‘The Old People had Brooms’: Yanyuwa Women, Material Culture and Resistance

  • Brigid Hill
  • John Bradley (Monash University)
  • Rachel Standfield (Monash University)


This piece investigates the complex and multiple meanings associated with one piece of Australian Aboriginal material culture, a broom made by Yanyuwa woman Emalina Evans a-Wanajabi in the 1980s. Yanyuwa people constitute one nation of the myriad Aboriginal peoples of Australia, with Yanyuwa country being in the southwest Gulf of Carpentaria, in the far north of Australia.

In this piece, we explore both the uses of and the meanings associated with brooms within Aboriginal and colonial contexts. Emalina a-Wanajabi’s broom stands as a testament to her response to the colonial imposition on Yanyuwa women during the assimilationist years of 1950s Australia. The broom highlights the false and essentialist rhetoric invented concerning Aboriginal identity in the eyes of the coloniser. Emalina’s experiences of welfare intervention in her early life may have contributed to her decision to manufacture this broom in her later years. Surveillance into Aboriginal home life and routine inspections conducted by welfare administrators played a role in Emalina’s formative years, as was the case for Aboriginal people in many regions of Australia. For Emalina welfare intervention resulted in the removal of two of her children during the period we call the “Stolen Generations”.  Interventions into Aboriginal family life by colonial authorities, based in racialised discourses of cleanliness and domesticity, have played key roles in the colonisation of Australia and have had particular impact on Aboriginal women. Emalina’s broom therefore becomes a particularly powerful response to colonial discourses of cleanliness.

Material evidence of Aboriginal women’s resistance appears less often in studies of material culture and anthropology more generally. Exploring the meanings associated with the broom as a physical manifestation of resistance allows us to recognise a significant assertion of women’s cultural identity and essential position as holder of knowledge within the Yanyuwa community, as well as their role in resisting colonisation.

Keywords: Yanyuwa (Australian people), Women, Material culture, Resistance, Colonisation, Indigenous peoples

How to Cite:

Hill, B., Bradley, J. & Standfield, R., (2017) “‘The Old People had Brooms’: Yanyuwa Women, Material Culture and Resistance”, Studies in Arts and Humanities 3(2), 59-83. doi:

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Published on
07 Dec 2017
Peer Reviewed