New Internationalist

The stolen ones

Issue 311

At least a tenth of Aboriginal children were forcibly removed from their families from 1910 to 1970. Tjalaminu Mia, taken when she was ten, demands that Australians treat these festering wounds.

Reunited at last – Graeme (top row, far right), Tjalaminu (top row, second from right) and family.

Ironically, I am the offspring of two parents – one Aboriginal and the other non-Aboriginal – who both experienced removal and institutionalization for different reasons.

My father was born in England, where he was placed in the care of a Dr Barnardos Orphanage. When he was ten years old, he was shipped out to Western Australia to the Fairbridge Children’s Farm. My mother and her sister, meanwhile, were taken away from my grandparents and placed in the care of the Catholic nuns at the Home of The Good Shepherd, where they were strongly encouraged to take up the Christian faith and become nuns.

The pattern was repeated in my own childhood. In 1962, at ten years of age, along with my six brothers and sisters, I was taken from my parents and extended family and placed in Sister Kate’s Children’s Home. There were about 12 cottages in the grounds of the Home and families were broken up and put into separate ones. My brothers and sisters and I were scattered between at least four of them. It was terrible, as we weren’t used to being apart. The shock of going from the richness of family life to this isolated, lonely and alien environment was almost more than I could bear. There was no sense of family, affection or personal attention. This made it very difficult for me to relate to people later in life.

My brother Graeme and I were fair-skinned and to the people running the Home, this meant we were more white than black – even though our whole life so far had been spent with our own family and heritage. It seemed at times these carers were determined to force us to forget our culture and make us white. I had gone from being boisterous and outgoing to being very introverted – I had to go inside myself to survive.

It was only after we had all grown up and were able to talk with Mum about some of the things that had happened to us that we began to understand on a deeper level the terrible manipulation. This manipulation was designed to break down the strong bonding that existed in most Aboriginal families. They wanted us to think our families were not interested in us, so that we would leave our heritage behind and take our place in ‘white’ society. This experience made all of us confused, hurt and insecure for a very long time. But slowly, things have turned around for us, though only after a traumatic road travelled to adulthood, maturity and for some of us – happiness and inner peace.

In hindsight, I can see all the negative ways in which institutionalization damaged the lives of my brothers, sisters and me and how it made it hard for us to reconcile with our mother and each other as a family. Bringing Them Home, the recent report of the National Inquiry into the way Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children were separated from their families, records this grief and unresolved trauma suffered by successive generations of people – which has in turn resulted in violence, alcoholism, drug abuse, suicide, crime, family breakdown and widespread health problems.

My brother Graeme (who later spent more than a decade in custody) and I were separated from each other as children (which we call coolungar) when we were taken away. He has since devoted many of his published poems to conveying the pain suffered by us and by all the other uprooted Aboriginal children (see Coolungar Thieves).

The scale of this crime, and the resulting trauma and legacy, by today’s standards fits the United Nations’ established conditions of genocide. Aboriginal activist Mick Dodson explains: ‘Genocide is not just the physical destruction of a people – and Australia signed the Genocide Convention – but genocide includes the forced removal of children from one group to another group. And the best outcome, according to the authorities, depended on their being de-Aboriginalized, if you like, and made into white fellas. That became official national policy in I think 1937, and it was the official policy in some jurisdictions up until the mid-1980s.’

However well-intentioned, religious and committed those people were, it doesn’t detract from the fact that a terrible crime was committed against Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children and their families. We were caught up in a system not of our making, and those good-hearted and well-intentioned people, who unwittingly supported those policies and the process of removal, helped to denigrate and destroy Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander life.

The spirit of future reconciliation, which leads towards a united Australia, starts with understanding and accepting the history of this relationship between Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and the wider community. We continue to fight patriotically for the protection and well-being of the land, sea and the freedom of our people in various ways.

For thousands of years, traditional ownership and custodianship has established a caretaker relationship with the land that centres on customs and the ‘Dreaming’. The Dreaming encompasses the past, the present and the future, reinforcing the culture and land as a continuum – highly valued and affirmed for future generations.

From the time of European invasion, indigenous people were forced off their land – dispossessed – which had devastating effects on them. Despite this, we still remain deeply connected to our country (our place of origin) with strong spiritual beliefs and a deep sense of custodial responsibility to land, tradition and each other.

In a few instances this is being sustained in history-making cases via the High Court and Parliament – the High Court ruling on the Mabo case pressured the Federal Government to make laws on Native Title which took effect in 1994. Since then, there have been other rights acknowledged and given back to the people, as with the Wik people of northern Queensland and now, following a recent court ruling, with the Miriwung Gajerrong people in the far north-west of Western Australia.

If true reconciliation is to permeate throughout society, then non-indigenous Australians must cultivate a deeper understanding of the extreme effects of removing Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island peoples from their land and family. The nation as a whole must take responsibility before healing can occur.

Tjalaminu Mia is a Research Fellow at the Centre of Indigenous History and the Arts at the University of Western Australia.

The stolen generation

  • 90 per cent of stolen Aboriginal Australians have suffered from chronic depression, according to a study of Aboriginal mental health in Melbourne.
  • A survey of 483 stolen Aboriginal youths in Western Australia found two-thirds had experienced physical abuse.
  • One in every six stolen Aboriginal Australians who gave statements to a national inquiry said they had been sexually abused.
  • In Victoria 90 per cent of Aboriginal people seeking legal assistance for criminal court cases had been taken from their parents and adopted, fostered or institutionalized.
  • Removal of children from Aboriginal families often prevented their learning of Aboriginal language, culture and traditional responsibilities. This impairs their ability to establish cultural links with the land in order to seek land rights under the national Native Title Act.

Source: Bringing them Home: Report of the National Inquiry into the Separation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Children from Their Families http://www.austlii.edu.au/au/special/rsjproject/rsjlibrary/hreoc/stolen/

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