Writer and storyteller Michelle Murray is driven by the need to understand herself and the family she has chosen – she is a white woman married to an Aboriginal man, with whom she has two children. Synergistically, Michelle’s latest project, Meeting of the Waters, is one of a number of creative investigations by artists and communities along South Australia’s stretch of the River Murray which ask: “How did we get here and where are we going?”
“Meeting of the Waters is not only about waters meeting,” says Michelle. “It’s also about the meeting of Aboriginal and European cultures – which I feel, at times, has collided inside me.
“I think as white Australians we’re really quite confronted by our history. So we do everything we possibly can not to put our feet down, not to get to know our own story – because then we’ll have to confront something profoundly traumatic.
Michelle explains that in every project she undertakes she tries to at least touch on that trauma, by bringing a story to light so that it can be talked about, in a way that doesn’t condemn either side of the story.
“Telling stories helps me to be okay with something that I can’t fathom most of the time. I get satisfaction in trying to understand the things we don’t talk about, which then helps me to understand why we live the way we do today.”
Michelle spent her residency for Meeting of the Waters in Wellington, immersing herself in the history of the place, the people and the river – and meeting some of the locals who live there today.
“Wellington is Ngarrindjeri country. Historically we know there was a meeting of white settlers and the Ngarrindjeri people. Like everywhere else where we met there was devastation for the Aboriginal people but I knew from my own family that there might also be points of understanding.”
Michelle explains that she trawls through history to find somebody who might represent a generation that helped make us who we are today – and at the same time to relieve some kind of internal tension within herself.
“I just want to relieve myself from the pressure of being me. I just find it excruciating and if I can do it within my work, even better.
“I feel like I’m inheriting a story that’s just horrendously traumatic – and I’m also responsible for that trauma through being a white person, through inheriting the benefits of taking people’s land. So I’m kind of stuck right in the middle and I guess I need to reconcile it inside myself.
“I live in a house where I’m the only white person. So I need to understand at a much more intimate level, to know that there are other people like me. And that there were other people like me, before me, and there was some kind of meeting and understanding between people – this humanity between people.
“So I guess I go looking for stories where there might have been other women like me, who loved someone who was Aboriginal – knowing full well what stigma might be associated with that. And then also how they might never be accepted into that Aboriginal family, but still manage to love that person and raise families and be proud of who they are.”
Along the way Michelle encountered the story of stone mason and preacher William McHughes, a Ngarrindjeri man who was married to Sarah, a Ngarrindjeri woman, with whom he had 10 children, the descendants of whom still live in the Wellington region today. After Sarah died, William married a white woman.
“Five years after Sarah died he married Alice Ledgard whose family had emigrated from England. … She must have understood the significance of marrying an Aboriginal man, but she wasn’t the only white woman in Wellington who did.”
“Women don’t speak in history so they are hard to find. But that is pretty much the most exciting moment for me – when I find that woman who’s like a version of me.”
Michelle explains that when she went to the old church that William built in Wellington, that’s when the story started to come together for her.
“It appears that he built the church while he was grieving for his first wife, but it was his second wife who would have been in that church, in the family pew. Apparently it was where both white and black worshipped. So Alice wasn’t the only white person worshipping there and she wasn’t the only white woman married to an Aboriginal man.
“It’s like there was this one moment where, not just William and his wife, but other Aboriginal men as well were able to forge lives with white women. It looks like, just before Federation – so before the White Australian Policy – there was this moment in time where Australia could have been a very different place.”
Michelle Murray is performing a poetic monologue from the parallels of this and the stories she discovers on the Murray at the Wellington Courthouse on Sunday 27 September at the Meeting of the Waters launch.