Image of artwork by Luke Penrith.

Indigenous Women, Outlaw Culture and the Law

23 November 2021
Sydney Law School launches public lecture series on Indigenous Peoples and Law
Associate Professor Nicole Watson explores the resilience, resourcefulness and grit of Australia's Indigenous women at the inaugural lecture.

Sydney Law School is proud to launch an annual public lecture series on Indigenous People and Law, Wingarra Djuraliyin (Growth in thinking).

Welcoming the initiative, Sydney University Law Society's First Nations Officer, Nathan Allen says, "Australia's history has largely been told by white anthropologists and historians. That creates a large gap in our history and knowledge. It's important that we ask ourselves how we can create a safe space to incorporate Indigenous perspectives into our teaching and curriculum."

The Wingarra Djuraliyin Lecture series is part of the Law School's commitment to embedding Indigenous culture and history into its teaching and learning.  Other initiatives include supporting the Uluru Statement of the Heart and the recruitment of an Indigenous Practitioner in Residence, Teela Reid. 

The below is a contracted version of Associate Professor Nicole Watson's lecture, who recently transitioned from Sydney Law School to take up a role at UNSW.  The lecture in its entirety is available to watch online.

Ingenious outlaw women

Representations of Indigenous women as the 'barbarous Other' and the 'uncontrollable jezebel' concealed the realities of a brutal invasion. They also became the means through which generations of Australians came to know Indigenous women.

However, Indigenous women have never been the submissive victims of colonisation. Despite the horrors of invasion, and later, the denial of personal freedoms under the policy of protection, Indigenous women created ingenious means to reclaim their autonomy.  

Warrior women leading a resistance

Outlaw women used their marginality as a space from which they carved out tactics and traditions of resistance. 

The Palawa warrior, Walyer, is an example of an outlaw woman who broke the law to secure independence. As a young woman, she was sold to sealers in exchange for dogs and flour. After escaping from her captors, Walyer taught members of her clan how to use firearms, and led their resistance against the settlers. Walyer became notorious for hurling insults at her enemies during attacks, and reportedly said that she liked the White men ‘as she did a black snake’. 

Wingarra Djuraliyin

Public Lecture on Indigenous Peoples and Law by Associate Professor Nicole Watson

Partnering with male bushrangers

Other outlaw women secured a degree of autonomy and independence by establishing partnerships with male bushrangers, such as Mary Cockerill and Mary Ann Bugg.

Their stories also suggest that Aboriginal women who entered into relationships with bushrangers were crucial to the men’s success. Women such as Mary Ann not only shared their knowledge of Country with their partners, but they also incorporated the men into their family relationships. Aboriginal kin armed the men with valuable information about police movements, thus enabling them to evade capture.

Using knowledge of the land to survive

Later outlaw women resisted their oppression by fleeing from the authorities, and drawing upon their shrewdness and experiential knowledge to survive. This expression of outlaw culture was epitomised by Molly and Daisy Craig and their cousin, Gracie Fields, who were removed from their families in Jigalong in the north-west of Western Australia in 1931.

Unsurprisingly, Molly, Daisy and Gracie resolved to escape. During their long journey, the children survived by hunting rabbits and other small animals, and seeking food from farmhouses. They also gave false information to the adults whom they met in order to thwart the authorities.

Going on strike

Other outlaw women resisted their oppression by going on strike. In an article published in the journal, International Labor and Working-Class History, Victoria Haskins and Anne Scrimgeour argued that the participation of Aboriginal women domestic workers in the strike has been overlooked by historians. The women who tended to the cooking, cleaning, laundry and childcare for employers were often denigrated and treated as incompentent.

When Aboriginal women withdrew their labour to join the strike, the significance of their contributions to station life suddenly became visible. And the impacts were keenly felt by employer families, especially white women who had to perform the arduous work of maintaining their homesteads themselves.

Professor Nicole Watson

Associate Professor Nicole Watson delivering the inaugural lecture.

Operating within the law to conceal an agenda of resistance

Others worked within the boundaries of the law, and drew upon their experiential knowledge and resourcefulness to provide for the most vulnerable people in their communities.  In her memoir co-authored by Bobbi Sykes, Shirley Smith who would become known as Mum Shirl, acknowledged the resourceful women who provided social welfare programs before the emergence of Indigenous community organisations in the 1970s.  Often devout Christians and already raising children of their own, these women ‘managed to squeeze a few pennies from somewhere’ to look after children who were in need of their care.  

With the emergence of the policy of self-determination in the 1970s, outlaw women were among those who established community-controlled organisations that provided services for people who had suffered long histories of neglect. Despite the absence of Indigenous women’s voices from judgments, there appears to be with a tradition within outlaw culture of using the law as a tool of empowerment.  

Why should all Australians engage with the stories of Indigenous outlaw women?

The stories of outlaw women matter, because the lives of Indigenous women matter. I would also argue that all Australians have much to learn from the brilliance of Black women. These women understood the interconnectedness between individuals and their communities. They knew that all are diminished while the most vulnerable are left to fend for themselves. 

The outlaw women also appreciated their own power. They refused to accept the lowly roles that society had carved out for them. In the face of unrelenting racism, they never capitulated.

During a time when our values have become warped, when our political leaders appear to care little for the various crises that will be the inheritance of future generations, we would do well to engage with the stories of these ingenious Black women.

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