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Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people should be aware that this website contains names, images, and voices of deceased persons.

In addition, some articles contain terms or views that were acceptable within mainstream Australian culture in the period in which they were written, but may no longer be considered appropriate.

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Joan Margaret Martin (1941–)

PUBLICATION: Joan Martin (Yarrna): A Widi Woman,  as told to Bruce Shaw, Canberra: Aboriginal Studies Press 2011

SEX: Female

BIRTH DATE: 2 March 1941

BIRTH PLACE: Morawa, Western Australia

FIRST LANGUAGE: English (and some Wadjari)


  • Mullewa: Joan’s mother Jane was born at Mullewa but was was taken to the Moore River Settlement. Jane used to escape and return to Mullewa. (p.16) When she was an adult, Jane brought her children back to Mullewa for funerals, and it was there that Joan learnt about “tribal things”. (p.14) Joan moved to Mullewa to live with her Uncle Victor when she split with her husband Lennie. (p.43)
  • Moore River Settlement: Jane and her mother Amy were sent to the Moore River Settlement in the 1920s. Joan believes that this resettlement had an overwhelmingly negative effect on her mother and grandmother.
  • Morawa: Joan’s traditional land is a large area in the mid-west of Western Australia, surrounding the small town of Morawa. Joan described the Widi territory as arid and apparently uninhabitable.
  • Joan grew up in Morawa, in a camp near the local hotel. (p.1) The family lived largely by hunting, and slept in beds made out of gum leaves and canvas. (p.19) Joan claims that, despite these harsh conditions, she did not feel deprived at Morawa.
  • Joan moved back to Morawa after two years at a boarding school in Perth, before moving to Mount Magnet with her new husband.
  • Tardun Mission: The Native Welfare Department threatened to send Jane’s children from Morawa to a Pallottine mission at Tardun. According to Joan, the Tardun Mission was a notorious place, and her family decided to move to Koolanooka rather than be forced to live there. Joan believes that the priest at the mission sexually abused the children, and then forbade them to report it.
  • Koolanooka: A town where Joan and her family lived briefly with her cousin after they left Morawa, to avoid the authorities. (p.30) When Native Welfare detected their new location, the family shifted to Perenjori and Joan moved to Perth (p.30)
  • Perth: Joan and her older siblings left Koolanooka to attend high school in Perth. As a boarder at Alvin House, Joan felt socially isolated and disoriented. (p.30) After two years, Joan decided not to return from her school holidays in Morawa.
  • Joan returned to Perth as an adult to live with her mother, and stayed there for thirty years. (p.43)
  • Mount Magnet: Joan moved to Mount Magnet from Morawa with her husband. She lived in a camp on the creek until she split with her husband when her older son, Errol, was twelve. (p.43)
  • Geraldton: Joan moved to Geraldton when she split with her husband: first to live with her sister, and then in government housing. (p.43)
  • Joan’s children all attended Geraldton High School, and stayed there even after she moved to Perth.
  • Adelaide: Joan visited a museum in Adelaide in 1986 and obtained records about the inhabitants of the Moore River Settlement. (p.46)
  • Melbourne: Joan was at a women’s conference in Melbourne when the Mabo decision was announced, and she shared in the elation of the Aboriginal community there. (p.118)


  • Joan was enrolled at the Morawa Public School after the Native Welfare Department threatened to send her to Tardun. The family then relocated to Koolanooka, and Joan was sent to high school in Perth.
  • Joan finished her first and second year of high school at the Perth Modern School, living as a boarder at Alvin House (p.155) She felt abandoned, lonely and homesick at school in Perth. (p.31) After her second year, Joan took her school holidays to Morawa, and decided to live with her aunt and complete her education at the local high school. (p.31) Joan felt that she was accepted at the Morawa High School.
  • Joan enjoyed high school sport, and travelled around the region playing netball. (p.31)


  • As a child living in Morawa, Joan helped her mother clear land for local farmers. (p.24)
  • When she finished high school in Morawa, Joan got a job working in a farmhouse for a few weeks. Joan liked her employees, but she had to stop working after she developed carbuncles. (pp.31-32)
  • Joan then got a job as a receptionist in the local Post Office. (p.32)
  • Joan’s husband Lennie supported her when they lived in Mount Magnet. She views motherhood as a full time job, and believes that the government is endangering children by denying women their right to stay at home. (p.137)
  • After Joan left Lennie and moved to Geraldton, she supported her family through gambling and fishing. (p.43)
  • When she was no longer preoccupied with mothering, Joan began her career as a professional artist. Joan had always enjoyed painting, although she was used to painting with acrylics. (p.112) In 1979, she saw Mick Little painting in a traditional Aboriginal style, and felt confident and inspired to do the same. (p.112)
  • In 1987, Mick organized an exhibition of Joan’s work in Adelaide, alongside his own. (p.112) Mick and Joan also did a ground painting together in Adelaide. (p.112)
  • In 1992 Joan’s won a competition to design the mosaic for the Centre for Aboriginal Studies at Curtin University of Technology. (p.116)


  • Western Australian Department of Conservation and Land Management: According to Joan, the WADCLM wanted to open the traditional Widi land up to tourism. She was opposed to the idea, and declares “we wouldn’t sell our country.” (p.13)
  • Native Welfare Department:  Joan obtained the Native Welfare Departments records about her family. This included a letter written by her father Norm Harris, on behalf of her grandfather Tom Phillip Junior. Joan believes that the Native Welfare Department forced information from Aboriginal people, and misrepresented them in their archives.
  • Adelaide Museum: Joan visited the Adelaide Museum in 1986 and obtained records about her family and the inhabitants of the Moore River Settlement. (p.46)
  • Homewest Housing Company: In 1996 Joan moved into a Homewest home in Paris Way, in the Perth suburb of Karrinyup. She was evicted later in the same year. The only justification that Homewest offered her was that she left her children unsupervised in the park. (p.145) Joan blames her eviction on a new South African neighbor, who held prejudiced opinions and had influential connection. (p.134)
  • After being evicted by Homewest, Joan was left homeless for ten years.  Joan spent six years of those years squatting in Glen Forrest, and then three years living in a car.  (pp.134-135)
  • Joan appealed against her eviction, and ended up in a legal battle against Homeswest that went all the way to Western Australian Supreme Court. (p.132) Joan believes that Homeswest discriminated against her, and intentionally prolonged her homelessness.


  • Joan believes that she and her family weren’t granted Australian citizenship until 1967.


  • Joan grazed her leg while playing tennis in Perth at high school. The wound became infected, swelled to three times its normal size, and prevented her from walking. (p.32) Joan developed similar carbuncles while working near Morawa, and she was forced to quit. (pp.31-32)
  • Joan’s inherited ‘sugar diabetes’ from her biological father, Norm Harris (p.35).
  • Joan’s mental and physical health suffered when she was evicted in 1996, and she spent ten years homeless. During this time, Joan often left Perth to spend time in the bush. Though these trips refreshed her mentally, her physical ailments were persistent. (pp.142-143)
  • In the late 2000s, Joan developed an internal “growth” as well as a goiter inside her neck. This caused her immense pain, and led to her hospitalization.


  • Jane Lewis (nee Phillips): Joan’s mother was a “full blood” Aboriginal of the Wageral tribe, born in approximately 1915 (pp.6-7) Her tribal name is Wageral, meaning she was born near the river. (p.14)
  • Joan described Jane’s strict traditional upbringing at Mullewa, where she “went through the law.” (p.16)
  • Joan was brought to the Moore River Settlement at the age of 12, where she learned English. (p.7) The staff at the settlement discouraged traditional practice, and Joan believes that this is the reason her mother did not assign her a Widi skin group. (p.2,  34)
  • Jane was an important “family storyteller” (p.xi), but Joan also learned the details of her mother’s life from her maternal Aunts and Uncles. Jane died in 1987. (p.156)
  • Norm Harris Senior: Norm Harris Junior was married to Jane’s sister Eva. (p.8) For many years, Joan was unaware that Norm was her father as well as her Uncle. (p.35) She claims that being fathered by her uncle brought shame upon her as a child. (p.14)
  • Joan believes that Norm had converted to “white man’s rules”, and that he attempted to enforce these on his two wives. (p.16)
  • Joan described her father as a well-respected man. (p.8) However, she requested that Bruce Shaw not include the Harris side of Joan’s family in her genealogical chart. This is because she believes the Widi ancestors to be more important to her development. (p.xii)


  • Ron Simpson: Joan had a relationship with Ron, but never lived with him. She fell pregnant, and at this time abortions were not readily available. Joan subsequently gave birth to what she describes as her first “stray” child, Errol.
  • Leonard ‘Lennie’ Martin: Joan met Lennie when his football team was touring Morawa. They had their first child while still living in Morawa, got married, and then moved to Lennie’s home town of Mount Magnet.(p.39) They had three children together: Greg, Dean and Jenny. (p.38)
  • Initially, Joan was enamored of Lennie. (p.41) She describes him as a hard-working man, and when they moved to Mt Magnet he bought an old house for Joan and the children. However, Lennie was also a problem drinker. (p.38) While living in Mt Magnet, Joan was frequently forced to run away from home and live in the bush with the children after fighting with her husband. (p.40)
  • Eventually, Lennie’s drunken violence brought an end to their relationship. (p.38) Joan claims that she and Lennie were better friends after the split than during their marriage. (p.41)
  • Kevin Cameron: Joan started a relationship with Kevin while she was in the process of splitting up with her husband Lennie. They had one child, Nicola, born in 1967. (p.39)
  • Noel: The father of Joan’s sixth child, Stephen, born in 1969. Noel took no responsibility for the children, and Joan was forced to give Stephen to a foster parent. (p.42)
  • Sid: The father of Joan’s seventh, child, Sandra, born in 1971. Sid also took no responsibility for the children, and Joan gave Sandra to a foster parent. (p.42)


  • Joan had her first child with Ron Simpson in 1958, when she was 17. She subsequently had three more children with her husband – Greg, Dean, Jennifer ‘Jenny’ – all before the age of 21. Joan had Nicola ‘Nicky’ with a different partner, in 1969, when she was breaking up with her husband.
  • When she split with her first husband, Joan was a homeless, single mother, who had difficultly caring for her five children.
  • The burden of raising five children alone was so great that in 1969 she gave her sixth child – Stephen – and in 1971 her seventh – Sandra – to a friend who evidently abused Sandra. Welfare intervened and either Joan or Welfare gave Stephen and Sandra to Leonie and Jim Spring to foster. (p.42)
  • It pained Joan to give up two of her children. Nonetheless, she feels that – given her circumstances – it was the right decision. (p.43)
  • Joan tried to raise her first five children well.  However, as they grew older, she felt they were increasingly beyond her control.
  • As adults, Joan’s children lived with her sporadically, and left a number of grandchildren in her care. A number of her children brought their families to live with Joan at Paris Way, having been evicted from their own homes. Joan says that objections to the conduct of her children led to her own eviction in 1996.
  • During the 2000s, Joan’s son Dean died, as well as two of her granddaughters, and one ended up in a wheelchair. Joan holds Homeswest responsible for these incidents. (pp.135-136)
  • In retrospect, Joan believes that what she gave as a mother has not been returned to her by her children.


  • Bill Lewis: Joan’s older brother, who was born in 1936. Joan and Bill were very close when they were growing up, and both were sent to live in hostels in Perth. When Joan returned to Morawa, her brother put half his earning towards her board and lodging so that she could attend school. (pp.89-90)
  • When Joan attended her brother’s funeral in 2007, she believes that his spirit visited her. (p.89)
  • Aunt Eva (Jane’s sister) and Uncle Tom Phillip (Jane’s brother): Joan maternal aunt and uncle, who used to tell her about her family’s history and Widi dreaming stories when she was a child. She describes them as the “great family story tellers.” (p.76)
  • Bill Lewis: A white man whom Joan came to know as her father. (p.6)
  • Jim and Leonie Spring: The foster parents of Joan’s sixth and seventh children, Sandra and Stephen.
  • Ron Parker: An anthropologist who sought information from Joan about the Irwin River region, and who supported her and her family. (p.51)
  • Kim Hames: The Western Australian Minister for Housing when Joan was evicted by Homewest. (p.139)


  • Joan believes in both the Widi creation spirit, Beemarra, and the Christian God (p.51) She retells the Widi creation story about two snakes who travelled from Ernabella, creating the river which form the “Dreaming Track.” (pp.53-57, 78-79) This Track is marked by sacred sites, where there is freshwater and the grass does not grow. (p.57) Joan believes that only the descendents of the people who lived on the Dreaming Track have a legitimate claim to ownership of the area. (p.59)
  • Joan draws comparisons between Widi belief and Christianity. She claims that, like the Christian God, the creation spirit Beemarra is both omniscient and omnipresent. She refers to the Biblical story, in which God created Man out of sand, and compares it to the Widi belief that people came from the soil. She also makes reference to the fact that Christians bury their dead, and the Widi also believe that people return to the soil after they die.
  • Joan also has a strong belief in the existence of spirits. Joan claims to have numerous personal experiences with spirits, both positive and negative.
  • When she ran away from her husband, Joan believes spirits sent messages to her through animals. (p.41) Joan recalls being visited by the spirits of her brother, her sister-in-law, and her mother. (p.97, 141)
  • While these visits were peaceful, in Joan’s account spirits can also haunt areas with troubled histories. For example, Joan took her friend who was a traditional moban man to perform an exorcism at her sister’s home in Dallwallinu, because there was a massacre in the area (pp.85-86).  Joan also feels threatened by spirits when she is in the bush.
  • Joan claims that she and other Aboriginal people are able to talk to animals, and recounts experiences communicating with crows and magpies. (p.91) She also states that Aboriginal people are capable of telepathic and astral travel. She recalls numerous incidents in which members of her family became aware that something was wrong, before she informed them. (pp.93-95)


  • Family history: Joan outlines the history of the Phillips family. She starts with the story of her great-grandparents, who were given the Christian names Tom Phillips and Ginny of Irwin. (p.2)
  • She described the strong standing that her great-grandfather and his son – also named Tom Phillips – had in Widi society. They were ‘law-men’ who travelled long distances to inspect ceremonial sites. Joan describes how Tom Phillips and Tom Phillips Junior had sacred knowledge that was denied to females like her mother and grandmother.
  • According to Joan, Tom Phillips Jnr had a coercive and violent relationship with his wife Amy. Joan claims that Tom Phillips Jnr took her grandmother and her mother from Mullewa to Moore River Settlement, because Amy was wayward and engaged in affairs (p.5). In Jane’s account, her father eventually contracted another Aboriginal man at Moore River Settlement to kill her mother. This was apparently because Amy had given birth to another man’s child (p.5). After Amy died in 1928, the child’s father was put “through the law for 12 months”, before also being assassinated. (p.6)
  • According to her maternal Aunt and Uncle, after her mother died, Jane was also at risk of being murdered by her father. This was because Jane was fair, and thus Tom Phillips suspected that she was not his real daughter. Fortunately, an Aboriginal woman at the Moore River Settlement intervened and raised Jane. (p.6)
  • Joan is skeptical of official genealogies. This is because many mothers were unwilling to concede who fathered their children, and thus many children were unsure of parentage.
  • The Effects of Colonisation and Institutionalisation:
  • Joan blames Europeans for corrupting Aboriginal people, and causing the problems affecting contemporary communities.
  • Joan also condemns the colonizing powers for forcing her family to settle at Moore River Settlement. She explains the negative effects displacement, including the contemporary confusion it had created about land ownership. (p.17)
  • Joan also describes the racially discriminatory treatment of children at Moore River Settlement. The ‘fair ones’, like her mother, where sent on to schools in Perth. (p.17)
  • Meanwhile, Joan claims that the “black ones” were sent to work on stations, where many were sexually abused. (p.17)
  • Traditional Aboriginal culture:
  • Joan gives an account of traditional life in Widi society, both through her stories, and through the artworks that they have inspired (p.118-130). Joan describes hunting and gathering near Worawa and Mullewa as a child (p.23). She provides a list of edible foods found in the Widi region, and recalls the methods used to collect these foods: crushing nuts, anaesthetizing fish, hunting kangaroos, echidnas, bush turkey, goannas and emus, and collecting eggs, berries, seeds, yams and wild tomatoes. Joan recalled foods, such as the kangaroo’s head, which were a delicacy eaten by men; and others, such as the black goanna, which were taboo (pp.62-70).
  • Joan recalls the traditional and contemporary reliance on Aboriginal “bush medicine” (p.23). Joan started taking a herbal remedy that she found near Mount Magnet to treat a kidney problem. She later prescribed the herb for a friend and she believes that it cured her cancer. (p.71) Joan also used a purple bush flower to treat her nieces’ and nephews’ scabies. (p.71) She believes that traditional medicines are now being used and exploited by non-Aboriginal people. (p.72)
  • Joan reports the existence of skin groups and incest taboos, (p.2) and the laws that dictated behavior according to gender. (p.102) Joan also refers to incidents of wife stealing, and the practice of a man taking his brother’s wife upon his death. (p.2)
  • Joan believes that, despite doubts, traditional Widi culture is powerful and resilient.
  • Personally, Joan takes a selective, critical approach to traditional Aboriginal culture. (p.111)
  • Native Title:
  • Joan described her joy following the Mabo decision, which she captured in one of her paintings. (p.117) She hopes that a Native Title claims will protect her ancestor’s sacred sites against incursions by mining companies.
  • Joan claims to have a power to identify sacred sites for protection, which she believes is innate in many Aboriginal people. (p.97-98)
  • Joan outlines the difficulty she had in registering her claim to land in Native title tribunals. She attributes this to corrupt Land Council, the power of mining companies and non-Aboriginal people’s fears about Native Title (p.59).
  • Joan resents the fact that Aboriginal people have to prove their connection with a certain area to the authorities. She also believes that mining companies intentionally destroyed Aboriginal artifacts and sacred site before anthropologists could identify them. (pp.58-60)

MODE OF LITERARY PRODUCTION: Bruce Shaw recorded 27 hours of conversation with Joan, based on open ended questioning. He transcribed this interview and edited out any incomprehensible moments, and then Joan proofread the manuscript. (p.xii)

Additional Resources

Source Project

This biographical entry was contributed by Australian Indigenous Autobiography Archive

Citation details

'Martin, Joan Margaret (1941–)', Indigenous Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 28 May 2024.

© Copyright Indigenous Australia, 2012

Life Summary [details]

Alternative Names
  • Lewis, Joan Margaret
  • Yarrna

2 March, 1941
Morawa, Western Australia, Australia

Cultural Heritage

Includes subject's nationality; their parents' nationality; the countries in which they spent a significant part of their childhood, and their self-identity.