Proper Mixed-Up: Miscegenation among Aboriginal Australians

Article excerpt

Abstract: Early in Australia's history legislation was passed in most states to deal specifically with an "Aboriginal problem'. The perceived 'problem" involved Aboriginals, Asians and white people producing offspring that interfered with official aspirations for a "pure' white British race. In Western Australia from 1915 to 1940 the Chief Protector of Aborigines was AO Neville, who had become fixated with the idea of eugenics. Neville played a significant role by endorsing the misguided belief that Australia should be made up of 'white" citizens, by deciding who Aboriginal people under his control could marry. His folly eventually dissipated and following the Second World War authorities moved away from the notion of 'biological' assimilation to one of "cultural assimilation'. Mixed-descent families became the bane of such ambitious ideologies and Aboriginal Australians and migrants evolved as a significant part of Australian society.

This paper is written from an Aboriginal perspective and snippets from the author's Rodriguez and Fraser families' lives in the Derby region place the times in context. To explain the local history, this paper draws on Indigenous standpoint theory, which can be described as a paradigm in which commonalities of the underprivileged are analysed. It provides a viewing platform from which this story exposes everyday life of marginalised people by investigating the reality of the Fraser clan and its mixed marriages in Western Australia. The paper considers assimilationism, miscegenation and developmentalism that were played out during the middle of the past century.

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On 16 July 1944 Frank Rodriguez, a 21-year-old Galician Spaniard, flew into Fitzroy Crossing in the West Kimberley to work as a station hand. Two-and-a-half years later he married Katie Fraser, a local Nigena woman. (1) It was a time when authorities were of the view that Australia should be a 'white' British nation. Between the war years, it was thought that Aboriginal people could be biologically absorbed into the dominant society through subtle miscegenation between Aboriginal women and white men. After the Second World War, however, the ideology shifted to cultural assimilation, while still entertaining the idea of a 'white' Australia. The only way, it was believed, for Indigenous peoples to survive in the 'modern world' was to raise their standards of education, employment and material wellbeing (McGregor 2011:59).

Katie Fraser, the eldest of eight children, was born into an institutionalised life in 1920 at Beagle Bay Mission on the Dampier Peninsula, 128 kilometres north of Broome. The NjulNjul people inhabited the area and the site was known locally as Ngarlan. The French Trappist monks had lived there from 1890 until 1901, when ongoing hardships forced them to leave; they were then replaced by the German Pallottine missionaries (Choo 2001:53). Today the small township is community managed and hosts around 300 people (Birrell 2011). Significantly, the first 20 of Katie's 26 years at Beagle Bay, 192040, were at a time when AO Neville, the Chief Protector of Aborigines (later Commissioner of Native Affairs), held office (Biskup 1973:69). (2) Neville held a firm belief that the best solution to a prevailing 'half-caste problem' was to breed out 'colour': 'This entailed directing persons of mixed descent into marital unions with white people, so that after several generations of interbreeding all outward signs of Aboriginal ancestry would disappear' (McGregor 2011:1).

This is the backdrop to the preferred British culture that Frank and Katie Rodriguez lived their lives under in the far north-west of Australia during most of the twentieth century, one that raises a series of questions: how were Frank and Katie able to embrace their respective heritages, Galician and Nigena, despite policies that sought to change their culture and transform their descendants into white Australians (McGregor 2011:3)? …