Under The Fig Tree

“Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people should be aware that this site may contain names, images and/or voices of people who have since passed away. We wish not to cause any offence.”

I met her under the fig tree where, in 1997, friends gathered in the backyard of the small house in Thornbury. She would have been seventy years old at the time, she with her strong features, her skin softly tinted brown, her quiet manner and her palpable passion for justice and truth for Aboriginal people, her people, Australia’s First Nations. Her name was Aunty Betty Pike, she was the elder. She was on for a yarn in this cool spot with shade enough for the hottest day. She was Catholic and certain that the Catholic church would never be what the Creator intended until it received with joy the ancient spiritual heritage this land shaped during so many thousand years.

Aunty Betty Pike is a Noongar woman. In the years since that first meeting I have heard, in no chronological order, a few details of her life.

World War 2 gave Betty the chance, with her father’s permission and fudging of her age, to join the Women’s Royal Australian Air Force. She was sixteen when she was trained as an aircraft mechanic in the WRAAF.  She knew she was a girl among women but was determined to do what was expected, tuning plane engines for battle and participating in trial flights of battle conditions. When the war ended Betty left the army and stayed in Melbourne, sharing accommodation with a friend she had worked beside in the services. She was just eighteen years old. One day when feeling lonely and depressed she went to a Catholic Mass and sensed that this was the place for her.  Betty appreciated the ritual; the day was Holy Thursday. She joined a group to learn more about Catholic faith, then made a free and independent choice to become a Catholic. For some time, she worked in a department store, then passed an exam to gain employment in Public Services. Betty met her future husband Aubrey at a Parish dance, and they were married at St Augustine’s, a small church in Bourke Street in inner city Melbourne.

The Victorian Public Service Department did not employ married women so for the next few decades Betty’s life centered on family as she and Aubrey set up their home in Geelong. She was mother to Tricia, Helen, Gregory, Annette and Gary who passed into the Dreaming ahead of his mother. As the children became more independent Aubrey, who was a war veteran with many years of service, developed cancer. Betty nursed him at home until he died.

It took a very long time for Betty to talk about her years of ‘doing it tough’. A survey called ‘Yarn Up invited her to talk about her whole life on the record. In the archive of interviews with Aboriginal war veterans Betty’s voice is calm and thoughtful.

Betty was born in Western Australia in 1927 to an Aboriginal mother and a father who was not Aboriginal. She was cared for by both parents but was in dire danger of being taken away by ‘the welfare’ and put in an institution where every effort would be made to block out her Aboriginal culture. Her mother, father, sister and brother managed to stay together through the crucial years of Betty’s early childhood; then her mother left. The children had been saved from the danger of ‘the welfare’ but knew nothing of their Aboriginal heritage, it was too dangerous a secret to be told. Betty’s father did his best for her but in the grim time of the Great Depression he lost his job and could not find another nearby. His sister offered to care for Betty; the child was missing her mother, her father, her sister and brother. She needed to belong and deep in her spirit she needed what generations before her had from birth: tradition, ritual, culture and land in which their Spirit would find meaning.

She longed to belong. As a schoolgirl she was taunted by classmates because her skin colour was darker than theirs. Her non-Aboriginal relatives told her that her skin colour came from her Spanish ancestry. She responded to taunts by fighting back. Betty had noticed Aboriginal people at the edge of town without knowing that she belonged to them. She pitied their poverty and isolation.

Then, during a few short minutes at a train stop everything changed for Betty. She was thirteen years old and sitting alone waiting for the next train. An Aboriginal woman whom she didn’t recognize, perhaps because of the woman’s sunglasses, sat beside her and said, ‘I am your mother’. I try to imagine the scene of a mother who had given birth and had nurtured this blossoming young girl, and a teenager who suddenly finds she is not who she thought herself to be. Without telling her father she went with her mother to visit her grandmother who lived in a tin hut at the edge of a town. She discovered that her mother was a professional ballroom dancer and sewed her own ball gowns. Her mother was on bail and one condition of the bail was that she have no contact with Betty and her siblings. Now, without her father knowing, Betty was introduced to her whole range of Aboriginal relatives. Betty’s father, who carefully abided by all rules, was furious when he found what was happening. He sent Betty by train to live in a Salvation Army Girl’s Home in Perth. At the girls’ home there was nothing to nourish Betty’s spirit and she did not identify with the delinquent girls who had come through the courts and were continually absconding. The staff recognised this and when Betty was sixteen, she left of her own accord. She applied for her birth certificate. The clerk who was handing it to her said that he was sorry to inform her that she was Aboriginal. Betty was joyful; this was a step towards belonging.

Even during the decades of rearing five children and caring for her husband Betty took every opportunity to better understand her First Nations heritage. She thought of it as a gift. After a chance meeting with an Aboriginal woman in Geelong, this new friend alerted her to the Deakin University Institute of Koorie Education; Betty enrolled and graduated with a Bachelor of Arts. When her children were independent, she undertook further study in Darwin to learn more of her people’s stories, rituals and rites.  Along the way she reached out to many of her people who were ‘doing it tough’.

In the foundation days of the Aboriginal Catholic Ministry (ACM) parish priests were asked for the name of any Aboriginal parishioner who might be interested in joining. Joan Hamilton remembers well the day when, accompanied by an Aboriginal man, she knocked on Betty’s front door. Most of all she recalls Betty’s immediate enthusiasm. This new venture could merge the spirituality which embraced the ancient teachings of her people and the best of the Gospel message of Christianity. It could meld together her instinctive sense of the great Creator Spirit, her Catholic faith and her struggle for justice.

Betty was an avid reader, a competent writer and a teller of stories.  At the ACM she slipped into the roles of elder, writer-in-residence and provider of gentle wisdom; there are many facets to Betty’s life.  Between 1992 and 2017 she gave her whole heart to ACM programs, and left her imprint on all the liturgies, rituals and celebrations of the ACM. She published two fine books: The Power of Story and A River Dreaming. She wrote frequently for various journals and magazines and consistently for The Madonna, a Jesuit magazine.

By 2012 she was accepted in the wider Indigenous community in Victoria, receiving recognition on the Honour Role. ‘Up there with Archie Roach!’ She advocated tirelessly for issues of justice. For more than a quarter century, while living in Geelong, she first travelled by car, then as she aged by train and tram to the Aboriginal Catholic Ministry in Thornbury.

Aunty Betty Pike, Noongar woman, entered her eternal Dreaming on Sunday afternoon, February 5th, 2023. She was 95 years old.

This gentle First Nations woman has touched the hearts of many women and men and children throughout Australia. She is cherished by countless friends: those of First Nations and those who came after colonization. She lifted their Spirit and still does. She became a woman of Spirit.

As new fruit can be grafted onto the branch of a mature tree,

may we wish to be grafted onto the ancient heritage

of this land of our First People,

so that its life may flow through us….

Past–Today–and Always–for this is

The Spirit of The Dreaming.

E Pike 2002