The Catholic church and the status of Aboriginal women
: Port Keats, 1935-1958

  • Deborah Christine Elizabeth Gordon

    Student thesis: Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) - CDU


    This thesis argues that the Catholic Church did much to improve the status of Aboriginal women at Port Keats. Although missionary endeavour towards the Australian Aboriginal people has been unmercifully criticised, the Missionaries of the Sacred Heart (MSC) and their colleagues, the sisters of Our Lady of the Sacred Heart (OLSH), were particularly gentle in their approach towards the Wadeye people.

    Port Keats, now known as Wadeye, is used as a case study to relate how the Church attracted trust and respect from the Wadeye people. The MSC earned the reputation of sending out good people to work amongst their Aboriginal charges and the pioneering priest, Richard Docherty, was a prime example of the calibre of staff recruited by the MSC during the early part of the twentieth century.

    It is Docherty's leadership and his determination to improve the lives of the Wadeye women and girls that provides the focus of this thesis. Although critical of some of the customs and traditions, particularly those that appeared to denigrate or physically harm women, Docherty used reason rather than force to persuade the Wadeye people to change. It was only with the support of the Wadeye elders that monogamy was introduced and forced marriages and brutal punishments of women and girls were ended.

    Polygamy, forced marriages, rape, domestic violence, female genital mutilation and cruel punishments, previously excused on the grounds of "culture" or "religion", are now considered violations of basic human rights; they are treated as criminal acts in many countries around the world. Wadeye women used Docherty, and the other missionaries, as protection against the abuses of their own and the settler societies.

    Even so, many other customs were preserved, such as hunting and gathering, traditional dancing, singing and art, as well as a revised form of marriage bestowal. The community still faces many problems of adjustment in the settler society and Wadeye women, noted for their strength and determination to improve the quality of life, are a driving force to eradicate this social malaise.

    Note: This thesis contains names and photographs of some Wadeye people who are now deceased. It also contains terminology that could be offensive. Care should be taken to avoid offence and to prevent distress.
    Date of Award2004
    Original languageEnglish
    SupervisorDavid Carment (Supervisor)

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