In these dour days, we should seek figures that inspire us. Faith Thomas and Evelyn Scott are certainly two.
I am getting a bit tired and fed up. The world doesn’t seem like a nice place at the moment. I am afraid of the future and not so happy with the present. What I need is inspiration. Something to remind me that the human race is full of bright sparks. That the likes of Trump, Dutton, Bolsonaro and Putin are aberrations, not the norm. So, for the next few weeks, I will introduce you to a cast of exemplary people. In short, exactly the role models we need right now. This week, I would like to start with two amazing Indigenous women, Faith Thomas and Evelyn Scott.
I’m sure you’ve heard of Jason Gillespie, widely regarded the first Indigenous cricketer selected for the Australian Test team in 1996. Only, he wasn’t. Thirty-six years before Gillespie was picked, Faith Thomas (then called Coulthard) was the opening bowler at the Melbourne leg of the Ashes. It was 1958. She took four steps, then let fly: ‘I put the stump over the wicket-keeper’s head’, she would later say. Mary Duggan, the captain of the English team, was out. ‘She sat down and laughed and laughed. She had never seen anything like it’.
Faith Thomas was born in 1933 at Nepabunna, in the South Australian Flinders Ranges. Nepabunna was an Aboriginal Mission Station, on land robbed from the Adnyamathanha people. Three months after she was born, Faith was taken by the authorities, to become part of the Stolen Generation at the Colebrook Home for Aboriginal Children in Quorn. Here, her name was removed too and for a while, she was without one, until the older children called her Faith. But Faith was a resilient little girl. Enduring the regime of the place, she made sure to get all the education offered. And in the meantime, she played cricket. Not with bat and ball, because the children had no toys or sporting equipment at their disposal. But with stones from the dry creek bed and ‘a hunk of 4 x 2’ they tried to enjoy themselves regardless. Because there was little else to do, Faith practiced bowling by ‘chuckin’ rocks’ at galahs, preferably in flight. She became very good at it and started to ‘use sport as part of the healing process’.
Soon, she decided that healing should become her mission in life. After high school, she enrolled in nurses’ college and in 1954 she became the first Indigenous nurse in South Australia to be employed as a public servant at a hospital. She kept learning, though, and twee years later she was a midwife at Raukkan, then an Aboriginal mission on Ngarrindjeri country. But the pull of cricket remained, especially after one of her colleagues told her something remarkable, namely that women played in teams too. She took Faith to one of her games and from the start, it was clear that there was real raw talent here.
Faith Thomas (then called Coulthard) was the opening bowler at the Melbourne leg of the Ashes. It was 1958. She took four steps, then let fly: ‘I put the stump over the wicket-keeper’s head’, she would later say. Mary Duggan, the captain of the English team, was out. ‘She sat down and laughed and laughed. She had never seen anything like it’.
At only her second match she took a hat-trick and two weeks later she was selected to represent the state. ‘I had the fastest delivery around’, she remembered later, and after a year or two of State games, she was invited to play for Australia in 1958, becoming the first Indigenous person to be awarded that honour. In fact, she was the first Indigenous person to be selected to represent Australia in any sport. She was really, really good and selectors tried to interest her in joining the squad that was going to England for the return leg of the Ashes. But by this time things had changed for Faith. She had married and at eight months pregnant with her son played her last local game. She had also decided to preference nursing over sport.
For two years she was in charge of the ‘native ward’ at Alice Springs, where she delivered so many babies that there was a whole generation of children now called Faith. While she was there, she played hockey for the Northern Territory team and showed that her fearsome delivery was still very much alive. In 1970 Faith Thomas and Doug Nicholls (also a prominent Aboriginal athlete) founded the National Aboriginal Sports Foundation. It has since created all manner of opportunities for young Indigenous players. Nicholls went on to become the first (and so far only) Governor, of South Australia, in 1976. Faith was awarded a Member of the Order of Australia in 2019 and is still going strong at the Wami Kata Old Folks Home in Port Augusta.
Evelyn Backo Scott too had a connection with sport: her son Sam Backo was one of the early Indigenous rugby stars, who played as a prop in the 1980s and 1990s. Sam was one of five children and one of his first memories was being chased down the streets of Townsville after letterboxing how-to-vote cards for the 1967 Referendum Campaign. He was six years old and it was his mother Evelyn who had sent him on his errand. Evelyn was born in Ingham, Queensland, in 1935, the daughter of a Warrgamay woman and a man who had been blackbirded from Vanuatu, to do slave labour on the sugar plantations. He gave her the advice she would live by for the rest of her life: ‘If you don’t think something is right, then challenge it’. There was poverty in Evelyn’s family and racism all around and that meant that the young girl only got to finish primary school. Her high school period she spent at home taking care of her younger siblings, so her parents could go to work to feed the family.
In 1962 she moved to Townsville to get married and start a job and a family of her own. Going into a shop to buy a wedding dress, she was refused entry. It was the straw that broke the camel’s back: a few weeks later she joined the local chapter of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Advancement League and immediately started campaigning for the Referendum, that was aimed to take Aboriginal affairs out of the hands of very racist states and entrust it to the Federal government. Australia overwhelmingly voted ‘yes’, something that delighted Evelyn and strengthened her in the idea that things could change.
In 2000, Evelyn and her family led 250,000 others across the Sydney Harbour Bridge. ‘I saw one part of the nation that wanted to say sorry and another part accept the apology and forgive’, she would later say.
So, this first campaign was only the beginning. Evelyn was also a close friend of Eddie and Bonita Mabo, who would sit at her kitchen table and discuss ‘terra nullius’ and how to get rid of it. In 1971 she became the vice-president of the Federal Council for the Advancement of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders and later the Chair of the National Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation. Its 1999 charter read, in part, that ‘our nation must have the courage to own the truth, to heal the wounds of its past, so we can move on together at peace with ourselves’. She advocated for justice and equity for all and called for a ‘treaty, through which unresolved issues of reconciliation can be resolved’.
In 2000, Evelyn and her family led 250,000 others across the Sydney Harbour Bridge. ‘I saw one part of the nation that wanted to say sorry and another part accept the apology and forgive’, she would later say. But, as we know, nothing happened. PM John Howard thought all this sorry talk a sign of a ‘Black Armband view of history’, while he himself maintained (and still does) that colonisation was a great thing that really helped Aboriginal people.
In 2017, Evelyn died and received the first-ever state funeral for an Indigenous person in Queensland. Premier Palaszczuk spoke, as did Senator Pat Dodson, who called her ‘a freedom fighter’. A few months before her passing, her son had visited her in the care home, where she was being treated for dementia. He told her that he was on his way to Uluru, to attend the first-ever national Indigenous constitutional convention, that eventually would culminate in the Uluru Statement of the Heart. ‘And she looked me straight in the eye and she just said: Yes!’ Two days after the funeral, both the PM (then Malcolm Turnbull) and the Leader of the Opposition, Bill Shorten, rose in Parliament for a Motion of Condolence. ‘What she will be remembered for is uniting the people of our nation’.
For this story I have used the following sources: