Monday, February 04, 2008
Sorry Is the Hardest Word
They just came down and say, "We taking these kids". They just take you out if your mothers arms. That's what they done to me. I was still at my mother's breast when they took me.
Alex Kruger, 1995
They would not let us kiss our father goodbye, I will never forget the sad look on his face. He was unwell and he worked very hard all his life as a timber-cutter. That was the last time I saw my father, he died within two years after." - Jennifer
I know only three aboriginal people. None of whom I am in touch with today. I'm a middle class Australian, I went to middle class public schools and apart from the Morella Mission which was in effect during my high school years, where aboriginal foster children were bussed in (few went beyond year 8), my only contact with aboriginal people is via the television, the Dharruk people who come to schools for cultural days and the buskers down on the quay. I did once mistakenly drive down Everly street on the block and was disgusted that people could live in such poverty in the middle of a cosmopolitan city. The fact that we have a minority indigenous population manages to keep them well out of the eyes and minds of the 'average' Australian.
The greatest assault on indigenous cultures and family life was the forced separation or 'taking away' of Indigenous children from their families. This occurred in every Australian state form the late 1800s until the practice was officially ended in 1969. During this time as many as 100,000 children were separated from their families. These children became known as the Stolen Generation. It's too long an issue for a full post but if you're interested there's more here
The separation took three forms: putting Indigenous children into government-run institutions; adoption of children by white families; and the fostering of children into white families. The last two strategies were particularly applied to 'fair-skinned' children.
These forced separations were part of deliberate policies of assimilation. Their aim was to cut children off from their culture to have them raised to think and act as 'white'.
Most of the children separated from their families grew up knowing little about their Aboriginal names, families, culture and heritage. These circumstances made it very difficult for those who wanted to find their families and naturally as the children grew older and had their own children, they certainly did want to find their indigenous roots and the realisation that they were stolen has created a hullaballoo over here now for the past 10 years. The movie Rabbit Proof Fence, highlights the tragedy of such separation in a very realistic way.
An apology has been sought by indigenous people for many years but fear of litigation or admission of some guilt has prevented government from beginning this important first step in reconciliation. Indeed, only recently the first member of the stolen generation to successfully sue for compensation has just been awarded a further $250,000 on top of a $525, 000 payout made for pain and suffering after he was snatched from his mother's arms and led a life of abuse and suffering.
Now after John Howard steadfastly refusing to apologise, not for historical guilt, not on behalf of individuals but on behalf of the current government to the aboriginal people and letting us get on with the job of reconciliation, Kevin Rudd's Labor government is drafting an apology statement. It looks like the Liberal's will go along for the ride and the Aboriginal community have welcomed this long awaited apology. It wouldn't have been such a big deal if the Liberal Government had done it in the first place but now, believe me it is a big deal and not before time. The apology will be water-tight in terms of it's legal reference to avoid further litigation and whilst it will not admonish the sins of the past, it will help us make headway in recognising the traditional owners.
I for one often 'joke' about the aboriginal culture, much to the shock and horror of ClareBear (not so much DrummerBoy). I mean their body paint is primitive - their national dress comprises a little lap-lap or a piece of string and they can't sing and they can't dance . . . of course I jest . . but in reality I have respect for an indigenous population that can live here for thousands of years without damaging the ecosystem and feel frankly, a bigger responsibility for the state of outback settlements where sexual abuse, child abuse and alcoholism are destroying a tribal community that once prided itself on the strength of the extended family and bush justice. Maybe it's because they aren't a Polynesian race, with their exotic dances or Thai smiles and gold leaf temples that we treat our koori people with such disrespect. Maybe it's because they hit the news, not for their achievements or art but their drunkenness and abuse.
I'm not going to accept the historical guilt of my forebears any more than I accept historical guilt for slavery or the imperialism of the British Empire but now is the time to recognise that even the most marginalised aboriginal communities need support and an apology for the way they have been treated in the past. Jesus, we've reconciled with the Germans and the Japanese!
The intent of the apology is not to enable them to form a litigious army but to recognise that what happened was inhumane and cruel. To vindicate the claims that we as a society have long denied or ignored. This hopefully will allow a way forward and bring the 'real' Australians into line with the rest of us in terms of status, health care, education and cultural recognition.
The Sorry Statement is due to be published over the next couple of weeks and not a day too soon! An apology will not admonish what happened to these people but if sincere, it could move us to a new level of recognition and a move towards reconciliation with the original owners of Australia. Once issued, it also puts the onus on them to begin participating in a changing world.