Sorry Day – what still needs to be said?

25 May 2018

For most of the twentieth century, Aboriginal children were removed for a number of reasons. ‘For their own good’ was not one of them.

Statue of the Grieving Mother

Today (26 May) is the twentieth national Sorry Day.

It’s now twenty-one years since the release of Bringing Them Home, the report and recommendations resulting from the National Inquiry into the Stolen Generations. Twenty-one years later, and just a handful of the fifty-four recommendations have been actioned.

Holding an annual day to commemorate the removal of thousands of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children was one of those recommendations. And so was an apology from the federal government for the forced removals. That apology occurred ten years ago. So what still needs to be said?

There are three key untruths that are collectively told when it comes to systemic inhumanity towards others:

It was for their own good.

There was a higher purpose in mind.

We didn’t know.

These untruths were told about the removal of Aboriginal children to mask the injustices, cruelty, and social engineering. These untruths continue to be told.

The removal of First Peoples’ children is linked to the processes of invade and conquer. The British invaded a lot of countries over a fairly short span of time. Most of these nations remain under the Commonwealth to this day. Nation-building on stolen lands was facilitated by the labour of stolen peoples.

For most of the twentieth century, Aboriginal children were removed for a number of reasons. ‘For their own good’ was not one of them. Children were mostly removed to be trained, before being allocated to settlers as unpaid labour. The state formed race-based policies to control the children, and churches managed the institutions that held them captive.

I’ve listened to many stolen generations survivors and have read enough primary documents to have no doubt at all that what occurred was not altruistic. Using inhumane language, these documents clearly show the intent of policies that controlled First Peoples. Real and perceived relationships, and even fertility, of Aboriginal women and girls is recorded as meticulously as farmers documenting the breeding of their stock.

A O Neville’s letters and writings come to mind. The calculated way he controlled Aboriginal women and children’s lives. And his pseudo-scientific fascination with ‘breeding out’ Aboriginality. There was no good intent or higher purpose.

He had a particular interest in my family. In his own words, Neville stated that my grandmother caused the government much embarrassment and expense when she twice escaped capture. So it was only a matter of time before the government came for her daughters. If I had not been born across the border, I may have had a similar fate.

Once removed, Aboriginal children were given a very basic education. The girls were trained to be domestics, and the boys as labourers. Some of these children were sent out to work on stations and in non-Indigenous peoples’ houses when barely adolescents. Those who benefited from their services often paid government authorities for this labour, or the church-run institutions where the children had previously been held.

Babies born as a result of white men’s abuse of power or rape whilst Aboriginal girls were in these forced-working arrangement were themselves institutionalised. Becoming part of this cycle of captured childhood and fractured families.

Knowing unsavoury truths, it’s hard to muster the energy every year to assist non-Indigenous Australians to gain a better understanding of Sorry Day.

Twenty years on and the conversations have barely shifted. And, too often, white people will centre themselves in Sorry Day.

The healing becomes about them grappling with white guilt, or about the ‘good intent’ of the churches who participated in this injustice, and not about those that truly matter.

But we, First Peoples, continue to wrap the ageing stolen children in love and understanding. We feel the pain within parents’ empty arms. We acknowledged the hurt and anger of the children and grandchildren of the stolen generations. We work towards healing.

Statue of the Grieving Mother, Colebrook Home memorial, Eden Hills SA. Photo by Karen Wyld.

And still we are expected to make space for non-Indigenous people’s tears, their thoughts on ‘progress’, and uniformed opinions of why the children were taken. This takes a lot of energy, and hope, and forgiveness, and restraint.

It’s exhausting.

Myths are also exhausting. Such as the notion that this all occurred in the distant past. But children were still being removed to be used as a labour force until the late 1950s. Children were still being removed under overtly racist policies in the 1960s. The language changed by the 1980s, but Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children are still being removed disproportionally.

Just as nearly every Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander person has family members who are part of the stolen generations, many white Australian families had contact with a stolen child.

Did your grandparents have a child slave? Did your parents tell you stories about the children’s home at the end of the road, where all those black kids from the country lived? Did you have a child sleeping in your family’s back bedroom, who was not quite a sibling? Did you tease that ‘orphan’ at school, the one who did not look like you or your school mates?

Thousands of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children were removed as part of what is now known as the stolen generations. They were held captive in full sight. People knew.

It was not for their own good. There was no higher purpose. Enough white people knew to collectively stop what was happening – they chose not to.

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