Margaret Rachel Jacobs (Auntie Maggie) 1920–2002
by Bob Briton The Ngarrindjeri people and Auntie Maggie's many friends in the wider community were shocked and saddened by her sudden passing in Adelaide last month. A health crisis brought on by a fall finally claimed the life of this very forthright defender of the rights and traditions of her people. Margaret Rachel Jacobs was born on March 28, 1920 on what is now the self- governing community of Raukkan on Lake Alexandrina in the south east of South Australia. She was always very proud of the fact that she was among the last to have been born in a wurli — a structure traditionally erected by the Indigenous people of the area. In her youth, Raukkan was a reserve run by the South Australian Government where the inhabitants were subject to the overbearing control of the Aborigines Act of 1911. Not long before her birth, the area had been the undisputed home of the Ngarrindjeri — a skilful people living in an environment rich in the resources they needed. It was later the site of the Christian mission founded by George Taplin and the Aborigines Friends' Association. Established late in the 19th century, its strict, paternalistic regime sought to assimilate the Ngarrindjeri people and to weaken the hold of indigenous culture. Auntie Maggie was raised by her grandmother and educated in the ways of her people despite ongoing official discouragement. For the rest of her life, Auntie Maggie was guided by both the traditional beliefs of the Ngarrindjeri and her Christian faith. "There's been so much religion through Raukkan they don't know who or what to believe. Now I go to the Baptist Church. He doesn' t want me to lose sight of my culture. I don't do things I shouldn't do. I don't condemn other people", she once explained to anthropologist Diane Bell who was researching her Ngarrindjeri Wurruwarrin at the time. At age 22, Auntie Maggie was allowed to leave the Point McLeay reserve to search for work. She lived in Darwin for several years before settling in Cairns. She worked at a variety of jobs — everything from cane cutting to singing in nightclubs. She married but her husband fell early victim to heart disease. Auntie Maggie moved to Adelaide 30 years ago. One of her brothers had died and she wanted to be near her surviving brothers and sister. She worked at the factory of Hills Industries before taking up casual cooking and cleaning work with the Aboriginal Hostels organisation. Her leadership qualities became obvious when she began travelling and teaching with the Nunga Church, a religious grouping headed by Brother Keith Milden and many other Nunga people. This organisation became the Aboriginal Congress. She worked alongside a committed group of Nunga people, including Pastor Ken Sumner, who officiated at her recent funeral. With her direct approach and her strong, proud bearing she became a role model for many in her community. She will always be remembered for the support she gave to families especially when death and illness came calling. Auntie Maggie's renewed contact with her people and her grounding in their culture gave made her very insightful about the problems facing the Ngarrindjeri people. Along with other community leaders, she sensed the seriousness of the challenge posed by plans for what is now the controversial Hindmarsh Island Bridge. Close friend and fellow elder, Veronica Brodie, remembers it this way in her book My Side of the Bridge: "Auntie Maggie could tell you about the spirits she's been feeling of late, and the spirits that I've been feeling are the spirits that other people have been feeling. Now the funny thing is, somebody warned one day that when this Hindmarsh Island thing started, the spirits were going to rise up. It was said years ago down along Raukkan that if the Ngarrindjeri people didn't pull together, the spirits would rise up and there would be trouble. Well look at what's happening — we've got lots of trouble now. Heaps of trouble." The rest is history. The original proposal by developers to link Hindmarsh Island to the mainland at Goolwa is now a reality. Part of the objections to the project involved the beliefs of the Ngarrindjeri women that related to the island. Eventually, a Royal Commission was set up in 1995 to find on the validity of these spiritual beliefs — a veritable religious inquisition that encouraged disrespect in the wider community for the traditions of the Ngarrindjeri. A group of "dissident" women also denied the authenticity of the beliefs at issue. The Royal Commission upheld the proposition that the women's beliefs were fabricated. All of these developments saddened Auntie Maggie. The implication that she and other Ngarrindjeri women were "fabricators" was, quite naturally, deeply offensive to her. Later, at the conclusion of a case for compensation brought by developers in 2001, Justice John von Doussa of the Federal Court found that "I am not satisfied that the restricted women's knowledge was fabricated or that it was not part of genuine Aboriginal traditions". Auntie Maggie celebrated the finding along with the rest of her community. Furthermore, the accuracy of some of her traditional knowledge was revealed when human bones were discovered during the excavation for a wharf near the Goolwa end of the Hindmarsh Island Bridge. Auntie Maggie was no "fabricator". A great sadness at the damage that had been done remained with her for the rest of her life. Auntie Maggie brought strength and love to the struggle for Hindmarsh Island and the other challenges faced by her people. The extent of the respect she had earned was demonstrated by the hundreds of people attending her funeral at the church at Raukkan recently. She was buried, according to her wishes, in the community's cemetery. A collection is being taken up so that a fitting headstone can be placed on her grave.
* * *Readers wanting to make a contribution should contact Auntie Veronica Brodie, 43 Lincoln Street Largs Bay 5016 or phone 8242 7445.