In Our Own Right: Black Australian Nurses' Stories

Reviews of In Our Own Right

Review by Anthony O'Brien, RN, Senior Lecturer, Centre for Mental Health Research, Policy and Service Development, The University of Auckland, New Zealand

'My name is Faye Clarke and I am a Koori / Nunga woman'. Fay Clarke's forthright declaration of her identity typifies the confident, self-assured tone of the twenty three voices contributing to In Our Own Right: Black Australian Nurses' Stories (ISBN 0-9757422-2-1). This warm and engaging compilation tells the stories of Australian Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island nurses; their struggles, their dreams, their achievements. There are stories here that make you cry or make you smile, often both. They cover nurses from 22 years of age to those in their seventies. What they have in common is a passion for their work, and a determination to overcome any obstacles to their success. The obstacles can be formidable, and do not end with the first donning of the uniform. They include the authorities seeking to take them, as children, into the care of white institutions or families, their own families' resistance to their daughters entering the whitest of professions, prejudice from nursing school administrators, prejudice from patients, and their own self doubt as they seek the elusive prize of the title 'nurse'. The achievements of this elite group are as formidable as they obstacles they have overcome. There are directorships, doctorates, chairs of nursing, and official honours. And there is always a burning commitment to advancement of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander health.

In such a catalogue of struggle there are plenty of examples of oppression. And there is anger, restrained but palpable, in many of these voices. MaryAnn Bin-Sallik recounts the sterilization without consent of Aboriginal women, and the dead Aboriginal babies wrapped in army blankets and left to lie on the concrete floor overnight. Joan Winch is a Nyoongar-Martujarra woman who recalls fighting to prevent the discharge of cyanide into an Aboriginal reserve. As a student, Sally Goold was described as 'incapable of learning', an allegation that must have had a hollow ring when she was awarded a Doctorate in Nursing from the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology. But these nurses are not consumed by anger; nor are they daunted by their experiences of adversity. Jilpia Jones tells in a matter-of-fact way how on entering training she could not produce a birth certificate. Born 'in the sand of the Great Sandy Desert' her birth was entered in the station horse book. How many New Zealanders or Australians can claim to have attended a wedding in Gore? Jilpia Jones found the mutton bird 'very oily'. And Emily Marshall, a Torres Strait Islander, tells a truly lovely story of how she came to discover the meaning of the red cloth her mother hung over the doors of her patients.

To quote Joan Winch 'I have always had a vision for our people - a vision that one day our health status would be equal to, or better than that of non-Indigenous Australians.' For the nurses of In Our Own Right: Black Australian Nurses' Stories (ISBN 0-9757422-2-1) the profession offers a dream that demands they confront racism, resistance, and their own uncertainties. In achieving their dream they exhort others to follow. There is a sense that nursing brings its own rewards. As Kerrie Doyle, a thirty year veteran with a PhD puts it: 'There is nothing finer than giving someone an arm blanket in the middle of the night…' As if her enthusiasm needs emphasis she concludes by saying: 'I love it! I hope to help make a difference.' As will future Indigenous nurses, encouraged by the leadership of their comrades in this remarkable book of human stories.

More Reviews »

Dr Sally Goold OAM
Senior Australian of the Year 2006

Book Launch
By Peter Beattie MP
4 December 2005

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