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Video clip synopsis – May O'Brien discusses growing up in a bush camp and her early years on a remote mission.
Year of production - 2007
Duration - 3min 56sec
Tags - aborigines, assimilation, Australian History, change and continuity, discrimination, family life, human rights, Indigenous Australia, racism, Stolen Generations, see all tags


May O'Brien

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About the Video Clip


May O’Brien is an excerpt from the program May O’Brien (26 mins), an episode of Australian Biography Series 11 (7×26 mins), produced in 2007.

Australian Biography Series 11
The Australian Biography series profiles some of the most extraordinary Australians of our time. Many have had a major impact on the nation’s cultural, political and social life. All are remarkable and inspiring people who have reached a stage in their lives where they can look back and reflect. Through revealing in-depth interviews, they share their stories – of beginnings and challenges, landmarks and turning points. In so doing, they provide us with an invaluable archival record and a unique perspective on the roads we, as a country, have travelled.

A Screen Australia National Interest Program.

Curriculum Focus



  • explain social, political and cultural developments and events and evaluate their impact on Australian life
  • explain the changing rights and freedoms of Aboriginal peoples in Australia

Inquiry Question

How have the rights and freedoms of Aboriginal peoples in Australia changed during the post-war period?

Students learn about:

  • changing government policies towards Aboriginal peoples over time, including: protection, assimilation, integration and self-determination

Background Information


Aboriginal author and educator May O’Brien was born into the traditional life of the Wongatha people of Western Australia and educated on the remote Mount Margaret Mission. May became the first female Aboriginal teacher in Western Australia, fulfilling her dream and returning to the mission to teach.

In this interview, May discusses growing up in a bush camp and her early years on a remote mission. There, May joined other displaced Aboriginal children, many of whom were removed from their families by force or under duress—these were the children of the ‘Stolen Generations’.

While she was not ‘stolen’, May’s experiences in the institutions are very similar to those who were. She grew up in a time and place where laws relating to Aboriginal people were particularly overprotective. The Native Administration Act of 1936 extended the Chief Protector’s powers in WA, giving him personal control over every area of life for an Aboriginal person: marriage, children, health, employment, education, residence and legal representation.

Over 25 years, May fought for Aboriginal rights and helped create opportunities for her people, bridging the gap between cultures. May discusses her lifelong fight to get better education for Aboriginal children and more Aboriginal teachers, working in a male-dominated system and the joy of writing books which include her own language.

Classroom Activities

  1. Note-making
    While watching clip:
    * Note why May was always in trouble on the mission.
    * Note the offences and punishments.
    * Note the ‘freedoms’ enjoyed by the children.
    * Note why May was discouraged from forming a relationship at the mission.
    * Note the positive experiences in May’s life.
    * Note the problems May had at high school.
    * Note how May overcame these problems.
    * Note what May learnt from this experience.
  2. Research:
    * Why were Aboriginal children brought up on missions?
    * What education was usually provided for Aboriginal children?
  3. Reporting
    * Write a report on ‘mission life’.
    * Explain the policy of raising and educating Aboriginal children on missions.

Further Resources


State Records Office of Western Australia – Aboriginal Records

Wikipedia – Eugenics

Australian Human Rights Commission – Bringing Them Home education module

Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s statement of apology