West Australian Nyungar Aboriginal elder Dulcie Donaldson is finalising a book that reopens an extremely contentious part of our history – the fate of Indigenous people who in the 1950s lived on the nuclear weapons test range of Maralinga in South Australia.
Ms Donaldson recently graduated with a Bachelor of Arts degree in creative writing from La Trobe University under an innovative link forged between the University and Bachelor Institute of Indigenous Tertiary Education.
During the 1980s she and her husband, Sandy, ran an Aboriginal mission at Cundeelee near the test site which served as a refuge for desert-dwelling people escaping fallout from the British nuclear tests in the 1950s.
Ms Donaldson’s book is informed by many accounts from local people she met, archival research as well as the first-hand experience of her husband who lived through the tests when he was a boy.
The book disputes the conclusions of the 1980s Royal Commission into the tests, contradicting official accounts that there were no people on the bomb test range. ‘The government’s argument was that the land was uninhabited and barren, and that was the reason for going ahead with test bombing,’ she says.
However, while the site was surveyed from the air, she says people hid from aircraft. ‘They did not want to expose themselves to the white British people, the soldiers, and the army. They hid in the bushes and that saved them from the smoke and helped them survive.’
Renewed public debate about tests
She says documents of head counts show 8,000 to 10,000 Aboriginal people lived on the test site and came in to mission stations during eight years of the tests which began in the in 1950s. She suspects about 100 to 200 people might still be alive today, most of them now living in the Tjuntjuntjarra Community and some in Kalgoorlie.
Her revelations about the illness and dislocation of Aboriginal people come at a time when public debate about the Maralinga bomb tests and the treatment of Australian soldiers who suffered after-effects, has been resurrected by high-profile political commentator, Graham Richardson.
Writing for The Australian newspaper in March – in an article headed ‘We must right the wrong of Maralinga’ – Mr Richardson, a former ALP government minister, says: ‘for five decades Australian governments have refused to look after these men properly’.
Ms Donaldson grew up in a country town 200 miles east of Perth. She did well at school and planned to become a teacher, but when her father died she had to work to help support her family.
Building a community
‘I married early and had three sons. My husband and I went on to further studies in Bible College. We built up Aboriginal churches, and took over Cundeelee mission which the government wanted to close down in the 1980s after the white missionaries left.
‘We were working in Geraldton at the time and were asked whether we wanted to continue the work at Cundeelee. So we went there and helped build up the community. We trained people for different projects, to go into health services, shop, school and built an outstation for people to go back to their homeland.
‘My husband worked as the Community Manager and I worked as a supervisor in the community store and also did other arts and crafts with the women and children. We held church services on the weekend with the people.’
Mrs Donaldson, who now lives in Perth, met her husband in Kalgoorlie. She learnt that he, like people they later met at Cundeelee, was also a survivor of the Maralinga test bombing. She says he could remember seeing the flash from the explosions. ‘I was very interested in that story, in the survivors and what happened. These are real people. They were there in desert when the British came and tested those bombs in the 1950s.’
Creative writing course
After her husband died seven years ago, Mrs Donaldson decided to continue her education at Batchelor Institute where, as part of a creative writing course held in Alice Springs, she met La Trobe literary scholar, Associate Professor Alison Ravenscroft who pioneered the University’s relationship with the Institute. She then transferred to La Trobe to complete her arts degree at the Melbourne campus.
With the help of her three sisters, she tracked down and interviewed survivors from the 1950s and it became clear, she says, their accounts challenged the official story.
‘I found a lot that did not match up on the basis of what the Aboriginal people were telling me. They told stories of survival and how they coped after the test bombing; how they were so ill and came to missions to recover from their illnesses.’
She says her return to education as a grandmother has been an interesting journey. ‘I wanted to do creative writing so I could tell the stories for my children, my grandchildren and for the whole community.’
She says mission work as Evangelical Baptists was hard and involved a lot of sacrifice, such as missing out on aspects of family life other people take for granted. ‘But becoming part of the changes that happen to Aboriginal people was the best part of my life,’ she adds.
‘I think we were very modern missionaries. We upset the Church a lot. We believed in people. We came at it from the ground up and we broke a few laws according to the Church.’
Commitment to Indigenous education
Dr Ravenscroft says Ms Donaldson’s success highlights the University’s commitment to Indigenous tertiary education, strengthened recently with the appointment of Professor Mark Rose as Director of Indigenous Strategy. Professor Rose also has a long relationship with Bachelor Institute.
‘It’s also further testimony to the range and caliber of the literary arts at La Trobe University. For example, Carrie Tiffany’s novel Mateship with Birds – completed as part of her PhD with La Trobe – recently won the NSW Premier’s literary award and been short-listed for the Miles Franklin Award,’ Dr Ravenscroft says.
It has also won this year’s inaugural $50,000 Stella Prize. Another La Trobe creative writing graduate, Lisa Jacobson, was on a short list of six for the Stella Prize. And writers from La Trobe programs have been awarded a slew of other prizes over the last eighteen months. – Ernest Raetz