I am writing this month from Perth, Australia. With my husband I am on a speaking tour with six stops in Australia and then five in China. It is an amazing, life-changing opportunity to learn about the culture of families and their history first-hand. The story of one group of families here is as heart-wrenching as the history of African Americans in the U.S.
The biggest difference is that instead of stories of slave traders kidnapping Africans at will and treating them almost as animals, the story here is of the Aborigines who lived on the land when the first settlers arrived in Australia. When settlers wanted the land, the indigenous Aborigines in their path were simply killed like wild animals. Men, women and children were just eliminated. As time went on, the violence decreased. But Aboriginal tribes, which were as varied and numerous as our Native American tribes, were still severely discriminated against.
Beginning in 1850, those in power in the government decided that children of Aborigines would be better off if they were taken away from their parents and government officials began forcefully removing children from their homes. In 1909 the Aboriginal traveling protector James Isdell, who had formed the view that Aboriginal women were “prostitutes at heart” wrote in official letters, “The half-caste (children who were not full-blooded Aborigines) is intellectually above the aborigine and it is the duty of the state that they be given a chance to lead a better and purer life than their brothers. I would not hesitate for one moment to separate any half-cast from its aboriginal mother, no matter how frantic her momentary grief may be at the time. They soon forget their offspring.”
In 1902, a father pleading with the Aborigines Department for the return of his son wrote: “I am afraid that (my wife) will cimmit suesdied if the boy is not back soon for she is good for nothing only cry day and night…I have as much love for my dear wife and churldines as you have for yours…so if you have any feeling atole pleas send the boy back as quck as you can. It did not take long for him to go but it takes a long time for him to come back.”
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Though mothers were frantically smearing their lighter-skinned children’s faces with burned charcoal to make them look “blacker,” the “removals” under the policies of protection, absorption, integration and welfare went forward. Incredibly, from then through as late as 1970, children were taken, not only from their homes, but were sometimes even torn away from their mothers at grocery stores and cafes.
Wandering through the Australian Museum yesterday and seeing the faces and stories that surrounded them was a sad experience. The children were taken to institutions where they learned to be proper servants to white families. Mothers who couldn’t bear the grief were sent to insane asylums and children grieved their entire lives even though they were punished for “remembering.” A generation later, victims of what is now being called “The Stolen Generation” are still looking for the parents they were taken from. Many rejoice at reunions, some find that their parents have passed on. Most of those grown children are still mourning the loss of a childhood with their families. Of course, in all fairness, some upon finding their families living in horrible conditions where abuse and alcohol reign, do feel that they were rescued.
Now, more than 100 years after all this began, the new Prime Minister of Australia, Kevin Rudd, is going to make a historic speech on February 13th as he begins his new administration. It will include the first formal apology to the Aborigine people for this awful chapter in their history. Incredibly there are still those who say the Stolen Generation is a “myth” which matches the statements of those who say that the holocaust was a myth. Still, the new Prime Minister is heroically forging a speech that will mark a new chapter that will begin the healing process for the Aboriginal families of Australia.
Learning about history is not only important but in this case, it helps us to remember to appreciate even those really difficult days with our own children and gives us a reason to hug our kids a little tighter.