Thursday, September 18, 2008

Rabbit Proof Fence

I’ve seen the dingo fence when I travelled in Australia. It’s a chain link fence that extends almost to the center of Australia from the east coast. It was originally built as a rabbit proof fence, but was later converted to keep wild dogs away from the sheep farms in the south eastern part of the country.

In the western half of the country, the state of Western Australia, there is a network of rabbit proof fences that extend for thousands of miles. These fences were designed to keep the rabbits on one side, and the farms on the other, and were erected in the late 1800s. While not as impressive as the Great Wall of China, it’s still quite a feat to nearly bisect the entire continent of Australia with a chain link fence.

More than a decade ago I visited the Tandanya Aboriginal Culture Center in Adelaide, Australia, twice. The first time I visited they were running an exhibit on the Stolen Generation of Aboriginal children. The Stolen Generation consisted of children whose mothers were Aboriginal (native Australian) and fathers were Australian (white men). These children were dubbed “half-caste” by the Australian government. These children were forcibly removed from their Aboriginal homes by the government and forced into camps and dormitories as early as the late 1800s and into the early 1970s. The idea was that these children would be educated and introduced into Australian society, and eventually the Aboriginal would be bred out of the generations that followed these children, thus solving the “problem” of half-caste children.

The removal of these children was done as part of the Aboriginal Protection Act of 1869. This act gave the government guardianship over the Aboriginal people. The brutality of removing the children from their Aboriginal home only served to displace the children from their own world, and from the world that the Australian government forced them into. Despite their “education” they were never accepted into Australian society, and were too far removed from their Aboriginal home to ever go back to it.

I walked the exhibit and spent hours gazing at the photos of scads of children dressed in uniforms, not a smile on a single face. I read about the conditions they lived in at the dorms, and the so called education these children received there. The Stolen Generation had lost touch with their families, many of them to never see or hear from them again. The sadness of the exhibit has haunted me ever since.

Tonight I just watched the movie Rabbit Proof Fence in my Todd’s-away-and-Beej-stacked-the-Netflix-queue binge. It was a beautifully done based on a true story movie about three half-caste girls from their village called Jigalong in Western Australia. (Oh, and Peter Gabriel did the soundtrack! I LOVE Peter Gabriel. It just doesn’t get any better than that.) In the beginning of the movie the three girls were ripped from their mothers arms in the early 1930s, despite the village’s efforts to hide and protect the girls. They were placed in the Moore River Native Settlement. After some time there the three of them escaped the settlement.

They determinedly dodged almost every attempt to be captured by an Aboriginal tracker that worked for the Australian government, and ended up spending nine weeks walking along the rabbit proof fence that was erected in Western Australia, their only landmark from their home. Over the course of the 9 weeks they walked 1,500 miles just to get home.

Just to give you some perspective, this is a map of the rabbit proof fences and the track that the girls walked to get home:

It's hard to see, but there's a dark blue line that starts in Moore River, on the east side of the map, just north of Perth. Then you can follow it northeast to Jigalong. Keep in mind the terrain there is very rough, portions of it are desert. And these three girls, age 5-14 walked the whole way.

If you’re looking for a historical drama that will draw you in, I highly recommend this movie. The bleakness of the Western Australian scenery is stunningly gorgeous, the music is great, and the story is both chilling and inspiring.



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