Protectionism in Australia was symbolised largely by the cruel segregation of families to missions, and the removal of Indigenous children from their parents. This was to be the main driver of government policy until the late 60s. However, some children were still living in missions in the 1970s.

Following the Australian constitution on 1 January 1901, the legal status of Aboriginal people was to make them all wards of the state. In each state, a Chief Protector was appointed. This meant authorities were able to move Aboriginal people out of towns and into the reserves and missions, and remove children to be raised as ‘white’ with other families. In some States and in the Northern Territory the Chief Protector was made the legal guardian of all Aboriginal and Torres Strait children, overruling the rights of parents.

In relation to midwifery and parenting, separation and protectionism had a dramatic impact on Grandmother’s Law, and social and physical dislocation from Country and clan saw a significant decline in Indigenous health. Cultural identity was lost as traditional birthing practices were disrupted and prohibited. Passing on cultural knowledge across generations became difficult, as families were forcibly separated and communities were spread across various Mission stations. By the 1920’s, some States had prohibited birth on Country, and enforced a system of hospital births (hospitals where the women were segregated). Many women were reluctant to reveal their pregnancy to those outside the family, particularly to the Missionaries that might send them even further away from home and family to birth. As Andy Bryan describes below, the role of the midwife became critical to keeping Aboriginal families strong and connected, despite the desperate circumstances they had been forced into.

Aboriginal midwives are described with reverence, admiration and pride.

The ability to name the Aboriginal woman who was your midwife provided social connection and strengthened identity

Adams, Faulkhead, Standfield & Atkinson, 2018, p.86

There are many accounts of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people living through the Stolen Generation and the inter-generational trauma this caused. Great harm was done to First Nations children over many generations. They were offered little or no education except being trained to be domestic or farm slaves. Many Indigenous mothers and families today still have a deep fear of authority following this historical institutional policy of ‘protection’ and segregation.


Granny Annie Hamilton
Coranderrk, late 1800s
© Bryan Andy

Annie Hamilton – Granny Annie

“I remember when I was a child ‘cos my grandmother was a midwife and she had it handed down to her from her mother ‘cos my great-grandmother, Annie Hamilton was the first midwife around to ever get a certificate – the first Aboriginal woman to get a certificate for a midwife. So, it was handed down just like men handed down their culture and knowledge, and the women… women’s business, they did their thing.”

Uncle Colin Walker talks about his Grandmother and Great Grandmother, and how midwifery skills were handed down

Mission Voices Melbourne: Koorie Heritage Trust, State Library of Victoria, 2003

as cited in Adams, Faulkhead, Standfield & Atkinson (2018).

The following extract was taken from Bryan Andy’s Facebook post, which can be read in full HERE
“The woman in this photograph is Annie Hamilton, she is my Grandfather’s Grandmother, which makes her my Great-Great Grandmother. The photograph is from a series taken in the late 1800s at Corranderrk Aboriginal Reserve – which is around 50kms north-east of Melbourne.
‘Granny Annie’ hailed from the Riverina district near Balranald. She was a fresh water river woman who was dedicated to keeping Aboriginal families strong and connected despite the processes of the British invasion. The British invasion brought warfare and massacres, sickness and death. The expanding frontier imposed a culture that was greedy and selfish, that required Aboriginal people to be rounded up and confined, and often they were removed from their traditional country. Aboriginal children were forcibly taken from their families and communities. We lived through an attempted genocide. We survived, thanks to Aboriginal women like our Granny Annie.
Throughout her homelands Granny Annie was famous for visiting many of the white homesteads that had stolen Aboriginal children (many of whom were kept as slaves working as farm hands and domestics) and would demand that the children be allowed to spend time with her. Her requests were rarely rejected. With the children in her care she would take them on slow, meandering paddlesteamer journeys up and down the Murray or the Murrumbidgee so they could visit their parents, families and communities. She would return the kids to the white homesteads, with great heartache I’d imagine, satisfied that they would at least know who they were and where they belonged. It was her way of keeping Aboriginal families strong and connected despite the inhumane treatment of the British invaders.
Her dedication to keeping Aboriginal families strong was most notable in her role as a midwife. Granny Annie oversaw the births of many Aboriginal babies in her lifetime – which is arguably one of the most effective ways to combat the British and their intent to ‘smooth the pillow of the dying race’ and enact Aboriginal genocide. Granny Annie became so skilled at midwifery she was recognised by the Victorian Midwives Association and became the first Aboriginal woman to be given a qualification recognised by the state.
In her mid-20s Annie fell in love and married and was moved to Corranderk on Wurundjeri country. She was at Corranderk during the government inquiry of 1881, in fact she was a signatory to the petition from residents that gave birth to the inquiry. Corranderk was where she lived most of her life and I wonder how she coped with the cold and the altitude, as our home on the river is low-lying and flat, and the bush isn’t so dense and shaded. When I first saw this photograph, I thought she was wielding a spear, holding it like a warning, her baby wrapped in the government-issued blanket, safe and protected while she was on-guard, ready to take on the world. The truth is she’s holding a canoe pole, which is a symbol of her identity as a woman of the river. A canoe pole isn’t a weapon that serves to restrict or guard. A canoe pole is about access. When you stand on a flat bark canoe with a canoe pole as your oar you can glide across gently flowing water or still lakes with ease, you can meander from midden to midden across expansive flooded plains in order to access whatever it is you need. Even though the photograph is staged and represents the construct of a white male anthropological gaze, she still – to this day – radiates dignity and resilience. I suspect that this is the oldest photograph in my family’s collection. Government records suggest that Annie Hamilton lived until 1935, and so she would have been alive when my Grandfather was born at Cummeragunja.”

Louisa Briggs [Woiworung woman]

Woiworung woman Louisa Briggs was born around 1830. She was just a girl when she, her mother, grandmother and aunt were taken away by sealers from near the heads of Port Phillip Bay, to the Furneaux Islands in Bass Strait. She would not return to her Kulin home until 1858. She and her husband John worked as labourers around the Victorian goldfields, until 1871 when the family of 10 children was admitted destitute to Coranderrk Aboriginal Station. There, Louisa worked as a nurse and midwife.

In 1876 she was appointed matron and became the first Aboriginal woman to replace a European on salaried staff. She fought the Aborigines Protection Board’s plans to sell Coranderrk and remove residents to other reserves, and gave evidence to the 1876 inquiry. Her outspoken criticism of the mission administration saw her eventually forced off the reserve. John died in 1878, and the family moved to Ebenezer mission station, where Louisa again held the management to account. After yet another inquiry in 1881 she moved back to Coranderrk, where she was reappointed matron. Late in life she moved to Barmah, and finally to Cummeragunja where she died in 1925.

A plaque commemorates Louisa Strugnell Briggs, nurse and midwife, on the old Coranderrk mission, now Worawa College, in Healesville, Victoria (Victoria’s only independent Aboriginal community school).

In honour of Louisa Strugnell Briggs (1830? – 1926), an Aborigine of Coranderrk near Healesville, who played an important role in her community as nurse, midwife, teacher, administrator and defender of her people’s rights. In the late nineteenth century, various Aboriginal communities benefited from the work of similar resourceful women

Read more about Louisa in the Australian Women’s Register and the Australian Dictionary of Biography.

Read Jack Latimore’s article about Louisa Briggs  ‘A most resolute lady’: The radical resistance of Indigenous women. The Guardian, 4 July 2018

Nanny Nora

Uncle Sandy Atkinson remembers the high esteem held for Nanny Nora, and how western medicine undermines cultural practice and the role of the midwife

“I often tell a story about Nanny Nora in my time, you know, and she was like a midwife and she was sort of somebody special because she could spill across many political boundaries, you know, because she was a midwife and I was delivered by her and lots of people in my generation was delivered by Nanny Nora. So you could put her in that same category too because she would be able to front up to the manager who would have looked up to her as well, you know. But then even after a while she – a lot of those, in every Aboriginal society there would have been those midwives, you know, that was a powerful person in that community, but then come the days later on, like Cummeragunja, they established a little hospital and so then that was taken away from those women and put in the hands of registered nurses who came there.”

Uncle Sandy Atkinson

Mission Voices Melbourne: Koorie Hritage Trust, State Library of Victoria, 2003

as cited in Adams, Faulkhead, Standfield & Atkinson, 2018, p.86


Ireland, S., Belton, S. McGrath, A., Saggers, S., Wulili Narjic, C. (2015). Paperbark and pinard: A historical account of maternity care in one remote Australian Aboriginal town. Women and Birth, 28, 293-302.

ABSTRACT Background and aim: Maternity care in remote areas of the Australian Northern Territory is restricted to antenatal and postnatal care only, with women routinely evacuated to give birth in hospital. Using one remote Aboriginal community as a case study, our aim with this research was to document and explore the major changes to the provision of remote maternity care over the period spanning pre-European colonisation to 1996.

Methods: Our research methods included historical ethnographic fieldwork (2007–2013); interviews with Aboriginal women, Aboriginal health workers, religious and non-religious non-Aboriginal health workers and past residents; and archival review of historical documents.

Findings: We identified four distinct eras of maternity care. Maternity care staffed by nuns who were trained in nursing and midwifery serviced childbirth in the local community. Support for community childbirth was incrementally withdrawn over a period, until the government eventually assumed responsibility for all health care.

Conclusions: The introduction of Western maternity care colonised Aboriginal birth practices and midwifery practice. Historical population statistics suggest that access to local Western maternity care may have contributed to a significant population increase. Despite population growth and higher demand for maternity services, local maternity services declined significantly. The rationale for removing childbirth services from the community was never explicitly addressed in any known written policy directive. Declining maternity services led to the de-skilling of many Aboriginal health workers and the significant community loss of future career pathways for Aboriginal midwives. This has contributed to the current status quo, with very few female Aboriginal health workers actively providing remote maternity care.

Adams, K., Faulkhead, S., Standfield, R, and Atkinson, P. (2018). Challenging the colonisation of birth: Koori women’s birthing knowledge and practice. Women and Birth, 31, 81-88.

The aim of this research was to collate archival material on South East Australian Aboriginal women’s birthing knowledge and practice… Artefacts found included materials written by non-Aboriginal men and women, materials written by Aboriginal women, oral histories, media reports and culturally significant sites. Material described practices that connected birth to country and the community of the women and their babies. Practices included active labour techniques, pain management, labour supports, songs for labour, ceremony and the role of Aboriginal midwives. Case studies of continuing cultural practice and revival were identified… Inclusion of Aboriginal women’s birthing practices and knowledge is crucial for reconciliation and self-determination. Challenging the colonisation of birthing, through the inclusion of Aboriginal knowledge and practice is imperative, as health practices inclusive of cultural knowledge are known to be more effective.

The Stolen Generations

The history of forced removal of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children from their families in Australia by the National Museum of Australia

Report of the National Inquiry into the Separation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Children from Their Families
April 1997

Indigenous children have been forcibly separated from their families and communities since the very first days of the European occupation of Australia.

Violent battles over rights to land, food and water sources characterised race relations in the nineteenth century. Throughout this conflict Indigenous children were kidnapped and exploited for their labour. Governments and missionaries also targeted Indigenous children for removal from their families. Their motives were to `inculcate European values and work habits in children, who would then be employed in service to the colonial settlers’ (Ramsland 1986 quoted by Mason 1993 on page 31).

Chapter 2 of this Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission Report outlines the laws, practices and policies of forcible removal of Indigenous children in each State and Territory. This chapter briefly outlines the national background and thinking behind those laws, practices and policies.

The questions this history raises for us to contemplate today, at the very least, are what implications it has for relations between Aboriginal and white Australians, and what traces of that systematic attempt at social and biological engineering remain in current child welfare practices and institutions (van Krieken 1991 page 144).

11th Annual Hawke Lecture presented by Professor Fiona Stanley AC

The high suicide rates in young Aboriginal people in Fitzroy Crossing in the Kimberley region of Western Australia in recent years prompted a Coronial Inquiry, which met for several months in 2007 with the Coroner, Alastair Hope, delivering his final report in February 2008. I was called to give evidence to the inquiry because of my Institute’s long-standing research and interest in Aboriginal health and well being. It gave me an opportunity to summarise not only our research and that of others here and overseas, but to make the case for major government investment to improve Aboriginal outcomes in Australia more generally. Hence I aim to share with you my “manifesto”!