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Living traditions

Michele Gierck |  05 January 2009

Living traditions

Betty Pike has chosen to share the wisdom she's gained in her life in a unique way.

Listening to a personal human story can take us into the world of another. Such is the case with Elizabeth (Betty) Pike, a woman whose life has been marked by a long and arduous search for identity and a sense of belonging.

Growing up in Australia, not knowing her Aboriginal roots, Betty, who is now in her senior years, is able to reflect back on her journey and to allow readers to share that journey with her, not only through telling her own story, but through the book she has recently written, A River Dreaming.

A River Dreaming, tells the story of the platypus who becomes an outcast. 'It's about loss and the need to belong', the author explains. This is something Betty has come to understand deeply in the course of her own life.

It is not unusual for an interview to begin with facts like date and place of birth, family and career details. But Betty stresses two things at the outset. First of all, her story is not unique- many Aboriginal people have similar tales-and now, having discovered and embraced her Aboriginal heritage, how integral that is to her identity.

'My story like all things begins in the Dreaming', she explains, emphasising that the Spirit of the Dreaming is not just something in the past, but 'it exists eternally in the now'.

Betty, who works part-time at the Aboriginal Catholic Ministry in Melbourne, has a strong sense of the presence of Spirit in daily life, and she also believes that 'our yearning for the divine is of vital importance to all cultures'.

Recalling her own life, she begins: 'It was in my early teens that I first discovered my Aboriginal and Celtic heritage. This knowledge had been hidden because of the social stigma and trauma that occurred if one was thought to have any connection to Aboriginal people. There were strong penalties due to the draconian laws in Western Australia.

'I knew that I was different because of the torment I endured at school, being called insulting names. But I didn't understand why. These taunts continued into adolescence, when people asked me what nationality I was. This became a lifelong stumbling block. It affected my self-esteem, confidence and a deep sense of not belonging. I was wondering who I was.

'I decided to go to the Registrar of Births and Deaths and discovered that my great-grandmother was an Aboriginal woman living with an Irish ex-convict who had been sentenced in Liverpool for 10 years in the Albany Penal colony in 1863. One of their children became my grandmother, who I knew and saw as a dark gentle lady who I liked very much. She had nine children and my mother was one of them.'

Coming from a broken home, and finding herself without a home to go to at 16 years of age, Betty put her age up-something which was not altogether uncommon in those days- and joined the Air Force. After World War 11, she was living in Melbourne, but being on her own felt 'deep depression and loneliness'.

Sensing her unhappiness, a friend from work took Betty under her wing. That friend even took her to pay a visit to St Francis' Church on Holy Thursday. From the moment Betty entered that church, she loved it. Betty soon became a Catholic. 'Finally I belonged somewhere.'

Life then picked up. Betty went to dances, and that's where she met her husband.

'After the death of my husband, and my five children were married, I was led back to study at the Koorie unit at Deakin University, obtaining a Bachelor of Arts degree.'

She realised that 'a tribe's mythology is its living religion, whose loss is always a moral catastrophe'. She also felt there was a common psyche in all humanity, 'in which we yearn for the divine. This is the Creator's imprint left in us.' To put it in contemporary terms, Betty calls it the Creator's DNA. And she believes that it is at the heart of all cultures.

'I believe there is a process in which the Spirit uses a new experience to become incorporated into a person, an object, a ritual or ceremony allowing it to become mythology. This establishes the fact that culture is a living tradition, one that is always in a state of becoming. There is always more to know.'

Through her journey, Betty became very attached to the myth of the Platypus. 'I envisioned much of my life story in the life of the Platypus, eventually writing a small book called, A River Dreaming.'

A River Dreaming is like a parable; simply set out, yet the meaning is profound.

Set in the Dreaming, a Duck who wanders too far is taken against her will by a Water Rat and made his wife. She eventually escapes and is embraced upon return by her family and friends, but is subsequently cast out by her Duck tribe when she gives birth to oddlooking progeny-the platypus. Duck and her children must make a home away from the tribe, knowing they are different from those around them. It is a struggle for identity, for belief in self.

At the end of the book, the author compares the story of the platypus to the plight of the many Aboriginal people. She also writes about her own life so that parallels between the parable and real life can be drawn.

Betty has this to say about the book: 'I hope you will discover it and realise there are thousands of Australians with a similar story. We are the "Nowhere People" in the history of Australia. Not stolen, but struggling to be heard as part of the unique heritage and antiquity of this country-something we should all be proud of.'

A River Dreaming is a book for all ages. The watercolour illustrations are delightful, and the story, a contribution to reconciliation, is a compelling read.


Topic tags: australianidentity, indigenousaustralians, heroesandrolemodels, women’sspirituality

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