Australian Dictionary of Biography

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The Quest for Indigenous Recognition

1928 - Mary Alice Harris and Protest in Western Australia
by Elfie Shiosaki

she made herself visible
for great consequence

in a world that made her invisible*

Mary Alice Harris belonged to the Wilman Noongar people in the south-west region of Australia. Her mother Mattalan had lived in an old Wilman world, before wadjela came, when the bonds between mothers and children were never broken. Mary Alice Harris carved out pathways between old and new worlds with her cultural fluency, and seemingly fearless advocacy for the human rights of Noongar women and girls.

The Harris family, together with many other Noongar families, campaigned for decades against the West Australian Aborigines Act 1905 and the forcible removal of Aboriginal children in that State. Their campaigns reveal truths about Noongar peoples’ unending love for their children. In 1926 Mary Alice’s brothers, William and Edward Harris, contributed to the establishment of the Native Union, the first Aboriginal political organisation in Western Australia. In March 1928, William and Edward Harris, together with their nephew Norman Harris and Noongar men Wilfred Morrison, Edward Jacobs, Arthur Kickett and William Bodney, led a deputation to the premier, Philip Collier, to demand the repeal of the 1905 Act.

Like her brothers, Mary Alice Harris advocated for Indigenous human rights and self-determination. She wrote many letters to demand the repeal of the 1905 Act. In one letter to the chief secretary, Norbert Keenan, dated 2 February 1931, she recounts that she had called on the premier, James Mitchell, to protest the attempted arrest of her niece, my great grandmother Olive Harris, for working without a permit under the Act. Mary Alice Harris was turned away from his office. Undaunted, she then called on Keenan, but was again turned away from his office. Still undeterred, she called on the chief protector of Aborigines, A. O. Neville, but was told he was on leave. In her letter, she reflects that, ‘it seemed to me that day that I had called on 3 Caesars but could not get any satisfaction.’

Mary Alice Harris, together with Noongar women Melba Egan, Emily Nannup, Annie Morrison and Mary Warmadean, testified at the 1934 Moseley Royal Commission investigating the human rights abuses of Aboriginal people in Western Australia. They courageously gave accounts to Commissioner Henry Doyle Moseley and Chief Protector Neville of the abuse of Aboriginal women and girls, in particular at Moore River Native Settlement. In her letter to the commission, Mary Alice envisioned a new world in which Noongar women and their families could achieve self-determination. In particular, she called for Aboriginal people to have the right to vote and for Aboriginal representation in each electoral district of Western Australia. She was a woman ahead of her time.

Mary Alice Harris and her family, together with many other Noongar families, advocated for transformative discourses of human rights more than a century ago. Their words sound a collective voice for humanity and hope which continues to echo in future generations of Noongar people.

*'Mary Alice' first published in Homecoming by Elfie Shiosaki.


left arrow 1927: Jimmy Clements, John Noble, and the Opening of Parliament House
1933: Joe Anderson's Speech right arrow