It’s easier for Indigenous elder Janine Armistead – known as Aunty Jen – to talk while holding her ‘land’ in her hands. Being connected to the soil at all times is vital to this inspirational and funny woman who until about five years ago considered herself lost. It gives her peace. Makes her feel grounded.
Aunty Jen explains: “The young ones today need grounding. Each child receives a vial of soil and a leaf as part of their naming ceremony at Willum Warrain now, so if they are away from Country they still have a piece of it with them. It makes us feel strong, and our ancestors would approve. I’ve felt like something was missing for much of my life. I’m on record as being Indigenous, but because I don’t have black skin there’s the assumption that I am not Aboriginal. I’ve missed out on being connected to culture. But not now. The day I walked into Willum Warrain in Hastings was the day I felt like I was home. I gave a big sigh and then breathed again. This is where my soil comes from.”
Aunty Jen continues: “My mother’s people are from Padthaway in South Australia and my father’s mob are Yirandhali from up Hughenden way in Queensland. I grew up in Tennant Creek in the Northern Territory. My father Charles Renfry – or Snowy, as he was known – helped move the Catholic church from Pine Creek to Tennant Creek as recorded in Darwin’s Northern Standard in 1936. It was dismantled and railed from Pine Creek to Birdum and then trucked the rest of the way to Tennant Creek. It was locally known as the ‘longest church in Australia’ because the trucks carrying the church got caught in a flood, became bogged and some of the load had to be removed. Parts of the church got washed away and were strewn out over 700km.”
She continues: “I did the best I could growing up but wasn’t connected to culture. I felt like a lost soul searching for something. It’s so important to feel connected. During the COVID-19 lockdown I noticed how sad everyone looked. People would walk past my house in Frankston with their masks on and I saw a terrible sadness in their eyes, so I painted a bookshelf bright pink and lined the shelves with free plants (pictured) for people to take. I also put out bowls of water for dogs. People began dropping off potting mix, containers and plants and looked happy again. We were part of something together.”
This self-proclaimed ‘jack of all trades’ and mother of three who settled in Victoria with her husband Barry in 1986 is a proud Indigenous elder. Life goes on, with her soil making her strong. This one small transparent tube containing Country, which she holds with grace and a sense of place.