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Penrith, Henry James (1936–1997)

by Peter Read

from Australian

This entry is from Obituaries Australia

Burnum Burnum Aboriginal activist, storyteller and actor. Born Wallaga Lake, NSW, January 1936. Died Sydney, August 18, aged 61.

Full acceptance by the Aboriginal community always eluded Burnum Burnum, a member of the "stolen generations" who began the long journey home earlier than most others. His immediate family had been devastated by the Australian government's removal and dispersal policies. Remaining somewhat of an outsider, he bore the terrible burden of standing at the edge of the firelight looking in at the warmth of communal Aboriginality.

But being an outsider also gave him new insights which, even if he would gladly have traded them for an opportunity to stay with his family, benefited the rest of Australia.

His achievements were remarkable and singular. He loved Mozart, he played rugby for NSW in the 1950s, he studied law at the University of Tasmania in the late 60s, he won a Churchill Scholarship in 1975, he ran for the Senate. He involved himself in several non-Aboriginal social issues, including anti-logging at Terania Creek, NSW. He was equally involved in Aboriginal activities, including as deputy general manager of Aboriginal Hostels Ltd, and in the campaign that resulted in Truganini's remains, on show in Hobart as "the last Tasmanian", being cremated and returned to the ocean in 1976.

His most celebrated action was during Australia's Bicentenary celebrations in 1988 when, in a symbolic invasion of England, he "landed" at Dover and erected an Aboriginal flag. But then, typically, he offered the British a form of peace offering, a fresh start. Throughout his public life he sought to provoke neither guilt nor bitterness.

He was born Harry Penrith at Wallaga Lake, on the NSW south coast, in 1936. His father was of the Woiworung people of NSW and his mother of the Yorta Yorta people of Victoria. She died soon after his birth and Harry was seized by the inappropriately named Aborigines Protection Board. After spending his early childhood at the United Aboriginal Mission home at Bomaderry he was sent to the Kinchela Boys Home near Kempsey, on the NSW north coast.

This was one of the worst of all the "welfare" institutions, where he endured the worst period of its painful history. Physical abuse was matched by psychological. It is probably true that no one from Kinchela emerged untouched by the inculcated feelings of utter worthlessness as Aboriginal boy, youth and man. Each former inmate has had to come to terms with this dreadful past, at the cost of much trauma to himself and to those near him.

Burnum Burnum was the first to admit to the scars he carried from his boyhood and adolescence. Yet he was one of the very few former Kinchela inmates who achieved anything like the accepted life span of a non-Aboriginal male. He outlived most of his Kinchela contemporaries by a decade and more.

In 1976, at the age of 40, he changed his name to honour the memory of his great-grandfather of the Wurundjeri people and as part of his search for his own Aboriginality. The recovery of Aboriginality was a matter of culture and of belonging, and was as important to him as it had been to so many of the stolen generations of Aboriginal children.

Today full beards, traditional dress and indigenous names are accepted as expressions of pride in southern Aboriginality. But Harry Penrith was one of the very first to adopt such a persona and he paid the price for it.

While always a welcome speaker in schools and lecture halls, some of his Aboriginal contemporaries did not at first take him seriously when he changed his name.

He was doubly handicapped: he did not have the wide knowledge of his extended family that would have been his had he not been removed as a baby; worse, few Aborigines who had remained with their families understood what drove him so urgently to recover his Aboriginality. It was as if they thought that he had less right to speak than Aborigines who had not been removed.

He was once playfully, but also somewhat derisively, known as "Wettum Wettum" because he threw a glass of water over someone he disagreed with; but in later years that sobriquet was dropped as the Aboriginal community learned to respect and understand him. Thanks to the brave forerunners such as himself, traditional names and clothing are now acceptable in the Aboriginal community.

The slow progress of the Aboriginal community towards comprehending the terrible emotional traumas of removal and the difficulty of reassuming one's Aboriginality has taken several decades but is now, it seems, almost complete. Those who think and speak differently from those raised on government stations or within their own families are not rejected. Their desire to resume their once-denied Aboriginality is mostly comprehended sympathetically.

One of the most important consequences of the recent stolen generations inquiry, though one not much discussed, is the education of Aborigines who were not removed about the long-term effects of removal among those who were.

Burnum Burnum's comments to the inquiry, when he said his childhood institutions had totally wiped out his Aboriginality, help the uncomprehending to grasp at last what the stolen generations endured and endure.

He was, however, one of the earliest of contemporary Aboriginal voices to argue against Aboriginal bitterness over the dispossession the past, he said, cannot be turned back. The land, to Burnum Burnum, was the ultimate power.

Probably he was in a minority when he argued in his 1988 book Burnum Burnum's Aboriginal Australia — A Traveller's Guide, that "no one people have a sole franchise on the ability to feel an affinity with this timeless landscape". Many non-Aboriginal Australians urgently wanted to hear that position; he reassured them that their feelings for Australia were not only powerful but legitimate.

Burnum Burnum's greatest achievement was to turn the intention of the child-snatchers on its head: while searching for his place among his people he used his remarkable abilities in the service of them.

It is now accepted that Aboriginal political activity, far more than in the 1970s when Harry Penrith changed his name, takes many forms for which he was partly responsible. His gift to political Aboriginality was to offer alternatives to barnstorming tactics such as the tent embassy in Canberra, tactics that achieved much in 1972 but have seldom done as much since. He wrote a book, he was master of the theatrical and the flamboyant, he appeared in films, he worked for government inquiries, he recounted serious mythology for non-Aboriginal audiences and, above all, he entertained children. He built upon the large gestures of the Freedom Ride; he communicated earnestly with non-Aborigines.

His gift to spiritual Aboriginality was also one of diversity and difference. He reassured those of his people prepared to listen that one could learn from non-Aborigines as well as teach them, that it was all right to listen to Mozart, to articulate feelings of loss and love and grief, to fight for causes not specifically Aboriginal, to offer a place in Australia to non-Aborigines.

Most of these positions have not yet been fully taken up by his fellow Kooris: the world has become more hostile to Aboriginality since the forward steps of Whitlam, Fraser and Keating.

Never lacking passion or courage, Burnum Burnum overcame great personal difficulty that he seldom spoke about. He brought to his fellow Australians sadness, not bitterness; acceptance, not rejection; invitations, not the slamming of doors. We can all learn from those precepts, not least our governments.

Burnum Burnum died after a heart attack. He is survived by his widow, Marelle, and five children.

Peter Read is an Australian research fellow at the history department, ANU, and a former worker for Link-Up, which researched the stolen generation for the national inquiry.

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Citation details

Peter Read, 'Penrith, Henry James (1936–1997)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, https://ia.anu.edu.au/biography/penrith-henry-james-27064/text39218, accessed 26 July 2021.

© Copyright Obituaries Australia, 2012