The week Mrs Lawson spent locked up as a child when Government ‘welfare’ authorities tore her away from her mother stirred a jarring sense of injustice which has made her a dogged Aboriginal rights campaigner.
Now it has propelled her into court, where she is using an ancient British imperial law to claim her ancestral lands around Lake Victoria in far South West NSW.
Through her advocates, she is mounting the audacious argument that her Aboriginal great-grandfather had ‘adverse possession’ of the land. This is based on a 247-year-old law which squatters used in Colonial times to dispossess Indigenous people of their country and to stop the Crown from re-possessing land they had grabbed for themselves.
And it has the potential to set a precedent, just as the Mabo decision did 24 years ago, by recognising the existence in law of native title across Australia. Like Mabo, her case goes to the heart of the legal system’s view of Indigenous occupation of the land.
Mrs Lawson, a slight grandmother with flyaway grey hair and a powerful voice, is well aware of the irony (and the cheekiness) of her claim, as she plots her next legal move from her modest Mildura flat, with only an aged pension for funding.
“I don’t like being called a squatter. All I want is equal rights for my people to have their say in what goes on in their part of the country,” she says.
But as a member of the Stolen Generations, this legal action is another way of “coming home”. Born behind a tree at Lake Victoria, a shallow outback waterway of enormous spiritual significance, she has been trying to find a way to live with dignity on her ancestral lands since she escaped the clutches of state welfare aged 18.
MRS LAWSON’S life is a lesson in Indigenous struggles and survival at the edge of the frontier, including a memory of massacre, of being “brought in” from the bush to Government-regulated life on a mission, of being removed from family, of losing her own children and now, of fighting for land.
On a windy autumn day, as her cousin Peggy Thomas drives her across the Murray River to visit a small portion of their NSW ancestral lands, Mrs Lawson’s firm voice wavers as she recalls the day “the welfare” imprisoned her.
As a youngster, she’d learnt the traditional Murra Wurra ways of surviving out bush, harvesting grains, catching fish, feasting on roos stuffed with leaves and cooked in earth ovens. But as more children arrived, the family moved to the Menindee mission, where she says, “we had to put on Government clothing and line up for rations.”
Her father had itinerant pastoral jobs on various landholdings and was away working when the authorities came to Menindee and grabbed Dorothy, her younger brothers Harry and Bruce, and sister Marie.
“I turned around after settling some of my little brothers. We were clinging together because we were frightened. The police officers were there. There were two of them. They were wrestling with our mother. They were taking the baby from my mother. Our youngest sister, Irene. We were crying, getting hold of Mum, trying to hang onto Mum,” Mrs Lawson says.
“Then… I was jailed for seven days with screaming brothers. I had to act as a parent to them. I had to be the one to settle them down, because we were in a jail, locked up in Menindee jail. Concrete floor and the government blanket, just striped, for our mattress and the other one to cover over, that we used to use that for a pillow and my arm was their pillow,” she recalls.
Dorothy and Marie were taken to Cootamundra Girls’ Home, the boys to Kinchela Boys’ Home at Kempsey and baby Irene to Bomaderry Aboriginal Children’s Home, hundreds of kilometres from their parents.
“Today, for the life of me, I can’t understand why the Government intervened and did that. They [my parents] were providers. They looked after us well,” says Mrs Lawson.
She still remembers the “little rompers” or playsuits, which her father Harry Mitchell (Junior) bought from hawkers for the children and the small jobs her mother did for landholders to earn income.
Being torn away from a family whose culture was still thriving, she says she never forgot her homelands and felt tormented at having to live in two worlds.
“I grew up with the feeling, ‘they’ve stolen my land’ and that’s exactly what they did, taking us away…You can’t take my country out of me. I knew where I was taken from and I wanted [to come] back here. A couple of times I made an effort – like an attempt to run away from the home, but then I was always found and brought back,” she says.
As soon as she was 18, she took a train toward home. But she could only afford to go part of the way. It took decades for her to return, via Wilcannia, where she and her husband started their family. Even now, the Mildura flat provided through an Aboriginal housing program is not on her ancestral land.
“I cry to myself sometimes. The way I’d like it would be to go back on my father’s country. I don’t feel comfortable on another person’s home country,” she says.
During the 1980s, Dorothy successfully stood in front of bulldozers and stopped her family’s tin humpies being demolished at Dareton, a small far South-Western NSW town which lies within her late father’s home country, declaring, “A squatter on my own land? What laws are we breaking? We just want a piece of what was ours.”
The Wentworth Shire Council served her with an eviction notice, but she won the ensuing court battle. With Government funding, the number of Aboriginal dwellings increased at Dareton.
Now, two State Governments must deal with Mrs Lawson’s claim. She is arguing, through her counsel, Indigenous barrister Tony McAvoy, that under the Crown Suits Act of 1769, her Aboriginal great-grandfather Dan McGregor had title to his ancestral lands around Lake Victoria.
The lake, a key link in the Murray-Darling basin system which provides irrigation water to farmers and drinking water to Adelaide, is owned by South Australia, but administered by NSW.
However, Mrs Lawson says it was taken from her family without proper compensation. After the British military took possession of New South Wales in the King’s name in 1788, Dan McGregor and his heirs still owned the land way out west, she argues. They held that land for at least 60 years. Under the old British Act, they were therefore able to claim that they had ‘adverse possession,’ a form of title which the squatters once used to keep land which their heirs now own.
Mrs Lawson says she is one of Dan McGregor’s heirs, through her father Harry Mitchell, a station hand, and her clay-pipe smoking grandmother Grannie Mary Mitchell, a bush woman who taught her about traditional Murra Wurra ways.
When Mrs Lawson first applied to the NSW Land and Environment Court to be allowed to bring her claim “out of time,” Justice Peter Biscoe ruled in late 2014 “that the applicant’s claim has some substance”. Now Mrs Lawson’s representatives (and those of the NSW and South Australian Governments) are exchanging documents as the court prepares to hear the matter later this year.
Phillip, the second youngest of Mrs Lawson’s seven children, who is now aged 52, is backing her up. He hopes that her action will prove that the family “out-squatted the squatters”.
“My mother’s shown me that you’ve got to have a bit of balls about you," he says. "She’s only one little woman in Western NSW and yet she’s got cultural integrity. She knows what she’s talking about.”
On this autumn day, Peggy drives Mrs Lawson to Dareton, 15km northwest of Mildura, where she stopped the bulldozers.
Mrs Lawson explains that when she moved back to her home country more than half a century ago, “there were no houses to come to.” Her family members were living in humpies made from corrugated iron and pieces of timber they’d gathered at the tip.
“No matter where they lived, they were bulldozed around. Every time we looked over our shoulders, they [builders] were developing. So we moved and then we moved again… Then when we made camp near the high school, they wanted to allow a pony club. I said, ‘Uh-uh. This is where I draw the line. I’ve got nothing to lose… That’s when I took on the shire.”
When she overturned the council’s eviction notice, the Aboriginal magistrate Pat O’Shane wrote to congratulate her.
Mark Dengate, a non-Aboriginal friend who has helped Mrs Lawson over the decades and who was instrumental in lodging her new claim, says, “If Dottie had been a horse, she would have been able to stay.”
“MY BUSH lawyer” is Mrs Lawson’s description of Dengate, a former bank teller, public program administrator and Aboriginal land council worker who realised the potential of the old British imperial law as a lever for lodging land claims five years ago, while researching a degree at Murdoch University.
He acted as Mrs Lawson’s “agent” in her 2014 court action. Flowing from Justice Biscoe’s decision, she says that barrister Tony McAvoy SC, Australia’s first Indigenous senior counsel, saw enough merit in the argument for ‘adverse possession’ to agree to act for her.
Dengate, who says “I’m from the original squatter mobs myself,” continues to support Mrs Lawson. She says he is like a son to her. He dug into old laws and historical documents because he knew from researching an earlier native title claim that the area around Lake Victoria remained unsurveyed, but still occupied by Mrs Lawson’s Aboriginal forebears before 1848.
It struck him that there was a strong legal argument that they owned the land as British subjects, like the squatters elsewhere.
“I decided that there was no doubt that the Crown Suits Act had to apply...if they were British subjects, it applied equally to them as to other British subjects because the Queen didn’t distinguish between them,” he says.
A motor-mouth brimming with ideas, he says some people consider him something of a rogue. “I don’t think I am, though,” he adds.
Lacking a law degree, Dengate argues that advocates like himself need not be lawyers to fight native title and other land claims on behalf of Indigenous peoples - although he agrees that “it shouldn’t be just Donald Duck who rolls in the door.”
He has fallen on hard times. He has found it hard to get a job and has sometime had to live in the back of his Peugeot, “a little $4000 special” with a sunroof.
But he has continued to help the Lawsons research their family's continued association with the land. Documents they have drawn on include a death certificate for Grannie Mitchell, who died aged 104 in 1956 in Wilcannia. Historical research shows she was part of a group from Lake Victoria known as “Nhanya’s mob,” who came in from the bush with her father Dan McGregor.
Mrs Lawson remembers being reunited during the 1950s with her very elderly grandmother and her aunt, Phyllis, who still held their culture strong, when she herself was in her 20s.
“Every time Grannie spoke in her lingo, I couldn’t understand it and Phyllis told me what she was saying. She wanted to come back to Nulla station, to Wentworth. I said, ‘Okay, when you get well, I’ll take you back.’ But unfortunately she died. So having said all what I said to my grandmother… it’s instilled in me that I wanted to come back to my birth country,” Mrs Lawson says.
Nulla station is near Lake Victoria. Mrs Lawson and Peggy point to precious photos they have of their grandfather, Harry Mitchell (Senior) with Grannie Mitchell and their uncle Gordon on the station, on the veranda and in front of the old hand-made homestead.
Harry Mitchell senior was a respected dogger. “When he shot the dogs, he went in with no clothes on. Just with a gun. He had a gun because the branches, the twigs, would make noise and they’d see him and take off … He was a very brave man,” Peggy says.
They both remember as children living in little timber huts, sometimes staying in shelters their parents made by pulling down a tree branch.
“And kangaroo skin to keep warm. You wrap the skins around the babies,” Peggy says.
Phillip is grateful for the knowledge they can pass on. He says: “It’s like a golden link in the chain when you go back, doing this stuff.”
THE TWO COUSINS wander through a small park where Australia’s two longest rivers, the caramel-milk coloured Darling and the darker Murray meet after gushing past a narrow tree-dotted isthmus at Wentworth.
There are tree trunks along the banks still bearing gashes where their family members cut canoes from the bark, or made markings for ceremonial reasons. In the shallows there are reeds from which the women would make baskets.
Mrs Lawson and Peggy roll the words of their Murra Wurra language around in their mouths: “Ngookoo. Water. Ngookook alkari. Waterhen. Kalti. Emu. Talta. Red.”
In their youth, various authorities banned their language “so to enable us to forget,” says Mrs Lawson.
“We never forget,” says Peggy.
When Mrs Lawson and her siblings were taken away, Peggy’s father took his children into the bush to hide from “the welfare” and live off the land. She has been able to teach Mrs Lawson and other members of her family some of the culture and lingo which would otherwise be lost.
Both say an unknown number of their forebears were killed in the Rufus River massacre of 1841, some 60 kilometres to the west near Lake Victoria, when local Indigenous people and “overlanders” moving sheep and cattle clashed. Up to 60 Aboriginal people from lower Darling are thought to have been killed.
Mrs Lawson would like to take this visitor to Lake Victoria, but she fears we could not get past the gates, because access to this water source of such importance to South Australia is heavily regulated. Besides, it is a graveyard where her ancestors lie. A smoking ceremony would be needed before visiting, Phillip Lawson says.
In the late 1990s, as a member of a consultative committee on Lake Victoria’s future, Mrs Lawson and other Aboriginal people with ties to the area fought the artificial inundation of a landscape where thousands of her ancestors once lived settled lives, and where there were believed to be up to 16,000 graves. Another group was in favour. Her group lost.
Mrs Lawson and Peggy worry that the flooding is, literally, a watery cover-up of the massacre of her ancestors. They imagine Adelaide citizens drinking water laced with bone-dust.
There is pollen in the air and Mrs Lawson finds it hard to breathe. But she also says it is hard for her to remember these things, because of the heartache.
She does not talk about the way her seven children were taken from her. Phillip, who was in nappies when he was “removed” and grew up in a Ballarat orphanage does, though.
“[It was the] welfare mentality of the day, just stealing, taking kids. Mum was deemed to be unsuitable to look after children. That was the excuse the Aboriginal industry used that day, the system anyway,” he says.
It was difficult for her to care for the children in tin sheds and she suffered mental distress “due to the past factors in her childhood. The trauma suffered at the hands of the so-called people who were looking after her,” Phillip says.
His older sister Marie, who was eight or nine years old – about the same age as Dorothy Lawson was when she was taken with her siblings – acted as a surrogate mother to her younger siblings, just as her mother had done before her.
“We were always pretty tight,” he says. Sometimes during visits Mrs Lawson missed her three boys because on school holidays they would be billeted to a Geelong foster family. She would leave them treats.
“So I remember Mum would get three cans of Coke, three packets of chips and three chocolate bars… There was that, that kept my knowledge of my mother, too,” Phillip says.
He had no doubt of his cultural identity and when he was about 18, he went home.
Mrs Lawson would love to get her land back, but that is impossible because the NSW Government acquired in 1922 it through compulsory acquisition, to ensure water supply via Lake Victoria. She can only seek compensation. Her representatives are yet to decide the amount.
She has been advised that because of the legal nature of this land claim, she will need to provide far less onerous evidence than she would in a native title claim. If she wins and sets a precedent, this is likely to fill other Indigenous people with hope.
“It won’t matter if I lose. I’ll appeal it straight away. I’m doing this for my children to have something. They’ll carry it on for me. I’ll keep going until the last breath in my body,” Mrs Lawson says.
She sighs. “If I’ll see justice out of it, I don’t know.”