Latter-day Saint Recognized for Aboriginal Family History Work

  • 28 December 2011

"My own parents were in their teens when they were taken from their traditional environment to the Lutheran Koonibba Mission by their parents, who believed it was in their best interest."

The Spirit of Elijah is strong in Aboriginal people, according to Neva Wilson, a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Neva received two prestigious awards in 2011 for her work in making family history information in the South Australian Museum (SAM) collections accessible to Aboriginal people.

“People come into the Museum in droves to search the genealogical and photographic collections and find their kin connections,” says Neva. She is a former SAM Department of Anthropology Aboriginal Family History Research Officer and has helped an estimated 200 Aboriginal families unlock their past.

Ms Wilson feels that researching family histories and reuniting families are reward enough for her twenty-year effort, but The Gladys Elphick International Women's Day Recognition and being named on the South Australian Women's Honour Roll highlight the value of what the 77-year old has done.

For both awards, Neva was recommended by prominent leaders within Adelaide's Aboriginal community--a fitting expression of their gratitude.

In 1984, working with the late Dr Doreen Kartinyeri, Neva undertook the project of extracting genealogical information from the research done by anthropologists Norman Tindale and Joseph Birdsell from the 1920s through 1952.

“Tindale and Birdsell's interest was not in preserving family lines but in studying patterns of material culture, ideas and beliefs. The records resulting from the joint Harvard-Adelaide Universities' expeditions were very academic,” she explains.

The daunting work was further complicated because many Aboriginal children of that era were removed from family and taken to church-run missions or government institutions.

“My own parents were in their teens when they were taken from their traditional environment to the Lutheran Koonibba Mission by their parents, who believed it was in their best interest,” says Neva.

“That's where they met and married.”

The personal Koonibba Mission connection meant that Neva's family history on both parents' lines was recorded in the 1928-39 expeditions, allowing her to trace her own family tree over several generations.

Wanting to help others of Aboriginal descent who were searching for their ancestry, Neva travelled to Aboriginal communities around the country and trawled records of parishes, other Aboriginal missions, and the Department of Aboriginal Affairs.

She is the author of Our Identity is Our History and Our Future, a brief history of the West Coast Aboriginal peoples, based on the Tindale and Birdsell research. She has a second volume nearing publication.

Neva has also helped Aboriginal college students adjust to city life, worked in drug and alcohol abuse awareness, and earned an Associate Diploma in Aboriginal Studies from SA College of Advanced Education.

The mother of ten, Neva joined The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in 1964, the year her husband died. She is a member of the Fulham Gardens Ward in Adelaide.