DETAIL: Michael RILEY, 'Untitled from the series cloud [feather]' Cloud series Feather 2000, printed 2005 Photograph chromogenic pigment print Ed: 1/5 NGA 2005.294.5, Reproduced courtesy of the Michael Riley Foundation and VISCOPY, Australia

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'Yarns from the Talbragar Reserve' 1998
Up in the sky, behind the clouds
Brenda L Croft

Devoid of the weatherboard and tin houses – which were kept spotless – the Talbragar reserve is a tranquil place, where former residents and family members visit to sit and reminisce about who lived where, what hi-jinks children got up to, the camaraderie among the community, fishing, floods and broken bones, and listening to Grandfather Riley talk about the people in the photos in his albums and scrapbooks. These memories formed the basis for Michael’s photographic series Yarns from the Talbragar Reserve 1998, which so beautifully portrays many community members who lived on, or were associated with, Talbragar Aboriginal Reserve, many of whom have since died. This series, acquired by the Dubbo Regional Art Gallery in 1999, will go on permanent display in Dubbo’s new cultural centre following its completion in late 2006.

Brenda Croft: How did [Riley] set up for taking the photographs for Yarns from the Talbragar Reserve? Where were they taken?

Rita Burns: I think he went around to each person, because he came to my house on his own and he took photos out the back. He put a backdrop down … And I had dogs and he put the dogs there. He had me standing up – he had me sitting down first and the dogs in front of me and then he stood me up … and then he stayed … I think he had a cup of tea before he left.

Will Burns: That’s what he did, he went to all the old people wherever they were, instead of putting them out, and he brought me out here. That photo of me is taken in front of this amenities block just after we first got it built through the Land Council, and we were so proud because all the years we grew up living here, there was no power, no plumbing, nothing, you know … I think he especially wanted to come out here with me, because we were close as kids, you know. I can’t even remember why but it just seemed like we were always together. It might have been our age, I don’t know. It might have been just that we got on better than some of the other kids, because I had three brothers and three sisters and Michael had a brother and a couple of sisters and we all sort of hung around together. We were like one family anyway, just like one family …

And the way he was, the way he loved, the way he respected … it was like more than, say, a counsellor, more than a confidant, more than a mentor, the way he drew people out and got them to talk. And his own people and his old people and the way he treated them with the utmost respect and acknowledged that and treated them as honourable people no matter what their station in life or what life had dealt them, you know. And by that attitude of his, it just drew people to him, and he did that with me while we were out here together reminiscing about our involvement. I found myself remembering things with him and stories that I wouldn’t have thought of at any other time …

That’s what I remember about the time that he took that photo here, because I didn’t want to … he had to convince me to sit for him … I knew who he was taking photos of. These were all old people, elders of our community, people who I held in high regard, and I didn’t see that I had the right to be in the same exhibition as them. But he convinced me that I’d been running the Land Council here for a while, trying to get things happening and stuff … Well, Michael had that ability to inspire people and bring that out in them and I think people very quickly recognised that about him when they met him. I’m saying that, not ever having socialised with him as an adult. Like we never had a beer in a pub, you know what I mean? We never went to a Rock Against Racism concert or anything together. We never did any of those things together, but I just know that of him because of how he was …

Like I said, it’s hard to remember specific stuff but when I remember anyone, and anyone I do remember in my life, I may not remember specific things, conversations or things we might have done together. I just remember how I felt when I was with them and I think with Michael I felt very calm. I still feel his vibe and I still miss him, even though we probably never spent a lot of time together once we left this place, but you miss special people like that, you know.

This is an edited extract of a conversation between Brenda L Croft, Will Burns and his mother, Dorothy Burns, recorded at Talbragar Aboriginal Reserve, Dubbo, New South Wales, on 11 February 2006.

Talbragar Reserve

Of the Wiradjuri Nation, the Dubbo-ga, Mur-ga, Eumal-ga, Mun-g, Warrie-ga, Dundullamal and Bungilgambie, were some of the traditional clans who occupied and lived in the area surrounding the Macquarie and Talbragar Rivers, which has become known with the gazetting of the village on 23 November 1849, as Dubbo District. The clan or family groups, known as Waree, interacted with one another … sharing religious ceremonies, food and kinship ties. The Wiradjuri had close links with bordering Nations, particularly the Kamilaroi with whom they shared marriage, family and ceremonial obligations ... In many areas of New South Wales in the reign of Queen Victoria (1838–1901) many grants of land were signed over to Aboriginal people. These were known as Aboriginal Reserves. There were several tracts of land designated for this purpose in the Dubbo region. Talbragar Reserve was one grant. The original land was at the junction of the Talbragar and Macquarie Rivers. This land was an original camping site of the Old People. There is evidence of sites dating back many hundreds of years in this area … The Talbragar Reserve became the home of some 500 Aboriginal people [over the years]. Eight houses were provided under the Aborigines Protection Act ... a core of Aboriginal families, the Taylor, Riley, Weldon, Burn and Carr families, lived on the Reserve … Talbragar Reserve was a haven from the outside world. When Aboriginal people discuss their life on the Talbragar Reserve it is with recollections of peace, security and family.

Lynette Riley-Mundine, Yarns from the Talbragar Reserve, exhibition catalogue, Dubbo: Dubbo Regional Gallery, 1999.

I remember being young and happy … everyone was almost related. We weren’t told any yarnblegarn stories only the truth … we weren’t told any Dreamtime stories because our parents were too busy working and looking after us … they worked hard in those days and as soon as I was old enough I went to work at 14 … I worked right up until the time I was married and then I went to England for 2 years, came back and had my family.
Ruby McGuiness

We had families all good people … we went to the school at Brocklehurst, walked barefooted through the Talbragar River … we were one big happy family that’s for sure … I remember Granny Taylor and the little white clay pipes and this black tobacco they used to smoke.
Willy Hill

Gran and Grandfather ... looking after us with their hearty chicken broth and their warm and open hearts … they would show us photo albums and tell stories with all the grandchildren listening to their words of wisdom that only great story tellers can tell … Gran and Grandfather’s original house was washed away in the 1954 flood and they moved into the teacher’s cottage … the kitchen was off the house which had a dirt floor surrounded by corrugated iron … an open fireplace with pots and pans and chains and hooks to adjust the heat whilst cooking … everything was spotless, even the dirt floor.
Ronald Riley

I can remember the three old sisters sitting down and speaking in the mother tongue – Granny Phoebe Smith, Aunty Ethel Riley and Aunty Sarah Burns – I just used to think to myself I would love to be able to do that. I never learnt my mother tongue … because we were not allowed to speak it for fear of the authorities … I only know a couple of words and they don’t seem to make much sense from my childhood.
Pat Doolan

Our next project began in 1997, the photographic exhibition Yarns from the Talbragar Reserve. Michael wanted to ensure that all the families that lived on the reserve, not just us traditional owners, were not displaced because of the Native Title claims that had been lodged. Some of us mob were feeling displaced and we, as Aboriginal people, don’t displace anyone – that’s what whitefellas do. Some we yarned about this and the impacts of Native Title and that is why and how Yarns came about.
Bernadette Yhi Riley

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