My Survival as an Aboriginal: Zigzag

My Survival as an Aboriginal: Zigzag
WARNING: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander viewers are advised that the following program may contain images and/or audio of deceased persons
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Essie Coffey instructs some young people on how to track animals. They are looking for porcupine tracks, and finally find one. A porcupine never walks straight says Essie, but always walks in a zig zag. They follow the porcupine to a hollowed log. Summary by Romaine Moreton.

While it was carefully constructed, this sequence is very much the equivalent of an Indigenous home video, with the family out on a hunting and gathering expedition, and in this instance, looking for the prized flesh of the porcupine or echidna.


My Survival as an Aboriginal synopsis

A documentary about Indigenous woman Essie Coffey and her life in the township of Brewarrina, or Dodge City, as it is also known.

My Survival as an Aboriginal curator's notes

Essie Coffey (1941-1998) was a Muruwari woman born near Goodooga, NSW. She was the co-founder of the Western Aboriginal Legal Service and an inaugural member of the Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation. Essie Coffey’s passion for her culture and her stoic dedication to her people is tangible in this film. As a charismatic, dedicated woman, she invites the audience into her community. And while she brings to the fore the hardships endured by her community, she is continually focused on the power and richness of traditional knowledge and skills, and the power of her cultural connection to land. In this, Coffey not only raises issues of the impact of colonisation on Indigenous peoples, but also offers a solution by way of continuing cultural practice.

Essie Coffey gives a personal account of what happened to her people in Brewarrina and her personal opinions on why her people are caught in a struggle. The opening sequence of My Survival as an Aboriginal is challenging as it delivers a litany of atrocities and hardships committed against Aboriginal people. The producer of My Survival as an Aboriginal, Martha Ansara, has said that the film was 'a passionate outcry … a voice of repressed truth’, and the film is still current within the contemporary Australian society. The ongoing issues of colonialism and dispossession raised by Coffey continue to affect Indigenous peoples today. My Survival as an Aboriginal, though a call to justice, is also tempered with beauty, and the audience is allowed to glimpse the private world of Essie Coffey and the people of Brewarrina. Coffey is very strong in her fight for justice, and equally committed to ensuring that the next generation are taught cultural knowledge as a means of ensuring an identity invested in the ongoing relationship to land.

My Survival as an Aboriginal was directed by Essie Coffey and is a collaboration with non-Indigenous filmmaker Martha Ansara. It was one of the first Australian films where an Indigenous Australian was directly involved in deciding how she and her community would be represented, and is also the first documentary directed by an Indigenous woman.

Essie Coffey also appeared in My Life as I Live It (1993) and gave a copy of My Survival as an Aboriginal to Queen Elizabeth II at the opening of Australia’s new Parliament House in 1988. Essie Coffey is a voice that reaches across time, and she continues to be a larger than life contributor in the ongoing fight for the rights for Indigenous peoples. See also Big Girls Don’t Cry.

This program has also screened on NITV, National Indigenous Television.

Notes by Romaine Moreton


Education notes

This clip shows Muruwari woman Essie Coffey in the bush near Brewarrina, New South Wales, teaching two young children how to track a ‘porcupine’ (echidna). She shows the children the tracks made by the animal and explains that an echidna walks in a zigzag rather than a straight line. The group follows the tracks to a fallen tree log, where the two young children with the help of another adult break open the log and discover not one but two echidnas.

Educational value points

  • The ways in which Coffey demonstrates to the children how to track an echidna offer insight into the ways cultural knowledge is often imparted in Indigenous communities. Coffey involves the children directly in the learning process by showing them the echidna’s tracks, explaining the zigzag nature of the tracks and then getting the children to follow the tracks. Under Coffey’s guidance the children locate the echidna in a log by listening and looking. The learning experience is consolidated when the children experience the excitement of finding two echidnas.
  • The clip captures the passing on of traditional knowledge and skills to Indigenous children through active participation in activities such as hunting an echidna, considered a delicacy in some areas. Through observation, imitation, practice and storytelling, children are taught skills such as tracking, hunting and gathering. In the clip the children are shown learning at an early age how to read tracks to identify the type of animal and the direction and speed of its movement.
  • The clip shows Coffey’s role in passing on cultural knowledge to young Indigenous people. Coffey’s knowledge is based on her own childhood experiences of living in the bush. Her family had moved to isolated bushland to avoid being placed on an Aboriginal reserve. Coffey said that this early experience strengthened her resolve to pass on her cultural knowledge to young Indigenous people.
  • Coffey (1940–98) was a Muruwari woman born near Goodooga in NSW. In the mid-1950s she married and lived on an Aboriginal reserve at Brewarrina in western NSW where she co-founded the Brewarrina Aboriginal Heritage and Cultural Museum and the Western Aboriginal Legal Service. Coffey served on government bodies such as the Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation and was made a member of the Order of Australia in 1998 for service to the Aboriginal community.
  • My Survival as an Aboriginal, which Coffey made in collaboration with non-Indigenous filmmaker Martha Ansara, was the first documentary directed by an Indigenous woman. It was also one of the first Australian films in which an Indigenous Australian was directly involved in deciding how she and her community would be represented rather than having their story mediated through a non-Indigenous filmmaker.

Education notes provided by The Learning Federation and Education Services Australia

Production company:
Goodgaban Productions
Martha Ansara, Alec Morgan, Kimble Rendall, Rosalie Higson, Kit Guyatt, Annmarie Chandler, Essie Coffey
Essie Coffey