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A Place in the Past: Pilkington and van den Berg on the Moore River ...

A Place in the Past: Pilkington and van den Berg on the Moore River ...

Englong>andong> as ‘home’ ong>andong> valued a strict separation of spheres as an ong>inong>dex of gentility. Life at Moore River was often a more traumatic experience for Aborigong>inong>al women than it was for ong>theong> men. Imprisoned ong>inong>doors with nothong>inong>g to occupy ong>theong>ir ‘ong>inong>ferior mental endowments’, ong>theong>y were officially expected to become nong>inong>eteenth centurystyle ladies ong>andong> unofficially given up as whores. It is little wonder that ong>theong> majority of escapees from ong>theong> settlement were young girls. Doris Pilkong>inong>gton was taken to Moore River by ong>theong> authorities when she was four years old. Although her moong>theong>r accompanied her on ong>theong> journey, ong>theong> two of ong>theong>m were separated when ong>theong>y arrived ong>andong> never lived togeong>theong>r agaong>inong>. Pilkong>inong>gton’s early years at ong>theong> settlement were spent ong>inong> ong>theong> ‘protected’ environment of ong>theong> kong>inong>dergarten, which was strictly segregated from those ong>inong> ong>theong> campgrounds ong>andong> from ong>theong> older children ong>inong> ong>theong> dormitories. The young children ong>inong> ong>theong> kong>inong>dergarten were chosen for ong>theong>ir whiteness to be thoroughly assimilated ong>inong>to ong>theong> ‘lower echelons’ of ong>theong> non- Aborigong>inong>al maong>inong>stream; ong>theong>y were forbidong>denong> from speakong>inong>g ong>theong>ir language. 19 Accordong>inong>g to Maushart, officialdom at Moore River saw Aborigong>inong>ality as a kong>inong>d of communicative disease: The settlement was designed to function as an isolation ward, cordonong>inong>g off ong>theong> ong>inong>fected from ong>theong> wider community. But ong>inong>stitutional policy also acknowledged degrees of ong>inong>fection. There were ong>theong> termong>inong>al cases – that is to say, ong>theong> older youths ong>andong> adults who ong>inong>habited ong>theong> humpies ong>andong> sheds of ong>theong> camps. But ong>theong>re were oong>theong>rs who were regarded merely as ‘carriers’. These were ong>theong> compound children, especially those who had been snatched from ong>theong>ir families at a tender age. Their exposure to ong>theong> disease of Aborigong>inong>ality had been mong>inong>imal; ong>theong>ir prognosis was ong>theong>refore excellent. It was believed that, under proper conditions of quarantong>inong>e ong>andong> rehabilitation, ong>theong>y might even survive to lead productive, European-style lives. (167-68) If Aborigong>inong>ality was a contagious disease, it was one (along with flu, typhoid ong>andong> VD) that was regarded by white authorities as fatal to a genetically weakened stock of ‘half-breeds’. Half-caste Aborigong>inong>al women were at ong>theong> forefront of combatong>inong>g this disease. They were sent as prisoners ong>inong>to domestic service where ong>theong>y were often sexually abused by ong>theong>ir white masters. The ‘quarter castes’ that resulted from ong>theong>se encounters were often more light skong>inong>ned than ong>theong>ir moong>theong>rs ong>andong> were promptly separated from ong>theong>m; ong>theong> women were often returned ong>inong> disgrace to Moore River. Aborigong>inong>al women were ong>theong> victims of white men’s sexual lust, but ong>theong>y were blamed when raped because ong>theong> racist attitudes of ong>theong> day equated blackness with bestial sexuality ong>andong> permissiveness. Accordong>inong>g to ong>theong> authorities ong>andong> ong>theong> unequal legal system, it was ong>theong> women’s fault that ong>theong>y tempted ong>theong>ir white masters ong>andong> returned as fallen women. Separatong>inong>g ong>theong>m from ong>theong>ir children was considered a social service because ong>theong>y were considered ong>inong>capable of beong>inong>g good moong>theong>rs. Regulations relatong>inong>g to Aborigong>inong>al people livong>inong>g ong>inong> ong>theong> 1930s gave ong>theong>m ong>theong> status of illegal, or raong>theong>r, sublegal aliens. They were ong>denong>ied ong>theong>ir humanity by beong>inong>g prevented from marryong>inong>g whoever or whenever ong>theong>y wished; social-Darwong>inong>ian notions that prohibited racial ong>inong>ter-breedong>inong>g circulated. A ‘half-caste’ woman, for example, who married a fullblood Aborigong>inong>al, was betrayong>inong>g that part of herself which promised ong>inong>tellectual, moral ong>andong> social adong>vanong>cement – her whiteness. 6

Set agaong>inong>st this context, Molly, Daisy ong>andong> Grace’s escape from Moore River – depicted ong>inong> Follow ong>theong> Rabbit Proof Fence – might be anoong>theong>r ong>inong> a series of wholly understong>andong>able, but hardly remarkable escapes, signifyong>inong>g rebellion agaong>inong>st omniscient state authority. What makes ong>theong>ir story different is ong>theong> length of ong>theong>ir 1000 km journey to freedom, ong>andong> its partial success. They make it back to ong>theong>ir home, Jigalong, ong>andong> ong>theong>ir families. For one of ong>theong> girls, journey’s end is a permanent homecomong>inong>g. Molly ong>andong> Grace are both eventually recaptured ong>andong> transported back to Moore River, but Molly later escapes with one of her daughters ong>andong> returns permanently to Jigalong usong>inong>g ong>theong> same route she had taken nong>inong>e years earlier. Yet ong>theong>irs is no mere rebellion from authority, a peccadillo of girlish searches for husbong>andong>s from neighbourong>inong>g missions, as Maushart describes it. Commonly such escapes lasted for 24 hours at ong>theong> most, ong>andong> were treated with paternal leniency by ong>theong> authorities. After few dreadful nights ong>inong> ong>theong> dark, unsanitary tong>inong>-shed which served as Moore River’s solitary confong>inong>ement prison, ong>theong> miscreants would be returned to ong>theong> ong>inong>stitutional community. But ong>theong> three girls eluded under-resourced authorities for a far more significant period. Because no one but ong>theong>mselves thought ong>theong>y were goong>inong>g to make it, ong>theong>ir achievement gave ong>theong>ir people, still imprisoned, a kong>inong>d of legendary hope. We see this same hope operatong>inong>g ong>inong> ong>vanong> ong>denong> ong>Bergong>’s book. She relates a tale about a tribe of hostile-lookong>inong>g, proud, ong>inong>communicative Aborigong>inong>al people who camp at Moore River for months to be near ong>theong>ir abducted children. This group frightens ong>theong> Moore River ong>inong>mates, ong>inong>doctrong>inong>ated by ideas of savagery, noble ong>andong> oong>theong>rwise. Neverong>theong>less, ong>theong>se people group togeong>theong>r ong>andong> succeed ong>inong> stealong>inong>g ong>theong>ir children back from ong>theong> ong>inong>stitution, disappearong>inong>g, magically, back ong>inong>to ong>theong>ir own country. Molly, Daisy ong>andong> Grace also make it back to ong>theong>ir homes ong>andong> re-establish ong>theong>ir connection to ong>theong>ir ancestral long>andong>. In doong>inong>g so, ong>theong>y also make an explicit statement to white authority: ong>theong>irs is no mere rebellion from ong>theong> norms, cruelties ong>andong> hierarchies of mission life; it is a statement of preference for a way of life ong>denong>ied. It is this achievement of freedom that ong>inong>spires those still ong>inong> thrall to everyday authoritarianism. It is also a statement of ong>theong> durability ong>andong> contong>inong>uity of Aborigong>inong>al culture. Family, home ong>andong> even work are viable alternatives to Moore River’s degradong>inong>g life. Although Rabbit Proof Fence ends with ong>theong> girls’ arrival at ong>theong>ir home: it is ong>theong> journey that is crucial, not its conclusion. Although an Eong>denong> ong>inong> ong>theong> bush ong>andong> ong>theong> everideological notion of ‘Home’(long>andong>) is as powerful a telos as any ong>inong> ong>theong> western Christian canon, ong>theong> journey valorised ong>andong> ong>theong> goal achieved suggest ong>theong> genre of epic romance. The allegorical implications for ong>theong> collective, endless, ong>andong> impossible journey of colonised peoples to imagong>inong>ary homelong>andong>s are also suggestive of national literatures. Yet Pilkong>inong>gton ong>andong> ong>vanong> ong>denong> ong>Bergong> both retaong>inong> authority over historical truth cloong>theong>d ong>inong> realist prose. History, biographical narrative ong>andong> epic are more closely aligned than ong>theong>y are ong>inong> traditional, ong>andong> often abstract, European allegorical fables. In this marbled generic structure, legend-as-history serves a didactic function. Follow ong>theong> Rabbit Proof Fence is Doris Pilkong>inong>gton’s foundation story, just ong>theong> endurance of ong>theong> Wong>inong>tamarra tree symbolises ong>theong> persistence of Pilkong>inong>gton’s family traditions despite her authorised abduction from Balfour Downs station. 20 It is an example of many migrations that made her people who ong>theong>y are. These migrations ground claims for 7

Torsos by Dutch sculptor Eja Siepman van den Berg Beauty in ...