2 June 2021

Full article: Reckoning with History published by Flinders University

Dr Natalie Harkin is a Narungga woman, and an ARC Discovery Early Career Researcher Awardee (DECRA), who is working to decolonise the colonial archive through Aboriginal labour stories and investigating the history of Aboriginal women's domestic service in South Australia.

The research topic is informed by the experiences of her own family history, which was harshly impacted by the assimilation practises of Australian Governments. These included the policies of the South Australian ‘Aborigines Protection Board’ from the 1920s to the 1950s, which targeted Aboriginal children, particularly girls, to be trained for domestic duties, as a key assimilation measure.

‘If you were born Aboriginal, you were automatically under the Aboriginal Protection Act and it meant that you were controlled, surveilled, documented and archived in very particular, racialised ways,’ Dr Harkin says.

‘We have generations of removal, and generations of indentured labour – our women were the market solution to the Aboriginal problem.’

Through her DECRA, Dr Harkin is using archival-poetic methods to research and unlock colonial-era surveillance records to document Aboriginal women’s domestic service and labour histories in SA.

Dr Harkin says that most Aboriginal people she knows have stories about domestic service, but it is not part of the larger narrative of history in South Australia. She is now filling this gap with the documentation of community memory stories, for the future record.

‘Parents were often distressed about what was happening to their children, always writing letters to the state to access them, or advocate for them, or request holiday visits with them, or to influence where they were placed and worked,’ says Dr Harkin, who has created works of art with her own great-grandmother’s handwritten letters, which are stored in State archives.

The winner of the 2020 Cate Challis RAKA Award and the 2020 Adelaide Festival’s John Bray Poetry Award, Dr Harkin is also a widely published activist poet. Her first poetry book, Dirty Words, was published by Cordite Books in 2015, and Archival-Poetics was published by Vagabond Press in 2019.

Working with the local Aboriginal community and the ‘Unbound Collective’ (a group of close creative collaborators at Flinders University – Dr Ali Gumillya Baker, Associate Professor Simone Ulalka Tur, and Senior Lecturer Faye Rosas Blanch), Dr Harkin is currently collaborating to create an installation and performance piece, called ‘Apron Sorrow/Sovereign Tea’. The piece draws on Dr Harkin’s oral history research and State records to contribute new understandings to Aboriginal labour histories in South Australia.


Dr Harkin says that her response instinctively lies in poetry and creative arts as a way to repatriate love back to family, and as a personal and communal ‘reckoning with history’. 

‘I’m interested in counter-narratives, truth-telling and active transformation. We know our histories of deep love, resistance and refusal. For me, archival-poetics shifts the emphasis from Aboriginal bodies, and puts the ‘problem’ spotlight back on the state where it belongs.’

‘This is everyone’s story.’


Top image: Dr Natalie Harkin. Credit: Flinders University.