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Dixon, Lorna Rose (1917–1976)

by Heather Goodall

This entry is from the Australian Dictionary of Biography

Lorna Rose Dixon (1917?-1976), Aboriginal linguist and cultural preserver, was born probably in 1917 at Tibooburra, New South Wales, daughter of Queensland-born parents Albert Ebsworth, a stockman from the Galali language group of Aborigines, and his wife Rosie, née Jones. Lorna's maternal grandfather was George Dutton. Her early years were mainly spent in the north-west corner of the State with her mother's Wangkumara-speaking parents and grandparents. Albert and Rosie worked on the cattle station, Naryilco, in south-west Queensland, where there was a large, permanent camp of Wangkumaras. In the 1910s they settled down at Tibooburra and rented a house in the town. Lorna and her siblings attended the public school; they spent much of their time (before and after lessons) in the surrounding bush, learning from their grandparents about the sources of bush food and the stories associated with the significant sites in the area. Lorna later worked at the local hospital.

Albert took regular breaks from droving to attend ceremonial gatherings, sometimes taking his family who attended the major initiation held at Innaminka in the early 1920s. Although they were Catholics, the Ebsworths maintained close contact with Aboriginal ceremonial and social customs, teaching the children many aspects of Wangkumara philosophy and ethics which were to remain with them all their lives. They regularly travelled over their traditional country, visiting areas such as Coopers Creek and following the marra tracks, routes which traditional mythological figures had taken across the land.

Forced by the Depression and mounting White intolerance, the Aborigines Protection Board changed its policy of dispersal to one that concentrated the State's Aboriginal population on a few tightly controlled 'stations'. The Ebsworth family's life was brutally interrupted in 1938. Without warning, officials and police compelled the 120 Wangkumara people of Tibooburra—at gunpoint and under threat of removal of their children—to take a few belongings and leave their homes. They were herded into trucks and driven over two hundred miles (322 km) to the board's station at Brewarrina, where James Barker was handyman. Over five hundred people were crammed into accommodation that had been barely adequate for the one hundred Murawari already there. The Wangkumara, culturally very different from the more easterly language groups already 'concentrated' on Brewarrina, felt isolated and were constantly intimidated by the armed manager. Lorna's family suffered deaths, including that of her sister. In desperation the remaining eighty Wangkumara people walked off the station in 1941. Most eventually settled at Bourke. There, at the district registry office, on 3 May 1943 Lorna married Eric Dixon, a stationhand.

The bitter legacy of three years of repression at Brewarrina made Lorna conceal her extensive knowledge of her language and culture, though she was determined to preserve it. At Bourke she spoke only English, even with her own children. She devised a spelling system for Wangkumara which she imparted to a cousin at Broken Hill. They secretly corresponded over three decades, sharing memories and confidences in their own language because, Lorna said, it enabled them to express their feelings better.

By the late 1960s a cultural revival had begun among Aboriginal people, and a more liberal attitude among White Australians made it easier for people like Lorna to share their knowledge. When Janet Mathews began to study the languages of north-west New South Wales at Bourke in 1970, Lorna recorded the Wangkumara language with her, and in the process began to talk about the cultural education of her childhood in the 'Corner Country'.

Her humour, warmth, enthusiasm and dedication to the task fostered affection and respect among White colleagues and pride among her family and the Aboriginal community. In 1974 Dixon was one of the first Aborigines to become a full member of the Australian Institute of Aboriginal Studies. She continued to record language and history, and also began to revisit the sites of her childhood at Tibooburra, Naryilco and Coopers Creek. Despite ill health, she planned further work. She died of a cerebral haemorrhage on 21 December 1976 at Bourke and was buried with Catholic rites in the local cemetery. Her husband survived her, as did five sons and three daughters of their twelve children.

Lorna Dixon's strategy for conserving the Wangkumara language and culture became widely known throughout the region as a symbol of and an inspiration for the Aborigines' determination to survive culturally as well as physically.

Select Bibliography

  • I. White et al (eds), Fighters and Singers (Syd, 1985)
  • J. J. Fletcher, Clean, Clad and Courteous (Syd, 1989)
  • Australian Institute of Aboriginal Studies Newsletter, no 7, Jan 1977, p 27
  • Aboriginal Human Relations Newsletter, no 55, Apr-May 1977, p 11
  • Aboriginal History, vol 2, no 1, 1978, p 2.

Citation details

Heather Goodall, 'Dixon, Lorna Rose (1917–1976)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://ia.anu.edu.au/biography/dixon-lorna-rose-10023/text17669, accessed 24 September 2017.

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2012

Life Summary [details]

Alternative Names
  • Ebsworth, Lorna
Birth

1917
Tibooburra, New South Wales, Australia

Death

21 December 1976
Bourke, New South Wales, Australia

Cultural Heritage
Religious Influence
Occupation