Faith Bandler, 1918-2015

Marilyn Lake

A leading campaigner for Aboriginal rights from the 1950s through the 1980s, Faith Bandler was the daughter of Pacific Islander, Peter Mussing, brought to Queensland from the island of Ambrym in the then New Hebrides (now Vanuatu) and an Australian-born mother, Ida Venno, of Indian-Scottish descent, who taught her the importance of education, self respect and elegant dress.

Faith was born in 1918, one of eight children and raised in the small community of Tumbulgum in northern New South Wales and later Murwillumbah, where she attended high school. The schoolyard was the site of harassment and racial abuse, but Faith was protected and nurtured by kindly and committed school teachers.

In her adult life, Faith became best known as the charismatic speaker and broadcaster, who advocated a 'Yes' vote in the 1967 referendum, which was overwhelmingly successful, with more than 90 per cent of Australians agreeing to end constitutional discrimination against Indigenous peoples. A famous photograph shows Faith and her husband Hans and daughter Lilon celebrating at the victory party in Sydney.

When the new Commonwealth of Australia legislated in 1901 to expel Pacific Islanders, on the grounds that Australia was henceforth to be a 'white man's country', Faith's father eluded deportation by marrying an Australian born woman and crossing the state border to live in New South Wales, where he established an extended family and contributed to the formation of a large church-based community. The children learned about their father's experience of 'kidnapping' from stories told in the evenings, after the family meal, illustrated by traditional sand drawings often traced in the grey ash from the fire. Faith's childhood memories of her father's stories became the basis of her first novel, Wacvie, published in 1977. Her second novel Welou: My Brother documents, as the title suggests, her brother Walter's life growing up in Australia as a boy torn between two different cultures. It was published in 1984.

The Mussing children understood their father's situation in terms of the well known narrative of American slavery. They were inspired in their political campaigns for freedom from the racial discrimination they experienced in the local cinemas, hotels and shops, by the American publications of the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People ( NAACP) and by the songs of Paul Robeson, which Faith also heard when she stole away from school one day to see the legendary film Showboat in the local picture theatre. As a young adult, Faith would drive her car to Sydney airport to meet Robeson on his first trip to Australia in 1960.

Thirty years later, when Faith left the north coast to live in Sydney, and joined, on the outbreak of war, the Australian Women's Land Army and worked in rural New South Waled picking cherries, she had her first taste of independence and modern urban life. After the war she became involved in the left wing pacifist circles of King's Cross, leading to her participation in the Margaret Walker Dance Group and a trip to the International Youth Congress in Berlin, in 1951. There she was the leading performer in the so-called 'The Dance of the Aboriginal Girl' based in fact on a poem about racial discrimination in the South of the United States called 'The Merry Go Round' by the popular Harlem Renaissance writer, Langston Hughes. Left wing political activism in the 1940s and 1950s was inspired by transnational ideas with local ramifications.

After her return from Europe, Faith met her future husband Hans Bandler through their shared love of classical music. Hans was a Jewish refugee from Nazi Germany who had been incarcerated in Dachau and Buchenwald before escaping to the United Kingdom and then Australia. He had trained as an engineer and worked initially for the Hydro-Electric Commission in Tasmania before Cold War persecution led to his sacking and return to Sydney. They married in 1952 with Margaret Fulton as Faith's witness. Their daughter Lilon was born in 1954. Hans' role of professional breadwinner and his moral support of her activism were crucial underpinnings of Faith's life-long political commitment.

Mixing in radical cultural circles and working with the Australian Peace Council, Faith met the courageous Aboriginal activist, Pearl Gibbs, with whom she formed, in 1956, the Aboriginal-Australian Fellowship, which played a key role, at the suggestion of Jessie Street, in launching in 1957 at the Sydney Town Hall, the petition campaign to the federal government, requesting a referendum on the sections of the constitution that discriminated against Aborigines. The ten year mobilisation that ensued, for which Faith provided tireless leadership was just as important to achieving the vital amendments to the constitution as was the referendum vote in 1967.

At the same time Faith became involved with the Federal Council for the Advancement of Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders (FCAATSI), formed in 1958, with which the Aboriginal-Australian Fellowship was affiliated. She was a regular participant in their annual conferences, served as an executive member and then Secretary from 1970 until 1972, when divisions over the role of non-Indigenous members saw the organisation split and Faith marginalised as non-Indigenous in the cause to which she had dedicated her life. She wrote an account of the Aboriginal-Australian Fellowship with her friend Len Fox called The Time was Ripe published in 1983; and of her time with FCAATSI called Turning the Tide published in 1989.

In the 1970s Faith turned to an investigation of the history of her father's people and the role of South Sea Islanders, as they were then termed, in developing the north of Queensland and in particular the sugar industry. She embarked on a trip to Vanuatu and met up with her father's relatives. She also documented their lives and exploitative experience at the hands of traffickers in labour and the sugar cane growers. She became an active member of the Women's Electoral Lobby after it was founded in 1972.

By the 1970s, Faith was a much loved public figure, who testified to the long history of racist oppression in Australia, provided an example of courage and grace in over-coming racism and serving as a moral beacon, attracting Australians of all backgrounds to the cause of social justice, human rights and equal opportunity for all, regardless of people's ethnicity or skin colour, their gender or class background.

She received many awards and honours. In testament to her moral leadership of the nation she was awarded the Human Rights Medal from the Human Rights and Equal Opportunities Commission in 1997. In 2000, Nelson Mandela, Nobel Peace prize winner and former President of South Africa presented Faith on behalf of the Sydney Peace Foundation, with a 'Meritorious Award in Honour and Gratitude for a Life of Courageous Advocacy for Justice and for Indigenous People, for Human Rights, for Love and Reconciliation'. In 2009, Faith was made a Companion of the Order of Australia, Australia's highest honour by Governor General Quentin Bryce.


Faith Bandler was a Life Member of the Evatt Foundation. This article is by Marilyn Lake, 'Faith Bandler', from The Encyclopedia of Women and Leadership in Twentieth-Century Australia, Australian Women's Archives Project, 2014, http://www.womenaustralia.info/leaders/biogs/WLE0231b.htm, Reproduced under conditions of Creative Commons.


Published Resources

Books

Lake, Marilyn, Faith: Faith Bandler, Gentle Activist, Allen & Unwin and the Australian Institute of Family Studies, Sydney, New South Wales, 2002. Details

Online Resources

'Bandler, Faith Ida Lessing (c. 1918 - )', The Australian Women's Register, National Foundation for Australian Women, http://www.womenaustralia.info/biogs/IMP0081b.htm. Details

'Faith Bandler', in Collaborating for Indigenous Rights, National Museum of Australia (NMA), http://indigenousrights.net.au/person.asp?pID=954. Details

'Faith Bandler', in Australian Biography, Screen Australia Online: Digital Learning, Screen Australia, http://www.australianbiography.gov.au/subjects/bandler/. Details

 

Suggested citation
Lake, Marilyn, 'Faith Bandler, 1918-2015', Evatt Journal, Vol. 14, No. 1, December 2015.<http://evatt.org.au/news/faith-bandler-1918-2015.html>