August 9th marks International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples. According to the United Nations,
Indigenous peoples are inheritors and practitioners of unique cultures and ways of relating to people and the environment. They have retained social, cultural, economic and political characteristics that are distinct from those of the dominant societies in which they live . . . Indigenous peoples have sought recognition of their identities, way of life and their right to traditional lands, territories and natural resources for years, yet throughout history, their rights have always been violated. Indigenous peoples today are arguably among the most disadvantaged and vulnerable groups of people in the world.
One of my favorite units to write for the Curriculum was the one on Australia, probably because I was least familiar with that country’s history and was absolutely fascinated by all that I learned. Though there are many inspiring Australians I could have written on, I chose to focus on the Aboriginal community’s history as well as its long quest for dignity and equality in modern-day Australia. The peace heroes featured in that unit are amazing individuals who found ways to make a change for good in that tangled and often tragic story. On this day, which honors the world’s Indigenous people, it is my privilege and honor to share an abridged version of one of these heroes’ biographies – an Aboriginal woman whose life of limitless compassion has left its indelible mark on Australian history.
Colleen Shirley Perry, commonly known as Mum Shirl, was born in November 1924 on the Erambie Mission at Cowra in New South Wales, Australia, to a large Catholic family descended from the Wirajuri tribe. The mission station was similar to the many reserves set up for the Indigenous people, which, more often than not, delineated a dead-end future for those who lived on them. Like most Aboriginal Australians, Mum Shirl’s history was filled with pain and suffering, poverty, discrimination, poor health, and little hope. It was a fate few Aborigines could escape, and marked Mum Shirl’s life as one of hardship from the moment she was born.
A poignant manifestation of this in Mum Shirl’s life was the lack of proper healthcare. Mum Shirl suffered from epilepsy—a disease that was, in fact, treatable, but since she had no access to healthcare, she was unable to get the medication that would keep her epileptic fits under control. Not having the right medicine cost Mum Shirl her education, steady employment, and later, her child’s life. Indeed, Mum Shirl lost both her children to her illness, since she was not able to raise her surviving child on her own and was forced to part with her daughter when the child was just three years old (when she passed the little girl on to her grandparents while she remained in Sydney, where she had more of a chance to earn a little money to support her family).
Later in life, Mum Shirl would recall how, as a child, “she felt strongly indebted to people who cared for her when she had [epileptic] fits, most of whom were fellow Aboriginals. This feeling of gratefulness and indebtedness stayed with her throughout her life,” helping her realize that “she was not the only person who benefited from the assistance of others” (“Smith, Shirley Colleen”). When she was a little girl, Mum Shirl’s grandfather told her how the wheat growing in the fields, watered by God’s good rain, first had to be crushed before it could be turned into flour for baking bread. Perhaps there is no better illustration for how Mum Shirl took the suffering and hardship of her life—that crushing experience—and turned it into something good. Because of her earlier experiences, which left her with a strong sense of gratitude, Mum Shirl did not keep that goodness to herself, but chose to share her “bread” with everyone around her who was desperately hungry for a better life. Mum Shirl turned her suffering into compassion, and in so doing, made a world of difference.
This extension of compassion began, perhaps, when Mum Shirl’s older brother, desperate in his poverty, turned to a life of crime and was imprisoned for petty theft. Mum Shirl visited him as often as she could, and it was during these visits that “she realized that many of his fellow inmates had no visitors, nor anybody with whom they could discuss their problems”(Taffe). Moved by their plight, Mum Shirl started visiting the other prisoners at her brother’s jail, eventually extending her visits to other prisons as well. It was at the prisons that Shirley Smith first earned the title “Mum Shirl,” a nickname that “reflected both the affection and the regard in which [the prisoners] held her” (Taffe).
It didn’t take long for Mum Shirl’s compassion to extend outside the prison walls to the impoverished Aboriginal communities living in Sydney. The urban Aboriginal environment was a harsh one, and the poverty and discrimination permeating so much of Aboriginal day-to-day life led to an increase in “interpersonal violence, self-harm, unemployment, crime and drug abuse” (“Smith, Shirley Colleen”). There was just “so little, to be shared between so many,” Mum Shirl would say, that it was hardly surprising that so many of the Aborigines lived in a perpetual state of hopelessness and despair (“Smith”). It was not just the prisoners who needed her compassion; it was also the orphaned and abandoned children, the delinquent youth, the alcoholics and drug addicts—in short, all those living in and around Mum Shirl’s neighborhood in South Sydney.
Deeply affected by the pain all around her, Mom Shirl began to find “shelter, food and friendship for those recently arrived in the city,” working “tirelessly for the vulnerable, especially children, single mothers, the destitute, the homeless and the alcoholics” (Taffe). When there was no shelter to be found, she took people into her own home without a moment’s hesitation, never once turning her back on anyone who needed help. Over the years, Mum Shirl fostered over 60 children, though the real “number of children who once called her ‘Mummy’ is beyond counting, the only mothering one they were ever allowed to know” (Kennedy). She appeared in the Children’s Court on behalf of minors so many times that it became a matter of course for the courts to simply “place these children in her care” instead of sending them to an official institution (Refshague 4110) She “lifted up hundreds of alcoholics who had not eaten for days and provided them with meals” (4110). And there is “hardly a street in the whole of South Sydney where Shirley did not once rent a house, where a dozen little black faces looked out on an alien, sometimes hostile, world where Shirley offered a safe and secure shelter” (Kennedy).
“Mum Shirl’s enormous compassion and her endless generosity towards all people in need were without equal . . . [She] will never be forgotten for her tireless work for justice for the Aboriginal people” (Rafshague 4110). These words were spoken by the Australian Deputy Premier, Dr. Refshauge, on the occasion of Mum Shirl’s death in 1998, reflecting the sentiments of so many Australians, both black and white. In recognition of her life’s work, Mum Shirl was awarded an MBE (Member of the Order of the British Empire) in 1975, as well as the medal of the Order of Australia in 1985. In 1990, Mum Shirl was named Aborigine of the Year, and in 1998, just before her death, she was acknowledged as “one of Australia’s living treasures” by the National Trust (4110). But for all the awards bestowed upon her, Mum Shirl never lost her focus, continuing to pour out compassion on any and every person she came across who was in need.
Mum Shirl’s grandfather had once told her that “the simple act of eating or sharing our bread [means] that we [are] taking part in a miracle” (qtd. in Hazzard 4110). Mum Shirl had taken her own pain and suffering—a life crushed like the grain of wheat—and turned it into a loaf of bread, sustaining people far and wide with its goodness. In so doing, it can be said that she herself became the miracle in these people’s lives. In light of this, perhaps the best and simplest way to celebrate Mum Shirl’s memory is to make “no distinction among people” and extend kindness and compassion to all those whose paths might cross our own—to make every effort to be that miracle in people’s lives.
Hazzard. “Death of Mrs. Colleen Shirley Smith.” Legislative Assembly Parliamentary Debates, 51st Session. Parliament of New South Wales, 29 Apr. 1998. 4110-4111. Web. 15 Sep. 2015.
Kennedy, Ted. “Homily: On the Occasion of the Funeral of Shirley Smith.” Church Mouse. St. Vincent’s Church Redfern, Sydney, 4 May 1998. Web. 16 Sep. 2015.
Land, Clare. “MumShirl.” The Australian Women’s Register. The National Foundation for Australian Women and the University of Melbourne, 3 Sep. 2002. Web. 17 Sep. 2015.
Rafshague. “Death of Mrs. Colleen Shirley Smith.” Legislative Assembly Parliamentary Debates, 51st Session. Parliament of New South Wales. 29 Apr. 1998. 4110. Web. 15 Sep. 2015.
“Smith, Shirley Colleen.” Indigenous Australia. National Center of Biography at the Australian National University, n.d. Web. 17 Sep. 2015.
Stephens, Tony. “Mum Shirl, Black Saint of Redfern, Dies at 76.” The Sydney Morning Herald. The Sydney Morning Herald, 29 Apr. 1998. Web. 17 Sep. 2015.
Taffe, Sue. “Shirley Smith.” Collaborating for Indigenous Rights. National Museum of Australia, 2014. Web. 17 Sep. 2015.