The Stolen Generation
The policies that produced the Stolen Generation brought with it thousands of Aboriginal people that were deprived of their families, the loss of the love of the mothers as well as being deprived of an understanding of their rich cultural heritage. The Stolen Generation, in my humble view, remains one of the most shameful episodes in the history of Australia and one that demands a full apology from the leaders of this country to the Aboriginal people. Certainly, the possibility of a meaningful reconciliation between black and white Australia seems very unlikely to proceed in a meaningful manner until such an apology is forthcoming.
The Stolen Generation is a term used to describe the Australian Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children, usually of mixed descent, who were forcefully removed from their families between approximately 1910 and (officially) 1969 by Australian Government agencies and church missions. This was done under various state acts of parliament, denying the rights of parents and making all Aboriginal children wards of the state. The policy typically involved the removal of children into internment camps, orphanages and other institutions.
Probably the origin of the practice of separating Aboriginal children from their parents lay in the desire to turn them into 'useful' citizens. The earliest Aboriginal institutions in Australia were church missions, where parents were at first allowed to live nearby. They were set up to teach the church virtues of obedience, thriftiness and hard work. Indeed, this was possibly the positive side of the missionaries' work. They wanted to create an Aboriginal working class and present it to those whites of the colony who thought Aborigines were little better that animals. There was, however, a negative side which hardened when the missionaries were confronted by parents who wished to take their children away from the schools. The missionaries' answer was to separate the children either by trickery or force.
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By 1850 all the half-dozen missions which had come and gone in eastern Australia had, at one time or another, tried to raise Aboriginal children separated from their parents. Sadly, little is known about the children of these institutions other than their names and whether they physically survived the trauma of separation. Most probably, what they endured emotionally was not very different from the feelings of loss, anger bewilderment or grief experienced by their parents.
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Apart from the desire to turn the Aboriginal children into "useful" citizens, the Christian missions also felt that by separating the children from their families and their traditional tribal values, then they could be more readily converted to Christianity. Thus the children were not only separated from their families but also from their ancient and traditional tribal culture.
At the governmental level, the thinking was indeed much more racial with differing motivation before and after the Second World War. Before the Second World War, the removal of the "half caste" children from their clans resulted from a perceived need to solve the Aboriginal problem once and for all. At this time, it was generally believed by those responsible for administering Aboriginal policy that the "full blood" would eventually die out while at the same time the number of 'half castes" was, at least, in some states, starting to rise quite rapidly. Indeed, it was commonly argued that 'half castes' had inherited the worst human qualities of both Aborigine and Europeans. It was frequently asserted that that their presence undermined social cohesion and threatened the underlying fabric of the White Australia Policy. For these reasons, the solution of the 'half caste' problem was given a high priority.
The solutions proposed were certainly genocidal as they involved a complex program of eugenics involving, among other things, the effective prohibition of mating between "full bloods" and "half castes", the systematic removal of the "half caste" children from their families and the encouragement of marriage between "half castes' and whites. This program was referred to as " breeding out the colour".
At a conference of the leading administrators of Aboriginal Affairs held in Canberra in 1937, the following was explained to journalists as the conferences' most important conclusions.
".......within 100 years the pure black will be extinct. But the half caste problem was increasing every year. Therefore their idea was to keep the pure blacks segregated and absorb the half castes into the white population.....The pure black was not a quick breeder. On the other hand the half-caste was. In Western Australia there were half-caste families of twenty and upwards. That showed the magnitude of the problem.
In order to secure the complete segregation of the children......[they] were left with their mothers [only] until they were two years old. After that they were taken from their mothers and reared in accordance with white ideas."
After the Second World War the practice of Aboriginal child removal continued. The rationale of the policy makers had now changed, however, with reference to the idea of "breeding out the colour" no longer in vogue. The policy of the biological absorption of the 'half caste' was replaced by the policy of the cultural assimilation of the Aboriginal people as a whole. Certainly, while the policy of the removal of Aboriginal children remained racist, the genocidal dimension of the policy had now faded into history.
The National Inquiry into the Separation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Children from Their Families was established in May 1995, in response to efforts made by indigenous communities and agencies. They were concerned that public ignorance about the history of forcible removal was preventing help for its victims and their families.
The personal and communal desolation caused by the break-up of families was expressed powerfully at the 1996 hearings of the Inquiry. This inquiry, conducted by the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission, produced the "Bringing Them Home" report in May 1997. The Bringing Them Home report concluded that, in the period from 1910 to 1970, when the practice was at its peak, between 10 and 30 per cent of Indigenous children were forcibly removed from their families and communities. No family was unaffected.
People mistakenly believe that the taking of Indigenous babies and children from their mothers only happened in the distant past. But the policies and practices of removal were in effect throughout the 20th century until the early 1970s. There are many Indigenous people, now in their late thirties and forties, who were removed from their families under these policies.
Although the official policies and practices of removal have since been abandoned, the report reveals that the past continues to have a dominating influence on the lives of many indigenous individuals, families and communities.
"It never goes away. Just 'cause we're not walking around on crutches or with bandages or plasters on our legs and arms doesn't mean we're not hurting. …I suspect I'll carry these sorts of wounds 'til the day I die. I'd just like it to be not quite as intense, that's all." Bringing them home, p. 178.
Before the Inquiry, few non-Indigenous Australians were aware of the reality of removal. They were certainly not aware of how many Indigenous people were affected by past assimilation policies or of the levels of abuse that many children suffered. Indeed, for a people that has not yet fully come to terms with the extremity of what has been done to the indigenous people of Australia, discussion of genocide and the stolen generation was not going to be easy. Indeed, the possibility of a frank and open discussion on these issues has been made more difficult by the denial in some quarters of the issues involved and, indeed, the very existence of a stolen generation.
The stolen generation, in my humble view, remains one of the most shameful episodes in the history of Australia and one that demands a full apology from the leaders of this country. Certainly, the possibility of a meaningful reconciliation between black and white Australia seems very unlikely to proceed in a meaningful manner until such an apology is forthcoming.
The late Charles Perkins, an Aboriginal leader who left a giant footprint on the Aboriginal history of Australia, made the following comments on what he envisaged as a 'good Australia':
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Today we honour the Indigenous peoples of this land, the oldest continuing cultures in human history.
We reflect on their past mistreatment.
We reflect in particular on the mistreatment of those who were stolen generations - this blemished chapter in our nation's history.
The time has now come for the nation to turn a new page in Australia's history by righting the wrongs of the past and so moving forward with confidence to the future.
We apologise for the laws and policies of successive Parliaments and governments that have inflicted profound grief, suffering and loss on these our fellow Australians.
We apologise especially for the removal of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children from their families, their communities and their country.
For the pain, suffering and hurt of these stolen generations, their descendants and for their families left behind, we say sorry.
To the mothers and the fathers, the brothers and the sisters, for the breaking up of families and communities, we say sorry.
And for the indignity and degradation thus inflicted on a proud people and a proud culture, we say sorry.
We the Parliament of Australia respectfully request that this apology be received in the spirit in which it is offered as part of the healing of the nation.
For the future we take heart; resolving that this new page in the history of our great continent can now be written.
We today take this first step by acknowledging the past and laying claim to a future that embraces all Australians.
A future where this Parliament resolves that the injustices of the past must never, never happen again.
A future where we harness the determination of all Australians, Indigenous and non-Indigenous, to close the gap that lies between us in life expectancy, educational achievement and economic opportunity.
A future where we embrace the possibility of new solutions to enduring problems where old approaches have failed.
A future based on mutual respect, mutual resolve and mutual responsibility.
A future where all Australians, whatever their origins, are truly equal partners, with equal opportunities and with an equal stake in shaping the next chapter in the history of this great country, Australia.
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