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  Introduction (part one)  

The Stolen Children jacket

Introduction Copyright © Carmel Bird 1998.
All rights reserved.

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Marked by a cross drawn in ink at about the place where her navel would be, the child stands in the centre of the group of six tiny girls. Her companions look shyly, sadly, at the camera; but her eyes are downcast. She seems to be oblivious, or at least forgetful, of the photographer, concentrating on a ball that she cradles at shoulder level. This child, with her high-domed forehead and gently pouting upper lip, is an orphan among orphans, Australian children of mixed race.
The orphanage was in Darwin, and the photograph of the children appeared in a newspaper in the 1930s, because the Minister for the Interior was appealing for people in Melbourne and Sydney to take the children in, to 'rescue them from becoming outcasts'. This was part of a long-term government plan to assimilate Indigenous people into the dominant white community by removing the children from their families at as young an age as possible, preferably at birth, cutting them off from their own place, language, and customs, and thereby somehow bleaching aboriginality from Australian society. This attempt at assimilation was nothing but a policy of systematic genocide, an attempt to wipe out a race of people. How apt it is, then, that this beautiful child is carelessly and so distinctly marked with a cross at the centre of her being, as if to signify the ruthless severing of the umbilicus that connects her to her mother and her race. The person who made the cross has written underneath the picture: 'I like the little girl in centre of group, but if taken by anyone else, any of the others would do, as long as they are strong'.
It is a haunting picture, an image of the saddest and most tender vulnerability, already damaged, about to be further violated and sacrificed. This picture is an emblem of stolen children, and it rouses pity, outrage, grief and mourning.

Sorry Time was eerie music, like a rising wind:
the song of tribal Aborigines in mourning.
-- Jan Mayman 'Sorry Time'

National Sorry Day, 26 May 1998. This day of mourning for the tragedies, and losses suffered by Indigenous people of Australia takes place on the anniversary of the publication of Bringing Them Home, a report prepared by the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission from material gathered during the National Inquiry into the Separation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Children from their Families. One of the Recommendations of the report is that Sorry Day should be an annual event to commemorate the history of the forcible removal of children from their families. The report documents a terrible grief and loss, and highlights the troubled relationship that exists between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians. This relationship is a critical and dramatic element in our history, imbued with tragedy and sorrow, affecting the lives of all of us, and until it is fully examined, acknowledged and mourned, there can be no reconciliation. There was an Aboriginal Day of Mourning on 26 January 1938. Fifty years on, and the sounds of lamentation are louder and more insistent. The evils of the past always come back to haunt us, and to deny the past is to cast a dark shadow, to cripple the future, infecting it with the nature of those evils. In editing this book, I hope to contribute to the revelation of the meanings of our past, to make the stories of Indigenous Australians more accessible to everyone, and to inspire more among us to read and consider the full text and the full implications of Bringing Them Home.
Many non-Indigenous Australians are conscious of the wrongs done to Indigenous Australians both in the past and in the present, and are active in their determination to discover ways to right those wrongs. In August 1996 the Governor-General, Sir William Deane, gave the inaugural Lingiari Lecture at the Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation in Canberra. He said:
'True reconciliation between the Australian nation and its Indigenous peoples is not achievable in the absence of acknowledgement by the nation of the wrongfulness of the past dispossession, oppression and degradation of the Aboriginal peoples. That is not to say that individual Australians who had no part in what was done in the past should feel or acknowledge personal guilt. It is simply to assert our identity as a nation and the basic fact that national shame, as well as national pride, can and should exist in relation to past acts and omissions, at least when done or made in the name of the community or with the authority of government.' Sir William made it clear that the present low self-esteem and poor quality of life of many Indigenous people flow from the events of the past. 'The dispossession, the destruction of hunting fields and the devastation of lives were all related. The new diseases, the alcohol and the new pressures of living were all introduced.' The devastation of lives is the subject at the centre of the report Bringing Them Home. It is a sad footnote to the Governor-General's 1996 speech that in 1997 he was moved to say, as the gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people appeared to widen: 'I weep for our country'.
Bringing Them Home is part of the examination of our past, its terms of reference being set down by the Attorney-General, Michael Lavarch, in August 1995 when he asked the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission to consult widely among the Australian people, in particular among Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. The Attorney-General asked the Commission to trace past laws, practices and policies that resulted in the separation of Indigenous children from their families by 'compulsion, duress or undue influence'. He asked that it examine the present laws and practices available to Indigenous people affected by separation, including those laws relating to access to family records. He asked that the Commission examine the principles relevant to determining the justification for compensation for people affected by separation; to examine current laws relating to the care of Indigenous people; and to advise on necessary changes to these laws. He said that the 'principle of self-determination' by Indigenous people must be taken into account. It is a sad and telling fact that the Attorney-General should have had to draw attention to the need for self-determination of Indigenous people. But he was right, for the paternalism of the old Empire has not entirely disappeared in Australia in the nineties. The need for self-determination is stressed at the end of the report. In the words of Mick Dodson, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner, speaking on self-determination in juvenile justice programs: 'The standing of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander parents, families and communities to actively participate in and shape juvenile justice programs, which have such a disproportionate impact on our children, should be beyond question.'
So many things should be beyond question; so many things are not.
The questions now raised by the report will never go away. They will haunt Australia until they have been understood and answered. Like the wind of Jan Mayman's 'Sorry Time' quoted earlier , these questions will rise and rise until Australia answers them and discovers ways to make good in the present the errors committed in the past. There is no escape from this fact. The past is not past. The past, the present and the future are, as they always are, part of each other, bound together. We cannot change the past, which cannot be undone; we may be able, by generosity of imagination and spirit, to change the future for the better, to act in a more enlightened and more humane manner, with greater dignity and true compassion. I write this Introduction not as a social historian, not as an anthropologist, not as a psychologist; I write only from an ordinary person's observation and understanding, from my heart, without sentimentality, and from my own moral imagination of the events and their significance. I felt compelled to collect the stories of the stolen children, separate them from the other material in the report, and present them in this way with simplicity, clarity and compassion. They are documents of a unique kind, and I have chosen to place them among other documents which relate to them, reflecting on them, commenting on them in direct and illuminating ways.
When I read the stories of the stolen children I was very moved and I was awed by the dignified responses to hardship. I was, at the same time, reminded of the many many stories everywhere of people in adversity, their courage and grace. And I found a redemptive quality in the stories themselves, in the act of telling both for the storytellers and for the listeners.
Many Australians are aware of the general meaning of the report, having been alerted to it by newspapers, and particularly by television. We saw and heard the impassioned speeches of Sir Ronald Wilson, President of the Commission, and of Mick Dodson. We saw the Leader of the Opposition, Kim Beazley, weep in Parliament the day after he first read the report. We saw, to our shame, the Prime Minister, John Howard, refuse to apologise on our behalf to Indigenous people for their tragedy and sorrow, and we saw and registered, in fact felt, the shock that this refusal caused to Indigenous people. The refusal was a depth charge, and in the face of it Indigenous people responded with a dignity that could only inspire awe and an unbearable grief. As a result of the public discussion of the report, many people bought copies and read them.
In December 1997, the Federal Government made its formal response to the Report. No apology has been offered by the government on behalf of the Australian people, but $63 million, to be spent over four years, has been set aside to promote the health and welfare of Indigenous people, and to support the repair of language and culture within Indigenous communities. There is an emphasis on effecting the reunion of families. But the deep and urgent wish of Indigenous people for an apology has not been fulfilled. Some of the state premiers have apologised, and some, although not all, churches Ñwhich were the agencies controlling many of the orphanages Ñhave also apologised, expressing a profound regret and great sorrow, but the statement of apology from the Federal Government remains unsaid.
The Report is a document of some seven hundred pages, and costs more than many Australians can afford to pay for a book. Six months after its release, copies of Bringing Them Home were still unavailable in suburban libraries, and it was therefore inaccessible to the public for consultation or loan.
People were moved and to a certain extent informed by what they saw on television and in newspapers at the time of the publication of the Report. And news reports continue to keep us informed of the government and public response to the Report as time goes on. In fact some of the material I have collected here is only part of the narrative, because the story develops as time moves on. But the news media are ephemeral, and it was clear to me that unless people could have more ready access to the material in the report, they would remain largely uninformed of its details, the true fabric of the matters in question. The report not only contains stories of the denial of basic human rights; it alleges attempted genocide of t Indigenous people of this country. We all need to know how such an allegation could be made. We need to know, for instance, the fact that in 1841 the Protector of Aborigines in South Australia actually presided over a massacre of thirty Indigenous people.

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