Masaryk University Faculty of Arts Department of English and American Studies

Issues in Aboriginal Society as Depicted in Contemporary Aboriginal Drama

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3. Issues in Aboriginal Society as Depicted in Contemporary Aboriginal Drama

The last chapter of this thesis deals with the analysis of the five plays mentioned: No Sugar, The Dreamers, and Barungin by Jack Davis, Box the Pony by Scott Rankin and Leah Purcell and Waiting for Ships by Ernie Blackmore. This chapter focuses on several issues of the Aboriginal population as they are depicted in these plays. These issues are seen as a fundamental part of Aboriginal life today and their delineation in the plays is an important tool for Indigenous self-representation and draws attention to the consequences of the White Australia policy and the policies of “protection” and the assimilation of Aboriginal people.

I have categorised the issues recurring in the analysed plays into three categories: Poverty and crime, Family relationships, and Aboriginal/non-Aboriginal relationships. The first category of Poverty and crime includes issues such as poverty, begging, crime (mainly petty thefts), the system of justice as applied to the Aboriginal people and the issues of deaths in custody which are tightly connected to it. The category of Family relationships examines the issues to do with family lives, including the problems of dysfunctional families, domestic violence, verbal and sexual abuse and the abuse of alcohol. The last category of Aboriginal/non-Aboriginal relationships deals with the issues concomitant of these relationships, such as racism, the consequences of the Stolen Generations and the loss of identity amongst Aboriginal people. However, many of these issues are interconnected, often crossing the boundaries set by the categorisation in these three groups, and not all of the plays address these issues evenly or altogether.

3.1. No Sugar

The main theme of No Sugar is the oppression of Aborigines. The plot is set in the Depression years, in 1929 to be specific, and it takes place in many locations in Western Australia, where the fate of the Millimurra family is outlined–the town of Northam, the office of the Chief Protector of Aborigines in Perth or the Moore River Native Settlement. Davis draws on his own experience: although born in Perth, he was brought up in the Yarloop and Moore River Native Settlements. He descended from the Nyoongarah people from the south-west of Western Australia and his plays often tell the stories of this people (Tatang 2).

3.1.1. Poverty and Crime

Apart from the other problems of dispossession of the land and personal and social rights, the Millimurra family face problems of how to get enough food to eat and how to make a living. As mentioned above, the time of the play is during the Depression and despite the fact that those times were hard for everybody, a pageant to commemorate the settlement of the Europeans in Australia is taking place in the streets at the beginning of the play. The pageant presents Western Australia as a place of prosperous and optimistic society and national spirit shared among all people in Australia (Tatang 3). While people are marching in the street, the Millimurra family deal with the problem of having no food for dinner:

MILLY. And you fellas, we got no meat for dinner or supper; you’ll have to

go out and get a couple of rabbits. (Davis 16)

The celebration and joy in the streets contrast with the appalling living conditions of the poverty-stricken Millimurra family, who find it difficult to make ends meet under the economic restrictions placed upon them. As seen in scene two of the play, Auber Octavius Neville, the Chief Protector of Aborigines in Western Australia, who is in charge of the weekly rations for the Aboriginal people, does not seem to be willing to help them much. Instead of trying to get more money for the Indigenous people in the times of the Depression, he suggests that to meet the budgetary constraints, Aborigines should be deprived of meat altogether.

NEVILLE. … the proposed budget cut of three thousand one hundred and

thirty-four pounds could be met by discontinuing the supply of meat in native rations. Soap was discontinued this financial year. (Davis 20)

It is evident that there is no supply of soap already, making it hard for Aborigines to maintain hygiene and wash their clothes. The comparison of the amount of money given to white and Aboriginal unemployed ones is given as well:

NEVILLE. … Item one: the native weekly ration currently costs this

Department two shillings and fourpence per week. Perhaps this bears comparison with the sustenance paid to white unemployed which I believe is seven shillings per week. (Davis 20)

The difference between seven shillings provided to the white unemployed and two shilling and fourpence to the Aboriginal unemployed is enormous, causing Aborigines suffer from poverty much more than non-Aboriginal population.

No Sugar is closed with a scene of sorrow, poverty and starvation. When Joe and Mary leave for Northam again, Gran’s song represents their future situation:

GRAN. Woe, woe, woe.

My boy and girl and baby

Going a long way walking,

That way walking,

That way walking.

Pity, pity, pity,

Hungry, hungry,

Walking, walking, walking,

Yay, yay, yay,

Cooo-ooo-ooo-oooh.16 (Davis 110)

The grandmother expresses her sorrow about the fact that her grandson and his prospective wife Mary have to leave the rest of the family and go towards uncertain future, which will definitely be marked by the presence of hunger. The problem of having no meat to eat often leads to stealing. Here, Joe and Jimmy (Gran’s son and his nephew) think of stealing a sheep at a farm and killing it to provide food for the family. As seen from their plans to steal one of the sheep, it is clear that stealing is not voluntary. However, it is induced by the lack of food as one of the necessities needed for a person’s wellbeing.

In this scene, Davis points out the hardship of Aboriginal families and refers to stealing as their last resort in gaining food for mere survival.

3.1.2. Family Relationships

The family issues are not addressed much in No Sugar since the main theme of the play is the oppression of Aborigines by white Australians. However, the term “family” might be broadened to include other members of the Aboriginal community, since Aboriginal people often address other Aborigines–not necessarily blood related–as brother, sister etc. As such, I would explore the relationship between the Millimurra family and the black tracker in the service of Mr. Neal in the Moore River Native Settlement.

The black trackers working for Mr. Neal do not share the fates of the other Aboriginal people in the settlement and hence they do not sympathise with them. They are often portrayed to be as cruel as their white master Mr. Neal. An Aboriginal girl, a friend of Mary, is raped by the sons of the master and becomes pregnant with one of them. When the baby is born, the trackers kill the baby:

MARY. … And when she had that baby them trackers choked it dead and

buried it in the pine plantation. (Davis 62)

The old tracker Billy is shown as a character that has assimilated into the white society. He shares the cruelty towards the other Aborigines, as shown when it comes to tracking and he tries to bring Joe and Mary back after they run away from the Moore River Native Settlement for the first time:

[BILLY KIMBERLEY appears and rushes at him with a stockwhip in one

hand and handcuffs in the other. JOE dodges him. MARY is sick again as BILLY advances slowly and menacingly on JOE.]

BILLY. You two fella, silly fella. Everyone run away. Wait here for the choo

choo. [Swinging the whip at JOE] Choo, choo, choo, choo.

[JOE dodges the whip and threatens him with the doak.]

JOE. Go back, old man. I don’t want to hurt you. (Davis 74)

Billy is ironic and mocks Joe’s and Mary’s attempt to run away. When Joe overpowers him and Billy gets to talk to Mr. Neal, he even lies and fabricates a story about how Joe threatened to kill him:

BILLY. He bin chuck me off my ‘orse and he bin knock me silly fella with a


BILLY. And that fella bin say that he gunna hang me from Christmas tree

like that. [He demonstrates.]

BILLY. He bin knock me silly fella, with a big stone. [Indicating his back

and then ribs] He bin kill ‘em me here, here, and in the guts. Aw, he bad fella. (Davis 75)

Aboriginal people were those who were oppressed and should have stayed united, however, it is evident, that under the influence of white dominance, even the members of the same family of Aborigines go against each other. The difference is, according to Tatang, how each member of the Aboriginal community deals with the dominance of the whites. Some of them become submissive and some of them struggle to protect their dignity and identity as Aborigines (Tatang 4). By assimilating into the white society, Billy could be seen as the submissive one and a betrayer of his own people and culture.

3.1.3. Aboriginal/non-Aboriginal Relationships

As stated before, I have categorised alcohol abuse in the Family relationships category. In No Sugar, however, alcohol plays a different role than in the rest of the plays and as such, it is more logical to analyse it as part of the Aboriginal/non-Aboriginal relationship issues. The abuse of alcohol is also one of the many problems Aboriginal population suffers from. Till 1960s (Brady), the purchase and consumption of alcohol by Indigenous people were strictly limited. The Aboriginal person caught drinking or in the possession of alcohol was automatically charged with an offence against the law. This is what happens to Jimmy and Sam, two middle-aged brothers-in-law:

SERGEANT. The two accused were apprehended in Bernard Park

yesterday at approximately nine-twenty p.m. They were both under the influence of liquor. Munday was in possession of one bottle of wine, three parts empty.

JP [JUSTICE OF THE PEACE]. [To the SERGEANT] Are there any previous records?

SERGEANT. Munday has several previous convictions for the same

offence and one of unlawful disposal of government rations.

JP. [interrupting] All right. I see this is your sixth offence related to alcohol.

On the last occasion you were sentenced to fourteen days imprisonment. This time your sentence is three months imprisonment with hard labour. … (Davis 35-6)

The policies prohibiting Aboriginal people to drink alcohol lasted throughout the 1950s till 1960s as part of the assimilation era. Some Aboriginal people (those who were seen as capable of behaving in the “white” ways) were issued exemptions from the Aboriginal Act, being thus granted permissions to drink alcohol or enter hotels and pubs. Being allowed to drink alcohol was therefore seen as a step towards equality and citizenship (Brady). Aboriginal people wanted to be able to drink alcohol so they would feel more equal to the non-Aboriginal majority. Here, Jimmy’s and Sam’s rights are dismissed as they are found guilty and charged.

The authorities wanted to have absolute control of the supply of alcohol to Aborigines so there was also a law forbidding to supply alcohol to Aboriginal people by any member of any other nationality (Indigenous Law Resources). Frank, an unemployed non-Aboriginal farmer, sees the Aborigines as friendly people and helps Jimmy and Sam get some alcohol. He is also charged and eventually found guilty and sentenced to six weeks imprisonment with hard labour. From today’s point of view, it is no crime providing alcohol to adult males but in the assimilation period the penalties for both supply and consumption of alcohol were high, however they varied in different areas and time (Douglas).

As already stated, No Sugar is a play dealing with the oppression of Aboriginal people. The issues of expropriating their land and their expulsion, segregation, together with racism and subsequent violence or sexual abuse are depicted in the play. As the pageant is marching in the street (to commemorate the European settlement in Australia) at the beginning of the play, Jimmy is aware of the land expropriation:

JIMMY. You fellas, you know why them wetjalas [white people] marchin’ down the street, eh? I’ll tell youse why. ‘Cause them bastards took our country … Bastards! (Davis16)

The land is an important part of the Aboriginal identity, it is the source of the Aboriginal spirituality, tradition, and the survival of Aboriginal people (Tatang 2). Thus being deprived of the connection with the land, expropriated end expelled from the places they call home, constitutes a major problem for them. Jack Davis presents these issues in the play. After running away from the Moore River Native Settlement, Joe and Mary come to Northam, the previous home of their family. Joe talks about the rations for Aborigines with the Sergeant, coming across the topic of involuntary deporting:

SERGEANT. I can’t help you there. Since all the natives have shifted out,

Northam is no longer a ration depot.

JOE. We never shifted out, we was booted out. …

SERGEANT. Where’s the rest of your lot? Not here, I hope.

JOE. You oughta know where they are, you dragged ‘em there. (Davis 80)

It is apparent what Joe thinks of this shift of his kin, when he uses the verb ‘boot out’. His resentment at this matter is clearly stated.

The characters of the play also encounter some form of racism, either in form of legislative acts or in the form of simple human behaviour. By these, their personal and social rights are withheld. Jimmy, the middle-aged father of the Millimurra family, complains about this to Frank, his non-Aboriginal farmer friend:

JIMMY. [drunker] … Fucks everybody up; everybody, eh? Eh? You allowed

to walk down the street after sundown? Eh?

FRANK. Yeah, don’t see why not.

JIMMY. Well, I’m not. None of us are; you know we’re not allowed in

town, not allowed to go down the soak, not allowed to march…?

[He mimes handcuffs and gaol by first putting his wrists together and then

placing a hand downwards over his forehead with the fingers spread over his eyes.]

Manatj grab us like that. Bastards…


GRAN. Politjmans.

JIMMY. They can shoot our dawgs, anytime they want to. Bastards … (Davis 28)

Not being able to go out after sunset, the equality of the Aboriginal people was again something only to dream about. It was another example of deprivation of human rights, as well as the prohibition of drinking alcohol was.

Not only were the Aboriginal people deprived from their social rights, as of being allowed to march in the streets, drink alcohol or go into bars; their rights of personal freedom were often challenged as well. The case of the rape of Mary’s friend has been mentioned but Mary herself was subject to sexual abuse, although only verbal:

MARY. Mr Neal.

JOE. Yeah, what about him?

MARY. He’s trying to make me go and work at the hospital.

MARY. When Mr Neal sends a girl to work at the hospital, it usually

means …

JOE. Means what?

MARY. That he wants that girl … for himself. (Davis 69)

Mr Neal talks to Mary about this matter later. She defies him and her resentment is met with severe violence:

MARY. I don’t want to work in the hospital.

NEAL. You’ll work where I think fit, digging graves if I say so.

MARY. I don’t care. You can belt me if you like, I’m not workin’ in the


NEAL. Millimurra seems to have learnt her well. Well, I’m going to unlearn


[NEAL grabs her. BILLY holds her outstretched over a pile of flour bags.

NEAL raises the cat-o’-nine-tails. Blackout. A scream.]

Mary’s character represents the pride and dignity of an Aborigine who does not want to be subdued even by the use of physical violence. As such, this scene represents the force and abuse against the Aboriginal people. When Mr. Neal is about to hit Mary with the cat-o’-nine-tails, the lights fade and only a scream is heard. This might suggest the violence was hidden from general public at that time.

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