Introduction Copyright © Carmel Bird 1998.
All rights reserved.
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
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.