Daisy Bates and Aborigines

by Jani Farrell Roberts. c2000

An extract from her book "Seven Days: Tales of Magic, Sex and Gender."

When the children were 16 and 17, I felt at last able to plan a longer trip away. This was necessary if I were to make my planned diamond film as it was to be shot in five continents. It was an expensive project so more than one broadcaster was needed to fund it. The ABC secured BBC interest - but there were difficulties in finalising the deal. So I asked the ABC if there were another project I could do in the meantime - and they gave me Daisy Bates.

She was a woman who died in the 1950s who spent very many decades living with Aborigines deep in the deserts of Southern Central Australia. As I read her writings I found she was a most intriguing woman. She went to live with the Nullarbor tribes when they were watching the first railway line spin a serpent-like line across Australia - as some Elders saw it . Her autobiography also fascinated one of the greatest stars of Hollywood, Katherine Hepburn. She wanted to make a film in which she could be Daisy Bates - so she commissioned two Canberra academics to research her life.

This could have been a truly marvellous film - as Katherine had known instinctively. But when I met the academics concerned, I found they had been disgusted by what they had found out and had succeeded in putting Katherine Hepburn off. They told me what they had reported. "Did you know Daisy Bates was a bigamist? She had lied to the authorities in order to remarry." They also told me that some Aborigines did not like what they heard of Daisy because she had tried to stop Aborigines marrying Whites. I thought these very flimsy ground to recommend against making this film, but I needed to find out more.

Daisy, the daughter of a large impoverished Irish family, had indeed made a terrible blunder on arriving in Queensland by falling for a man called Bates who deserted her two months later in order to go to South Africa where he became the subject of a court martial and was shot ( an incident which itself became the subject for a feature film). He had not even paid for the ring - so Daisy had to return it to the jeweller. In the legal system of the late 19th century it was impossible for her to secure a divorce so she was condemned never to again marry. Well she was an ingenious woman who had no intention of remaining the victim of any man so she embarked on another ship, landed in New South Wales and declared to the authorities that she was only now arriving in Australia. Not long after this she married a drover and travelled with him around Australia cooking for the cattlehands (cowboys in US parlance).

But despite having a son by him, her new life-style as a travelling cook did not satisfy her very inquiring mind - so she eventually deserted him and her son and returned to England. When she next appeared in Australia she had acquired yet another identity and a place in one of the few careers then open to a woman. She returned dressed as a lady in corsets and neat skirts. She claimed she was a journalist who had met the Queen and was to report on Aboriginal affairs for The Times. She said she had told the Editor of that paper that it was not true that Aborigines were being mistreated - and that she would establish the true state of play. When a Catholic missionary on the same boat heard of her plan, as I have mentioned, (p244? above) he told her she was quite wrong and that she was very welcome to visit his mission in NW Australia to find out the truth of the matter.

I much enjoyed reading Daisy's diary of her visit to this mission for it showed a great sense of humour. She laughed at finding Aborigines mimicking her tying of her corsets. She also told how the Aborigines also mimicked the missionary by pretending to hold Catholic religious services.

She confirmed for herself how badly Aborigines were being treated - but above all else, she became fascinated by Aboriginal culture. She spent time in every Aboriginal camp she came across. She taught herself some forty Aboriginal languages - and thus I found in the Australian National Museum some 80 boxes of her writings on Aboriginal subjects. Despite never having been to a university, she soon established a reputation for academic scholarship that led to her being the first woman ever invited to join an "Oxbridge" (Oxford and Cambridge) University Expedition. They came to Australia partly because they were intrigued by her discoveries - and so needed her to guide them.

She was contracted by the West Australian government to write the first definitive Ethnographic Study of that State's Aboriginal population. This entailed her travelling around all West Australia by stage coach and train. She would leap off whenever she saw an Aboriginal camp. Robert Bropho told me his mother remembered her visiting them - and had nothing but good memories of her.

But the Oxbridge Scientific Expedition was a disaster for her. It's leader, Professor Radcliffe-Browne, told her he would take her book back to England for her and get it published. She trusted him and thus gave up her plans to travel back with government funding to get it published. It was consequently never published - and when her manuscript was returned to her much later, it was covered in Radcliffe-Brown's chauvinistic comments. Many years later Daisy had something of a vengeance. When both he and she were invited to speak to a scientific congress, at the end of his talk she went to the Podium, and instead of giving her paper she simply thanked the Professor for delivering her research so well - and sat down.

Without her book published, she found it impossible to secure any paid work with Aborigines. When she applied for positions where she would have to work with them in the Outback, she was told the work was too hard for a lady. Eventually she was given the job of mediating with the Aborigines in the Nullarbor desert whose lands were being crossed by a train line. For this she would be paid a pittance.

I decided that the only way I would really find out what happened to her when she was out in the desert would be to follow in her footsteps as recorded in her diary. The ABC purchased for me a train ticket to Perth and promised to provide me with a 4 wheel drive that I could use to trace her steps from the West into the centre of Australia. I also managed to persuade the train company to stop their train for me so I could briefly visit her monument in the desert near the railway track. When the train halted, scores of heads leaned out of windows to watch me as I walked out into the shrub festooned with cameras. When I returned the train conductor told me that a couple in my carriage had known Daisy Bates and would like to speak to me.

It was one of those magical encounters that make me think that greater powers than us watch over our lives and perhaps help us fulfil our destiny. This couple told me that this was their first trip on this train in ten years and were thrilled I was interested in Daisy. The man used to work on this railway land had been the one responsible for delivering supplies to Daisy. He told me how she was then very old and came to the line surrounded by armed warriors who clearly loved and protected her. They carried a chair for her to sit on while supplies were checked. When Daisy needed to go to town in South Australia, she stayed with his family. They remembered her as unpretentious and much fun.

After this the return drive over 3000 kilometres of desert tracks was a dream. I went from sheep station to station to Aboriginal settlement. When possible I phoned ahead so people would know if I broke down.. I did not have a two-way radio, but was told to set fire to the spare tire if needed so as to create a smoke signal. One day, after visiting a family who lived in a sheep station house built of surplus railway sleepers, I realised that in all directions the horizon was absolutely flat. Not a tree, not a rock, broke it's curved line. I spun, looking at the circle around me, realising as never before I lived on a planetary ball, - and one that clearly had not shaved as a low salt bush shrub evenly covered its rocks. It was an elating experience of space and wonder. If I had been any good at cartwheels, the desert would have seen an amazing sight.

This plain is known as the "Nullarbor" from the Latin for "no trees" - but later that same day I came across in a dip a small solitary tree covered in cobwebs. When I looked at it more closely I found it was also covered in soft white lychee like fruits but without any hard covering. The fruit were delicious -and I marked it on a map in case it was a very rare specimen - but so far I have not had the chance to do anything about it.

A desert tracker helped me trace Daisy's steps in an area near the West Australia boundary where she had stayed. We climbed the great cliffs that front the Antarctic Ocean and went down steps carved by Aborigines to the flint beds they had mined. The top of the cliff was covered in flint sherds. When we drove across the desert my guide would sometimes say "Look, another Aboriginal visiting card." He would be referring to a piece of flint that could not otherwise be on the surface of the land. One day I came across and climbed down into a great pot hole. White histories recorded that Aborigines were scared to enter it - but I think the truth was that it was such a special place that they could only enter it with the consent of the appropriate elders and perhaps after ritual preparation. I descended its vast underground railway sized tunnel to flint beds - and stepped into a lake of water so pure that I could not see it before disturbing it. Such a place was of extraordinary richness to the desert people.

One day we searched to see if the boro ring survived where she had witnessed Aboriginal rituals. The Aborigines of that locality had been removed so we could not ask them about it. We drove around in circles on the very edge of the tree line until suddenly we unmistakably discovered it. It was a sunken circular natural depression with seat like cleared stone ledges around it. On one side it was surrounded by bushes. We found behind these the "water roots" that Aborigines cut and carry. They were not from local trees so we knew Aborigines had carried them to this place. My guide also told me that burned branches and turned over rocks indicated that there had been a local burial. I felt very much affected by this place, very respectful of it. I was very sorry that there was no one human left that I could ask about it. I was not sure at first that it was all right for me to be there - but when I tried to sense what might be right, I felt as if sadly welcomed.

I then found by one side of the ring, a low cave concealed by flat rocks put up against it. I felt this place was one that demanded great respect but something drew me almost irresistibly to peep behind these rocks into the cave. I was astonished to see the face of an Aboriginal woman, lying peacefully as if asleep. I looked again and again and again, and there she lay, as if the mother of the earth, uncorrupted, whole. Next day, when I looked again, she had utterly vanished. If it were a delusion, it was the strangest and most convincing that I have ever experienced. To this day, she symbolises for me the Mother that lies within the earth. I can still see her face and feel most privileged to have met her

Eventually some hundreds of miles further on I managed to find the Nullarbor Aborigines who knew Daisy when she was alive. Soon after her death they had been moved into Yalata Mission because their tribal lands had been wanted for an atomic bomb testing range.

But they had now mostly left this mission to return to their tribal lands for, in the 1980s, the Government had decided to return the least polluted portion of these lands to them.. They built for themselves a new settlement some two days journey into the desert, far from pubs and from white ways, where they could teach their young their own ways while caring for their land and sacred places. This very special settlement they gave a name which meant in English "Oak Valley" - an almost Druidic name.

Before arriving I wrote to the elder spokesman for this community asking if I might visit but received no answer. I could guess the reason. Other Aborigines had told me that a party of young boys were travelling down with members of their community from the very centre of Australia, from near Uluru, for their initiation. No one knew quite when they would finish this long trek - but when they did arrive, it would not be appropriate for me to be present. With such uncertainty he would not know when it was appropriate for me to come to Oak Valley..

So when I arrived in Yalata, the first thing I established was that the initiation party had not yet arrived at Oak Valley. I then told the elders present that if it were all right for me to drive up there, I would be happy to carry as many as could get on board. I was immediately told by elders that they approved my trip. My vehicle became laden with a very happy mob of men, women and children who had been looking for a way to reach Oak Valley in time and regarded my arrival as providential. On the way we visited the traditional red ochre mining ground. That night the women lit their campfire some 50 feet from the men's fire and invited me to join them. When we had eaten, the women moved the ashes of their fire aside, offering me the warm sand to sleep on and dug me a hip hollow. This was their traditional desert hospitality.

Next evening we reached Oak Valley. The track into its centre went through widely separated traditional Aboriginal family camps, each with its own wind break. Protection from wind but not from rain was needed here. As we arrived, a 4 wheel drive approached and one of the elders with me told me, "That man there. He is the man you wrote to. You should speak to him."

I leapt out and ran across to him. His eyes lit up as he saw me - as if he recognised me. He opened the door to his car. I smiled at him, knelt by him. He said "So you are the woman who wrote to me! I was looking at your letter only yesterday. I did not know how to reply. The young men are coming down. But they are not here and you are here. This is very good. I will show you where you will camp . It will be near to my camp."

Once assigned a site, I did my best to copy the nearby families in building a wind break and in preparing a small fire. That evening the elder came to spend time with me and introduced me to the other elders. I had some simple food on the go and so offered to share it. He accepted. I asked him if he had known Daisy Bates and he replied; "why yes. I used to play in and around her tent when I was a boy."

"What was Daisy like? " I then asked.

"She was just like you! She shared her food, talked like you. Are you coming to be another Daisy?"

I was startled by his suggestion and secretly somewhat flattered. I told him - "No, I am not - at least not now." I wondered after could I do this? One side of me would love it - but other elders had suggested to me there was work for me to do back among my own people in my own land. I felt instinctively that the latter were right and that I had to go soon to learn more about my land.

We spoke that night of many things. He told me how Daisy had a strong fighting spirit. Even in her old age she wore pistols - and was quite prepared to use them to threaten police when they mistreated members of his community. She was so revered that the police would not threaten her when she did this but would desist. He told me that Daisy travelled on their sacred "walk about" with them to the special places. Later he took me for a two day journey across the desert to her old camp where I found her cooking pots and wind break still intact.

I knew from Daisy's own writing that she was trusted to touch sacred objects belonging to the men. I was at then surprised at this for I did not know then how at least in some central Australian tribes the men and women would show each other their sacred boards and the women dance with the male boards. At that time as far as I knew women had not written of these things and male anthropologists had been not permitted this knowledge.

The Elder Spokesman said that Daisy only made one mistake. She was so keen to protect the community and help its customs survive that she was outspoken against Aborigines sleeping with white people and having their children. This later gave her a poor reputation among mixed blood Aborigines. One day she also persuaded them to burn mattresses that they had been given, saying that these would make them too soft to resist the influence of the white people. Her spirit was that of a warrior despite having grown up in a world where women had very little freedom.

When she went to the cities she tirelessly campaigned for the central region of Australia to be detached from the rest and given to Aborigines to manage for themselves under the protection of the Crown. She always wore elegant old fashioned dresses perhaps in the hope that this would help her maintain some influence in society and prevent people saying she had "gone native". She would also contrive when visiting town to stay in upper class women's clubs, despite having no funds. She impressed many of the establishment, but she never received any significant support or research funds - and none of her enormously detailed academic work was published in her own lifetime. When some professors of anthropology came to visit her and she asked them to help her find some research funds, their response was simply to search their pockets. She was so indignant at this that she threw the coins back at them. When her health finally deteriorated after decades in the desert, she had to be physically forced to leave it to go to hospital.

It was rather ironical that this was to be my last journey with Aborigines - at least for the next decade. If I stayed in Australia, there were elders I bonded with and would be thrilled to work with. I knew I could learn a great deal from them - but I also knew I would always feel I was a guest in some one else's land despite having worked for Aborigines for some 15 years, from 1973 to 1988. I did not feel ready to commit myself to stay with them longer. I had more to discover about myself, much more to learn of my own land - and with the diamond project, I had a bit between my teeth. I wanted to pursue the cartel that had taken Aboriginal lands. I felt I was a huntress who was not ready yet to be a desert wise woman.

Yet I had come to love this Australian land, this vast ocean of rock and ancient plants, with its elegant white trunked silver leafed trees. I had learnt to see the magic in it, the poetry, the myths, to wonder in its creation. It had taught me of our common inheritance. I had learnt that we of the West were also of ancient blood, that our human minds have ancient wiring, inherited wisdom and paths of instinct that could lead us to our common ancient wisdom and inheritance. When I bonded with elders in a sparkle of eyes, we were recognising this in each of us.