On Christmas Eve I watched my almost 4 year–old granddaughter add a few extra cookies to the plate set out for Santa. When I asked her why, she replied, “Because Mrs. Claus works hard too.”
I was amazed that in her innocence she had already considered that strong women deserve their own recognition. I am happy to report that over 400 other like-minded people now subscribe to this blog:)
Welcome 2015! For January I am paying tribute to a mother-daughter team, Molly Craig Kelly and Doris Pilkington Garimara.
In order to appreciate their story, you need to be aware of some twentieth century Australian history.
Both Molly and Doris were Aboriginal women who were born in the mid-northern part of Western Australia. Here the land occupies one-third of the continent and is peppered with desert and tenuous living conditions. The laws that would forever change Molly’s and Doris’ life however, were enacted by the government on the complete opposite side of the continent, in the south-eastern state of Victoria.
Starting in 1871, the Aboriginal Protection Act allowed state agents to remove Aboriginal children from their families. Government officials, often aided by Christian missionaries and local police forces, were permitted and encouraged to take Aboriginal children from their homes and place them in state-run institutions where the children could learn a working trade. Most of the children taken were light skinned girls, in the belief that perhaps they would eventually help to breed out the Aboriginal strain of population. Hardly any of the children were ever returned to their families.
This practice continued legally for 100 years, and the children became known as ‘the stolen generations’.
In 1931 fourteen-year old Molly Craig asked her mother once again about her father. She was told that he had been an English fence inspector who worked on the Rabbit Fence. Then her mother pointed to the section of the fence that ran near their village. She explained to Molly that the fence was built to keep rabbits out of the Western territory, and that it ran from the northern edge of the country all the way to the southern ocean.
Several weeks later Molly and two girls from her family were kidnapped by a government agent. They were taken to a relocation settlement 1,000 miles from their home where they met other relocated children and learned the truth–that they were expected to live in this settlement from now on. Anyone caught trying to leave would be severely punished. Being the oldest of the trio Molly perhaps realized that the longer they stayed, the harder it would be to escape.
The next day in a bold move, Molly took the two girls with her while supposedly emptying slop buckets. Instead, the three of them took off running through the woods. Molly’s goal was to find the Rabbit Fence, figuring it would eventually lead them home.
The girls left with only the clothes on their backs and no food at all. During the night a powerful storm lashed the earth with torrents of rain and washed away the girls’ muddy footprints. It was a rare piece of luck.
With only their knowledge of nature as a navigation tool, the girls walked in the direction of north. The trek became more difficult with each passing day as the girls traversed the untamed wilderness. They foraged for food; sometimes resorting to stealing from farms and other times being given mutton sandwiches by kind and generous strangers. No one asked them where they were going, and the girls were reluctant to carry on conversations with outsiders. Weeks went by. Their clothes were torn, their bodies scratched by brambles and bitten by insects, and they lost a considerable amount of weight. But once they found the Rabbit Fence, it became their lifeline.
Almost two-thirds of the way home, the older cousin gave up. She turned herself in to the nearest government station in the hopes that they would return her to her mother. No one ever saw her again.
On and on Molly pushed, sometimes carrying the younger child. They were terrified of being caught, even as they battled the effects of malnutrition and constant hunger. Against all odds, they stumbled into their village nine weeks after leaving the relocation center; having walked the entire 1,000 miles. Their families were overjoyed.
Molly’s story did not end there, nor did it have a happy ending. Molly did manage to elude recapture and continued to live near the village, eventually marrying and having two daughters of her own, Annabelle and Doris. When the girls were toddlers, both were abducted and ‘relocated’. They were told that their mother had abandoned them. Decades later Doris and her mother Molly were reunited; but Annabelle did not want to see the mother she believed had deserted her. They never met face to face again.
It was not until Doris was in her forties did she hear the full account of her mother’s amazing 1,000 mile journey. In tribute to her mother’s bravery and also as a way of bringing the stolen generations their recognition, Doris wrote a book, Follow the Rabbit-Proof Fence, which was later made into a movie.
One result of the book and movie was a world-wide recognition of the travesty done to Australia’s Aboriginal families throughout the twentieth century. The policy of taking Aboriginal children for relocation was supposedly stopped in the 1970s, although the law of Aboriginal Relocation was not repealed until the 1990s. The official statement was that the policy had been aimed at saving Aboriginal children from a life of poverty and ignorance. Hmm. Those same children were the ones trained to become domestic servants in the homes of the well-to-do white Australians. The general estimated figure of the stolen generations is approximately 100,000 Aboriginal children.
In 2008 the Australian government issued a formal apology ‘for the laws of successive parliaments that inflicted profound grief, suffering, and loss on fellow Australians’. Because of Doris Pilkington Garimara’s book, and the movie, Australians began to talk about the uncomfortable topic of the stolen generations and what could be done in present time to improve the education and living standards for aboriginal people..
Both Molly Craig Kelly and her daughter Doris Pilkington Carimara are now deceased. But by their actions they proved that strong women continue to have a profound effect on subsequent generations.
They each deserved extra cookies on the plate.
Thank you to Sandra Pantall who alerted me to these two strong women.
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