The Stolen Generations
Well, if you’re Australian, you just say “sorry.”
Wednesday the 13th marks the 5th anniversary of the “Stolen Generations Apology.” The newly-installed Prime Minister of Australia, in consultation with aboriginal leaders, gave the speech after many requests for a formal government apology.
Up until then politicians had feared creating a “culture of guilt” and hesitated to make a statement about the issue.
Unfortunately, a culture of guilt had already been established. Perhaps they meant a culture of acknowledged guilt.
The Stolen Generations: Who, What, When, Where, Why
Australia’s “stolen generations” refers to indigenous Australian children (Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander) who were forcibly removed from their families between 1909 and 1969 and in some cases into the 1970s (yes, that recently).
Nearly every part of the practice is contested:
Some people take offense to the word “stolen” because they claim many of the children were taken for protective purposes.
Some people take offense to “generation” because the policies didn’t affect all the children.
Some people argue the policies never existed, and that they are complete myth fabricated as propaganda.
Some call it genocide. Others say that’s a drastic overstatement.
However, most scholars agree on at least this: roughly 10-30% of all indigenous Australian children – particularly those of mixed descent – were taken from their homes by federal and state agencies and church missions in the middle part of the 20th century.
(A couple of notes on the above: According to survivor testimony, some children were taken for protective purposes, but not all. A better possibility is that motives were complex and split, but that a whitewashing of the darker race (“breeding out”) was an underhanded part of the goal. Claims that the policies never existed are pretty weak – laws documenting the process are available through Australian archives.)
What Happened to the Stolen Kids?
Under the law, policemen or “protection officers” were given the power to forcibly remove mixed descent children from their families and place them in institutions run by the state and missionary organizations. The officers had discretion on the field when needed.
Some children were taken straight from the hospital right after birth. Many removals were brutal, involving emotional and physical duress, since some parents were forced to sign away the children as though it was a voluntary act. In other cases, parental consent and even reasons for removal were not required (the laws varied state by state).
Most of the children stayed in institutions throughout their childhood. Others were fostered out to families, who mainly used the boys as farm workers and the girls as domestic servants.
The children were forbidden from expressing or celebrating Aboriginal culture, including using their native languages. Many institutions did not feed or clothe the children adequately; and some didn’t even keep records of their ages, let alone who their parents were or where they were born. Abuse was common, with sexual abuse affecting nearly 20% of the girls and approximately 7% of the boys.
The children – especially those taken at a very young age – weren’t told who they were or where they came from. Most grew up not understanding they had a lineage, or who comprised that lineage.
Why Are We So Shocked?
In trying to wrap our minds around this horrific policy, we have to remember Australia is a very, very young country. As a federation, it’s only a little over a hundred years old. If you’re one of my US readers and the fact that this tragedy happened surprises you, or that people still believe the policies were justified, or that it took so long for the federal government to issue an apology, it’s time to look a little more introspectively at our own situation.
When it comes to reconciliation with native populations, we are behind this infant country in a lot of ways – even though our European settlers stole many more generations, on multiple continents.
Even though it’s so early in their nation’s development, a lot of Aussies are willing to start thinking critically about their behaviors and attitudes toward native people. That’s a very good thing. It doesn’t make the past right and never will, but perhaps it will make the future more pleasant.
(Photo: Moore River Settlement Hospital – Aboriginal settlement and internment camp, c. 1920 / public domain)