As we celebrate International Women’s Day on March 8, National Indigenous Times shines a spotlight on Australia’s incredible First Nations women.

A leading researcher, a member of the Stolen Generations and a loving mother and wife, Dr Jennifer Caruso is a passionate and powerful woman.

Dr Caruso, a proud Eastern Arrernte woman of the Stolen Generations, now teaches Indigenous history in the history department at the University of Adelaide.

However, her story began in Alice Springs, NT. Dr Caruso was taken in 1957 and fostered by a family in Adelaide.

“It was interesting because when I reflect on that I was, in all honesty, I was very close to being assimilated,” Dr Caruso said.

“I thought I was behaving in all the ways that were expected of me to be considered acceptable and to be satisfying the needs of my foster parents around what it is they hoped I would be. Even though there was no charter, or no declaration.

“There wasn’t so much around what they wanted me to be, there was more around what they didn’t want me to be.”

I was in my mid-40s when I came to the realisation that I was compliant in my own assimilation.”

Taking a stand, Dr Caruso began moving towards undoing what she had been taught.

“It was empowering for me but confusing for them. All of a sudden here I was talking in terms of social justice and equity. Which … read to them that they had failed in this contract. A contract which was written in invisible ink but was clear to non-Indigenous people.”

At 35, Dr Caruso went back to school to achieve her Year 12 certificate. With the guidance of her teachers, she was encouraged to pursue tertiary education.

“I got my first degree when I was 48, and I got my honours when I was 52. During that time [I transitioned] from student support into academia. I sat on my honours for a while and I was told I could do a PhD.”

Dr Caruso’s PhD thesis titled Dream Phantasy of Utopia, is the weaving of her own story, positioned in the bigger picture of Australian history.

“I came to the realisation that what [I did was] flesh out a much bigger picture of my personal story … positioning it within the history of Australia.

“My thesis … is not an autobiography … [but] it is a history of the nation, for which I am the primary source. That is my voice. And the Aboriginal voice.”

“I look at my certificate hanging on the wall and I go, ‘I did that. Geez girl. you managed.’”

“Sometimes I look and I say to my hubby, ‘People congratulate me. I don’t know what it is they see that I have done,’ and he looks at me and says, ‘Jen, how many Aboriginal PhD graduates are there in the country? … And how many Aboriginal PhD graduates have done theirs on the Stolen Generations?’”

Teaching Indigenous history at Adelaide University, Dr Caruso finds power teaching from her own experience.

“It’s been very empowering and it’s so empowering for my students. I tell my students, right from the beginning I can only talk to you through an Aboriginal perspective … I can only talk to you from the space in which I live and which I am.

“Otherwise, I engage in the process of assimilating myself, my voice, and I refuse to do that.”

Sharing her love of education with family, Dr Caruso’s children have all pursued tertiary education.

“I remember my eldest son, when he was about to finish Year 12, we used to talk on those phones attached to the wall. He was talking to a friend who asked him what he was going to do now, and he said, ‘I’m going to go to university, you know how my Mum is about education.’

“All of my children have degrees in different fields and they’re using those degrees in their jobs.”

Despite being proud of their Eastern Arrernte heritage, Dr Caruso’s family does feel the repercussions of her removal. 

“They are proud Eastern Arrernte people, but they absolutely feel the disconnect that me being removed has been created. They feel the disconnect for me. And they feel the disconnect for themselves.”

“One of the things I worked at really hard all my life was never to transfer my grief to my children. I worked very hard. I’ve come to an understanding that even though I worked very hard at doing that, there has been a social transference – not a biological transference – which is external from me as well.”

Carrying her own story, Dr Caruso feels a strong sense of protection for her own children, needing to ensure their safety.

Dr Caruso is appearing at the Adelaide Writers’ Week, part of the Adelaide Festival. She will be presenting a session as part of a three-person panel, providing comment on the legacy of Australia’s Child Removal policies.

By Rachael Knowles