Journey ends for one of the ‘stolen generation’
Daisy Kadibil, who has died aged 95, was 8 when she was forcibly removed from her mother by the Australian authorities and sent, with her half-sister Molly, 12, and their cousin Gracie, 9, to a bleak government institution to be trained as domestic servants. The story of their escape, and their 2000-kilometre trek home, inspired Phillip Noyce’s acclaimed yet harrowing film Rabbit-Proof Fence (2002), starring Kenneth Branagh.
The film shone a light on one of the most shameful episodes in Australian history, that of the ‘‘stolen generations’’, when thousands of children, many of mixed AboriginalEuropean heritage, were kidnapped by government decree as part of an attempt to ‘‘breed out the black’’.
The eugenicsbased policy was explained in 1937 when Auber
(played in the film by Branagh), chief protector of Aborigines in Western Australia, told a conference in Canberra: ‘‘We have power . . . to take any child from its mother at any stage of its life . . . Are we going to have a population of one million blacks in the Commonwealth, or are we going to merge them into our white community and eventually forget that there ever were any Aborigines in Australia?’’
The fence of the film’s title had been built north-to-south across Western Australia in 1907 to protect farmland from a plague of imported rabbits. The remote settlement of Jigalong, about 1000km northeast of Perth, was where Daisy’s Martu forebears settled after being driven off their land; it became a depot for fence maintenance workers.
Speaking when the film was released, Molly recalled how ‘‘whitefellas took us from Mother’’ in Jigalong in July 1931. They were bundled into the back of the first motor car they had ever seen, and driven away. Through the rear window, Daisy could see her mother banging her head against a rock in despair.
They were taken north by road to Port Hedland, by ship to Fremantle and road again to Moore River, north of Perth. It was a cheerless internment camp for mixed-race Aboriginal children. Any attempt at escape was punished with solitary confinement.
They had been there only one night when Molly woke the younger girls before dawn during a storm and told them they were going to walk home to Jigalong, following the rabbitproof fence.
‘‘We’re gunna walk all the way?’’ asked Daisy. ‘‘Yes,’’ came her sister’s reply.
Their first challenge was to cross the flooded river. They had no map or compass, but had been brought up with bush skills. They crossed wet grass, sand dunes and heaths, and slept in rabbit burrows – after first catching, cooking and eating the rabbits.
In the scorching desert, two Aboriginal men gave them a goanna and a kangaroo tail, while on another occasion they caught and ate a feral cat. When their lacerated legs were weary, sore or infected by grass cuts, they gave each other piggybacks.
Meanwhile, a statewide alert had been issued for their recapture, and when they saw an aircraft swooping overhead they dived into a banksia tree.
Once the girls found the fence, they knew they simply had to walk north. But they still had 800km to go. At Wiluna, on the edge of the Western Desert, Gracie peeled off, but she was captured and returned to Moore River. She later married and had six children; she died in 1983 without ever returning to Jigalong.
Eventually Daisy and Molly, close to collapse, came across maintenance workers on the fence, who allowed them to take turns riding a camel the rest of the way to Jigalong. ‘‘Everyone happy,’’ recalled Daisy of their return. ‘‘Proper crying.’’ Their epic odyssey had taken almost nine weeks.
Daisy Burungu was born at Jigalong, on the edge of the Gibson Desert. Her mother was a member of the Mardudjara people; her father, Thomas Craig, was an English-born fence inspector, who had several children with local women. Other than her brief stay at Moore River, Daisy had no formal education.
After returning to Jigalong, Molly became a domestic help and married Tom Kelly, an Aboriginal stockman, with whom she had two daughters; Daisy helped to deliver the older one, Doris.
Molly was captured again in 1940 with her daughters, and taken once more to Moore River. She escaped the following year but had to leave Doris, aged 4, in the care of relatives, who transferred her to a Christian mission. There she was brought up to believe her mother had deliberately abandoned her.
In 1962 Doris traced her mother and her aunt; in conversations with Molly and Daisy over the next three decades she gradually learnt the truth, verifying the facts using official records. Her book Follow the RabbitProof Fence was published in 1996.
The practice of resettlement continued until the 1970s, and only in 1997 did an official report by the national inquiry into the stolen generation publicly acknowledge that it had ever existed.
Having been reunited with her mother, Daisy grew up and married a station hand called Kadibil. Molly died in 2004, and her daughter Doris died in 2014.
Daisy Kadibil had a son and three daughters. –
They were bundled into the back of the first motor car they had ever seen, and driven away. Through the rear window, Daisy could see her mother banging her head against a rock in despair.
Daisy Kadibil, right, with her half-sister Molly Kelly. Their 2000km trek home in 1931 inspired the film Rabbit-Proof Fence.