The parallels are uncanny: aboriginal children wrested from their families, sent to boarding schools and forbidden to speak their language—with the stated goal of eventually eliminating their race.
But instead of Turtle Island beginning in the 1800s, this took place in Australia, which began its purge of aborigine families in the 1930s. Aboriginal author Doris Pilkington Garimara chronicled the escape of three of these girls—one of them her mother—in Follow the Rabbit-Proof Fence (Queensland University Press, 1996). For nine weeks the girls, aged 8, 11 and 14, trudged through the desert, following a fence that had been erected to keep rabbits off of farmland. Eluding searchers and living on plants and small animals, they took three months to reach their hometown.
On April 10 Pilkington Garimara, renowned as a chronicler of stolen generations in Australia, walked on at age 76, succumbing to ovarian cancer.
“Tracked by Native Police and search planes, they hid in terror, surviving on bush tucker, desperate to return to the world they knew,” Queensland University Press said of the runaways whose journey is depicted in Follow the Rabbit-Proof Fence. “Their journey to freedom—longer than many of the legendary walks of our explorer heroes—is vividly told from family recollections, letters between the authorities and the Aboriginal Protector, and dramatic newspaper reports of the runaway children. It reveals a past more cruel than we could ever imagine.”
Pilkington Garimara was herself the victim of these policies, The New York Times noted. When she was a young girl, Pilkington, her baby sister and their mother were grabbed in the early 1940s and sent to an interment camp. Though her mother was able to escape with Doris’s younger sister, Pilkington Garimara was left behind and did not see her mother again until 1962, at age 21.
The book she penned after finding her mother and hearing about that first escape journey was made into the movie Rabbit-Proof Fence in 2002. But before that was a young childhood spent at Moore River Native Settlement, according to her obituary in the Sydney Morning Herald, followed by several years at Roelands Mission, where she was transferred to at age 12, and “where missionaries brought her up to believe aboriginal people were dirty and evil,” wrote Rabbit-Proof Fence screenplay co-author Christine Olsen in the Sydney Morning Herald.
"I actually despised my own traditional culture because we were taught to,” Garimara Pilkington said, according to Olsen in the Sydney Morning Herald. “We were told that our culture was evil and those that practiced it were devil worshippers. I was taught to deny my own people—be ashamed of them even. The blacker your skin was, the worse individual you were."
Admonished by an aunt to remember who she was and where she came from, Pilkington Garimara spent her adult life filling in the pieces and retrieving her own stolen story, as well as those of many others.
“She was utterly honest and fearless,” Olsen wrote. “She did not flinch from the truth.”
Garimara Pilkington’s life could well be summed up in her own favorite story, that of her birth under a wintamarra tree, Olsen recounted. Years later, she returned there with her mother.
“So we went together and sat under this tree and that was the most spiritual event in both our lives, that mother and daughter had gone back to this very spot that the premature daughter was born and given a week to live,” Garimara Pilkington told Olsen. “Yet that little baby there said, 'No way.' "