- Yarning with Other Tough Old Women
A response to Deborah A. Miranda, “‘They were tough, those old women before us’: The Power of Gossip in Isabel Meadows’s Narratives.” Biography 39.3 (Summer 2016): 373–401
As I read Deborah A. Miranda’s essay I searched my mind for parallels and points of connection with the historical experiences of women from my ancestral home, the Torres Strait. There was some resonance. An early encounter with the Spanish explains the Torres in our official place name, and presents us with our first glimpse of European contact with Islanders in 1606. It was a brutal encounter. After a man was killed on the island of Zegei, three women were abducted, and taken “on board for the service of the people of the ship” (see de Prado and de Torres). Among the legacies of being missionized in the late nineteenth century, Islanders learned well the concept of shame, endured its withering gaze, and lamentably, became adept in its application as a method of social control. Miranda’s essay, a celebratory “thick description” of felt pain and ongoing recovery, enfolded me in the richness and charm of Isabel Meadows’s evocative narratives about survival and “tough old women” in Indigenous California missions. It also finely tuned my attention to the dearth of archival sources about the experiences of Islander women. It is an overwhelming silence.
Historical records detailing the lives of Torres Strait women throughout the nineteenth century are sparse, and a testament to the broader gender and race bias of the time. Generally it was the European men who voyaged to the region as surveyors, missionaries, and scientists who wrote early accounts of the lives of Islanders and their way of life, and while the Europeans were diligent in writing about what they saw and did, they did so from the vantage point of white males’ perceived superiority (Williams and Jolly). In these early [End Page 402] descriptions, Islander women and their activities are presented as trifling relative to those of Islander men.
Today only a handful of published works focus on the stories or life experiences of Islander women.1 Our marginalization is captured in Anna Shnukal’s 1999 description of Islander women as “triply invisible”: a minority (women), within a minority (Torres Strait Islanders), within a minority (Indigenous Australians). When Elizabeth Osborne started asking women to share stories about how World War II impacted their lives, several responded, “Well at last, someone wants to know about us” (2). The stories of Islander women were “devalued and suppressed,” yet Islander women know from our own experience that our mothers and grandmothers before us were surely valued as sisters, aunties, lovers, confidantes, healers, and providers, and that they shared their stories of joy and hardship with and supported each other.
In trying to find a way past the textual silence, I have begun to look at how brief mentions of Islander women in archival sources might be read in concert with collected objects and other items used or traded by Islander women in the nineteenth century. As I ponder the possibilities that archival sources and objects present, I am drawn to Miranda’s use of Indigenous gossip as a way that “creates a narrative containing both Indigenous historical testimony and an autonomous self-empowerment” (377), and can see how it might augment my own use of yarning and storytelling.2
Below is my tentative beginning of yarning to Islander women about what collected objects mean for our engagement with the past and our sense of ourselves today.
While doing research at Cambridge University’s Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology in late 2012, I came upon a narrow piece of wood, the size of a standard fence paling. Black pencil had been used to write a brief passage in Meriam Mir, the language of Mer in the eastern Torres Strait. Registered by the museum as a “notice board,” as I tilted it in the light to get a better view of the handwritten message, the word koseker jumped out at me. Knowing koseker (or more commonly kosker) to mean “woman” in Meriam Mir, I was absorbed by what the sign...