Despite the loss, sorrow, racism, and dispossession which mark Doris Pilkington’s family history, a strong and resilient sense of collective identity is ultimately what spurred Molly, Daisy, and Gracie to escape captivity and undertake the long and dangerous journey homeward. Along the way, it was the girls’ culture (that is, their people’s customs, traditions, and intimate relationship with the natural world) which enabled them to survive in the hostile Australian bush. As she describes the cultural foundation which shaped the lives of her mother, aunt, and cousin, Pilkington argues that even when the cultural identity of a group is threatened with erasure, a strong sense of shared identity has the power to act as a beacon of hope that can light the path “home.”
The imperialist English settlers who first descended upon Australia murdered, raped, and otherwise decimated the Aboriginal populations of the continent. Once their dominance over the Aboriginals was complete—achieved through more advanced technology and weaponry—English colonizers began not only to enslave and torture the Aboriginals, but to systematically destroy their culture by forbidding them to speak their own languages, practice their own laws and rituals, and live on their own ancestral and sacred lands. This decimation of Aboriginal identity is felt deeply by Pilkington’s family, who live in Jigalong—a government outpost established in the early 1900s, which attracted nomadic peoples from the desert whose traditional food supplies had been lost or destroyed by imperialism. Jigalong thus became a “sitting down place” for many Aboriginal peoples—a “base camp for holding sacred and secret ceremonies,” and a permanent home for an Aboriginal group whose culture and traditions had, for centuries, been nomadic.
Molly (Pilkington’s mother and the protagonist of the story) was the first half-caste child born amongst the Jigalong Aboriginals, though many mixed-race children would be born there in the years to come. As the Aboriginals who settled in Jigalong were forced to adapt their nomadic culture to new conditions, interactions between the members of the tribe and the white Australians living nearby similarly began to deviate from the established norm. As more and more-half caste children were born and then taken away, the mothers of these children grew increasingly aware and frightened of the “reeducation” that their young ones would undergo, and the ways in which this stood to weaken any meaningful sense of shared cultural identity. When fifteen-year-old Molly, her eleven-year-old sister Daisy, and their younger cousin Gracie were taken away—shortly after an official from a nearby station wrote to the Chief Protector of Aborigines that the girls were “running wild with the whites”—they were placed in an internment camp disguised as a school. Subjected to despicable, prison-like conditions and barred from speaking their native language, the girls decided to flee for home. The eldest, Molly, devised a plan to make the thousand-mile trek through the bush by following the rabbit-proof fence—a fence which had been constructed to keep invasive wild rabbit populations away from Western Australian civilization. As the girls traversed the bush, they relied upon their cultural education—the ones their families had given them—to survive the journey home. Trapping rabbits and other animals for food, finding hiding places, navigating the bush, and looking out for one another’s safety and well-being were skills and lessons that had been instilled in the girls from their youth, and they used this knowledge to light their path home.
Though white Australians were attempting to conduct a cultural genocide on a massive scale through the creation of internment camps such as Moore River and through the removal of mixed-race children from the homes of their families, Molly, Gracie, and Daisy expressed unflagging allegiance to—and security in—their familial and cultural identities. Pilkington highlights the girls’ shared and firm sense of identity, and their deft, willful use of all they learned from their culture, as instrumental in their escape from the shackles of forced assimilation. Through Molly, Gracie, and Daisy’s story, Pilkington makes a case for the resilience, necessity, and beauty of familial and cultural identity.
Family, Culture, and Identity ThemeTracker
Family, Culture, and Identity Quotes in Follow the Rabbit-Proof Fence
Molly grew into a pretty little girl. Her mother was very proud of her and her father brought her gifts of clothing and pretty colored ribbons. […] As she grew older, Molly often wished that she didn’t have light skin so that she didn’t have to play by herself. Most of the time she would sit alone, playing in the red dusty flats or in the riverbed depending where her family had set up camp. The dust-covered child stood out amongst her darker playmates. The Mardu children insulted her and said hurtful things about her. Some told her that because she was neither Mardu or wudgebulla she was like a mongrel dog. One morning, her mother told her some exciting news. Two of her aunties had babies, little girls, and they were both muda-mudas like her. Molly was very happy. Now she had two sisters.
Molly and Daisy had just finished eating when all the camp dogs began barking. All eyes turned to the cause of the commotion. A tall white man stood on the bank above them. Fear and anxiety swept over them when they realized that the fateful day they had been dreading had come at last. They always knew it would only be a matter of time before the government would track them down. When Constable Riggs, Protector of Aborigines, finally spoke his voice was full of authority and purpose.
“I’ve come to take Molly, Gracie, and Daisy with me to go to school at the Moore River Settlement.”
The rest of the family just hung their heads refusing to face the man who was taking their daughters away from them.
There was much excitement when the girls at last reached the rabbit-proof fence. The fence cut through the country from south to north. It was a typical response by the white people to a problem of their own making. Building a fence to keep the rabbits out proved to be a futile attempt by the government of the day. For the three runaways, the fence was a symbol of love, home and security.
“Long way” sums up rather understatedly what was, without a doubt, one of the longest walks in the history of the Australian outback. While other parts of this vast country have been crossed on horses or camels, these three girls did their exploring on their bare feet. An incredible achievement in anyone’s language. The vastness and the diversity of the Western Australian landscape would always be respected and appreciated by them—they trekked across it and conquered.