“Racism is both covert and overt. Some things are obvious; others are not so easily seen.” – Joyce Clague
Joyce Caroline Clague, born 22 July 1938, is a nurse, Australian political activist and Bundjalung elder. She was influential in instigating the 1967 Constitutional Referendum and the 1996 native title claim Yaegl #1 which was settled in 2015.
Clague was born in Maclean, New South Wales, as one of fifteen children. Her mother died while giving birth to one of her sisters because of the poor standard of healthcare provided to Aboriginal mothers at the time. Aboriginal people were not allowed inside the hospital ward, where the white patients were, and Joyce’s mother was forced to give birth on the veranda in the rain. She died of pneumonia. Joyce says that discrimination cost her mother her life.
Segregation is not only a period of American history – it was also present in all areas of Aboriginal life. Indigenous people had to come into the cinema when the lights were out and leave before they came back on. They were barred from walking in certain streets during certain hours of the day and were forced to buy garments in clothes shops if any of them touched their skin.
The maintenance of Clague’s mother tongue (the Yagal language) provided her with an important connection to her grandparents and her culture as a child. The mission school she attended caned her if she spoke her language, as their aim was to erase Indigenous culture and language, and replace it with British culture and English. In Clague’s opinion, continuing to speak her language was a matter of survival – it was integral to her culture which was an essential part of her life. The intervention of Christian missionaries meant that many of the traditional Aboriginal stories and ceremonies were unable to be passed down to future generations.
In 1960, Clague attended the Federal Council for Aboriginal Advancement Conference in Newport, Sydney. At the time, there were no funding, social services, pensions or child endowment for Indigenous Australians. Clague describes attending the meeting as a pivotal learning experience where she truly appreciated the efforts and contributions of Indigenous activists who voluntarily fundraised for the necessary money required for Indigenous people. There she met Australian Prime Minister Gough Whitlam and received encouragement from visiting activist Jack Horner.
Clague’s outspoken voice for including Indigenous people in the census catalysed change and instigated the 1967 Constitutional Referendum. At the time, Aboriginal people were not counted in the census and any census papers submitted by Indigenous people were thrown in the bin. Since Indigenous people were not counted in the census, they were unable to have a voice in the nation and were not given basic rights such as the ability to own a passport. Following the overwhelming ‘yes’ vote, Clague worked with musician Jimmy Little on a campaign to get Indigenous Australians on the electoral roll. In 1968, Clague stood for the seat of Stuart in the elections, which encouraged 6500 Aboriginal people to enrol to vote, a huge changed from the 58 or 59 people from before.
Joyce married Colin Clague, an Anglo-Australian, despite the prejudice of the times. In the 2005 book Nowhere People, historian Henry Reynolds wrote that “the hostility to interracial marriage was common in all sections of the community” in post-World War II Australia. Joyce and Colin met at a Christian youth conference in the Philippines in 1964, and were married about two year later. In the early 1970s, they assisted people who worked on Willowra Station, Northern Territory to apply to the Aboriginal Loans Commission to buy the property. This was one of the first such applications by Aboriginal people to buy back their land. Clague’s initiative allowed Indigenous people to start becoming economically empowered.
Clague was awarded the Member of the British Empire in 1977 in recognition of her services to combat racism. She was encouraged to accept the honour on behalf of Aboriginal people by her father. She refers to the MBE as More Black than Ever.
In November 1996, Clague and Della Walker lodged a native title claim known was Yaegl #1, that encompasses a large stretch of Clarence River and its tributaries. The claim was successful settled in 2015 at the Federal Court of Australia, ending the oldest legal matter before the court. Justice Jayne Jagot stated that the milestone is “a testament to the unity, determination and strength of the Yaegl people.”
Clague’s determination and relentless activism has changed the face of Australia today. Many of the rights that Indigenous people have today are a direct result of her tireless work. She is the epitome of a bold woman. Her resistance against institutionalised anti-Indigenous racism, disenfranchisement and the colonisation of sovereign land is commendable. The changes her hard work has implemented cannot be forgotten.
Written by Ishita Mathur
Posted on March 14, 2017