Iris Rose Clayton: 1945-2009.
Iris died on 5 July 2009 at Bega, New South Wales, after more than a decade of recurrent health problems. She was born in Leeton Hospital on 15 February 1945, the eldest child of Cecil and Lily Clayton (nee Carter). Her early life was spent by the Murrumbidgee with her extended family in the close knit community which had grown up at the Darlington Point Police Paddock reserve, following the forced closure of Warangesda mission in 1924. The community life she experienced on the river bank and later when the family moved to Wattle Hill, Leeton, had a lasting effect on Iris. It was here she developed close relationships with her grandmothers and learned the stories, culture and language which formed the core of her identity as a Wiradjuri woman.
In 1958, when her father failed to return from a droving trip, the Welfare Board was quick to move and, despite offers of support from relatives, Iris, two brothers and three sisters were taken to Cootamundra Home. Her time at Cootamundra ironically consolidated the values she had begun to acquire early in life--those of family, culture and the importance of identity--all of which were under assault in the Home. Here she saw first-hand the dislocation of fellow inmates, many taken at an early age, who had lost knowledge of their families and sometimes of who they were. She was punished for using the Wiradjuri words she had learned on the river bank and was denied access to her mother. All this strengthened her resolve to hold fast to her family ties and to her Wiradjuri identity. She took on the role of defender of her younger siblings and adopted ingenious methods to subvert the censorship of mail and denial of family contact. In one instance, typical of her inventiveness, she successfully contrived to meet her mother, albeit briefly, on the beach at Wollongong by smuggling word to her of a visit there by the Cootamundra girls.
At 15 she was placed as a domestic servant in Canberra and, determined to maintain contact with her family, succeeded in visiting her brothers who had been transferred to Kinchela. Her mother and stepfather had moved to Sydney and, when released from service in 1963, Iris joined them, but returned to Leeton after the birth of her first son. Here she married Tex Urquhart, described as a gun picker, and together they had five children. In the following years Tex and Iris moved between Leeton and Sydney, where one of Iris' more memorable jobs was squeezing her diminutive form into a box to play the head of the snake princess in a Royal Easter Show sideshow. In 1979 in Sydney, Iris met Mike Hinchy. He was to be her partner for 30 years and she soon joined him in Canberra.
The move back to Canberra was to have lasting significance. It was this which led to her involvement with the then Australian Institute of Aboriginal Studies (AIAS) and enabled her to pursue her quest for family knowledge, not only for herself but for her wider community. She became an assistant in the Institute library in 1984 under a Commonwealth Employment Program Grant and after the discovery of a photograph of her mother, began to mine the resources of the Institute for family information--as well as contributing to these herself. She became a member of AIAS in 1986. In 1987 and 1988, with an Institute research grant, she went on to create genealogies of Warangesda, Maloga and Cummeragunja missions--travelling to the Museum of South Australia, the Uniting Church Archives at Parramatta and the Riverina. The information in these genealogies and in later research projects Iris undertook, including her 1997 publication The Wiradjuri of the Rivers and Plains (co-authored with Alex Barlow), continues to provide invaluable assistance to people seeking information about their families and history.
Iris' appointment as receptionist at AIAS in 1987 presented another outlet for her inimitable ability to communicate. Operating the switchboard potentially put her in a position of some power which she did not hesitate to exercise when she saw fit, and was a rich source for her side splitting anecdotes. In 1988 she and Mike bought a river-front property at Hall, just outside the Australian Capital Territory. They named the property Killarney, a phonetic approximation of the Wiradjuri name of Iris' mother, Lily--although to most who went there it was simply known as 'the river'. Her mother's house in Annandale had been a refuge and place where young Aboriginal men and women, thrown back into the world after years of separation, could find support and shelter and, in many cases, learn how to reunite with their families. In Iris' hands, in a continuation of her mother's work and her own, the river property became a place where Aboriginal people could come for time out and to heal and gain perspective on their lives, meet others and make family connections.
But it was much more than this. All were welcome at the river--Aboriginal school children in buses from Sydney, visiting scholars from Australia and overseas, people of different races and cultures--Native Americans, Papua New Guineans, Vietnamese and Northern Territory dancers to name only a few--as well as friends from AIATSIS and the wider Canberra community and often very extended family. Here, too, Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people who otherwise may never have had the opportunity to meet could do so through the generosity which led Iris to make her river and its beaches available for all to enjoy. Life at the river was in Mike's words 'a constantly changing and incredibly stimulating environment.' Perhaps most important of all the river gave Iris' immediate family, her sisters, her surviving brother and their families and her own children a breathing space in their lives and a place they could call their own.
Iris served her community in even more ways--she was a member of the ACT Cultural Council, was instrumental in the establishment of the Aboriginal Health Service in Canberra and influenced a generation of school children as a regular visitor to ACT schools, where she told her story and explained her culture. Entries in the AustLit online Australian literature resource and the Australian Women's Register and Archive, dedicated to recognition of the contribution made by women to Australia, testify to her own contribution and document her body of research and literary output.
As a supporter of the Aboriginal Embassy from the day she waved goodbye to its founders when they set out for Canberra in 1972, she continued to champion Aboriginal rights and in her many media interviews never lost an opportunity to make known the injustices suffered by Aboriginal people. She drew on her own life to make her point in poems like the self-explanatory 'Kidnappers' and 'The Black Rat', a condemnation of the treatment of returned Aboriginal soldiers, based on the experience of her father, a Rat of Tobruk.
The move to the Murrumbidgee at Hall had been symbolic for Iris--a move back to the river of her childhood and her family's ancient history--and later she was to comment that her life had gone full circle. This was temporarily interrupted in 1997 by her relocation, for health reasons, to the South Coast. Based in Towamba, then Pambula, as always she developed friendships and made life more exciting for all around her, including during her all too frequent periods in hospital. She did return at last to the Murrumbidgee on 21 July, when in a private ceremony, again at her request, more ashes were scattered into the river at Hall, flowing back to the Darlington Point of her childhood.
Writer, historian, poet, inimitable storyteller with personal qualities of warmth and unrivalled humour, shrewd and compassionate with a command of language and unique delivery which could reduce or elevate the listener--as Iris chose--all this can go only so far in describing Iris Clayton. Perhaps it is simply sufficient to say that she was a proud Wiradjuri woman.
Clayton, Iris with Alex Barlow 1997 The Wiradjuri of the Rivers and Plains, Heinemann Library, Port Melbourne.
Philippa Scarlett. Philippa met Iris Clayton in 1994 through their common interest in Warangesda.
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|Publication:||Australian Aboriginal Studies|
|Date:||Sep 22, 2009|
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