Additional information

Why am I doing this research?

My ancestors on both sides were Irish and German. Having a grandfather who fought for the Nazis during the Second World War has, in part, made me think about the wrongs of the past and what I might do to redress them. One of the tools for doing so is in researching and writing history, something I love doing. But I know that non-Indigenous historians – like myself – have done this in harmful ways in the past, and we have a special responsibility to do it better.

I’m aware that many non-Indigenous historians write ‘about’ rather than ‘for’ Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. I’m hoping to do something different with this project. I’m doing my best to speak to as many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people as I can throughout this project, and I'm particularly indebted to Judi Wickes and Kella Robinson for helping me understand that the history of exemption is one that is lived through a person’s own experience and family history. It can’t just be learned about by looking through boxes and files in government archives (even if those files also tell important stories of government and colonial violence).

I believe the story of exemption is an important one that needs to be told because the policy’s effects were widespread and devastating. I hope that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people might benefit from the archival work I’ve been able to do, thanks to my position at a university and my ability to receive research funding—that’s the reason behind this website, to try to get in touch with people who might want to know more about this history, about their family’s history. Helping people access their family records, that are held in the colonial archives, is important work that some non-Indigenous people can do, and I want to contribute to that work.

I undertake this work as an uninvited guest on the lands of the Kulin Nation, in Naarm, and I pay my respects to elders past and present. I do this work out of respect and gratitude for the Wurundjeri people, whose care for Country ensures that I have a place to live.

I’m also hoping that through my work non-Indigenous people in this country will learn more about our collective history of imposing terrible, painful, violent, racist policies on Aboriginal people and their long lasting effects. It is clear that there are significant populations in Australia who refuse to understand that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people have been subjected to mass killings, incarceration, and forced removal from their lands, and that some of these policies continue. I think people like me—non-Indigenous historians employed by universities—have a responsibility to try to fix this problem with our nation. We need to listen to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and join them in telling mainstream Australia about the crimes of the past. As Reconciliation Australia’s 2018 Report says, ‘We cannot change the past, but we can learn from it.’

“Living a Lie” (2018), created by Kerri Atkinson, Kristy Baksh, Peta Lonsdale, Nekita Moran, Victoria Webbe, Anna Williams and Jai- Marre Wilson, 2018, Certificate 111 Visual Arts Students (CUA31115) Centre for Koorie Education, GOTAFE. The Aboriginal symbols tell a story in a clockwork direction, starting with 1a at 10 o'clock: 1a & 1b Dog Tag, 2a & 2b Camp site, 3a & 3b Shield, 4a & 4b Waterhole, 5a and 5b Tear drop, Rain. Used under a creative commons licence, CC BY-NC-SA.

Want more useful links on the history of Exemption?

Aunty Judi Wickes, BSocWk, BA (hons), MA

Aunty Judi Wickes (Kalkadoon/Wakka Wakka) is a respected community Elder, social worker and educator who writes and presents nationally and internationally on the topics of Stolen Generation and the certificate of exemption and its impacts on generations of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. Judi has published a number of articles about her family’s history of exemption:

  • Judi Wickes and Lucinda Aberdeen, ‘The Diaries of Daisy Smith: The Experience of Citizenship for an Exempted Family in Mid-Twentieth Century Queensland’, Australian Journal of Politics and History 63, no. 1 (2017), 62-77.
  • Judi Wickes, ‘“Never Really Heard of It”: The Certificate of Exemption and Lost Identity.’ In Indigenous Biography and Autobiography, ed. Peter Read, Frances Peters-Little and Anna Haebich. Canberra: Aboriginal Studies Press, 2008, 73-91.
  • Judi Wickes and Marnee Shay, ‘Aboriginal Identity in Education Setting: Privileging Our Stories as a Way of Deconstructing the Past and Re-Imagining the Future’, Australian Educational Researcher 44 (2017), 107-22.
  • Freedom: A Certificate of Exemption Story, State Library of Queensland

Useful links for doing your own research

Key Exemption Legislation

New South Wales

Northern Territory


South Australia

1939- Aborigines Act Amendment Act 1939

Western Australia

1905- Aborigines Act 1905 (WA)

Further Resources

Lucinda Aberdeen and Jennifer Jones (eds), Black, White and Exempt: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Lives Under Exemption, Canberra: Aboriginal Studies Press, 2021.

‘Exemption: The high price of freedom’: Black, White and Exempt: Live panel discussion featuring Jennifer Jones, Aunty Judi Wickes, Aunty Kella Robinson, and Lucinda Aberdeen, hosted by Katherine Ellinghaus. AIATSIS, 31 March 2021:

Tony Birch, The White Girl, St Lucia: UQP, 2019:

Katherine Ellinghaus, ‘“If I had a home, I think I would have flower gardens around it”: The 1961 Select Committee on the Voting Rights of Aborigines and the Mistranslation of Citizenship and Sovereignty in Western Australia’, Law & History, accepted with minor changes.

Katherine Ellinghaus, ‘The Origins of Exemption: Tracing the Connections from ‘Civilization’ to ‘Assimilation’ in the Discourse of Humanitarianism’ in Humanitarianism, Empire and Transnationalism in the Anglophone World, 1760-1995: Selective humanity in the Anglophone World ed. Trevor Burnard, Joy Damousi and Alan Lester (Manchester University Press, 1 February 2022).

Teresa Libesman, Katherine Ellinghaus, and Paul Gray, ‘Colonial Law and its control of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Families’, Cambridge Legal History of Australia, ed. Lisa Ford and Peter Cane (forthcoming).

Jordana Silverstein and Katherine Ellinghaus, ‘“If you weren’t known…”: Racialised practices of surveying and surveillance in Twentieth Century Australia’ in Surveys and Society: Legacies of the Social Survey, 1919-2019, ed. Clare Corbould, Charlotte Greenhalgh and Warwick Anderson (New York: Berghahn Books, forthcoming).

Lucinda Aberdeen, Katherine Ellinghaus, Judi Wickes and Kella Robinson, ‘Australian Exemption Policies: Removal, Cultural Dislocation, Family Displacement and Assimilation,’ invited contribution to the Routledge Companion to Indigenous Global History, ed. Ann McGrath and Lynette Russell (forthcoming September 2021).

Katherine Ellinghaus, ‘The Poisoned Chalice: Exemption Policies in Twentieth Century Australia and the Writing of History’ in Black, White and Exempt: The lives of exempt Aboriginal people in Australia, eds. Lucinda Aberdeen and Jennifer Jones (Canberra: Aboriginal Studies Press, 2021), 24-40.

Katherine Ellinghaus and Judi Wickes, ‘A Moving Female Frontier: Aboriginal Exemption and Domestic Service in Queensland, 1897-1914’, Australian Historical Studies 51, no. 1 (2020): 19-37.

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