Posted by: Lisa Hill | July 6, 2021

Debesa, the Story of Frank and Katie Rodriguez (2021), by Cindy Solonec

Cultural warning to Indigenous readers: This post contains the names of people who have passed away.

Debesa, the Story of Frank and Katie Rodriguez, is derived from a family history that turned into a social history PhD, and was then rewritten for a general readership.  It is a detailed, mainly chronological narrative about the Spanish, Aboriginal, English and Indian heritages of Cindy Solonec’s parents.  ‘Debesa’ is the name of their sheep station in the West Kimberley, 100 km east of Derby.

Starting in the 1880s, the author traces the arrival in Fremantle of her maternal great-grandfather, Jimmy Casim, from India, his move to the north, and his relationship with Muninga, a Nigena woman, on Yeeda Station near Derby.  Because their children were of mixed descent, they were removed to Kimberley Catholic missions under the powers of the Chief Protector of Aborigines in Western Australia, through the Aborigines Act, 1905.  So Solonec’s grandmother, born in 1900 and whose bush name was Jira, was renamed Phillipena in 1909 and, with her small cousin Gypsy renamed Francesca, was sent to the Pallottine mission at Beagle Bay north of Broome.  The nightmarish memory of the voyage to Broome by steamship and then coastal lugger to Beagle Bay was never forgotten.  She was not reunited with her mother for thirty years.

Solonec’s maternal grandfather, Yoolya, a Nigena man, was also one of the Stolen Generations.  HIs mother Wadadarl was a Nigena woman and his father was a white stockman.  He was renamed Fulgentius Fraser after the bishop of WA and sent to the Drysdale River Benedictine mission (now Kalumburu).  As a young man he was sent to Beagle Bay to find a wife, and he married Phillipena in 1919.  Solonec’s mother Katie was born the following year, .  They lived on the mission, though Fulgentius was away droving for long periods of time.

As a young woman Katie entered the novitiate at a convent for black women, but she found the restrictions on seeing her family too hard, and so she took up work as a cook at Liveringa.  That was where she met and married the author’s father, a young Spaniard whose mother had protected him from the Civil War by sending him to a Benedictine monastery.  Francisco (Frank) Rodriguez, arrived from Galicia in Spain in 1937 to join the Benedictines at the New Norcia mission 132km north of Perth.  His diaries, begun in 1944 and written in Castilian for the first few years, were the catalyst for Solonec’s project to unravel her family’s story, using interviews and further research.

From these beginnings, the family achieved remarkable things.  Sustained by their Catholic faith and a strong work ethic, the couple raised a family, acquired their own land on country, and maintained close connection with their heritages.  Alongside running the sheep station, Frank studied to achieve qualifications and became a builder whose skill in using materials to hand made him a sought-after workman on many projects in the area.  His wife worked hard all her life in a variety of jobs, ensuring that there was money to send the children to boarding school for a good education and to ensure that they took the sacraments that were the bedrock of their faith.

In all likelihood, my father had no reason to question his worldview and the power of prayer.  His upbringing had made sure of that.  Mum, on the other hand, had her doubts.  She was a first-generation mission-born woman and, while heavily influenced by Catholicism, she had nonetheless listened to the ‘old people’ who lived on the outskirts of the mission, and their inherent beliefs.  She questioned the supposed power of prayer that did not prevent the illnesses that plagued her life.  (p.92)

Solonec is quite rightly proud of her parents and her family history, but there is some rather negative commentary in her account.  All of us who are not Indigenous have to be prepared for Indigenous books to have content or tone that might be hostile or confronting to us, but it was surprising to find that Solonec is critical of other Indigenous initiatives.  Involvement in the WA Aboriginal Advancement Council is depicted negatively in Debesa and the composition of its membership appears to be contested:

During the 1960s the organisation [the Native Welfare Council formed in 1952] became the Aboriginal Advancement Council and its focus was on supporting south-west Aboriginal people to adjust to white society.  The Council remained closely aligned with the Department of Native Welfare and wudjella (non-Aboriginal) humanitarians were intent on teaching Noongars to live like them.


… the all-white council* was not without its infighting.  They jostled for control and power while advocating for the rights of Aboriginals.  Few Noongars made any attempt to gain positions within those organisations because they didn’t regard themselves as being like white, middle-class Australians.  They generally refused to bow to white supremacy.  Neither did they accept being pushed towards white goals and they avoided becoming members of organisations formed in, supposedly, their best interests. (p.140)

*George Cyril Abdullah (1919-1984, of Indian/Indigenous heritage) is listed in the online Indigenous Australia, Australian Dictionary of Biography as helping to establish the WA Native Welfare Council  in 1952, (which became the AAC in 1963.)

By coincidence, I was also reading at the same time Two Cultures, One Story by Robert Isaacs, (an Aboriginal Elder from the Whadjuk-Bibilmum Wardandi Noongar language group), and the day after reading Solonec’s negative commentary about the Aboriginal Advancement Council, I read about his involvement with the same organisation.  Having travelled overseas to learn how Native Americans were implementing self-determination, Isaacs wanted to develop similar ways of bridging the gulf between Indigenous communities and government.  He was aware that Aboriginal people were not accessing the available government services (such as healthcare) and needed them repackaged and provided in a different way.  They also needed to be educated about those services and taught how to use them effectively.  

As a young man in 1976 he was keen to develop programs that would do this.

It seemed pretty clear to me that the politics of Aboriginal issues needed to be managed, and that black and white politics needed to come together under new policies.  The key thing was to develop programs, ideally, run for Aboriginal people by Aboriginal people.  The first logical step was to join an organisation that represented their interests.  This was the Aboriginal Advancement Council, which was formed in the mid-1960s by visionary Aboriginal who wanted a voice for social change. (Two cultures, One Story, by Robert Isaacs, Magabala Books, 2021, ISBN 9781925936070, p.64)

In addition to supporting dialogue amongst Aboriginal people themselves, Isaacs writes that the AAC became a leading advisory service to new initiatives. He credits the AAC with supporting his initiative in starting the first Aboriginal medical clinic in Perth, and the emergence of interpreters to overcome language barriers.

While Solonec and Isaacs are writing about time frames a decade apart, and nobody expects Indigenous people to speak with one voice any more than other people do, still, it is confusing to read that the value and membership of this organisation is contested in this way.

A map would have been useful.  I would not be the only Australian with only a hazy grasp of Western Australia beyond the major cities, but mainly, I would have liked to see the WA map with original Indigenous names replacing the ones that we are familiar with, as used in the book.

Jennifer at Tasmanian Bibliophile at Large reviewed Debesa too. 

Cindy Solonec is a Nigena (Nyikina) woman from the West Kimberley.


Author: Cindy Solonec
Title: Debesa, the Story of Frank and Katie Rodriguez
Publisher: Magabala Books, 2021
ISBN: 9781925936001, pbk.,264 pages
Review copy courtesy of Magabala Books



  1. Thanks, Lisa. My memory is that Isaacs was writing from his direct involvement and experience, whereas Solonec was writing from her observation. Different perspectives. It would be interesting to talk to them both.


    • True, but I think she’s also writing from a different political PoV, one which makes her position seem hostile to those working in a very different era.
      The ALP has the same dissenters: those who wish to be pragmatic, get into power and then achieve change, and those who want to stick to first principles even if they never get elected.
      Isaacs was prepared to work with the cards he was dealt, whereas those who refused to get involved with the AAC because they perceived it as assimilationist were not.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I recently listened to Better Reading’s Stories Behind the Story Podcast Episode featuring Cindy Solonec. She has an interesting ancestral background. It was interesting to learn of how Solonec rewrote her thesis which readers are introduced to as Debesa, the Story of Frank and Katie Rodriguez. Lisa, based on your review of the book, it shares values of community, familial history, and cultural diversity like other Indigenous life stories like Growing Up Aboriginal in Australia, A Small Place, Auntie Rita and Oodgeroo. Thank you Lisa for another thought-provoking book review.
    Sonia, U.S.A


    • Thanks, Sonia… I should have mentioned in my review that unlike some PhDs turned into stories that I’ve read, this one is very readable. It’s very difficult to transition from academic language to the everyday. I know I struggled with it after years of studying part time!


  3. […] See Lisa’s ANZ LitLovers review […]


  4. It is a complicated situation in WA. There are different groups with opposing agendas it seems but the good part is that if you live in this vast state it’s impossible to ignore whether you live in Pepperment Grove or Koondoola. Thanks for another considered review and a reminder to read more indigenous writers.


    • I think it’s probably true everywhere, in all political contexts, that there are different perspectives on the best way to move forward. I have just finished reading Thomas Mayor’s Finding the Heart of the Nation which is about the Uluru Statement, and he addresses this issue of conflict directly because it makes it all the more remarkable that there was a consensus about the Statement. You’ll see this in my review which is scheduled for publication tomorrow.


  5. As a Western Australian reader I’ve “cut across” this story a couple of times. Daisy Bates first involvement with Aboriginal people was living and working at the Beagle Bay mission. It’s aim was to teach the people Catholicism and farming. And Charmaine Papertalk Green talks of Yamaji people around Mullewa (inland from Geraldton) being taught Catholicism, but out in the bush, they weren’t allowed in the impressive stone church.

    This is all by way of saying I’m sorry for not keeping up. I’m working all this week but I hope the post on Dark Emu I have three quarters done can be up within your time frame (Sue’s book I forgot to bring with me).


    • Don’t worry, Bill, you know I’m very flexible about contributions for this ‘week’ and whatever you write, whenever it comes, it will be gratefully accepted!


  6. Another one I’ll come back to when I’ve read mine.


  7. I think it’s so interesting to learn about the different ways that Indigenous communities face/manage disagreements and conflicts from within; this is something that’s been in the news a lot here, recently, regarding extractivism on reservation lands, with some individuals willing to work with companies with the hope of being able to influence and/or profit extraction and other individuals insisting on sovereignty and eschewing corporate developments and relationships (speaking in the most general terms). Complicated!


    • Yes, I agree entirely, it makes no sense that all Indigenous people think the same way.
      What I take issue with is being critical of activists working in a different era when everything was so difficult and expecting them to have refused to take what they could get rather than hang out for an outcome unachievable at that time.


  8. […] also reviewed this book, engendering some good […]


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