NEW YORK — In the 1930s, Australian authorities undertook a campaign to force the native Aborigines into white culture, with the hope that intermarriage would eliminate their race. Mixed-race aboriginal children were taken from their families and forbidden to speak their native language.
“Are we going to have a population of 1 million blacks in the Commonwealth, or are we going to merge them into our white community and eventually forget there ever were any Aborigines in Australia?” A.O. Neville, chief protector of Aborigines in Western Australia, asked in 1937.
The effort, little-known outside Australia, drew newfound attention when the movie “Rabbit-Proof Fence” came out in 2002, telling the story of a young girl who was taken from her family, escaped from a government “reeducation” camp, and with two other girls walked nine weeks through harsh desert, with only plants and small animals to eat, to reunite with her mother in their hometown.
The movie, which starred Kenneth Branagh as Neville, was based on the book “Follow the Rabbit-Proof Fence” (1996), by Doris Pilkington Garimara, who died at 76 on April 10 in Perth, Australia. The cause was ovarian cancer.
Ms. Pilkington Garimara based the book on the story of her mother, Molly Kelly. But she, too, had suffered under the campaign. As a young girl, she and her mother and sister were sent to a camp. Her mother fled with Doris’s sister, but was forced to leave Doris behind.
An aunt had told her who her mother was. Ms. Pilkington Garimara took her children to meet her in 1962. That was when Kelly shared her story of her first escape and trek home, following a fence that bisects Australia from north to south to protect farmland from rabbits.
Ms. Pilkington Garimara wrote three other well-received books about her life, and used her celebrity to press for the Aboriginal cause.