Personal tragedy, wider injustice

All too often over the course of Australian political history Aboriginal and Torres Straight Islander peoples have been stereotyped and dehumanised. ‘Aboriginal’ identity is often thought of, and depicted as, fulfilling a fixed criterion without appreciation for the multitude of tribal differences, the evolution of culture and religion over time, and individual personalities. Aboriginal people become blank canvases in the eyes of mainstream society, which then overlays its own prejudices and world views. However, both Rene Baker: File #28/E.D.P and Peopling the Cleland Hills in their own way break through this constrictive narrative of indigenous history and culture.

Rene Baker was written jointly by Rene Powell and Bernadette Kennedy. Powell recounts her life as a member of the Stolen Generations, and it is a moving story of injustice, sadness, strength and hope.
She came from Milyirritjarra country near Warburton, Western Australia. At the age of four, Powell was forcibly removed from her people. She writes about how, when she was taken away on the mission truck, her mother ‘started crying’ and ‘went into mourning’, while Powell was inconsolable. Remarkably, though, Powell’s removal is not as saddening an aspect of her story as is her own disconnectedness from both her traditional culture and mainstream society. She spent the rest of her childhood institutionalised, and upon returning to her family Powell found she had lost her language. Because of this there was an ‘empty space’ between her  and her mother.

Meanwhile, she was not accepted by wider society. Powell was a dark-skinned girl raised in a white world, living in limbo. Through all of this, though, she manages to struggle her way through a world stacked against her, and thereby claim her identity.

Driven by her personal friendship with Powell, Kennedy situates her political analysis of the removal policy of the Western Australian government in the context of Powell’s life story. This makes Kennedy’s insights and research all the more powerful and poignant. In other words, Kennedy’s compassion motivates and sharpens her insights.

There are two fundamental ideas running through Kennedy’s analysis. First, the Stolen Generations issue requires a shift in focus away from the rights of the victims towards addressing the injustice of the policy itself and the actions carried out to further it. Kennedy’s hypothesis is that a rights focus is too individualistic and adversarial, and is in part responsible for the Federal Government’s refusal to apologise for fear of being sued. Second, Kennedy challenges the idea that the Stolen Generations were a misfortune that occurred when well-meaning bureaucrats attempted to help Aboriginal peoples. She provides damning evidence that key WA government officials and politicians knew that from at least 1937 the practice of taking indigenous children from the parents and families was illegal. Rene Baker is a profound work in which the personal tragedy of Powell crystallises the wider injustice of the Stolen Generations. Furthermore, a book that celebrates the triumph of the human spirit in such adverse circumstances can hardly be dismissed as a ‘black-armband’ view of history.

On the other hand, Michael Smith takes a different approach to Aboriginal history in Peopling the Cleland Hills. His book is like a rich painting, its background being the Cleland Hills, a small cluster of hills located on the edge of the desert in western Central Australia. While the Cleland Hills are not physically imposing, they were of central importance to the Kukatja people and their waterholes also attracted early Europeans.

On this geographical bedrock Smith builds a picture of wider social, cultural and environmental trends ebbing and flowing over the Cleland Hills. From initial contact with Europeans, the subsequent diaspora of the Kukatja, the passing through of the Pintupi people from their exodus of the desert and their subsequent return to the desert. The Cleland Hills were in a sense a border between two worlds—the desert and the agricultural, the Aboriginal and the European.

If this were the extent of the book, it would be just another history of the colonial frontier. However, Smith adds an extra layer of complexity in that Aboriginal peoples are not depicted as an undifferentiated mass but rather as individuals. Using mission records, police reports, visitors’ journals and early media reports, Smith manages to build an account of the individual people who inhabited the region over the course of about 130 years. Among these are Malkunta Tjupurrula, a Kukatja man who was arrested for ‘larceny of beef’, and Tjintjiwarra, a Matuntara woman who was one of several Aboriginal witnesses to Constable Willshire’s shooting of two Aboriginal men in 1891.

This historiographical approach allows Smith to connect the land to its inhabitants, and as such his book is a combination of history, archaeology and anthropology. The many prints and photos included are also fascinating. Therefore, Peopling the Cleland Hills is a solid work that breaks new ground by presenting the Cleland Hills as an anchor point from which Smith narrates the lives of individual Aboriginal people during a period of disruption. 

Rene Baker: File #28/E.D.P, Rene Powell & Bernadette Kennedy. Fremantle Arts Centre Press, 2005. ISBN 1 920 73199 7, RRP $24.95
Peopling the Cleland Hills: Aboriginal History in Western Central Australia 1850–1980, Michael Alexander Smith.  Aboriginal History Inc, 2005. ISBN 0 958 56378 0, RRP $25

Godfrey Moase is studying law at the University of Melbourne.


Similar Articles

Pass the remote

  • Juliette Hughes
  • 23 April 2006

There were some curious choices in Nine’s honour roll of the 50 top Australian programs: it was done by some process that wasn’t made plain to me.


Film reviews

  • Allan James Thomas, Gil Maclean, Siobhan Jackson
  • 23 April 2006

Reviews of the films Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit; Me and You and Everyone we Know; and The Magician.



Subscribe for more stories like this.

Free sign-up