Note: This article contains images of Aboriginal people who have died.
Clyde Mansell’s vision of the future is one where everybody understands why it’s important for Aboriginal Tasmanians to be recognised.
The 71-year-old was born at Lady Barron on Flinders Island and spent his childhood living there and on Cape Barren Island in the Bass Strait.
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Mansell credits his time on Flinders Island as the main part of establishing his cultural grounding.
He believes growing up on the island with a strong connection to country and community helped shape his life for the better.
“We were not recognised with our Aboriginality, so there was always this tossing and turning about who we were as a people,” he said.
“But at the same time there was this sense of lack of inclusion.”
In the ’40s and ’50s Aboriginal men were not allowed to drink with non-Aboriginal men at the Whitemark pub. Mansell said they were forced to go around the side of the bar into a room referred to as “the bull ring or snake pit”.
“It is the old story – ‘Truganini was the last Aborigine, they are not real Aborigines’,” he said. “It is in that context that we grew up.”
Muttonbirding was one of the ways Mansell learned and explored his connection to culture. The tradition involves going to the islands surrounding Flinders for a seasonal harvest.
People would catch and cook mutton birds in what he described as a celebration of culture. Mansell has been participating since he was a baby.
“Muttonbirding for Aboriginal people is a time of connection. It is a time of celebration, of people as a group and as a community,” he said.
“I maintain today that you see Aboriginals at their best when you see them muttonbirding. It is a time when we are in control of what we are doing. It is our culture.”
As a young boy Mansell saw muttonbirding as a time of adventure. His trips to the islands for the celebration continued even after he moved to Launceston.
His move to mainland Tasmania came about the same time he exited the education system.
Whilst Mansell would admit he wasn’t the best scholar, he said the systematic racism he endured also played a major role in his departure from school. “We just didn’t have a good relationship with education,” he said.
Clyde said they would teach history and say Truganini was the last Aboriginal. But when he left school he would be “rubbished” for being part of an Aboriginal family and community.
“They would call us half-caste and n—-r and so … you get confused and you rebel,” he said.
So, when he was about 15 Mansell, as the oldest boy in the family, began to look for work.
“I used to sweep Invermay Road every Thursday afternoon and my mates used to give me hell driving past,” he said
He worked in factories and smelters throughout the years before becoming the first Aboriginal field officer at the Aboriginal Legal Service in 1973.
He went on to work for the Commonwealth as an employment education officer before being recognised as an elder in the Launceston Aboriginal community.
That title is special to Mansell. Elders were the people he turned to as a young man when he had lost his way in the world. Now he tries to be that guiding light for other young Aboriginal people who might need help.
“We try and ensure that young people, if they’re finding it hard to stay connected, stay connected to their community and culture,” he said. Mansell said racism has become less overt since he was growing up. However, he believes while it’s not as open, the racial undertones of discrimination still exist.
“I think that will always be there. I don’t think there is a day when we can suggest there is never going to be racism,” he said.
Mansell said athletes were helping to change attitudes, but pointed to the example of Adam Goodes, who was booed out of the AFL after standing up to racism, to suggest that there would always be flare-ups.
He believes constitutional recognition will help solve that problem and will help improve understanding. “It is about recognition of our community’s place in this country,” Mansell said.
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