I had always thought, erroneously it turns out, that protests against Australia Day were a relatively new phenomenon. Yet since 1938 protesters have marched against the 25th of January being an Australian national holiday because it ‘celebrates’ Europeans landing on this continent. Known as the Day of Mourning, this 1930s protest was one of the first major civil rights gatherings in the world.
The genesis of NAIDOC (National Aborigines and Islanders Day Observance Committee) week lies in the Day of Mourning, but unlike this earlier day of commiseration, NAIDOC week now is a series of celebratory events. It’s this approach – one of recognition and remembrance, as well as resistance – that Us Women, Our Ways, Our World takes to investigating the lived experience of Aboriginal women, through fourteen different pieces of writing. It seems fitting to take a closer look at this book during NAIDOC week.
By presenting a series of essays from Indigenous academic and community leaders, Us Women, Our Ways, Our World takes a hard look at the continued impact of this country’s colonial history and the ‘constant struggle to overcome the insidious racism that is deeply embedded in Australian society’. Importantly, this isn’t delivered up through the usual (white man’s) lens of victimisation and helplessness, rather, the stories highlight the ways in which Aboriginal women have for years resisted colonialisation and oppression and have successfully raised strong, resilient families, notwithstanding ever-present racism and sexism.
Much of the writing in this collection is autobiographical, and it seems that the governmental policy of forced removal of children from their mothers is possibly the most significant cause of trauma for almost every author. This book makes evident the consequences of this policy, and it is heart-rendering. Mary Terszak writes:
In 1905 the Aborigines Act was implemented in Western Australia. This legislated that ‘mixed blood’ Aboriginal children would be removed from their families to be encouraged to grow up white… I was born in 1942 and was directly subjected to these policies… I was removed from [my mother] and placed into Sister Kate’s Home in Queen’s Park, a suburb of Perth. I was two years of age and I grew up with an understanding that I was an orphan’.
Terszak reflects on the profound impact this displacement had on her emotionally and culturally, to the extent that when she finally met her birth mother 50 years later she could feel only disappointment. Astoundingly, it isn’t anger that resonates from these pages, it’s bewilderment (she queries why a government would adopt a policy that destroyed the most important relationship for a child – with their mother and family) and resilience (‘I found strength and the determination to begin a healing process’). Terszak is obviously not alone in either her experience nor in her consequential disorientation.
All the writings are deeply personal, and there were frequent points in the book where I quite literally found myself holding my breath: when MaryAnn Bin-Sallik worked as a nurse as the first Aboriginal student nurse in Darwin Hospital, she witnessed Aboriginal women who’d been admitted to give birth also often being sterilised without their knowledge. Jeannie Herbert notes that the institution where her mother was taken as a child was surrounded by a six foot high corrugated iron fence, meaning the children were denied any interaction with the outside world, despite being located in suburban Perth.
One of the most interesting points across the more academic essays is that, along with many other nasty things, British colonisers introduced patriarchy to this continent. ‘The systems the English brought with them were patriarchal and hierarchical, informed by a belief in the inherent superiority of the male gender and the Caucasian race’ (Ambelin Kwaymullina). Dawn Bessarab notes that Aboriginal gender relations are still interpreted through Western cultural lenses and prejudices, while Joan Winch highlights how the modern media still seeks out male Aboriginal leaders as spokespeople, reinforcing this sexism.
Being an east-coaster, I can tell you lots about Sydney, Melbourne and even Brisbane, as well as plenty of unglamorous places in between. But I know next to nothing about the northern or western parts of this country. Because almost all the writers in this collection are from Western Australia, their writing opened up this area to me. MaryAnn Bin-Sallik writes:
Because of the pearling industry, Broome was a predominately Asian town. Its official trade language was Malay, which was spoken by many Aboriginal men who worked in pearling. Many of the Asian men took Aboriginal wives… Many Aboriginal descendants of Asian deep-sea pearlers, including myself, prefer to holiday in Asia where we have an understanding of the cultures and languages, where we can fit into the crowd and not be subjected to racism’.
This is amazing! How did I not know this? Meanwhile, Joan Winch notes that her grandmother was a Nyungar Portuguese mixture, ‘a legacy from the Portuguese sealers in the Bremer Bay area’ and Cheryl Kickett-Tucker’s Nan’s wedding ceremony, at the New Norcia Mission just north of Perth, was performed entirely in Spanish.
As the Introduction to this book points out, collections written solely by Aboriginal women are scare. If for no other reason, this fact should compel Australians (and others) to buy and read this book. Some of it is damned uncomfortable reading, and at times it’s a bit rough around the edges, but it is also honest, insightful and even hopeful. This exploration of racism and sexism as experienced by Aboriginal women needs much further probing. Fortunately, there are clearly a wealth of Indigenous women prepared and capable of taking up this task.
I received this book from Magabala Books in exchange for an honest review.