Autobiography challenges stereotypes about Aboriginal people
In the absence of government help, Aboriginal people often relied on their communities for support. Shirley Smith told her story of becoming an unofficial welfare worker while challenging stereotypes about those who got government payments.
These are excerpts from the autobiography of Wiradjuri woman, Shirley Coleen Smith, known as ‘Mum Shirl’. She was an advocate for Aboriginal rights who dedicated her life to her community.
Smith grew up in Cowra, New South Wales. Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, she worked for key Aboriginal services in Redfern, including the Aboriginal Medical Service and the Aboriginal Legal Service. She was also involved in the Tent Embassy.
Supporting her community
Smith spent many years as an unofficial welfare worker in her community. She helped Aboriginal inmates, accompanied people appearing in court and looked after children.
Smith relied on Invalid Pension and often sacrificed part of it to help others by providing food and shelter. This was often at her own expense and caused her financial stress. She writes about missing rent payments and her electricity being cut off many times.
Challenging negative stereotypes
In these excerpts, Smith challenges negative perceptions of Aboriginal people, including that they liked getting government payments instead of working. She said people felt insecure and demoralised, as they couldn’t plan their lives when relying on social security. She explained that they couldn’t plan to save up, rent a place or set up a home. She also writes about how difficult it was to get a job as an Aboriginal person.
Community approach to sharing payments
These excerpts from Smith’s life story also show how people often shared government payments with a whole network. This was due to Aboriginal cultural law practices, which included sharing resources with immediate family, extended family and others. These payments, though minimal, were essential for surviving and an important resource that people stretched a long way.
Smith’s advocacy continued even after her autobiography was published. In early 1983, she travelled to Canberra to meet with Department of Social Security officials. She encouraged Aboriginal government employees to maintain their connections with Aboriginal people in the community and with Aboriginal organisations (DSS 1983).
Shirley Smith’s book was compiled from stories and tapes that were transcribed and edited by Dr Roberta Sykes.
These excerpts from MumShirl were supplied by the State Library of NSW.
Further details from MumShirl can be found in the entry on Shirley Coleen Smith on the Indigenous Australia National Centre of Biography website.
Permissions to include these excerpts from MumShirl were granted by Shirley Smith’s grandson Peter Smith and by family members of Dr Roberta Sykes.
Permission for use of the MumShirl cover image was granted by photographer Elaine Pelot-Syron.
Smith S and Sykes R (1981) MumShirl: an autobiography with the assistance of Roberta Sykes, Heinemann, Richmond.