s no longer living. She died some years earlier when Ken was four. Because of the long timespan, strong bonds with his family members could not be established.”
Although supposed neglect provided the justification for removing children from their parents, many children never experienced such terrible conditions and abuse until they were taken away.
“And for them to say she [mother] neglected us! I was neglected when I was in this government joint down there. I didnt end up 15 days in a hospital bed [with bronchitis] when I was with me mum and dad.”
“These are people telling you to be Christian and they treat you less than a bloody animal. One boy, his leg was that gangrene we could smell him all down the dormitories before they finally got him treated properly.”
The luckier ones were adopted; others went to foster families, sometimes a succession of them. But even those who were fortunate enough to be placed with loving families felt and regretted the effects of separation (see the discussion of “benefits” below). Often too, the adoptions or fostering arrangements didnt work out. Possibly the most notorious case of this was that of James (Russell) Savage, who was not only removed from his family, but from the country when his adoptive family moved to the USA. Like most stolen children, Russell had severe problems growing up, and ended up thrown out on the streets at the age of twelve. Worse was to come: several years ago, after getting involved with drugs and alcohol like so many other stolen children, he ended up in jail for life on murder and rape charges, narrowly escaping the death penalty. The scandal surrounding this case put a spotlight on the whole practice of stealing Indigenous children.
In keeping with the objectives of the assimilation policy, many children were not told of their Indigenous background. Children were bullied into adopting white ways of living and thinking, only to suffer abuse and denigration at home and school for the darkness of their skin. Others were taught racist attitudes towards Indigenous people only to find often because of constant taunting about their complexion that they themselves belonged to the people towards whom they felt disgust. The denigration of all things Aboriginal was one of the most common experiences reported to the inquiry.
“During this placement [with a foster family], I was acutely aware of my colour, and I knew I was different from the other members of their family. At no stage was I ever told of my Aboriginality…When Id say…why am I a different colour? they would laugh at me and tell me to drink plenty of milk, and then you will look more like us. The other sons would call me names such as their little Abo and tease me. At the time I didnt know what this meant, but it did really hurt…”
“We were told our mother was an alcoholic and that she was a prostitute and she didnt care about us. They [foster family] used to warn us that when we got older wed have to watch it because wed turn into sluts and alcoholics, so we had to be very careful. If you were white you didnt have that dirtiness in you. It was in our breed, in us to be like that.”
But generally speaking, those who fared the worst were those the vast majority who were put into mostly Church-run institutions, such as Sister Kates Home, Kinchela Boys Home, Cootamundra Girls Home and so on. The experiences from these institutions remain like a nightmare. Many inmates remember the constant hunger:
“There was no food, nothing. We was all huddled up in a room…like a little puppy-dog…on the floor… Sometimes at night time wed cry with hunger, no food…We had to scrounge in the town dump, eating old bread, smashing tomato sauce bottles, licking them. Half of the time the food we got was from the rubbish dump.”
On top of that, there were cruel punishments for the slightest “offence”:
“I remember once, I must have been 8 or 9, and I was locked in the old morgue. The adults who worked there would tell us of the things that happened in there, so you can imagine what I went through. I screamed all night, but no-one came to get me.”
“Ive seen girls naked, strapped to chairs and whipped. Weve all been through the locking up period, locked in dark rooms. I had a problem of fainting when I was growing up and I got belted every time I fainted…Ive seen my sister dragged by the hair into those block rooms and belted because shes trying to protect me.”
The infamous A. O. Neville (WA Chief Protector 1915-40) wrote a book in 1947 in which he listed some of the punishments meted out by his staff tarring and feathering, chaining girls to table legs (this was done by “an ex-Missionary, and a good man too” whom Neville clearly regrets having to dismiss), shaving heads and so on.
But some stories were even more horrendous:
“Cootamundra…was very strict and cruel…Mum remembered once a girl who did not move too quick. She was tied to the old bell post and belted continuously. She died that night, still tied to the post, no girl ever knew what happened to the body or where she was buried”.
A key aspect of the assimilation project was to prevent the children speaking their own language. No effort was spared on this, because it was one of the most effective ways to permanently separate the children from their parents and communities.
“Yknow, I can remember we just used to talk lingo. [In the Home] they used to tell us not to talk that language, that its the devils language. And theyd wash our mouths with soap. We sorta had to sit down with the Bible language all the time. So it sorta wiped out all our language that we knew.”
This meant that even when children and parents were subsequently reunited, they often couldnt speak to each other except through an interpreter.
The accounts given to the Stolen Generations inquiry also abound with examples of sexual abuse of both girls and boys, which fits with the revelations about sexual abuse in churches and institutions everywhere (though the report notes that for girls in particular, “the risk of sexual assault in a foster placement was far greater than in any other”). Almost one in ten boys and just over one in ten girls reported that they were sexually abused in a childrens institution, while one in ten boys and three in ten girls reported the same for foster placements.
“There was tampering with the boys…the people would come in to work with the children, they would grab the boys penises, play around with them and kiss them and things like this…It was seen to be the white mans way of lookin after you. It never happened with an Aboriginal.”
Girls who reported sexual assaults were told to stop telling lies and often beaten.
“…my foster father molested me. He would masturbate in front of me, touch my private parts and get me to touch his. I remember once having a bath with my clothes on cause I was too scared to take them off. I was scared of the dark cause my foster father would often come at night. I was scared to go to the outside toilet as he would often stop me on the way back…So I would often wet the bed…I once attempted to tell the local Priest at the Catholic Church and he told me to say ten Hail Marys for telling lies. So I thought this was how normal non-Aboriginal families were. I was taken to various doctors who diagnosed me as uncontrollable or lacking in intelligence.
A young Koori woman, with the help of an employer, tried to have a former employer who had raped her charged with the offence. Although two medical examinations confirmed the rape, the Protection Board officials to whom the matter was reported first accused the victim of being a “sexual maniac” and then had her committed to Parramatta Mental Hospital where she remained for 21 years.
A total of 777 people and organisations from all over Australia provided evidence or submissions to the inquiry. This chapter provides only some samples of the experience of the stolen generations and their communities. The total picture is a devastating account of racism and the attempted destruction of an entire people and its culture.
“We may go home, but we cannot relive our childhoods. We may reunite with our mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, aunties, uncles, communities, but we cannot relive the 20, 30, 40 years that we spent without their love and care, and they cannot undo the grief and mourning they felt when we were separated from them. We can go home to ourselves as Aboriginals, but this does not ease the attacks inflicted on our hearts, minds, bodies and souls, by caretakers who thought their mission was to eliminate us as Aboriginals.”
Bringing them home utterly refutes the claims made by the likes of Howard and Hanson, as we shall see below. Thats why Howard and Minister for Indigenous Affairs John Herron have gone to such extraordinary lengths to undermine it, before and after its release.
Howard claimed, for example, that the inquiry President, Sir Ronald Wilson, was “biased” because, in his capacity as a church representative, he had offered an apology to Indigenous people for the churchs role in the treatment meted out to Aboriginal and Islander people. It is crucial that those who support Indigenous rights equip themselves with the facts and arguments, and disseminate them as widely as possible.
Indigenous children were forcibly taken from families well into the seventies merely twenty years ago. The Broken Hill Aboriginal Legal Service told the inquiry “there were children removed from Wilcannia in the 1970s in much the same way [as] in the 1960s”. A woman told how she was adopted by a white family, without her mothers knowledge, in 1973:
“I was taken off m