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Aunty Bertha tells inside story

ABORIGINAL HERSTORY: Mick O’Regan and his interview subject Aunty Bertha Kapeen at the Bangalow Museum.
ABORIGINAL HERSTORY: Mick O’Regan and his interview subject Aunty Bertha Kapeen at the Bangalow Museum. Digby Hildreth

BERTHA Kapeen's mum used to have to stand outside her Cabbage Tree Island home with her children every Friday while the reserve manager's wife inspected the place, wiping the surfaces with her finger.

If she found dust, it meant a black mark: several black marks led to the children being taken away by the Welfare Board.

When Bertha went to the pictures with her best friend, a white girl named Ruby, they weren't allowed to sit together.

On public transport, it was "if you're black, sit down the back".

Aunty Bertha, now 77 and a Bundjalung Elder, shared these and other painful memories with Bangalow journalist Mick O'Regan in the latest of the Bangalow Historical Society's "Inside Story" series on Sunday.

The Tea Rooms were filled with people keen to hear about the Aboriginal experience from one who had lived through it.

Taking her lead from her strict and hard-working parents, Aunty Bertha raised her eight children to focus on their education and to take pride in their ethnicity.

They all finished Year 12 and got jobs, she said.

Life wasn't easy, even after 1967 when Aborigines gained the vote, and Aunty Bertha obtained an "exemption certificate", permitting her to move next to whites - a move recommended by the Welfare Board so she could "learn how to live".

Despite such humiliations, and a fierce loyalty to her people, Aunty Bertha taught her children that white people were here "for ever" now.

She was "still a bit sad and angry" about the abuses suffered by Aborigines, she said.

"But I wanted to do something with that anger, so I made it my business to talk about Aboriginal history," she said.

She joined every school council and committee she could, and eventually, through sheer force of personality and familiarity came to be accepted by the white community.

But, she said, while there were "a lot of good people in the white world", racism still existed and she experienced it personally on the streets of Ballina.

And Aborigines were still classified as "flora and fauna" under the Constitution, she said.

Until that changed, and Kevin Rudd's apology translated into real action, Aunty Bertha said she would continue her fight to have her people get the acknowledgment and respect they deserve.


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