#RoleModelReading: An interview with Nathan Maynard

The #RoleModelReading series is designed to showcase people whose lives and work deserve to be considered “role model” worthy, but who for whatever reason fall outside what mainstream media tends to promote as a role model for men. Here we hope to offer a more complicated, compelling idea of what a man might aspire to be.

I asked a few friends if they’d ever heard of the practice of seasonal mutton birding—none had. I just did a quick poll of the Canberra living room in which I’m writing this, too, and Truganini’s name (she is incorrectly recognised as the last full-blood Aboriginal Australian from Tasmania’s Indigenous clans) is known by only one of four people.

I think this is representative of mainland Australia’s understanding of the culture and history of Indigenous Tasmanian clans, including of the Trawlwoolway Clan, of which Nathan Maynard, seen above with his son Clay, is a principal descendant. Mainstream Australia continues to understand that Tassie blackfella culture was eradicated, along with anyone who could rightfully lay claim to it.

Quickly, mutton birding is a hunting practice, and it involves sticking your arm down a burrow to grab the almost-mature chicks of migratory mutton birds. The chicks are then plucked and frozen or salted and used as a food source for the remainder of the year. These burrow nests are made in part on the islands off the north coast of Tasmania, and among many other things, the practice of mutton birding is one of the self-evident proofs of Tassie blackfella culture’s ongoing existence.

The value of ritual and custom to one’s sense of self is a rich vein. Drink, war, dance, hunt, win at sport—the ability to do these things has been put forwards at one time or another (erroneously or otherwise) as essential to men’s understanding of their place and value in the world. And attachment to rites and customs is never more important than in postcolonial countries such as ours, where entire ways of life have been (and continue to be) changed.

The reason I spoke to Nathan Maynard, then, was only partly to do with mutton birding. Talking with him was an opportunity to meet several men at once—an artist, a father, a blackfella and a bloke from Tasmania, one whose play The Season, which is about mutton birding and change in the Tassie blackfella world in which he grew up, is appearing at the Sydney Festival in early 2017. So here we chat with Nathan, a Trawlwoolway man and theatremaker, about role models, fatherhood, change and the value of culture and creativity.

Who was your first role model, and do you remember why?

Of course. Me first role model was me father and me mother. When you’re little of course you look up to your parents. They’re your heroes.

What qualities of theirs did you take on yourself?

I definitely took my mother’s sense of humour. Definitely took on my dad’s happy persona. His jovial ways, his shit-stirrin’ ways. That’s me mum, too. I took on a lot of Dad’s physicalities. Y’know, I can be sittin’ down a certain way or whatever and I look over and the old man’s doin’ the same.

Yeah, I know that feeling.

Yeah. Definitely the way Dad’s very personable. When he meets someone, if it’s someone he’s never met before or an old mate, he makes them feel really welcome and special, so I suppose I picked up a little bit of that. I like to think so, anyway.

Whereabouts did you grow up?

I grew up in Launceston, Tasmania, in the suburbs, in the Bronx. First suburb I lived in was Mayfield and then moved to Rocherlea when I was about grade one or two, probably a little bit older, which is a next-door suburb. Then we moved to Newnham, which is another suburb just down the road, but that was a little bit flasher.

What did being a man mean to you when you were growing up? Did you have an idea of what that looked like?

Aw, for sure. I had really strong males around me. Our community, a lot of our community and especially my family, grew up and done it tough. Y’know, the government brought in the Assimilation policy in the late ’50s and they moved our fellas off Cape Barren Island into mainland Tasmania. Our fellas found it really hard. A lot of them old fellas were pretty dark and Tasmania that time was extremely white and they copped a lot of racism, y’know. They copped it from the coppers, they copped it from the mainstream community, copped it from their teachers, basically copped it from everyone, so they become fighters really early on. And y’know, a lot of them fellas were Maynards and they had big reputations of being hard blokes on the street, so I grew up thinkin’ that I had to carry that with me, carry that toughness with me, and I had to be a strong Maynard and learn to defend meself and not back down from anyone, all that sort of—bullcrap, really.

What makes that bullcrap? When did you realise that maybe that wasn’t what you should be doing?

I s’pose when I kept on getting in trouble. I realised that was probably respected by a few, people from the Bronx and that, but if I actually wanted to do something with my life, that wasn’t respected at all, goin’ around thinkin’ I’m a—a Terry Toughcunt, basically.

You keep referring to—is it sort of a collection of suburbs in Launceston that are the Bronx?

Aw, basically it’s the northern suburbs. Housing commission areas.

Do you remember how you came to adopt that term for it?

No, I can’t, to be honest with you. It probably does come from being a young fella and being heavily influenced by American rap music. I s’pose we can relate. Y’know, them fellas were poor. Definitely the levels of violence were different over there, no one in my suburb was getting shot, but we definitely felt there was a class system. We felt like the fellas in them suburbs was treated different and looked at different, looked down at from the richer suburbs.

I listened to an interview with Jim Everett yesterday and he was talking about the low self-esteem that came with being a blackfella in Tasmania, the feeling of shame that made his parents leave Flinders Island and almost seem to forget that they were Tassie blackfellas, because that’s what history said: there weren’t any. I wonder how things for you were perhaps different or the same as you were growing up.

Nah, it was a bit different for me. A lot of time difference between then. When I was growing up, especially in these suburbs I’m talkin’ about there was a lot of blackfellas. Everyone knew my last name, everyone knew my family, my relations, so there was definitely no denying that we were blackfellas, it was more that we were getting discriminated against ’cause we were blackfellas.

You said in the video that’s up on the Sydney Festival website for The Season that it’s important to you that people know Tassie blackfellas are still here, still alive and breathing, that they’re still mutton birding. Why is that important to you?

I hadn’t thought about that much until I started doin’ a lot of mainland trips. Over the mainland there’s still that myth, and that sort of blown me away, that we don’t exist, that we were wiped out when Truganini went—and that’s obviously historically wrong, too, the fact that Truganini was the last, what they say, ‘full-blood’.

Why is it so important? Because we’re strong people, y’know, and this is us, it’s all our being, it’s what makes us, and to have that denied hurts—a lot. Even though a lot of people at home know that we’re still here—I can’t even remember the last time I met someone at home that said Tassie blackfellas don’t exist—there is still this myth that we’ve got no culture, that all our culture was taken away from us.

Also, I like to be loud and proud and out there because the government are still trying to assimilate us, in a way, and I want to say no, look, you can’t. We’re always gonna be here, we’re always gonna be fightin’. They’d still like to get rid of us, I swear it. It’d suit their purpose. Then they wouldn’t have to consult with us when it comes to the big issues relating to our heritage or our people.

Growing up as a Maynard, did you feel pressure with that family name?

Aw, big time, yeah. I always say I feel like we’re pitbull dogs, we’re raised to fight. All of us were expected to be able to fight. You meet whitefellas and you say your last name and they always say, ‘Aw, you fellas, I’ve heard about you fellas—bloody oath, he’s a good bluer.’ Even when I was at school, y’know, someone’d say leave him alone, he’s a Maynard. Don’t mess with him. Which was great sometimes, when you were little.

Is it still hard to be a Maynard and not fight, to want to go a different way? To want to fight differently, perhaps, using different tools.

I think now I’ve got older and maturer, I don’t have to live up to that expectation or that persona any more. I’ve moved out of me hometown, Launceston, which made a world of a difference. Every now and again I’ll hear it—‘Aw jeez, you fellas, bah bah bah’—and I just don’t focus on it. Ten years ago I’d sit there and talk more about it, now I just change the subject.

Why did moving out of Launceston help?

Because I s’pose I had that façade in Launceston. I went so far, goin’ around pretendin’ I was somebody I was not. I had to keep on livin’ up to that. And their rules, the rules of these suburbs, it’s not like one day you can say, alright, I don’t wanna play this game no more.

How did you discover the creative arts and how did being a writer change your values or sense of yourself?

I discovered the creative arts when I was really young in high school. I used to love Speech and Drama, loved it, only subjects I went really well at, actually. But I never had anyone else around me ’cept me Speech and Drama teacher that was encouragin’ me to do that, no one tellin’ me that I could actually go out and do this for a livin’ and do it for the rest of me life, so as soon as I left high school I sorta didn’t bother about it. But I’ve always had that creative side, even though I wasn’t conscious of it.

But then I started dancin’, contemporary traditional dancin’ with my community and I done that for a lot of years, so I was starting to explore my creative side more. Then with the writing, I got asked to audition for a play in Tasmania, a Terrapin show, Shadow Dreams, and I got a role and just fell straight back in love with theatre. And from day dot I just thought, what a wicked platform to tell our fellas’ stories. The whole time I was in rehearsals, all I could think about was, what stories could I tell?

After the show finished, that was hard too, ’cause you’re on a real big high. You go and meet everyone and you feel pretty special, pretty flash, and then after that I was in a real big downer. Then Annette Downs from Tasmania Performs rang me out of nowhere and asked me if I’d like to go on an artists’ residence trip. I was very green, so I went up there with this idea that was only worth about three or four million dollars. [Laughs.] Everyone was like aw, it’s a great idea, Nathan, but jeez that’s big, buddy.

And as I was there, I kept on talkin’ about mutton birdin’. I find that whitefellas are always interested about birdin’. Actually anyone that hasn’t been birdin’ is very interested about birdin’. It’s only an idea to them, to go to these islands and stick your arm down these snake and spider-infested burrows, y’know? So I was tellin’ that, and one of the guys up there, Guy Hooper, well-known Tassie actor, said Nathan, you speak about mutton birdin’ like you really like mutton birdin’. Have you thought about doin’ a bird story?

What does the practice of seasonal mutton birding mean to you? How does that fit into your sense of yourself?

It’s a lot of me. That’s my culture, it’s my connection to my land, it’s my connection to my mob, it’s my connection to my old people, it’s my connection to my elders, connection to my grandparents. Yeah, it’s basically my connection to most of the things that make me.

How did you come to mutton birding? What was that like, your first season?

I can’t remember if I was fifteen or sixteen when I first got on the bird island, but my family come from a long line of mutton birders. My dad was taken to the island when he was a baby and mutton birded up until he was in his early twenties nearly every year. Same as me aunties, same as me uncles. But me, I didn’t get there until later on. I think that was a bit of Dad and Mum not wantin’ me to take time off school, and lot of the mutton birders used to get ripped off a bit in wages and I think they were tryin’ to shelter me from that. And I was little fella, I dunno if they thought I’d be able to handle it ’cause it’s extremely hard work.

But what happened is Aboriginal Education were running this program for kids like me, Aboriginal kids in the community that hadn’t had the chance to go birdin’ yet, so I went over to Big Dog Island and went to the Thomas’s shed—a really strong community and a really strong mutton birdin’ family. Soon as I got there, I knew what the island smelled like, I knew what it felt like, I knew everything about the island soon as I got there. It felt like home.

So I done that trip and met a couple of shed bosses when I was there and told ’em please consider me for a job next year, and sure enough I got a phone call sayin’ we’d love you to come over and do a season with us. I’ve been goin’ ever since, and now I own a shed with another two brothers in the community.

What does being a shed boss mean? What are the duties and responsibilities during the season?

Well we’re a bit different, we don’t do commercial birdin’. So we just go over and get our birds that’ll last us and our families for the year. We haven’t got that pressure. But there’s a major sense of pride being a shed boss, even though we don’t do the commercial element, it’s more about just goin’ and gettin’ a feed, takin’ our kids, teachin’ them their culture. I sorta like the way we do it ’cause we can enjoy the island a lot more.

And you’re acting as a provider for your family.

That’s exactly right. And there’s nothin’ better than that, when you take these birds home and you’ve got enough to do the year—y’know, we normally take three or four hundred birds each, that’s enough to provide for the family, the immediate family, but then elders and stuff as well. And that’s great. There’s no better present you can give another blackfella than a mutton bird.

How do the birds get used?

We cook ’em up all different ways. We stuff ’em and bake ’em, we put ’em into curries, put ’em into stews. Salted mutton bird’s gotta be boiled. You could write a book on mutton bird recipes.

What’s your favourite?

My favourite, aw, that’s hard. I’ve got sorta two favourites. One’s stuffed and baked—that’s plucked birds that’ve been taken off the island fresh. They come out butterfly-filleted and you put whatever stuffin’ you want in there and fold ’em up, tie ’em up with a bit of string and bake ’em in the oven for an hour, hour and ten, with all your veggies and all the trimmings, and they’re just absolutely beautiful, absolutely spot on. The other way is salted mutton birds. Y’boil them down with all your vegetables and all that, it’s got a really salty flavour. I don’t ever eat cabbage but the only way I eat cabbage is with salted mutton bird.

There’s a hint in the blurb for your play about how times are changing across generations. What does that look like when it comes to mutton birding and Tassie blackfella culture?

Well, it’s not looking really good with mutton birdin’, ’cause our young fellas are not as interested in birdin’ as they used to be. And it’s no blame on theirs.

If you can imagine bein’ back in the fifties—y’know, everyone lived over on Cape Barren Island or on the islands and there wasn’t much income for them fellas, lot o’ seasonal work and they didn’t have bugger all cash, so goin’ to the birdin’ and gettin’ enough birds to last the year was huge, and gettin’ that little bit of a wage helped ’em immensely. So when our fellas got taken off the islands and put in these different places in Tasmania, slowly but surely our fellas started to get employment and over the generations get better jobs, ’cause each generation before paved the way for better opportunities.

Now we’ve got lawyers in our community, we’ve got nearly everything in our community, so it’s a lot to expect these young fellas to take their holidays to go to the mutton bird island where it’s really hard yakka, and leave their families for weeks when it’s their holidays, which they should be spending with their family. And a lot of our people hook up with people from all different races, and definitely a lot of whitefellas, and these fellas don’t feel comfortable goin’ to the bird island, and you can’t expect their partners to pack up either and go to the bird island.

So what has been happening since the fifties is we’re not gettin’ these young fellas back to continue this culture on. That’s why I’m very big on takin’ my kids. My little boy, he’s eight now but he’s been goin’ since he was six, and I took my girls last year for the first time too.

So it’s not just a thing for men?

Definitely not. The catchin’ is, but then there has been the odd girl that catches. But yeah, mostly that’s men’s business, out in the rookery. The women play a huge role in the sheds and especially in the cookhouse. You’ll get exceptions to that. I know a lot of the time Uncle Jimmy [Everett] goes over cookin’, but that’s ’cause he’s a bloody good cook. A lot of the time the cleanin’ shed’ll be the women’s domain, but you get exceptions to that, too. Like me, I do a lotta cleanin’ ’cause with the fellas I go with I’m the only cleaner, and I actually enjoy cleanin’. When I say cleanin’, that’s where you put ’em in the scoldin’ pot and rub off their last down feathers.

What do you see happening to mutton birding?

I’m not exactly sure, to be honest with ya. Y’know, there used to thirty-two sheds on Babel Island alone, now there’s one shed on Babel. Forget how many sheds there used to be on Big Dog Island but that number’s reduced. So there’s probably, now that I think about it, only eight or nine sheds altogether across all the islands now, but that’s been that way for a little bit now, it’s sort of levelled out. When you get over there, you find it’s the same fellas, them very passionate fellas, passionate about keepin’ their culture goin’, and their kids are goin’ so hopefully the numbers don’t get reduced beyond what they already have.

You must be incredibly proud, in that context, to be bringing a play like The Season to the Sydney Festival.

Aw, mega proud, I’m still pinchin’ meself. Can’t believe it’s happenin’, still. I’m so grateful to everyone who’s helped me along the way—everyone.

I like to end interviews with a question I don’t think gets asked of men often enough. What do you value most, what do you love in your life at the moment?

Definitely my family, definitely my children. I have ’em every weekend and half the holidays. We’re about three hours away from each other, so every weekend their mother chucks them in the car—aw, not the girls so much any more ’cause the girls are gettin’ older, they’re eleven and twelve and they’ve got a better social life than I have. But my little son who’s eight, he wants to be around Dad all the time.

Sometimes we might just relax at home but we love goin’ on adventures—so if that’s goin’ to laser tag or goin’ fishin’ or goin’ divin’. My little boy especially’s a real boy’s boy, loves gettin’ out and about, loves huntin’ and gatherin’, loves goin’ birdin’ and givin’ a feed to everyone.

One thing I really love about my little fella is he’s got a real good sense of we only kill somethin’ if we’re gonna eat it. It’s funny—you can cook up this beautiful meal, and he’ll look it at it and sorta go, nah, ’cause he’s more chicken nuggets, but you’ll be at the beach with him and he’ll be kickin’ limpets off the rocks and eatin’ ’em raw. He’s got that real sense of bein’ a little blackfella.

I can hear the pride in your voice.

Yeah. Yep, definitely.

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