Man with a mission
Alec Ross - House Parent at
Wangkana Kari Aboriginal Hostel
tells of his early years
I was born at Barrow Creek in 1936, but
I grew up in Sydney. I'm of Scottish descent, my father's three quarters
Scots. I work at Wangkana Kari Aboriginal Hostel as a house parent.
I was living at Neutral Junction with my mother when I was a baby and
in those days they had a ruling that if you fathered a half-caste child,
you weren't allowed to be a father to it or stay with the child. My
father was classed as a white man, he looked white but he wasn't a white
man. Then they took me away because my mother had me in the camp. The
reason they gave my father for taking me away was that it was the law
and that my father couldn't do anything about it.
Because my father was classed as a white man, he couldn't have an Aboriginal
partner and so the child would therefore be taken away. They wanted
us to grow up like a 'normal' white person I suppose and give us a better
education and a better living.
While he was there my father actually took care of me but he had to
go to Adelaide with R.M. Williams, the clothes manufacturer. They were
good mates so he went to business in Adelaide with R.M. Williams and
he said he couldn't look after me, he left me with my mother and so
the authorities came about a week later and took me away.
We all went to the Bungalow, the old Telegraph Station in Alice Springs,
actually I think it was the Cullen Compound first and then moved to
Alice. They kept us there for about two or three weeks, I'm not to sure
and I was probably three or three and a half or something.
They then split us up into religious groups, Methodist, Catholic, Church
of England and so on and they moved us south. They said, "You go
with them and you go with them," and I ended up in a place called
Croker Island in 1941.
The Japs started bombing there in '42 so they had to move us in a hurry
- they couldn't find a place in Sydney, but they did eventually find
somewhere at a place called Otford, about an hour outside of Sydney.
We stayed there until the War was over. I remember all the Jap's subs
coming in and getting knocked out in the Harbour and that sort of thing.
I remember the Japs flying over us at Croker and before we had to leave
and then when they bombed Darwin.
We had to walk practically all the way from a place called Barklay Bay
on the Arnhem Land coast right over to Pine Creek through the bush.
It would have been two or three hundred miles and there were about eighty
kids and three or four missionaries. We had two old trucks, an old Chevrolet
truck and a couple of horses and that's how we travelled through crocodile
We went right through the Arnhem Gully across to Pine Creek and when
we got there we met up with the Army. We put on an impromptu concert
for them, I was one of the ten green bottles. I fell over and cut my
lip on the stage!
But it was really good, the way we walked there, with the missionaries,
four or five of them - you know, they put a lot towards us. One of the
ladies stayed with us until everybody split up.
After we got to Pine Creek, they put us in cattle trucks that had been
used the day before for cattle, they hadn't been cleaned out and we
had to go all the way to Alice Springs in them!
Once we got to Alice we linked up with the army, I think we got the
train from there, I don't remember how far they took us but I remember
going in convoys of trucks - I don't know how far though.
We used to line up to eat with them, these army blokes and we'd have
our favourite men because they'd look after us.
I can remember this one chap used to always grab me, "Where's Alec?
Come on." He'd grab me and give me whatever I wanted, made sure
I got a feed. Then we got on the train at Alice and went to Adelaide
and then to Melbourne and from Melbourne to Sydney. They took us there
because they actually found a place out of Sydney for us to live, so
we stayed there until the War ended.
After the War we went back to the Croker Island on the Arnhem Land coast.
But as we grew older, they thought we were too old for the mission and
they kicked us out - told us to go - and then you'd move to Darwin or
wherever you wanted to go, you were on your own then.
I went straight back to Sydney. I didn't bother staying in Darwin like
most of the other kids, I took off to Sydney. I thought there were better
opportunities so I stayed there and actually took up boxing before I
went back into the workforce.
On the Island they had taught us everything - gardening, fencing, anything
that was there you had to try and learn to do. I think in my case it
was very good thing because I look back at my family now and see them,
the way they're living and my half brothers and sisters. All the black
fella side, my mother's side, I mean they're not the same, they've got
no work, they're just living out in the bush and coming in when they
want to. They're on the dole and they can't get a job. But I've been
working ever since I was ready to work and it was very seldom that I
got on the dole queue.
My mother died a couple of years after I met her. I met here for the
first time when I was forty-two and the sad thing about it was that
I didn't know her and she didn't know me. She would always come to me
and say, "I'm looking for my pikininy son".
She could speak very little English and she used to say to me, "his
name's Alec and he went to Sydney." She knew I went to Sydney.
It's only in her case, where I had to leave my mother, that I'm angry
about what happened because she actually suffered more than me. I grew
up a little baby thinking that all these people were my mothers and
brothers and sisters. Ninety-eight or one hundred of us actually grew
up as brothers and sisters. Mrs Schmidt is one of them - she grew up
with me and we're just like brother and sister.
The truth is that I only felt sad for my mother. There was no bond of
any type there because we just didn't know each other. I always knew
my father because he always wrote to me. I always knew he was there
but he never mentioned my mum, he always just said, "Oh, mother
wants to see you" and he was already married to another woman by
Maybe some people are inclined to be angry and maybe they're looking
for money or some compensation from the government and that's the big
problem. Some of them did suffer more than I did because a lot of the
older kids probably knew their parents better than me, I didn't. Being
so young, I was taken away and I hadn't known my parents, so therefore
it didn't matter to me. All these kids who were running with me in the
same age group would be like brothers and sisters.
The mission got you to believe that if anything went wrong, you'd just
go to them. I found that out when I went to Darwin, I had seven pounds
in my pocket, that was all I had. I got to Darwin and spent that in
five minutes and I was looking for a place to stay and I had nowhere
to go, I didn't know what to do. They never really taught me that once
you're out there, you're on your own.
All they did was teach me religion but they taught me how to work really
hard which is the main thing.
And so eventually I married a little European girl from Brisbane and
it was very hard for us in those day because everybody looked at us
and we hated it. They'd say, "Oh you're married to a black man,"
- that sort of thing. You could hear it and you could just feel it.
I really think she was so strong and good to be with me all that time.
She died in 1994, in Brisbane where she came from. I mean Brisbane is
a really bad place for black people, it is very bad there. On holidays
I went there just to show them, you know that I'm not frightened and
that sort of stuff. I mean a lot of people were great to us but you
got that odd few that looked at you.
I can remember once walking in Sydney, I love kids, and I saw this woman
dragging this kiddy along and the kid's only two and a half to three
years old. I was strolling along with my little bloke, he was about
the same age and we're were wandering up the street, he's running up
to every shop and looking at things. And this woman was dragging her
kid and yelling, "Hurry up!"
"Excuse me ma'am," I said, "Your child is so small, his
steps are this big and yours are that big and you're half running. He
cannot keep up with you.
"That's why he's crying, don't hit him."
And of course she turns around and says, "Ya black so-and-so, mind
ya own business!".
That was one of my pet hates. They thought I was a black so-and-so and
therefore, "you wouldn't know how to look after children."
My wife stood up to a lot because in those days mixed marriages were
a big no-no, it was very bad. She and I were together for a long, long
time and she only died in 1994 and even though we were separated at
the time, we were still good friends. We'd still visit each other and
see the kids and we just sort of parted quietly.
The truth is, I haven't had a bad life. I've had a really good life,
I loved my early years. Truly I didn't want to leave the island when
I was told to go, it was so good - even though some days were tough
and hard. I think the first week that we were there it rained, it dropped
about 25 inches of rain on the island and we had nowhere to stay. The
house that we were all stuck in had a dirt floor, it was a mission house
but they hadn't finished building it .
The water was about three feet deep and we were floating around on mattresses!
Those sort of times were hard but I mean if we were back at the camps
with our natural parents, we probably would have copped the same thing
if it had rained.
I did see people get flogged and I did see people get punished but when
you look at these things you say, alright they did do wrong and they
had to get punished, but not as cruel as they did. I got the cane and
just thought, well it's punishment.
I had the job of looking after around a hundred flowers and I didn't
water them on the Saturday and I got a hiding for it! Well, that was
my fault, I should have watered them. The missionary came to me and
we were scared stiff of him, you know! But I thought to myself later
when I realised, I thought, I did do the wrong thing and of course I
needed that. I mean, today if you lock someone up and all the do-gooders
are racing around saying you shouldn't do this and you shouldn't that,
but they come out five minutes later and do the same thing!
So I think in those days with the tough stuff, it was better. It was
good for me and for other people. I'm sure most people would go my way,
a lot of them are very crooked on the missionaries but the missionaries
only tried to do good for us. When you look at it, the truth is that
they were there to look after us, they didn't go there to make money,
they made no money, there was no money about. They gave their life to
helping us, so the people must understand that and a lot of the kids
aren't doing that. They're not kids anymore but they're talking as though
these people went out there to just punish them and flog them. I think
it's wrong, they should look at the picture right through, it's too
one-sided a lot of it. They're saying the missionaries did this and
the missionaries did that.
If they hadn't taken me I wouldn't be able to read and I love books.
You read now about these Catholic priests, that they were doing all
this other stuff. Well, I can't remember anyone doing it in our place
but I mean maybe it was too close knit because there were ninety-odd
kids and seven missionaries on the island. I never saw anything like
that go on, maybe I was too little at the time or even too young to
think about those things and they could have been doing something. But
as far as I know, nothing like that happened.
About Wangkana-Kari Hostel
This Hostel is for students only and we
have others that are for transit people coming in and out of town, others
for mothers and sick people and we've got all sorts of hostels. This
one is for High School students only and when I came here is was already
running, people were already doing it. I was just lucky enough to become
a house parent because I'd always wanted to be one, I love children.
I started here nearly five years ago now.
This is our day - I'll get up at 6:30, one of us has to get up early,
we're on different shifts, there's four house parents. We've got a manager
and second in charge who is manager's wife and Chris and I. My day starts
off in the kitchen, I usually get everything ready for the cook and
I go and unlock all the doors and gates and make sure all the vehicles
outside are ready to go. Then at 7:00 I wake the kids and make sure
they have a shower and get dressed for school and that all their school
books are ready. Then at 7:30 breakfast is ready, they come in and have
breakfast and we get them cut lunches and we try and teach them the
basics of life, you know like any normal person should do.
We just took home 29, we had them here all the school term then at the
end of the 10 week term they get holidays and then we'll take them back
to their community, we have to pick them up and drop them off. This
hostel was originally built for bush students only, community people
who live way out in the bush and we shouldn't have town children here,
but we do have some or they wouldn't go to school otherwise, so we try
and fit in three or four of them as well. At one time we can fit 35
kids in here, that would be a full house. This hostel is part of the
Aboriginal Hostels Ltd, we've got them all over the country, in every
state. It's just a hostel for bush students and the kids range from
12 to 18 years and they come from communities like Epenarra, Canteen
Creek, Murray Downs and Ali Curung. We also picked one up from my place,
Neutral Junction. My father owned Neutral Junction when I was little.
We try to educate our kids on the basics of life really. Most of the
girls are very good and some of the boys are, but they try to get away
from it, don't want to do this and don't want to do that. We just try
and instill in them that they're normal and that they should live like