THE STOLEN CHILDREN -- THEIR STORIES
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 Introduction (part two)  

The Stolen Children jacket

Introduction Copyright © Carmel Bird 1998.
All rights reserved.

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The findings of 1948 International Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide came into force in Australia in 1951. One of the definitions of genocide is: 'the forcible transferring of children of a group to another group'. A state can not excuse itself by claiming that the practice of genocide was previously lawful under its own laws or that its people did not (or do not) share the outrage of the international community.
White Australians need to read the stories of the people who suffered systematically and in so many ways at the hands of white Australians, principally of earlier generations. Indigenous people told their stories to the Inquiry and many of these stories are quoted in the report. The courage, dignity and generosity, as well as the tragedy, of these storytellers shines out in their words, delivered from the heart and written in tears.
When I read the report it became a matter of passionate urgency to me that the oral histories told in it should be made accessible to everyone. People in other countries wished to know the stories I had read in Bringing Them Home. Of all the means of making the stories known -- including publishing them on the Internet at http://www.austlii.edu.au/au/special/rslibrary/hreoc/stolen/ -- collecting them in a small book seemed to me to be the simplest and, in the long run, perhaps the most effective. I realise that images are in many ways more immediately powerful than printed words, that television and film are the key media in promoting a message to the world. But I still think that a small and portable paperback book is still a useful storytelling tool, a carrier of messages. Reading a book is a private experience, a perfect way to receive the intimate and personal oral histories of these courageous and sorrowful people. If all the machines shut down, if the systems fail, so long as the sun shines, or we can light a candle, a few people may be able to shelter in some corner of the globe and read the stories in books. Books may be rapidly becoming drab, outmoded technology, but they have the potential, in their simplicity, to be the great survivors, in the end. A bit like the cockroaches, supposedly the life-form that will survive a nuclear holocaust, a few books may still be bearing their messages when everything else has melted. It doesn't take much to get a book to work.
Most of the people whose stories are collected here first saw their stories in print in Bringing Them Home. They are people who were brutally and wrongfully separated from their mothers, their fathers, their families and communities when they were very young, people whose attachment to their own contexts were severed and destroyed. Remembering their lives, telling their stories to the Inquiry was difficult and heart-rending for them. Seeing the stories in print was a new and shocking confrontation with the horrors of the past. Several of these people have agreed to republish their stories in The Stolen Children -- Their Stories, hoping that the stories will reach a wider audience, and help to convince all Australians that an apology is due to those who have come to be known as the stolen generations. Something I understand but deeply regret is that a few of the people whose stories are published in the report were unable to face the experience of seeing the story reprinted here, and so their stories have had to be omitted. One of the storytellers, Carol, requested that the version of her story published here should be more detailed than the version included in the Report.
Most of the storytellers were interested in the idea of this book as a means of bringing their experiences to the consciousness of all, and were eager to co-operate. I wrote to the storytellers and asked them for permission to reprint their stories. Some of them, when they rang me, told me they had been to the library to check me out. They knew where and when I was born, and the names of some of my family, and the titles of my books. The experience of receiving their permission was unlike any previous experience I have had when putting together an anthology of other people's writing. These writers had already consulted their brothers and sisters before phoning me, and the phone calls we had were long and warm and very friendly and funny and sad. In some cases I did not speak to the storyteller, but to a member of the extended family. Some of the stories here were not included in the original report, but are further documentation of the sadness of much of our history.
When people tell their stories, they usually enjoy feeling proud, and delight in being named and in claiming their own history. Not so the stolen children. The names under which these stories appear are not the real names of the writers. This is because the writers feel they must remain anonymous so that they cannot be identified as the people who have suffered as they have suffered. Their friends, employers, families might see them differently if they knew who they really were. This anonymity is yet another tragic element in this deep, vast tale of pain and sorrow that is a central part of the story of our country.
I would have liked to include photographs of the people who told the stories, pictures to illuminate and illustrate the stories, but of course that was not possible. The people must remain not only nameless, but faceless. Neither was it possible to give biographical details of the writers, as is usually the case in an anthology of stories. The real people behind the stories of the stolen children must continue to remain faceless, to exist in the shadows of our history, until such time as Indigenous and non-Indigenous people in Australia are one, until our differences are reconciled, until the past is examined and mourned, and we can move on.
It is a commonplace notion that severe loss in any form has to be confronted, examined, acknowledged, discussed, exposed before a process of emotional and even physical healing can begin. One of the most powerful and effective ways people have of recovering from loss is the telling of the personal stories associated with the loss. The Church offers the confessional as part of this process; in modern society many people seek the help of counsellors and psychiatrists to whom they can unburden their souls, to whom they can tell their own stories of loss and pain. Listen to me, we say, let me tell you what has happened to me, let me tell you my story. If I can make you understand me, I may better understand myself. When people told their stories to the Inquiry many of them found that the act of telling was personally. The act of listening is the other part of telling; you can't really tell a story unless somebody is listening. And in this case the listeners have as much at stake as the tellers. If Australia will listen to the stolen children and take their stories in and let those stories live in the consciousness of the country, this country will begin to heal the wounds of over two hundred years of deliberate and unconscious abuses of human rights.
I am indebted to Karen Menzies, a social worker who has acted as an intermediary between myself and the storytellers, for her sensitive understanding, patience and insight. Without her help it would not have been possible for me to compile this anthology. And I am also profoundly grateful to Sir Ronald Wilson for writing a Preface for the book, and to the historian Henry Reynolds for writing an Afterword that sets out in brief the history of white supremacy and racial discrimination that characterised the 'settling' of Australia by Europeans, and that is still ingrained in our society. Martin Flanagan wrote 'Brother' particularly for this book, and Veronica Brady's piece was also specially written for the 'Perspective' section. Robert Manne, Marilyn Lake, Lang Dean and Jack Waterford donated their published writing. I have placed these alongside extracts of speeches made in Parliament at the time of the tabling of the Report.The section 'Perspectives' could have been a vast, almost unending collection of responses to the Report, but I have selected just a few pieces which seem to me to form a kind of frame for the stories of the stolen children themselves.
No two words strike deeper into the human heart than the words 'stolen children'. Nothing is more valuable to us than our children, nothing so irreplaceable, so precious, so beloved. The history of white Australians is marred by children lost in the bush, children spirited away by unknown agents. The stories of these children have become the stuff of myth, icons of horror, and they ring with the notes of darkest nightmare. How must it be, then, to be such children, stolen children. How must it be to be children who have been snatched from their mothers and systematically stripped of culture, language, rights and dignity? To be such children who grow to be an adults within the very society that visited these crimes upon them. Yet the storytellers in this book are distinguished by a courage and a generosity that speaks with the voice of grace.
The conjunction of the words 'stolen' and 'children' is a horror for both parties, for the child and for the mother. Etched into the stories collected here are the grief and suffering of the mothers. As Murray says in his Journal: 'the worst thing that could ever happen to any woman black or white was to have her children taken from her'. Many members of the stolen generations suffered first as children who were taken and later as mothers whose children were removed.
The stolen children in this book speak of a feeling of emptiness, of having a sense of a hole in their hearts as they recall their loss of family, language, culture, identity. They catalogue the abuses they suffered at the hands of white families and missionaries, but the original wound is that which was inflicted at the moment they were torn from their mothers. Sometimes this happened with the mother's consent, the family being tricked into believing the separation was for the good of the child who would go away and be nurtured and educated and even loved. The tragic irony of this is brought out in 'Anne's Story'.
Sometimes it is the small details that have been etched in a child's memory that emphasise the horror of what happened to these children. One such detail is not in this book because the writer was one of those who could not bear to repeat the experience of seeing her story in print for a second time. However it is a detail that returns to me constantly for its simple and awful symbolism. This girl was sent to a white family at Christmas time. The daughter of the house received the gift of a bride doll, while the Indigenous child received a Raggedy Ann. A similarly striking incident occurs in 'John's Story'. When they arrived at the orphanage the small boys each carried a little suitcase containing only a Bible which was their treasure and which somehow gave them a kind of identity. The first thing they had to do, before having their heads shaved, was to cast their little suitcases, Bible and all, into a bonfire.
When you read the stories of the stolen children you will begin to know and feel how life has been -- how life is -- for many Indigenous Australians, people who were taken from their families as tiny babies or as children, and you can not fail to be moved. And don't imagine that the children of today are immune. Part Six of Bringing Them Home is titled 'Contemporary Separations' and begins with a quotation from the Aboriginal Legal Service of Western Australia: 'The fact remains that Aboriginal children are still being removed from their families at an unacceptable rate, whether by the child welfare or the juvenile justice systems, or both'.
 
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