• Video calling my father, Johnny Liddle, as he reads me the letter featured in Thomas Mayor's new book Dear Son. (nitv)Source: nitv
Luritja and Arrernte man Johnny Liddle wrote a letter to his son, NITV Journalist Ryan Liddle, as part of a new anthology about First Nations fathers. This is his reply.
By
Ryan Liddle

Source:
The Point
1 Sep 2021 - 5:55 PM  UPDATED 8 Sep 2021 - 5:51 PM

“If I was there looking you in the eye, I would’ve burst out crying telling you these things.”

That’s what My Father Johnny Liddle said to me right before he read me a letter that was addressed to my Brothers, Nephew, and I.  

With a disclaimer like that, he had me worried…not in a bad way, but anxious and excited as to what was to come. 

He wrote the letter as part of a new book released by Torres Strait Author, Thomas Mayor. ‘Dear Son: Letters and Reflections from First Nations Fathers and Sons’ is a series of entries from 12 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander men. 

Love, trust, intergenerational trauma, domestic violence, culture, and toxic masculinity are just some of the explored themes. 

I’d hoped we could be together back home in Alice Springs when Dad read me his letter, but the pandemic has made that impossible…a video call was the next best thing. 

After yarning for a while, we get down to it and he begins… 

To My Dear Sons

John, Daniel and Ryan and my big grandson, Tyreece…this is to you all as you reach different waypoints in your life.” 

Dad goes on to talk a bit about each of us. What we’ve done, who we are, and what we mean to him.

He gets to me.

”You’re the youngest of my boys and you’re pursuing your career in Sydney as a Journalist. When I see you on tv my heart overflows with pride. You look so slick son, it’s like you were always meant to be on-screen…doing important work, reporting on important things.” 

He smiles with a cheeky smirk as he says it and in turn, so do I. It might not sound like much, but it means a lot to me.  

While it makes me happy, I can’t help but feel a bit sad. Sad that I can’t be back home with him and the rest of my family, sharing in this little moment together.  

We have a great relationship my father and I, but like many First Nations Men, sharing more tender moments like these aren’t always the norm.  

What has come before

In the letter, Dad covers a lot - Our history and where we’ve come from, not just as a people, but in our family history and how that has changed over time while remaining true to who we are.

From tough warriors and hardy desert people to station mob and hard workers; staunch advocates who fight for our people and productive members of the community today.

I’m barefoot or in boots when I’m back on Country and now I wear a suit in the city. It’s sort of hard to reconcile all those things and where to imagine moments like the one we just shared, fit into all this. 

He talks with pride about us and what we have achieved and how much we love going out bush. He also empathises with the challenges we’ve had in our lifetimes and how we must steel our resolve to face the many unknown ones that may lie ahead. 

My father continues to read the letter, but before he talks about what is ahead of us, he talks about what has come before. He talks about his parents and what they experienced growing up. 

Stories of stations and being stolen

He tells the story of how both my grandfather and grandmother were stolen away by authorities when they were just kids.  My grandfather was taken no older than just 5-6 years old, just for having an Aboriginal mother and a white father, ”that is just the way it was in those days,” dad wrote.

He was taken to the ‘Old Bungalow’ mission at what is now the Alice Springs Telegraph Station, a peaceful and beautiful national park well known to locals as a picnic spot. It was here that my pop was to be schooled with other Aboriginal kids who were also taken away.

“They took your grandfather when he was a little boy. They basically assimilated and trained them to be slaves. When you think about it, ‘the Bungalow’ was a prison” Dad wrote.  

Dad says he was sure many of the kids there would’ve suffered high levels of abuse and torment and he’s visited the place many times.

“I don’t know if this is a good description, but that place smells like sadness.” 

He writes more about what happened there (and other similar places) and it makes me want to cry. It also makes me so angry that this could have ever happened in the first place.

It infuriates me further knowing that many of our people who were sent to similar missions will never receive justice of recompense for the trauma they and their descendants must have endured then, now and more than likely will, into the future. 

Still, Dad praises the work of those who have tried to reunite stolen family and friends and talks fondly about one such reunion he attended several decades ago, and the joy on people’s faces who were in attendance. 

“There were lots of emotions, but seeing each other seemed to have recharged them.”

Many of them and their descendants would go on to be champions for their families and our people. It seems funny now that we would go to the old Bungalow as a family as a place to picnic over the years…so many memories, so much sadness and solitude for a lot of people, but I can see how the elders got more out of the visits to that place than we could comprehend. 

Dad writes about how his father was apprenticed out to a white station owner against his will when he was 12 years old, as was the fate of many Bungalow kids.

“He was forced to do the work of a grown up, he was basically in jail without bars.” 

He wasn’t allowed to leave the station without permission of the station owner or the Chief Protector of Aborigines, a government bureaucrat charged with the responsibility of the welfare of our people. 

Like so many others in that situation, grandpa had it tough. 

“He worked bloody hard and did a lot to ensure we could live the life we did.” I have no doubt. 

The Old Ways

He talks about Nanna who is still alive today, what it was like for her growing up with her family when they “lived a very traditional lifestyle," walking from waterhole to waterhole.

"They lived on traditional food like kangaroo and bush onion. Kids and dogs would chase kangaroo to where the men were ready with spears. It was a hard but fun way for them to live.”

Nanna told Dad they lived in constant fear of the white man, who wanted the waterholes “to them, we were like pests,” he wrote. 

My Nanna too was stolen away to the Bungalow and suffered brutal assimilation. However, in the dead of night, one day, her mother stole her back. 

The letter and stories contained therein go on to talk about many things. Suffice to say, he and my ancestors have been through so much that many of my life’s challenges almost seem trivial in comparison.  

“My sons I’m proud of you and where you’ve come from, I don’t tell you about the hardship of your elders to tell you your life is easy, but remember, never let your Elders perspective out of sight. They guide us and we are their legacy”. 

An inspiration

Having Dad read me the letter is incredibly personal and I’m so proud of him for doing it. Not just for having the courage of writing the letter, but for everything he has done.

I’m not sure if there was one single purpose to the letter but if it has done anything, it has inspired me.

Inspired me to do better, to aim high, and to be proud of who I am.

To be grateful for what I have and to be kind and caring to others. 

To respect Women and treat them with respect. 

To be humble, learn and respect Culture and Elders and help others in need…and of course, to have fun living life to the fullest and to not take anything for granted. 

As you said at the end of your letter Dad, this is just the beginning of a yarn, and we will continue it sitting around the campfire when we’re all back home on Country. 

Love you Dad, thank you. 

Ryan.

 

'Dear Son': First Nations fathers pen heartfelt letters to family in forthcoming anthology
Stan Grant, Troy Cassar-Daley, and Jack Latimore are among the contributors whose letters grapple with racism and identity, and present an honest picture of the struggles First Nations men face.

Watch the full story here: