‘Sister Girl’, the writings of Aboriginal activist and historian Jackie Huggins

Reviewed by Anita Heiss

© all rights reserved

Published as part of UQP’s Black Australian Writers Series, this work is a long-awaited (for both author and reader) collection of Jackie Huggins’ writings over 10 years. Sister Girl is classified in the genre of history and essays, but because of Huggins’ real life experiences, roles and responsibilities as an Indigenous woman of profile and power in Australia, it is also a cultural studies work giving a very real insight into the psyche of a contemporary Murri woman and the society from which she comes. And while Sister Girl is sold as a collection of essays, it does not alienate readers like a traditional academic text, although I imagine this book will appear on many women’s studies and Aboriginal studies course guidelines nationally.

In a short collection of 16 essays, Huggins covers descriptively the role of Aboriginal women as domestic servants in Australian history and their pseudo role in the white-feminist movement of the 1990s. Huggins is open about her own personal issues like her relationships with her mother and her son. Whether writing the political or the personal, she writes from the heart with conviction, depth and soul, and at times with a little humour that will make you smile and at times laugh out loud. Huggins’ experiences in the public service where she learnt to “fight racism, write reports and drive a Z car” provide a few of these moments.

If you consider Huggins’ bio before even reading the book, then immediately you’ll be anticipating an interesting and informative read. She is a respected historian and activist with a BA from the University of QLD and a Dip. Ed with Honours in History and Women’s Studies from Flinders University. She is currently a member of the National Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation and Deputy Director of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies Unit at the University of Queensland. She was a Commissioner for the Stolen Generation Enquiry and is the author of Aunty Rita (Aboriginal Studies Press, 1994) which was short-listed for the Nita Kibble Award for Women Writers in 1995. Jackie Huggins today is a far cry from the air-hostess, ballerina and newspaper boy she had dreamed of being as a child.

In this, her first book to follow Aunty Rita Huggins is giving the reader “an Aboriginal view” (as opposed to “the” Aboriginal view — a much misused phrase) of a wide range of political and personal topics that have directed her in her life’s work. Dedicated to her mother the late Rita Huggins, the author explains that the term “sister girl” like “Aunty” is a one of endearment used widely and affectionately in Aboriginal communities with those ‘with whom we have a feeling of sisterhood’.

The greatest ‘sister girl’ known to Huggins is quite obviously her late mother Rita. In an essay titled “Writing my Mother’s Life” Huggins writes about the difficulties in writing her mother’s story (Aunty Rita) asking “how do ‘the oppressed’ write about ‘the oppressed’?” She answers this herself by considering it ” ‘the liberated’ writing about ‘the literated'”.

In writing about her mother Huggins realised the importance of oral history and recording oral testimony, something most history books on Australia have failed to do, and an issue raised a number of times in Sister Girl. As Huggins points out in this essay: “Had Aboriginals been interviewed during the mission and government reserve period, for example, their accounts would have been entirely different from those written by missionaries to their church societies and by administrators in their annual reports to the government”.

Sister Girl is an appropriate title for this book, as many a female reader will feel a sense of sisterhood when entering the world of Jackie Huggins through her writing, which she admits is her “greatest joy”. Questions around writing are raised by Huggins in relation to those about history and Indigenous voices and silences. Huggins’ questioning of the relevance, appropriateness and ability of white-Australians writing “Aboriginal history” merely echoes the thoughts of many Aboriginal writers today who have taken up the pen to rewrite the “white-Australian” history books that have conveniently left out the facts around invasion, attempted genocide and the continual fight for equality and survival that IS Aboriginal history. I was struck by the first line of the first chapter which reads “Is it possible for white Australians to write ‘Aboriginal history’?” Obviously not when you consider, as Huggins points out, that there still exists the missing written history of Aboriginal women and their role as pioneers in Australian colonial society. A role defined and substantiated by testimonies of six Aboriginal women interviewed by Huggins who proved that they, and their “sister girls” lived through times where “The Black woman’s entire day seemingly revolved around catering for the white family’s needs”. These “needs” included everything from domestic chores to mustering cattle, working under poor conditions, with no wages and through unrelenting sexual harassment.

Within this collection also is a piece Huggins herself regards as one of the strongest works she’s ever written, and upon reading you can see why. “Wedmedi — If Only You Knew” is a no-holes barred essay on the role of the white-feminist movement continuing the oppression of Aboriginal women. In this piece Huggins points out “that Aboriginal women remain discriminated against due to their race rather than their gender” and that white feminism and women’s studies are white cultural products that are guilty of such perpetuation. Huggins highlights a number of differences between the white feminist project and the experience of Aboriginal women. One case being that, in the feminist movement, the issue of white women’s desire to say “yes” to sex without condemnation was opposite to black women’s desire to say “no” to sex without retribution. Quite bluntly, Huggins points out that the white feminist movement was clearly for white women (who merely attempted to gain momentum and strength by pulling Aboriginal women under their banner).

Huggins pulls no punches when she says “…white women’s activities have to be seen as part of the colonisation and oppression of black women” and that “colonialism is alive and well in the women’s movement”. In “Respect Versus Political Correctness” Huggins also takes the opportunity to give some pointers to those who continue to, or who are thinking about, writing about Aboriginal culture and society, highlighting that much of what is written about Aborigines by non-Aborigines has been “patronising, misconstrued, preconceived and abused”.

While warning the potential author not to “expect Aboriginal people to easily welcome you into their world” she offers a five-point formula dealing with ethical issues that need to be considered when writing about Aboriginal people. This piece alone warrants buying the book, if you are considering such a future in writing about us.

My favourite piece in Sister Girl is “Are all the Women White?”, a transcript of the radio conversation between “two Black revolutionary women”, namely Jackie Huggins and her role model, African American writer bell hooks, in which they discuss the differences and similarities of the experience of feminism in both countries and its influence and indeed relevance to Black women. Taped, I’m guessing, sometime in 1994, its conversational-style and the passion of the voices are uplifting.

Although known foremost as an historian, Jackie Huggins has been writing for many years — academic, historical works, biographical — and her comments on the growing Aboriginal genre comes from that background. She is also a social commentator and watcher of Indigenous literature through her role at the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies (which houses Aboriginal Studies Press). She sees Indigenous Australian writing as a sharing concept, as “…part of our being human, conversing, understanding and coming together”.

She sees a new phenomenon of contemporary Aboriginal writing emerging whereby women writers have the double advantage of relating their history in literally black and white terms, while simultaneously transcending and cutting across cultural boundaries. This can be witnessed in the growing pool of contemporary women writers which includes Kerry Reed-Gilbert, Alexis Wright, Melissa Lucashenko, Michelle Buchanan, Cathy Craigie, Lisa Bellear, Ruby Langford-Ginibi and others. Sister Girl is itself a new work. For although there are anthologies such as Message Stick (IAD Press, 1997) compiled by Wiradjuri author Kerry Reed-Gilbert, and Indigenous Australian Voices: A Reader (Rutgers, 1998) edited by Jennifer Sabbioni et al, Huggins’ collection appears to be the first collection of its kind by an Aboriginal woman.

As a respected academic, historian, writer and Republican, Huggins stands on a variety of political platforms and she uses these in her work in Sister Girl. Some may say she is brave and others cheeky in the way she indulges in some role reversal in her writing, as she refers to Aboriginal Australians as beingBlack and non-Aboriginal Australians referred as white. As an Aboriginal person I am so used to seeing definitions of us in lower case, that it really caught my eye to see it reversed in Huggins’ work, and at first glance I wondered if it were a typo. I soon realised that it was a strong and pointed political statement, and a clever one at that!

Huggins states in her book that “throughout my life my driving force has always been my Aboriginality in whatever I do.” I couldn’t help feeling this line was not necessary, for her Aboriginality comes across clearly without explanation in every essay of this book. Whether Huggins is talking about her immediate or extended family, whether it is about the women’s movement or her education as a child (or teacher), her trip to her mother’s “born” country at Kooramindanjie, or even her safe stroll to Brunswick Street suffering from “new city alienation”, her Aboriginality impacts on every life experience she has chosen to write about, which highlighted to this reader that Aboriginality also impacts on writing.

In Sister Girl Huggins points out what most of us as Blackfellas often say, that when you are born Aboriginal, you are born political, and her writings in Sister Girl are testament to that belief. As Huggins says “Political awareness and action is a way of life”.

Wedmedi — white woman

Anita Heiss is from the Wiradjuri nation and is the author of Sacred Cows (Magabala Books, 1996) and Token Koori (Curringa Communications, 1998). She is currently completing her doctoral studies in Aboriginal literature and publishing and holds the Indigenous Portfolio at the Australian Society of Authors.

Sister Girl: the writings of Aboriginal activist and historian Jackie Huggins was published by UQP, St Lucia, in 1998.

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