that was taken away. They lost their identity and culture. Now, today, we are learning of that ancient gift, of language, and the gift of our culture and ceremonies.
This gift of culture is so rich. DJ playing the didgeridoo… We hadn’t heard any of this. It wasn’t a part of this place. I didn’t know that there was Aboriginal spirituality. Christian faith, what was shared of God. A lot of our kids don’t go to church now, but now as an adult, since I have been working with the church and thinking about the richness of how these two ancient symbols become one.
In the year 2000, my daughter (award-winning artist Frances Belle Parker) rang me and told me of the vision she had of the rainbow serpent coming up out of the ground and the tongue forming the crucifix. How do these two ancient symbols meet? We can talk about the rainbow serpent here. Around Australia, we hear other people talking about the rainbow serpent. I was flying home and saw the river glistening; the colours of the rainbow in the river and I realised that the rainbow serpent is the great creator’s spirit, the river of life.
The river brings new life and all goodness. We all have our own faith story to tell. How often do we sit and share our views on spirituality? Young people can teach us a thing or two. I see a lot of the young don’t have the privilege that we have now as the elderly. We have had a pathway, but they are still looking for a pathway. Where can they go if we are not going to open our hearts to them and listen to the young as they share their stories?
Q: It is difficult to reconcile how much religion has taken away from your people.
Lenore: I can’t separate this great gift of life and love of our grandparents and my cousins. When they came home from Bible College, they had a voice to share with us, and it wasn’t about hatred. It was the beautiful gift of faith and their journey that is life-giving to me, that empowers me on my faith journey.
One of our cousins would bring the Reverend Gaden to us from the Anglican Church in Maclean, to see our living conditions on the island, where there were floods every year. He wanted a better space for us to live where we didn’t have to move from year to year. We loved living on the island but because of the river and floods, the families were moved to higher ground, where we would stay for around six weeks. When we stayed at the showground, we had so much fun. We didn’t have to go in that rowboat to get to school.
New homes were built for the community. Some of family went to Yamba, to Pippie Beach, and some stayed at Hillcrest in Maclean, and we were so grateful.
Q: Tell us about the Voice.
Lenore: It was always about love, not about segregation. Our old people didn’t have a voice. Because I heard their stories and lived with them through a lot of their struggles, I can share my experience … If you have no connection with an Aboriginal person, and don’t know about the Aboriginal story, you wouldn’t know why you are voting “yes” or “no”. The Australian story is a shared history of its peoples. The non-Aboriginal side has been told, but the Aboriginal story wasn’t available to the rest of the Australians as it is now. It hasn’t been acknowledged.
Q: What message would you like to share with everyone in the room?
Lenore: It’s not about the poll. I believe this is about the Great Spirit of this ancient land that is calling all our people to walk towards a better future for all our children and for everyone, Indigenous people, non-Indigenous people, and for all the peoples who come into this land as they make a new life in this country.
Two hundred and fifty Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people came together to form the Uluru Statement from the Heart. How many times would you hear of so many people from many different language and cultural groups, coming together, speaking from their heart to us!
I believe that this is a spiritual journey we are on. Any time I go to gatherings like this, I feel the vibration of the land. All creation will be joining in with this new song of love.
Q: What do we do if we can’t get the Voice up?
Lenore: I’d like to think we come together as one again and talk about the next step as a local community… Something has to happen. It’s a new beginning for this ancient land. When you hear the stories of this ancient land, we can all come together with a new song, and sing together, and glorify the Great Creator Spirit with our words.
Q: How would you help someone who doesn’t understand, or who is on the fence?
Lenore: I’d ask everyone to read the question. It’s all there. This is the Aboriginal people asking you this question. If you are Indigenous or non-Indigenous, and you don’t vote “yes” it will be okay.
There are unhealed hurts of the past. This land and her peoples are in grief because of all of the traumas of the past.
How can we bring healing and wholeness to everyone and to the land? There’s only one way. Sit and talk and go out of our comfort zone. Listen to all Australians, the old and the new.
The First Fleeters didn’t come here on their own terms. They were forced because they stole a potato or something similar. They came here with their own baggage and they had to work, together with Aboriginal people, to stay alive. The only voices to be heard were the ones who were given the power from England. There are many stories we haven’t unpacked. It’s time to hear everyone’s stories.
Q: What happens if there’s a “no” vote on Saturday?
Lenore: This is a really good beginning, a fresh beginning. You can’t stop change. Everywhere around the country, this is about local people getting together and supporting each other.
We can do it regularly, whether it’s a “no” or a “yes”. If we are doing that, it will become a “yes”. It takes time. … It’s about us getting together and doing it; not about the politicians. Around the fire, and everywhere, let’s walk together.
I will have another afternoon tea. This is a people’s movement.
One of my aunts spoke of the magpies, black and white birds, eating a little, turning one ear to one side to hear what that side is saying, eating some more, then turning the other ear to hear the other side.
A prayer of love
As an adult, I see a church with no walls. This land is God’s ancient cathedral. The only door is your heart. With love, mercy and compassion for each other, everyone is welcome.
God calls us His people, not black or white, born of the spirit, not Jew nor Gentile, walking together in the one true light.
Remember the love of the elders. We lost so much, but there’s no hatred. There’s forgiveness and love. We are regaining culture and mutual respect. Every year we have a reconciliation luncheon and share.
May we surge forward with love and forgiveness, so love will show the way, so this ancient river will join up with all the rivers, right around this ancient land, to become the sacred river. We, the people, are the river, the river of life that still flows, bringing love and respect to all.
May the god of holy dreaming lead and guide all peoples in this ancient land.
May that river truly hold each one of us in love as we leave this place and go forward in love and peace, regardless of how people are voting, because we are all Australians.
We are Australian
Aunty Lenore invited everyone to stand and sing the chorus of the Seekers’ song, I am Australian. Everyone held hands and sang, then enjoyed afternoon tea together.
Why Lenore is voting “yes”.
Lenore has also shared this statement:
On October 14th, I will cast my vote in our national referendum with a resounding YES.
My name is Lenore Parker, and I stand before you as a proud Yaegl matriarch. I am a mother, aunty, grandmother, sister, and friend to many in the Lower Clarence.
Through the stories of my Elders, grandparents, and parents, I have personally lived through the struggles and injustices experienced by my people. The first 22 years of my life were marked by the dehumanizing classification of Aboriginal people as flora and fauna, a dark period that only changed with the overwhelming support for the 1967 referendum to include Aboriginal people in the national census.
Throughout my life I have seen many national bodies established for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander issues. One by one, these have been dismantled leaving us without a united body to represent us or for us to have a say on policies affecting us.
My upbringing on Ulgundahi Island, nestled in the middle of the Clarence River, was marked by restrictions on our freedom including curfews and boundaries that dictated our movements.
The island’s mission manager, appointed under the Aborigines Protection Act 1909, controlled every aspect of our lives—where we could live, who we could marry, and even what we could eat.
Our cultural practices, including language, dance, hunting, and ceremonies, were suppressed, leading to the loss of invaluable aspects of our heritage.
When I first heard of the Uluru statement from the heart, I knew that was a gift from God. Over 250 Aboriginal people came together to present a path forward. I see in it the great creator spirit of this ancient land, beckoning all Australians to listen deeply to the wounds and traumas of the past. I see it as a recognition of 65,000 years of dreaming, a true gift from God.
I also acknowledge the wealth of stories and cultures brought by migrants and new Australians to this land. As I listen to their stories, I can see the richness of their stories and their cultures.
On October 14th, I will be voting YES.
I yearn for us to share our culture with you, to walk alongside you.
I want us to have a seat at the table, and have a say on matters that affect us.
In saying “yes” Australia will not lose 250 years of colonial rule, but instead gain 65,000 years of Aboriginal knowledge and culture.
A YES vote means two things:
Recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people as the First People of Australia.
The establishment of a voice that will guide the government on issues affecting Aboriginal people.
A NO vote, on the other hand, preserves the status quo. My people will remain voiceless. Our cultures and beliefs, the precious gifts that they are, will go unrecognised and undervalued.
Voting YES does not endanger your homes, your backyards, or your businesses. A NO vote ensures that things stay the same for us.
I implore all Australians to embrace this historic opportunity to right past wrongs, to honour our rich heritage, and to forge a more inclusive future.
On October 14th, cast your vote for justice, unity, and a brighter tomorrow. Join me in voting YES, so that together, we can build a stronger and more equitable Australia.