I am finally picking up the series I started a few weeks ago about Australian Women’s History. March was dedicated to the contribution and experiences of women throughout history. Generally the history of women has been ignored and neglected, so Women’s History Month is a chance to set the record straight. Of course, it has not just been women that have been disregarded and overlooked, but any people who have been oppressed and marginalised.
My original idea was to focus especially on the contribution and experiences of women in Australian history and so I selected a few titles from my TBR which I thought fit the bill. After taking a second look, though, I realised that while they were all about Australian women from different time periods, it wasn’t a very diverse selection. So I redefined the parameters. Not only must the books focus on women in Australian history, they need to be written by women and highlight the experiences of a diverse range of women. Simple, so I thought.
It has posed an interesting challenge. It wasn’t as easy as I thought to find historical stories about diverse women in Australian history, so for this week I have pulled up a book I did write about for a reading update in May 2019, Follow the Rabbit-Proof Fence by Doris Pilkington. You can read the original post here, but I thought the story was worth highlighting again. Not all of our history is glorious and the removal of Aboriginal children from their families is one of our most shameful.
Follow the Rabbit-Proof Fence by Doris Pilkington (Nugi Garimara)
This is the true account of Doris Pilkington Garimara’s mother Molly, made legendary by the film ‘Rabbit-Proof Fence.’
In 1931 Molly led her two sisters on an extraordinary 1,600 kilometre walk across remote Western Australia. Aged 8, 11 and 14, they escaped the confinement of a government institution for Aboriginal children removed from their families. Barefoot, without provisions or maps, tracked by Native Police and search planes, the girls followed the rabbit-proof fence, knowing it would lead them home.
Their journey – longer than many of the celebrated walks of our explorer heroes – reveals a past more cruel than we could imagine.
Doris Pilkington (Nugi Garimara) was born on Balfour Downs Station in the East Pilbara. It is a dry, arid region in northern Western Australia, known for its red earth and ancient landscapes. At a young age Doris was removed from her home by the state authorities responsible for “Native Affairs” and sent to the Moore River Native Settlement far in the south of the state, along with her mother Molly and her baby sister Annabelle. This was the same institution that Molly had escaped from only 10 years earlier and whose journey back home is recounted in the book, Follow the Rabbit-Proof Fence (1996). Doris’ life, however, took a different path as she remained in the mission system until she was 18.
Follow the Rabbit-Proof Fence is a kind of indigenous memoir known as Aboriginal Life Writing which is often different from memoirs written in a more western tradition. Storytelling is a very important tradition in Indigenous culture and Aboriginal Life Writing continues that tradition. It also serves as a mechanism for healing the pain and trauma of dispossession, for reconnecting Indigenous people with their history and culture, and for teaching non-Indigenous readers about Aboriginal culture and their own history.
Although Molly’s journey back home is the pivotal focus of the narrative, it takes a while to get to that part of the story as Pilkington takes time to explain and describe the traditional lifestyle of the indigenous people and the impact of white settlement. As the story opens, the Indigenous people had already had prior experience with “ruthless white pirates, desperados and escaped convicts” who “stole aboriginal women and kept them…as sexual slaves, then murdered them and tossed their bodies into the ocean.” When the British military first arrived, Pilkington suggests the Indigenous tribes may have been lulled into a false sense of security as it was clear these men were not kidnappers and murderers. The danger would turn out to be far more insidious and devastating in the long term.
First their traditional ways of hunting and gathering were impacted as fences and buildings were erected, blocking Indigenous hunting trails and decimating the landscape. Then came the clash with the white man’s law and form of justice as indigenous men were imprisoned for helping themselves to a few sheep. Sent by the hundreds to Rottnest Island, far away from their traditional land, many were never seen again and some were even imprisoned for their rest of their lives. As the white settlers were free to choose whatever land they liked, Indigenous people were driven off their traditional land and generously rewarded with a blanket on Queen Victoria’s birthday. Pilkington incorporates excerpts from official documents and press clipping throughout the book, including this piece published in a Melbourne newspaper in 1861.
“A sorry return for millions of acres of fertile land of which we have deprived them. But they are grateful for small things and the scanty supply of food and raiment doled out to this miserable remnant of a once numerous people, is received by them with the most lively gratitude.”The Illustrated Melbourne Post, 20 August 1861
As a matter of sheer survival, Indigenous people eventually move onto the stations where they receive training to be stockmen and domestics and are forced to take up the ways of the white men. This is the time when ideas about racial superiority and white degeneration were starting to gain currency, and the increasing number of “half-caste” children being born as a result of the close contact between the white settlers and the Indigenous people caused great concern in some quarters. And so the practice of removing these children from their families began.
Some people may argue it was done with the best of intentions, to give the children the opportunity of education and a better life, but it caused untold devastation and trauma as family relationships and cultural links were destroyed. The extensive control that the Native Affairs Department had over the lives of Aboriginal people, even as adults, is quite shocking to us today. When Molly, Daisy and Gracie arrive in Perth they meet two older teenaged girls who also had come south for school and were expecting to return home to their families. Native Affairs had other ideas, though, and it was many years before those girls ever saw their families again.
Some of us might look back on our school days with fond memories but I doubt they would include chains and padlocks on the doors and bars on the windows. Yet this is the situation that greets Molly and her sisters when they arrive at Moore River settlement. As Pilkington points out, when white children went away to boarding school, there would have been an expectation of pleasant rooms and a reasonable standard of care. At Moore River Aboriginal children were placed in overcrowded dormitories that looked more like a concentration camp than an educational facility. There were no sheets on the beds and breakfast was weevily porridge. Out the back was the punishment building, a small concrete room with little light or ventilation, where children were locked up, for as long as 14 days sometimes, on rations of bread and water.
Molly promptly decides they are not staying and so begins their incredible journey back home. Travelling up to 30km each day, on foot, avoiding trackers and search planes, Molly’s traditional bush skills enable the girls to survive a journey of 1600km through the Australian outback. It’s quite amusing in a way, how a 14 year old girl, with a little bit of luck, is able to outsmart police, trackers and search parties. And at the end the Chief Protector decided he was no longer interested in Molly – she’d already caused way too much trouble. Sadly Gracie was not so fortunate.
In 1992, our then Prime Minister of Australia, Paul Keating, said…
We took the traditional lands and smashed the traditional way of life. We brought the diseases. The alcohol. We committed the murders. We took the children from their mothers. We practised discrimination and exclusion. It was our ignorance and our prejudice. And our failure to imagine these things being done to us. (Attwood 2001, p. 201)Attwood 2001, p. 201
Doris Pilkington was a member of the Stolen Generation and was separated from her mother Molly for many years. While her experience was not exclusive to Aboriginal women, her book highlights the kind of stories that have been overlooked, neglected and discredited for far too long. She says that writing the book helped her to reconnect with her family and culture, and heal the pain and trauma of the loss of her family, culture and identity.
It’s not easy to read about the experiences of the Stolen Generation, but owning our history is about accepting all of our past, the good and the bad, the honourable and the shameful. Listening to these stories is an important step in recognising the full humanity of every member of our community and according them the dignity and respect they deserve.
Attwood, Bain 2001, ‘”Learning about the truth” The stolen generations narrative’ in B Attwood and F Magowan (eds) Telling Stories: Indigenous history and memory in Australia and New Zealand, Allen & Unwin: Crows Nest, NSW, pp. 183-212.