In Our Own Right: Black Australian Nurses' Stories

Reviews of In Our Own Right

This book recognises and celebrates the achievement of Indigenous people in the nursing profession and the contributions they have made individually, and collectively, to improving health care for Indigenous peoples and for all Australians. It comes as a result of the work of the Congress of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Nurses (CATSIN), which held its inaugural meeting in 1997.

The book is a collection of 23 stories from Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women and men, documenting their history and experience, the majority as registered nurses but some as nursing assistants and carers. The stories come from across Australia, from Indigenous people who entered training in the late 1940s to a student nurse today. They are personal and painful accounts of the challenges faced by Indigenous people in achieving their dreams to become nurses, from training and graduation through to professional practice and further education.

Some of the most compelling stories are from the women who undertook nursing training in the 1940s and 1950s, when Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people were subject to special race-based legislation which, under the guise of 'protection', controlled and restricted all aspects of everyday life. Many Aboriginal women were excluded from nursing on the basis of their Aboriginality.

When Sadie Canning wanted to train as a nurse in 1947, Aboriginal girls were not accepted for training in Western Australia, so Sadie had to move to Victoria to achieve her dream. Even after legal restrictions were removed, prejudice and ignorance remained to discourage and block entry to the profession; as Kerri Doyle relates, when she applied for nursing training, the matron only agreed to take her if she did not tell anyone she was Aboriginal. The stories also tell us how once accepted for training, Indigenous nurses, in addition to coping with the long hours of work and study demanded of all nurses, faced racism from nursing colleagues, doctors and even patients; even more harrowing was the racism directed at Aboriginal patients that these nurses fought long and hard to change. Indigenous nurses willingly carried the burden of community responsibility and aspirations; their success would pave the way for other Indigenous people to realise their own dreams of nursing. Just what this achievement meant is brought home to us by Jilpia Jones's recollection: "I can remember on my graduation day putting on my first nursing veil, which my dear grandmother brought for me. She attended my graduation with great pride, I was now a 'Sister'."

The stories give glimpses into private lives and personal journeys. For Roslyn Lockhart, nursing was a family affair; her mum was a nurse and her aunties were enrolled nurses, all positive role models and inspiration for her own career. Woven through many of the stories is the fear of welfare and authorities that characterised the childhood of many Aboriginal people, the struggle as families tried to stay together, stories of the stolen generations. As Sadie Canning tells: "Our people feared the authorities. [We] were always on the move with our parents to avoid being caught by police and government officials.'' Lowitja ODonoghue tells us that her fight to be accepted into Royal Adelaide Hospital became a broader struggle for the rights of all young Aboriginal people to their place in the community; Joan Winch founded Marr Mooditj Health Training College to give Indigenous people access to world-class training.

This is a powerful collection of stories about the triumph of the human spirit. What is most moving is the optimism and positive attitude that these Indigenous nurses were able to maintain in the face of often seemingly endless obstacles. They never lost their humanity and compassion, the caring for others that was the core of their profession. In Our Own Right gives well-deserved and long overdue recognition to the struggles and achievements of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander nurses. It adds to a growing body of publications that detail the historic experiences of Indigenous people and the significant contributions Indigenous people have made to the Australian nation, Aboriginal health, education and labour history. In Our Own Right is essential reading for all health professionals and a great read for anyone interested in stories of courage, perseverance, achievement and dedication. For Indigenous people, these are our heroes, and this is a truly inspirational collection of stories.

Jill Milroy
Dean of Indigenous Studies, University of Western Australia

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Dr Sally Goold OAM
Senior Australian of the Year 2006

Book Launch
By Peter Beattie MP
4 December 2005

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