Letters home

dear familyReview by Renate Howe


How fortunate that these letters, written 50 years ago while Beth Graham and her husband Leigh were Methodist missionaries at Yirrkala and Croker Island in the Northern Territory, have survived. Their publication is a significant contribution to understanding an important era in Australian contact history. They document the beginning of the slow and painful movement from harsh assimilation policies, reflected in the Bark Petition on land rights presented by the Yolngu people to the Australian parliament in 1963.

Written by a young teacher, wife and mother, the letters provide a rare personal record of this period. They reveal the day-to-day challenges of living in a remote community and are especially valuable for Beth Graham’s intelligent observations of the complex relationships between indigenous residents, mining interests and mission staff. They join the recent publication of the letters from Joan Ellemor in Cheerio and Love to All, also reviewed in Crosslight.

As Associate Professor Helen Gardner noted at the launch of Dear Family at the Centre for Theology and Ministry, women’s letters from the mission field provide a perspective that is almost always missing from the substantial literature of mission. Dr Gardner concluded that “Beth Graham’s letters are from a crucial moment in Australia’s Aboriginal history and speak to a deep hunger in our nation”.

Author Beth Graham reminded those at the CTM book launch that it would be a mistake to think that conditions have improved in Indigenous communities since the letters were written. In so many areas – housing, education, employment – things are in fact worse, as reflected in unacceptable suicide and incarceration rates and racism.

“In a country that has grown rich from the land that we took, it is time for the church and other concerned people to turn again and look what is happening on our watch and say enough is enough,” Ms Graham said. “To do that we have to once more engage in conversation about and with these people who can teach us so much if we will only listen.”

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