Academic journal article Outskirts

'I'd Grown Up as a Child Amongst Natives': Ruth Heathcock (1901-1995) - Disrupting Settler-Colonial Orthodoxy through Friendship and Cross-Cultural Literacy in Creolised Spaces of the Australian Contact Zone

Academic journal article Outskirts

'I'd Grown Up as a Child Amongst Natives': Ruth Heathcock (1901-1995) - Disrupting Settler-Colonial Orthodoxy through Friendship and Cross-Cultural Literacy in Creolised Spaces of the Australian Contact Zone

Article excerpt

Growing up in the small River Murray town of Wellington, South Australia as the twentieth century turned, Henrietta (Ruth) Sabina Heathcock (nee Rayney) enjoyed a childhood shaped as much by Ngarrindjeri Aboriginal friends and elders, as by her close-knit Anglo-Irish family. The Rayney family lived on the eastern, Aboriginal, side of town, where Ngarrindjeri had lived for millennia, and where, in the 1880s, a group of Ngarrindjeri families from nearby Point McLeay Mission had been granted hard-won title to farm the land and raise their families (Jenkin 1979, 229-231). Wellington, indeed, was one of a number of pockets across colonial Australia where lived processes of negotiation and exchange between Aboriginal peoples and newcomers blurred social boundaries and mapped dynamic inter-cultural terrains on the frontier (see for example Hughes 2012, Balint 2012, Ryan 2011, Landon and Tonkin 1999, Yu 1994). Reflecting on her childhood friendships forged at Wellington in the first two decades of the 1900s, Ruth Heathcock recalled, 'I went to school with Aboriginal children. Skin colour? It was all the same to me. I didn't even know it existed' (Hughes 1986).

In the following article I explore continuities in the nature of cross-cultural intimacy over time by examining the friendships that Ruth Heathcock sustained with Aboriginal people at Wellington, and later across a range of other sites. These played out against a backdrop of restrictive race-based legislation that attempted to foreclose possibilities for such connectivity in early and mid-twentieth century Australia.

As a white female child born at the stroke of Australian federation, January 1901, Ruth's destiny was supposed to take a profoundly different turn, prescribed by prevailing ideas around whiteness, race and gender that underpinned the policies of a nascent nation, excluding Aboriginal people from its symbolic borders (Hughes 2012, Grimshaw 2004). In his survey of recent transnational literature on settler colonialism, Scott Morgenson highlights the importance scholars have placed on gender and sexuality as 'intrinsic to the colonisation of indigenous peoples and the promulgation of European modernity by settlers' (Morgenson 2012: 3). Earlier, invoking her cogent phrase 'the white woman's burden', Antoinette Burton identified the expected role for white women in the colonial regime as that of 'civilising' the 'other', pivotal to an oppressive intersection of patriarchal and colonial hierarchies (Burdon 1992: 23-25). This point is echoed by Ann Laura Stoler in her call for scholars to attend more closely to the intimate dimensions of colonialism, and how 'sex, sentiment, domestic arrangements, and child rearing figure in the making of racial categories and in the management of imperial rule' [emphasis mine] (Stoler 2006: 23). Conversely, though, as I aim to show, it is possible to trace how the intimacies of women's friendships forged across the colonial and neo-colonial divide might also give rise to more subversive creolised or hybrid domestic arrangements and enable child rearing practices that destabilise established power relationships, unravel racial categories, and disrupt 'imperial rule'.

In doing so, I explore some influences of the interwoven world of Heathcock's childhood and its many afterlives through a fabric of relationships across a range of historical and contemporary 'contact zones' (Pratt cited in Allen 2001: 5). I focus particularly on how the influence of intimate friendships forged with Aboriginal children and their families in the critical years of her early childhood informed an alternative, 'creolised' sense of personhood, and an evolving commitment towards an indigenised framework of relationality. Ruth's long life, covering all but six years of the twentieth century, played out, for the most part, atypically and in remarkable contradistinction to patriarchal assumptions on white girlhood and womanhood at the time of federation referred to above. …

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