by Sue Stanton
© all rights reserved
A combined review/article of The Stolen Children: Their Stories, edited by Carmel Bird.
Carmel Bird’s book is a compilation of extracts from the Bringing Them Home Report of the National Inquiry into the separation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children from their families. The extracts in Bird’s book, including some which were not in the original Report, are some of the most heartrending personal exposures of human trauma.
Sir Ronald Wilson states in the Preface to the Report that some people had difficulty with the personal nature of the submissions, claiming they did not allow the conclusion of facts and/or test the credibility of laws, practices and policies of the protection and assimilation eras. It seems that, due to the nature of the inquiry, the evidence from victims and their families, indigenous organisations, communities, churches, governments and the like, is viewed as a collection of mere stories which contain little authenticity.
For Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders the stories are re-lived each time we have to hear of, or read these stories, whether they be in the form of reports, on film, or discussed on nightly television. We live those stories every day of our lives.
For the sake of Paul, Millicent, Eric, Evie, Penny and Murray, Greg, Jennifer, John, Carol, Tony, Karen, Lance, Peggy, William, Anne, Fiona, Donna, and every one of the stolen children, white Australia must, as a responsible society, share the blame and wear the shame. This society will suffer the consequences of its attitude to the past injustices perpetuated in the name of ‘protection’ until a degree of admittance is shared by all. Only when that is done – instead of kicking conscience around like a social and political football – will Australia grow up, be responsible. If non-indigenous Australian citizenry does not do this, the majority of its citizens are condemned forever to wear the black armbands of its historical past. Part of that past are the stories of the stolen children, Australian children caught up in a policy of systematic genocide labelled protection and assimilation.
While the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission Bringing Them HomeReport documents stories of grief and loss, of excessive physical and psychological cruelty, of child abuse, it stops short of accusing those authorities and their agents of the serious misdemeanours constituting grave human rights violations. As John Frow comments:
The almost unspeakable word here is ‘genocide’. While seeking to remain strictly within the legal framework of the time and to avoid retrospective moralism, the…(Bringing Them Home)…Report nevertheless concludes that a principal aim of the child removal policies was the elimination of indigenous cultures, and that, in the sense given the word by the relevant international convention, this aim constitutes genocide.1
Listen to William’s voice: I wish I was blacker. I wish I had language. I wish I had my culture.2
The Report contains confidential submissions from others who echo the same lament and who face the same cultural, social and economic problems as a result of dispossession.
…They used to tell us not to talk that language, that it’s devil’s language. And they’d wash our mouths with soap. We sorta had to sit down with Bible language all the time…3
… We lost much of our culture, our language and traditional knowledge, our kinship and our land.4
Present with the economic and associated social problems is the added trauma of loss of cultural identity, the effects of lack of parental love, care and influence, and memories of harsh working and living conditions and of physical and emotional abuses. Dispossession as a result of kidnapping also meant the prevention of the acquisition of language, culture, and the learning and carrying out of traditional responsibilities. Most importantly all these factors have prevented the stolen children from establishing their genealogical links. This, apparently, is considered inconsequential in the thinking of mainstream Australian society: why would indigenous Australians want to be able to establish genealogical links? Maybe it is because they may wish to claim their rightful land entitlements which ordinarily would be their right under native title, but which were extinguished by their forced removals. Part of the qualifying conditions for a native title claim is the establishment of biological descent, and it is this condition which creates an enormous hurdle for the stolen children who are sometimes unable to establish such links.
Even so, the success of a native title or similar compensatory claim is little recompense for the traumas, the loss of language and culture, indeed the loss of family life.
It is the loss of family life, the traumas of removal and the subsequent abuses that continue to take their toll on indigenous Australians in various ways. Even the memories invoked by the reading the stolen children,the Report, and similar articles, may contribute to a further breakdown of traditional family structures, to substance abuse, and to various incidences and levels of domestic and family violence. The many submissions tabled in the Report and repeated in the stolen childrentell of the trauma of separation, institutionalism, and emotional and physical abuse. It is no wonder that so many of the stolen children suffer incommensurable emotional distress, and that the culture of despair is the only endowment left to pass on.
John’s story: We didn’t have a clue where we came from. We thought the Sisters were our parents…I was definitely not told that I was Aboriginal…They took us around to a room and shaved our hair off…They gave you your clothes and stamped a number on them…They never called you by your name: they called you by your number…5
Eric’s story (as related to the Inquiry by Eric’s psychiatrist): …the most significant pain for him has been the loss of family and the separation from his own kin and his culture…he feels constantly afraid, with a sense of fear residing in his chest…the level of rejection he has experienced hurts him immensely…He specifies particular details of physical cruelty and physical assault as well as emotional deprivation and punishment that would, in this age, be perceived as cruel in the extreme.6
The Sydney Aboriginal Mental Health Unit, which advised the Bringing Them Home Inquiry of its experience with patients presenting with emotional distress, described the extent of the trauma as ‘incalculable’:
This tragic experience, across several generations, has resulted in incalculable trauma, depression and major mental health problems for Aboriginal people. Careful history taking during the assessment of most individuals (i.e. clients) and families identifies separation by one means or another – initially the systematic removal of children…has been tantamount to a continuing cultural and spiritual genocide both as an individual and a community experience and we believe that it has been the single most significant factor in emotional and mental health problems which in turn have impacted on physical health.7
The trauma of past protection and assimilation policies lives with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders every day. It is re-lived every time there are incidences of juvenile imprisonment, suicide, deaths in custody, adoption, drug and alcohol and other substance abuse, domestic and other violence. The legacy of separation is manifested in the dire socio-economic status of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders, and through the never-ending personal struggle for recognition and identity. The struggle for the stolen children is perpetuated daily in the lives of their descendants, who are concerned, not only with their own sense of dislocation, but must try to understand and support their parents and grandparents trying desperately to find their place within a society which denies them that place.
Some sceptics and other critics dismiss the stolen generations’ trauma as inconsequential, overstated, or simply not important. But there are also many decent non-indigenous citizens in Australia who recognise that a society such as white Australia cannot have a perfect past, and that due to the very nature of invasion, misdeeds, indeed atrocities would have occurred. While it may have taken some of those citizens a long time to figure this out, (difficult to imagine especially in light of the abundance of information regarding similar colonising experiences and genocidal practices around the globe) they must be admired for their preparedness in speaking out. While for some, the initial knowledge and realisation that violations against fellow humans took place in Australia causes offence, which is most often followed by denial, others take the time to educate themselves in regard to past Australian histories and issues, and as a result, are able to reappraise their original criticisms and opinions. This latter position was set out by Raimond Gaita8 , who, in a 1997 article, used his own change of attitude – from resistance to recognition of the issues – as a rehearsal of this argument. He expressed puzzlement at the refusal to recognise the true nature of the situation of the stolen children history and the reluctance of either the left or the right to instigate, or even investigate, the notion of guilt in regard to human rights violations. Indeed, Gaita would have those authorities and their agents guilty of genocide and would have them face trials. But he states that in Australia trials
…are literally unthinkable, and that they are so…is the most persuasive evidence that the significance of the crimes against the Aborigines has not been fully appreciated,9
Maybe it is time that the stolen generations ceased with their demands for an apology, and seriously thought about pursuing the idea of implementation of criminal trials so as to determine who was, and/or who is guilty, identify them, put them on trial, and punish them accordingly. There are certainly many servants of the assimilationist regime still around, some who publicly admit, in their books and memoirs, to the roles they played in the kidnapping of children.
The shock of realisation regarding human rights abuses in the ‘good country’ Australia, rocks the foundations of what was conveniently believed to be a tranquil and safe environment. Those foundations are further undermined by allegations of genocide, and gross child abuse (physical, sexual and emotional), and the suggestion that assimilation policies are comparable to apartheid. But Australians must confront these facts, for the evidence is there, and Australians need to know that genocide is not only associated with other remote global theatres of war.
The Bringing Them Home report uses a definition of genocide, set out by Professor Raphael Lemkin in 1944, which makes specific reference to the separation of families:
Deliberate separation of families for depopulation purposes subordinated to the criminal intent to destroy or to cripple permanently a human group. The acts are directed as such, and individuals are selected for destruction, only because they belong to these groups.
The Convention of Genocide, ratified by Australia in 1949, clearly establishes forcible removal as an act of genocide. And before the critics of the Inquiry dismiss and/or deny the serious charge of genocide, and justify all the actions of past governments and their zealot servants, they should take time to read some of the submissions both in the Report and extracted in Bird’s book. Even the most adamant denials and/or justifications could never mask the gross violation of human rights, and the denial of basic legal rights. If they could only think of the stolen children as fellow humans. Those past governments and their servants, and the present coalition government and its enthusiastic bedfellows, such as the One Nation Party and other right-wing organisations, and their followers, have failed miserably, and will continue to fail in their duties to members of the human species while they maintain their white supremacist arrogance.
It may also be a good time to ask some questions in regard to the monies misappropriated from Aboriginal peoples during the apartheid regimes of the past, and to conduct a similar exercise to that by which Jewish monies confiscated during the war have been tracked down. Due to the nature of the government policies that encouraged promotion of racial segregation, white supremacy flourished, and members of the stolen generations were deemed incapable of managing their own finances.
We never, ever got our wages. It was banked for us. And when we were 21 we were supposed to get this money. We never got any of that money ever. And that’s what I wonder: where could that money have went? Or why didn’t we get it?10
The attempted whitening of black Australia may have started out as a social engineering project, but it soon developed into a lucrative industry for enthusiastic and ambitious servants of the regime. It led to the development of a process of corruption that allowed a number of profiteers to become extremely wealthy, some Christian missions and their associated institutions to make profit of government subsidy money, and it protected paedophilia activity, and gross sexual and other physical exploitation of children. Surely white Australia can feel just a little embarrassed about this, regardless of who is responsible for the actions of past government policies and their outcomes. And surely, white Australia can name it for what it was and not justify actions of past governments in the usual patronising ways.
Why is that the Australian government cannot apologise, or set in place some form of recompense, or better still some investigative review in an effort to appease the stolen generations’ demands ? It is because the present government, and those of the past, are afraid of finding out the real truth and know that a South African type ‘Truth and Reconciliation Commission’ would forever destroy the ‘fair go’ egalitarian image of Australia that has been long promoted?
Symbolic apologies, whether personal or from the entire nation, should not be considered neither appropriate nor ample, but would suffice for the present. Justice Marcus Einfeld, former head of the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission, raised the issue of apology as a crucial issue:
If Mr F W de Klerk could go to the South Africa Truth and Reconciliation Commission and apologise for the wickedness of the institutionalised systematic race hatred known as apartheid, I ask why is it so hard for our leaders to do the same…11
It certainly does not help that the present Coalition government refuses to recognise the historical injustice of the stolen generations eras. These same individuals who refuse to apologise for past injustices prefer to remind Australia of the ideals and wise decisions of past governments and leaders. They rant and rave about principles of democracy, equality, egalitarianism, but their actions demonstrate that they do not know what these concepts mean. They speak of the spread of goodwill amongst the populous but conveniently forget that indigenous Australians were subjected to restrictive legislation very similar to that imposed on Jewish and other European communities during World War II. Yet, in Australia, there is no comparable acknowledgment. On the contrary there is the rambling of an uncaring man:
Now of course we treated the Aborigines very badly in the past, but to tell our children whose parents were no part of that mistreatment, to tell children who themselves have no part of it, that we are all part of a racist, bigoted history is something that Australians reject.12
Not only does this statement admit to the mistreatment of Aborigines, it also excludes them from the consciousness of mainstream Australia. Howard obviously believes that only whites and others besides Aborigines are Australian. He feels he should shoulder the burden of insult for all his white comrades and makes it his responsibility to protect them from the truth of their racist, bigoted history. Yet he does not see it his responsibility to protect Aborigines or to help heal their wounds and scarred memories of that same racist and bigoted history.
Disbelief is a common initial response to Bringing Them Home report, the stolen children, or similar accounts, But while most are astounded that these accounts illustrate events in contemporary Australian history – the Prime Minister John Howard, nor his minister John Herron remain unmoved. Instead they attack such reports and accounts, and name them ‘black armband’ accounts of Australian history. They, along with an alarming number of apparently learned and responsible ministers, incite a great number of ill-informed and historically ignorant citizens, into accepting sugar-coated and romanticised, and untrue representations of the past. This stance, in regard to the nation’s apartheid history is convenient for those who wish to shirk all responsibility for unpleasant reminders of past government policies in regard to indigenous Australians. For this reason alone there is need for reports, books, lectures, films alerting the general public of these matters.
In no sense has the Inquiry been ‘raking over the past’ for its own sake. The truth is that the past is very much with us today, in the continuing devastation of the lives of Indigenous Australians. That devastation cannot be addressed unless the whole community listens with an open heart and mind to the stories of what happened in the past and, having listened and understood, commits itself to reconciliation.13
The trauma and memory left as a legacy of the attempted social engineering policies of past governments is as stark and as real as the apparent lack of memory displayed by some key Australian leaders. It is, at first, unfathomable to comprehend why it is so difficult for the present government to initiate a national apology. But this becomes easier to understand when one realises that the denial of colonial, and some contemporary history, unless of course it is praising the exploits of invader-settlers and/or invader-explorers, or some latter-day heroic figure (usually a sports identity), is a deliberate and resolute attempt at hiding a murky past. It is indeed a sad reflection of a society when its moral deficiency stops it from admitting to serious errors of judgement and decision in regard to a certain group within its population.
The stolen children and their descendants re-live the guilt of white Australia; while non-indigenous Australia denies this guilt, their descendants yet to come will continue to live this guilt forever. They will continue to live the trauma of hearing those stories of the near total physical annihilation, and almost successful cultural genocide of indigenous Australians for as long as Australian governments continue with their pathological denials of responsibilities of past policies. Just as white Australia states that it cannot be held responsible for history’s past deeds, so, too, may Aboriginal people argue they too should not be held responsible for being the target group subject to the special treatment policies of those past governments. What has happened now is that the victims have become the perpetrators, and therefore somehow responsible (due to racial classification) for their current situation. It is bizarre to say the least.
It’s time to say sorry, Australia!
Sue Stanton is a research fellow at the Centre for Indigenous Natural and Cultural Resource Management, Northern Territory University
1 J Frow, A Politics of Stolen Time, Australian Humanities Review,10/3/98
13 J Frow, A Politics of Stolen Time in Australian Humanities Review,10/3/98