Joey Chatfield: Lore man

Living Well | Words: Peter Hanlon | Photos: Shannon Morris | Posted on 11 September 2018

Artefacts, art, and the arcane appeal of cricket... all are threads in Joey Chatfield’s cultural adventure.

When his prep teacher asked the class what they wanted to be when they grew up, Joey Chatfield gave an unusual answer. He imagined climbing rocks, jumping across rivers, digging holes and finding incredible things. Then he found the word. “I said I wanted to be an adventurer.” 

Forty years later, Joey’s multi-layered voicemail message hints at an ambition fulfilled. His day job is Aboriginal community liaison officer with Victoria Police in Warrnambool, where he crosses metaphorical bridges, helps people to better understand each other, and walks lightly through the difficult terrain of domestic violence, juvenile justice, mental health and cultural awareness.

The latter is a constant passion. Joey has worked in cultural heritage for 25 years and, in his role with traditional owner group Kuuyang Maar, can be found beside western Victorian highways digging test pits and sifting through soil in search of Aboriginal artefacts used by his ancestors hundreds and even thousands of years ago.

My grandparents taught me respect – for my elders, for family, for community.
Joey Chatfield sitting on rocks

He mentors in art that connects people to their community’s Indigenous heritage. He helps put on an annual ‘Lore versus Law’ cricket game that builds relationships between police and the Aboriginal community. He sits on committees and boards with an eye to improving everyone’s lot. He scuba dives, fishes, hunts and spears eels. “Yeah, I’m active,” he says.

Above all, he tries to live in the image of the grandparents who brought him up at the Framlingham Aboriginal Trust (“we just called it ‘the Mission’ or ‘the Mish’”), and who died a day apart when he was 18. “They taught me respect – for my elders, for family, for community.”

The discovery of artefacts on the footprint of future road duplication provides a window to our history, yet short of finding skeletal remains (which Joey thankfully hasn’t) it won’t stand in the way of progress. Yet he lives by a no excuses credo, imploring people to make the most of their opportunities. 

He likens the search to “one shot at the title, but you’ve got to give it a go”. Locations for standard test pits are chosen just as we’d pick a camping spot today: “near a river, a creek, somewhere with shelter”. Pits are dug to 500 millimetres and the soil is sifted by hand. 

The difference in finding something and just missing could be a millimetre.

Ahead of the Princes Highway duplication between Winchelsea and Colac, items found numbered in the hundreds, and included grinding stones, scrapers, knife and spear points, core stones and charcoal.

“The difference in finding something and just missing could be a millimetre,” Joey says. “It’s exciting when you find materials – you’re recovering history, evidence that highlights Aboriginal occupation. But it’s also disturbing, because a road is going to go through that site.”

When ‘hot spots’ are identified a mechanical sieve is brought in and items collected are bagged, catalogued and the location recorded, creating what Joey calls “a religious document” detailing the area’s cultural significance. Most often, the material is repatriated into the ground nearby.

Equanimity is a strength, as is storytelling in its myriad forms. When Joey was working for the Brambuk Cultural Centre in the Grampians years ago, he dabbled in painting boomerangs and canvases but resisted making art his business. He was surprised when the Birregurra Arts Group came calling recently and asked him to paint a mural to be a feature of its renovated town hall.

Joey Chatfield
Black and white portrait of Joey Chatfield sitting in front of a rocky surface
You can live and learn from your mistakes, or you can hide under a rock thinking the world is against you.

He agreed – on the condition that the work was undertaken by locals under his guidance, becoming a story told by them using an Aboriginal art format.

“The mural belongs to the people of Birregurra, they should have a part in making it. It doesn’t matter how many hours a person has put in – if they’ve put one dot, one line, that’s their contribution, they’ve got a connection.”

He considers the ‘Lore versus Law’ cricket game a success if everyone comes away with just one new relationship. “You can live and learn from your mistakes, or you can hide under a rock ... thinking the world is against you,” he says.

“Life goes on. Make a difference. You’re here to try and help people as best as you can.”