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Daisy Kadibil’s Story of Escape Called Attention to the “Stolen Generations” of Aboriginal Australians

Kadibil, who died at the age of 95, had her incredible odyssey recounted in the acclaimed 2002 film ‘Rabbit-Proof Fence’

Still from the movie Rabbit-Proof Fence, which chronicles the real-life odyssey of Daisy Kadibil, her sister Molly and her cousin Gracie. (Entertainment Pictures / Alamy Stock Photo)
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In 1931, an 8-year-old Australian Aboriginal girl named Daisy Kadibil was snatched up by a local constable and taken from her family in the Pilbara region of western Australia to an assimilation camp some 800 miles away. Her sister Molly and her cousin Gracie were also taken. But the girls, determined to go home, escaped from the camp and made a nine-week trek across the Australian desert so they could be reunited with their family. Their incredible journey inspired Rabbit-Proof Fence, the acclaimed 2002 film.

As Jacqueline Williams reports for the New York Times, Daisy, the youngest and last surviving member of the trio, died on March 30 at the age of 95. Her death was not widely reported until recently.

Before they were taken from their homes, Daisy, Molly and Gracie lived in Jigalong, a remote indigenous community that lived semi-nomadically along the rabbit-proof fence—a more than 2,000-mile stretch of barbed wire fencing that was erected in 1900 to keep rabbits out of farmland in Western Australia.

The girls, who belonged to the Martu people, were born at a time when the Australian government was forcibly placing many indigenous children in resettlement institutions, with the goal of assimilating them into white culture. A government inquiry launched in 1995 found that from 1910 to 1970, between 10 and 33 percent of all Australian indigenous children were separated from their families. These children are known collectively as the Stolen Generations.

Christine Olsen, the producer of Rabbit-Proof Fence, interviewed both Molly and Daisy while researching the script for the film. She recollects in the Sydney Morning Herald that because their fathers were white, the three girls came to the attention of Australian authorities, particularly Auber Octavius Neville, the “Chief Protector of Aborigines” who played an important role in shaping official policy toward Australia’s indigenous people in the early 20th century. According to Olsen, Neville believed that mixed-race Aboriginal children should be removed from their families and integrated into European society, "where they would marry and have whiter and whiter children."

Daisy, Molly and Gracie were taken to the Moore River Native Settlement, a grim assimilation camp where 374 people died—many of them from treatable respiratory and infectious illnesses, according to recent research. Molly, who was the oldest of the three girls, had no intention of staying at Moore River. “That place make me sick,” Olsen remembers her saying.

One night, Molly led Daisy and Gracie out of the camp. As they walked alone for more than two months, they hunted and lived off the land. Famers’ wives sometimes gave them food. At other times, they had to steal to eat. Once the girls found the rabbit-proof fence, they were able to follow it back to Jigalong. But the police had been dispatched to catch the girls. According to Olsen, Gracie was recaptured. Molly and Daisy made it home.

In 1996, Molly’s daughter, Doris Pilkington Garimara, published the book Follow the Rabbit-Proof Fence, which was based on the girls’ escape from the Moore River settlement. The 2002 film was inspired by the book, and according to the National Film and Sound Archive of Australia, it “introduced many people to the concept of the stolen generations.”

As an adult, Daisy worked as a cook and housekeeper on ranches in the Pilbara region. According to Olsen, Daisy taught her four children how to hunt and “look after the land,” ensuring that they would be able to pass on the traditions of their ancestors.

In the 1980s, one of Daisy’s daughters, Noreena Kadibil, helped found the Parnngurr Aboriginal Community. Daisy spent her later years living there—not far from Jigalong, her beloved childhood home along the rabbit-proof fence.

About Brigit Katz

Brigit Katz is a freelance writer is based in Toronto. Her work has appeared in a number of publications, including NYmag.com, Flavorwire and Tina Brown Media's Women in the World.

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