Author Roberta Sykes

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Editor’s Note: When Australia’s Cathy Freeman raced in the recent Olympics, she won a gold medal in the 400 meters not only for her nation but also for the Aboriginal people who have experienced tremendous bigotry and repression in their homeland.

This month, WEnews brings you an excerpt from “Snake Circle” (Allen & Unwin, Australia) by Dr. Roberta Sykes, a prominent Australian activist for the rights of the Aboriginal peoples. Here, she recalls a period more than 20 years ago when she was traveling as an education/liaison officer with the New South Wales Health Commission. The events recounted took place more than two decades ago, and some would say conditions have improved. However, WEnews believes it is important to be aware of the past, be alert in the present, and thus prepare for the future.

Excerpt from Chapter One of “Snake Circle”:

It is 1977, ten years since the Referendum which acknowledged Aboriginal citizenship, but what’s changed?

In Wilcannia, I was walking to the petrol station in the main street for a cool drink, when I was joined by a group of five or six young Aboriginal girls from the nearby camp. They walked along with me and chatted. As the camp had no electricity and therefore no refrigeration, camp residents ambled towards the petrol station or the sprinkling of shops several times a day for basic provisions and cool drinks. The temperature was often almost 40 degrees Celsius, and the air still, dry and dust-filled from clouds of parched soil stirred by the cars and semi-trailers that passed through on this main highway to and from the west.

A police wagon slowly came around the corner and one of the girls suddenly ran onto the road and began hurling abuse at its lone male occupant. As the wagon slowed, I saw the policeman smirk at her, then raise his eyes and catch sight of me standing with her group of friends. He drove off.

“He been rape me,” she said angrily, by way of explanation for her actions. “In the cells, he been rape me.” I was shocked by her candour.

“Yeah, he rooted all of us,” one of her friends piped up. Horrified, I looked around at their pinched little faces, dark eyes swimming with anger and frustrated indignation, not one of them sixteen years old, and I felt sick to my stomach.


They were all answering at once. “Anytime he can take us off to the station.”

“You gotta watch out for him all the time.”

I stood around with the girls for a while and tried to get enough information to make a case. Although they had each been subjected to various gross indecencies and in many ways corroborated each other’s stories, the policeman had always taken the precaution of never taking two girls at the same time, never providing them with a witness. So it would always be one girl’s word against his own.

I heard similar stories in several country towns, and was always sickened. Yet I was never able to get evidence, apart from hearing over and over about such incidents from different girls at different times, which I doubted would stand up in court.

I wondered a lot about these towns, their isolation from centers that would investigate these incidents, their social structure which ensured that what was common knowledge in the Black community never leaked over into the white community–did not penetrate the consciousness of, for instance, the wives of offending officers.

I realise the paradox of saying how much I enjoyed this work, because I was so often confronted with misery and situations that made me feel impotent. Yet the small things that I could do to alleviate suffering were often so pleasing, so satisfying, that my life still felt, in a strange way, perhaps a busy way, fulfilled.

Dr. Sykes, who holds a doctorate in education from Harvard University, has been a consultant to the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody and the New South Wales Department of Corrective Services. The author of numerous books and articles, she was awarded the Australian Human Rights Medal in 1994 for her work on behalf of Aboriginal peoples.

For details of the forthcoming U.S. publication of Snake Dreaming trilogy, contact The Mary Cunnane Literary Agency, [email protected].