The Commission decided the answer to the “problem” was assimilation – forced if necessary – into white society.
“There was a quite deliberate dovetailing of policies between the Children's Welfare Department and the Aborigines Protection Board,” says Dr Harkin.
“And they were all pretty much the same people, working in perfect harmony targeting Aboriginal children to be trained for domestic duties, particularly the girls as a key assimilation measure.”
Unfortunately for Aboriginal girls and women, this policy solution coincided with an urgent need for domestic help in white homes across the colony. Dr Harkin says that most Aboriginal people she knows have a domestic service story but it is not part of the larger narrative of history in South Australia. She believed this gap in knowledge deserved considered archival research along with community stories documented for the future record.
In addition to poetry, Dr Harkin has exhibited her words in multiple ways, including a woven Ngarrindjeri basket from her nanna and great-grandmother’s handwritten letters in the archives.
“These letters written by our families prove that our children were not destitute and neglected but were hard fought for, and deeply loved.
“Parents were often distressed about what was happening to their children – writing letters to access them, or advocate for them, or request holiday visits with them, or to influence where they were placed and worked. Parents were not passive or silent.”
From the 1920s to the 1950s, the assimilation program proceeded at full pace, guided by the “Chief Protector of Aborigines” William Penhall.
No one knows exactly how many girls were torn from their families and sent to work as virtual slaves in far flung corners of the state, so transparency and access to state archives is critical.
“The domestic service records that I've had access to show how punitive the Protector was, and how badly many girls were treated, which is gut-wrenching,” says Dr Harkin. “There's evidence of abuse and being worked to the bone. Some girls weren’t getting paid, or disputed wages, or their money was put into trust accounts which they had to apply to access. Some weren't clothed properly. Some were isolated and vulnerable, often sent to country farms because there was such specific demand for them.”
Dr Harkin's response instinctively lies in poetry and creative arts as a way to repatriate love back to family, and as a personal and communal “reckoning with history”. She also does this work with the Unbound Collective, close creative collaborators at Flinders University: Dr Ali Gumillya Baker, Associate Professor Simone Ulalka Tur and Senior Lecturer Faye Rosas Blanch.
“I guess archival-poetics feels the best way for me to deal with all the emotion in relation to colonial history, and to educate and make sense of our collective-collected lives.
“These policies severely impacted all our families. Many of us can't speak our languages or didn’t grow up on country.
"We have generations of removal, and generations of indentured labour – our women were the market solution to the Aboriginal problem.”