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Jack Davis: Biography & Poems

Instructor: Christina Boggs

Chrissy has taught secondary English and history and writes online curriculum. She has an M.S.Ed. in Social Studies Education.

Jack Davis was an exceptional poet, but did you know that his work was inspired by his experiences as an aborigine living in Australia? In this lesson, you will learn about Jack Davis's life, activism, and poetry.

What Is an Aborigine?

Jack Davis is considered to be one of the most prolific aboriginal writers from Australia, but what exactly is an aboriginal? The word aborigine describes a person, animal, or plant that lived in a specific area dating back to prehistoric times or before colonists came to that area. In the United States, Native Americans are an aboriginal people. Based on information from your history and social studies classes, you know explorers and colonists mistreated Native Americans. It turns out the same violent pattern has happened all over the world between aborigines and colonists.

Australia is home to a number of different aboriginal people who lived and survived off the land for thousands of years before the British arrived. Dating back to the late 1700's, Australia's aborigines were marginalized and treated like second-class citizens or worse. During the early 1900's all the way up to the 1970's, the Australian government authorized different agencies and religious groups to forcibly remove aborigine children from their parents so they could be assimilated, or absorbed by white culture. Called the Stolen Generations, these taken children could not speak their native language and had to reject all aspects of aboriginal life. The traumatic history of Australia's aborigines was one of the most significant influences on poet Jack Davis's life.

Noongar Aborigines in English attire
Noongar Aborigines in English attire

Early Life of Jack Davis

Jack Davis, born in March 1917, was the fourth child of a family of 11 kids. Although he was born in Perth, Australia, most of his childhood years were spent in a place called Yarloop. At 14 years old, Davis and one of his brothers were sent to the Moore River Native Settlement, a designated area for aborigines to live and work. The goal of his stay was to learn how to farm, but after spending less than a year there, Davis was ready to leave. He was disgusted by the horrible ways the aborigines living on the Settlement were treated. Davis's experiences at the Moore River Native Settlement, along with the discovery that his mother had been taken from her own parents during the Stolen Generations, brought his love of writing alive. He used poetry as a way to express his frustrations and grief over the plight of the aborigine.

Shortly after Davis's stay at the Moore River Native Settlement, his father died. As a young teenager, Davis was now responsible for helping to support his family. Imagine your life now. Try to picture juggling school and multiple odd jobs just so your family can survive. That's a lot of pressure for someone so young! Even though the odds were stacked against him, Davis never stopped fighting for what he believed in. While living on the Brookton Aboriginal Reserve, he began to learn about his culture and heritage. He even learned how to speak Bibbulmun, the language of his mother's people. Spending his days among traditional aborigines influenced the way he saw the world and the way he wrote about it.

Life as an Activist

Jack Davis is remembered for two things: his humanitarian spirit and his writing. Davis became one of the leading aborigine activists in Australian history. He fought tirelessly for equal rights and fair treatment. From the 1950s through the 1970s, Jack Davis worked with several government agencies and humanitarian groups. As an activist, he played several roles including:

  • Director of the Aboriginal Centre in Perth
  • Chair of Aboriginal Land Trusts in Western Australia
  • Director of the Aboriginal Advancement Council
  • Editor of Identity, an aboriginal publication

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