Skip to main content
obituary

Actors (L-R) Tianna Sansbury, Laura Monaghan and Everlyn Sampi are pictured in Rabbit-Proof Fence.REUTERS/HO

Daisy Kadibil, an Aboriginal Australian, was about eight years old and living in the vast, sparsely populated outback in the early 1930s, when her country’s government forcibly separated her from her parents and sent her to a resettlement camp hundreds of kilometres away.

Her removal had been ordered under an Australian assimilation policy that sought to absorb Aboriginals into the country’s white society by taking children from their families and indoctrinating them in the ways of that dominant culture.

Daisy was taken from her home in Jigalong, an Indigenous community in the Pilbara region in northwestern Australia, where she had grown up. A sister, Molly, and a cousin, Gracie, were also seized, and all three girls were sent to an Indigenous settlement near the Moore River, just north of Perth, the nearest city, about 1,300 kilometres to the south.

There, longing for home, they sought to escape. In 1931, they succeeded, embarking on foot on a treacherous nine-week trek north across rough terrain and using as their guide a barbed-wire fence that had been built to keep rabbits away from pastureland – an astonishing feat that inspired a book and the acclaimed 2002 Australian movie Rabbit-Proof Fence.

Ms. Kadibil, the last remaining of the three, died on March 30 in South Hedland, Western Australia. She was 95. Her death, which was not widely publicized at the time, was confirmed by a grandson, Darryl Jones, who said she had dementia.

In his review in The New York Times, Stephen Holden described the movie as a “devastating portrayal” of Australia’s “disgraceful treatment” of its Aboriginal population.

“On the side of wrong is the Australian government,” he wrote, “which, for more than half a century, carried out this appalling program of legalized kidnapping.”

The movie was based on the book Follow the Rabbit-Proof Fence (1996), by Doris Pilkington Garimara, who died in 2014. The author was the daughter of Ms. Kadibil’s sister, Molly Kelly, and her book was partly based on her mother’s experiences during the journey, although she interviewed Ms. Kadibil, her aunt, extensively in her research.

Ms. Kelly died in 2004, and the sisters’ cousin Gracie Cross died in 1983.

The girls were among thousands of Aboriginal Australian children forcibly removed from their families and transported to settlement camps, where they were taught the customs of white Australian society and forbidden to speak their native language. The assimilation policy started in the early 1900s and lasted into the early 70s.

“This was an incredibly destructive policy, which left in its wake a real trail of heartache and pain in Indigenous communities, which continues to be felt today,” Paddy Gibson, a senior researcher at the Jumbunna Institute for Indigenous Education and Research, told the Australian Broadcasting Corp.

It was Ms. Kadibil’s strong connection to her family and her country and a desire to keep her language and culture that motivated her to go back home after she and the other children were taken away to the settlement camp, said Sue Davenport, advisory director of Kanyirninpa Jukurrpa – an organization working with the Martu people – who knew Ms. Kadibil in her later years.

“What it indicated is the strength of character of Daisy that then pervaded the rest of her life,” Ms. Davenport said in an interview.

Ms. Kadibil was part of the Martu group, the traditional owners of a large part of central Western Australia. Her daughter Noreena Kadibil returned to Martu land with her husband to establish the Parnngurr community in the early 1980s.

Ms. Kadibil’s grandchildren are now leaders of that community, Ms. Davenport said.

Ms. Kadibil lived in Parnngurr well into her 80s before moving to a nursing home, where she died. Besides Mr. Jones, her survivors include her daughter Noreena and three other children, Elizabeth, Jerry and Margaret Kadibil, as well as several other grandchildren.

Report an error