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Spiritual dignity and cultural heritage

Updated: Oct 1, 2022

When I meet people, I ask them “what’s your story?”, to which they often reply, “what do you want to know?”. I like that my question is as open-ended as they get, so that what people tell me is driven by what they want me to know. But what if the tables were turned? What’s my story? Who am I? What is important for you to know?

So often, what we tell of our stories is dependent on the context. I missed it completely in a recent exchange, because I thought my introduction should be about me as a workshop facilitator, when really it should have been about me culturally. I was in a context where my cultural heritage was important.

If you were to introduce yourself culturally, what would you say? A dear colleague would talk about his beloved grandmother encouraging him to get an education, and how that was interwoven with his Aboriginality. His story is beautiful and inspiring.

But what would I say?! Here’s what I do know …

To start with, I am, first and foremost, a "bitza": ‘bitza this and bitza that’. I am not only a “Citizen of the Planet” as Simon and Garfunkel penned, I am a melting pot of religions, languages, and lifestyles. Secondly, I have a cultural heritage of pioneers, survivors, first-in-families and MacGyvers!

I look through my story on my father’s side, and see a man (from Siauliai in Lithuania marry a woman (from possibly Warsaw in Poland) living in the Russian Empire. They escape in 1881, have a baby in Poland on the way to England, and move with their young Jewish family to Australia a little later, during times of immense oppression and prejudice. They try farming and run The Waratah Hotel in Mayfield (which became the Stag and Hunter Hotel). I could feel my family’s spirit the first time I set foot in that pub, even though I had no evidence that they had ever been there.

I look through my story and see a young man from Dublin and his wife set off from England to sail to Australia in 1857, and sadly this woman dies at sea, leaving her grieving husband to care for their infant son. When he arrives in Australia, he and his widowed sister run The Junction Inn Hotel in Raymond Terrace, where I got that same feeling of family the first time I entered. When he remarried, he joined forces with the neighbouring pub, the Clare Castle (also known as Hanlon’s Hotel). The Hanlons were big on droving cattle, and renowned for horsemanship. Somewhere in the Irish history, there is a story of a Spanish princess too … the mystery is tantalising!!

Then I see that little baby girl who was born to Jewish parents in Poland all grown up. She gives up her religion to marry a Catholic drover (the grandson of those Irish immigrants). In doing so, she loses the support of her family during the Depression. She is dead to them: photos containing her image are placed face-down and her siblings are forbidden to see her. And yet, two of her brothers continued to visit during my father’s boyhood.

These two families – the Sussmans and the Hanlons – were pioneers, and became leaders in their communities (including a mayor and mayoress), and when they came together, my father came to be.

I look through my story on my mother’s side, and see an Italian man (with blue eyes that strike you even from a sepia-coloured photo) come to Australia, and marry a warm cuddly Australian woman who was born near the mighty Murray River (which I rafted over 20 years ago). The Cerutis loved theatre and putting on a show, and with those sparkling blue eyes, would have turned heads! Looking at old photos, I can see the likeness between my mother and her Nana Ceruti (Jane Sophia, who was called Daisy).

After a few generations of piercing blue eyes, we come to my mother’s father, a sculling champion who meets and marries his very own Maori princess. Or at least, that’s how I always imagined my grand-mama. You see, she suffered tuberculosis and died at the age of 31 (when my Mum was aged 8, and poor dear Uncle Des was a gorgeous little infant), so I never had the chance to ask Grand-Mama about her Maori heritage. She had the softest brown eyes, and she always looked like an angel to me. I have felt her spirit with me all my life. Mum was glad when her Dad remarried (the kids called their step-mother Mater) and she loved my Nana dearly. I am lucky that my aunt and uncle did what they could to fill in the blanks with the Maori heritage though….

To be a Maori chief, you had to show that you were directly descended from the pioneers who came from Hawaiiki/Tahiti. In our case, that was Kupe: my aunt and uncle traced our lineage all the way back to the ancestor who discovered and named Hokianga Harbour in the North Island of New Zealand.

My Maori and non-Maori kiwi ancestors (the Stanaways) focussed their lives on the Kaipara and Hokianga districts, and there was much bloodshed over the Hokianga, especially in the early 1800s. My mother used to say to me when I was a little girl, that I am ‘a direct descendant of Hone Heke, the last Maori chief to give in to the British’. Hone Heke might have signed the Treaty of Waitangi but then he cut down the flagstaff from which the British flag flew because he would not accept British sovereignty. He cut it down 3 times during a period variously known as Heke’s Wars, the Northern Wars and the Flagstaff War. He’s a pretty big hero … (and a friend recently said, “so that’s where you get your tenacity from”).

I stumbled over Hone Heke, because a family tree produced by my mother’s Uncle Pat named him as a non-direct member of my lineage. My mother seemed to think that her great-great-great-grandmother, Henipapa, was the link to Hone Heke. But not according to Uncle Pat’s tree: it said Henipapa was the daughter of Wetekia and Mohi te Hokaanga. And that’s where I went down the rabbit hole and got stuck because I just couldn’t find the direct link! I could find links, yes, but nothing that directly linked me to Hone Heke.

I spent a week trawling through old papers and the internet (my cousins and distant relatives have carried on a tenacious trek through our heritage) and I’m more confused than ever! Mysteries abound!! Many mysteries!!!

So, who am I? What’s my story? I am saddened by the losses, prejudices, and hardships suffered by my forebears. I am proud of the many people who went before me and did what they could to make do, make ends meet, and make peace. I am intrigued by the political and cultural questions that insinuate themselves into my family story. My ego really likes the mention of “princess” (numerous times!!), sculling champion, publican (including a woman licensee), mayor and mayoress …

I am humbled by the people who overcame hardship and prejudice to become successful vocationally as well as socially respected, and loved by their communities. And I am in awe of the “spiritual dignity” of my own beloved parents who always did what they could to help those in need without making a big thing of it.

Thanks for reading .. for coming along on the journey with me! My ancestors have travelled by canoe, ship and who knows how else to get me to here. They have braved gales and overpowering seas. Masts broke, two men actually lost their wives on their trips from England (JJ Stanaway on Mum's side as well as JA Hanlon on Dad's side), and I cannot count how many had to pick up and move their families because of bloody unrest that went on for decades.

I feel for those who suffer these injustices now and keep them in my prayers. Feel free to join me ...


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