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.


Thriftcriminal said...

Good post. I was afraid to watch Rabbit Proof Fence, the very concept of what it was addressing was too upsetting for words, but it did bring the topic to my horrified attention. High time an apology was forthcoming.

Anonymous said...

*CLAPPING HANDS LOUDLY* Very well written Baino! I've lived and worked with aboriginal people but not in touch today.

Grannymar said...

Your article has echoes of how young girls were treated in the Ireland of 40-50 years ago!

Nick said...

I've heard a lot about this, Baino, partly from books we picked up in Australia. I was riveted by Rabbit Proof Fence. The whole business of aboriginal kids being snatched from their families is appalling, and of course a proper apology is long overdue. Equally appalling as you say is the hardship and degeneracy of today's aboriginal societies, which little is done about. How much of that degeneracy is due to the way they are treated by others and how much is of their own making I don't know, but it needs serious attention. One small point - I don't think the aborigines would ever have said they owned Australia, more that they were its temporary guardians and tried to live in harmony with it. If only we had the same attitude!

Emperor Ropi said...

Apology is really difficult to me because then I have to admit my mistake.

Baino said...

Welcome Thriftcriminal. Too true. Not all Australians feel this way, a symptom of out of sight, out of mind. Most Australian's view aboriginals as lazy drunken abusers and in some rare cases this is true but largely due to white intervention, unemployment, boredom, the introduction of alcohol and the stripping of their dignity by imposing white principals on a once nomadic and environmentally responsible race.

Anony: I know, it's sad that so few city people have come in contact with their indigenous brothers.

Granymar: I know, it isn't isolated. Indeed FOSTER children temporarily institutionalised in England while their parent/s got on their feet, were farmed out to America, Canada and Australia in the 50's. There's a very good film on that too, filmed here in Kellyville actually called "The Leaving of Liverpool". Ironically, we have apologised to these people and many have been compensated for their pain.

Nick: True in principal but the Aboriginals are a diverse tribal culture and there is no word in their many languages for 'ownership'. Whites however, in speeches etc, always recognise 'the indigenous owners' of their local territories. (I live in Dharruk Darkinjung territory) Much of their poverty in rural Australia is their own doing but only after we introduced white culture, tried to compulsarily confine them to our way of living and refused to 'consult' on the best way forward. ATSIC for instance was disbanded for inappropriate distribution of funds - this was a good thing but since then, there is no representative body for Aboriginal people to government. Who decides best how to spend funds dedicated to these communities? Can of worms my friend, can of worms!

Ropi: The ability to recognise that a wrong has been done, whether by you, your government or someone close to you is a great thing as long as it is sincere. Sorry can be the hardest word and we all do things that are wrong. It doesn't make the problem go away but hopefully it means you can move on.
Sometimes you have to 'swallow your pride' and say your sorry. Nobody said it was easy.

Nancy said...


Have you ever read Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's poem "Evangeline"?

It tells the story of the British forcing the Scottish settlers of Nova Scotia off of their land. The authorities waited until all the settlers were in church and then came and took them away with no regard to their parents or spouses

. They took them and put them on boats and they had to fend for themselves.Families were torn apart and some never saw their husbands or children ever again.

Many ended up in Southern Louisiana and are now called the Cajuns which is a slurred attempt at Acadians, which is what the settlers were.

Longfellow's poem tells the story of Evangeline and Gabriel who were to be married the week after the expulsion. She spent her entire life looking for him and finally, in old age, she found Gabriel on his deathbed and he died in her arms.

It's quite a story and your post regarding the Aboriginal people
reminded me of it.

ian said...


Was this a bipartisan, Liberal/National versus Labour issue in the past? Why did the Whitlam, Hawke and Keating governments not take it on? Surely it doesn't take a film to bring justice?

ian said...

Apologies, that sentence started out as "Wasn't this a bipartisan issue" and should now read "Was this a partisan issue . . "

Baino said...

Nancy: I've never read it but a sad tale. As is the plight of the native American forced into reservations and introduced to all that is bad in white society. Pretty typical of conquering nations and foreign invaders I would say to treat the marginalised poorly. Then again, thank God for Cajun food and ziadaco music!

Ian: You ask all the hard questions! I've sent you an email and some links. Basically the Stolen Generation were not acknowledged until a libel case surfaced and the Govt (Howards at the time) just couldn't ignore it any more.

Anonymous said...

I personally don't agree 100% with the whole situation. By saying 'sorry' todays government is admitting fault. This wasn't the fault of Howard or Rudd, why are they apologising? If we say sorry, we are admitting fault and opening ourselves up for the Aboriginal population to demand more. For example, none of this compensation came about until the possibility of an apology came about. If thats the case i want an apology and some compensation for the ATO and numerous other government departments keeping me on hold and taking me away from my family. Where does it stop if it starts now?

Don't get me wrong, I have no issue with the Aboriginal population at all. I just object to my tax money being given in compensation for something that I had nothing to do with, nor did the current government.

If the government does deliver an apology, i hope it is only on behalf of themselves and not on behalf of Australia as a whole, because i don't think everyone will agree, and unless everyone in Australia is sorry, then the government is only lying again.

Baino said...

Anonymous: I swear I'm gonna stop commenting to anonymous people, it's so annoying.

Yes, the apology is on behalf of the government only. That has been quite clearly stated in the media and will be carefully worded to prevent litigation. You must remember that Govt is the representative of the people. I think many are sorry, others don't believe there's a need to apologise for something they didn't do. I just think it's a step forward in reconciliation and it's such an EASY way to start.

My, you must be on hold more than me to require compensation, you think the ATO is bad, try Centrelink or the COIN helpdesk! (Except for Rattie Mattie of course who is very prompt!)