karen hughes on cross-cultural intimacy in c20 south australia


Karen Hughes, ‘”I’d grown up as a child amongst natives”: Ruth Heathcock (1901-1995) – disrupting settler-colonial orthodoxy through friendship and cross-cultural literacy in creolised spaces of the Australian contact zone’, Outskirts online journal 28 (2013).

Growing up in the small River Murray town of Wellington, South Australia as the twentieth century turned, Henrietta (Ruth) Sabina Heathcock (nee Rayney) enjoyed a childhood shaped as much by Ngarrindjeri Aboriginal friends and elders, as by her close-knit Anglo-Irish family. The Rayney family lived on the eastern, Aboriginal, side of town, where Ngarrindjeri had lived for millennia, and where, in the 1880s, a group of Ngarrindjeri families from nearby Point McLeay Mission had been granted hard-won title to farm the land and raise their families (Jenkin 1979, 229-231). Wellington, indeed, was one of a number of pockets across colonial Australia where lived processes of negotiation and exchange between Aboriginal peoples and newcomers blurred social boundaries and mapped dynamic inter-cultural terrains on the frontier (see for example Hughes 2012, Balint 2012, Ryan 2011, Landon and Tonkin 1999, Yu 1994). Reflecting on her childhood friendships forged at Wellington in the first two decades of the 1900s, Ruth Heathcock recalled, ‘I went to school with Aboriginal children. Skin colour? It was all the same to me. I didn’t even know it existed’ (Hughes 1986).

In the following article I explore continuities in the nature of cross-cultural intimacy over time by examining the friendships that Ruth Heathcock sustained with Aboriginal people at Wellington, and later across a range of other sites. These played out against a backdrop of restrictive race-based legislation that attempted to foreclose possibilities for such connectivity in early and mid-twentieth century Australia.

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