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Audio May O'Brien recalls the traditional bush lifestyle of her childhood, 2008

TLF ID R10098

This is an edited sound recording of an interview with Western Australian Aboriginal educator and author May O'Brien. She recalls the traditional bush lifestyle of her childhood in the eastern goldfields region of WA. She describes living in comfortable humpies made from bush materials and how she was taught traditional knowledge about bush plants and how to conserve them. She describes a period of drought and having to beg for food from non-Aboriginal people. She also says that people in her community wore no clothes at the time, and that her perception of nakedness changed on contact with Mount Margaret Mission. This recording was made in November 2008.

Educational details

Educational value
  • May O'Brien (1933-) describes aspects of a traditional Aboriginal bush lifestyle almost unaffected by settlement in the mid-1930s in the eastern goldfields region of WA, where she was born. Aboriginal people in the region had been in limited contact with non-Indigenous people since the discovery of gold in the 1890s. However, in the 1930s many Aboriginal people in the region were still living traditional lifestyles.
  • O'Brien's account indicates vast changes that have taken place in the lives of Aboriginal people in the eastern goldfields region as a result of contact with non-Aboriginal people. For example, she says: 'None of us walked around with clothes on, not even the adults'. She describes the experience of going to Mount Margaret Mission, where she encountered the Christian missionaries' perspective that nakedness was 'like sinning', a vastly different view.
  • In the recording O'Brien describes traditional bush housing, or humpies, in the eastern goldfields region at the time. These round dwellings were made from carefully selected tree branches that were stuck into the ground and joined at the top where the leaves were. O'Brien recalls that the bush homes were 'really lovely', being both comfortable and cosy to live in.
  • The recording provides an insight into the way in which traditional knowledge and stories were passed on to O'Brien as a younger member of an Aboriginal community. O'Brien says that in her community she and other children were taken to the red sandhills by older women to learn about plants and how to conserve them. She says that stories were told around the campfires every night as the children sat in the laps of their 'grannies and aunties and mothers'.
  • O'Brien began her formal education in 1940, when at the age of 7 she was taken from the bush to live at the Mount Margaret Mission. In 1949 she went to Perth Girls' High School, and in 1954 she became WA's first female Aboriginal teacher. She later held senior positions in the WA Department of Education and on national advisory bodies on Indigenous programs.
  • O'Brien's contribution to improving Indigenous education in WA and other parts of Australia has been recognised with a number of awards, including the British Empire Medal in 1977, the John Curtin Medal in 1998 and the Centenary Medal in 2001. In 1984 O'Brien was awarded a Churchill Fellowship to study Indigenous education programs in the USA and Canada, and she represented Australia at the Second World Conference on Women, convened by the UN and held in Denmark in 1980.

Other details

  • Publisher
  • Date of contribution: 20 Sep 2013
  • Organisation: Education Services Australia
  • Address: Melbourne VIC 3000 Australia
  • URL:
  • Copyright holder
  • Organisation: Education Services Australia
  • Address: Melbourne VIC 3000 Australia
  • URL:
  • Remarks: Copyright Education Services Australia Ltd
  • Content provider
  • Organisation: Education Services Australia
  • Address: Melbourne VIC 3000 Australia
  • URL:
  • Author
  • Date of contribution: 2008
  • Name: May O'Brien
  • Remarks: speaker
Access profile
  • Colour independence
  • Device independence
Learning resource type
  • Sound
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  • © Education Services Australia Ltd, 2013, except where indicated under Acknowledgements.