White Woman Black Heart: Journey Home To Old Mapoon, A Memoir

Authored by Barbara Miller

White Woman Black Heart by Barbara Miller


Barbara often found herself saying, “the stork dropped me at the wrong house’ only to find she was repeating her mother’s words. In this riveting memoir exploring race relations and social change, Aboriginal elder Burnum Burnum, told her, “you may be white but you have a black heart, as you understand my people and feel our heart.’ He suggested to International Development Action that she take on the Mapoon project and played matchmaker by introducing her to Aboriginal teacher and Australian civil rights movement leader Mick Miller.The Mapoon Aborigines were forcibly moved off their land by the Queensland government in NE Australia in 1963 to make way for mining. With an effective team behind her, Barbara helped them move back in 1974 to much government opposition which saw her under house arrest with Marjorie Wymarra. It also saw Jerry Hudson and Barbara taken to court.

In helping the Mapoon people return to their homeland, she found her home as part of an Aboriginal family, firstly Mick’s and later Norman’s as she remarried many years later, now being with her soulmate Norman about 30 years. It is a must read for those interested in ethnic studies and political science as an isolated outback community whose houses, school, health clinic, store and church were burnt to the ground rose from the ashes and rebuilt despite all the odds. It is a testimony to the Mapoon people’s strength.


Barbara is an intriguing combination of pastor, social justice campaigner and researcher and her memoir is fascinating because of it. Passionate about people being free from the chains of oppression, her sociological training means she has a focus on changing structures in society that hold people groups back. As a pastor and psychologist, she has helped many people break free of mindsets that have prevented them reaching their full potential.

From her background in a poor working class white family in urban Australia, Barbara, with Aboriginal husband Norman, who is also a pastor, travel the world. They have a calling to heal groups from the wounds of history through the Centre for International Reconciliation and Peace they co-founded in 1998. This work has taken them to Israel, Jordan, Turkey, England, Zimbabwe, Canada, USA, PNG, Vanuatu and many other places.

Barbara has worked at the coalface of Aboriginal affairs in Australia from her involvement in the Aboriginal Tent Embassy demonstrations in Canberra in 1972 to helping the Mapoon people move back to their land in 1974, to co-founding the North Queensland Land Council with former husband Mick Miller in 1977 to being CEO of the Aboriginal Co-ordinating Council (ACC) in the 1990’s and much more. The ACC was the only statutory advisory body to the Queensland government on Aboriginal affairs at the time and represented local government Aboriginal councils who had a land base.

From someone who grew up avoiding conflict in her family of origin because of different beliefs, she seems to have put herself in the way of it confronting government policies which harmed Aboriginal people. Also she has become a professional mediator who helps others face and resolve their conflicts at work and at home. She has found her voice with the publication of her fourth solo book.


“This is a highly engaging and inspiring memoir. At its centre is the story of Mapoon which has all the elements of a great drama with the violent expulsion of the community in 1963 and their triumphant return eleven years later. As the author explains she came almost by chance to be at the very centre of the drama which in turn dramatically changed her life. This book is essential reading for anyone interested in political and social change over the last 50 years.”

Professor Henry Reynolds

FAHA FASSA University of Tasmania, eminent historian and award-winning author

“This a personal memoir recording biographical details which illuminates many aspects of contemporary Australian history. Miller takes us on a fascinating journey from her working class background and her spiritual and political awakening through to her involvement in Anti-Vietnam War demonstrations and the Aboriginal Tent Embassy. This is woven around her coverage of her involvement with helping to re-establish Mapoon in 1974. Miller gives an insightful treatment of how and why she became engaged in social justice issues in the 1970s. This was a period of major social change in Australia when there was no internet or digital technology and yet Miller manages to convey the passion and commitment of the times. It is apparent that her social activism is guided and motivated by her faith. The atrocious treatment of the residents of Mapoon when the Director of Native Affairs used police-state tactics to remove them in 1963 from their traditional lands, is both heart-breaking and up-lifting. The author shows great sensitivity, respect and understanding and manages to convey the petty-fogging autocratic paternalistic control of Indigenous people, which pervaded the period of the Bjelke-Petersen era. One can see what Aboriginal people had to contend with and how, with the re-establishment of Mapoon, that a most positive success story has finally been achieved. This is an engrossing and compassionate memoir of an extraordinary woman who through her actions demonstrates what can be achieved through persistent commitment and faith.”

Dr Timothy Bottoms

Author of Conspiracy of Silence, Queensland’s frontier killing times (Allen & Unwin 2013) and CAIRNS, City of the South Pacific, A History 1770-1995 (Bunu Bunu Press 2016).

“Barbara Miller has written this book, a continuum to the trilogy of the Mapoon books and towards the modern history of the western Cape York region. It is a testimony to the endurance and resilience of the people of the district and the determination of the people to return to the land of their forefathers.”

Ricky Guivarra

Former Mapoon Aboriginal Shire Councillor

“White Woman, Black Heart recites, with powerful eloquence, an amazing story: the personal journey of the author and the heroic resilience of the Mapoon Aboriginal Community from Western Cape York. Miller’s account weaves her own story with that of the Mapoon people, with enthralling detail and incredible personal recollection which extends from the turbulent times of the sixties and seventies to the present. It is also an inspiring testimony to the empowering convergence between her authentic spirituality and the never-ending struggle for social justice. As a contribution to the history of that political struggle in Queensland and the Western Cape particularly, it is important for both scholars and activists.”

Rev Dr Noel Preston

Retired Professor of Ethics and social justice activist

“This memoir, while being a personal journey of great interest, also exposes the oppressive power of the state, particularly under the Bjelke-Petersen government. It controlled every aspect of the lives of Aboriginal people through the Qld Aborigines Act and refused them rights to their own land. In my role with FAIRA, I worked with Mick and Barbara, the North Qld Land Council and the Aboriginal and Islander community councils and their representatives and can attest to the history-changing work they did and the dedication Barbara had to helping the Mapoon people return to their land. The book details the tragic events of the removal of the Mapoon people and the burning of their homes, paying homage to the women of Mapoon, in particular Mrs Jean Jimmy, who fought tirelessly for their land.”

Bob Weatherall

Formerly Foundation for Aboriginal and Islander Research and Action (FAIRA) and currently Chair of the Centre for Indigenous Cultural Policy in Brisbane

“This is a poignant personal memoir of a young white woman who chose to encounter the legal and political tension of race relations for Aboriginal people in Queensland and provide support as it unfolded in the 1970s. Her story is punctuated by the dispossession of the people of Mapoon from their traditional lands in favour of bauxite miners and their journey home after many years separated from their land.”

Greg McIntyre,

S.C. John Toohey Chambers, Perth, Counsel for Eddie Mabo in the High Court case 1992

Mapoon remains one of many examples of Queensland’s human rights abuses (perpetrated on people) because of being Aboriginal. Barbara Miller has again exposed what others would want buried in this shameful chapter of how Australia treated its Indigenous peoples. The Mapoon story must be told out loud … to make sure it cannot happen again.

George Villaflor

Former CEO of Tharpuntoo Aboriginal Legal Service, Cape York Peninsula.

“Barbara Miller’s new book, White Woman Black Heart: Journey Home to Old Mapoon A Memoir, makes sense of the times I lived through. I remember the 70’s in particular being an era of protests and change but, as a young housewife and mother, I only witnessed it through the flickering screen of my television set. This book has brought home to me just how insular I was. My heart now bleeds for those who lived the experience and rejoices in their strength and dignity in overcoming everything the government of the day threw at them. I am thrilled that this important part of Queensland’s history is now being told. These people, Jean Jimmy, Mick Miller, Marjorie Wymarra, Barbara herself, and so many others, and their stories, should never be forgotten. For all those who have passed on, may they rest in peace knowing their story has been told.”

Marjorie Earl

Cairns reader


By Munganbana Norman Miller
This book will put Mapoon on the map. It should be made into a film. It is a gripping read that you will not be able to put down. Barbara’s life has certainly been one of adventure though she didn’t set out to find it. She just seemed to be where the action was and still is.

To look at Barbara you would just think she’s a blonde blue-eyed white woman and what would she know about Aboriginal affairs? But she is a walking talking history, mainly because she has lived through and been closely involved with many seasons and changes in Aboriginal affairs.

I believe this book is ground-breaking and history-making and it honours many of the people who pioneered the move back, their supporters, and those who came after them and helped rebuild Mapoon. Today, Barbara is touched to be talking to the children and grandchildren of the pioneers who are full of hope for the future.

Thomas Edison is reported to have said “genius is 2 per cent inspiration and 98% perspiration” and I would say the same about book writing. I have seen that through Barbara’s determination to finish this book. I am glad to have been able to support her through the long writing process – 4 years in the making (with many other adventures along the way).


His long flowing white beard and hair and bushy eyebrows framed a face with big soulful brown eyes as he looked at me and said, “You may be white but you have a black heart, as you understand my people and feel our heart.’ This was a very affirming encounter with a deeply thoughtful man named Burnum Burnum who was to change my life. He suggested to IDA that I take on what became known as the Mapoon project and intentionally played matchmaker (unknown to me) by introducing me to Mick Miller who was to become my husband.

These words were repeated to me occasionally by others over the years and Desmond Zwar used it as a title to an article he wrote on me after I released a submission to the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody (The Sunday Age 2 December 1990). The same article makes the following comment,
“It isn’t only because she was married to an Aborigine that Ms Miller had an understanding of Aborigines, says Mick Connolly, 38, an Aboriginal councillor at Yarrabah community (population 900) on the opposite side of the bay to Cairns. He says of her report, ‘There are certain people who deal with Aborigines in a detached manner, whereas Barbara almost becomes an Aborigine: she can really feel for the people. She not only understands Aboriginal ways, but when she puts it on paper, all she has to do is reach within herself; she’s got it all in her head, and has had it there for so long.”

Hence the title of my book. However as I wrote my memoir, the title I always had in mind was “Journey Home to Old Mapoon.” I often found myself saying, “the stork dropped me at the wrong house’ only to find I was repeating my mother’s words because I didn’t fit into the family as she had expected. In helping the Mapoon people return to their homeland, I found my home as part of an Aboriginal family, firstly Mick’s and later Norman’s as I remarried many years later.

When I realized I had written enough for two memoirs, the title of the second memoir, “White Woman, Black Heart” became the title of the first and second memoirs and “Journey Home to Old Mapoon” became the subtitle of the first one. The subtitle of the second memoir is yet a mystery.

The Mapoon people were forcibly moved off their land by the Queensland government in NE Australia in 1963 to make way for mining. With an effective team behind me, I helped them move back in 1974 to much government opposition which saw me under house arrest with Marjorie Wymarra. It also saw Jerry Hudson and myself taken to court.

I could have written this book as history and few would have read it except students and researchers. But I have written it as a memoir because it brings it to life and to a much wider readership. It puts flesh and bones on the story of the oppressors of Aborigines in Queensland and the Aboriginal people who stood up to the government and won. It contains real people, real places, real events and eye-witness accounts. It is a behind-the-scenes, never before revealed story of how Aborigines encountered the naked power of the state, and not only survived, but prevailed. They have created a model community and live meaningful lives.

The government burned down the houses of the people so they wouldn’t return. But, as the Mapoon people themselves have said, “Mapoon rose from the ashes.”