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Peter, Rachel (1931–1996)

by Mark Moran and Ricky Guivarra

This article was published online in 2020

Rachel Peter (sometimes incorrectly known as Peters) (1931–1996), Aboriginal community leader and Indigenous rights activist, was born on 12 February 1931 at Mapoon Presbyterian Mission, about sixty-two miles (100 km) north of Weipa, Queensland. A member of the Yupungathi people of the Pennefather River district and also a descendant of the Tjungundji people, she was the third surviving of eleven children of Frank Don and his wife Maggie, née Phillip, the elder sister of the stalwart activist Jean Jimmy.

Having attended the mission’s school, Rachel worked there as a teacher’s assistant. On 16 January 1951 at Mapoon she married Simon Peter, after the death of his first wife, Barbara Flinders. He was the son of Peter, a Tjungundji man, and Lizzie, who came from the Seven Rivers district of western Cape York. Rachel bore two daughters and two sons and she and her husband reared the two sons of her younger sister Edith Helena, following her premature death

Officials of the Presbyterian Church and Queensland government decided in 1954 to abandon Mapoon. In 1961 the State government began building a replacement settlement about 124 miles (200 km) to the north, near Bamaga, on Cape York, later called New Mapoon, but some people refused to leave. On the orders of the State’s director of native affairs, Patrick Killoran, in November 1963 the leaders of the resistance, including Rachel Peter’s parents and Jean and Gilbert Jimmy, were forcibly removed. Most of their houses were either demolished or burnt down. Mrs Peter, who witnessed the ‘paternalistic and ruthless’ action (Wharton 1996, 24), became a vocal spokesperson for justice.

The Peter family voluntarily relocated to Weipa in January 1964 but visited Mapoon on several occasions. From December 1967 they lived with Rachel’s parents at New Mapoon but were unhappy there, Rachel lamenting the lack of hunting grounds and problems with housing and water supply. Simon worked as a crocodile hunter. In 1972 the couple judged it safe to return to Mapoon, departing in November. Simon, who had gained experience aboard pearl-shelling vessels in Torres Strait, navigated the approximately eighty-nautical-mile (148 km) journey. Together with their children and their dog, Gypsy, they took seven days in a small dinghy, which they sailed, rowed, and, at times, hauled by hand along the beach.

Although the family tried to live permanently at Mapoon, they were forced to base themselves mainly at Weipa South (Napranum), due to the lack of supplies and services at the former mission. After a period of hospitalisation, Mrs Peter realised that ‘living in Weipa, I won’t get any better. I want to come back to my rightful home’ (State of Shock 1988). The Peters visited Mapoon whenever possible, staying for short periods and holidays and building up a bush camp.

At Weipa South, family members struggled with alcohol and domestic violence. In 1979 Simon and Rachel’s twenty-two-year-old son, Alwyn, was charged with the murder of his nineteen-year-old partner, Deidre Gilbert. Before the case was tried, the prosecution controversially reduced the charge to manslaughter, accepting the defence’s position that Aboriginal domestic violence was a symptom of disempowerment and social disintegration, diminishing offenders’ responsibility for their actions. David Bradbury’s documentary film State of Shock (1988) drew national attention to the case and graphically depicted the heavy price the family paid following their removal from Mapoon. After gruelling footage of Rachel trying to help an injured man in a scene of family drunkenness, she spoke to the camera:

Sometimes I feel like I just want to drop my family and move away from them. But then, other times when I look at it, I can’t do that because they are my children, my husband. I just can’t do it, I have to stop and cope with it all. (State of Shock 1988)

Rachel Peter was consistently a prominent advocate for the ‘return to Mapoon’ movement. In 1989 the Queensland government gave back a large proportion of Mapoon land under a deed of grant in trust. She played a leading role in developing a new town plan, which recreated the old mission layout of homestead blocks of about one hectare, extending some ten kilometres along the western shores of Port Musgrave. Mapoon received significant funding for housing and infrastructure, primarily through the Commonwealth’s Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission, firmly re-establishing the community. While waiting for a house, the Peter family lived on their block in a sprawling camp of self-built humpies, with separate kitchen, bathroom, and bedrooms. They fished from the beach and every night raked the sand clean, burning the pile of leaves to keep the mosquitoes and sandflies at bay.

A practising Christian, Rachel Peter was a regular churchgoer. She was fond of bright floral frocks. Something was wrong with one of her eyes—she wore sunglasses, indoors and out. Her quick wit and easy laugh were endearing. She sang along beautifully to country and western songs. Her husband passed away in 1993, following a long illness. Shortly after, construction began on her long-awaited prefabricated house. Then her health, too, began to falter. She passed away on 5 February 1996 in the Weipa hospital and was buried at Mapoon.

Mrs Peter possessed traditional and moral authority, and had a way of bringing people together across cultural divides. She reached out to Mapoon youth, including those educated elsewhere, who in return adored her. Although she endured much trauma and tragedy, she was one of the elders who provided the cultural and historical links between the mission time and the modern era and led the return to Mapoon.

Research edited by Darryl Bennet

Select Bibliography

  • Centre for Appropriate Technology. Old Mapoon Planning for a Healthy Community: Towards a Healthy Living Environment. Stage II Main Report. Edited by M. Moran. Cairns, Qld: Tropical Public Health Unit, Queensland Health, 1995
  • Crock, Mary. ‘R. v. Peter.’ Melbourne University Law Review 13, no. 4 (October 1982): 648–51
  • Moran, Mark. ‘Planning the Return to Mapoon.’ In Serious Whitefella Stuff: When Solutions Become the Problem in Indigenous Affairs, edited by Mark Moran, 79–92. Carlton, Vic.: Melbourne University Press, 2016
  • Queensland State Archives. Item ID ITM511511
  • Queensland State Archives. Item ID ITM734146
  • Queensland State Archives. Item ID ITM855583
  • Roberts, J. P., Barbara Russell, and Mike Parsons, eds. The Mapoon Story by the Mapoon People. Fitzroy, Vic.: International Development Action, 1975
  • Roberts, J., M. Parsons, and B. Russell, eds. The Mapoon Story According to the Invaders: Church Mission, Queensland Government and Mining Company. Fitzroy, Vic.: International Development Action, 1975
  • State of Shock. Film. Directed and produced by David Bradbury. Wilsons Creek, NSW: Frontline Films, 1988
  • Wharton, Geoffrey. ‘The Day They Burned Mapoon: A Study of the Closure of a Queensland Presbyterian Mission.’ BA Hons thesis, University of Queensland, 1996

Citation details

Mark Moran and Ricky Guivarra, 'Peter, Rachel (1931–1996)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, https://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/peter-rachel-28994/text36267, published online 2020, accessed online 22 June 2021.

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