Where the Families' Graves Lie

" Give me the spirit to belong once more
the sight to see my culture
and give me the culture that I see no more
and help me break through this wall
of isolation forever more. "



I do not belong here. I am two people. Two faces. Split between two worlds. I belong to two cultures, yet I am apart from them. I belong to two homes, yet I have no home. I belong to a tribe of two swimming turtles, yet I feel alienated from them.
We were once a river-dwelling people, a tall, fair-skinned people. We lived by the cool, shady banks of the Murray, and would hunt far and wide. We were once good swimmers, good runners, and good hunters. We would dance and sing and we would paint and draw. We were the Yorta Yorta tribe. We once lived by one another, next to one another, and would wake up and fall asleep by one another. But that was long ago, so long ago.

I was born here in the large, sunny town of Bendigo in the sacred lands of another tribe. Yet my spiritual land, my tribal land, my real home, lies far to the north beside the waters of the Murray River.
From Cummera the long bridge slides across the border and into Barmah. There the stretch of tarmac runs deep into the countryside and on long, dusty roads, winding deep into the heart of the Yorta Yorta nation. Here grey plains and hills stretch for as far as the eye can strain, and are swallowed by distant horizons in almost every direction. Trees remain so few, and blister under the heat of the burning sun. The sky is always bright, always clear, always blue, and the chatter of cicadas so alive, even amid the dryness of the soil and grass. All this was once our home, so long ago, and it still is, though most its people have long left to places all over the land.
Looming hills with their grey haze and endless miles of open plain finally turn south and into the running mill of bushland, which drives further south to the Murray. And the Murray, this cool, rapid river stretching through the land in both directions. This river, this blessed river, is the heart of life. The heart of civilisation for those who once dwelled in its shade. It provides in abundance fish, and water to cool off in the summer days. It is a haven from the endless plains. The restlessness of the black Yorta Yorta sun. The Murray. The home to all those of the Yorta Yorta who lived by its banks. The Murray. My home.
Here along the Murray, under the shade of many trees, I can see the homes of many families, many clans, fishing along its banks. Swimming in the water on a warm day. Under my feet is my own tribe, the Yorta Yorta, but around me are the Bangerang, the Ulupna, the Moira, and the Yalaba Yalaba and many others. We are all one, several names under one family. We are one tribe, one people, under one banner.
The Murray shelters us. The tall, ghost-white, ashen-grey trunks of gum trees protect those of us nearby from the rain, from the sun, or from danger. The Murray is a haven for those who live by its roots. A teeming city of life.
Behind us, pass the many deep horizons of open plains and hills lies the Barmah lakes. Open, brown, and fulfilling lakes. Here birds, ducks and kangaroos gather like a family across its shimmering waters, reflecting the blue sky, to relinquish their thirsts and needs. These lakes are an oasis. A blue oasis. A lifeline like the Murray. A home.
Elsewhere across our land there are swamps and creeks, forests, centres of life for my people. Centres milling with wildlife.
Our land is so vast. So abundant. So alive. No one, not physically or spiritually, can take this from us. No. We are part of this land. We have grown with it like the trees and grass, like the sun over its dry surface. We cannot be removed from it. Like the life on this earth we cannot be taken. How I love this land. How I feel its calling. Its draw.
When I see this land I still see my tribe. I see the men going hunting, gathering food from all the land’s abundance in animals. I see men gathering fish from the gushing, brown river of the Murray. And I see their cages of clamshells, used to trap the fish, or their spears, to cut through even the toughest hide. I see the women going about their business, gathering herbs and berries from the plants, or dancing and singing, clapping hands and raising voices. In the end they would all share what they gathered, and be well fed by nightfall.
Now when I look at my land I wonder where it all went. The respect? The tradition? The tribes? The elders and their stories? I yearn for the flames once more, the fires burning long into the night. I wonder about the songs and dances, and the many who once participated with them. I know we are a forgotten few, a dwindling stream of blood. But we are still strong in one another; we still see each other, our culture, and the world where we come from. I think that is all that matters.
So many have forgotten their culture, their heritage. Where they have come from. It is a sad thing, a culture forgotten by its own.
The people who came to this land, who have come from many, are not so much different to us. They once believed in the spirits, the dreaming, and the stories. They once lived together, for one another, and not for themselves. Why did their tribes fracture and shatter? Even today our tribe is a fractured one, a struggling one that strives to make its voice heard and its land by the Murray safe.
We are a shattered few, I know, driven out among the land, to dwell in many forgotten corners. Yet we are still strong as one, a family forged with one line, one name. We still know one another, and the place where we come from, and we recognise one another, not by name, by face, but by blood and a multitude of skin.
Every mother and father, every aunt and uncle, every cousin, every brother and sister, whether black, white or pink, with red hair or brown, is an ocean, a land of people – a family! We are so vast! So diverse across every race!
Something so powerful, so strong, so spiritual, keeps us together and as one.
Our leaders, our elders, who are all so strong, so well respected, so regal in bearing, keep us together. Keep us fighting. Struggling. In this strange world. For them our tribe is always together, in the worst of times, and in the good of them. We push forwards together, we journey together, and we dream one dream of reconciliation together.
Once every decade, or every three years, our tribe becomes one to stick the fractured pieces into one giant picture once more. We meet together, we reunite, to share our stories and lives. We sit around the tables, sometimes lit by the flame of a single candle snapping wildly in the night breeze, having a drink, and talking and laughing among ourselves. Never anywhere else do I feel so belonging, so distinct, when I am with all my family. My tribe.
Yet such times are so rare, and I feel confined in the world I am living in. The culture that is perhaps not mine. I am forced into one culture, yet my heart sings for another. It yearns. My real culture is forced away from my senses, and I am blind from it. I am isolated from it.
Above all this I do not even understand my own language, or the culture from which it comes from. I had been denied this. Since the beginning of time here I have been denied this. It seems like some forgotten part of myself, yet so strange when learning about it. But I welcome it, and I will make it part of myself once more.


The burial-ground, Cummeragunja, lying in the heart of Yorta Yorta land is a place where many families’ graves lie. These graves are continuously loved and tended to by all families, left not to the silence of nature or to the sun but to the concern and respect of all those who come to visit them regularly. But over time the wind and storms, the rotting and withering of what the sun brings to the world, leaves graves falling apart, decorations to burn into nothingness, and scattered idols to waste away over the dry earth. Cows and horses roam nearby enclosed paddocks, and sometimes break out into the cemetery, breaking over the headstones marking the buried. But that is where we come in.
In droves we come on buses, welcomed by the heated distinction of the day, the sweat and the buzzing flies. It is only autumn, but this land is strange with its ways. Spiritual. Through the entrance into this sacred land we come, as a swarm of people, one big family. To my sides and rear, are elders, their children, and the children of their children. Everyone has come. Every generation beside me. Walking in open arms and with a smile on their face.
We go about cleaning the graves. The men begin by weeding and removing rubbish, before covering holes with dirt, and smoothing the earth in between the graves. And the women and children, using the branches of towering gum trees, their dry, rusty leaves, to clear the dirt of its hindrances, or to decorate the graves with. With paint they decorate the tombstones, or repaint long eroded names, and with fingers they adjust photos of the deceased.
Some graves lie almost swallowed by the wilderness, where the once tall mounds signifying the buried are almost indistinguishable from the earth around them. But we create the mounds ever higher, as a sign for the world, and its people, so they may know where to mourn and where to pay their respects.
It is hard work, but after all this, we sit and rest, and we laugh some more, before taking photos of our big tribe. Our family. Drawn from all walks of life. All places across this vast land of ours.
Here in this sacred burial ground, we are welcomed not only by the familiar sight of our family returned to the dirt, but by the animals that live here as well. We are alone with them, confined to our own presence and the world we have not had the chance to live in. We are away from all society, our other lives behind us. We have no troubles here. No guilt. No problems. We are comforted by the gracing sight of this land, our home, and we have nothing to fear. Here we get our answers. Here the animals sing us to peace.
We walk among under the few, towering trees of this part of the land. One tree stands above the rest, a mighty, dwarfing, ancient gum tree, standing on the summit of a hill. I am told by one of the elders, who is my uncle, that its age stretches far back to the very days of colonisation. I look far up into the sky at this tree. This gum tree. Scraping the very bowels of the wide, blue sky above us. Its very branches peak the world like claws, and grabs the life from the breeze. And its towering, twisting, deformed trunk grows dry and hard, and its crusting bark peels off its sides like the layers of an onion.
My uncle recalls his childhood. He tells me he would stand by this tree, on this same hill, and still it was as tall as what it is now. That was several decades ago. And this mighty gum tree still stands, fierce against the wind and the hallowing sun.
It is a sentinel for our people, I know, guarding this sacred part of our land. It is a lookout for all the land to gaze upon, a sign for us on the buses that we are nearing our home. That we are already here on our land.
My mother once told me a story about this land, its spiritual draw. Its enchantment that no word can describe. She had come here alone, during the cool, early days of spring to visit the graves. To pay her respects, and to find peace.
It was when, she tells me, that she stood under the towering gum tree that the birds flew over her and sat on the tree’s jagged branches, above her. They sung their songs, their spring eagre, and let her know their joy with her sight.
And it was the strangest thing, my mother tells me. As she left the burial ground and for the car, the birds followed her. With every tree she walked passed, down the long, bumpy road, the birds followed her, perching on the trees’ branches watching her and still singing their joy. My mother recalls feeling a sudden sense of belonging. That though she was there alone, away from the world around her, she felt like she belonged. That she was no stranger to this land. That she was of this earth. Yes, she was home, my mother knew. This is her land, and she has no fear to be here. The birds know their own, and they had let my mother know who she was.
When I pass to the wind, to be returned to the soil, and into the gracing arms of God, I will be buried here. In this sacred land of the Yorta Yorta people. The land of my mothers and fathers. The land where my spirit will fly.


This may be the reason for why I feel so different from the culture I have grown up in. Why I am at times so isolated. Why I am not sure if I belong to it or if even I belong anywhere. It is because I am already part of a culture. I already belong to a tribe. I already belong to something else, a different world to the one I am now in.
The family I grew up with is so welcoming to spirits, to the existence of them, the presence and visiting of them. But so many families around us in this strange world are not. The very idea seems alien to them. So unreal. I do not understand them, as much as they do not understand me. Why it is so hard for them to believe in the world beyond our own I cannot even begin to understand. For me it is something so real, so beautiful, and so pure. For my tribe it is something so real. Yet they do not see this, and they look at me as though I am wrong. And I look at them as though they are wrong. Mostly I am just confused.
While I still strive to seek my culture, the world my spirit yearns, I have still never really been to the lands of the Yorta Yorta, my tribal land. I have been a few times, but I do not live there. When I do visit, I feel like I have known this land for all my life, and if not in this life, in another. In some distant dream.
It is such a real place, such a lively place. A place that I feel distinction with in my heart and in my mind. To me it is my spiritual realm, the world my ancestors grew up in. To me, it is the land sitting against the Murray.
When I walk over this land, over the prickly grass, the dry soil, or through the endless kilometres of bush, I feel life. This is my land. I say. This is my blood. This is where I come from.


Though I may feel this way about my tribe, my land and my culture, the home I never had the chance to know, I know this isolation from it will never leave me. No matter how many times I visit my land, I rest under its trees, to the stars in the night sky, I know that because I was born here in another world I will not find sleep there. I know I am an outsider, on both borders.
There is a curtain draped over my sight, and I will never see passed it. There is a lost home out there somewhere, I know, and I will never live there.
I will walk among my land, but my heart will still remain restless. And I will forever feel isolated from all the good times, and all the bad times, with my tribe. We will always be out of sight of one another, however much we will be together.
Yet though I am left to wonder about my tribal land and my culture, the home I was never born in, which I am torn against, I am comforted to know that my home does not lay thousands of miles across the other side of the ocean. In some place I cannot get to. In some other world I cannot reach. No, it is right here in my back yard. Right here. Behind me. I cannot forget that already I am home, however isolated I may be.
This dirt. It is me. As are the trees, and the wind. The blue sky and the blistering sun, the endless miles of rugged countryside. No matter where I am in this great land of ours, this dirt, whether red, yellow or brown, is what I belong to. Who I am. And I can never forget that.

Where the Families' Graves Lie

Matt Penrose

Joined March 2007

  • Artist
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Artist's Description

This short story is about my isolation from in between two cultures, two colliding worlds. It is for an assessment of an anthology I am writing for at TAFE with the theme of ‘Isolation’. I sincerely hope you enjoy reading this.

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