Span 37

Journal of the South Pacific Assoc for Cwlth Lit and Language Studies
Number 37, 1993
Yorga Wangi:
Postcolonialism and Feminism

Edited by Anne Brewster, Marion Campbell, Ann McGuire, Kathryn Trees

White Steps on the Way to the International Year of Indigenous People: The Difficulties and Lines of Flight of Mary Gilmore

Barbara Holloway

Since each of us was several, there was already quite a crowd.
Deleuze and Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus

The United Nations declared 1993 to be the "International Year of Indigenous Peoples," and throughout the year the term 'Indigenous Peoples' functioned without debate, as though a most 'natural' and therefore ahistorical identity. The gesture raises many issues. How have 'indigenous people' emerged, within dominant culture, from resistant and exploited 'natives;' in this country, Aborigines? What relationship does the term 'indigenous people' have now to its anthropological scientistic origins? How is it related to territory-based nationalism? And in Australia how are the meanings of 'Aboriginal' negotiated with 'indigenous', in Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal use? In this article I trace what I can of the accretion of forces, resistances and engagements of the somatic and symbolic in the term 'Aborigines' as a parallel problematic. In doing so, I focus on texts from and about a particular area and era acessible to me as 'white' middle class woman, namely south-eastern Australia in the 1920s and 30s. I identify some of the institutional sites of literary production and consumption evident in producing 'the Aborigines' in the poetry of 'white' writer, Mary Gilmore, while looking first at Aboriginal histories concerning that period to track how apparently remote, idealising poetry was part of a network of agency which had points useful to Aboriginal people in gaining access to some sites of authority within discourse.1 The essay is an (inevitably unsuccessful) attempt to unsettle (my own) critical practice by deprivileging Gilmore's writing, conventionally the focus of a critical article, instead locating the writing as an element within coalescence politics in the decades before World War II. It will strike readers that 'Gilmore' is still privileged over individual Aborigines such as Margaret Tucker or Jack Ferguson whose accounts of the period survive but for the latter 'Aborigines' was an identity that was lived rather than inscribed.


In many parts of south-eastern Australia successful Aboriginal lobbying for small holdings had resulted in land being independently owned and successfully farmed by Aboriginal communities in the period between 1860 and 1910. There were also high levels of Aboriginal employment throughout that period, primarily in rural and domestic labour.2 Both realities were generally invisible to society at large, contrary as they were to the myths of Aboriginal being as one either 'unwilling to work' or, romantically and equally inaccurately, psychically so close to Nature as to be unable to carry out Western work routines. By the 1920s closer Euro-Australian settlement, with policies stemming from visions of a national 'white' rural idyll, forced Aboriginal people off much of the land they had retained, and led to a marked increase in the power of the pernicious Aboriginal Protection Boards on government- and mission-run reserves in the Eastern states.3

In the nationalistic and racist atmosphere of the 1930s, Aborigines had difficulty gaining access to the media to publicize worsening conditions on the reserves, let alone to protest their increased dispossession and dislocation. Throughout the decade the authority of science reinforced a racially-based hierarchy of sexual health and bodily vigour which justified social and economic discrimination. Even where scientists attempted to use their authority to undo such racist constructions, interconnecting economic, scientific and social discourses prevailed to render it extremely difficult for the Aboriginal political voice to be heard.4 Instead the block of forces was reflected in prevailing constructs of Aborigines as members of an ahistorical 'primitive culture', an exotic enclosed society remote from the dominant culture. Thus textual practices paralleled historical enclosure on reserves. The text offered Aboriginal people no place except "the past; in which they are represented as occupying the land with a status, albeit colourful, between humanity and native animals."5 The virulent conceit of 'the dying race' had a self-fulfilling fatalism now difficult to credit, which was also a textual parallel: to the continuing racial violence in the North, a violence reported and fatalistically deplored in eastern papers. There was little legal action in response.6 Deborah Rose argues that physical 'distance' has a cultural function, acting like a chronology in which the injustice and violence was 'heard' but reacted to as though it were in time past.7 This is a particularly interesting analysis in that Gilmore was notorious for playing fast and loose with a reverse strategy, in which she created a narrative of events before her lifetime which she presented as part of her own experience. In her public statements she also used time past - the experiences of her own childhood - to undo distance, to have Aboriginal people heard locally and directly support their arguments against discrimination.

The impending Sesquicentenary in 1938 provided a focal point at which Aboriginal political voices might be heard, as indeed proved to be the case when the Aboriginal Manifesto was published for Australia Day that year (though that document's provenance was also a mixture of contemporary forces of production).8 Visible Aboriginal political activism increased throughout the '30s, with people like Jack Ferguson, Margaret Tucker and Jack Patton travelling Eastern Australia to organize resistance and survival. Their activities are apparently at best only tangentially reflected in Mary Gilmore's idealizing poetic practice. It is a telling irony that Gilmore's poetry contributed more to contemporary definition of 'indigenous people' in Australia than did the Manifesto. In Gilmore's rather old-fashioned poetic practice, Aboriginal society was inscribed within an ideal, a strategy that endorsed both contemporary Aboriginal assertions of human equality and dignity and the self-reflexive ideological function of poetry.


Before Gilmore's poetry about Aborigines appeared, the dominant images had not changed since the 1870s, and largely disappeared from Australian poetry in the interval between the '70s and 1930. The earlier images commonly took one of two forms: first the deeply offensive 'humourous' inventions of Brunton Stephens perpetuated in 'comic' narratives by poets of the Bulletin school like G. H. Gibson. Within that option, Henry Kendall had been the last poet to write any quantity about 'the Aborigines' and while his appropriation of the comic approach was more complex than Stephens's, his earlier 'serious Aboriginal' poems also represented indigenous people as 'local colour' or as suffering a tragic fate as they inexorably 'made way' for a superior civilization.

The invention of 'Australia' at the end of the century required the invention of nationality in an increasingly nationalistic era. Nationality was represented as innate in individual and society, the product of a shared history and land. In the web of discourses of Federation, 'the Aborigines'9 were commodified as a foreground shared by non-Aboriginal Australians. They were defined as a common national heritage where otherwise divisions of ancestry, especially between Irish and English, free and convict, might have inscribed politically unworkable difference. At a key point in the making of the 'indigenous," the existence of 'the Aborigines', represented as past or almost-past, provided an exotic prelude to the new state. Even more importantly 'they' compensated for the lack of credible romantic history favoured by hegemonic nationalisms current in Europe (and shortly to be invented for Australia at 'Gallipoli'). Violence and dispossession were obliterated, except as manifestations of evolutionary inevitability, to focus on distinctive 'indigenousness'. Bernard O'Dowd's long poem, The Bush (1912), for example, briefly appropriates Aboriginal myth as an empowering device in Euro-Australian nationalism. There O'Dowd proudly represents himself as conceiving of a merging of Aboriginal 'Alcheringa' with international mythologies in which he had 'found the [Australian] Golden Age.'10 For O'Dowd 'Alcheringa', his summarizing term for Aboriginal mythology, owes its existence not to Aboriginal people but to the Homeric exploits of a European: "Spencer sails from Alcheringa bringing / Intaglios, totems and Books of the Dead."11 For O'Dowd the fact that anthropologist Spencer's inscription of Aboriginal society is that of an anthropologist gives Australia the sanction of hegemonic scientific authenticity.

Such positionings informed the summary and very specific images of Aboriginal society that appeared in the nationalist poetry around Federation: an imaginary Aboriginal lack of awareness of either self or time, represented as 'benightedness' dispelled by the 'dawn' of Europeans' arrival, justified conquest and dispossession.12 This supposedly 'original', unselfconscious Aboriginal society was used as the basis of a narrative of 'ancientness' to authenticate Australian national being; a construction that seems to be preserved in the ongoing obsession with the earliest date of Aboriginal presence in Australia.


Poetry was still read, in the early part of this century, with popular Romantic/Arnoldian respect as the medium for expressions of moral feeling and higher truth. Such status meant that the formations and counter-formations of Aboriginal/European relations in poetry had ideological significance, and might be hoped to influence social policy eventually, but first the subject-matter had to be shown to be noble enough to be poetic. Gilmore reversed the dominant stereotypes of 'the Aboriginal' as the buffoon and primitive outlined above by introducing images and narratives that were demonstrably compatible with social and aesthetic harmony and poetic form. However, within the postcolonial society Australia was, Gilmore's poetry demonstrates the impossibility of adopting ideological devices for one strategy without being drawn into equally powerful contrary functions. For example, the very possibility of altering the attitudes and behaviour of a 'national' audience, as Gilmore intended, depended on assumptions about a national 'being' predicated on identity. Identity in turn implied exclusion or defeat of other groups defined as unworthy to be citizens, and so excluded precisely the people the poems seek to include within the nation. In negotiating such conditions of impossibility Gilmore's poetry necessarily flowed through the 'planes of becoming', energy that found a mode of expression in writing. The resulting verse was paternalistic, universalizing and inadequate, but it added a valorised and accessible European representation to the arguments of Aboriginal people for self-determination and citizenship. Gilmore's representations of the dignified, skilled, and learned Aboriginal society countered the obliterating stereotypes that had dominated European representations of the 'indigenous people' for the previous fifty years. Her poetry was locked into a narrative of the 'pastness' of Aboriginal society because she used the heroising notion of the history of Australia outlined above. What at first seems racist and a failure of perception may be seen to have more to do with challenging the discourses of European superiority than a disregard for contemporary Aboriginal people and Aboriginal society. More is thus revealed about the existing possibilities in which Gilmore's writing inevitably participated in, including the powerful cultural and historical practices that negated the inscription of 'the Aborigines' as well as those, notably of Christian socialism and feminism, that facilitated utterance. By identifying the range of negative images to be countered it is possible to name otherwise obscure gaps, contradictions and strategies in the poetry.

While the relevant work appeared in two volumes of verse, The Wild Swan (1930) and Under the Wilgas (1932), Gilmore's radical formulation of 'the Aborigines' first appeared not in poems but in a series of articles entitled 'Literature. Our Lost Field' in The Sydney Morning Herald in 1927. She argued, in Nettie Palmer's summary, that "in our blacks' ways and words we had a priceless heritage, and that through neglect and ignorance we have almost utterly missed it" (Palmer "Our Once Green Tree"). Vance and Nettie Palmer thought the articles of the highest significance which suggests that Gilmore's views were shared in the cultural avant-garde of the day.13 The poems are much more complex engagements not only with how to represent Aboriginal history and society, but, self-reflexively, with the nature of poetic utterance in colonial discourse. Little attempt has been made by critics to see beyond her deceptively simple prosody, though Sheridan14 sees Gilmore's writing as fraught with contradictions which make her simultaneously:

. . . a champion of Aboriginal people, a singer and historian of their traditions and of white settler massacres . . . (23).

The poems refuse to resolve these contradictory positions. In fact, they are a more ambitious undertaking than has been noted, and not least because they systematically argue equally for the need of literary representation of Aboriginal people and of the unjustifiable Euro-Australian dispossession of them. That Gilmore was confronted with the problem of finding a language of inscription for a succession of entirely new images with a quite different ideological function accounts for and endorses contradictions, as well as for her resort to prior related constructions and for the lapses that her poems sometimes are.

The authority to speak at all in public was a primary issue. Her writing uses one common, gendered strategy to evade the equally gendered lack of authority implicit in being-woman, one which provided a recognised ideological position that permeates her Aboriginal texts and informs their ethics, contradictory positions and all. A clue to it lies in Brian Elliott's comment that "this is not Jindyworobak writing, but its compassion for the Aborigines marks strong affinities in it . . . the key to her thought is pity."15

And Sheridan says that:

(Gilmore's) idealized construction of sexuality in relation to the preservation and continuance of "race", a commonplace among progressive people of her time, is probably the major link between Gilmore's uses of the dominant discourse on race and her feminist sexual politics. (23)

"Pity", "compassion" discourses of "race" and "feminist sexual politics" are clues to an even older speaking position, namely that of the Mother. A dominant icon of the nineteenth-century, the Mother's authority, although rewritten by eugenics and fervent nationalism by the 1920s, underwrites Gilmore's inscription of 'the Aboriginal' quite directly. The trope authorises her care in several forms; first as a socialist, for justice for the marginalised and disempowered throughout her writing. Becoming-mother is a discourse commanding attention from several ideological positions: in popular rhetoric, the Mother was authoritative because she was cognate with woman-as-nature, health and racial purity.16 The ready and deep compassion that is available, by definition, from the Mother to all 'children' in sentimental popular culture also gives 'her' right of access to all 'children' and thus the right to claim superior knowledge of them and to make assertions about their welfare.

A reader familiar with literature of the period will recognise that Gilmore's 'Aboriginal' poems thus work within a chain of images alternating between the ideal and the material, consisting of compassion as appropriate to the Mother, the Mother as authority in the home, Home as the site of the race, that site as the land, and the land as the origin and site of mother Nature as well as of the race(s). Nationalist imagery of Australia as a child in history, by dint of its recent 'arrival', also incorporated maternal authority into the discursive field. (The authoritative image of relationship between a Euro-Australian mother and a childlike 'Aboriginal' already existed in the image of 'the good Missus.")17 Gilmore's literary production was therefore authorized, sometimes explicitly, not in the prevailing Romantic terms of the artist's exalted individual powers of higher perception, which she renounced, but in ideological constructions of the Mother:

But me, though I write, am never less (& never more) than a house-mother and a body with one eye to the children's welfare...18

This letter of 1928 disclaims aesthetic status for her poetry and constructs the writing self as mother in the role of servant. In brief it is by speaking as Mother that Gilmore can assert the humanity of 'the Aborigines' and negate the threat their anomalous relationship to the dominant society had been constructed as: the threat of difference.

Maternal authority is not usually explicit in the poems, nor was it alone enough to establish access to language. Mother-being was mediated through the status of poetry and the uses of particular prosodic practices and styles with prior meanings such as the elegy, and as such a strategy implies, Gilmore's poetry proceeds by meta-narratives and frequent reference to the part played by discourse in determining reality. An early example of this reflexivity is found in "The Crater" (1918), which traces the logic of impossibility in the colonial experience. The speaker has been called by "Dame Nature" to "sit beneath a tree /And write a word or two" but writing is impossible because she becomes preoccupied with the discrepancy between the fragile, gentle boy-child she tends while:

just outside the garden one might hear
The road-gang working, all day long,
With shouted word, and jest obscene
And whistled note, and snatch of song.19

The speaker is obsessed with how such men derive from the sensitive child. "Nature" answers by providing a vision of the drive emanating from the public discourse of masculinity, and attributes both the violent destructiveness inherent in colonization and the inception of civilized society to it. Unsatisfied the speaker asks for another explanation but, in the final line, "she (Nature) put me back beneath my tree." The tree is the site of writing in the poem, which suggests that writing itself both constitutes reality and the duty is to inscribe rather than resolve coexisting and conflicting modes of being.

It is not only poetry, but language itself that the poems address as the path to new meanings. The poems about Aboriginal people are particularly full of references to language. Language, as it is constituted in current theory, belongs to the Father, and Gilmore's poetic strategies interestingly reinforce that construction. While she authorises herself to speak in public from the image of the Mother, she attributes her own authority to represent Aboriginal life and history frequently to her own father, creating a woman-speaker who describes herself as only repeating what her father had told her or shown her as a child of what he had done and seen. The prose of Old Days Old Ways and the footnotes to The Wild Swan also proceed by this method. Gilmore corroborates her interpretation of Aboriginal identities with further high, masculine authority, as the reader finds in frequent reference in the notes to Under the Wilgas to the scientific discourse of Baldwin Spencer. In addition to borrowing Central Australian Aboriginal terms from Spencer's and Gillen's books (a practice she later regretted) Gilmore found in them a theoretical model of Aboriginal society to supplement or reinforce her own constructs.20

Endorsement by hierarchical authority might also be seen in her privileging of the Aboriginal "Biami" as a mirror of the Judaeo-Christian God ("Unto Thee, Biami, Unto Thee" for example, and "Our Lost Field," in The Wild Swan). However the construction of the authority of the Father is not only Christian and familial. Gilmore's intense identification with the Scottish Highlanders and the tradition of clans, an identification evident throughout her public and personal writing, endorses another male authority figure in the clan chieftain.21 More importantly, the existence of the Scottish clan allows her to manipulate the reader into interpreting Aboriginal tribal organization as having a similar validity to the Scots and the tribes had, like the Scottish settlers, similarly suffered dispossession and dispersal. The parallel undoes the framing of 'otherness' that worked to prevent any general identification with Aborigines in previous versions of 'Aboriginal' society. Gilmore inscribes the Aborigines into national worth in terms of the heroic 'past' afflictions proudly claimed by Scots and Irish as determining their ethical and social present. It is thus a mistake to castigate her Aboriginal poems for relegating Aboriginal people to a condition of 'pastness' because she develops an epic past to Aboriginal society within the preferred construction of national origins. This ideological manouevre made it more difficult for Aboriginal people to be rejected by the descendents of parallel social organizations. And by presenting her access to it as the experience of her own childhood it is made not so much historical romance as authentic contemporary reality.

Combinations of images of the clan, Father and language sometimes generate unexpected metaphors in the first poems with Aboriginal content. In The Wild Swan, the clan chief of his nomadic 'tribe' is not an Aboriginal but a trumpeter swan, represented as both earthly and heavenly Father. The Aborigines in the first of these poems are Other to the swans, and are static keepers of the home to the nomadic, authoritative Father:

The black man knew his [the swan's] path, and, star by star,
Watched the timed route of his returning;
And named at night his trumpeting, afar,
As towards the swamps he sloped in homeward yearning.
Empty the forests now of eyes discerning,
That loved to greet that looked-for pinion:
The reedy marges silent are,
And at an end is all the old dominion.
His was the wisdom of the trumpeters,
The father-wisdom born of power . . . .22

In this poem, it is language, the "far sent cry" of the swan, that begins the praise of Aboriginal occupation of the land. The manner of that occupation is taken up again in "The Ring-Barked Tree" which celebrates Aboriginal interaction with natural forces and energies by contrast with the violently destructive European approach to the land. This poem harks back to the "road-gang" with its "shouted word and jest obscene," juxtaposing its ring-barking of the whole tree to the Aboriginal sensitivy and perception marked by leaving the tree alive though cutting a canoe from its bark, and:

. . . in a brave, courageous passing through:
Show us once more the steering
That of old the fathers knew,
When, on the current veering,
They held a branch, as fin, in conquest over strain.23

The poem elaborates on the "conquest over strain" by which Aborigines participate in the land, using higher skills than the destructive, barbaric Euro-Australian practices. It is a heretical and daring point conradicting the common justification of dispossession on the grounds that the indigenous people did not have the characteristics to 'develop' the 'wilderness' by agriculture or pastoralism. Gilmore emphasises the production of speech, of language to further imply a superior culture seamlessly related to its environment:

O race the forest knew in days gone by!
The brolga called you brother, and the swan
Declared your name on high;
The lizard wrote your shadow on
The rock at noon; and when the night came, wan,
Your starry symbol lit the sky.24

Here people and place mutually call each other into language. The process disavows the privileging of the Euro-Australian economic and hero-making 'functions' of land that had prevailed in earlier Australian poetry. By identifying the people with specifically Australian signs, such as the brolga and the swan, Gilmore created a 'safe space' in another sense, in that these had become cherished national emblems of the land in cultural discourse, and thus signified 'home' to a Euro-Australian reader. The manoeuvre in this poem is a good example of the perpetually precarious fine line between the cultural and natural with which Gilmore's text asserts the political and social humanity of Aborigines.

Such ideological hybridity was unavoidable, and Gilmore's poems repeatedly construct Aboriginal people in terms of absence and presence because she is dependent on the pregnant trope of the 'dying race' to retain her authority in the moral discourse of compassion. That image of 'fading' is offset by the justification of Aboriginal presence as inseparable from the land. This oneness, like the 'dying race', raises further problematic ideological constructions, particularly because it activates identification of Aborigines with nature and with instinct, both classified as inferior to culture and reason. Such potentially negative reverberations are less annihilating than the obliterating Federationist and Nietzschean discourses of race which 'authorized' the heavily prevailing image of one (white) people spreading throughout an empty island-continent: (in Bernard Smith's summary, "the influence of Nietzsche is crucial for an understanding of the mechanics of forgetfulness"25).

These irreconcilable images contesting ownership of the site of the land continue throughout The Wild Swan and Under the Wilgas. History itself becomes a landscape re-imaged to create a place for Aborigines to occupy as people. Gilmore's part in establishing the concept of a unified, atemporal Aboriginal culture is almost unfailingly accompanied by an equal part in constructing white Australian history as the violent and immoral history of colonising. There is no blurred code of responsibility for change in Aboriginal society - the poetry is very explicit about the historical process, massacre:

Fallen the flame and the spear, and fallen the hunter;
The child's bones lie in the grass, by the weed o'ergrown;
The gunyah once home is fallen like fallen Arunta,
Only a womerah left, and a mouldered bone.
Burned in the ash of the fires the conqueror lighted;
Driven to drown in the swamp; but the wind their dirge;
The hunted of the dogs; whom no man ever has righted;
Their blood is black on our hands that nothing can purge.26

Such bleakly reported historical fact consistently impedes any comfortable access to the land in Gilmore's verse; the elegiac mode used here, while serving to render the subject-matter poetic (an important part of the process of defining Aborigines as equally human) as with other aesthetic and pastoral modes she used, does not obscure material reality. Moreover, poems like 'Australia' explicitly construct Aboriginal society not as the 'hunter-gatherer society' of anthropology but as a civilization with the antiquity, culture and intellectual vigour of Greece, by-word of value. She uses historical narrative to explore the fragile difference between annihilating discourses of a pre-European utopia of Aborigine-dom and those of valued, felt human presence and annihilation. In other poems such as "The Lament of the Lubra," which explicitly employs the 'civilized' image of the Mother, the narrative is about 're-weaving'. Here the non-Aboriginal speaker outlines the unique culture of Aboriginal society, charts its violent destruction by a cruder society through the words of an Aboriginal mother mourning her son, and takes responsibility as repository of records till the advent of a 'true' artist. It concludes:

Here I, dreaming a dream of justice, bring
This thread of thought to twine from it a chord
To make my land a native harp, whereon
Some day the wind may blow, and one who hears
Draw from its slender note a song profound.27

In this poem as in others, Gilmore's constructions of the speaking self do not enforce unity. Her practice is illuminated by Kristeva's explication of an ethical multiplicity in language as opposed to unitary practice: "[a]ll discourse has an ethical function, and all monological discourse functions coercively, to reinforce an unethical moral code."28 With that thought in mind, it is easier to see Gilmore's poetry not as self-contradictory but as embodying "an interrelation of texts; a multi-faceted juncture of meanings and codes"29 precisely and explicitly in order not to abandon the ethical function of language. Thus, in contrast to Ingamells's poetry a few years later, few of Gilmore's Aboriginal poems absent the colonizer to construct a pre-contact Aboriginal pageant. Gilmore's poems own the intention of constructing an Australian culture through the appropriation of Aboriginal culture, and at the same time is relentless in demonstrating the participation of 'us', the speakers of the language of the text, in the destruction of an esteemed culture and people. In "The Lament of the Lubra" as in other poems there is an insistent lack of closure that may account for Goldie's failure to treat Gilmore's writing at all, and for the fact that Healy gives her poetry little attention, in the two most systematic accounts of literary representations of 'the Aboriginal' to date.

Gilmore represented language as itself the fragments of history - "simple words [are] . . . Shards from which man makes ladders for the mind" - a construction which allows for multiple meanings recognizing the potential for competing ideological functions.30 Her poetry resolutely names the issues of colonial hybridity and impossibility that it cannot resolve. In the complex balancings of ideological possibilities that the poems are, it was through speaking as the compassionate Mother that she most consistently gave authority to her representations of Aboriginal society, an image replicated by the press:

There has been no other poet, so far, who has understood and loved the Australian aborigines so well and so deeply as Mrs. Gilmore.31

However tentative that authority was, Gilmore used it to support Aboriginal activists in their campaigns in the 1920s and 30s.

By generating Euro-Australian agency initially from the authority of maternal care and nurture Gilmore's diverse modes of utterance connected with a range of productive and counter-productive actions and images circulating in the decade leading up to the Sesquicentenary in 1938. In that period, Aboriginal people on the reserves often received food barely adequate to nutritional needs.32 It was the withholding of food by the reserve manager that led to the well-known strike at Cumeroogunga Reserve on the Murray in 1936, which was followed by an ineffectual NSW Parliamentary Enquiry into the Aboriginal Protection Act. As with the Bicentenary, the Sesquicentenary was preceded by vocal Aboriginal outrage at the celebrations in such circumstances, culminating in the publication of the Aboriginal Manifesto formulated by members of the Aboriginal Progress Association. The Manifesto explicitly rejected comic and scientific cultural representations of the Aborigines, and called for the rights of the individual enjoyed by Euro-Australian men to be extended to Aboriginal people. It rejected the universalizing pity that erased Aboriginal reality through superimposing images of a utopian, which is to say timeless, infantile pre-European society.33

Mary Gilmore spoke at a protest meeting in 1938 in Sydney, organized by the Committee for Aboriginal Citizen Rights, a group that combined Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal activists. Her authority as poet and writer meant her speech was reported in the media. It was a model of effective publicity, for in it she herself obliterated chronological distance by speaking about "massacres of Aborigines she had witnessed as a child,"34 and she was quickly accused of lying. The resulting furore ensured the subject received prolonged attention especially in the correspondence pages of the influential Sydney Morning Herald.

Australian National University


1 The mode is apparent in the Cumeroogunga Strike at the Aboriginal Reserve begun in 1936 and the Sesquicentenary celebrations of 1938.

2 Goodall, Heather, "Land in Our Own Country: The Aboriginal Land Rights Movement in South-Eastern Australia, 1860-1914," Aboriginal History, 14:1, 3-8.

3 See J.M. Powell for a summary of the romance of small farming, 81.

4 Elkin, A.P., "Our Colour Problem. Plight of the Aborigines. A New Start." Sydney Morning Herald, 1 Jan 1938:5, 3.

5 McGrath, Ann, "Europeans and Aborigines" Under New Heavens: Cultural Transmissions and the Making of Australia ed. Neville Meaney. Melbourne: Heinemann Educational Australia, 1989, 42.

6 There was also little cultural response. Exceptions, in the novel, were Catherine Martin's Incredible Journey and Katharine Susannah Prichard's Coonardoo in the 1920s, and Xavier Herbert's Capricornia (1937).

7 Rose, Deborah Bird, 1991, Hidden Histories: Black Stories from Victoria River Downs, Humbert River and Wave Hill Stations, Aboriginal Studies Press, Canberra, 34.

8 Horner, Jack, 1974, Vote Ferguson for Aboriginal Freedom, Australian and New Zealand Book Co., Sydney, ch.15.

9 Non-Aboriginal textual constructions of 'the Aborigines' have only a tangential bearing on lived Aboriginal being. I hope the reader will keep in mind that the term is at best a representation of Aboriginal being.

10 O'Dowd, Bernard, 1941, Collected Poems of Bernard O'Dowd, Lothian Publishing Company, Melbourne, 204.

11 O'Dowd, 189.

12 For example, A.B. Paterson's "Song of the Future", Collected Verse, 199.

13 Gilmore, Mary 1980, Letters of Mary Gilmore, eds. W.H. Wilde and T. Inglis Moore, Melbourne University Press, Melbourne, 70-71.

14 Sheridan, Susan, "Conflicting Discourses on Race and Nationalism in Mary Gilmore's Poetry," in Social Alternatives 8, 1989, 23-5.

15 Elliott, Brian, 1979, The Jindyworobaks, University of Queensland Press, Brisbane, 35.

16 The authority of the Mother seems to have been a political weapon throughout the West in the inter-war period, used in the service of right-wing anti-feminist nationalism as often as in progressive causes. For particularly revealing meeting points with Australian Ideology of the period, see on Boer identity Anne McClintock "Family Feuds: Gender, Nationalism and the Family", Feminist Review 44, Summer, 1993, 61-80, and, on Irish Nationalism, Catherine Nash, "Remapping and Renaming: New Cartographies of Identity, Gender and Landscape in Ireland," Feminist Review, 44, Summer 1993, 39-57.

17 The development of this trope and its ideological implications are traced in detail by McGuire, who rejects Barwick's earlier discussion. See also Myrna Tonkinson's "Sisterhood or Aboriginal Servitude? Black women and White women on the Australian frontier," Aboriginal History 12:1-2, 1988, 27-40. Like Gilmore's work, Catherine Martin's novel The Incredible Journey (1923) also relied heavily on a 'natural' sense of responsibility of the Mother to her children and to all living things, in that case demonstrated by both Aboriginal and Euro-Australian women, to legitimize the narrative.

18 Gilmore, 77.

19 Gilmore, Mary, 1918, The Passionate Heart, Angus and Robertson, Syudney, 98.

20 Those O'Dowd could refer to are The Native Tribes of Central Australia (1899) and The Northern Tribes of Central Australia (1904). Later, more general accounts of their travels and anthropological work - Across Australia (1912) and Wanderings in Wild Australia (1928) - were significant in the ongoing construction of Aboriginal culture as a source of formative myth for 'Australians', and of the 'North' as particularly significant in shaping (European) masculinity.

21 For examples Letters, 142-3. Gilmore was not unique in this perception: for instance Gordon, first Governor of Fiji, "saw parallels between native Fijian society and the clan system which had existed in his native Scotland a few centuries earlier" and accordingly worked to preserve traditional Fijian social structures (Thomas: 68).

22 Gilmore, Mary, 1930, The Wild Swan, Robertson and Mullen, Melbourne, 6.

23 Gilmore, The Wild Swan, 37. Emphasis added.

24 Gilmore, The Wild Swan, 38.

25 Gilmore, Mary, 1930, The Wild Swan, Robertson and Mullen, Melbourne, 23.

26 Gilmore, Mary, 1930, The Wild Swan, Robertson and Mullen, Melbourne, 26.

27 Gilmore, Mary, 1930, The Wild Swan, 32.

28 McCance, Dawne, 1990, "Julia Kristeva and the Ethics of Exile," Tessera, vol. 8, 27.

29 McCance, Dawne, 1990, Tessera, vol. 8, 27.

30 Gilmore, Mary, 1932, Under the Wilgas, Robertson and Mullen, Melbourne, 39.

31 Review of The Wild Swan ; Under the Wilgas: 181. It was an image that the media was to perpetuate, as for instance in the photograph of Albert Namatjira carefully escorting Gilmore to her ninetieth birthday party (reproduced in Letters, opp. 259).

32 Walker, Robin and Dave Roberts, 1988 From Scarcity to Surfeit: A History of Food and Nutrition in New South Wales. Sydney: University of New South Wales Press, 115.

33 Horner, Appendix.

34 Horner, 109.

New: 13 December, 1996 | Now: 21 April, 2015