Noongar's letters pleading for return of stolen children or request for old age pension after a lifetime's work

Letters by Noongar people pleading for the return of their stolen children or requesting access to the old age pension after a lifetime's work will come together in a new project aimed at uncovering a hidden side of Indigenous history.


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WA's Chief Protector of Aborigines held extensive powers in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

(ABC News: Nicolas Perpitch)

Nicolas Perpitch ABC 27 November 2015


Enlarge image
WA's Chief Protector of Aborigines held extensive powers in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

(ABC News: Nicolas Perpitch)

Curtin University researchers are set to collate letters from state archives and correspondence held by families across Western Australia, dating from the 1860s to the 1960s.

Working alongside Noongar advisers, they plan to present the letters together with stories and oral histories by the authors' descendants.

"They add to history Noongar voices that have been lost in historical time, but voices that people in families remember," Curtin University research professor Anna Haebich said.

Professor Haebich, from Curtin's School of Media,

Working alongside Noongar advisers, they plan to present the letters together with stories and oral histories by the authors' descendants.

"They add to history Noongar voices that have been lost in historical time, but voices that people in families remember," Curtin University research professor Anna Haebich said.

Professor Haebich, from Curtin's School of Media, Culture and the Creative Arts, cited one letter by a husband in the late 19th century whose son has been taken by the government.

He's writing saying, 'I can no longer work and I've worked all my life and I'm trying [to] apply for old aged pension'.
Anna Haebich

He's writing saying, 'I can no longer work and I've worked all my life and I'm trying [to] apply for old aged pension'.
Anna Haebich

"He's writing saying, 'Please, can we have our son back because I'm worried my wife's going to die. She's so sick and she's so fretting for this little boy. Please, send our boy back'," she said.

"And in the wonderful, indelible blue pencil that administrators used to use is written, 'Send the boy back, tell [them] to send that boy back to that family'.

"So that's a happy ending, but it also shows the whim of an administrator who could decide this or that."

'Can you as our protector help me?'

Aboriginal children were removed from their families for decades before the 1905 Aborigines Act legalised the practice.

However the Act also gave WA's Chief Protector of Aborigines power over almost every aspect of an Indigenous person's life as part of a system of segregation.

They are a record both of the state's policies but also how Aboriginal people at the time sought to negotiate their way through those policies.
Elfie Shiosaki

In another letter by an elderly man to the chief protector, dated about 1911, he asked to be given a pension.

"He's writing saying, 'I can no longer work and I've worked all my life and I'm trying [to] apply for old aged pension. But I've been told if I'm of Aboriginal or full descent I can't get it'," Professor Haebich said.

"And that's true, people couldn't get the pension and other Commonwealth benefits until the 1950s and 60s.

"And he's writing and saying, 'In truth my father was a white man ... can you as our protector help me to get this pension?

"My understanding is that he did never get it. So they are very powerful letters."

Researcher's ancestors fought act

For Elfie Shiosaki, an Indigenous post-doctoral research fellow at Curtin University, her involvement in the project is both personal and professional.

She is also researching her family history. Her grandmother's grandparents, the Harris's, were civil rights activists from the early 20th century.

William Harris, who died in 1931 and whose mother was Aboriginal and father was a Welsh convict, fought the restrictions of the 1905 Aborigines Act, and formed a union of Aboriginal people to push for voting rights and equality before the law.


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A general letter sent to WA's Chief Protector of Aborigines and other government officials about an Indigenous man in 1898.

(ABC News: Nicolas Pepitch)

Dr Shiosaki said she hoped the letters would amplify the voices of Noongar people in history.

"There are thousands of personal files that exist," she said.

"They are a record both of the state's policies but also how Aboriginal people at the time sought to negotiate their way through those policies, how they represented themselves and their interests.

"And I think that's quite a powerful legacy for us today, because they're stories of survival and they are stories of strength and courage and resilience and persistence.

"While we are very aware of Western Australia having quite a dark history in terms of the treatment of Aboriginal people, these kinds of stories shine a light into that history and really celebrate those acts of activism.

"It's something that should be celebrated, and those voices resonate very clearly in the letters."