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Aboriginal communities and nations to decide who is and who is not a member of their sovereign country

12 Aug 2021

Tony Birch discusses the complexity of identity and the pain of lost connection with credence to the power of connection and the importance of respect.

I want to tell you a story about an Aboriginal girl who was lost and never found. I’ve written about this girl before, and her family, who I know quite well. I’ve written about her mother and her auntie, who courageously fought against the Aboriginal Welfare Board of Victoria in a desperate effort to have the child returned to her family and community. The girl had been stolen from them at a young age, and her family’s attempt to find her and to get her back was waged for over a decade, sadly to no avail.

As with many Aboriginal people who continued the fight for stolen children to be returned, this girl’s mother, auntie and other family members were subject to constant threats by government authorities if they continued to claim a right to a State ward. The threats included a loss of the meager ration they were receiving, eviction from a draughty and damp shack on an Aboriginal reserve. Or worse still, the removal of other children from the family, which did subsequently occur. And yet, the family would not back down from their struggle and continued with their tenacious efforts, born out of love for both a child and a love of country.

Eventually, in an act of bastardry and deliberate cruelty, the Aboriginal Welfare Board had the child removed to a religious institution many hundreds of kilometres away from her birthplace. Although government archives contain a great deal of information about the child, including the many letters of protest written by her family, once she was transferred to a lock-and-key institution, she vanished from records of information. It is most likely that her name was changed, as it is that she may have been adopted or fostered into a white family. Whatever her fate, the family never saw the girl again.

She is not lost to family memory, of course. The tragedy of her absence, as with the loss of many thousands of Aboriginal and Torres Islander children of the Stolen Generations, produced in an ongoing intergenerational trauma that affected communities. A trauma they continue to live with. We know that some letters send to the child, expressing deep care and affection, never reached her. We also know that she had written back to family, but those letters were destroyed rather than sent to her mother. 

Let’s be clear here. What government authorities did, in relation to this child and so many others, was to destroy stories of love, to destroy evidence of the reality that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women did not passively give their children up to the state. The children were taken by force, trickery and violence; the scars of which are seared into the hearts and minds of descendants today. What remains in the archive are sometimes half-truths, fictions, lies and silence.

I want to tell this story, and others, having been prompted by recent discussions of ‘identity fraud’, being people claiming to be Aboriginal who are not. No doubt, there is a history of this practice in Australia, as there is in other colonial societies, including the United States of America and Canada. Such fraud is wrong, and it must be stopped. But I also want to say that the history Aboriginal identity, as a result of attempted dispossessing, colonial violence and child theft is complex, occasionally ambiguous and (legally, at least) sometimes uncertain. 

Rather than be subject to a media circus, with populist megaphones acting as self-anointed ringleaders, authority over these matters must be given to specific Aboriginal communities and nations to decide who is and who is not a member of their sovereign country. The rest of us should perhaps keep our commentary to ourselves rather than spray it across social media in an undignified and decidedly non-Aboriginal way.

I want us to think deeply about what happened to the child who was lost to her family. I want us to also consider the many thousands of descendants of those members of the Stolen Generations who never made it home. What we do know, as a result of family testimony and oral histories, is that some members of the Stolen Generations have no original record of their existence. They have access to documentation relating to their new lives as adopted children, but no access to their birth name or home community. Additionally, in some instances original records have been destroyed, ensuring that an Aboriginal person wanting to trace their family face near impossible odds.

What I do know, through work done by Aboriginal women in the western suburbs of Melbourne, is that descendants of children who were stolen, some who themselves are now elderly themselves, have always known and claimed their identity. They are proud of who they are and are saddened and traumatised by the cultural loss they have experienced. They cannot name their mob, their nation or country. And yet, they determinedly live as Aboriginal people. They are not people seeking ‘identified positions’ in government jobs. They are not leading a Native Title claim. And they have stolen nothing.

I also want to say that while the occasional case of possible identity fraud creates a frenzy in the media and within our communities, we suffer endemic attacks on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people with regard to the Native Title process, which largely go unreported. In Native Title cases across Australia, which drag on for many years, and send hundreds of millions of dollars into the pockets of lawyers and genealogists, often relying on very suspect government records, a white individual claiming Indigenous identity is not the problem. The disputes that take place result in claimants sometimes disenfranchising their own family and community members, allowing the Native Title process to corrupt country itself. We need to be led by the collective intelligence of held within our communities. And we need to be given time to think and act with patience and dignity toward each other.

Cover Artwork by Tom Munro-Harrison follow on insta tom_munro_harrison

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