BUSH TREASURE: Aunty Muriel Burns looks over the Clarence. Photo: Lachlan Thompson
BUSH TREASURE: Aunty Muriel Burns looks over the Clarence. Photo: Lachlan Thompson

She linked stolen kids to mums

SHE was just a young nurse, fresh from her training, but when Aunty Muriel Burns stumbled across Bomaderry Children's Home, the site housing many children of the Stolen Generation, she knew she had to help.

Today Aunty Muriel lives in Maclean, a pillar of the Clarence Valley's indigenous community, and her contribution was recognised by the State Government when she was formally acknowledged as a hidden treasure of the bush.

Her story started in a community stranded in the middle of the Clarence River at the Ulugundahi Island Aboriginal Mission.

"There was nothing out there, just a church, a school and some huts," Aunty Muriel said.

"You see my mum died when I was seven or eight, so I was looked after by all my aunties and uncles."

And life was hard with even bare necessities like firewood and fresh water at a premium.

"You lived a protected life and you could only drink water as a kid, not even tea," she said.

"And when we had a drink of water you all had to drink from one mug, so me and all my sisters and cousins would line up and get one mouthful each."

But life was also not without its good times, particularly Sunday lunch.

"Every family brought something and we'd all cook in the big old camp oven.

"We didn't have much and things like tomato sauce were a delicacy but the gravy we made out of that camp oven, it was like gold.

"We'd get enough to fill a big pan and the old people would thicken it with flour and we kids we'd always want more but what we had, had to last."

Other pleasures of Ulugundahi life included hunting for bush honey, taking plums from forbidden trees and musing on how Santa Claus reached the island.

"We figured he must have had a boat," she laughed.

At the age of 14 Aunty Muriel left Ulugundahi to attend a Bible college in Singleton with three of her sisters.

"We all wanted to be missionaries and nurses," she said.

"And because all our teachers were American Baptists when we arrived we all had these American accents."

But the limited educational opportunities on Ulugundahi had left a mark and even after a few years at school in Singleton she struggled to pass the gateway exams for nursing.

"I don't mind now though, it made me tough," she said.

"You see the education on the island was very limited and then when we came to the mainland we had to struggle but I'm glad I did.

"It made me humble and it made me love God - not that I'm some sort of professing Christian but it did."

And the third try proved a charm and Aunty Muriel completed her qualification in Sydney.

"We learned the old way, everything from the matron, not the way they do now at TAFE," she said.

After a few years in Sydney Aunty Muriel heard of a place where she thought she could help her own people, the Bomaderry Children's Home.

So she went down to visit and made a horrifying discovery.

"There were all these kids there and I'd ask them who they were and they were all from the North Coast," she said.

"And I'd say to them I know who you are, I know your mum, or I know your uncle.

"And they told me their parents weren't allowed to come and visit and I said why? And they said the missionaries would not let them and I asked why but I had to leave it at that.

"I saw all the wrongdoing and I just kept it to myself."

Instead Aunty Muriel worked quietly behind the scenes, smuggling pots of tea to parents who did manage to come and see their children, and keeping the links to their country open.

There started a lifetime of advocacy for her Yaegl people and today Aunty Muriel fights to ensure indigenous people's rights and issues are recognised.

"And my kids turned out lovely," she said.

"My son, David Prosser, teaches the Yaegl language down in Nambucca, and when I hear it, it is just like music.

"I love my culture and I love my people, and these days I love what I'm doing."


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