Uncle Eric Law knows Wakka Wakka country like the back of his hand. This is where he was born and it is the place that has drawn him back time and again over the past seven decades.
Today Uncle Eric says his connection to country is stronger than it has ever been. Uncle Eric lives with his wife Shirley in a cottage on Barambah Avenue; the main street of Cherbourg. When he walks down the street to the town’s Ration Shed Museum (Uncle Eric is on the committee that runs the museum) he says he is thinking and dreaming about what his home means to him.
“I am making the same path my father did, across the same dirt,” Uncle Eric explains.
“He was walking this ground 80 years ago. He left here to go to war (Eric’s father Vincent fought as one of Australia’s Light Horse in Palestine during World War 1), just as I did in 1969 (Eric served in Vietnam)….those are things I am thinking about,” he says.
“And I’m thinking this is where he met my mother, Marjorie, a Bigambul woman from New South Wales… and it’s where I sat at a little wooden school desk at the Cherbourg Mission School as a kid.”
“I can feel my history and the history of Cherbourg all around me and it’s so strong,” he says.
Uncle Eric is a proud Wakka Wakka man whose life has been punctuated by more than a few ‘firsts’ that have helped pave the way for Indigenous Australians everywhere. After returning from Vietnam, where he worked at the Australian Taskforce Headquarters, Eric was selected by the State Government to participate in a community teacher trial at Cherbourg School.
The experience propelled him to pursue a teaching degree at university and in 1976 he was one of 20 Indigenous students to enrol at James Cook University in Townsville—the first ‘group intake’ of Aboriginal students in Australian higher education.
Uncle Eric graduated with his teaching degree in 1980 and over an almost 30 year career he made an impact in classrooms throughout the state, as well as in the Torres Strait.
His passion for education and for mentoring young Indigenous men and women continues even now despite 14 years of retirement. He established the Cherbourg Junior Rangers to help motivate local youngsters and improve their cultural knowledge. The group ran for 10 years and was charged with coordinating Cherbourg’s annual Anzac Day Service.
Along with making his mark in education, Uncle Eric has been an ardent contributor to indigenous affairs over the years, working in Cherbourg and beyond to develop programs and initiatives that give his people empowerment.
The father-of-five, who credits much of his impact to the support that Shirley, his wife of 48 years, has given him was pivotal in the creation of Cherbourg Aboriginal Shire Council in the early 1980s and he served as both a councillor and Mayor.
In 2015 Uncle Eric was awarded a Member of the Order of Australia (AM).
In Cherbourg culture is a lived experience
.As one of Queensland’s largest Indigenous communities, Uncle Eric says that time spent in Cherbourg allows non-Indigenous people the opportunity to experience Aboriginal culture, rather than simply “learn about it”.
“This is an interesting and sometimes complex place,” Uncle Eric explains. “Even though our history is sad we can learn from that and make sure our future is a lot brighter,” he says.
“Anyone who spends time here gets to see and experience who we are and why our culture is so important to us.”
As a member of the committee that runs Cherbourg’s Ration Shed Museum and historical precinct, Uncle Eric is one of the regular tour guides who gives visitors poignant insight into Cherbourg’s history as a mission town. He says the local community is a welcoming one and medical professionals who come to work in Cherbourg are always positively impacted by their experiences in the town.
“Healers—that’s what we call our doctors and nurses—connect very quickly with people here,” Uncle Eric explains.
“In the city, with so many people, that connection can easily get clouded but out here it is instant and it’s powerful,” he says.
“You see, for us, doctors and nurses have such an important role to play and once you have built a relationship with us it is strong. That relationship might have its ups and downs, sure, but it is forever.”
COVID’s silver lining in Cherbourg
The devastating impact of COVID has been felt across the world, but in Cherbourg the pandemic was also the catalyst for the introduction of Wakka Wakka language in Cherbourg’s schools. Uncle Eric explains.
“Before COVID we’d been talking about making language part of the curriculum for years, but it was always put off; filed as something ‘we’d do eventually’ or ‘when we could’,” Uncle Eric says.
“Then the pandemic hits and suddenly there is no back burner to put things on….there’s no x, y or z project that needs to take priority over this.
“So we did it and now our children are learning the language of their people when they go to school,” he says “That’s a very good thing.”