The suppression of Australian Aborigines and their culture amongst the Stolen Generations children in the film Rabbit-Proof Fence

Rabbit Proof Fence tells the true story of three very young aboriginal girls, Molly, Daisy and Gracie, and their long walk across the Australian desert in 1931 in the hope of returning to their homes. Between 1800 and the 1970’s, tens of thousands of aboriginal children were taken away from their families by government officials and placed in government and religious institutions. Young mixed-race girls were particularly targeted

Screenshot from the Rabbit-Proof Fence, 2002. Police officer kidnapping the three girls.

Over a year ago, in May 2018, Daisy Kadibil passed away at the age of 95.  She was the youngest of the three girls who inspired the book Follow the Rabbit-Proof Fence, written by Molly’s daughter. The 2002 film was based on the long journey to freedom of the three young mixed-race girls, and on the harsh lives of thousands of children, who found themselves abducted from their homes and estranged from their culture, as a result of several laws making it legal to do so.

The “Aboriginal Problem”

The 1869 Aboriginal Protection Act gave the Commonwealth full control over the lives of the Australian Aboriginal people and in 1886, the kidnapping of  “half-caste” children was reinforced through the Half-Caste Act of 1886.

After having escaped from the Moore River Settlement as a very young girl, Daisy then lived most of her life in the Parnnhurr Community, near where she was born, and was particularly attached to her Martu culture, until her death. She made it her mission to pass on her traditional aboriginal knowledge and culture to her children and grandchildren, who continue to live in the Parnngurr Community today, in tune and in harmony with their ancestral beliefs, including aboriginal spirituality involving dreams and spirit animals, like the spirit bird in the film.These beliefs are key to the identity of Australian Aborigines.

Neville was certain that it would only be a question of time before the fool-blood Aborigines of Australia die out. For him, such a scenario would have been idealistic as he strongly considered the presence of Aborigines to be problematic. In  April 1937, during the Initial Conference of Commonwealth and State Aboriginal Authorities, A.O Neville voiced his ideology quite explicitly by saying : “Are we going to have a population of 1 million blacks in the Commonwealth, or are we going to merge them into our white community and eventually forget that they were Aborigines in Australia? ”.

 His focus was on half-cast children, born from Aboriginal mothers and White fathers, as well as on quadroon children, born from half-cast mothers and white fathers. These children, and the policies on how they would be handled made up as a solution to the Aboriginal people issue, which constituted a threat to Neville and his ideology.

Two of the desired effects of the removal of aboriginal children, from babies, toddlers and teenagers, were biological and cultural. First and foremost, miscegenation and mixed marriages were encouraged on the female side, with the intentions of breeding out the black in future generations of Australian children. Half-cast and quadroon young women were encouraged to marry white men, in hopes of watering down the aboriginal DNA in the following generations causing Aborigines to be bred out of existence. Even though half-cast and quadroon boys were also taken away from their homes and placed in Industrial schools and settlements, it is undeniable that most efforts were directed towards young girls and women more than boys, as they are the ones that give life and end up raising the children. They would be responsible for their upbringing, and the values and traditions instilled in their young minds. Thus, the ideal of Neville and his policies was to build young half-cast and quadroon women in the image of what was considered perfection at the time: White, Christian and domestic. The ideals were far from what Daisy, Gracie and Molly were brought to be, before they were captured and forcibly taken away to Moor River by police officials. Along with their mothers, they lived a life full of ancestral traditions and beliefs and were taught to hunt and fend for themselves at a very young age, through a nomadic lifestyle.

Screenshot from the Rabbit-Proof Fence, 2002. The Spirit Bird

Industrial schools for girls of the stolen generations, a place where aboriginal culture is banned

A.O Neville, responsible for the removal of thousands of half-cast children, holds the title of “chief protector of Aborigines” but in fact, what he protected was his colonial values and not the indigenous people’s rituals and culture nor even their overall wellbeing and livelihood.

In the beginning of Rabbit-Proof Fence the mothers and grandmother of the three girls are teaching the girls about ancestral aboriginal lessons. In one scene, Molly’s mother points to a bird flying in the sky and says to her daughter that it is a spirit bird that will watch over her everywhere she goes.

In Rabbit-Proof Fence certain scenes focus on the cultural and traditional way of life of the Aboriginal girls, but the teachings they received would abruptly. As soon as the girls are taken to the Moore River Native Settlement, they are forced into the Christian Catholic Church and are looked after by nuns, who run the Moore River Settlement. The drastic change of environment is quite traumatizing for these girls who often take a lot of time to get used to being away from their parents. In the film, the girls refer to Mr. Neville as “Mr. Devil”. Many young girls are left depressed and extremely hurt. Their native language is banned; only English is allowed, and they are forced to go to Catholic church and say grace before each meal.  The girls in the Moore River Settlement are also controlled as they are exposed to violence; in a scene, a girl had run away to visit her boyfriend but once she is recaptured by the tracker, she is beaten and locked away. The film also shows how half-cast girls’ bodies were objectified when they are put in lines for their skin color to be checked: the girls with lighter complexions are sent to “proper” school, and the darker ones remain in industrial school where they learned to look after white babies and sow.

Steel from The Rabbit-Proof Fence, 2002. Skin color check at Moore River Settlement

Studies conducted by the Australian Government in the 1990’s revealed that over 100 000 children had been removed from their homes. Several reparations schemes were put in place for adults that are part of the stolen generations for financial support. The 1997 Bringing them Home report was committed to conducting studies and bringing official and public acknowledgement and reparations to the Stolen Generations and their families and the horrors they have been through. The report also requested that the government apologized the Indigenous people of Australia, however, that apology was not issued until nearly ten years later, in 2008.

Fatou Diabaté

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