Twisted Tales

Yesterday I went to a workshop on traditional basket making run by two local aboriginal women, Melissa and Sandra Aitken.  The traditional techniques the women shared were handed down to them by their auntie, Connie Hart.   You can read her story here

At the workshop I attended a small group of women and men gathered round a pile of native spear grass.   Spear grass is indigenous to this part of Australia.   Traditionally it is a plant only aboriginal women could to touch so the men in the workshop made their baskets out of rafia.

Image result for native spear grass Portland Australia  photo –

After we learnt how to split the grass we were shown how to weave it together with a variation of the sewing stitch known as blanket stitch in English.   Once you get the hang of the technique the weaving is very relaxing.   The grass is tough but pliable and can be easily twisted to form baskets.

DSC_0012 My first attempt at basket weaving

The workshop was on National Sorry Day, a day remembering and commemorating the  government policy where aboriginal children were forcibly removed from their families and sent to mission schools.   This practice continued until the 1960s.

Next week is Reconciliation Week where we collectively attempt to work together to heal the damage done to the aboriginal people since white settlement.   It could be argued that this damage affects the entire population of Australia and even the land itself for this hidden history is an unhealed wound on our collective psyche.

As we made our baskets talk drifted towards these matters.   Recently the Guardian newspaper published an online map showing massacre sites across Australia here  Looking at the map I was horrified to discover the area I live in is thick with massacre site.   One of the aboriginal men at the workshop told me this is because this area has such good farming land.   In places where the land is rougher there are less sites.


The conversation then shifted to a topic that was on the mind of one of the aboriginal women.   Apparently land clearances (the euphemism for the forced removal of aboriginal people from their traditional land) were still going on in the 1950s.   After WW2 the government set up scheme where returning soldiers were given farm land.   To get the land they forcibly removed the traditional owners.   Many of these farms later failed because the land the soldiers was given was marginal and wasn’t suitable for intensive farming.    These days a lot of this land has become a salt pan because the native vegetation was removed and the traditional methods of land management were ignored.


One thing that was really troubling the woman was the fact that even though aboriginal men had been recruited to fight in the war they were not considered citizens and had no rights.   It wasn’t until 1967 that aboriginal people were granted citizenship!

The telling of this story somehow cleared the air in the room.   It seemed all the woman wanted was to be heard.   Once she had said what she needed to say and was acknowledged we all settled into a companionable silence where we worked on our baskets.   When people did speak it was in gentle, soft conversational tones.

The atmosphere in the room was very non-judgmental and non-competitive. I got the instructions muddled up when I’d started my basket and Melissa had carefully demonstrated how to do it correctly.   Once I got going she let me get on with it.   I noticed that whenever anyone ran into difficulties Melissa and Sandra quietly helped them get back on track.

Working alongside this group of unassuming, quiet people was very relaxing.

Slowly, slowly, in simple and unaffected ways, we sit together to weave new stories of reconciliation and healing.  

2018-05-26 15.09.26 – an example of Melissa’s work.  She screenprinted the cloth beneath the weaving with images of her weaving.



19 thoughts on “Twisted Tales

  1. You convey the feeling of the day wonderfully, and weave our appalling history of dispossession and murder into your basket weaving. This companionable day says a lot about the kind of connections we need to make. Thank you for the link to the Guardian map. Is your basket the natural colours of the grass? What a beautiful green. And had the grass been soaked before you used it?


    1. With this kind of basket the soaking happens after you make it. I think it will eventually dry to a soft brown even though it’s green now. Isn’t that Guardian map disturbing!


      1. We usually stop to pay tribute at the site of the Myall Creek massacre when we’re driving north; and Mark McKenna has written a fairly local history, as well as his gruelling “From the edge” both of which tell horror stories of the casual way massacres were undertaken. A dark, dark history we’ve got, and the map featured in the Guardian pulls it all together.


  2. Pingback: Twisted – Ancient Wall Tiles | What's (in) the Picture?

  3. What a very wonderful way to spend the day. Weaving baskets and relieving the pain of past events. The events of soldier settlement and land clearance of indigenous people echoes events in Kenya after both world wars wherein land was made available for incomer European service men and women and not for Africans who had also served, despite being promised land after WW2. The settlers often knew little of farming, and nothing of farming in tropical conditions. The local population of course were not considered citizens until independence in 1963. I wonder if your discovery about the massacre sites has a bearing on your past sense of disquiet?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. How fascinating to read that the soldier settlement plan was a model that was used in Africa too. It must have developed out the colonial mindset of the British. Perhaps it was a directive issued from the highest levels of Westminster.
      Interesting too that the same model of denying indigenous peoples citizens was used as a way of disempowering them. There are many places of Earth that have damaged by these policies. I completely agree that a lot of disquiet I feel in certain places is to do with the violent events that occurred there. The land holds memories as you would know from your experiences in Shropshire as well as your African experiences.
      Thanks very much for your thoughtful comment. It has extended my understanding of these issues.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. The soldier settler scheme in East Africa was definitely ordered from on high. One objective was to get rid of returning military after the war, men who were coming back to the UK without jobs to go to. But another reason was have settlers of the officer class who could ‘civilise’ and discipline ‘the natives’ into British ways, and basically know how to organise things in the event of any uprising. The third reason was to get chaps growing exportable cash crops to pay for the very expensive Uganda Railway, built for daft military reasons at the end of the C19th. We British knew how to get stuff done!

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Wow. The history is just so tangled and twisted. I watched a TV show last night about an aboriginal singer who made it in the white world by singing like Nelson Eddy in the 1950s. There was a lot of news footage from those times in the show. The commentators kept referring to the aboriginal people as being child like and needing the guidance of wise white men. It was very hard to watch.
        I’m not sure the disciplining was always benign over here in Oz. The woman I spoke to at the basket weaving told me massacres sometimes occurred to clear land for the settlers. Yesterday my daughter told me that the last recorded massacre happened in Western Australia in the late 1960s! Quite possibly to free up land for a vast dam that was built then so that farmers could irrigate rice crops.
        As you say, the British mentality was really focused on getting stuff done!

        Liked by 1 person

      3. The problem now for the world is that we’re having to face the wretched consequences of this arrogant behaviour wherever it was practised. In fact it goes on and on – the policy of ‘regime change’ being its current extreme expression – a term that slips by the minds of most of us despite the hell created in Iraq and Libya. The horrifying aspect of the despicable way that the indigenous Australians were (are) treated is that the perpetrators thought they COULD treat fellow humans like this; that it was ALL all right.

        Liked by 1 person

      4. Yes, I agree with all that. All these old attitudes of one group of people being superior to another have to change. It’s appalling what still goes on. The Australian government still perpetuates these attitudes in the way they treat refugees arriving from the Middle East and Asia in leaky boats. It’s criminal yet they have convinced the majority of Australians it’s the right thing to do. Sovereign borders and all that!

        Liked by 1 person

I love hearing what you think

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s