A link in the Chain

link1‘Anything the boys had, I had. They had a bow and arrow. I had a bow and arrow which I made myself. I had a knife, spear and a clap (woomera). My brothers always say ‘Don’t follow us. Go back home; you’re a girl. Don’t follow us boys.’ People always ask, ‘Being the only girl, bet you were spoilt’. No I wasn’t; if I did something wrong I got punished just the same as the boys- ‘Sit behind the door or under the house and don’t move!’

But as it turns out, being the only girl among four brothers did have its advantages. Born in Mapoon in 1946, Zoe de Jersey (nee Savo) is one of the few women left in the community who carries on the art of shell necklace making. But her delicate necklaces represent more than traditional craft. They also tell a story of an era long gone; Mission-day Mapoon.link3

Zoe doesn’t know how far back the tradition of shell necklaces in Mapoon extends. Before the missionaries ordered twine, necklace makers relied on natural materials. Zoe remembers the boats (the Reliance and the Janet Thompson) bringing twine and other supplies to the Mission. As for the instrument used to make holes in the tiny shells, the women used safety pins.

As a young girl, Zoe accompanied her mother to Janey Creek (site of the present day Turtle Camp) to gather shells. She recalls using her little finger as a guide to measure the shell sizes. She was also taught how to weave coconut fans by her grandmother and her aunt. While fathers and husbands were away stock droving, the sale of shell necklaces was the main source of income for women who lived in the Mission.link2

‘My Dad came home from the station – first time for four years. He would ride the horse from Coen to Mapoon. In that time they would drove herds of cattle from here to Mareeba. He had a long bluey-black beard. We used to call him Bluebeard. We hardly saw him.’

All necklaces were sold to the store in the Mission in exchange for food. Like many Indigenous artefacts it would be interesting to know where some of the necklaces might be now. ‘After they was passed over to the store that was the end of story. Same as the (coconut) fans. All our supplies came from Thursday Island…that was all we knew. We never questioned anything.’

This ‘never questioning’ reappears in our conversation. We talk briefly about the local residents needing to get approval from the Minister to travel as nearby as Weipa. While there are mixed reactions to the Missionary presence in Cape York, Zoe presents a more authentic reflection :
‘We had no choice; as kids we had to follow our parents. I went to grade 7 only. At least Mum and I learnt to read and write and add up. Even today, when we do cultural awareness (education programs in Weipa) there are a few older men there who can’t read and write… a lot of people though have asked me how I felt about my mum being picked up and dropped off in Mapoon. One thing(I regret) is I never got to meet my real grandparents.’