Roslyn Choikee’s Stolen Generation story

md22459445391For almost ten years, right-wing columnist Andrew Bolt has claimed the Stolen Generation is a myth. “Show me three of them?” was his common taunt, but it was a taunt that showed more about his ignorance and his lazy journalism than the truth. The data shows thousands of people caught up in the system over many decades, mostly so-called “half-castes” which the ill-guided theories of the time believed were best kept away from the influence of their parents. They left hundreds of testaments scattered in the record.

One of those was from Aboriginal woman Roslyn Choikee. I learned her story today in Mount Isa city library. I had been there a few times before but never noticed they had a tray of books about Indigenous issues. I picked Jonathan Richards’ The Secret War, an important book about the Queensland Native Police I’d read before and one I hadn’t read before Stuart Rintoul’s 1993 book “The Wailing – A National Black Oral History”.

It is as the title suggests, a collection of Indigenous testimony of people that lived through the 20th century. Nearly all faced hardship of some kind but some stories were less clear cut than others, such as Roslyn Choikee.  I was interested in her story because she was born in Cloncurry,  near Mount Isa, and I typed out her testimony for an article for the paper.

Yarrabah on Mission Bay in 2017. Photo: Derek Barry

Her story was simple but not straight forward. It was both terrifying – she was stolen from her parents aged six – and satisfying – because she had a happy childhood and a good life by the shores of Mission Bay, regardless. She became a happily married Christian on the coast, and never missed her home. It helped she landed in Yarrabah on Mission Bay near Cairns. Yarrabah was established as a Christian mission for Aboriginal people in 1892. Many people like Roslyn were forced to go there. But it remains a beautiful spot nestled between the sea and the mountains. Seven decades later Roslyn was still there, aged 77, when in the sunshine of a July afternoon she told her story to Rintoul on a stone veranda at the Yarrabah home for the aged. Her happiness didn’t justify an appalling system but it showed the resilience of people to adapt to whatever life throws at them.



Choikee: “I come from Cloncurry. I was taken away from my parents in 1920. I was six years old. I didn’t know what was happening when I came to Yarrabah. It was good schooling here. We used to go down to the beach and get shells. That’s how we learned to count, with shells or with seeds at that time. We had a good teacher. She was a dark girl, a big girl, a senior girl. We had senior room, intermediate room and junior room. When you came to Yarrabah, if you came big they would put you in the intermediate room and if you came small, like my age, you would go into the junior room.”

Rintoul: Do you remember what happened the day you were taken away?

“The policeman took us to the police station, me and some other girls. But the two girls who were with me there went to Cherbourg, and they’ve passed away now, those girls. They sent me here to Yarrabah. I liked Yarrabah: Yarrabah is a pretty place. I never got homesick here, because I found a lot of nice little girls the same age as my age.”

You didn’t miss your parents?

“Oh yes. Now and again I missed them, but here at Yarrabah we had too many mates. Go to school, come back, play.

“We were living on a reserve at Cloncurry – a little dark people’s reserve. That’s all right too. We used to go to Boulia to see the rodeo when I was a little girl. That’s where I saw buck-jumping. A bullock-wagon used to take us from Cloncurry to Boulia. That was a bridle track then. They say it’s a big bitumen road now.

“I won’t go back because there is nobody there now. My cousin’s son went back there two years ago to look around and there’s not one of our friends there, not one Aboriginal in the area that was there. They don’t know where they shifted them. We never heard nothing and they never heard about us.

“All the half-caste children were taken away at the time and sent to different missions. Some of them went to Barrambah (Cherbourg), Palm island, here. I was sent here to Yarrabah. My father was a white man and my mother was a dark woman, you see. They weren’t married. I didn’t know about marriage till I came to Yarrabah. They were good though. They helped them and they helped us children too. They took us to Boulia now and again. The white men used to just come around. I was too young to know what was happening when they would come around to visit us. We didn’t go to the town part at Cloncurry. We would just stay down where the Aboriginal reserve was. We had tents and humpies, no houses.

“I never heard nothing about my mother from the day I was taken away, no more. But when I came to Yarrabah I was happy here and I never thought of it anymore. I did think of my mother, but I wouldn’t go back to see if she was there or anything like that. When I came to Yarrabah we started going to school and at school we made mates, here and there, our own age. It was really good. We didn’t know how to talk much till we came here to Yarrabah. Till I came here, I didn’t know much. I didn’t know anything about the Lord. I’m a Christian now. I didn’t know nothing about it till I came to Yarrabah. That’s where we learned Christianity, at Yarrabah.

“My name was Daisy Sheridan. It was changed when I came here and was baptised. My godmother, Ciccy Thompson, gave me the name Roslyn Bell. Everyone who came here was baptised at St Alban’s Church. I knew that my name was Daisy, but that was all right. I had to change my name when I got married, to Choikee. Choikee is a traditional name of Aboriginal people around the Yarrabah area.

“The dormitory was really good. We had two matrons, Miss Ardley and Miss Newbury, when I first came. During the day we played. We never used to work much. Only we used to rake up, with our hands. We used to clean the yard, and when you grew up, coming on to full age, you did harder work. We went to school only up to grade five at that time. When we got to grade five we left school.

“Mr Dobar came up to Yarrabah one time. He was a white man who looked after the missions. He came to school and we had to stand up and spell ornithorhynchus (she spells it out) because he had left that with us to learn, and some didn’t know and some knew, and he say to them, ‘That’s a good girl’. Ornithorhynchus is a platypus. My granddaughter who goes to school in Brisbane reckons they learned that ‘ornithorhynchus’ in grade eight, but we learned that ‘ornithorhychus’ in grade five. That was the last year that we were in school.

“After grade five we worked and did fancy work. We used to sew fancy work, crochet around. Miss Hogan used to send us a big box of clothes for us to sew and do fancy work on. They got us ready to be wives. We had to learn to cook, we had to learn to wash, we had to learn to iron. Miss Hahn, the matron,  would send us back anything that had grease on it. Boys went to school in the morning, the boys would go out one road down to church and we would go another road down to church. We didn’t go together all: we didn’t see each other. If we fell in love they’d come and talk to us in the yard, with matron. We’d get engaged then. That’s how I got engaged.”

How could you fall in love if you couldn’t talk to each other?

(She laughs.) “I don’t know. We’d look at each other in church and sometimes matron would see us. Oh she’d growl, ‘You mustn’t look over there where the boys are,’ she’d say. I didn’t care for boys while we were young, until we were going into the intermediate room, going onto thirteen and fourteen.

“My husband was Robert Choikee. He was one of the boys who came up and talked to us. They used to come up from the dormitory and sit on a big seat around the mango tree. There were about nine of us all sitting around, just yarning and having a joke of our own. That was all right. We’d sit there and matron would be on the veranda sitting down and when it was time for them to go she’d blow a whistle and they’d go then. They weren’t there long. But we never met alone at any time until we got married. We weren’t allowed. We were told not to do it.

“There was a song that we would sing in the dormitory at night, ‘Oh where is my wandering boy tonight?’ That’s a Christian song. That was the Virgin Mary singing that time when Jesus was in the temple and she couldn’t find him. They wanted to go to Jerusalem but she couldn’t find him, so she sang that song and we learned it. But Miss Hahn, our matron, though we were encouraging the boys around all the time. She would sing out, ‘Are you encouraging the boys again? Do you want the boys to sneak around?’ We’d stop that and start some other song, but if we went back to something to bring the boys back again, she’d start again. ‘Stop it now, stop it now, no encouraging the boys,’ she’d say. That was a good song.”


Combo Waterhole and Waltzing Matilda

combo7Combo Waterhole is a refreshing change even in the driest times, a pleasant place to camp by a billabong and wait while your billy boils. Situated 7km south of Kynuna, between Cloncurry and Winton, there is a short trip off the bitumen of the Landsborough Highway to some interpretative signs and a walking track to the waterhole, which in the wet season is one of many channels of the Diamantina River.combo2What little water there is kept in place by stone overshots installed on Dagworth Station in the 1890s. Teams of labourers used horses, drays and baskets to cart in stone and soil laid in tightly packed rows strengthened by keystones. The water has become a haven for wildlife that thrives under the shade of its coolibah trees.combo1It’s not known if Banjo Paterson witnessed the building of these overshots when he visited Dagworth in 1895 with his fiance Sarah Riley but it was another tale of that visit that has remained strong in the Australian imagination. Paterson, then 31, practised as a solicitor, but had also started a writing career. From 1885, he began submitting and having poetry published in The Bulletin.combo3His fiance Sarah was a friend of Christina Macpherson, sister of station owner Bob Macpherson. Christina was a talented musician and while there Paterson heard her play on her zither a “catchy, whimsical, haunting tune that deserves words to keep it alive”. Christina was playing the Scottish tune called Bonnie Wood O’ Craigielea. She heard it at the races in Victoria that year and the catchy tune stuck in her head. Now Paterson set about composing words to Australianise the song combining two local legends for the purpose.combo5One day he and Bob Macpherson and Banjo stopped at the Combo Waterhole where they found the remains of a recently slaughtered sheep killed by a swagman. The incident reminded Macpherson that a year earlier Dagworth had been through a bitter shearers’ strike (one of many in the 1890s). As Macpherson planned to start shearing with non-union labour, unionists used the cover of nightfall and gunfire to set the woolshed alight, killing around 140 sheep. When police investigated the suicide of Samuel “French” Hoffmeister who shot himself at the strikers’ camp a day later, they found a burned letter which linked him with the woolshed fire.combo6The second legend was of a trooper pursuing a man who had killed an Aboriginal youth, who stumbled on a swagman who thought the trooper was looking for him because he’d killed a sheep for food. The swagman tried to escape but drowned in a waterhole. The name for Paterson’s new ditty came to him when he and Macpherson found a swagman on the road and Macpherson said “that’s what they call waltzing matilda”.combo5


The song was first performed at the North Gregory Hotel in Winton. It was an instant success that soon swept across Australia, becoming the favourite song of Australian troops fighting in the 1915 Gallipoli Campaign. The song became associated with Winton and its tourist centre (now being rebuilt after fire) is named the Waltzing Matilda Centre.  But the song was born at Combo Waterhole, 160km further to the north.


To Adelaide in search of Puya Chilensis

Though I could see the Adelaide Oval and the city of Adelaide from my window as my plane came in to land on Thursday morning, I could still scarcely believe this was where I was heading. Or the fact that I, not particularly known for an interest in botany or even green fingers, was here to see a plant. puya1Yet that was the plan in a quick 24 hour shuttle from Brisbane with a 6am flight down and the same time back the following morning. I tried to remember when I was last in this city, around 1993 or 1994. After I moved from Melbourne to Brisbane in 1998, Adelaide was always just a little bit too far away and I lacked a good excuse to go there – until this week.puya2My ultimate destination was the Adelaide Botanic Gardens but I got off the airport bus for a walk to admire the solidity of the many stone buildings. I had arranged to meet an internet friend for coffee on North Terrace. I was pleased with the choice because not only were the Gardens nearby, so were the Museum, Art Gallery and State Library, all of which I hoped to visit later in the day.  We had a lovely chat IRL and I stayed a lot longer at the cafe than I anticipated.puya3In conversation I described what I was here to see: a Chilean bromeliad called puya chilensis, currently in flower at the Adelaide Botanic Gardens. I first heard of it in 2013. The Royal Horticultural Society had put out a media release for its Wisley garden in Surrey to advertise its three-metre-tall puya chilensis which had burst into superb flowering for the first time in 15 years. That was newsworthy but what really attracted the BBC, HuffPo and other international media was the description of a very peculiar quality of the plant: it ate sheep. As the BBC said “In the Andes it uses its sharp spines to snare and trap sheep and other animals, which slowly starve to death.”puya4This was taking plant behaviour to a whole new level. As the headline in the Gizmodo story said this was “why you should find this plant absolutely terrifying.” Terrifying indeed, if true. I don’t know a great deal about botany, but I do know a bit about media and know they would be so desperate to believe puya chilensis could eat sheep they would likely not check whether it was true. A few days later, I published my findings on my blog as Puya Chilensis: Media fooled by “sheep-eating plant” (perhaps appropriate the rebuttal of a sheep-eating plant should be on a blog called Woolly Days). While I was pleased with my efforts, I had no idea how much impact it would have and thought no more of it. To my surprise, it was picked up by many plant and Reddit forums always used as the clinching argument against the fact it ate sheep. It was my most popular blog post of 2013 and topped my list again in 2014 and 2015. It remains my most ever blog post ever by a considerable margin. Every time puya chilensis came in flower somewhere in the world, someone would mention sheep eating and someone else would point out my story saying it was untrue.puya5All this was in my mind as I saw the unmistakable plant for the first time, four years later. It was a special moment. Having acquired an accidental reputation as an expert, I resolved that if the plant ever flowered in Australia I would go and see it. The chance arose a couple of weeks ago when Botanic Gardens SA put out a tweet. It read “Our ‘sheep-eating’ #Puya chilensis are flowering at #Adelaide Botanic Garden! We’ll post a blog on their ghastly reputation next week”. I didn’t see that tweet but I saw a reply from @GardenOpus which did the usual thing: “Always enjoy reading yarns about this one,” GardenOpus said, “but stories about its sheep eating habits have been mostly debunked”. They linked to my 2013 article. I laughed when I saw this but then realised I would be on holidays in Brisbane at that time. Adelaide was not out of the question. The $700 return air fare price wasn’t cheap but not dissimilar to prices I pay to get to Mount Isa. puya6I asked the Botanic Gardens would it still be in flower a week later and I told them about my relationship to the plant. They said it would and they also knew about my blog post. They replied, “it was a nice piece and mentioned in our blog Attack of the Sheep-Eating Plants.” The Gardens had even brought my story forward. In 2013 I asked the RHA about where they got the notion of sheep-eating from. They replied a few days after I published my post with some references to sheep-eating and I added it as an update. It was these references the South Australians were most interested in, “including one in Mabberley’s Plant-book, a comprehensive and internationally renowned plant reference source. The plot thickens.”  This clinched the deal for me and I immediately booked to go to Adelaide a couple of days later. I told the Gardens and though they wouldn’t guarantee me someone to talk to they gave me the reference on the map. puya7The puya chilensis were easy to find, standing tall and proud 3m high, next door to the hothouse containing the Amazonian lily pads. It was hard not to feel awe around them. They looked like a bizarre cross between a Norfolk pine, a marijuana plant and a triffid. At close inspection it did look possible that small animals could get caught in the large clump. When I posted a photo on social media, an former Adelaide-based friend claimed he once had to extricate a cat from the plant. puya10According to Mabberley’s Plant Book, puya leaves yield a fibre used for rot-resistant fishing nets but sheep and birds can get entangled in them. “The nutrients from which, as well as those from their droppings may be absorbed,” Mabberley said. Sheep-eaters or not, puya chilensis are impressive. There was not a great deal of information at the site of the plant other than a small sign nestled at the base with the plant name. Puya chilensis is in the Bromeliaceae family, better known as bromeliads, of which the equally spiky pineapple probably the most famous example. The largest bromeliad is a puya though not a chilensis, I found out later in the day.puya8Puya chilensis grows in arid hillsides of the western Andes at altitudes of up to 1200m. Some gardens report the flowering to be rare though other gardens, Adelaide included, say they flower each year in the early spring months. In Chile the giant hummingbird pollinates the electric-yellow flowers with bright orange anthers and uses the puya’s spikes for perching to reach the flowers. The leaves have ferociously sharp backward-pointing spines which trap animals. They die and their decaying bodies provide nutrients to the puya plants. Or so the story goes.puya9aIn Adelaide there were no obvious dead animals around though the honeyeaters and the bees were enjoying the copious nectar. The plant is flammable so regardless of sheep, farmers have a reason to fear it and cut it back. Its native habitat is also affected by oil and gas pipelines, high voltage power lines and the needs of fruit plantations. I began to look around the vicinity and found smaller varieties of puya nearby. Puya is from the Mapuche Indian word meaning “point”.  This one below is puya venusta, which flowers in red. Like chilensis it is found in central Chile. puya11This next one below is puya coerulea. This is a rare plant, also Chilean, known as the “pink torch” puya for its stunning flowering. It sends up a meter-long flower cluster that according to one plant site is “like a Dr. Suess version of a tiki torch”.puya15This one below is puya ferruginea, a small slow-growing plant in Peru, Bolivia and Ecuador. It has rosettes of long very thin silvery-green foliage that often twists towards the tips giving the plant a wind-blown asymmetrical appearance like a spiky tussock.puya16Having exhausted everything I wanted to do it was time to call in the experts. I took a walk past some beautiful exhibits to the admin building and introduced myself to the lady on reception telling her my business with the garden. She told me normally a gardener would be available to talk but they were all in meetings. However if I came back at 1pm someone would talk. Happy with that, I left the gardens to have lunch.puya13I came back at 1pm and as promised, the receptionist found me a gardener. The gardener didn’t mind me taping him but said he was not entitled to speak to media on behalf of the garden. For that reason I have not identified him or quoted him directly (apart from one instance which speaks to his character).  He told me the puya clump was probably at least 40 to 60 years old and used to be four times bigger. It had to be moved 10 years ago when they rebuilt the Amazonian section. puya9I asked him whether the plant had difficulty coping with the change from Chilean’s Mediterranean climate to Adelaide. He told me Chile’s climate was diverse and in any case Adelaide’s climate was also Mediterranean, a fact I had some difficulty digesting after finding it 15 degrees cooler than Brisbane. But his point stood, the plant had easily adapted to local conditions. puya9bHe told me their plant flowers every year for around six weeks but they don’t feed it sheep, or indeed any nutrients at all. He said it was a hardy plant that often thrived in poor soils. As we wrapped up our conversation he started telling me about another puya but he couldn’t remember its name. This one was even bigger than chilensis but was a monocarp which means it dies after a single flowering. I thanked the gardener for his information and started to walk back towards puya for another look.puya9cAs I walked back, I was startled by someone running up to me. It was the gardener. “I just remembered the name of the biggest puya,” he said. “Puya raimondii.” Adelaide did have one of these puyas – the largest bromeliad – which took a remarkable 50 years or so to flower well over three meters high. Even more remarkably it died immediately afterwards. I thanked the gardener again as I tried to imagine what it might have looked like. I don’t have a photo of puya raimondii so here’s an extraordinary one from Wikipedia in the wild in South America (By Pepe Roque – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0)800px-Puya_raimondii_hábitoThis new knowledge was the icing on the cake of a great day and I thank the South Australian Botanic Gardens for their generous help and lovely gardens. I enjoyed the rest of my day in Adelaide in other pursuits though I could not get puya out of my mind. I remain none the wiser whether shepherds in the Andes lose sheep to a monster plant. I expected to be impressed by puya chilensis and I was. But I didn’t expect to be intrigued by the rest of the puyas. I certainly didn’t think my dreams would be haunted by the ghost of the astonishing puya raimondii, a plant that slowly builds its phallic erection over half a century only to die once it spills its solitary wad. Somehow I find that more terrifying than the sheep.