Spencer & Gillen

A journey through Aboriginal Australia

Letter from Daisy Bates to Spencer

Physical Description

Letter and envelope. Typewritten. Handwritten annotation on envelope.

Primary Comments

Correspondence 1920-1929.


Page 1

Native Camp,
Ooldea, E-W-Line


Professor Sir Baldwin Spencer.

Dear Sir,

I greatly regret that circumstances did not permit my attendance at the Science Congress, more especially as from a cutting of your Presidential speech which Lady Forster kindly sent me. I realise how much I have missed in not, hearing the entire lecture and the discussion that followed. I read the printed report with tremendous interest, not only because it reaches the heart of things aboriginal, but also because of its studied simplicity which enhances its value both to the trained and non-trained student of ethnology.
There seems to be no "David Syme" nowadays generous enough to support a science that appears to have no “commercial value”, though when I joined the Cambridge University Expedition in W.A. Mr. S.P. Mackay most generously gave me a personal gift of £1, 000 which I was at liberty to keep and use either in the publication of my took on the W.A. tribes (written for the Government of W.A.) or in direct help for the aborigines; but the Expedition had only means to carry on for six months and I passed the money to our leader – Mr A.R. Brown and by doing so we were enabled to do some two years field work. I have often wished to find such another generous donor, for I have always had it in my mind, should such a heavenly being materialise, that I would approach you for your most valued services as collaborator and collator in the enormous material I have collected from the W.A. and C.A. aborigines; for it is your co-operation only that would bring the book into line with your own monumental works and those of' such authorities as Howitt and Fison etc…
I note with special interest a paragraph in your lecture re: the investigation of the aboriginal women' s belief's, customs, etc., by a woman anthropologist; but from your own knowledge of' the aborigines you know the difficulty of' obtaining any information from the native women by a white woman as a woman. The native woman belongs body and soul and mind and thoughts to her menkind, and they "regulate"

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all these. My own personal success in being able to witness their most, secret and sacred ceremonies; to be taken to their local "storehouses"; to observe the actual vein opening and blood sprinkling air' drinking; to be even given part charge or the young boys both before, during, and after initiation, etc., is due to the fact that I am not a white woman, but a reincarnation of a mythical ancestor, supreme in his tribe for his magic powers. In every tribe there are such "magic ancestors", and as I have sojourned with one or another tribe in W.A. and S.A. I quietly work to obtain the local "magic ancestry", and after I have obtained it the 'rest is comparatively easy. Only yourself and those few who are aware of the "sacredness” of' the newly-initiated boy and his bullroarer can appreciate the significance of' the fact that I was able to bring two of these boys, fully decorated and swinging their bullroarers before H.R.H. at Cook Siding and this notwithstanding that, not, only were seven distinct totems presented amongst the groups taking part in the display, but many of them had only recently arrived from the wilds! and from waters as far north as Mt. Sir Henry (S.A. and N.T. border). They have since scattered along the line and down to the west coast of S.A., and there have been killings, and cannibalism during the last few months.
A large reserve has recently been set aside for the central tribes, the reserve embracing the N.W. of' S.A.; the S.W. of' the N.T.; and a portion of W.A. abutting on these. Now there are four "gates" so t o speak, leading out of' this great reserve and if' these gates are not "patrolled" one might as well expect wild horses to stay in a –paddock with the gates left open. There is t.e Ooldea gate through which to my own personal knowledge, every native now on the West, Coast and along the E.W. Line – about two hundred - has passed; the Oodnadatta gate on the east; the gate leading to W.A. goldfields, stations etc., on the west; and the MacDonnell and Alice Springs gate north. Speaking without vanity, my own expert and unusual knowledge of the personnel of the tribes, totem waters, etc., of the area within this reserve, qualify me for the position of First Patrol of the gates. Three are easy of access, but the Macdonnell gate not so much patronised as the others, and infrequent visits would suffice.

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The point is that the gates must be kept by some one who knows the tribes, and tribal and totem waters, and particularly those who have left their waters and come into civilisation, and thus prevent small groups of' the "civilised" natives from returning through these gates for fresh recruits, prostitution etc. I could have prevented the entry of some sixty or more wild natives had l had official authority in S.A., but though I am J.P. for the E.W. Line and Hon. Protector for the whole state of W. A. I had no power to prevent the groups returning for more young people and I had to witness the absorption of splendid clean young women and girls into the contaminated groups along the line and elsewhere.
By pioneering the Patrol of' this is Reserve I would be paving the way for women ethnologists in the near future - there will be no distant future for the aborigines -and perhaps the Commonwealth Government would see its way later to the employment of special women patrols to each gate. But these women must be specialised women, gentlewomen and while at their gates they must detach themselves absolutely from the whites, observe the native laws from a woman’s point of view and allow no white man, other than father, grandfather or son to enter their camp. I love my kind, I love the quip and crank and interchange of thought with kindred spirits, I loved my social life; but I gave all up absolutely when I saw and understood native social laws in in their working. One need not enlarge upon this aspect, but success has come to me through the rigid observance of their laws.

I have a vocabulary of over 2,000 words covering many totem areas in the reserve, one that will do duty at each “gate” and I am keen to place this and my own expert services and intimate knowledge of the names and localities or the various totem groups at the command of the Commonwealth. Are you strong enough to bring this within the spheres of realisation? I am known to many of' the Ministers, and I have had the pleasure of meeting and greeting their Excellencies. I have asked that I be invited by the Prime Minister to give a little detailed information re the natives etc., in the new reserve, I know Lord Forster is keen to know something about them. Can you help to compass these things? I place myself in your hands with all confidence for we see eye to eye in the matter of the natives.

Yours Faithfully,
Daisy M. Bates

Rights: Museum Victoria

Document Details

Date Made
South Australia

Document Details

Letter To
Sir, Spencer, Walter Baldwin
Number of Pages
Number of Sheets




Museum Victoria