2 May 2016
“The True Story of One of the Greatest Escapes of All Time” is what the blurb on the front of the book reads. The Rabbit Proof Fence, written by Doris Pilkington, also known as Nugi Garimara, and published by University of Queensland Press in 2001, is the story of three girls, Molly Craig (the authors mother), Her half-sister Daisy Craig Kadibil and their cousin Gracie Fields. It follows their journey home to their family, in Jigalong, in the remote Pilbara region of Western Australia, from the Moore River Native Settlement (135km north of Perth). Although this book seeks to identify with many other stories in the literary genre concerning the stolen generation, it remains apart since at no point is there any doubt about the true identity of these children – culturally, socially or communally. As a text, it provides some exploration of the foundational rational of the governmental policies of forcible removal and the relocation of Indigenous children, but more openly serves as a stark reminder of the racism endured by the aboriginal people during this period. While there is no doubt that racism existed in its many forms, the recollection portrayed in the story appears to hold a one sided, perhaps justifiably, bias in this telling. Despite the acknowledged goodwill of non-Aboriginal people who provided the girls with food, tins and jackets on a number of occasions, it purveys an underlying context that all white Europeans, especially those in authority, are “the enemy” and not to be trusted. Before it is possible to determine the validity of such encompassing statements, it is first necessary to consider some of the principle, historical aspects that led up to and surround to the “escape”.
From the time that Western colonizers first arrived on Australian shores, they paid little heed to the presence of the Indigenous population as a traditional owner, or custodian, of the land that they wished to settle. They did not consult or take into account the complex cultural and social systems that were already in place, among the many various Aboriginal groups across the country. It was simply deemed that the land be Terra Nullius or “no man’s land”, an empty land. When later confronted by escalating violence and tension they believed this a result of the Aboriginal simplicity and their “lower place” on the evolutionary scale of mankind, which resulted in their inability to see clearly many of the ‘understandings’ that were already known to the British Settlers.
The Aboriginal people, for the most part, openly refused any ‘assistance’ from the white settlers to assimilate into the introduced mainstream culture. In their refusal to become ‘white’ the British colonizers implemented acts, during the latter part of the twentieth century, which provisioned for the removal and relocation of children away from their families, and traditional lifestyles, and to inter them into specially developed settlements where they could learn to lead ‘better lives’, behaving like Europeans, studying European culture, and learning English. As A.O. Neville, Chief Protector of Aboriginals in Western Australia between 1915 and 1940, saw it, “what we have to do is to uplift and elevate these people to our own plane” (A.O Neville, in Scott 2001:11). It was therefore their ‘duty’ as the ‘superior’ party, and as ‘good Christians’ to ‘help’ by whatever means they felt were best, to save the souls of these children, especially those who were half-casts, and therefore it was commonly believed, more intelligent than their full-blood relatives (Pilkington, 2001:40). Interestingly though Pilkington recorded that the full-blood aboriginals also considered the half-casts inferior (Department of Native Affairs file no. 173/30, cited Pilkington 2001:39). The removal and relocation of a generation(s) of children from their families, communities and cultural heritage affected the Indigenous society and social structure greatly, especially if consideration is made to the affect that such measures would later have, when younger generations of children are no-longer educated in the thousands of year old traditions held by their ancestors, on the continuance of many of their oral traditions.
In Western Australia, the first laws to be formally enacted that endorsed the forced removal of Aboriginal children from their families was the Aboriginal Act of 1905. This act provided for the creation of the position of the Chief Protector of Aborigines who, under this legislation, was appointed the legal guardian of all Aboriginal children under the age of sixteen years (WA. Act 14 section 8, 1905:53). It also provided a legal justification for the holder of this position to send, and detain, Aboriginal children in institutions, and in “service”. While this act pertained specifically to Western Australia, other similar acts such as the Aboriginal Protection Act 1909 (New South Wales) were also implemented. From the point of view of many Europeans the Aboriginal people did not provide adequate care and instruction for their children who were, for the most part, ill-treated, miserably fed, and in dire need of assistance to elevate themselves to a proper standard of living, nor did they believe that the parents of these children maintain a lifestyle conducive to the proper upbringing of offspring. It is primarily for these reasons that words such as protection and welfare are commonly associated with many of these early acts.
Government and political bodies however, endorse the actions of removal and relocation as part of what some believed to be a “broader, eugenicist philosophy that envisaged the gradual dying out of tribal Aborigines, whose numbers had been falling since the nineteenth century” (Neill, 2002:127). In 1911, a new amendment to the act worsened the already bleak situation by stating that any aboriginal child may be removed from their family or community, “to the exclusion of the rights of the mother of an illegitimate half-cast child” (WA Act 42, 1911:559). Pilkington (2001:40-41) records that,
“Every mother of a part-Aboriginal child was aware that their offspring could be taken away from them at any time and they were powerless to stop the abductors. That is why many women preferred to give birth in the bush rather than in a hospital where they believed their babies would be taken from them soon after birth”.
This, and similarly amended acts in other states, significantly bolstered the already considerable powers of the Aboriginal board such that they were able to assume parental rights over all Aboriginal children, regardless of situation, and to forcible remove them without court order. Through the segregation and isolation of tribal Aboriginals, “for their own protection” (Neill, 2002:127), illegitimate half-casts were to be removed, educated, and work as honorary whites. Authors such as Neill (2002:127) opine that it was the belief at that time was, that “within generations, all trace of ‘color’ was intended to be ‘bred out’ of ‘half-casts’, while the ‘full-bloods’ would become extinct”. They relate that after three or four generations of separation, education and intermarriage, no signs of Indigeneity would be expected to remain (Eldar 2007:159; Scott, 2001:26).
To many then, it appears paradoxical that through the use of the English language, that many were taught as part of their ‘better lifestyles’, Indigenous authors have been able to re-tell their stories, and in doing so continue the oral traditions of the aboriginal culture. As part of this culture, tales handed down and delivered orally from parents, grandparents or tribal elders are both personal and communal histories at the same time. One does not live outside the other, and each serves to represent the past, both distant and recent, often within the same telling. In reconstructing the story Pilkington, reveals that she did not rely solely on any single source but rather a fusion of her family‘s memories, newspaper reports, letters, telegrams, and various official documents. We must also remember that although in writing this story the author synthesized a large number of documents, her primary source of information concerning the long walk home was, of course, her mother, Molly Craig, the oldest of the three girls in the story, and her aunt Daisy. Interestingly, at no time throughout the book does the author assert directly that this story is strictly unembellished, fact. Rather she writes that,
“The task of reconstructing the trek home from the settlement has been both an exhausting and an interesting experience. One needed to have a vivid imagination … By combining my imagination and the information from records of geographical and botanical explorations undertaken in the area in the early 1900s and later, I was able to build a clearer picture of the vegetation and landscape through which the girls trekked” (Pilkington, 2001:xi-xii).
It is also important to address the unique structure that the book follows. It comprises of essentially two different aspects of storytelling. The first, noted in the early chapters, one to four, can be included in the traditional form of “Dreamtime Narrative”. This, while not directly involving the major protagonists of the story, sets an overall scene and tells of the writers ancestors, the Madudjara people and their encounters with the “Gengas” (Pilkington 2001:6). In terms of aboriginal histories the episode related are recent, and are linked to the coming of British settlers in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s. By setting this early scene of exploitation, murder, and abuse from the early stages of settlement, Pilkington is able to provide a subplot, following which the visible political connotations and beliefs expelled throughout the remainder of the book become justifiable and believable. Chapter 5 of the book is where the written format begins to change, and while much of it remains in in the traditional oral history format, it makes the addition of a couple of official supporting documents and references to known seasonal or calendar dates which begin to ground this part of the story within known recorded (written) histories. This can be considered the “introduction” to the second part of the book, set in 1931, which tells the story of both, the girls’ transportation to the Moore River Settlement, and of their subsequent escape, and the long walk home.
In its own way, Follow the Rabbit Proof Fence resembles a documentary, the distancing of the author for the events, the use of third person narrative, and the inclusion of non-fictional, publicly documented, evidence. In doing this The Rabbit Proof Fence makes for a remarkable story, and a valuable secondary source document, through its inclusion of detailed research using undisputable primary source histories and documents. However, as a primary source document in and of itself, and this in no way is intended to detract from the factual validity of the story, historical readers should remain cautious. The story of the Rabbit Proof Fence was not written at the time that any events transpired, nor were they written by a first-hand participants, but rather it provides a second-hand testimony of the events, seventy years later, which is supported by primary source documentation. In addition, as the events are primarily transmitted as a form of oral tradition the reader must be conscious as they are confronted by a number of limitations. First among these is the chronology and interdependence, and selectivity and interpretation of events recorded and retold. Additionally the reader may also need to take into account the effects of emotional trauma on memory; the time between the actual occurrence and the recording process where details may become confused, faded or again in the case of traumatic events deliberately forgotten; the influence that present experiences might lend to accounts of the past through hindsight reassessment; and finally, personal biases (remembering that all recorded histories also record the bias of their author, this is not necessarily a bad thing, rather it is more difficult to check against other existing stories or documentation from the period), opinions, and cultural backgrounds of the individual relating the story, and of the person interviewing or recording the retelling. Each of these may call into question issues of accuracy surrounding the retelling of events. Such limitations are highly subjective and cautionary in all uses of oral histories and traditions.
Eldar, C. 2007. “Being Australian: Narratives of National Identity”. Allen & Unwin, Crows Nest, NSW
Meill, R. 2002. “White Out: How Politics is Killing Black Australia”. Allen & Unwin, Crows Nest, NSW
New South Wales Act No.25, 1909. Aborigines Protection Amending Act. New South Wales Parliament http://www.legislation.nsw.gov.au/acts/1909-25.pdf
New South Wales Act No.2, 1915. Aborigines Protection Amending Act. New South Wales Parliament http://www.legislation.nsw.gov.au/acts/1915-2.pdf
Queensland Act No. 17, 1897. A Bill to make Provision for the better Protection and Care of the Aboriginal and Half-caste Inhabitants of the Colony, and to make more effectual Provision for Restricting the Sale and Distribution of Opium. http://www.foundingdocs.gov.au/resources/transcripts/qld5_doc_1897.pdf
Scott, K. 2001. “Benang: From the Heart”. Freemantle Arts Center Press, North Freemantle, WA
Pilkington, D. 2001. “Follow the Rabbit-Proof Fence”. University of Queensland Press, 2001. St Lucia, QLD
Western Australia Act No. 14, 1905. An Act to make provision for the better protection and care of the Aboriginal inhabitants of Western Australia. http://www.findandconnect.gov.au/ref/wa/objects/pdfs/Aborigines%20Act%201905%20part%201.pdf
Western Australia Act No. 42, 1911. An Act to amend the Aborigines Act, 1905. http://www.findandconnect.gov.au/ref/wa/objects/pdfs/Aborigines%20Act%20Amendment%20Act%201911.pdf
 This act came into force in April of 1906. Earlier laws do exist for other states such as The Aboriginals Protection and Restriction of the Sale of Opium Act 1897 (Queensland) do exist, and allow for state custody and care of Aboriginal children, but they do not allow for the forcible removal of children without cause, or court order from their family.
 Gengas is the name given to the spirits of their ancestors by the Nyungar people of Western Australia. It was believed that the first Europeans that they encountered were gengas due to the pale coloring of their skin