From the Gaze of Many


White Australia have come to “know” the “Indigenous woman” from the gaze of many, including the diaries of explorers, the photographs of philanthropists, the testimony of white state officials . . . in this textual landscape Indigenous women are objects who lack agency.[1]

One Child Escapes

When Australians, and perhaps even others in the world, think of Indigenous women today, the two positive images many are likely to have in mind are that of a young Molly piggybacking her sister Daisy in a barren and dry landscape along a rabbit proof fence and finally triumphantly reaching home, or images of Cathy Freeman lighting the cauldron at the end of the torch relay at the Olympics, exuberant and happy, later receiving a gold medal for winning the Olympic 400 metre sprint race final and giving her mother a huge bunch of flowers after her medal presentation ceremony.[2]   Both these stories can be read as extensions and adaptations of the survival story.   Howard Creamer, an anthropologist states:

One recurring story attributable to knowledge passed on from direct experience however, relates how a young child escapes . . . to continue local heritage. It is a powerful metaphor for the survival of the group in the post-contact period.[3]

Molly and Freeman share the fact that they have been touched by the legacy of discriminatory government and institutional policies such as the removal of children from their families (whether they needed to be removed or not)[4] and have been able to achieve a form of emancipation and freedom through the love others have for them and keeping strong in their cultural identity.

Until recently, Freeman would be more known than Molly.[5] Molly’s story began as an unwritten history told several times by her sister, and then written down by her daughter, inspired especially by the storytelling of Aunty Daisy.[6] Freeman’s life has been in the Australian public consciousness ever since she came to prominence as a successful athlete who actively took pride in her Indigenous identity. Interest in her has escalated, perhaps because of her various actions and their timing. Many Australians remember Freeman carrying an Aboriginal flag around the track when she won a Commonwealth Gold medal in the 400m in 1994.[7]   This act generated much debate and discussion by Australians in every walk of life: academics, journalists, scholars, and “everyday” people.[8]   From this point onwards in her athletic career, Freeman’s body, the tracks she ran on, were often read as emblematic of contemporary Indigenous people and their run into the future. She became an icon equal in stature to the flag she carried. Amongst those discussing her actions — Aboriginal Australia — several articles in Koori Mail, argues that it was an empowering act.[9]

Freeman’s life story has more recently been told in her [transcribed] words.[10] She has answered both critics and admirers in writing to let everybody know who the real Catherine is. Freeman shows how far from obscurity Indigenous women in Australia have come, that we can have an Indigenous woman as an icon to represent us internationally, but she also demonstrates the power of lived life, that transforms the kinds of texts that can be written about and by Indigenous women.[11]   She is a confident person who seeks to acknowledge but also, if necessary, defy the definitions others have of her.

Molly’s story illustrates that a true story about a strong Indigenous woman can be common in oral knowledge in Indigenous communities and passed down within a family before gaining wider recognition through the writing talents of one of the members of that family. Freeman demonstrates that personal fame, although challenging, can present opportunities to transform the way in which Indigenous women are perceived in the wider community as well as draw an incredible volume of published and spoken criticism.[12]

This study represents and analyses a series of narratives of women, mostly less well known that Freeman or Molly, who have used their agency to transform their textual and life landscapes. It evokes and interprets the agency they maintain they have gained through writing. It addresses the different empowerments that come about through writing, such as the self empowerments a writer gains from placing their thoughts on paper, the power of publishing, and the power of the social bonding gained from being part of a writing community or writing groups. It focuses on the practicalities of writing, such as: dealing with writer’s block and provision of resources and training to improve a writer’s skill.

[1] Aileen Moreton-Robinson, Talkin’ up to the White Woman (Brisbane: University of Queensland Press, 2000), p.1.

[2] Doris Pilkington, Follow the Rabbit Proof Fence (St Lucia: University of Queensland Press, 2001);

Rabbit Proof Fence dir Philip Noyce with Everlyn Sampi, David Gulpilil, Debbie Mailman, Ningali Miramax Nov 29 2002, Pilkington, Follow the Rabbit Proof Fence

I refer to the relay in which the Olympic Torch is passed from runner to runner and then finally used to light the cauldron at the Olympics. In Australia a national torch relay was held which used well -known celebrities, heroes, locally known heroes etc and so called ordinary Australians to take the torch around Australia. Several Indigenous people were involved included Ernie Dingo, Evonne Cawley, and Nova Peris Kneebone.

[3] Howard Creamer, “Aboriginality in New South Wales: Beyond the Image of Cultureless Outcasts,” in Past and Present and the Construction of Aboriginality, ed. J. R Beckett (Canberra: Aboriginal Studies Press, 1988), p.54.

[4] Children were removed from their parents by government agencies. On e of the best collections of accounts of such removal is Carmel Bird, The Stolen Children: Their Stories (Sydney, New York, Toronto: Random House, 1998) See also for many stories from New South Wales: Coral; Read Edwards, Peter, Lost Children (Auckland and Morebank: Doubleday, 1989)

[5] Jenny McCasey, “Charmed World Discovers the Heroine of New Australia,” The Australian 27 September 2000, p.5.

[6] “Preface” in Pilkington, Follow the Rabbit Proof Fence

[7] It prompted a humorous advertisement where she got together with Tunstall, who had been extremely critical of her action, supposedly calling it too political and according to some reports unAustralian. Tunstall remembers it differently. For further discussion see Peter Kell, Good Sports: Australian Sports and the Myth of the Fair Go (Sydney: Pluto Press, 2000), pp.46-50 & Richard Cashman, “Aborigines and Issues of Race,” in Paradise of Sport (Melbourne: Oxford University Press, 2000), pp.131-49. Cashman has an excellent bibliography on sporting history.

[8] For an example of an academic discussion see: Toni; Hallinan Bruce, Christopher, “Cathy Freeman: The Quest for Australian Identity,” in Sport Stars: The Cultural Politics of Sporting Celebrity, eds. David Andrews and Steven Jackson (London: Routledge, 2001), pp.257-270.

[9] See New South Wales State Library, Infokoori, New South Wales State Library: http://www.s/, 24th January 2004.

[10] Cathy Freeman and Scott Gulan, Cathy: Her Own Story (Ringwood: Penguin, 2003)

[11] Christine Anu for instance has written a song about Freeman’s life, “Coz I’m Free” and connects its creation to the inspiring life of Freeman.

[12] See Larissa Behrendt, “Cathy Freeman and the Politics of Sport,”Journal of Australian Indigenous Issues 4.1 (2001)., pp. 27-9. My reading is to be found in an unpublished conference paper. June Perkins, 49 Seconds to Reconciliation? A Do-It Yourself Guide to Running in Anti-Colonial Spikes, The Diversity Conference (Sydney: University of Technology, December 2000)Koori Mail has 188 (February 2004) references to Cathy Freeman, whilst most Indigenous writers of this study has around 20-30 references.

Extract from chapter 1 Distilling Ink from Ochre, my phd Thesis (2004).  I am in the process of contacting some people interviewed for this and gaining permission to share where they are now.


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