The Night Cries of Aboriginal Assimilation
The colonization and forced assimilation of indigenous cultures is a global problem that plagues our history and is perpetuated through its contemporary consequences that our generation is just beginning to acknowledge and address. Australian Aborigines’ past suppression through their forced assimilation into white culture due to British colonization in the sixteenth century is an abating issue. The Australian government, which was comprised of white, British males, sought to create a single, white Australian race. By the 1930s, after hundreds of years of radical and abusive colonization efforts, the Commonwealth lined out their assimilation policies, which “proposed that “full blood” Indigenous people should be allowed to “die out” through a process of natural elimination, while “half-castes” were encouraged to assimilate into the white community. This approach was founded on the assumption of black inferiority and white superiority.” (“Australians Together.”) This meant the government was not only condoning, but vehemently encouraging the dispossession of the Aborigines, displacement of their children into white homes, all in the effort to extinguish local culture.
This blatant genocide is addressed by Tracey Moffatt, an acclaimed Australian photographer and cinematographer, in her film Night Cries (1982). It was during this time that she began to focus her work on the relationship between Aborigines and white colonial settlers. Night Cries is a social commentary on the relationship between an Aboriginal daughter of Australia’s stolen generation and her white mother, for whom she is the sole care-giver.
Night Cries confronts the issues enumerated by Deborah Bird Rose in her work, Reports From a Wild Country, such as the social and economical impacts of conquest, the assimilation and colonization of indigenous peoples, and the current decolonization of Australia’s stolen generation, through an intimate portrait of the relationship between an Aboriginal daughter and he white mother.
Assimilation, colonization, and genocide are three hefty world issues that we have dealt with since the age of exploration and globalization began around the 15th century, yet to this day we still have not outgrown those primitive methods of conquest.
In Reports From a Wild Country, Bird Rose confronts Richard Slotkin’s idea that violence is central both to conquest and to progress, that the main problem for settlers is that they are “paradoxically situated.” Slotkin goes on to attest that “most of us are here because of hope. Our ancestors hoped to make better lives for themselves and their families…Their calculous indifference to the dispossession, death, and despair they generated for the Indigenous peoples and the ecosystems of their ‘new worlds’, and for the many other who were caught up in the projects, rendered their whole enterprise hope- destroying right from the start. The result for us is that we are here not only by violence, but also by a misguided and misleading hope for the future.” (Reports From a Wild Country)
Despite perhaps pure personal motives, if we continue to support this cycle of indifference to the indigenous peoples who are the direct victims of this ignorance, the far-reaching ripples it generates in our world will maintain the status quo that colonization is essential to progress. The cause and effect of this belief in our world is staggering, and the Aborigines situation are only one example of the injustice suffered at the hand of a racist system that by default deems genocide appropriate. Reports From a Wild Country deals with “ethics and history, practices that entice us to abandon our moral presence, and the project of recuperation,” (Reports From a Wild Country) for these Aborigines who are still experiencing the aftermath of a generation unjustly and forcefully assimilated into white culture. If we do not face the issues of colonization, structural racism, and assimilation, we are allowing a genocidal system to continue wiping out and abusing our brothers and sisters.
This precedent of racism and white supremacy is evident even in the earliest records of Australia by European cultures, which date back to 1606 when various merchant ships passed through the area.
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However, it wasn’t until James Cook’s 1770 expedition on the Endeavor, that Australia was formally claimed and charted under the British flag. In 1788, a fleet of 11 British ships carrying around 1,350 settlers arrived on the shores of Australia’s Botany Bay, establishing the first penal colony.
As colony after colony deteriorated, the settlers maintained a generally hospitable relationship with the Aboriginals, who supplied them with the means to survive. As time went on, the Aboriginals realized the colonizers were draining them of their resources and from 1790 to 1810 launched a resistance campaign contra the British in a series of attacks.
In spite of their efforts, land ownership by Aboriginals wasn’t dealt with until the mid-1830s, when John Batman signed two so-called ‘treaties’ with them formally ‘purchasing’ the land the settlers had taken. I personally am appalled by the audacity that settlers historically have had regarding their ‘treaties’, etc., as they attempt to justify their cruel colonization and violent methods through their own devices- which supply no grounds, signification, or retribution for the indigenous cultures. The failure to recognize this fact is yet another form that colonization takes on.
Night Cries is a call and answer to Jedda the Untamed, a 1955 film that chronicles the story of an Aboriginal girl being raised by white family. Moffatt’s work opens with a screaming, screeching soundbite with a train passing on the tracks and a quote by Rosalind Russell: “Look at that sunset Howard!… It’s like the daytime didn’t want to end… like it was gonna put up a big scrap and maybe set the world on fire to keep the night time from creeping on.” (Night Cries)
The first credits fade into a scene of Jimmy Little, an Aboriginal singer, crooning the Christian tune, ‘Royal Telephone’, which introduces the beginning of the silent narrative. This is a historical relic of the Australian assimilation, one where we can clearly see how this assimilation carries over into all areas of life: from song to religion to dress (Jimmy is dressed in a suit and tie).
At this point, the camera pans over a painted landscape, perhaps referring to how the Aboriginal people relate to their white colonization. It rests on a familial scene between an Aboriginal woman and who we come to find is her aging, adopted, white mother. The mother sits in a wheelchair at a table in the center of the room, clumsily and painstakingly attempting to feed the food from the plate to the fork to her mouth, despite her shaking hands. The camera moves over photographs on a table of the mother in her younger years, photographed in a distinctly European way in traditional white clothes. Here the shot focuses on the face of the daughter for a beat, who looks at the picture frames on the table and then raises her gaze to the camera. We get the sense that she despises this culture and despises her ‘mother’.
We listen to the howl of the wind outside the small home as the Aboriginal daughter, appearing irritated by her mother’s incapacity, brusquely gets up and leans over the table to feed her mother, impatiently shoveling the food into her mouth before taking her wheelchair out the front door into the wild.
It is obvious the two live alone, and the adopted Aboriginal is the sole caretaker of the white woman. The old woman goes into an outhouse, pictured as the sole edifice amongst a landscape of the outback. Meanwhile, the daughter agitatedly sighs and paces as she waits for the woman to finish in the outhouse so she can wheel the woman back to the house.
Meanwhile, the daughter restlessly turns on a hose without a sprocket and begins to run the water over her head and down her breasts, breathing heavily as if in a heat stroke. Flashes of her old mother buttoning up her ‘white’ clothing as a child periodically interrupt the scene of her watering herself, so we get the sense that it is the memory of the tight, white, European clothing and her mother’s fussing over the bow in her hair that is causing her to feel so constrained and short of breath. The scene ends with a dramatic and heart- wrenching shot of the daughter clutching herself and staring out at the landscape, obviously contemplating her plight and deeply disturbed by her past.
Suddenly it is nighttime, and the same train-on-the-tracks soundbite plays while the daughter sits by the light of the window and writes in a book, leaning back and closing her eyes as the sound of the train fervently picks up speed. Her mother begins to shake and moan in her bed, but the daughter is lost in her thoughts for a moment. The scene zooms out so we get a full view of the room illuminated by the
moonlight, and we watch as the daughter snaps out of her contemplation to her wailing mother’s aid. They return to the outhouse, and beneath the moonlight, the cracking of sticks, whistling of a bird, and chirping of cicadas, the daughter sits down on a bucket and lights a cigarette.
The next morning, we see the daughter in her bra, kneeling at a tin bucket and scrubbing clothes back and forth over a washboard. She stands and kicks the bucket, breathing heavily as cuts of a cool ocean scene smashing against rocks splice in. This is not where she belongs- she is a fish out of water.
We return to the house, where the mother sits in her wheelchair at the table, a music box open and playing a tune she nods her head to until she falls asleep. A fly’s buzz grows stronger around the mother’s head as she falls into a slumber- broken by the sound of a whip the daughter is deliriously hitting the ground with outside as she laughs.
The scene cuts back to Jimmy Little with a guitar, the only audible sound the static of radio channels.
Now, the daughter is washing her mother’s withered feet with a washcloth as they both hum the tune to ‘Royal Telephone’ together. The daughter remembers a scene from her childhood again: her white mother at the beach setting twirling her around on the rocks. The mother leaves to stare out at the ocean, and two Aboriginal boys began to toss seaweed at each other with the daughter, until, wrapped up in the black reeds, she begins to cry. As the waves grow larger and the sound of seagulls penetrate the beach scene, the daughter sobs in anguish n finally breaking out into a tribal drum beat.
The scene cuts to the young mother with the Aboriginal daughter on her lap, wrapped in a blanket, safe from the beach and the Aboriginal boys who threw seaweed. The daughter has been alienated from her own culture.
The final scene is of the daughter curled up beside her dead mother under the moon as a track of a baby crying plays. It fades out to black as ‘Royal Telephone’ comes back on.
This work exposes the general relationship experienced between the children who were forcibly assimilated into white culture and the white people who adopted them. It reflects on the consequences of this movement enforced by the Commonwealth, and how colonization is a problem that persists through the generations.
Night Cries is a social critique on the aftermath of the British appropriation of Australia: the exploitation of its resources and land for the benefit of the colonizers, who through racism justified their genocide of the native peoples and cultures. As stated by the Initial Conference of Commonwealth and State Aboriginal Authorities in 1937: “The policy of the Commonwealth is to do everything possible to convert the half-caste into a white citizen.” (“Australians Together”) Through Moffatt’s work, our eyes are opened to the truly horrible practice of cultural assimilation and the way it effects not only the victims, but also eventually effects the colonizers, who then live in a broken society where contention between the two parties becomes the culture of the place. “Assimilation can be understood as a pain experienced by both the Aboriginal daughter, as well as the white mother.” (“Australian Screen.”)
Thanks to Moffatt’s deeply touching film, work ensues today with decolonization efforts that continue to make a difference and promote peace between the white, Aboriginal, and ‘half-casts’ that make up Australia. As Hobbles Daniyari, an Aboriginal Deborah Bird Rose studied under, says: wild people make wild country. (Reports From a Wild Country) The colonizers, or wild people, have broken Australia down into wild, failing, and degrading country through their structural racism and colonization of the continent and its native peoples. Now, it is up to us to move forward from the past, to confront these issues head on as we see enacted in Night Cries, and work to restore the Aboriginal people their rights as humans, as a culture, and as native inhabitants of Australia.
“Australian Screen.” Curator’s Notes Night Cries: A Rural Tragedy (1989) on ASO – Australia’s Audio and Visual Heritage Online. N.p., n.d. Web. 16 Dec. 2016.
Digital, Carter. “Australians Together.” Australians Together. N.p., n.d. Web. 16 Dec. 2016.
Kästle, Klaus. “History of Australia.” History of Australia – Nations Online Project. N.p., n.d. Web. 16 Dec. 2016.
Bird Rose, Deborah. Reports From a Wild Country. New South Wales: University of New South Wales Press, 2004. Print.