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 Introduction (part three)    

The Stolen Children jacket

Introduction Copyright © Carmel Bird 1998.
All rights reserved.

part one
part two

The wealth of evidence given to the Inquiry showed that the methods and practices in the removal and separation of Indigenous children from their families across Australia were similar in all regions of the country. The children could be taken away at any age, and many of them were taken from their mothers at birth or in very early infancy. Most of the children so taken were put into institutions where the other children were mostly Indigenous, of mixed race, and where the staff were non-Indigenous. If a child was adopted or fostered out to a family, that family was usually white. The objective of all this activity was to absorb Indigenous children into white society, to force them to forget and deny their Aboriginal heritage and blood, and to bring about, within a few generations, a form of breeding-out of all Indigenous characteristics.
The children thus suffered contempt and denigration of their heritage, their own nature, and often the presence of Aboriginal blood was denied. They would be told that their parents were dead or had rejected them, and family members were unable to contact the children, or even to know where they had gone. Letters to and from the children and their true families were suppressed by the authorities; parcels of clothing and toys sent were never received. Children were severed from their roots, denied access to the true nourishment of their spirit, and were at the mercy of institutions or strangers. Children were exploited in every way, and were the object of psychological, physical and sexual abuse. It is clear that subsequent generations continue to suffer the effects of the separations of the earlier generations, and that these separations are largely to blame for the troubled lives of many Indigenous Australians today. The complex, ongoing and compounding effects of the separations result in a cycle of damage from which it is profoundly difficult to escape. There is a theme of helpless sorrow running through these stories. There is a mounting threnody that all Australians must learn to hear and to acknowledge.
Throughout the Report there are many short quotations from members of the stolen generations, as well as longer stories. Within both kinds of narrative there are moments when the reader must pause, draw breath, re-read a sentence in horror and in the hope of disbelief. Embedded in the report?s short explanations of the quotations from the words of the stolen children are arresting little sentences that will chill you to the bone. Taking one of these at random: ?woman taken from her parents with her three sisters when the family, who worked and resided on a pastoral station, came into town to collect stores?. In that description of a life lies the sharpest tragedy and horror. The children are no more than a commodity; the authorities can simply take them from their parents who are going about their ordinary business in the town. I put myself imaginatively in the position of any of the people in this drama - the parents, the children, the police - and every position is intolerable. The situation itself is intolerable. I think that perhaps imagination is one of the most important and powerful factors in the necessary process of reconciliation. If white Australians can begin to imagine what life has been like for many Indigenous Australians over the past two hundred years, they will have begun to understand and will be compelled to act. If we read these stories how can we not be shocked and moved by stories such as the following?
In Confidential evidence number 528, given to the Commission, a man who was removed from his family in the 1970s, when he was eight, and who suffered sexual abuse in the orphanage and in foster homes organised by the church, said that he is still so frightened of the welfare system that he is afraid to have children of his own, and is unable to show love to others.
There?s still a lot of unresolved issues within me. One of the biggest ones is I cannot really love anyone no more. I?m sick of being hurt. Every time I used to get close to anyone they were just taken away from me. The other fact is, if I did meet someone, I don?t want to have children, cos I?m frightened that the welfare system would come back and take my children.
It is surely a terrible irony that a system described as ?welfare? is cast in this man?s mind (and in the minds of many other Indigenous people who told their stories to the Inquiry) as a monster that will invade his life and steal his children. Many of the short entries from confidential submissions contain phrases of a poignant wistfulness that is so very sad: ?I?ve often thought, as old as I am, that it would have been lovely to have known a father and a mother, to know parents even for a little while, just to have had the opportunity of having a mother tuck you into bed and give you a good-night kiss - but it was never to be.? The writer of that sentence in Confidential submission number 65, was fostered at two months of age, in 1936 in Tasmania. And a woman who was sent to the Cootamundra Girls? Home in the 1950s gives us in Confidential submission number 332 a vivid picture from her memory: ?I remember all we children being herded up, like a mob of cattle, and feeling the humiliation of being graded by the colour of our skins for the government records?.
There can be no disbelief; these are true stories, the stories of the descendants of the original inhabitants of this country. They reveal a society that tolerated the harshest cruelties, and that denied the existence of these cruelties, a society that hoped the problem of Indigenous people would disappear, hoped that the people themselves would disappear, dissolve into the background like images in a fading photograph.
If you repeat a lie often enough it comes to be believed, but then if you keep repeating it on and on, it begins to be exposed for the lie that it is. I am a white Australian of Celtic background. I grew up in Tasmania with the story that the whole race of the Tasmanian Aborigines had been killed off last century. During my early life, the lie had been told too often, and the truth was beginning to get out, but slowly and very painfully. Genocide was attempted in Tasmania in the nineteenth century, but it failed. (Forcible removal of Indigenous children from their families occurred during two periods in Tasmania. The first began with the European occupation of Tasmania in 1803 and lasted until the middle of the nineteenth century. The second started in the 1930s with the forcible removal of Indigenous children from Cape Barren Island under general child welfare legislation and continues into the present. However, in more recent times welfare practice in Tasmania has regarded removal as an absolute last resort.)
The history I was taught said that the whole race of Indigenous Tasmanians had been successfully eradicated by 1876 when Truganini died. The Indigenous people of Tasmania did not die out, that they are very much alive today. Fearing her dead body would be seen as a curiosity and a commodity to be dissected and examined by scientists, Truganini said as she was dying: ?Don?t let them cut me up, but bury me behind the mountains.? Her state funeral was farcical as the coffin was empty. Her body had been already buried in the chapel in the Hobart jail. Two years later it was exhumed and boiled and reduced to a skeleton that was stored in a wooden crate in the museum. Years later, during a clean-up at the museum, the crate was about to be thrown out. Suddenly someone realised it contained the bones of ?the last Tasmanian?. These bones were then assembled and put on display in the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery.
When I was a child I saw that skeleton. It seemed to me to be incredibly tiny, a waif of a skeleton in a glass case. It was taken off display in 1947. In 1976 the bones of Truganini were cremated and the ashes scattered in the Southern Ocean. The story of the Indigenous Tasmanians is part of the story of the attempted genocide of the Indigenous people of Australia, and the stories of the stolen children are another part of that story.
I went to school in Tasmania with some girls who lived in an orphanage. The fact that they were known as orphans set them apart as different, yet it was not until I met some of them decades later that I realised they were Aboriginal. I imagine that this my experience is not unusual for white Australians of my generation. When I read Bringing Them Home I realised the baby boy mysteriously adopted by friends of my parents was a child of mixed race. I was envious of his tight curly hair. I recall that he was very loved and nurtured by his adoptive family, and it is clear from some sections of the Report that not all Indigenous children who were removed from their own families suffered at the hands of their adoptive families. There remains, however, the tragedy of the loss of language and culture to any children cut off from their own people.
The Indigenous people of Tasmania had not, after all, disappeared. The Indigenous people of Australia and the islands of the Torres Strait will never disappear. They belong here, they have an indisputable right to be here in the full dignity of their humanity, and to contribute in confidence and joy to the future of this country. Listen to their voices.

Carmel Bird

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