“I was fed on a diet of lies and invisibility about the true history of this country from a very young age,” recalls Jackie Huggins. In the new edition of her prescient 1998 book Sister Girl: Reflections on Tiddaism, Identity and Reconciliation, Dr Huggins writes history through kinship, storying Aboriginal women’s survival, agony and strength. This healing, Blak feminist book sounds the collective truth and strength of Aboriginal women’s voices into the chambers of a violent history that has tried to silence them.
In the chapter “Oppressed but Liberated”, Dr Huggins documents her experience as a student teacher in a remote Aboriginal community, recalling the inherently Eurocentric pedagogy at the majority Aboriginal school. She says “children are conditioned into accepting the ‘culture’ of the powerful and dominant white society” and taught white is right. White supremacist logic renders the colonial ideal a moving target that can never be reached by Indigenous peoples, as is evident in the deficit-model policy Closing the Gap.
One of the book’s many strengths is that Dr Huggins never moralises. This isn’t a book about guilt-tripping white people, even when she’s describing the harrowing details of the lives of Aboriginal women who were domestic servants – effectively slaves – in white households.
Dr Huggins shows that race, not gender, is the primary oppression of Aboriginal women in this country. She draws on first-person accounts, archival material and policy analysis to tell entangled stories which, although full of despair, chronicle the everyday acts of resistance carried out by Indigenous women.
“The Mothering Tongue” outlines the collective voice with which Dr Huggins writes. It’s “one which speaks from the hundreds-of-years’ experience of degradation, segregation and near annihilation”. But more, it is “proof of the enduring spirit of Aboriginal women”. To quote one of her influences, American writer, feminist and civil rights activist Audre Lorde, “the love expressed between women is particular and powerful because we have had to love in order to live; love has been our survival”.
One can only begin to describe the groundbreaking life’s work of Dr Huggins. She is a member of the Bidjara and Birri-Gubba Juru peoples, was made a member of the Order of Australia, has an honorary doctorate and – perhaps most importantly – the internationally known author, activist, educator and history professor is deeply respected by Indigenous people.
Sister Girl is as urgent now as it was in 1998. It’s an indispensable work of Blak feminist history that absolutely demands to be read, taught and discussed widely.
University of Queensland Press, 224pp, $29.99
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on January 22, 2022 as "Sister Girl: Reflections on Tiddaism, Identity and Reconciliation, Jackie Huggins".
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