Why our Uncle Moogy still feels the pain

You cannot miss Major Sumner when he is in Goolwa for another traditional Ngarrindjeri welcoming smoking ceremony.
The paint on his face represents a mask. His stout frame is also covered in lines showing his people’s sacred rivers, his legs bear the markings of the Australian Bustard or Plains turkey, and there are symbols for the swamp wallaby on his feet. Stunning, to say the least.
With a wry grin beneath his wiry salt and pepper beard, the man we have always known and loved as Uncle Moogy, jokes that people don’t recognise him with his clothes on. And his laugh; it’s distinguishable and natural, completing the persona of a wonderful man so rightfully proud of his heritage.
It is Reconciliation Week, Australia’s way of saying sorry to our Indigenous people for all of its wrong doings since the arrival of Captain Cook. It is particularly special this year – 50 years since Australians overwhelmingly voted to give Aboriginal people voting rights, and 25 years since the Mabo decision, named after Eddie Mabo, the man who challenged the Australian legal system and fought for recognition of the rights of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples as the traditional owners of their land.
At the risk of rekindling controversy, Uncle Moogy – he has no idea why he was called that from almost the day he was born – is not entirely comfortable with this celebration. “I have always thought reconciliation was about making up after an argument,” he says. “But we’ve never had an argument. It’s a word used to say, okay, let’s have a form of friendship with these people, but shouldn’t we be all friends anyway?
“Even the AFL’s Indigenous Round; all the fuss. To me it makes us seem different.”
And there lay the heart of this Reconciliation Week ending June 3; have we changed as a society?
At 69 (“I’m a spring chicken”), and married with nine children, 27 grandchildren and five great-grandchildren, Uncle Moogy has experienced the very lows of racism and has been through the so-called healing processes. His very name has that trace of English sovereignty – Major Lancelot Sumner. Major comes from his uncle, and from his uncle also.
Being raised in Raukkin, 32km east of Goolwa, our Uncle Moogy was oblivious to the outside world.
“Raukkin was good growing up there because a lot of the stuff that we know now but we didn’t know then,” Uncle Moogy said. “We didn’t know about there being one rule for people out there and one rule for us.
“Growing up there we didn’t know that we weren’t allowed to go into the cities or the towns. We didn’t know we weren’t allowed to do certain things because of who we were. Growing up in Raukkin was good because of all the family around you.
“The bad part came when we were told to move. I was 12 years old and they (the government) got people off the Aboriginal reserves so they would assimilate. I loved Raukkin, and the next minute I was in a school in Millicent trying to understand what this assimilation meant.
“We went to a place where none of your relatives were there. It was hard; you were a stranger. You had to learn new rules and all that. I was made to feel welcome to a certain extent, and then there was the negative side of things… a lot of prejudice.
“Because you were not just another kid you were treated differently by kids in the school, their parents and everyone around you. I didn’t even know what prejudice was until I went down there, but I soon found out.
“I see myself now as someone who has seen a lot of changes. I see myself when I was small in Raukkin and growing up. I’ve been through a lot of changes in government.
“I see Aboriginal people walking into the pubs, but years ago we weren’t allowed go near them. In 1963 that changed in Adelaide. My father, Colin Sumner, was the first (Aboriginal) man to drink under that new law when it started in the Grenfell Hotel in Adelaide.
“In 1967 it opened up pubs across the whole state, but by father didn’t see that change; he died before then. The changes didn’t do him any good; it didn’t do me any good. They all drank before then, but if a bottle of beer was one pound it cost you 50 pounds so you couldn’t drink much. People made a lot of money out of the Aboriginal people, and they still do.
“Has society changed? I am not sure whether society has changed or the discrimination has just gone underground.
“You can’t always see it, but there’s always prejudice. You walk around blind if you don’t think so. It’s everywhere.
“It happens in different ways, like where people think you can’t do something because you are Aboriginal. They look at you in a way that is different… it is not always by people saying you are this and all that, but it is still a form of prejudice.
“I think when that happens there is anger; there is conflict between people. It’s not just the Abo talk and all that. Even today you talk to people in the streets and they saw they know that Abo; how my friend is an Abo.
“Sometimes people just go out of their way to be good to you because you are Aboriginal; to convince you they are not prejudice, but in a way that is prejudice. They want to show they are a good person because they are good to an Aboriginal. Some even pat you and make you feel like animal. I see that sort of thing all the time.”
Uncle Moogy feels this prejudice most living in Findon, a western suburb of Adelaide. He has spent a life time visiting his cousins in Goolwa and further along the coast giving many the impression he lives here. And being Ngarrindjeri, the ties are strong. His father was born on Long Point in the Coorong, and his ancestors were from there too.
“I love Goolwa; the spirit of the place,” Uncle Moogy said. “When you come here I feel it. I walked down the street this morning for this ceremony (Cittaslow event) and people looked at me because I was all painted up.
“I thought to myself, this wouldn’t have been the first time an Aboriginal walked down here all painted up. We’ve been doing that for thousands of years (he laughs). We camped here.
“When I come to Goolwa I feel good; I feel welcome. It’s the spirit of this Goolwa, not so much the place but the land, the country. It is like a welcoming spirit. I feel that even when I am driving down. I do ceremonies with different types of people around the country and parts of the world, but when I come here you feel like you are going home. It’s like a sanctuary.”
Some people see Uncle Moogy as just an elder doing a few dances; performing his renowned smoking ceremony, but he has lived an accomplished life. In 2014 he was appointed a Member of the Order of Australia for services to the indigenous community.
He has made an amazing contribution to promoting Aboriginal health, social welfare, youth and cultural heritage, and is best known for his Aboriginal dance performances as the founder of the Talkindjeri Dance Group in 1994. Major Sumner AM is also highly respected internationally, including ceremonies when ancient bones of his Aboriginal ancestors were brought home to Australia from England.
And given the sad plight of his dear father, Major Sumner has been sober for more than 40 years, and is immensely proud of his work since the 1980s with the Aboriginal Sobriety Group and as a founder of the Sober Walk Initiative in 2009.
No, Major Sumner, our Uncle Woogy to his countless friends, is a more than a dancer wearing paint. Most of all, he sees himself as a man loving every one of his children and their children and their children.
“I try to teach my children and grandchildren they have to learn to live in two worlds – our world and this world,” Uncle Moogy said. “I tell them to go to school and they will teach you about this world. But our world, I say, I will teach you and if I am not there my brothers will teach the boys and my sisters will teach the girls.
“I have children in their 40s and they grew up like that, with the dancing, the basket weaving and the stories about this area and how the coast is connected to the river; all of that.
“When I see them I say, you be good. Be good to yourself, because if you are not good to yourself you can’t be good to anyone else or anything around you.
“It’s not being selfish; it’s looking after your health mentally and physically. Once you start harming yourself you don’t give a stuff about your body so you don’t give a stuff about anyone else’s body. That is not our way.”
It’s why we love him with or without the paint. He’s Uncle Moogy, not the Boogeyman.