6 Important Female Aboriginal Writers & Activists You Should Read About

During the 20th century, Aboriginal writers and activists have shaped Australia, bringing about change for themselves, their people, and for all Australians.

Jun 17, 2024By Sara Relli, MA Modern, Comparative and Post-Colonial Literatures, MA Screenwriting

female aboriginal writers activists

 

Over the years, Aboriginal activism has taken many forms. It has addressed every aspect of Aboriginal life, from the battle for civil rights to land ownership, from the fight for a less stereotypical depiction of Aborigines in film and television to a campaign for citizenship. In 1924 Fred Maynard founded the Australian Aboriginal Progressive Association (AAPA), the first Aboriginal organization to hold conferences and street rallies and inform non-Indigenous Australians about the everyday conditions of Aboriginal people. The formation of the AAPA represents the official beginning of Aboriginal activism. Let’s look at the aboriginal writers whose actions and words influenced (and were influenced by) this crucial moment in Australian history.

 

1. Faith Bandler: (Gently) Changing the Australian Constitution

Faith Bandler, photograph by Joyce Evans, 1951, Joyce Evans Archive, Source: Art Blart

 

Faith Bandler (1918-2015) was known as “the gentle activist.” She was born in New South Wales at a time when, to put it with her own words, Aboriginal people “were totally controlled by the government,” their lives regulated by the Aboriginal Welfare Board.

 

Her father, Peter Mussing, had married Faith’s mother, Ida, a woman of Scottish-Indian descent, after fleeing the sugarcane fields of Queensland to settle in New South Wales. Originally from the volcanic island of Ambrym, he was one of the many South Sea Islanders blackbirded from their homes and forcibly brought to Australia to work on sugar plantations. Faith visited Ambrym Island in 1975, more than nine decades after her father was kidnapped and taken to Queensland, and 50 years after his death.

 

Faith Bandler standing in front of the Aboriginal flag, Source: The Australian

 

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The stories her father told her about Ambrym stayed with her throughout her life. So did the terrible tales her husband Hans Bandler (1914-2009), an engineer of Jewish origins, brought with him to Australia about the concentration camps of Dachau and Buchenwald where he was imprisoned by the Nazi regime in 1938.

 

Bandler arrived in Australia during World War II, at a time when Faith was working on fruit farms for the Australian Women’s Land Army with her sister Kath. It was here that Faith learned first-hand that Aboriginal women were paid less than their fellow workers. Almost twenty years later, Bandler became the face of the 1967 Indigenous federal referendum when she was appointed New South Wales campaign director. In the 1960s, Aboriginal Australians were still not counted on the census. As a result, their rights fell outside the orbit of the Commonwealth laws.

 

Faith Bandler celebrating the outcome of the 1967 referendum, 1967, Source: National Museum of Australia

 

The Referendum campaign was a team effort, of course. Aboriginal activists from across the country came together to try and convince white Australians to put themselves in their shoes. They succeeded. On May 27, 1967, 90.77 percent of Australians voted “yes” to change the Constitution. The Referendum campaign was a crucial moment in her life and in the history of Australia. Years later, Faith Bandler stated in an interview that “there were times when I would take as many as three meetings in a day. And I did things that I would never have dreamed of doing: like going into a pulpit, talking to church congregations, and putting up with people whose ideas were totally foreign to me. And all I wanted was their vote.”

 

2. Pearl Gibbs: Fighting the NSW Aborigines Protection Board 

Aunty Pearl Gibbs, as she was affectionately called, Source: The Dictionary of Sydney

 

Pearl Gibbs (1901-1983) was born in New South Wales, like her friend and fellow-activist Faith Bandler. Her mother was an Aboriginal woman of the Ngemba people, her father a white man. In 1923, she married a British sailor, Robert James Gibbs. Gibbs lived all her life between two worlds, and her activism was always influenced by this sensitivity.

 

Over the course of her life, she campaigned at length against the New South Wales Aborigines Protection Board, the Australian state-run institution which ever since the 1880s exercised wide-ranging control over the lives of Aboriginal people and was responsible for the injustices suffered by the children of the Stolen Generations.

 

Pearl Gibbs (first on the left) together with her mother Maggie Murray, and other activists (among them William Ferguson and Jack Patten) on January 26th, 1938, the first Day of Mourning, Source: The Dictionary of Sydney

 

In 1917, when she was only 16, Gibbs began working as a domestic servant, like many Aboriginal women before and after her did. More than 20 years later, in 1938, she was instrumental in organizing the first Day of Mourning. On January 26th, white Australians gathered to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the landing of the First Fleet. Meanwhile, Aboriginal Australians gathered to remind white Australians of “the callous treatment of our people by the whitemen during the past 150 years, and we appeal to the Australian nation of today to make new laws for the education and care of Aborigines,” as stated in the resolution they released.

 

In 1956, Aunty Gibbs joined forces with Faith Bandler and together they founded the Australian Aboriginal Fellowship. The two women understood that to achieve permanent and substantial change they needed to connect with non-Aboriginal Australians, and so they did.

 

A Young Labor banner during the May Day procession in Brisbane, 1965, Source: National Museum of Australia

 

Over the years, they worked together to build a community of Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal Australians, a community in which, however, non-Aboriginal people would work for and help Aboriginal Australians and not the other way round. They were always very clear about the power dynamics they did (not) want to create.

 

Over the years, they worked with many non-Aboriginal women activists, such as Jessie Street and Joan Strack. They drew attention to the fact that ever since 1788 Aboriginal women have been oppressed by white men and women alike. In her 1941 Radio Broadcast (re-published by Anita Heiss and Peter Minter in their Anthology of Australian Aboriginal Literature) she openly stated that “my people have had 153 years of the white man’s and white woman’s cruelty and injustice and unchristian treatment imposed on us.”

 

Many Aboriginal soldiers volunteered for service in World War II, Source: AIATSIS

 

A talented public speaker, Gibbs understood the importance of radio and television in raising awareness about the conditions of her people. In her 1941 radio broadcast, she openly calls out Australia’s unfair treatment of Aborigines, who were, at the time she was speaking, “Australia’s untouchables.” She reminds her audience that any child born to an Aboriginal mother and white father outside of marriage “has to grow up as an unwanted member of an apparently unwanted race.” And that “hundreds of white men, women and children owe their very lives to Aborigine trackers and runners.”

 

Obvious as they may seem now, these were powerful words to be uttered on the radio, especially at a time when the rights of Aboriginal people were the least of concerns for many Australians. Gibbs wisely acknowledged this by directly addressing the ongoing war.

 

Aboriginal Australians fighting in World War II, Source: The West Australian

 

She reminded Australians that, just as thousands of Aboriginal people fought in the Boer War and in the 1914-18 War, thousands were now fighting in World War II, including her own son. “We the Aborigines,” she states, “are proving to the world that we are not only helping to protect Australia but also the British Empire.” Therefore, it is their right and duty to ask for full citizenship, “an equal number of Aborigines as whites on the Welfare Board,” and ultimately “friendship.”

 

“I’m asking your practical help for a new and better deal for my race. Remember we, the Aboriginal people, are the creditors.” Gibbs’ voice continues to resonate loud and clear half a century later.

 

3. Oodgeroo Noonuccal: Civil Rights & Poetry

Oodgeroo Noonuccal in Sydney, 1970, Source: Museum of Brisbane (MoB)

 

Oodgeroo Noonuccal is the traditional Aboriginal name Kath Walker (1920-1993) chose for herself in 1988 to protest the Australian Bicentennial celebration. Oodgeroo means “paperbark.” Noonuccal is the name of the Traditional Owners of Minjerribah, now known as North Stradbroke Island, off the coast of Brisbane in Southeast Queensland.

 

One year before, she had returned the MBE (Member of the Order of the British Empire) she had been awarded in 1970. Noonuccal was born in 1920 in Minjerribah. Her father, Edward, belonged to the Noonuccal tribe, and he was the one who taught her and her siblings about Aboriginal culture, stories, and skills. In 1972, on the land of her ancestors, she established the Noonuccal-Nughie Education and Cultural Centre to teach Aboriginal culture directly to Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians alike.

 

Protests on the street of Sydney on January 26th, 1988, Source: Metro Magazine

 

Children of all backgrounds were welcome; if the kids were green, she said in a 1987 interview, “I’d like them too…I’m color blind, you see.” Noonuccal left school in 1933, at the age of thirteen, embarked on one of the few careers open to Aboriginal young women: domestic service. 30 years later, in 1964, she would become the first published Aboriginal woman in Australia with her book of poems, We Are Going. It was an extraordinary success.

 

When some critics accused her poetry of being merely propaganda, she proudly embraced this critique. Before becoming the acclaimed writer and activist we know today, during the war Oodgeroo tried to become a nurse but was rejected because of her Aboriginal descent. She then served as a signaller in Brisbane and joined the Communist Party of Australia, the only party to oppose the White Australia Policy.

 

Oodgeroo Noonuccal, July 1974, Source: National Archives of Australia

 

Her poems and activism stem from these experiences. No More Boomerang, written in 1966, perfectly captures the precarity experienced by many Aboriginal Australians in the 1960s. Each stanza follows the same pattern: it begins with an assessment of what Aborigines have lost to European colonization: “no more boomerang / no more spear,” “no more corroboree, gay dance and din”; “no more message-stick; lubras and lads.”

 

Those Aboriginal people who survived the impact of colonization did so by adapting. To adapt, they had to accept the European culture brought by colonization. In Noonuccal’s poem, this new culture is symbolized by pubs (“color bar and beer”); by the omnipresent television (“got television now, mostly ads”); by movies (“now we got movies, / and pay to go in”); by precarious jobs and unemployment (“now we track bosses / to catch a few job, / now we go walkabout / on bus to the job”).

 

Oodgeroo Noonuccal at Moongalba, her sitting-down-place, 1982, Source: National Portrait Gallery

 

And, of course, the atomic bomb. The last stanza of No More Boomerang goes like this:

 

“Lay down the woomera,

Lay down the waddy.

Now we got atom-bomb,

End everybody.”

 

Oodgeroo Noonuccal is now widely hailed as “the grandmother of Aboriginal poetry.” She died in 1993, and was laid to rest on Minjerriba, the island of her father and her ancestors. It was not far from the home she bought and named Moongalba, in 1972, her “sitting-down-place.”

 

4. Alexis Wright: Literature & Healing 

Alexis Wright, Source: Blak & Bright

 

Alexis Wright (1950) is a member of the Waanyi nation of the southern highlands of the Gulf of Carpentaria. She is also a writer and a land rights activist. One of her most beloved novels, Carpentaria, is set precisely in the Gulf of Carpentaria, the land of her ancestors. In 2018, she delivered The Power and Purpose of Literature, widely known as the Boisbouvier Oration, at the Melbourne Writers Festival.

 

Wright begins her oration by recalling the story of the ten-year battle fought (and won) by the Gurindji people against Vestey’s, a British company that owned the Wave Hill pastoral property in the Northern Territory. The property stood on the land the Gurindji had lived on from time immemorial. During their ten-year legal battle, she says, the Gurindji “kept telling their story straight,” and that’s how they eventually managed to “achieve land rights over part of their traditional lands.”

 

Alexis Wright, photograph by Susan Gordon-Brown, 2007, Source: The Monthly

 

Indigenous strength she states “comes from the strength of these stories, and ancestral heroes being imbued into our spirit.” Similarly, Aboriginal storytelling draws its power from its “deep relationships to ancestral stories.” In her speech, Wright tackles a great variety of themes and stories, all of which can be traced to the power of literature in healing and survival.

 

Indigenous literature is about finding relief from the burden of traumatic experiences while learning to navigate the complexities of the present. Indigenous writers, she notes, are finally writing their way out of a “quagmire of questions,” questions “that must be written to relieve the burden they have on the mind.” Indigenous people write so that they or their descendants will be able to “pass through fences, fence after fence, to find an explanation in our thoughts, to reach an understanding we can live with.”

 

The coast of Gulf of Carpentaria in northern Australia during the 2001 bushfire season, Source: NASA Visible Earth

 

Australian society is still struggling with old prejudices about Aboriginal people, as proven by the 2023 Indigenous Voice Referendum. Alexis Wright urges Aboriginal writers to challenge these stereotypes in their works and foster a discourse about the complexities and distinct realities of Australia’s multiracial society. Instead of sitting among themselves, “separate from the rest of the world as if we are the only people on the planet,” she hopes Aboriginal men and women will be able to “draw strength from our combined heritages, to grow stronger imaginatively and more creatively.” Our increasingly globalized world, she writes, is “becoming more in need of writers who can think far more deeply and bravely than ever before, to tell of the complexities, scope and connectiveness of our existence.”

 

5. Marcia Langton: The Importance of Education  

Marcia Langton, Source: The Australian

 

Marcia Langton’s (1951) life and activism are inseparable from academia. A descendant of the Yiman and Bidjara nations of Queensland, she moved around a lot as a child, before finally settling in Brisbane where she started high school and met Oodgeroo Noonuccal.

 

Neville Bonner and Noonuccal educated her on the “importance of being able to respond to complex issues with the right words, good ideas, and a well-argued case.” Hence, her faith in the power of education and academia. “I still believe,” she says in an interview published by Macquarie University, “that education is the most powerful tool for change; for economic empowerment; and for the successful advocacy of intransigent human rights issues, such as the rights of Aboriginal people.”

 

In 1984 Langton earned her degree in anthropology at the Australian National University. Five years later, she worked at length on the Royal Commission into Aboriginal deaths in custody and authored the groundbreaking report Too Much Sorry Business.

 

Marcia Langton in 2022, Source: The Canberra Times

 

In 1992 she was appointed chair of AIATSIS in Canberra, and in 1999, she was granted an audience with Queen Elizabeth II at Buckingham Palace to discuss the possibility of an apology, along with four other senior Aboriginal figures: Dr Lowitja O’Donoghue, Gatjil Djerrkura, Peter Yu, and Pat Dodson. In 2000 she was appointed Foundation Chair of Australian Indigenous Studies at the University of Melbourne and in 2016 she became a distinguished professor and one year later associate provost.

 

In 2023, she actively campaigned for a “Yes” vote in the Indigenous Voice Referendum. The list of her academic qualifications and achievements is long and exhaustive, but it doesn’t tell her whole story. To truly understand Langton’s contribution to Aboriginal people and Australia, it is necessary to turn to the books, essays, and articles she has authored over the past few decades.

 

Marcia Langton in Brisbane, during a march in support of Aboriginal rights, as the city was hosting the Commonwealth Games, 1982, Source: National Portrait Gallery

 

She has discussed Aboriginal Law with Aaron Corn in First Knowledges Law: The Way of the Ancestors (2023) and Indigenous owned and operated tourism experiences in Welcome To Country (2018). She has also co-authored Gunyah, Goondie & Wurley: The Aboriginal Architecture of Australia (2007) with Paul Memmott, where they explore Indigenous-designed architecture across Australia, and It’s Our Country (2016), a collection of essays about constitutional recognition, with Megan Davis. To put it with June Oscar AO, one of Langton’s main contributions to the cause of her people is to have made Indigenous people understand and believe that “Indigenous knowledge needs to be a foundational part of western academic institutions.”

 

6. Romaine Moreton: Examining Film and TV

Aboriginal filmmaker Romaine Morton, Source: Common Ground

 

In discussing her life and career, Marcia Langton once wrote: “I adhere to an approach that I learnt when I was in my twenties, which was summed up in the saying, ‘The world is run by those who show up.’” Like Oodgeroo Noonuccal and Pearl Gibbs before her, she has been showing up for almost 50 years, defending the rights of her people.

 

The same can be said for Aboriginal activist, writer, and filmmaker Romaine Moreton (1969), a woman of the Goenpul people from Stradbroke Island in Southern Queensland and the Bundjalung peoples from northern New South Wales. The lands of her ancestors have always deeply influenced her works, and so has Australian colonial history. “The things I have to say and how I say them are a direct response to the environment in which I have grown up and continue to live in,” she once stated.

 

Hugh Jackman and others in Baz Luhrmann’s Australia, 2009, Source: Podcasting Them Softly

 

“To create works that do not deal with the morbid and mortal effects of racism for one, and the beauty of Indigenous culture for another, would be for me personally, to produce works that are farcical.” Her writings situate themselves at the crossroads between poetry, academic research, and filmmaking. One Billion Beats, for example, is the epitome of Moreton’s approach to art and political activism.

 

First performed in 2016 at Campbelltown Arts Centre in New South Wales and written by Moreton herself, One Billion Beats is a transmedia work, a performance as well as the result of years of research. Moreton takes to the stage and provides the viewers with an Aboriginal perspective on cinema, a medium that up until the 1970s was the exclusive prerogative of white Australians. As such, it was another means to advance the principles that form the basis of the White Australia policy. To reiterate, more or less subtly, the supposed backwardness of Aboriginal people and, on the contrary, the confidence of white Australians.

 

As she investigates the historical representation of Aboriginal people in Australian cinema and TV, Moreton takes as examples films that span more than five decades, from Chauvel’s Jedda (1955) to Luhrmann’s Australia (2009). She carefully employs the medium of the oppressor to dismantle the oppressor’s myths. “Each of us has the ability to cast a spell,” she says. “When we tell a story, when we engage in communication, we are all spellcasters. We all have that potential. But part of our responsibility is also to bring audiences out of it. That’s our responsibility as a spell-caster. What I am dealing with talking about these films is interrogating a spell that has been cast across our whole country by Western technology.”

 

Other Activists and Writers

Aboriginal activist and barrister Pat O’Shane, in her position as head of the NSW Department of Aboriginal Affairs (DAA), 1982, Source: National Archives of Australia

 

Far from being comprehensive, this article represents a starting point for anyone interested in female Aboriginal activism. Journalist Emily Nicol once wrote that “women are recognised for having a uniquely different perspective when it comes to fighting for their culture and way of life. While both men and women are equally important when addressing systems that seek to dismantle cultural ways and take away land rights, women hold knowledges on certain aspects of country, medicines, bush foods, songs, and ways of being on the land that are integral to the strength of their community.” Here is a list of other (no less important) female activists you might want to learn more about:

 

  1. Shirley Coleen Smith (Mum Shirl), involved in the 1970s Aboriginal land rights movement;
  2. Hyllus Noel Maris, active in the field of Aboriginal education
  3. Pat Dudgeon, an activist for Aboriginal suicide prevention
  4. Lisa Bellear, a spokeswoman for the Stolen Generations, as well as a poet, photographer, broadcaster, and comedian
  5. Larissa Behrendt, one of the most important Aboriginal Australian legal academics and filmmakers
  6. Aileen Moreton-Robinson, author of the seminal book The White Possessive (2015)
  7. Jenny Munro, one of the most prominent Aboriginal activists and environmentalists
  8. Pat O’ Shane, a fierce defendant of Aboriginal female rights (and the first female Aboriginal magistrate in Australian history).
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By Sara RelliMA Modern, Comparative and Post-Colonial Literatures, MA ScreenwritingSara is a Berlin-based screenwriter and researcher from Italy. She holds an MA in Screenwriting from the University of West London, as well as an MA (Hons) in Modern, Comparative and Post-Colonial Literatures from the University of Bologna. Deeply passionate about the relationship between history and literature, her interests range from Irish literature to race representation (in literature and cinema), from post-memory to the response of Indigenous peoples to climate change.