Perhaps one of the most brutal government policies to impact on the lives of Aboriginal Australians was the Child Removal Policy, which stemmed from the previous failed policy of Assimilation in the 1930s. The Assimilation Policy was clearly defined. It stated that all Aboriginal people should attain the same manner of living as other Australians, enjoying the same rights and privileges, accepting the same responsibilities, observing the same customs and being influenced by the same beliefs, hopes and loyalties. (Lippman, 1981) The policy of Assimilation was also promoted through a continuation of restrictive laws and paternalistic administration.
The ‘Stolen Generations’ are the generations of Aboriginal children taken away from their families by governments, churches and welfare bodies to be brought up in institutions or fostered out to white families. Removing children from their families was official government policy in Australia until 1969. However, the practice had begun in the earliest days of European settlement, when children were used as guides, servants and farm labour. The first ‘native institution’ at Parramatta, Sydney in 1814 was set up to ‘civilise’ Aboriginal children.
The Aborigines Protection Board was established and oversaw the mass dislocation of Aboriginal people from their traditional lands onto reserves and stations. Aboriginal girls in particular were sent to homes established by the Board to be trained for domestic service. In 1909 the Aborigines Protection Act gave the Aborigines Protection Board legal sanction to take Aboriginal children from their families. In 1915, an amendment to the Act gave the Board power to remove any child without parental consent and without a court order. (Department of Aboriginal Affairs NSW, 1998)
It was believed that by placing Aboriginal children in non-Aboriginal homes, and preventing contact with their families their Aboriginality (Aboriginal identity) would cease to exist. It was also thought that this process would eventually ‘breed out’ the cultural inheritance and identity of the children. In many cases this worked, but there were also a good percentage that resisted this process, and retained their heritage under the most extreme attempts to remove it. This was indeed true resilience. What was not taken into account was the inherent cultural knowledge and understandings that could not be visualised by the white authoritarians and so were not considered to be relevant. To understand Aboriginality, one must understand the significance of cultural identity, what it is made up of and what it stems from.
The other issue associated with the Child Removal Policy is that it was the fairest skin babies who were born of intercultural marriages to be the priority of removal. This was a reflection of emerging theories of the mixing of races. The Bringing Them Home Report stated that:
By the late nineteenth century it had become apparent that although the full descent Indigenous population was declining, the mixed descent population was increasing. In social Darwinist terms they were not regarded as near extinction. The fact they had some European ‘blood’ meant that there was a place for them in non-Indigenous society, albeit a lowly one. (Human Rights Commission, 1997)
The issue of being fair-skinned at times poses a problem, not necessarily for Aboriginal people but for non-Aboriginal people. It may be that fair-skinned Aboriginal people are a stark reminder of the colonisation process and the fact they have retained their cultural identity regardless of attempts to assimilate by white authorities.
To restore personal and cultural identity can be most of the hurtful and painful parts of healing. The question many Stolen Generations ask is ‘Where do I fit in?’ After perhaps being raised by a non-Aboriginal family and your life having been shaped by the values, understandings and knowledge within that family, sometimes the individual strength and spirituality is suppressed for a long time.
I have no doubt as a Stolen Generation survivor that perhaps one of the most profound and meaningful gestures of reconciliation ever undertaken in this country, was the Formal Apology to the Stolen Generations by former Prime Minister Keven Rudd in 2008 on behalf of the Federal Government. This was to address the injustices of the past and attempt the healing of our nation. The Apology was one of the fifty four recommendations of the Bringing Them Home Report which was tabled and accepted in Australian Parliament in 1997. Being present that day in Parliament as a Stolen Generation survivor was indeed the end of a long fight for justice and retribution to be done and for a formal acknowledgement of the pain and suffering experienced by the Stolen Generations.
It is not known precisely how many Aboriginal children were taken away between 1909 and 1969, when the Aborigines Welfare Board (formerly the Aborigines Protection Board) was abolished. Poor record keeping, the loss of records and changes to departmental structures have made it almost impossible to trace many connections. Almost every Aboriginal family has been affected in some way by the policies of child removal. Taking children from their families was one of the most devastating practices since white settlement and has profound repercussions for all Aboriginal people today. The fact that the term ‘generations’ is in the plural implicates that this misguided Government policy was not just relative to a particular period of Australia’s history, but has had a continuing effect on the lives of undoubtedly most. The overwhelming evidence is that the effects do not stop with the children removed; their children and families inherit them. The effects on family and structure have been documented in the context of war-related trauma, or even family terrorism.
In this huge human experiment I have no doubt that identity was the last thing on the minds of governments when removing the children from their families and communities. The practice of Britain sending it’s convicts to Australia in the hope that they would be rid of the ‘criminal’ class – and if possible to forget about them, too – was similar to the situation in Australia and the Stolen Generations. The difference was that most of the children removed could not be sent to another country, but had to be displaced within their own country. The effects of trauma on Aboriginal Australians have therefore been widespread and enduring, recurring across generations. (Bessarab and Crawford, 2013)
Although these Policies were introduced decades ago the impact still remains. ‘We’ are often told that we live in the past, but in fact, the past lives in us.
Bessarab, D & Crawford, F. R (2013). Trauma, grief and loss: The vulnerability of Aboriginal families in the child protection system. In B. Bennet, S, Gilbert & D. Besserarb (eds), Our voices: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Work. (pp. 93-113) Melbourne: Palgrave Macmillan.
Department of Aboriginal Affairs NSW (1998) – Securing the Truth –NSW Government Submission to the Human Rights and Equal Opportunities Commission Inquiry into the Separation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Children from their families. Sydney, Australia
Human Rights and Equal Opportunities Commission (1997). Bringing Them Home: A guide to the findings and recommedations of the National Inquiry into the separation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children from their families. Canberra, Australia:AIATSIS.
Lippman, L (1981). Generations of Resistance: The Aboriginal struggle for justice. Melbourne, Australia: Longman Cheshire.