Molly Kelly, 87; Aboriginal Woman Inspired 2002 Movie

From Associated Press

Molly Kelly, who as a child trekked 1,000 miles across the Australian desert to return to her Aboriginal mother in a journey that inspired the 2002 movie “Rabbit-Proof Fence,” has died. She was thought to be 87.

Kelly died Tuesday in the Western Australia town of Jigalong while taking an afternoon nap, news reports said Thursday. Her death was confirmed by relatives.

Kelly was about 13 when she, her younger sister and a cousin made the nine-week journey with little food and water.


When her story came out decades later, she became a symbol of Aborigine resilience in the face of mistreatment by Australia’s European settlers.

In 1931, Kelly was taken from her mother and their home in the East Pilbara area and sent to a government institution to be trained as a domestic servant along with her sister and cousin.

Thousands of such forced separations created what are now known as Australia’s “stolen generations.” The policy aimed at assimilating Aborigines into mainstream society began in 1905 and continued until 1971.

The three girls immediately fled the institution. Kelly decided that since Jigalong was on a rabbit-proof fence -- intended to stop the spread of the imported animals -- they could follow the fence north to their home.

They crossed a flooded river, sand dunes, a desert and a salt lake. They slept in hollowed-out rabbit burrows and ate sweet potatoes and wild bananas. Nine weeks after they began, they made it home.

“She was a person that was utterly willful, who decided she would not be dictated to, took on the whole state apparatus and managed to win,” said Christine Olsen, the screenwriter of the film.

Kelly’s daughter, Doris Pilkington Garimara, learned of the story and wrote it down only after she was reunited with her mother more than 20 years after she also was taken away by authorities.

“Mum’s legacy is the calming influence and quiet dignity of the desert women, and the stolen generations story,” Garimara told the Sydney Morning Herald newspaper. “She looked you straight in the eye.”

While many members of the “stolen generations” have reunited with their families, some will never know their real relatives. The Australian government has refused to formally apologize for the policy, fearing lawsuits.

Funeral arrangements for Kelly were not immediately released.