Interview: Gunditjmara Elder Ivan Couzens
Interview: Gunditjmara Elder Ivan Couzens,
Sarah Rhodes, producer,
Koorie Heritage Trust, 2011
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Gundijtmara Elder Ivan Couzens talks about growing up on a mission, the differences between growing up then and now, and how possum skin cloaks help Aboriginal people know who they are, and where they come from.
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My name is Ivan Couzens. I’m going on for seventy-nine year old. I’ve probably been around for a long time, too long. I was born at the Framlingham Aboriginal Reserve and I lived out there in little old huts, in the scrub, in the early days. Just a dirt floor and hessian bags for window screens. I will never forget being brought up, I was only five years old. After, when I was only five years old we moved from the huts on the mission's scrubs into ten acre allotments that were given to the Aboriginal people that were living on the settlement. On the 10 acre blocks they were new timber houses being built. One good thing about this is that they had toilets just outside, bathhouses, and we also had water tanks rather than going down to the spring at the Hopkins River to cart our drinking water and so on up. If we want to take a bath would go down to the river and it was cold. I preferred the summertime of course.
Mum and Dad moved into the allotments and 10 acre blocks. It was a really big improvement on the huts and living in the scrubs etc... And us kids reckoned it was absolutely fantastic. There was not really big houses and there are eight of us in the family plus Mum and Dad. It was pretty crowded.
My older brothers Gordon and Stan were able to get jobs in the local farmhouses cutting grass and so on, milking cows etc... and digging potatoes. About four or five years later Mum and Dad decided to move into a farmhouse and was about five miles away from the mission station and we move to that. That was a big eye-opener for us kids because there was cows everywhere. We had to bring the cows into milk them and cut thistles and all those sorts of things.
It was a five mile bike ride to school and return it was a 10 mile bike ride each day to school and if we couldn’t ride the bikes, if they punctured or broken down or something we would cross the Hopkins River into the forest and walk to school which was three miles and made it six miles a day. That was the good old days I can say. I think of all the things that we did, that we had to put up with and they never hurt us. They just learnt is that we were lucky I suppose. With the kids on what they're getting today in comparison what we had and what we were able to get is just incredible.
But that cloak, it’s absolutely terrific. The possums skin cloak that Vicki instigated and got all the girls involved. All me granddaughters - Vicki's girls and the other two, like Debbie. Lisa was living in Geelong I think at that time. But it was a real thing that really got us all stirred up about knowing who we are and where we come from and all those sorts of things. I know when Vicki and Deborah and them started school here in Warrnambool. They went to the Warrnambool West State School. And I warned them, when you go there the kids call you a black fellas and black so-and-sos and I said that doesn't matter. I said you are black fellas, even though you don’t look black looking. I said you are, so say: ‘Yeah I'm black and you are white, so ha ha ha’.
It was a good thing they learned a lot about the Aboriginal affairs and who they were and where they come from, and what their grandparents were and where they came from. There was always that racism thing happening with a lot of the schools. I know it used to happen to me when I was playing football. I remember one bloke. I put him down one day, fair and square, and he got up calling me a black so-and-so. I just run away laughing at him and about five minutes later he was in the same position. I put him down again. While he was there gasping on the ground, I put my hand down and pulled him up and he was puffin’ and pantin’. I said: ‘How's that for a black bastard mate? He ran away and after we went for our drinks in the hotel, after the game was over, he come up with a can of beer and he said, ‘Here you are buddy. I'm sorry for what I called you’. And I said, ‘I am black fellow, I know I am’, I said. ‘It didn't hurt me. He said, ‘No, I shouldn’t have said it.’ And I thought: ‘That’s great, there are good people in the country, who listen and take all of those sort of things in’.
But looking at them today. Sarah come along and took me photo of me wearing a possum skin cloak, so I was absolutely. It was really hard to tell a feeling. I was overwhelmed and you try to stick your chest out and parade around, even though there wasn’t anybody there watching us. It was a fantastic thing wearing them and that's how I feel about it so I’m really proud of what the girls did. It wasn’t only Vicki. It was some other girls from other organisations. It went right around Victoria. They all started producing them or having a go at it.
Being proud of who she is, knowing who she is. I think that is one big issues with the kids - knowing who they are and why they should be proud of who they are. That is one of the big thing about kids today is to establish that thing with them; because a lot of the kids, if they get any racism and remarks about them. It not only happened to our kids but that happened of our people coming in and wanting to stay in Australia. I think it is getting a lot easier for them because people are accepting them as well.