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Sisters on the move

By Stephen Hagan - posted Wednesday, 20 July 2005

But where are our strong, black male leaders? Will they soon assume the mantle, so aptly adopted by our Maori cousins, of “Once Were Warriors”? Let’s tackle the second question first.

Despite the plethora of highly publicised government commissioned reports exposing an inordinately high level of domestic violence involving some indigenous men assaulting their partners, often serious and sporadically fatal, most indigenous men continue to perform the crucial role of family provider and protector. History has confirmed the instinctive role indigenous men assume when the integrity of their women is brought into question.

Janine Roberts in her publication, From Massacres to Mining, reported the Dutch ship Duyfken, in 1606, ventured south to Australia to see what spoils could be won. It was a smallish ship, two-masted with eight cannons.


The Duyfken first stood off the Mapoon territory but every attempt to land was opposed by hostile Aborigines with spears in their hands. Moving 130 miles south, they were permitted by the Aurukun people to build a settlement. However, after they took the wives of the local men and forced the men to work for them, fighting broke out. The Duyfken, having lost nearly half its crew, was forced to leave Australia.

Three hundred years later, Roberts further reports that the Aboriginal woman were usually at the mercy of anybody from among the white station staff and “locked up at night to keep the women from their own people”. In 1900, a station owned by the Queensland National Bank had “eight or nine gins fenced in with rabbit-proof netting next to the house”. One man “sent a gin away with the mailman to Burketown to be sent south to some of his friends as a slave. Parties of men used to go out to capture gins”. These women were traded between stations.

The 1900 government report stated, “women were handed around from station to station until discarded to rot away with venereal disease”. The Aborigines fiercely resisted this slave trade. A magistrate reported: “Every murder that occurred on the coast was due to the carrying off of gins” and a select committee was told “in the matter of kidnapping gins, you cannot control white men … and it is the cause of half the murders committed by the blacks upon them.”

Sure, there were also many reported instances of indigenous men, just as there are today, who were perpetrators of unspeakable crimes against indigenous women. Dawn May, Aboriginal Labour and the Cattle Industry, speaks candidly about diary entries made by a settler who sought a female companion for his traditional stockmen from a distant tribal area: “So we went down the river to near where the Punjaub station is now and found some gins in a lagoon getting waterlily roots and mussels. The poor things were so scared that they would not come out until they were nearly frozen or drowned. Well, we had a look through them and told Drummer to pick one but to try and get one with curly hair and small feet (as they are the most intelligent). Drummer chose one, put her on his horse behind him, and we all returned to the 20 mile camp.”

It is indeed remarkable that indigenous women not only survived the past couple of centuries of horrendous assaults, at the hands of the foreign men, but they are today taking the lead role in the promotion and advancement of their proud and resilient race.

Who are these indigenous women?


There were 410,003 people (2.2 per cent)/(202,954 males and 207,049 females) in Australia who identified as being of indigenous origin in the 2001 census. This represents an increase of 57,033 people (16.2 per cent)/(28,157 males and 28,876 females) since the 1996 census.

The state or territory in Australia with the highest percentage of people who identified as being of indigenous origin in the 2001 census was the Northern Territory (25.1 per cent), while the state or territory in Australia with the lowest percentage of people who identified as being of indigenous origin in the 2001 census was Victoria (0.5 per cent).

Could this statistic, of people identified as indigenous, be a guide to where our pool of future indigenous elected representation is drawn? Evidently so, as the recent NT elections returned three indigenous incumbents in Marion Scrymgour, Mathew Bonson and Ellitott McAdam. With the arrival of successful indigenous candidates, ABCTV presenter Barbara McCarthy and former Central Australia’s ATSIC commissioner Alison Anderson, to the NT Parliament the women echelon rises to three, while the men drop to two with the resignation of  the Member for Arnham, John Ah Kit.

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About the Author

Stephen Hagan is Editor of the National Indigenous Times, award winning author, film maker and 2006 NAIDOC Person of the Year.

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