New York — On Christmas Eve in 1962, Doris Pilkington took her children for a surprise visit to see their grandmother in Balfour Downs Station, western Australia.
They arrived very early in the morning and found Molly Kelly asleep. Pilkington nervously tapped her mother on the shoulder to awaken her.
"Do you know who I am?" Pilkington asked.
Her mother shook her head. She did not recognize her daughter.
Pilkington, 65, had last seen her mother in 1941, when Kelly escaped from the Moore River Native Settlement, where the Australian government was holding Kelly and her two daughters, Doris and Annabelle, captive. Kelly had managed to take Annabelle with her, but had been forced to leave Doris behind.
Kelly and her children were being held because they were Aborigines, and Australia was determined to assimilate the continent's indigenous peoples into its white majority.
Besides confining Aborigines to reserves -- a system that devastated traditional lifestyles -- the government forcibly removed great numbers of Aborigine children from their parents, raising them in orphanages until they were adopted by white families, often to be used as servants and laborers.
Following the fence
It was hoped that these abductions, which continued until the 1970s, would force the children to forget about their heritage. A 1997 government study estimated that between 1905 and 1970, one out of 10 indigenous children was taken from its home; about 100,000 people were affected, according to historian Peter Read.
"The policeman -- our protectors, supposedly -- had total control to fulfill the government's plan of breeding out aboriginal people within several generations," says Pilkington, who wrote about the "stolen generations" in her book, "Follow the Rabbit-Proof Fence." Published in 1996, the book was recently released in the United States to tie-in with a new movie by Miramax Films.
"Because of brainwashing, we were forced to believe that we were unintelligent, that our culture was evil, that our mothers had given us away because they didn't love us."
When Kelly left Moore River with her baby daughter, she faced a daunting trek: More than 1,500 miles of Australian outback, much of it inhospitable, stretched between her and home. But Kelly knew the way -- she had figured it out in 1931, when she escaped the first time, a frightened but determined 14-year-old pulling her reluctant 10-year-old cousin, Gracie, and her 8-year-old sister, Daisy, behind her.
With no supplies and nothing to eat but what they could catch and scavenge, the three girls eventually learned to follow the No. 1 Rabbit Proof Fence, built to contain Australia's exploding rabbit population.
Police trackers went after them, and only Gracie -- who had separated from the others so she could find her mother -- was recaptured. About nine weeks after they left Moore River, Kelly and Daisy were reunited with their family.
"It's a real story that, in many ways, is more fantastic than the made-up screenplays I deal with," says Australian director Phillip Noyce of Pilkington's book, which sold 60,000 copies in Australia.
"It seemed so far away from these huge blockbuster productions I had been doing. But the story wouldn't leave me."
Throughout the film's production, Noyce says cast and crew had a mission: They all wanted to celebrate the amazing feat of the girls, as well as the skill of the indigenous actors who portray them. The film earned just more than $4 million in Australia during an 18-week run, plus two preview weekends. To date, it has earned nearly $2 million in North America.
Recognition, at last
"For some Australians, given the ignorance in which we've celebrated our half-history, it's been very hard to accept this new history that has emerged in the last 15 years through indigenous writers and historians -- people who ... didn't think their experiences mattered," Noyce says.
Australia is beginning to take pride and interest in its indigenous people, and more Aborigine writers are emerging and being recognized.
"The number of published aboriginal writers grows each year," says author Anita Heiss, whose works include a historical novel, "Who Am I? The Diary of Mary Talence, Sydney 1937," and a poetry collection, "Token Koori."
Pilkington has just finished writing "Under the Windamarra Tree," the sequel to "Rabbit-Proof Fence" and the final book in a trilogy that began with "Caprice: A Stockman's Daughter." Now, she plans to write children's stories based on Aborigine creation myths.
Pilkington "is finally being recognized for the work she has done in bringing stories of history, survival and aboriginal life to a mainstream audience," says Heiss.
And Pilkington is determined to reintroduce the culture that was kept from so many Aborigines.
Unlike her mother, Pilkington remained within the enforced welfare system until she was an adult. Her mother-in-law persuaded her to seek a reunion with Kelly.
"She told me, 'I've just lost my mother; you go find yours,"' Pilkington recalls.
The 1962 homecoming, though, was bittersweet. Pilkington has become close to her parents but her younger sister, Annabelle, was recaptured by the government in 1965 and has refused all contact with her family.