"Imagine that you’re a Koorie, that you’re in your mid-20s, that your job is to look into the lives of the dead and the process, policy and attitude that killed them. Imagine seeing that much death and grief that you lose your family and you begin to wonder at your own sanity. Imagine when the job’s over, but the nightmares remain, and the deaths keep on happening more than ever. What would you do? Where would you put the memories? What would keep you sane? Who do you think could understand what you carry inside you?”
Those are the opening lines of ‘Conversations with the Dead’, a play by acclaimed author, songwriter and filmmaker Richard Frankland based on his own experiences working as a field officer for the Royal Commission into Black Deaths in Custody in the late 1980s.
Mr Frankland joined a panel of guests at a forum in Canberra on Friday to mark the 25th anniversary of the Royal Commission’s report.
The event sought to reflect on the past and look to future solutions as Indigenous incarceration rates soar. The forum was led by Change the Record co-chair Jackie Huggins, counsel assisting the royal commission Mick Dodson, and Antoinette Braybrook, CEO of Victoria’s Family Violence Prevention Legal Service.
Speaking on his role in the royal commission, Mr Frankland said he was required to investigate the deaths of Aboriginal people in Victoria, Tasmania and parts of New South Wales.
He says it was the hardest job he’s ever done.
“Some of the deaths were absolutely horrific,” Mr Frankland says.
“Sometimes mothers called you their sons’ names, and you’d let them. Sometimes you’d go and live with a family for a couple of days, because it just wasn’t right to walk in and snatch part of their heart and soul and walk out again.
“And you cried with them and they cried with you.”
Often working in isolation with no formal training, he would locate witnesses, take statements, gain the trust of families of the deceased and try to protect them. Often those who died were his extended family.
The proud Gunditjmara man says he found the bureaucratic process to be “heartless”.
“The cultural abyss between black and white was incredibly wide,” he says.
“The most common comment I heard from authorities was ‘I can’t recall’.
“Some of the things in police watch house books were ‘good bloke for an Abo’.”
As he developed relationships with the families of the deceased, Mr Frankland’s role evolved. He helped families find relatives who’d been taken during the stolen generations, assisted with housing and provided guidance on discrimination issues.
It’s a time in Mr Frankland’s life that will stay with him forever.
“The scar that it left on my soul was forever business” he says.
“It’ll be with me for the next 10 lifetimes.
“I don’t regret one moment of it. I hate every moment of it, but at the same time it’s a bittersweet hate – you love it at the same time.”
The harrowing work would manifest itself in many of Mr Frankland’s subsequent plays, songs and poetry.
“I use art as a voice and voice in my opinion is a freedom, and freedom is responsibility. And my responsibility culturally to all those families was very prevalent during the commission and afterwards,” he explains.
Reflecting on his time as a field officer, Mr Frankland says it’s the resilience and love he witnessed that has left a lasting impression.
“What I’ve seen in our people was a strength; a strength of spirit that’s amazing. I’ve seen great heroes, great warriors,” he says.
“And the grief I seen amongst our mob was profound. It was profound to me for several reasons – the most primary reason is that grief is love, and one of the greatest things our people have got is that capacity for love. That’s what the job meant to me.”