Interview with Nicola Butler
My father, Randall Roy, is the youngest son of eight children born to Emily Ann Butler (nee Gordon) and James Henry Butler of Alice Springs in the Northern Territory. My Mother is Suzanne Butler (nee Jackson) of Port Augusta in South Australia. My Grandmother, Emily Ann and my Great Grandmother Eliza are of the Aranda Peoples of Central Australia and my Great Grandfather Toby is of the Luritja peoples from the Areyonga region.
My Great Grandmother Ivy Beatrice arrived in Australia in 1912 aboard the Steamship Indrapura when her family migrated from Bristol in England.
My familial connections are extensive throughout Australia and one thing my Father instilled in me from the day I was born is the importance of knowing and connecting to family. Because of this, I am blessed to have grown up knowing all of my immediate family and many of my extended connections as well.
I grew up in South Australia and we led a very transient existence in my younger years and in hind sight I am extremely grateful for this. I have three siblings, two brothers and one sister, with a considerable age gap between us. I am the eldest daughter and my sister is thirteen years my junior.
My mother Sue and her sister Judy, both married Aboriginal men and so my extended Aboriginal family emanates from my mother’s side as well.
Could you imagine a family reunion with all of the descendants present, to be a fly on the wall with a recorder, pen and paper!
What can you tell me about your early life and upbringing?
My mind holds experiences filed in neat cabinets right from when I was six months of age. My mother and father had a car accident just out from Port Wakefield at an intersection where a school bus failed to give way. My mother, left with extensive injuries was forced to remain recovering in hospital for months on end. During this time I lived with my great grandmother Ivy Beatrice Jackson and my great grandfather Albert Ley Jackson. Albert was very sick and passed away when I was small. He used to call me into his room with a little brass bell covered in black enamel decorated with gold etching on the outside. I would sit on the bed with him and he would give me those lollies, the ones with the sugar all over them – jelly rings I think they were called, from an old lolly pot with a plaid lid and a gold button handle in the centre. I still have the bell and it has an old piece of string wrapped around a bolt as the ringing mechanism. My great grandfather passed away in 1977 but for many years it felt to me as if it was much later, my memories of him remain clear to this day, it wasn’t until I was attending another funeral in Port Augusta in my 20’s that I realised just how young I was when he passed. My great grandmother Ivy is also gone now but she continued to play a very important role in my life right up into my early 30’s.
Primary school was a fairly traumatic but enjoyable time for me. My family travelled around a lot trying to set down roots. We lived with friends and family across Adelaide when we first left Port Augusta in about 1979. I went to four primary schools in total and my memories from them vary from ballet lessons and feeling pretty special in my pink leotards and tights to walking to a park close to school, and the class sitting making daisy chains from sour sobs. We lived in a house with my parents’ old school friends, the Cammarano’s in Cini Avenue where all the houses around us were filled with tomato vines, chili’s and capsicums. I think, from memory I have lived in about 39 different dwellings in my life time.
At the next school, I remember being made an example of when I was not allowed to go to the bathroom because the teacher was really strict, I was new, shy and had to take a trip to the lost and found to find clothes to get me through the rest of the day. I spent a lot of time alone at this school, under the trees that lined the school yard playing on my own with stink bugs and beetles and so my love of entomology was born. I had a couple of good friends at this school and they lived up the road from me. Both girls were Italian and I think my love of Italian food was definitely impacted upon through my early years, I can remember the smells from our street and my friends Nona’s were always cooking, I can smell it as I write this, yummy home-made Italian cooking. They are good memories.
From here my family then moved into an Aboriginal funded house in Galway Avenue in North Plympton, just down the road from the Arnott’s Biscuit Factory. I attended Netley Primary School which was a block down the road. I walked to school surrounded by the smell of baking cookies. During my Primary School days I don’t remember being confronted by too much racism, or at least my parents did a good job of shielding me from any that did come my way. I think Adelaide was a very different place to Port Augusta in the 80’s. There was only one other Aboriginal family that I remember at my school during this time and that was the Sumner family. Whilst the stability was good and I did enjoy this time, it had its ups and downs.
My family life was different to most of the other kids at my school, my father attended Aboriginal Taskforce and studied a lot and played music all the time. Then in the early 80’s he joined the Centre for Aboriginal Studies in Music (CASM). During his time at CASM I remember waking up on a regular basis to a house full of bodies and the lounge room filled with band equipment. My mother was always cooking in these massive big pots, meals to feed all the students that would end up at our place on a regular basis. They were great years and I have many memories from this time. Wrong Side of The Road was filmed in 1982 and our place was the unofficial drop-in centre with the film crew staying with us for the duration of filming, all thirty of them!
Sue, my mother, has always been my best friend and strongest advocate growing up and I always felt loved by my family. Thinking back to these times I really remember her as such a quiet, strong and loving woman. The resilience and patience she taught me, she always took every situation in her stride, whether it was providing an impromptu meal for thirty people from an empty fridge to supporting the family through many difficult trials and tribulations.
We spent a lot of time at the Other Way Centre in town and my parents forged life-long friendships with many Aboriginal families. I also remember many shared meals at the ‘The Abode of the Friendly Toad’ a restaurant and community centre for the homeless and low income earners, where you paid only what you could afford and got a beautiful 3 course meal. This community kitchen where much of the food was donated by organisations, was based on an honour system where you wrote down what you ate and paid what you could for your meals, was a fun place to be. There were long trestle tables with old bench pews like you would find in a church, and old club lounge chairs where you could sit and play games with the kids. It was a fantastic place and I would continue to go there today if it was still in operation. There were many disappointed, and I am sure very hungry, people in the community when it closed.
What do you remember about your High School days?
Now High School was a very different kettle of fish. I had spent my entire primary school days in Adelaide having spent a small amount of time in Port Augusta at Kindergarten and Grade One. I attended Carlton Primary School briefly and I think because I was the one who moved away, my memories remain very strong and clear as I mentioned before. I started high school at Port Augusta High School in 1988, straight into a world of new people, all with whom I held no immediate history or kinship. I did recognise quite a few people from Kindergarten would you believe! They didn’t know me at first but after a while they too remembered.
It wasn’t until this move that I really had any inkling that I was different, in Adelaide I really just slipped under the racial radar at school. The impact of the Stolen Generation was there right from day one, even though I didn’t know what that was or why it existed at the time. I felt as though I had no place, I was too white for the Aboriginal kids and would find out soon enough that I was most definitely too black for the white kids. I felt very isolated and alone during this time, and my real friendships were forged mainly with my teachers who later became mentors and friends throughout my life.
I grew up as a people pleaser, I tried to please everyone and would do anything that anyone wanted me to do and then some, all the while allowing people to walk all over me and treat me pretty poorly. I was tormented and ridiculed the entire way through high school. I attached myself to the ‘cool’ kids who seemed to tolerate me because they needed someone to be the butt of their jokes and to entertain themselves. I was given nicknames such as ‘Bucky’ and ‘Horse’ and a few more I don’t care to mention, because I had terrible protruding teeth caused by years of sucking my thumb as a child and you know, those names became the norm for me. No matter how much I hated them and felt degraded every time they called me names, I never said anything, just cried myself to sleep sometimes. Many people would remember me talking though my hand, held up over my face to cover my teeth because I felt so self-conscious about it.
I remember being hit over the head with a piece of wood coming out from the underpass onto Braddock Oval and having a glass bottle thrown at me around the same time. Many of the kids back in Year 8 whom had originally befriended me would come to school and tell me all sorts of horrible stories about my family and my father, some told me they could not remain friends with me because their parents had told them that my dad was black. Being a shy, young and insecure teenager, I really blamed my Aboriginality for my problems, for many years I just wished my parents had adopted me or that I belonged to some other ‘normal’ family. I can’t tell you how guilt ridden I felt for many years for having thoughts like these.
My love of learning and education took away some of the heartache of the school yard, I had a passion for Art, English and Tech Studies, along with Biology and Social Science. One teacher, Ms Connie Caruso, was a major influence in my life. She always believed in me and inspired me. Above all else she would never skirt around the issues, she would tell me exactly how things were and how I was the only person who could make a difference to my own life and where it could one day take me. I loved writing and telling a good yarn and right from the start of high school I found myself in advanced literacy classes, creative writing and leadership courses. One of my fondest memories from this time was spent visiting the old folk’s homes and recording histories for some of the old people, so it is funny how the things I hold dear to me today were present right back in the beginning.
Have you experienced much Racism throughout your life and if so in what form?
I have experienced many insidious forms of racism growing up. One thing I must say though, is that I truly believe we are never dealt any situation with which we cannot cope or find within ourselves the resources to manage and survive. So in saying that, some of the racism I experienced has come from many different levels within society.
I was sexually abused as a teenager by the older family members of a girl I attended school with and this happened at a very young age and scared the rest of my teenage years. They told all their friends I was a willing participant, I was too afraid and told nobody and so the story goes, my reputation carved stains and scars into my consciousness and subconsciousness, I felt disgusting and degraded for many years. There is a deep level of self-loathing that comes from this type of abuse. Regardless of what colour you are, our experiences are complex and the damage immeasurable, the additional difficulty in dealing with this type of abuse in small racist country towns comes from having to watch in silence as the perpetrators become white middleclass adults bringing their own children into the world, carrying on with their lives as though nothing ever happened. As victims we forge ahead and adapt through the damage and pain to continue on our life journey. So, for me, this experience added another level to my understanding of violence within humanity and increased my compassion, empathy and ability to see things through others’ eyes.
The parents of a high school boyfriend demanded that we end our relationship (I was 15, not sexually active, definitely not thinking of marriage) because they [his parents] were afraid they would get a “black throwback grandchild” should we become serious and marry. This story repeated itself often throughout my life.
On moving to Queensland in 1992, I remember being told by elders within my community not to tell anyone that I was Aboriginal and not to apply for jobs or commonwealth payments as an Aboriginal because the racism there was more than what I was used to. Funny, considering I was moving from where I still believe to be one of the most racist towns in Australia. But the warning hit home in the first week when I found myself questioned by Social Security workers about my Aboriginality and was told by an African American immigrant working behind the counter “that’s ok though, because you would never guess it, you’ll get by all right and should get a job in no time, especially if you apply for Aboriginal jobs, they will take you straight away because you look white”. I was mortified and took a mainstream job in a T-shirt shop just so I wouldn’t have to be a part of that scenario.
One of the more extreme forms of racism I have personally experienced was quite horrific, but as I mentioned earlier, I truly believe we are only dealt the things in which we can find the strength and courage to endure, so yes, I was abducted by a young white collar male whom held me captive for 6 days whilst trying to teach me about how I could purge myself of my Aboriginality and allow him in to teach me to behave like a good white supreme being such as himself. This is not the time or place to go into such details around ethnic cleansing and hate crimes, although these crimes do happen all over the world. Needless to say it was a traumatic part of my life that had far reaching implications for every member of my family and continues to influence my drive and determination for wanting to be a part of ensuring all peoples of colonised cultures around the world have the right to be free from this type of violence and oppression.
I have also witnessed the manifestations of Lateral violence and racism more times than I care to remember in my working life.
Can you tell us a bit about what motivates you and some of your work history from your earliest jobs to some more memorable ones?
Pocket money was always a good way to get me motivated, I am sure my parents would attest to that, but I also liked the idea of working, so when I was 9 I took a job in a bottle yard that one of my friend’s parents owned. I remember earning $12 from that job although I cannot remember how long I worked for that money but I began my fascination with glass and old bottles at this time. My Grandfather Jim was a hoarder and I remember having the big trucks from his transport days in our back yard as a young girl growing up in Port Augusta. It was like Christmas looking through his old stuff and he had many old bottles that he gave me along with a stamp collection and penny collection that I kept in an old beige teddy bear money box. I would sort those coins into years and stack them depending on their shine. Those bottles, coins and stamps were some of my favourite things growing up.
In regards to my working history, it reads more like a novel in its own right. I have never shied away from any opportunity, believing that there will always be something that I can add to my ‘toolkit for life’ regardless of the role. I fell in love with the art of Italian cooking (and eating) at the hands of the Cammarano and Nistico families and this love has stayed with me all of my life. I did a couple of years stint as a Property Manager on the Gold Coast, and spent a year with the animals at Currumbin Wildlife Sanctuary and also did a bit of Vet Nursing in a mature-life-crisis stint to see if I had missed my calling all those years ago. I was a mother for rent to some children left over from a family breakdown as a live in Nannie in remote South Australia, packed meat in a meat room surrounded by some of the most outrageous ocker butchers which I might add, was one of my all-time favourite roles – there is something quite special about knowing the way to cut a good piece of steak. Years in the hospitality and retail sectors saw me broke on many occasions because I just couldn’t leave food or objects on the shelf and so began my bowerbird collecting of material possessions that I really didn’t need, followed by many years working in a variety of government departments and educational facilities. I have worked in the TAFE sector, Youth Sector, Disability Services, Family Services, Health and Emergency Services to name a few.
Some of my most memorable positions gave me the opportunity to be influenced and mentored by some amazing people. In a strange twist of fate, after all of those years as a CASM child, in and out of music festivals and events and being surrounded by my father Randal’s musical influence and his fellow CASM family, I found myself working at the very place it all began – Wilto Yerlo and the Centre for Australian Indigenous Research & Studies (CAIRS). My time with Wilto Yerlo was very important in my life. It showed me a different side to the world and the way in which education can play a very influential role in the healing of our souls from the effects of colonisation.
One of my roles whist with Wilto Yerlo was as the Indigenous Tutorial Assistant Scheme (ITAS) Coordinator. This program holds a very special place in my heart because I know it is one of the only programs of this kind that has a real impact, ensuring Aboriginal and Islander people in this country can access mentoring and support that is critical in realising tertiary qualifications for many people. My current role as an Aboriginal Development Coordinator is bringing together every aspect from my life journey, providing an opportunity for me to share my knowledge and experience in the hope of creating culturally safe environments for Aboriginal and Islander workforces and in changing the way we deliver services to all Aboriginal and Islander peoples.
With the encouragement and support from Uncle Vince Coulthard and Umeewarra Aboriginal Community Radio, I enrolled in a Media Program and went to Batchelor to study in the Rum Jungle at the Batchelor Institute of Indigenous Tertiary Education (BIITE) where I was again blessed to spend time with more truly outstanding and empowering human beings such as Linda McCaffery and Tony Bowland. It was from this experience in particular that I started to record oral histories and stories again and get serious about how powerful individual accounts can be in progressing Australia’s understanding of Aboriginal issues in this country.
I don’t think it is a choice to be involved in Aboriginal affairs when you are born to it, and for myself I have been blessed with the friendship and mentorship of my father’s oldest brother William Brian Butler. In the last few years I have been working with Uncle Brian, collating our family histories, archiving our pictorial collections and putting together extensive genealogies which began during my time with Wilto Yerlo, where I enrolled in a Bachelor of Arts (Anthropology) purely to progress our family projects.
My love of Anthropology is a major part of who I am as a person and it was through this enrolment that my complex way of thinking was first explained to me as a positive thing. Until this time I had often felt misunderstood and came across as complex and too deep thinking for many people. So it was from this experience that I came to find two more very important people in my life, both lecturers and dear friends Fiona Sutherland and Simone Dennis, and it was through both of them that I was able to embrace my thinking and start to put pen to paper.
Currently I am also working on Uncle Brian’s Biography and helping him with the Decade of Lateral Love 2012 – 2022 campaign, “Lateral Love and Spirit of Care for All Humankind”, which is about sharing the true meaning of Lateral Violence as it pertains to Aboriginal and Islander Australia and how the manifestations of this type of violence are what is crippling our families and communities. So that should have the next 10 year’s worth of writing covered I think.
I am really enjoying and embracing this special once in a life time opportunity to record the life journey of William Brian Butler, soaking up as much as I can along the way, but I would have to say the best part of working alongside this wonderful man is just being near him, listening to his stories and for this I am truly blessed.
Why do you write?
I don’t see myself as a writer, especially not anything that brings with it any western titles or accolades. I never seem to finish any of the courses that I would start in my younger years and would take the information and knowledge with me on the next adventure, not placing any real value on the piece of paper at the end.
I am an Aboriginal woman who is compelled to write about things that have influenced my life. I am drawn towards people who inspire me and there are so many stories that stir that part of my soul that screams injustice for humanity.
If anything that I write in some way resonates with others, or can give encouragement to anyone else along their journey, reinforcing how others see the world, then so be it.
Ultimately I hope to share some complex issues in a not so complex way – aid the recognition of young Aboriginal and Islander people across the country, which through their very existence brings joy to the lives of others. They deserve to be acknowledged for the part they play within their families and communities. The flip side to recognition for youth is the recording and preservation of our Elders’ stories. The many traumatic and devastating experiences of many elders including the complex story telling for the Stolen Generation really must be told.
I have had the pleasure of sharing conversations and hearing the stories of some wonderful people of late, such as Jack Charles, Yvonne Hudson, Cheri Yavu Kama Harathunian, Cleonie Quayle, David Egege, Gillian Brannigan, Cindy Singho and Heather Shearer, and their stories really blow my mind. The depth and power of all of our collective realities really could heal a nation. This is why I write and what I want to see happening into the future. Every soul and every story is important to me and is worthy of telling.
Sharing these important stories and giving mainstream Australia another way to understand and connect with what it really means to be Aboriginal in a shockingly truthful and honest way, and at the same time allowing me to have contact with some of the most truly amazing human beings.
What does the future hold?
The future for me holds the promise of a healed society, of a country where all Aboriginal and Islander people can be at one with their true heritage and existence, to participate in a society free from lateral violence and racism. I truly believe this is possible. I refuse to allow anyone to dampen my passion or enthusiasm for sharing the true history of this country with anyone and everyone who is willing to listen. I am always surprised at the change that does happen when talking to people from the heart about our own experiences and those of our families and communities.
Uncle Brian has taught me that no matter what you say or do, if you believe in what you are saying and know what you believe to be true, that you should never back down and never be afraid to step outside of your comfort zone. In the end, truth, justice and healing will always prevail no matter how bumpy the road gets along the way.
Keeping this in mind I will continue to write and share stories and information until the end of my days in the hope that we can learn the things we need to learn in order to lead a meaningful existence free from lateral violence and racism. What a wonderful place that will be! I hope my son will benefit from all of the pain and suffering that has walked before him in a positive way and that he will not have to endure the negative impacts of colonisation in his adult years.